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She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England Paperback – 2 Nov 2009
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About the Author
Elizabeth Norton is the author of Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour.
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Well, `She Wolves' ain't it. The surface is racy and trashy, but the content is uninspiring. The writing style isn't very impressive either - it's badly punctuated, with commas thrown into some sentences with no logic whatsoever. Language like "Aelfthryth is one of the most notorious of any queen of England" is also highly irritating. Why not, "Aelfthryth is one of the most notorious queens of England"? As I always end up concluding in these cases, a good editor could have helped a great deal, and massaged something inadequate into something adequate.
What's most irritating is those passages that manage to bombard you with information, and at the same time, tell you almost nothing. For example: "Anne Boleyn is the most controversial woman ever to wear the crown of England. Like Elizabeth Woodville, she rose from humble origins to marry the king but her king was already married. By deciding to marry, Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII set in motion a divorce which dragged on for over six years and dramatically changed the course of English history. Anne Boleyn had a huge impact on religion in England and helped to shape the course England would take into the early modern period. In spite of this, however, she was never popular and Anne's security was ultimately based on maintaining the king's love. One of the most studied of her generation, Anne Boleyn's life held moments of great triumph and calamity. She is also one of the most vilified, though Henry should bear most of the blame, as he held the power in their relationship. Anne ended up an unfortunate victim, just like Henry's first wife, Catherine of Aragon." Whoa! This rushed, breathless style made me start to feel almost dizzy if I read more than one chapter at a time.
There's a monstrous factual error about Bloody Mary that I must point out, in order to prove I'm not just being snide about how bad this book really is: "Mary had begun to burn Protestants in February 1555 but these dramatically increased following Philip's departure, in Mary's bid to please God and so earn His favour again. Thousands of Protestants were burned during Mary's reign and she earned the nickname, `Bloody Mary' for this policy." Yes, that's right: THOUSANDS of Protestants were, according to this supposed historian, burned between February 1555 and Mary's death in November 1558. Not the 300 or so that other historians state (though some specify about 280). David Starkey's `Elizabeth' mentions, in addition to those 300, about 100 other deaths in custody, so if you add those suspected heretics who died in prison awaiting trial, you could safely say she was responsible for the deaths of approximately 400 Protestants. That is not `thousands'. One other possible mistake: "Mary must have been devastated by the failure of her `pregnancy' and her grief was confounded on 29 August when Philip sailed to Flanders." I know "confounded" means confused, perplexed, astonished, etc. - but still, this doesn't sound right. Is there any possibility she meant "compounded"? Mary's grief at the ending of her phantom pregnancy would certainly have been magnified by her husband's desertion of her.
I have to say, I'm also disappointed with the production standards. After reading works such as John Schofield's `The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell', Peter Rex's `The English Resistance' and Arlene Okerlund's biography of Elizabeth Woodville, I'd assumed The History Press was a highly reputable publisher that only published well-produced books by serious historians. `She Wolves' has blown that theory out the window. In addition to the problems already outlined, the book was not edited or proofread properly - there those commas all over the place, and problems such as "One of Mary's first acts as queen was to repeal her parent's divorce", "Matilda of Flander's daughter-in-law" and "Isabella must have eager to visit her new country" are enough to make anyone who cares about the production standards of books wince. She also refers to Thomas More and `Thomas Moore', and writes that Elizabeth Woodville's father was named Sir John Woodville, when his name was Sir Richard Woodville.
I'd say, "Don't expect too much and you won't be disappointed", except that I'd be lying. Based on other reviews, I didn't expect too much, yet I was still disappointed. It's not completely unreadable (though it's close!), but the awkward writing and haphazard punctuation do not make it an enjoyable read. And I have to say that her statement in the Conclusion that "The queens discussed here were all, for a variety of reasons, portrayed as She-Wolves" seems unsubstantiated. Were the witless wanton Catherine Howard and the manipulated and abused Lady Jane Grey really seen by their contemporaries as "she-wolves"?
But taking a less pedantic overview, the whole thing is a morass of "perhaps she...", "she might have..." and "it is possible that..." rather than a confident insight into evidence. Elizabeth Norton seems to have (or to quote her preferred phrase) "might have" discovered a list of queens, read some accounts of their various periods - William of Malmesbury being a particular favourite - and dashed off a series of possible versions of their lives.
I admit to having been hugely impressed by the combination of research and authorial invention Hilary Mantel achieved in "Wolfe Hall". But "She-Wolves" shows the pitfalls of a less scrupulous writer attempting to perform that trick. I have to rate this as a pot-boiler from a writer who's churning out books in a Barbara-Cartland-style production line rather than as serious scholarship.
In attempting to rehabilitate some of her subjects, Norton regrettably goes too far in the other direction. For example, in the chapter on Isabella of France, Edward II's Queen, she argues that Isabella was "driven" into her "cruel and terrible actions" by "years of mistreatment"; that the invasion of England and the tyrannical regime that Isabella and Mortimer set up was the result of being provoked beyond endurance by her homosexual husband and his favourites (Piers Gaveston and the Despensers, which is spelt "Dispensers" - both annoying and unintentionally funny). This implication that Isabella was really just a put-upon wife in an abusive marriage is too simplistic for words, as well as unfair. If a strong and powerful woman is able to own her achievements, then she should be held just as responsible for her less laudable actions. The "victimhood" approach (which also forms the basis of Alison Weir's analysis of Isabella) denies women's agency, and is just as paternalistic as some of the contemporary attitudes that Norton criticises.
Unfortunately, the actual writing is also rather pedestrian and a bit simplistic. There is too much speculation as to what each of her subjects may have felt or thought: so-and-so "was probably excited at the thought of her marriage" or "probably hoped to be able to influence her husband." The narrative is extremely repetitive: words such as "notorious" and "unsavoury" are used far too often, which suggests Norton and/or her editors need to invest in a good thesaurus, and the prose is fairly lifeless. Just because a book is non-fiction does not mean the writing style has to be dry and laboured; Antonia Fraser and David Starkey are examples of biographers whose writing is vivid and entertaining, and whose books read like novels.
The lives of the queens depicted here are definitely fascinating, and deserving of analysis. Unfortunately this book does not quite do them justice which is a real shame, and an opportunity missed.
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