Fascinating look at England’s past: She-Wolves – The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor

Posted by Justine Solomons on 8 August 2012, in Recommendations

Review written by Tracey Sinclair

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She-Wolves by Helen Castor – which has now been turned into a BBC series – looks at the lives of women who had their hands on the reins of power (albeit not explicitly) long before Elizabeth I was crowned queen: Matilda, daughter of Henry I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou.

Well-researched yet written in the flowing, easy to read style of a novel, Castor’s book is a magnificent achievement, vividly bringing to life England’s past in a style that is at once accessible and engaging. She is even handed in examining the strengths and weaknesses of the women she writes about, as well as understanding and illuminating the cultural norms and gender expectations which, too often, thwarted their ambition. Although she resists the urge to filter events through modern revisionist eyes, she also overturns some generally accepted ideas (her take on Edward II, for instance, rings true with the pragmatism of the times: often portrayed as a man whose homosexuality itself was his downfall, Edward’s fatal flaw here is shown rather to be a weak personality and poor judgement combined with a disastrous taste in lovers, since nobles were well used to tolerating the peccadilloes of their rulers, providing they didn’t interfere in the running of the land ).

The real strength of She-Wolves, though, is Castor’s writing: although the text never feels lightweight or, to use that hated phrase, ‘dumbed down’ – there are plenty of facts to grapple with, and Castor is a knowledgeable and informed guide – the book is as gripping as a historical thriller, a page turner that is as hard to put down as the best kind of novel. Fans of Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel could do worse than check this out – you won’t be disappointed.

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