Review :: Princesses Behaving Badly

A review of Linda McRobbie Rodriguez’s Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings


You think you know her story. You’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you’ve watched the Disney cartoons, you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But the lives of real princesses couldn’t be more different. Sure, many were graceful and benevolent leaders—but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power, and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets. Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe was a Nazi spy. Empress Elizabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire slept wearing a mask of raw veal. Princess Olga of Kiev murdered thousands of men, and Princess Rani Lakshmibai waged war on the battlefield, charging into combat with her toddler son strapped to her back. Princesses Behaving Badly offers minibiographies of all these princesses and dozens more. It’s a fascinating listen for history buffs, feminists, and anyone seeking a different kind of bedtime story.

• • •

Let me start by saying, this turned out to be much better than I expected and I would definitely recommend it.

This is another book I picked up from my library’s audiobook collection pretty much at random. I thought it might be just a bit silly with a stupid title like that, but I was pleasantly surprised. (It’s always nice to be wrong in situations like that.) And, really, it’s frustrating that the idea of a book about princesses seems, on the surface of it, so…frivolous, isn’t it?

This is a great introduction to some very interesting women throughout history who, through knowing about their lives, really add dimension to the “princess” label. While each princess definitely gets more than a cursory look (some going much further in depth than others), it’s more of a detailed overview than an in-depth princess encyclopaedia. They don’t all get a happy ending (very few do actually), but they are far from all being victims. Most are feisty and rebellious and unconventional. And, being human, all are flawed (some far more than others) despite what high society might have the public believe. Some are arrogant and selfish, some are gross, some are clinically insane, some are tragic, some were pirates for a time, some renounced the crown, some were controlled by relatives, some spent few nights alone or even with the same lover.

It was also great to have a few contemporary ones that can now be put into context in my mind. (It would probably be even better for people who are likely to have actually heard of them before whereas my general princess knowledge is sorely lacking.) I will say, though, I actually liked that she avoided mentioning certain of the most famous contemporary princesses who might come to mind when we hear the term “real life princess”. Though they are mentioned in passing in the intro/foreword, Princess Diana and Kate Middleton are nowhere to be found in the book. And, although her sister Margaret is mentioned, Queen Elizabeth II’s time as a princess is not cited here either.

This book shows a bit of the very real lives lived behind those gilded doors and tries to break the label free of the silly, Disney image of lace and frills and talking animals surrounding a beautiful, delicate, pale woman with no agency who is to be seen but not heard.

Cassandra Campbell did a fantastic job narrating, but I wonder if it might work best as coffee table book to dip into every so often rather than just a block of stories from history because I just listened to the whole thing as a stream of stories and, while I enjoyed it and learned a lot, I feel like it would be nice to be able to more easily flip through the princesses and re-read certain ones on a whim. (Which is not to say that’s not at all possible with the audiobook as it is very well marked in terms of chapters, but it would be so much easier with a hard copy.)
3.5 stars plus half a star for the desire it elicits in my to revisit some of the stories in future.

rating: ★★★★☆
genre: non-fiction, (women’s) history
publisher: Random House Audio
source: library
date read: 16 August 2016
recommend for: fairy tale fans, history buffs
pros: Lots of information about real princesses (and fakers) from different cultures all over the world
cons: A bit of information overload to tackle all at once as it flits from one princess’s story to the next


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