Thursday, 28 August 2014

Review: 'Princesses Behaving Badly' by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale EndingsThis was a book with which I fell in love at first sight. That first sight was online and Quirk Books kindly provided a review copy, for which I will be eternally grateful because Princesses Behaving Badly made me laugh and made me think, which is always a good combination. 'Perfect' is a word you will probably see popping up a lot in this review.
You think you know her story. You’ve read the Brothers Grimm, you’ve watched the Disney cartoons, you cheered as these virtuous women lived happily ever after. But the lives of real princesses couldn’t be more different. Sure, many were graceful and benevolent leaders—but just as many were ruthless in their quest for power, and all of them had skeletons rattling in their royal closets. Princess Stephanie von Hohenlohe was a Nazi spy. Empress Elizabeth of the Austro-Hungarian empire slept wearing a mask of raw veal. Princess Olga of Kiev murdered thousands of men, and Princess Rani Lakshmibai waged war on the battlefield, charging into combat with her toddler son strapped to her back. Princesses Behaving Badly offers minibiographies of all these princesses and dozens more. It’s a fascinating read for history buffs, feminists, and anyone seeking a different kind of bedtime story.
 I am indeed someone who has read the Grimm fairytales (even the original edition) and loved watching Disney movies. My love for princesses was consolidated pretty early in life with the introduction of Princess Leia into it, blaster and all. As such, I thought of myself as the perfect audience for this book. And I was. I absolutely loved reading Princesses Behaving Badly. McRobbie has collected stories from all the different ages, all the different continents and all the different classes that our world has known. Whether it's an African princess leading her tribe or a fake Russian tsarina, there is bound to be a woman from your culture in this book. Simply for its diversity, then, it is a book I'd recommend to everyone because it says something fundamental, not only about female but about human nature, namely that humans will never do as we are expected. Women, just like men, have dreams and aspirations, may they be "right", such as freeing your own people, or "wrong", such as just looking out for yourself, and the fact that they are princesses changes nothing about that.

McRobbie's writing suits the purpose of this book perfectly. It's humorous and precise, giving the reader enough facts to paint a portrait but adding enough humanity to make those portraits come to live. She doesn't shy away from admitting some of these women made dubious decisions or were, most likely, mad, but she is also keenly aware that many of these women didn't write their own histories. She places herself in their position without becoming soppy or judgemental. Is this book occasionally sensationalist in its representation of these women? Yes, but it is so in a delightful way because who wouldn't get excited about a princess turned pirate? McRobbie luckily decided to evade the Princess-cliche that surrounds figures such as Princess Diana or Grace Kelly and chose figures that not a lot of people would know of. By doing so she coincidentally makes the same decision that Walt Disney used to make, choosing women such as Pocahontas and Mulan for their movies. There may just be a bit, or quite a lot, more blood in this book. But such is history.

One of the most important things about this book starts with a story, a simple one of an older sister constantly badgering a younger sister to pick up a book and find some role models worth following. Usually this older sister, me, in case you hadn't figured that out yet, has a very hard time making the younger sister even glance at the book, let alone pick it up. Princesses Behaving Badly was the exception to that rule. All I needed to tell her about was a princess becoming a pirate, a fabulous one at that, and she was quiet for a five-hour long car journey, nose stuck in this book. And she even talked to me about it, excited and fascinated. Whether the book was enough to make her turn of Keeping Up with the Kardashians is a different question, but the fact that a book such as this exists, that has women in it that break all the rules set by their position, their families or their own expectations, that somehow did live happily ever after or didn't, but that live, really live, and go down in history, is a real treasure because it shows that life is what you make it, no matter what gender or race you are. The fact that McRobbie has made stories such as these available to young girls, in such a way that they can understand it and don't have to dig through ancient Scandinavian or Hindi texts, is a major step forward.

Finally I also want to note that this book isn't "just for women". Just because you happened to be male doesn't mean you can't love this book and be interested in these women. Rather than use this book to shame fathers and husbands, McRobbie uses her space for excellent story-telling. Although a father or husband may have been to blame for misfortune here or there, so were the princesses as mothers and wives. I would consider Princesses Behaving Badly utterly feminist, in the sense that it presents women as equals to men and there is nothing threatening in that for a male audience. Rather I can imagine they would fall in love with at least three of these women.

I give this book...

5 Universes.

This is a book I will read and read again. Whether it's a chapter here and there or the whole book in one sitting, it will be a great reminder that, in the end, you can do and be what you work for. If you're a parent, be it of a little girl or a little boy, give some serious thought to buying this book for them. If you're your own person with your own wallet, give some serious thought to buying this book for yourself. It's that fun. I really hope there will be a sequel because there must be more fabulous stories out there. How about Goddesses Behaving Badly? Because it wasn't just Zeus who misbehaved one, twice or twenty times.


  1. Ooh I have never heard of this book until now but it does sound really good! I have always loved princesses too - ever since Disney as a really little child. I even wanted to be one! Now I can see how this story can change and all that, and yet give us a taste of culture too. Sounds cool!

    Check out my review and giveaway:

  2. I haven't heard of this book either! You always do such interesting reviews on your blog! I love fairy tales and princesses (although I normally love the Disney variety!) so this seems like something I'd enjoy... from a different perspective. Thanks for sharing!

    Tracy @ Cornerfolds