Pen & Sword book reviews: The Women’s History edition

Thanks to Rosie Crofts, who emails me with lists of books every now and then. I have quite a pile of books to get through so I’m doing themed review posts. In this case, Women’s History. The next one will be ‘True Crime’.

Warriors and Wenches
ISBN: 9781473899360
Published: 29th July 2019
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Price: £10.39 (Paperback)

The world is full of women we don’t know whose stories have been overlooked or airbrushed from history.

Often faced with limited life choices, this book proudly showcases those women who took matters into their own hands and became forces to be reckoned with.

These are women you SHOULD know about. Love them or loathe them, they made their mark. From cross dressing soldiers to scheming mistresses and courtesans, Warriors and Wenches offers up an indulgent romp through centuries of history, from widows turned tank drivers bent on bloody vengeance and fierce martial arts fighters, to women who magnificently and outrageously turned their social lot in life to their advantage: the mistresses, courtesans and uniquely French maitresse-en-titres who wielded incredible power and influence in the sumptuous courts of Europe.

Warriors and Wenches doesn’t seek to decide whether these women were ‘good’ or ‘bad’; we’ll leave it up to you to make up your own minds. But these are just some of the women who, through military skill, incredible courage and loyalty, scandal, poison plots and sexual debaucherie, have crossed over into the realm of legend and myth and become powerful symbols of feminist power.

“When the destiny of a nation is in a woman’s bedroom, the best place for the historian is in the antechamber.”

Charles-Augustin Sainte-Reuve

My Review

Snap-shot is definitely a good description of the chapters in this book. It’s actually a really good way to introduce different historical women to people who may have only a limited knowledge. I knew of almost all the women which is more to do with my habit of reading all the things, rather than a limitation in the book. I would have liked more non-European women, since my education is somewhat deficient in that area but that’s a personal interest.

I like the non-judgemental approach to the women in this book. Far too often value judgements are made about the actions of people when we can’t know their reasons for their actions, or only have a limited understanding of the social and cultural conditions that resulted in their actions.

The book is well written, with humour and generosity.

Misjudged Murderesses
ISBN: 9781526741622
Published: 5th August 2019
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Price: £11.99 (Hardback)

Lacing tea with poison and slipping arsenic in to soup, this is what comes to mind we talk of murderesses of the Victorian age. Fuelled by a rumour-driven press and cases of notorious killers like Marry Ann Cotton, the Angel of Death, or Christiana Edmunds, the Chocolate Cream Killer, death by poisoning was a great anxiety of Victorian Britain.

But what about those women who were wrongly convicted? What about the suspects who fell victim of a biased jury and unrelenting press? What about these suspects who fell victim to domineering judges controlling complacent juries and the unrelenting press? In Misjudged Murderesses, Stephen Jakobi takes a forensic approach to examine the lives and trials of these eight women who were wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. With the aid of primary sources, and in three cases the ready assistance of descendants and local journalists, Misjudged Murderesses demonstrates the unfairness of their convictions even by the standards of the time. Highlighting common factors in poisoning cases that led to these miscarriages of justice, Stephen Jakobi shines a light on the hypocrisy of a legal system that in practice was wholly unfit for purpose.

My Review

I struggled with this book. The author replaces narrative with wholesale reproduction of secondary sources – newspaper articles and Home Office files – about the cases. There is some commentary but not all that much. The bulk of the book is made up of articles that I would expect to see in appendices, not the body of the text. There’s no unifying narrative. It makes this book hard to read or enjoy.

I suppose it might make a good resource for better writers or historians.

All Things Georgian
ISBN: 9781526744616
Published: 3rd April 2019
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Price: £25,00 (Hardback)

Take a romp through the long eighteenth-century in this collection of 25 short tales.

Marvel at the Queen’s Ass, gaze at the celestial heavens through the eyes of the past and be amazed by the equestrian feats of the Norwich Nymph. Journey to the debauched French court at Versailles, travel to Covent Garden and take your seat in a box at the theatre and, afterwards, join the mile-high club in a new-fangled hot air balloon.

Meet actresses, whores and high-born ladies, politicians, inventors, royalty and criminals as we travel through the Georgian era in all its glorious and gruesome glory.

In roughly chronological order, covering the reign of the four Georges, 1714-1830 and set within the framework of the main events of the era, these tales are accompanied by over 100 stunning colour illustrations.

My Review

Not technically women’s history, but a lot of the stories in this book are about women so I’ve put it in this review.

This book covers well-known and lesser-told tales from the long 18th century, a period I am fascinated by. It was a time of increasing education, literacy and newspapers to record events for the newly literate to read. And there were, oh, so many scandals to read about.

This book is highly illustrated with photographs of images from the time. The writing is easy to read and has enough depth to get you hooked on Georgian history, or give you a few other roads to head down if you’re already interested in the period.

Forgotten Royal Women
ISBN: 9781473898172
Published: 13th February 2019
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Price: £12.99 (Paperback)

Great women are hidden behind great men, or so they say, and no man is greater than the king. For centuries, royal aunts, cousins, sisters and mothers have watched history unfold from the shadows, their battlefields the bedchamber or the birthing room, their often short lives remembered only through the lens of others.

But for those who want to hear them, great stories are still there to be told: the medieval princess who was kidnapped by pirates; the duchess found guilty of procuring love potions; the queen who was imprisoned in a castle for decades.

Bringing thirty of these royal women out of the shadows, along with the footnotes of their families, this collection of bite-sized biographies will tell forgotten tales and shine much needed light into the darkened corners of women’s history.

My Review

This is another collection of short biographies of women, some probably mythological, but most were very definitely real. As expected some are longer than others, depending on when they lived and how close to the throne they were. Some I already knew a bit about, but I enjoyed learning about new people.

As with most of the vignet type of biographies, that Pen and Sword do so well, the chapters were short but enlightening, with pertinent details of the time and place in which the women lived to anchor them. The writing was fluid, engaging and easy to read and I believe I got through this book in one sitting.

Good place to start any in-depth study of one of the women, to get the outline of their lives.

Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar
ISBN: 9781594162367
Published: 25th January 2016
Last Released: 3rd July 2019
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Price: £15.99 (Hardback)

Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia was the second of the four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife, the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. Long recognized by western historians as the undisputed “beauty” of the family, Tatiana was acknowledged for her poise, her elegance, and her innate dignity within her own family. Helen Azar, translator of the diaries of Olga Romanov, and Nicholas Nicholson, Russian Imperial historian, have joined together using previously unpublished Russian source materials to present a truly comprehensive picture of this extraordinarily gifted, complex, and intelligent Grand Duchess for the 
first time, and in her own words. Using the letters and diaries of the Grand Duchess, Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters, 1913–1918,presents translations of material never before published in Russian or in English, as well as materials never published in their entirety in the West. 

The brisk, modern prose of Tatiana’s diary entries reveals the character of a young woman who was far more than the sheltered imperial beauty as she has been portrayed by western writers. While many Western historians portray her as a cold, haughty, and distant aristocrat, this book reveals instead a remarkably down-to-earth and humorous young woman, full of life and compassion. A detail-oriented and observant participant in some of the most important historical events of the early twentieth century, her first hand descriptions of the tercentenary celebrations of the House of Romanov, the early years of Russia’s involvement in World War I, and the road to her family’s final days in Siberian exile reveal extraordinary details previously unknown or unacknowledged by western historians. Lavishly annotated for the benefit of the non-specialist reader, this book is not only a reevaluation of this important figure’s role as more than just one of four sisters, this 
book is also a valuable reference on Russia, the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the people closest to the Grand Duchess and her family.

My Review

A full translation with contextual footnotes to ease understanding. This book gives a more complete picture of day-to-day life for a Romanov Grand Duchess in the last years of Imperial Russia. As it’s a translation of a diary it’s hard to find much else to say. I think it is a useful document for those studying the era, and helpfully annotated.

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