Saturday, 27 April 2019

Review: 'The Tragic Daughters of Charles I: Mary, Elizabeth & Henrietta-Anne' by Sarah-Beth Watkins

I love history, but reading about history is often more of a chore than a pleasure. History can't be changed, the outcome is set, and, depending on how old the history is, history isn't surprising. Or is it? What the best history books do, in my opinion, is show us the humanity behind the shadowy figures of history. And The Tragic Daughters of Charles I does just that. Thanks to John Hunt Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 4/26/2019
Publisher: John Hunt Publishing; Chronos Books

Mary, Elizabeth and Henrietta Anne, the daughters of King Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria, would be brought up against the background of the English Civil War. Mary would marry William, Prince of Orange, and be sent to live in the Netherlands. Elizabeth would remain in England under Parliamentary control. Henrietta Anne would escape to France and be the darling of the French Court. Yet none of the Stuart princesses would live to reach thirty. The Tragic Daughters of Charles I is their story. 
One of the things that fascinated me about The Tragic Daughters of Charles I was the sheer amount of letters that Sarah-Beth Watkins showed and quoted in her novels. History can become dry very quickly when it is recounted coldly and impersonally. By quoting the princesses' letters to their brother Charles and others, we as the readers get a real sense of who they might have been, what their internal, emotional lives look like. For me personally, I loved seeing how smart these women were in how they handled the fraught times in which they lived. Both Mary and Henrietta-Anne were crucial in their brother's attempts to bring Britain back after its Civil War, juggling their responsibilities to their old and new homes. Mary consistently used her power to provide her brother with money and ships, while Henrietta-Anne used her considerable influence in the French Court to barter for peace. Reading the words these women wrote brings them to life in a way no amount of details and facts could.

The Tragic Daughters of Charles I focuses on Mary (1631-1660), Elizabeth (1635-1650) and Henrietta-Anne (1644-1670). There were two other daughters, yet neither survived childhood. Sadly none of Charles' daughters made it to thirty. Although I lived in the UK for a good few years, a lot of British royal history is actually a bit of a mystery to me, especially its Civil War. Much of Britain's history is contextualized in The Tragic Daughters which definitely helped me. Sarah-Beth Waters starts her book with the execution of Charles I as a defining moment in all of his children's lives, before backtracking a few years to describe each child's birth and first few years. Although his daughters are the main focus of the novel, his sons also play key roles. Perhaps the fewest pages are dedicated to Elizabeth, who spends most of her short life under control of Parliament and far away from her family. Mary, Charles I's oldest daughter, takes up the central part of the book, as Watkins describes her move to the Netherlands and her troubles as she tries to fit in. Although both Protestant countries, the Dutch monarchy is very different from the British monarchy, and Watkins describes Mary trying to find an even ground between helping her brother's attempts to regain his crown and settling into her new country. The final part of the book looks at Henrietta-Anne, who was smuggled out of Britain at age 2 by her nurse while dressed as a little boy. Rejoining her mother in France, she becomes an elemental part of the French Court of the Sun King. She is perhaps the most fascinating of the daughters, simply because she becomes crucial to the peace efforts between Britain and France.

Sarah-Beth Watkins infuses her historical protagonists with a lot of life. Whether it is the sibling love shared between them or their own separate trials and tribulations, they feel like real people. I think many of us still hold on to the idea of the princess as being mainly a bartering good for kings, whose sole goal is to provide heirs and then retire to convents when they become inconvenient. Watkins doesn't shy away from these truths, showing the unhappiness many of the princesses felt at being displaced and removed from their homes and families. She also shows how erudite, sharp and powerful these women could be, however, and how much the course of history relies on their behind-the-scenes work. In the end what Watkins really describes is a family torn apart by political strife, scattered across Northern Europe, but united by a common goal. The Tragic Daughters also drives home just how close and connected European countries are, just how entwined their histories really are. In the time of Brexit this is a very important message to bring back.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although I went into The Tragic Daughters of Charles I not knowing who these women were, I came out of it feeling strangely connected to them. Watkins brings these women to life without burdening the reader with too much extraneous detail. Anyone interested in British history and women in history should absolutely pick up this book!

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