She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor (2011)

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image via goodreads.com

She-Wolves was one of those books that I had heard about for ages, and kept meaning to read, but for some reason never got around to – laziness, too many other books to read, a million reasons. So I decided to put it on my wish list for Christmas and birthday books last year, and luckily I received it for Christmas. I’d been meaning to read some more about Elizabeth I (I also asked for, and received, Helen Castor’s biography of her), so I particularly liked the idea of reading about some of the women who came before her, especially as I had little knowledge of that period of English history.

I had heard of some of the women covered in this book, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it was wonderful to actually learn some details about their lives and especially their roles in the politics and rule of England. Castor makes it clear throughout that what we know of these women comes largely through the fact that they were associated with famous and powerful men, as mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters. She makes it clear there are limited sources of information on these women and so you have to make the most out of what is available, and link it to the extensive sources on the men and the wider history in order to get the full picture. There are also plenty of gaps in the narrative when nothing ‘important’ was happening in these women’s lives. I loved this exploration of how we learn about historical figures, and women especially, and what the historian has to do to piece together a story. Castor readily acknowledges that it is particularly difficult to get a real picture of any of these women’s personalities as they left little or no writings of their own, especially nothing personal, and reports of their behaviour or actions might be tainted by opinions and hearsay. So while we can learn about the bigger picture, it is harder to dig down into the personal, smaller details of relationships and individual experiences.

This is true of a lot of history, especially of certain periods, but for me it became more of an issue with She-Wolves because because by the time I got to Isabella of France, all these women started to sound rather similar. I can appreciate the difficulty of getting a complete picture of personalities, as Castor explains, but I think this was compounded in She-Wolves by the fact that the book tells the stories of four different women – so the same problem occurs each time. The scant information means that while there are some small differences, each woman is described in much the same way, as ‘strong’ and ‘fierce’, protective over their children and homelands. The biggest changes between each story were the circumstances and the relationships with men. It is also inevitable that the men’s stories take the foreground sometimes, as they were the ones making the decisions and affecting change (with a few exceptions).

So while I did enjoy She-Wolves, I found it a bit frustrating and almost wished that Castor had published four short books about each of the women rather than putting them all together in one volume. Nevertheless I very much appreciate that it’s an important book and it’s wonderful that that these women have been given the attention they deserve. Castor is an excellent writer and I will certainly be reading her biography of Elizabeth I, which I’m sure will be brilliant.

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Published in 2011 by Faber & Faber (paperback edition pictured above). Purchase from Wordery, Blackwell’s, and Foyles.

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