Friday, January 26, 2007

Sex and the Queen: An Irresistible Title

In my earlier post I revealed Miland’s tendency to watch historical programs on our television—exposing me to history in the process. Today, I am writing about books. Miland is always bringing books (usually science fiction or history) into our home. The books come from the local university library or from book clubs to which he belongs. The history books he buys usually have titles such as Pompeii: The Living City, Sailing Byzantium or Chronicle of the Roman Republic. I don’t usually pick them up unless I’m dusting. I have also ordered history books, but mine are titled The Singular Mark Twain and The Heart of the Nile respectively. However, I am guilty of not reading them yet.

Imagine Miland’s delight when he caught me with a history book that came through the mail recently. He said it was the first history book he ordered which I picked up before he did. Upon discovering me with the book, Miland asked if I would review it for the blog. I enjoyed the book immensely and will do my best to do it justice.

I’ll start with the title, because that is what caught my attention. Acutally, it was a single word in the title that made the book irresistible. The title? Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics by Eleanor Herman. You can probably guess what word stood out. Oh, the power of those three letters.

A friend of mine admitted that the title tempted (but just tempted) her to think about reading the book. She was disappointed, however, when I told her that the book was not all that raunchy. The book is more about politics and sex more than sex itself. I admit that I was a little disappointed the book wasn’t more titillating, but after thinking about it for awhile, I was not all that surprised. Royal marriages have long been arranged with the best possible political advantage in mind for the respective families.

The first question that comes to mind is: Does this book live up to its title? I’ll say yes it does, especially when considering the second part: 900 years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics. Although explicit descriptions of trysts are rare, Herman provides page-turning fodder with her depictions of vile kings (such as Czar Peter III), virile lovers (such as Gregory Potemkin) and passionate politics (the recurring theme throughout the book.)

One of the aspects I love most about this book is its excellent index. If one wants to skip around and read about Catherine the Great, Marie Antoinette, or Elizabeth I, one can. I enjoyed all Herman’s discussions of all three queens. However, some of the content regarding Marie Antoinette is debatable. Herman claims that the queen had a longstanding affair with Count Axel Fersen of Sweden and that he fathered one of her children, Louis XVII. However, in Wikipedia, the author(s) who wrote the entry on Marie Antoinette say the affair between the two is debatable. Herman claims Fersen fathered one of the queen’s sons, Louis Charles. Wikipedia claims the child looked like other members of the Bourbon family to which Louis XVI belonged and that the biographer of Louis-Charles, Deborah Cadbury, dismisses the idea that Fersen fathered the child.

An inclusion of Princess Diana at the end of the book seems a little out of place. All other princesses and queens included in the book lived in a period without paparazzi. Instead, painted portraits provided the evidence of an individual’s appearance. Further, most people are familiar with Diana’s long string of rumored and confirmed lovers. Herman provides a list of names rather than new information.

Despite a few flaws, the author has a knack for keeping the attention of her readers. The biggest surprise for me was Herman’s discussions of teenage newlyweds (as young as fourteen or fifteen) who had no idea what was required of them on their wedding night. Some princes avoided consummating the marriage for years, another kept his bride up all night by playing with toy soldiers and another cried while being carried by a duke who presented the reluctant prince to his bride. One eighteen-year-old bride cried out in horror when someone explained what was expected of her.

Herman’s descriptions will keep future readers amused. One of her best descriptions pertained to one particularly mismatched couple. Herman wrote, “When the bride and groom met, they took one look at each other and gasped. She saw a long aristocratic nose emerging from a huge frizzy black wig, diamond earrings, cascading rows of lace and ruffles, dozens of clanking bracelets, beribboned pantaloons, and high-heeled shoes. The prince saw a flat broad face, freshly scrubbed from her journey, tiny blue pig eyes, and a broad German rear end” (p.18.) She was describing the newly married Princess Charlotte and Philippe, duc d’Orleans, the transvestite brother of Louis XIV of France. As one can see, what is within Herman’s 295 pages is definitely memorable.

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