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Londoner looks at princesses who went their own way

May 28, 2018

If Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding has inspired a royal thirst, you might want to pick up Linda Rodriguez McRobbie’s book, "Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories From History — Without the Fairy-Tale Endings." McRobbie, a Londoner by way of Boston, explores the backstories of famous ladies of royal lines, including Princess Margaret, whom McRobbie calls Queen Elizabeth II’s "wayward sister," and Lucrezia Borgia, "a woman who managed to survive not only the pit of vipers that was Renaissance Italy, but the pit of vipers that was her own family."

McRobbie catalogs the myriad royals into categories like warriors, usurpers, schemers and floozies, so you can keep your princesses straight. And it is under these headings that readers learn about a Scandinavian princess-turned-pirate named Alfhild, who led a crew of lady buccaneers, and Amina of Zaria, a "wicked archer" who rode a horse named Demon and led armies of more than 20,000 men and women.

There was a princess who went corporate, another who dressed as a man, and Pauline Bonaparte — Napoleon’s sister — whose seductions are legendary. And how can one forget Viktoria Elisabeth Auguste Charlotte of Prussia — the younger sister of Germany’s last emperor, who held an orgy for aristocrats only to be accused of blackmailing the officials later.

And we learn more about Princess Olga of Kievan Rus (now known as Ukraine), as well. McRobbie’s research at the British Library revealed that enemies killed her husband, Igor, and she took revenge on them by burying them alive, burning them in a bathhouse and killing them via birds who’d had their feet tied with cloths dipped in sulfur, thus torching the owners’ houses when the birds flew home.

We talked to McRobbie about her book on the eve of the latest royal wedding. Here’s a condensed and edited version of the interview.

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: I think it was largely about wanting to present a more human face to the title "princess." Do a search on Amazon for "princess," and most of what comes up are pink-and-purple-sparkly dress-up kits or Disney or something really fantasy driven, but I felt that there had to be a human underneath that title.

It was important to try to present a more multifaceted version of what a princess could be than what is available out there. The problem with the title "princess" is that we tend to allow it to become very one-dimensional to the detriment of the people who are actual princesses. We lose some amazing stories and we lose some amazing women when we only see princesses as this flat, one-dimensional, sparkly kind of thing.

Q: Who is your favorite princess?

A: Clara Ward is one of my absolute favorites. (She was an American heiress who became Princesse de Caraman-Chimay of Belgium from 1890 to 1897, after which she divorced, ran off with a Hungarian fiddler and went on to marry two more times after that.).

At a time when women, especially, were required to think about everyone else before themselves, (Ward) was selfish, but wonderfully so. She said this is what I want to do; this is who I want to be, and she gave herself the freedom to do whatever she wanted. She had that freedom, because she had a ton of money, but she also wasn’t willing to play the game. I really admire that; I admire that streak in her that was willing to take the bad press.

I think that’s one of the things that really comes through: There are a lot of women who are doing the best that they possibly could within a limited tool set and things that they were allowed to do. Women who made decisions in that survival mode, I have to admire them.

Q: Is it ever a good time to be a princess?

A: Perhaps now? They are sort of in this remarkable position to be advocates because they’re so visible. But at the same time, they are also bound by years of tradition and by expectation, so it’s a complex time. There’s never been a good time to be a princess, but there’s never really been a great time to be a woman in power or a visible woman or a woman without power or maybe just a woman.

Q: How has the #MeToo movement influenced your work?

A: It’s interesting. To some degree, it’s been a wake-up call just to realize that my work on these stories has value, and I don’t need to apologize for it, because the lives of these women are not really being talked about. And their stories are not really being heard — a lot of them.

What largely fostered that shift is that there’s now a sort of cultural movement around it — that there’s cultural padding that says: We’re not going to devalue our stories anymore; we’re not going to devalue ourselves just because we’re women. I think that a lot of the stories that are in the book are stories that are necessary and vital and interesting and do not get enough attention, simply because they happened to a princess and not a prince.

 

 





 


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