Non-Fiction, Reviews

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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Comment, Personal

Back again for 2019!

Hello dear readers! As you may have noticed, I have been very quiet on here recently, but I am glad to say that I am now back for 2019.

My last posts in November 2018 were about the Young Writer of the Year Award, for which I was on the shadow panel. I kept meaning to write a ‘summing up’ post in December about the experience, but somehow that never happened. I have to say I was thrilled that Kings of the Yukon by Adam Weymouth won the award. I loved reading it (my review is here). I was very flattered to be asked to be on the shadow panel, and it was a great experience. In the end I was too ill on the day to attend the actual prize giving, which was a shame as I was very keen to attend (especially since it was at the London Library) but I was very pleased to be able to meet up with the rest of the shadow panel to decide our shadow winner, particularly as it meant meeting some bloggers that I had followed online for some time. It was tough reading all the books on the shortlist in such a short amount of time, but it did bring back memories of tearing through books and making notes from my time at university, which was kind of nice. If you get asked to do the shadow panel in the future, I’d say go for it, as long as you have the time it requires (more than you think!). I was very pleased to be a part of it in 2018.

As usual I received some great books for Christmas and my birthday (which you can see on my Instagram here), including my current read She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor. I’m currently in the section about Isabella of France and am very glad I have finally got around to reading this fascinating book – it’s been on my list for ages! I’m also keen to read Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough and The Summer Wives by Beatriz Williams, both of which I received for my birthday. I feel like I’ve read quite a bit of non-fiction recently, and I feel really ready to get back into fiction. I had a dream about Donna Tartt (not that uncommon for me) and it made me desperate to read fiction as perceptive and life-giving as hers. The last book I read like that was I Love You Too Much by Alicia Drake (my review here). Which reminds me, I obviously missed the window for doing a best of 2018, but that was definitely one of my favourite books of the year.

Life got in the way over the last couple of months, figuratively in that I was super busy in December at work, and super tired and January – and literally, as in December I discovered I’m pregnant, so that took up most of my time! Read: being constantly exhausted and incredibly nauseous. 24/7. Fun times. But now I am getting back into reading and have a handful of reviews planned – so watch this space!

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