Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Review: She-Wolves by Helen Castor

By a nice (but self-engineered) coincidence, the day I started reading Helen Castor's She-Wolves was the day I saw Canterbury Cathedral for the first time. Canterbury is a low-slung and dainty city, with lots of nice little buildings apparently arranged by random happenstance. And then you turn down one particular alley and BOOM THERE'S A STONE-COLD MOUNTAIN OF HOLINESS IN YOUR FACE.

Canterbury Cathedral is a beautiful visual metaphor for the medieval concept of power. In the days when kingdoms were, although small by our standards, huge when you consider that the horse was the fastest way of moving around, and when most subjects couldn't read and didn't tend to go anywhere either, rulers had to keep on making GREAT BIG MANLY STATEMENTS, like castles and battles and heads on sticks, to remind everyone that even if they didn't seem to be there at that time, they could still turn up at any moment, ready to throw down some severe punishment.

And that, as Castor explains, was the fundamental problem for any women who tried to be in power. The idea of leadership in medieval Europe was so tied up in people's minds with the concept of masculinity (even the word queen literally meant 'the wife of the king') that a female ruler was just met with total incomprehension and the suspicion that she was Not Being a Proper Lady. If you were a woman and you wanted to run things, you had to pretend to be doing it on behalf of somone male who was either too young or too busy to act for himself, and if you didn't do that... well, you could be in trouble.

Elizabeth I was the first queen of England to rule totally on her own, as the sole and complete top dog of everything, but before her (and Mary, her immediate predecessor) there were four women who, according to Castor, were supreme rulers in all but name: Matilda (of Stephen and), Eleanor (of Aquitaine and several Henrys), Isabella (of Edward II), and Margaret (of Henry VI, aka One Of The Pointless Kings). She-Wolves is a series of potted biogs of the political rise and fall all four.

Empress of the universe, etc
Now, as far as her first two subjects go, I buy Castor's project utterly. Matilda and Eleanor define badass. Take Matilda first. In her youth (we're talking 12 years old, here) she married the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and essentially helped him run Europe for a while. This gave her a real taste for power: even after he died she insisted people keep on calling her Empress. She also liked being called 'Lady of the English' and 'Domina' (which means 'mistress' in the sense of 'she-who-must-be-obeyed', rather than 'don't tell your wife'). As you can tell, Matilda was a big fan of titles.

When her father Henry I died, and her cousin Stephen usurped her claim to the throne, she embarked on a decade-long fight to get her kingdom back. This involved a lot of daring escapes from surrounded castles (my favourite is the one she managed in Oxford, my home town: at night, in the middle of winter and with snow everywhere. It never occurred to the people besieging her that she would even try it. She pulled it off flawlessly) and a lot of great tactical thinking, and culminated in her son Henry II being crowned king in 1153. She ended up ruling Normandy for him (weird to remember, but it was part of English lands then), as well as advising him on how to rule England and being in general a better king than most male kings could ever even hope to be. I would be scared to be in the same room with her - that woman was FIERCE - but I think she was brilliant.

Proudly wearing some scarlet
I also love Eleanor of Aquitaine. I first heard about her in E. L. Konigsberg's A Proud Taste For Scarlet and Miniver, an American kids' book about her life that's somewhat clunkily written but totally charming. (I reread it last month in preparation for this book, and I still love it.) Eleanor was amazing. She started by marrying the king of France Louis VII and going on crusade with him (unwillingly - Eleanor liked parties much more than holiness). This involved crossing the Alps a couple of times (with a large retinue, of course, the woman rolled deep). She then divorced her first husband to marry the much sexier Henry II (this was genuinely unheard of: divorces did happen, but women were never the ones to start off proceedings. Eleanor did it anyway), had eight children with him, rose up against him, got imprisoned, got released by her son Richard the Lionheart, ruled England for him while he was on crusade, helped spring him from jail and then when he died ruled England for her useless son John. I told you she was amazing.

Castor tells the stories of Matilda and Eleanor wittily and well, with just the right mix of historical fact and educated extrapolation, digging out the awesome reality of their exploits from all the rude discredit that got poured on them by their contemporaries.

However, She-Wolves is not without its issues. Castor's clearly got a brain as high-powered as her subjects. This is why she's such a great historian, but it can also lead to difficulties: her historical accounts rip along at such a terrifying pace that if you lose concentration for a second you're lost. Part of this is an intractible problem with her source material: there was always a Kent, a York and an Essex, and they were always different people, but partly Castor's just trying to cram in too much here. There's so much material (five biographies!) to get through that each event can only be given half a page at most. This is exhausting enough when you know the gist of the story she's telling, but when you're coming to it completely fresh it's almost impossible. And so it was with me and Castor's third and fourth subjects.

Gaviston REALLY needs a new cloak
I'd only ever heard of Isabella from Marlowe's play about her husband, Edward II, which can be best summed up if I tell you that its most recent TV adaptation was by Derek Jarman and essentially boiled down to naked men wrestling in tunnels for an hour and a half. Edward II is most famous for being very much in love with a man called Piers Gaviston and very much not interested in anything else, ie the country he was meant to be ruling.  

His story is fascinating and slightly hilarious (his lords would come to him and say "WILL YOU PLEASE RULE YOUR COUNTRY?!", and he would say, "Doesn't Gaviston look lovely in his new cloak!", and then the lords would exile Gaviston and Edward would throw a fit until he got brought back, and then the whole cycle would start again) but I really found it hard to be convinced by Castor's claim that Isabella was much of an political enitity in her own right. Even with Castor's best efforts to reclaim her, the impression I got was that for most of her life, Isabella... just sort of stood there, probably kind of annoyed but not really prepared to do much about it.

In fact, I was so unconvinced by Isabella as heroine, and so boggled by the number of people appearing on each page, that I had to put down She-Wolves for about a week out of sheer desperation. I only came back to it in the hopes that Margaret might be more interesting. And she kind of was! Once again, though, her husband was significantly more hilarious than she was. Henry VI apparently had grave difficulties simply functioning. He tended to trot happily after whoever looked like they might be in control, and he had one year-long spell where he went completely unresponsive. Even when he was displaying basic motor functions he was totally incapable of making rational descisions, and this, as might be expected, caused the Wars of the Roses. Margaret spent years frantically battling one person called York after another (all the while, of course, pretending she was doing it on Henry's behalf), but ended up being foiled by Edward IV (aka York), who was helped by the fact that he was not only male, but extremely attractive. People then, as now, liked their rulers to be sexy.

And that, apart from a brief bit about Mary, is the end of the book. PHEW. Do you see what I mean about Castor cramming too much in? This blog is a potted history of four potted histories, and look how LONG it is. My typing fingers are numb. It's ironic that She-Wolves, a celebration (with notable exceptions) of some exceptional women who really deserve a lot more space and credit than they're usually given, is forced to give each of its subjects so little time. To be honest, I think Castor should have written four books (no Isabella, please) instead of one. It all feels a bit too hasty, a half-done job instead of a complete one. Yes, the material is (mostly) fascinating, but there's just too much of it.

Nevertheless, when She-Wolves works, it's a great and much-needed refocusing of history, and one that, like all the best history books, makes a subtle (and depressing) point about the time we're live in. Even though Castor is saying that these are medieval attitudes to women in power, many of them are sadly similar to our own. Rational objections to figures like Margaret Thatcher aside, a lot of what's said about women in power comes with a distinct underlying flavour of, "SHE WAS A WOMAN WHO DID NOT ACT VERY WOMANLY! BAD." We never learn, do we? Because what Matilda, Eleanor, Isabella, Margaret and many others ought to have proven by now is that woman can be just as good (or as bad) at ruling as men.

She-Wolves may not be perfect, but at least someone's bothering to point that out.

3 stars.

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