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Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings

Princess Alfhild had a choice to make. On the one hand, a really awesome guy had finally managed to bypass her father’s deadly defenses and call on her without being beheaded or poisoned. She could marry this brave young man and enjoy the life of domestic bliss that women of her era were supposed to aspire to. Or she could give up royal life and become a pirate. Guess which path she chose?

You think you know her story. You’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you’ve watched the Disney cartoons, you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But the lives of real princesses couldn’t be more different. Sure, many were graceful and benevolent leaders—but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power, and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets. Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe was a Nazi spy. Empress Elizabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire slept wearing a mask of raw veal. Princess Olga of Kiev murdered thousands of men, and Princess Rani Lakshmibai waged war on the battlefield, charging into combat with her toddler son strapped to her back. Princesses Behaving Badly offers mini-biographies of all these princesses and dozens more.”

That title’s quite a mouthful. The book itself is pretty good. It’s not great, but I came across some amusing and fascinating anecdotes. The author draws from all over the world and through many eras to find stories of princesses who had power and weren’t afraid to use it, and who gloried in the strife and warfare they caused. Or did they? One thing I found quite interesting was the way the book focused on the different interpretations of some of the women; for many, not a great deal is actually known about them, so most modern images of them are guesswork at best. There are some princesses who now have a reputation for vicious bloodshed, but we don’t really know what they were like. Some of this was quite annoying, as in many of the sections, it’s all speculation on the author’s part based on highly unreliable accounts, often written centuries after the events. For some of the mini-biographies, the author admits that it’s not even known if certain things actually happened. But within each section, there are some facts, and I certainly learned a lot. I was definitely reminded of just how much history is out there. 

Each section was rather short; they are certainly mini biographies. I would have perhaps liked a little bit more information about each lady (and perhaps fewer ladies profiled), but McRobbie provided enough detail and narrative to catch my interest. I was quite surprised about how murky the history was, even through the 19th century. I guess people just don’t often record details. There’s also the added fact that many of these women were controversial, and their detractors tried to both tarnish their reputations and erase any record of their having existed.   

Lots of the stories had quite a bit of humor to them; many were also really, really sad. And some of the stories were simply bizarre and stretched belief. After all, many of these women were maligned, imprisoned and exploited for various reasons. The author recreates the facts pretty well, and I read each mini-biography quite quickly.

There wasn’t much development in this book; it was just one story after another, which is an issue I often have with certain types of nonfiction. There was also no real conclusion or wrap up to the book; it just abruptly ended, and in that respect it was very unsatisfying. I wanted an ending which would talk collectively about the princesses. Or something.

However, for the most part this book wasn’t bad; I certainly learned a lot of random and not very useful facts, which I delight in. I would recommend it to fans of quirky nonfiction; I received a copy from the publisher via Goodreads, which is incidentally is called Quirk Books.

285 pages.

Rating: ****

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