Books I’ve Read This Week: Women and Power

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 24: Women and Power In recent days, I have been reading books about powerful women or women who challenged the power structures of their times. My reading list includes a historical novel, an extended essay that compares attitudes toward women in public life in classical and modern times, the diary of Marie Antoinette’s sister, a history of Parisian women during the Second World War, and three biographies of women who helped to change the course of history. Here are this week’s reviews:

#162 of 365 In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 25 minutes

Date Listened: June 27-28, 2018

Review:  I saw the film In The Time of Butterflies (starring Salma Hayek as Miranda Mirabel and Edward James Olmos as Rafael Trujillo, ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 t0 1938 and 1942 to 1952) some years ago. Although the film has an excellent cast, the novel is much better because it focuses on all four Mirabel sisters, beginning with the sole survivor of the four, and rotating the perspective among Patria, Mirabel, Dede and Maria Teresa. They were all affected by the Trujillo regime and engaged with the revolutionary movements of the times in different ways.

The novel also highlights the attitudes toward women on the island in the 1950s and 1960s as the Mirabel sisters were the first generation in their family to receive a formal education, which provided them with increased opportunities. The sisters also balanced their political activism with the expectations that they faced as wives and mothers. I would have been interested to read more about about the wider historical and political context for the events in the Dominican Republic shown in the novel. Overall, however, In the Time of the Butterflies is an excellent read.

#163 of 365 Les Parisiennes: Resistance, Collaboration, and the Women of Paris Under Nazi Occupation by Anne Sebba

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 480 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Date Read: June 27, 2018

Review: A well researched history of Parisian women’s experiences before, during and after the Second World War. Anne Sebba, author of That Woman, a biography of Wallis Simpson, emphasizes the difficult choices that individual women made in occupied Paris as well as the evolution of women’s roles in French society as a result of the war. In the 1930s, French women did not have the vote, were barred from certain professions and often did not have access to bank accounts. In common with many other European countries, the war transformed women’s lives and equal rights were enshrined in French law by the late 1940s.

There is also a strong focus on female support networks both within Paris and in concentration camps. Sebba structures the book chronologically and therefore moves quickly between different themes and life stories. A thematic structure or a series of short biographies might have brought together the wide range of fascinating historical detail in a more cohesive fashion. Overall, however, Les Parisiennes provides a vivid account of women’s lives in wartime Paris, describing the atmosphere of occupation then liberation.

#164 of 365 The Diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, 1781-1785: New Evidence of Queenship at Court by Cinzia Recca

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 422 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: June 26-28, 2018

Review: A translation and scholarly analysis of the 1781-1785 diary of Queen Maria Carolina of Naples, daughter of Empress Maria Theresa of the Hapsburg Empire and elder sister of Marie Antoinette. The first hundred pages of the book are comprised of discussion of key themes in the diary followed by notes on the diary’s structure and translation methods. The remainder of the book is the translation of the diary.

Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette were close in age and shared a governess during their childhoods. Maria Carolina’s reveals just how much they had in common. Both queens displayed warmth and affection to the most important people in their lives. (Maria Carolina hugged her brother Joseph II when he visited her) and were attentive and involved mothers concerned with the education of their children. Maria Carolina was especially concerned with her children’s health, a frequent theme in the journal. Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette both expected to exert political influence as well, and suffered from bad press both within their own lifetimes and in subsequent histories. The diary is a fascinating account of a late eighteenth century queen’s daily activities, public engagements and personality and brings Marie Antoinette’s lesser known sister out of comparative obscurity.

#165 of 365 Joan Of Arc: A History by Helen Castor

Genre: History

Acquired: Purchased from Book City, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 328 pages

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Review: A beautifully written and well researched history of the impact of Joan of Arc on the course of French history. Castor places Joan in the context of the Hundred Years’ War and English, French and Burgundian court politics in the fifteenth century. The book illuminates Joan’s own frustration that she could only achieve what she perceived to be her divinely inspired goals by persuading influential political and military figuresto work with her. The motives of the major historical figures of the times are explored in detail.

Perceptions of divine intervention during Joan’s lifetime are another key theme in the book as Joan was not the only person who claimed to be on a holy mission to change the course of the war. There was even a Joan of Arc impersonator who was recognized by two of her brothers after her death. Throughout the narrative, Castor emphasizes Joan’s ability to divide popular opinion both during her own lifetime and after her death. The sources of her inspiration, her military leadership and her insistence on wearing men’s clothes inspired widespread controversy and the chapters concerning her trial highlight the political, religious and gender debates of her times. The book concludes with a epilogue regarding Joan’s 20th century canonization. A fascinating read.

#166 of 365 Women and Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard

Genre: Political Science/Classical History

Date Read: June 29, 2018

Acquired: Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 129 pages

Review: Women and Power: A Manifesto discusses how classical Greek and Roman attitudes concerning public speaking and rhetoric as masculine attributes continue to undermine the position of women in the public sphere. Beard, a renowned classicist, expertly blends negative depictions of women in public life in classical drama with the harsh criticism faced by female public figures in the present day. (Hilary Clinton has literally been depicted as Medusa).

The book provides a nuanced analysis of popular perceptions of women speaking in public, including the assumption that female politicians will focus on policies perceived as “women’s issues,” the struggle for women to be taken seriously in traditionally male dominated realms and “the right to be wrong” as women in public life are often held to a much higher standard than men in the same roles. The book is well illustrated with both classical and modern images of women being silenced in the public realm. Highly recommended.

#167 of 365 Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary by Anita Anand

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 52 minutes

Dates Listened: June 28-July 1, 2018

Review: A fascinating biography of a historical figure who, along with her family, deserves to be better known. Sophia Duleep Singh was the daughter of the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire and raised in Britain, with Queen Victoria as her godmother. Her father presented the Koh-I-Noor diamond to the Queen.

Sophia became a prominent British socialite, helping to set trends for cycling, dog breeding and field hockey as pursuits for fashionable young women. After visiting India, however, she developed a strong interest in philanthropy (especially the welfare of Indian soldiers and sailors), Indian nationalism and, after her return to Britain, women’s suffrage. Sophia was among the suffragettes who demonstrated on Black Friday in 1910 when hundreds of British suffragettes were attacked by police and bystanders.

In addition to Sophia’s life story, author Anita Anand also discusses the connections between the campaigns for women’s suffrage and Indian independence. Mahatma Gandhi admired the activism of British suffragettes and studied their tactics. Sophia’s family also receives extensive attention as her parents and siblings also had interesting lives shaped by British rule over India.

The Duleep Singh family associated with many of the prominent figures of late 19th and early 20th century Britain. Sophia’s brother Victor was a close friend of Lord Carnarvon, who sponsored the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and Sophia herself worked closely with the suffragette leader Emmaline Pankhurst. Sophia’s social circle also included suffragettes who are little known today but were influential in their times.

One of my favourite royal biographies of the year. Highly recommended.

#168 of 365 Michelle Obama: A Life by Peter Slevin

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 33 minutes

Dates Listened: July 3-5, 2018

Review:  An insightful biography of former First Lady Michelle Obama that places her within the context of her family, Chicago, the experiences of African-Americans in the United States, press coverage of the Obama family in the White House, and the expectations faced by American First Ladies from Martha Washington to the present day. Journalist and author Peter Slevin, who covered the Obama White House extensively, focuses on Michelle Obama’s accomplishments including her Ivy league degrees, professional achievements and her initiatives as First Lady, including her efforts to promote healthy eating and exercise and her advocacy for military families.

There are mentions of how Michelle Obama had to compromise her own professional ambitions in support of her husband’s political career and presidency and it would have been interesting for Slevin to have analyzed these decisions in more detail. The audiobook is well read by Robin Miles. Highly recommended.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Daily Express Interview: Will Princess Eugenie take Jack Brooksbank’s last name? The bride’s surprising options

Princess Eugenie

Queen Elizabeth II’s granddaughter Princess Eugenie of York will marry Jack Brooksbank at St. George’s Chapel, Windsor on 12 October 2018. After the wedding, her title will likely change from Her Royal Highness Princess Eugenie of York to Her Royal Highness Princess Eugenie, Mrs. Jack Brooksbank. There are historical precedents for other possibilities as well. I discussed Princess Eugenie’s future title with the Express newspaper in the United Kingdom.

Click here to read “Will Princess Eugenie take Jack Brooksbank’s last name? The bride’s surprising options” in The Daily Express

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Books I’ve Read This Week: Kings and Queens

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 20: Kings and Queens: These past few weeks, I have been reading a combination of biographies of King and Queens (reviewed in this post), Russian History and Literature (to be reviewed in the next post) and some fun novels (to be reviewed later next week). I am continuing to read the biographies in the Penguin Monarchs series (Henry II, Richard I and Elizabeth I) in addition to recent books about English/British queens consort Catherine Howard and Caroline of Ansbach, the French King Francis I, and the Spanish queen, Juana I. There is a strong focus on the sixteenth century in these reading choices but also two medieval kings and a Georgian queen! Here are this week’s reviews:

#135 of 365 The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbach by Matthew Dennison

Genre: Royal History

Format: Hardcover, 400 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: June 5-7, 2018

Review:  I enjoyed reading more about Caroline of Ansbach, a British queen who deserves to be better known. Caroline was central to the House of Hanover’s public image in Britain as her husband George II and father-in-law, George I had little charisma or rapport with the British public. Caroline trained carefully for her future role while still a princess in Hanover, reading British history during her husband’s naps (the future George II was bored by reading or the sight of other people reading), requesting tea and taking English conversation lessons. Dennison incorporates attitudes toward the queen in the popular culture of the period, which was fascinated by Caroline’s strong Protestant faith, large family and her perceived political influence. An interesting and engaging read.

#136 of 365 Young and Damned and Fair: The Life of Catherine Howard, Fifth Wife of King Henry VIII by Gareth Russell

Genre: Royal History

Dates Listened: June 1-3, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 57 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from

Review:  An insightful and well written biography of Catherine Howard, the 5th wife of King Henry VIII. Most biographies of Catherine present her as a fool or a passive victim but Russell provides a nuanced portrait, explaining both her strengths as queen, including her mastery of court etiquette and courtesy toward others, and the reasons for her perceived weaknesses including her continued engagement with figures from her past who had the power to undermine her reputation. Russell is an expert on Catherine Howard’s household provides a vivid depiction of the Tudor court and a critical analysis of Henry VIII.

The only section that I did not find entirely convincing was Russell’s account of Catherine’s childhood, which Russell describes as happy. He presents Catherine as a social leader within her step-grandmother’s household. Instead, Catherine seems to have been in a vulnerable position in spite of her rank because her mother was dead and her father was fleeing his creditors in Calais. Her situation, in the household of an inattentive guardian, attracted the attention of the arrogant, aggressive men whom she encountered in her adolescence.

The concluding chapters are tragic as Catherine’s past and present conduct comes under scrutiny and she meets the fate of her cousin, Henry VIII’s 2nd wife Anne Boleyn. Russell describes these events in thoughtful detail and reveals how her execution was perceived at the time. The book is well worth reading as a study of the role of the queen consort, religion and politics during the later years of Henry VIII’s reign.

#137 of 365 Richard I: The Crusader King by Thomas Asbridge

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: June 4, 2018

Review: A balanced short biography of a famous medieval king. Asbridge does not ignore Richard the Lionheart’s flaws as a king including his quest for personal glory at the expense of other objectives but he convincingly challenges the idea that Richard was uninterested in his role as King of England. Richard ruled a vast Anglo-French empire but England was the jewel in his crown and he introduced new aspects of English kingship including “the royal we” and the custom of dating reigns by regnal year. Asbridge argues that Richard would have a very different reputation if he had been able to return to England immediately after the Third Crusade instead of being taken captive and held for ransom.

I would have liked the book to have included a little more about the king’s personal life. His queen, Berengeria of Navarre is only mentioned in passing even though she accompanied him on the 3rd Crusade and there is little sense of his social circle or his interests beyond literature and waging war. In all other respects, Richard I: The Crusader King, is an excellent contribution to the Penguin Monarchs series.

#138 of 365 Henry II: Prince Among Princes by Richard Barber

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Date Read: June 5, 2018

Review: A short biography of Henry II that emphasizes his achievements in holding together the Angevin Empire and initiating legal reforms that would shape the development of English common law. Barber makes clear that Henry was more than Eleanor of Aquitaine’s husband and Thomas Becket’s adversary though there is extensive analysis of church and family conflict throughout the book. Barber divides the book into three sections – Henry’s appearance and character, his life story and his achievements – and the final section should have been expanded to highlight the specific legal developments discussed in the text. Barber achieves a good balance between the personal and the political and readers will come from the book with a good sense of Henry’s character and kingship.

#139 of 365 Francis I: The Maker of Modern France by Leonie Frieda

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Purchased from

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 9 minutes

Dates Listened: June 9-11, 2018

Review: An old fashioned royal biography that recounts various aspects of Francis’s life and reign, especially his foreign policy, without much additional analysis from the author. Frieda describes wars, peace treaties, dynastic marriages and contacts between rulers but rarely brings these details together to assess Francis’s overall strategy toward kingship. The book is filled with historical figures who are more interesting than Francis himself including his mother, Louise of Savoy, sister, Marguerite of Navarre and artist in residence, Leonardo de Vinci. Frieda argues that Francis is more worthy of the description “Renaissance Prince” than his contemporary King Henry VIII of England and the book provides a sense of Henry VIII’s dealings with the France from the French perspective. A worthwhile read that would have benefited from more analysis of Francis and his policies.

#140 of 365 Juana I: Legitimacy and Conflict in Sixteenth-Century Castile by Gillian B. Fleming

Genre: Royal History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 365 pages

Date Read: June 12, 2018

Review: An excellent scholarly biography of Queen Juana I, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Juana has gone down in history as Juana la Loca and most biographies and cultural representations of the Queen focus on her mental health instead of her sovereignty. In contrast, Fleming examines Juana’s political significance as Queen of Castile and places her within the context of sixteenth century attitudes toward female rule in the Iberian peninsula and beyond. I found the background concerning Ferdinand’s family particularly interesting as one of his half sisters had been imprisoned by his father because her determination to exercise her rights over her mother’s inheritance threatened his rule. A similar pattern unfolded in Ferdinand’s treatment of Juana. Well written, well researched and interesting to read. Highly recommended.

#141 of 365 Elizabeth I: A Study in Insecurity by Helen Castor

Genre: Royal History

Date Read: June 15, 2018

Format: Hardcover, 128 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Review: A wonderful short biography of Queen Elizabeth I. Dr. Helen Castor looks behind the Queen’s confident public image as Gloriana and examines her precarious position over the the course of her reign. The fates of Henry VIII’s six wives are so well known today that the probable impact of these events on Elizabeth I’s sense of her own position and her attitudes toward marriage are sometimes overlooked. Elizabeth experienced a treacherous path to the throne and a series of threats to her authority over the course of her reign. I thought the author’s comparison of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots was especially illuminating. The book is filled with interesting facts, such as how Queen Elizabeth I’s accession is the only time in English history when heralds cried, “The queen is dead, long live the queen.” Highly recommended.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Meghan (HRH The Duchess of Sussex)

Meghan (HRH The Duchess of Sussex)

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is about Meghan (HRH The Duchess of Sussex)

Her Royal Highness (HRH) The Duchess of Sussex, née Rachel Meghan Markle (born 4 August 1981 in Los Angeles, California), is a philanthropist, a former actress and the wife of HRH The Duke of Sussex (Prince Harry). Meghan has a strong connection with Canada and has described herself as an “honorary Canadian.” She lived in Toronto, Ontario, while filming the television legal drama Suits and, in 2016, she became a Global Ambassador for World Vision.

Click here to read Meghan (HRH The Duchess of Sussex) in the Canadian Encyclopedia


Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall

The Duchess of Cornwall

My latest article in the Canadian Encyclopedia is about Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (born 17 July 1947 in London, United Kingdom), the second wife of Charles, Prince of Wales, heir to the thrones of Canada, the United Kingdom and 14 other Commonwealth Realms. She has undertaken four official tours of Canada with the Prince of Wales, including celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017.

My article focuses on Camilla’s Canadian tours and her Canadian ancestor, Sir Allan Napier McNabb, Premier of the Province of Canada from 1854 to 1856.

Click here to read my article about Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall in the Canadian Encyclopedia 


Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Royal Studies Journal Article: Canadian Women’s Responses to Royal Tours from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day

Princess Louise in Canada, dressed for an Ottawa winter during her time as vice regal consort of Canada from 1878 to 1883.

My new article in the Royal Studies Journal discusses how Canadian women responded to royal tours from the late eighteenth century to the present day.

Abstract: In the United Kingdom and Canada, support for the monarchy is higher among women than men. From Walter Bagehot’s political theory in the nineteenth century to modern day polling data, monarchism among women is usually attributed to royal events in popular culture from nineteenth-century royal weddings to twenty-first century depictions of the royal family in television and film. Press coverage of royal tours of Canada in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries often depicted women as passive bystanders in crowds, only gradually adding depictions of women as active participants in welcoming royalty.

The history of Canadian women’s responses to royal tours and other public engagements by royalty in Canada from the eighteenth century to the present day reveals that there is a long history of women assuming active roles when royalty are present in Canada, seeking redress in legal cases in the eighteenth century, requesting patronage for organizations benefiting women in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and debating the future of the monarchy in Canada in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

The impact of royalty in Canada on women’s lives has become part of Canadian culture and literature. The higher levels of support for monarchism among women compared to men should therefore not be assumed to be due to passively viewing royal weddings, fashions or popular culture alone, but should be placed within this context of women actively engaging with royalty during their public appearances in Canada, viewing royal occasions as opportunities to have their concerns addressed by prominent public figures.

Click here to read “Canadian Women’s Responses to Royal Tours from the Eighteenth Century to the Present Day” in the Royal Studies Journal

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

University of Toronto Alumni Reunion Lecture: Raising a Royal Family

I will be giving a lecture about royal parenting from medieval times to modern times, inspired by my book, Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, at the University of Toronto Alumni Reunion on June 2 at 3:45pm. Book signing to follow!

Click here for more information and to register.

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Huffington Post Interview: How Meghan Markle And Prince Harry’s Wedding Differed From The Last Royal Nuptials

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after their wedding on April 29, 2011.

I compared the weddings of Prince William and Catherine Middleton (now the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle (now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex) in an interview with the Huffington Post, along with Marlene Koenig at Royal Musings Here is an excerpt from the interview:

“At the last royal wedding, things went a little more by the book, with Michael Francis Middleton walking his daughter, the soon-to-be Duchess of Cambridge, down the aisle to meet Prince William.

There is royal precedent for close relatives stepping in to handle escort duty. Queen Victoria, whose father died when she was an infant, was walked down the aisle by one of her uncles when she married Prince Albert, said Carolyn Harris, the author of Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette.”

Click here to read “How Meghan Markle And Prince Harry’s Wedding Differed From The Last Royal Nuptials” in the Huffington Post

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Today Interview: How will Meghan Markle’s life change after marrying Prince Harry?

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

I discussed the future for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex with Eun Kim at including public engagements, the end of Meghan’s acting career and Commonwealth tours

Click here to read “How will Meghan Markle’s life change after marrying Prince Harry?”

Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

CBC News Interview: Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: Why it’s more than just a wedding

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

Earlier in the week, I discussed the significance of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle with Janet Davison at CBC News, including the role of the marriage in the 21st century public image of the royal family and the history of popular responses to royal weddings, including Walter Bagehot’s 1867 work, The English Constitution.

Click here to read Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: Why it’s more than just a wedding at CBC News


Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather