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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 41.
- Review Date: 2007-05-14
- Reviewer: Staff
Waller (Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father's Crown) highlights the triumphs and travails of England's six female monarchs: Anne, the two Marys, the two Elizabeths and Victoria. In Waller's view, Mary II and Victoria colluded in their own diminishment by domineering husbands. Elizabeth II, portrayed as passive and unimaginative, indulged her mother while wounding her husband by keeping the Windsor name, and surrendered her prerogative to choose a midterm prime minister. Often wrongly dismissed as a fat, sickly dullard, says Waller, Anne was politically shrewd and ambitions to be queen, instigating malicious rumors that her Catholic half-brother was a changeling. Waller says that the burning of Protestant Archbishop Cranmer for heresy was a “propaganda disaster” for Mary I, while image-conscious Elizabeth I promoted her own association with the Virgin Mary. Separate chapters for each sovereign make for repetitious reading on the Stuart sisters; other stories—like Mary I's phantom pregnancy and Elizabeth II's blunders after Princess Diana's death—are familiar. Yet revelations about the less frequently dissected Mary and Anne Stuart are welcome, and Waller's vigorous, substantive prose takes no prisoners, whether calling Edward VI a “cold, imperious little prig” or Prince Charles and siblings “arrogant, spoilt and selfish.” 16 pages of color illus. (Aug.)
Six who wore the crown
England has seen a good share of kings and queens; however, there have been only six queens regnantthose who were ruling, or reigning queens, and not merely female consorts. In Sovereign Ladies, British historian Maureen Waller, who has written extensively about English history, focuses exclusively on the lives of these women who, with one exception, have been extremely competent, if not brilliant, sovereigns.
Waller has created an absorbing, thought-provoking historical narrative in vigorous prose that transports readers absolutely into the minds and times of these monarchs, while examining their lives, loves, travails and work from a female viewpoint. This perspective, however, is one that the author carefully keeps distinct from any pretensions to modern feminist ideas. She is intimate with, rationally sympathetic to and honest about her subject ladies and the limitations of both their sex and the parameters of queenly office, painting her royal portraits with insightful observation, obeisance where it is due and blunt opinions (among them, her assertion that Queen Elizabeth II was a less than stellar mother, and her children, "according to those who know them, are arrogant, spoilt and selfish") about the all-too-human frailties of these divinely anointed queens.
There has been much coverage of the lives of the faith-obsessed Mary I, the powerful Virgin Queen Elizabeth I, the long-reigning Empress Victoria and the present-day restrained English queen, and Sovereign Ladies gives them their due. Most interesting, however, are the sections on Queens Mary II and her sister, Anne, of the House of Stuart. These are lesser-known stories, of perhaps less gifted queens regnant who, when called to duty, took their own measure, and stepped forward to serve loyally, compassionately and competently.
Sovereign Ladies offers illuminating perspectives about the foundations of the English monarchy (and, indeed of English culture, past and present), its glorious ascent and its gradual decline into an office in which the queen does not rule, but offers more lukewarm support: She is "there to be consulted, to encourage and to warn." Waller's epilogue, while giving an apt historical summing upno mean feat given the time-span involvedechoes this tepidity. Will there be another queen, or will the sun finally set on the monarchy? "Who knows?" says she.
Alison Hood is a writer in San Rafael, California.