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An ambitious young woman, debarred by her sex from ascending the throne, nonetheless rules her country and turns her court into an academy where girls are taught how to rule. A mother tells her daughter to face death rather than give up the sceptre that is her right to wield…
Talk about fools rushing in. Sixteen protagonists, five countries, and the history of more than a century? Angels would be so afraid to tread, they’d trip over their wings as they ran the other way.But it’s easy, and perhaps cheap, to play this for laughs, because the truth is, Game of Queens is a book about which I care quite desperately. And that, at this stage - a few days before publication - is what’s so scary.
It’s a bit unfortunate for a writer, but I’ve always loathed seeing my own work in print. In my days as a journalist I’d cross the street to avoid a newsagent displaying a paper whose front page trailed one of my stories. I was always aware how much better it could have been - how much I could have got wrong. That fear is a lot worse today.
In Game of Queens - about the chains of women and power running through the sixteenth century - I’m scampering over deals and decades, giving only a few pages to reigns and reformations, each one of which has been the subject of a dozen other people’s PhD. Perhaps it is a journalist’s take on history. But that only makes it more important that I should do it properly. Because if I hadn’t done this book someone else would have had to - the more so, since the experiences of these women are being echoed today.
The sixteenth century saw an explosion of female rule across Europe - not only in England and Scotland, where a ruling queen sat on the throne, but in the Netherlands, France and Spain, where female regents controlled great swathes of the continent on behalf of their male relatives. But if the sixteenth century showed what women could do, it also showed how vulnerable they could be. Anne Boleyn executed for adultery she almost certainly did not commit; Catherine de Medici getting most of the blame for the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day.
Be very careful in all your dealings, a manual of advice for powerful women warned, ‘because you can be blamed even for something very slight’. ‘Had I been crested not cloven, my lords, you would not have treated me thus’, Elizabeth I told her courtiers, angrily.
Hillary Clinton’s health? Debate about women leaders has always centred on their bodies. Even Elizabeth I’s famous speech at Tilbury admitted that she had ‘the body of a weak and feeble woman’, before boasting that she had nonetheless ‘the heart and stomach of a king’. Men, and a powerful woman’s relationship to them, was a question then and is still today. Fear of a husband’s takeover was what kept Queen Elizabeth unmarried, and there could be eyebrows raised over the likelihood of Bill Clinton’s confining himself to a backseat role.
Women have long been seen as naturally more pacific than men, and sometimes that works to their advantage. As when, in 1529, Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy negotiated the Ladies’ Peace; as, perhaps, when a President Hillary Clinton might negotiate with Angela Merkel, Christine Lagarde, or Theresa May. But one slur often levelled is that women may therefore fail in times of war: yes, Trump (like George Bush with Geraldine Ferraro before him) has tried to diminish Clinton that way.
Before the first debate, Clinton was advised not to interrupt or talk over Trump too much, because voters don’t like such behaviour in a woman. He interrupted her repeatedly. Guess what? - the question of how to combine femininity with authority has never gone away.
Maybe that’s why launching this book seems so scary. OK, that may just be the highfalutin’ theory. Maybe it is just about me. The fact this is the first time I’ve ever brought out one book without knowing what project comes next , or that it’s been a while since last I published anything in quite this way.
But this time there’s no taking refuge in the safely past - no saying, at the end of the day, ‘it’s only a story’. I do believe we need to know our past to take charge of our present - that the rise, and fall, of powerful women in the past have lessons for today. And maybe, just maybe, that is why I care so much. Because, in however infinitesimal a way, this book is trying to add its voice to the chorus of those who are still making - rather than merely recounting - history.
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About the Author
Sarah Gristwood is a best-selling Tudor biographer, former film journalist, and commentator on royal affairs. After leaving Oxford, Sarah began work as a journalist, writing at first about the theatre as well as general features on everything from gun control to Giorgio Armani. But increasingly she found herself specialising in film interviews – Johnny Depp and Robert De Niro; Martin Scorsese and Paul McCartney. She has appeared in most of the UK’s leading newspapers – The Times, the Guardian, The Telegraph (Daily and Sunday) – and magazines from Cosmopolitan to Country Living and Sight and Sound to The New Statesman. Turning to history she wrote two bestselling Tudor biographies, Arbella: England’s Lost Queen and Elizabeth and Leicester. Sarah was one of the team providing Radio 4’s live coverage of the royal wedding; and has since spoken on the Queen’s Jubilee, the royal baby, and other royal stories for Sky News, Woman’s Hour, Radio 5 Live, and CBC. Shortlisted for both the Marsh Biography Award and the Ben Pimlott Prize for Political Writing, she is a Fellow of the RSA, and an Honororary Patron of Historic Royal Palaces. She and her husband, the film critic Derek Malcolm, live in London and Kent. Find out more at Sarah's webiste