In Bas Bleu’s Spring 2014 catalog, we debuted Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History—Without the Fairy-Tale Endings, an engaging collection of mini-biographies of some of history’s most intriguing royal women. This week we sat down with author Linda Rodriguez McRobbie to discuss the challenges of separating truth from fiction, America’s fascination with the British, and why being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Bas Bleu: Why this book? How did it come about?
Linda Rodriguez McRobbie: It actually sort of came to me. My publishers, the wonderful folks at Quirk, had this idea to do a book about princesses and were looking for someone to flesh it out. My name came up and so I submitted a few proposals until we finally nailed it down. By then, I was totally hooked on the subject, too, something I found rather surprising: I’d never really considered princesses at all, other than as something I was glad I didn’t have to deal with because I’d had a little boy and not a little girl.
BB: I was an enthusiastic history student, but many of these stories were new to me. How did you ferret them out?
LRM: A lot of Googling. No, really. Try Googling “drunk princess” or “Nazi princess” and see what comes up! But once I’d found a lead, I spent a lot of time tracking it down in the library (the British Library became a bit like my office); those leads often led to other leads, just following the rabbit hole where it went. Ultimately, I found a lot of women whom history had forgotten, but who some wonderful scholar somewhere had stumbled upon, or, in some cases, about whom I could find enough information to piece together a relatively satisfying biography. It was also important to me to widen my search beyond Western European traditions, which made things a little bit more difficult, especially given that a number of cultures don’t exactly have princesses. I used a bit of scholarly license in those cases, because, again, it was really important to me to reflect a wider variety of cultures and contexts.
BB: Your background is in journalism, yet some of these tales date from a time when information was circulated orally, not in writing. How difficult was it to verify those stories when you came across them?
LRM: Very! As a journalist, it was a little hard for me sometimes to just have to say, “Well, folks, this is as close as I can get to the real story.” I cross-referenced stories as much as possible and I relied on academic accounts and other sources that I felt I could trust; the sources I felt I couldn’t trust, such as nineteenth-century newspapers or fifth-century religious scholars who found female rulers upsetting, I tried to let my reader know my reservations. There’s so much myth built into the history of women and so many of these particular women had either been slandered, bizarrely valorized, or just not talked about at all, that it was often hard picking apart truth from fiction. I gave it my best—I sincerely hope I managed it!
BB: A certain American media company has created an “industrial princess complex” that alarms more than a few parents and feminists. What, if any, role could the stories in Princesses Behaving Badly play in combating that idealized view of womanhood? Or, at least, princesshood?
LRM: To be clear, my book isn’t really for the age group the princess industrial complex is aimed at—it’s definitely for an older crowd. That said, what I think the book does is offer a counterpoint of reality to the whole pink and purple fairytale—a fairytale that, judging by every bridal show in the history of bridal shows ever, we are very reluctant to give up, even in adulthood. It’s not just that being a princess isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (I mean, that’s pretty much the plot of every movie about becoming a princess, right?), it’s that women who were princesses were real, flesh-and-blood, living, breathing women. They were never perfect, because people aren’t perfect, but simply branding them with the title “princess” seems to rob them of their humanity. My bigger hope is that the parents of little girls might think twice before buying their daughter a sparkly princess costume; many do, I know.
BB: Some of the women “behaving badly” in the book were targeted by male opponents who explained away their behavior as madness or sexual immorality. (Frankly, gendered discourse hasn’t improved much over the ensuing centuries.) How important was it to you to include the women who were genuinely unpleasant people (looking at you, Olga of Kiev) with the ones who were disparaged simply for going against gender norms?
LRM: It was hugely important to me to not valorize women rulers or leaders simply because they were women; that, to me, undermines the humanity of the women I wanted to talk about. Certainly, when we talk about male rulers, we don’t shy away from their more unpleasant actions or parts of their character that are perhaps not so princely; so when it came to women who did some genuinely nasty things, or who just made some really bad decision, I felt it was important to include them as well. Again, women are people, not just princesses.
BB: Considering how hard our ancestors fought to break away from the English throne, why do you think Americans are so fascinated by royalty? Is it simple novelty or is there more to it?
LRM: I think one reason we love royalty is because we dearly love, covet, and obsess over celebrity. Americans didn’t exactly invent celebrity, but we did perfect the art of making celebs and shoving them up on pedestals and trailing them around with cameras. Royalty, for obvious reasons, has this aura of celebrity, but it also has the extra special element of being chosen by birth. That is still, despite our love of a good Horatio Alger story, very potent for Americans.
I’m American, but I’ve lived in London for the last five years. I was here during the Royal Wedding – we all had the day off, and it was a great opportunity for a party. What struck me, however, was that for Brits, it seemed largely like a fun day out, the kind of expression of patriotism that we Americans do every year on the Fourth of July but doesn’t really happen here. Contrasting that with the flurry of coverage from American outlets that I was also watching, it seemed that Americans focused largely on the celebrity angle, that these were famous people getting married and thus, we should be paying attention.
And I do think that for Americans, there’s something particularly important to us about the British monarchy; it may be for the same reasons that we’re more likely to trust someone with a British accent, even when they’re talking complete rubbish. There’s still a kind of fascination that Americans seem to have with the British that they don’t have for anyone else; hangover from our colony days, perhaps?
BB: Which contemporary princess/royal woman do you most admire? Have any of them earned a spot in future editions of Princesses Behaving Badly?
LRM: I’m really intrigued by the figure of Kate Middleton, largely because she isn’t behaving badly; she isn’t behaving in any way that’s off palace/media script (technically, she’s not a princess, but whatever, she might as well be). I wrote about this a bit in my introduction, but I do find it worrying – the last woman who got the fairytale treatment at the hands of an over-zealous press was Diana, and that didn’t go so well. There’s also something about the fact that I am only slightly older than Kate; it makes me relate to her more than I think I would any other princess figure.
There’s also a woman, Princess Lilian of Sweden, who passed away recently and whose life I find just fascinating. She was born in Wales, the daughter of a miner and a shop assistant. She met Sweden’s Prince Bertil when she was twenty-eight years old, during World War II; she was beautiful and glamorous and the kind of girl who would be invited to cocktail parties attended by royalty, but she also worked in a factory making radios. And she was married to someone else, though they divorced as friends and Lilian was free to pursue her relationship with Bertil. They were together, in secret, for thirty-three years before they were finally able to marry (she was a commoner and a divorcee to boot, totally not on for the monarchy at the time). She seemed such a graceful, lovely figure and I’d love to know more about her; after all, she lived through this period of great social upheaval, a great transformation in class, the underpinnings of monarchy, gender roles.
BB: Truth time: which of these wild women is your favorite?
LRM: Clara Ward, for sure. I think she’d probably be incredibly difficult to be friends with – so dramatic! – but the kind of friend who is terrific fun to be around. Of course, Alfhild the Pirate Princess is also pretty fantastic, because, you know, she was a pirate. And Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, I’d have loved to have been invited to one of her parties (I’d love still to be invited to one of her parties, hint hint); I also admire the very frank look she took at her estate and how she dove into the effort to save it.
BB: Many thanks to Linda for sharing her time and insight and for introducing us to these incredible women!