The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Dastardly Dames
Cleopatra: “Serpent of the Nile” by Mary Fisk Pack, illustrated by Peter Malone
Agrippina: “Atrocious and Ferocious” by Shirin Yim Bridges, illustrated by Peter Malone
Mary Tudor: “Bloody Mary” by Gretchen Maurer, illustrated by Peter Malone
Catherine de’ Medici: “The Black Queen” by Janie Havemeyer, illustrated by Peter Malone
Marie Antoinette: “Madame Deficit” by Liz Hockinson, illustrated by Peter Malone
Cixi: “The Dragon Empress” by Natasha Yim, illustrated by Peter Malone
From the publishers of last year’s fabulous The Thinking Girl’s Treasury of Real Princesses comes the next sixsome of history-making, mold-breaking women who clearly made and lived by their own rules, judgments be cast aside. The lives of these dastardly dames are filled with so many surprises and shockers that even savvy adults will surely enjoy moments of ‘I didn’t know that …’
Although her Greek Ptolemy family had ruled Egypt for over 250 years, Cleopatra was the first Ptolemy to actually speak Egyptian, just one of the nine languages she spoke fluently. Her brilliance made her beautiful, in spite of what her contemporaries recorded as her “severe cheekbones, a hooked nose, and a jutting chin.” As fitting for Egyptian royalty at the time, Cleopatra’s first partner was her younger brother; she was 18, her brother 10 when their father died and left the siblings in charge.
Born almost a century later, Agrippina was distantly related by association to Cleopatra: Agrippina was the great-granddaughter of Rome’s first emperor, Octavian (aka Augustus), who was the grand-nephew and heir of Julius Caesar, who was Cleo’s lover (and father of her first child) between her brother/husband and dashing Mark Anthony. Got all that? Agrippina sure had wickedly royal intentions, but growing up and into all that court intrigue (she was the sister, wife, and even mother of three different Roman emperors), she surely learned (and survived as long as she could) by example!
And we thought religion-ignited terrorism was a modern invention! Mary Tudor had us beat by half a millennium, overseeing the burning, hacking, quartering of Protestants in an attempt to restore Catholicism to English borders. As the daughter of church-splitting Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon (the daughter of überCatholics Isabella and Ferdinand of Spanish Inquisition fame), Mary never got over Daddy’s divorce and even worse, his marrying non-Catholic Anne Boleyn without the Pope’s blessing. Amazingly, stepmama Anne was Catherine’s maid of honor!
Born three years after Bloody Mary, Catherine de’ Medici also spent her life fighting Protestantism, this time in her adopted France where the Florentine-born, grand-niece of Pope Clement VII married the would-be King Henry II (at age 14). Both the ruling Catholics and the growing French Protestants, called Huguenots, were downright evil to each other – all in the name of God, of course. Leading the most vicious, bloody charge was Queen Catherine (one of her trusted advisors was Nostradamus!), determined to keep her Catholic Medici line going, going, going … until they were finally gone, gone, gone.
Another foreign-born French royal, Marie Antoinette, didn’t actually say “Let them eat cake,” but she didn’t care too much about her common subjects. Pretty and spoiled, she wasn’t the brightest bulb in the court (more or less illiterate, speaking only broken French), but then hubby Louis XVI was no prince charming either. She did bring croissants with her from her native Vienna, “created by Viennese bakers to celebrate a victory against the Turks”: crescent, Islam, Turkish flag, get it? So ‘let them eat croissants’ would have been more accurate.
Brutal machinations know no borders, as the final dame moves us to China, where Cixi was born a commoner and rose from royal concubine to Imperial Consort by birthing the emperor’s only son. When that son eventually ascended the throne (at age 5), she named herself Dowager Empress and took tight control. Her greedy misuse of power would eventually earn her a historical place “as the woman who brought a dynasty crashing to its knees”: at her death at age 72, she had outlived three emperors, a 260-year dynasty, and 5,000 years of imperial rule.
With six different writers this time around – the Dames‘ series editor and Agrippina author Shirin Yim Bridges wrote the entire Real Princesses series herself! – the tone and structure here are understandably not as uniform: for example, two dames get a truth vs. reputation comparison that would have been appreciated for all six. That said, single illustrator Peter Malone uses photographs, paintings, historical documents, and his own artwork to give all six titles a definitive look and feel (gory blood splatters and all!).
Other minor quibbles: given how interrelated all the western royals were and continue to be, a family tree would surely have been appreciated; the dames’ timeline included in each book could have used both birth and death years; and, as with each of the Princesses, bibliographies would certainly have been appreciated.
Overall, though? These dastardly dames definitely deserve your attention. They might be examples of how not to be, but then, as Harvard history professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s award-winning, oft-quoted book title goes, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. True that!
Readers: Children, Middle Grade