Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ladies, ladies, ladies . . . Historical Ladies

As NaNoWriMo draws to a close with my word count just over 14,000 (oh the shame!) it's not surprising that I'm feeling self conscious about my lack of productivity when it comes to my blog and and my reviews. I could give you all kinds of lame excuses about work being hectic and preparing Thanksgiving dinner for five people and arranging play dates for them all weekend (true, by the way), but you deserve better than that.

Unfortunately, I can't do much better than make lame excuses, but part of the reason I've been so sluggish on the book review front is I've gotten bogged down in biographies of queens from long ago. Historians tend to go on, and on, and on, and on. You just can't stop them. Why do I keep reading? Well, I don't know. I just can't help myself.

It started with Cleopatra: A Life. When it first came out, everyone wanted to read it, so I wanted to read it too, but I was too cheap to just go to the local bookstore or Amazon and buy it. I mean, I worked for a library for a while. That just isn't done. So, I did the frugal thing and dutifully added it to my request queue at my local library. While I waited, I stumbled upon Marie Antoinette: The Journey and I got sucked in by it. Antonia Frasier gets verbose here and there, and even after reading it, I have to admit that French history still doesn't make sense to me, but the whole idea of what it was like to be a real princess and queen is so bizarre. It's kind of like watching a dog cross the freeway; you know it's going to end badly, but you can't look away. Also, one thing Frasier did really well in the biography was she captured Marie Antoinette's personal qualities outside of what the public did to smear her and anyone else who fell into the category of royalty. It sounds like Marie Antoinette by all accounts was pretty, undereducated for her rank, and kind of a ditz, but a sweet ditz. Even if she was more interested in politics and understanding the French court better, French queens traditionally had very little power, so it didn't make much of a difference anyway. The bio went from strange, to touching to tragic as the royal way of life and traditional French society disintegrated. I'm not advocating for the bad old days of monarchies to return, but I think Marie Antoinette: The Journey highlights the sadness that comes with convoluting a person who just doesn't know any better with what she represents.

A few months later, I visited some friends in Chicago. One of them is a historian, actually, but she specializes in Latin American history. Still, as a PhD student, she had to learn some European history and she mentioned that French history still doesn't make sense to her. Since I started out as a French major in college, I suddenly felt the need to compensate for our social group by boning-up on French history. So, I headed back to the stacks at the local library and that's where I found Allison Weir's biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Admittedly, I see reading about Eleanor as a stretch in understanding French history since she was around such a long time ago that France as we know it today didn't even exist. I mean, we're talking medieval times here (seriously). It was like a whole different universe. Crusades. Troubadours. Knights in shining armor. The whole bit. The kingdom of Aquitaine is now a big chunk of what we know as France today, so I am getting an idea of where it all started, but Eleanor is so fascinating, I don't care much about France anymore. Her life was complicated though. She had a huge wardrobe to manage. Heathens to convert, lovers to sleep with, and, a divorce! It's a lot of ground to cover.