Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Sex with the Queen," by Eleanor Herman

The Word: Okay, so there's not going to be any particularly fancy doodads in this review because it's a bit of an odd duck - a nonfiction history of the lives of adulterous queens.

I first became interested in this book when I read Eleanor Herman's previous pop history tome, Sex with Kings, which was a fascinating, hilarious, and highly entertaining look at the history of royal mistresses.

Much like its predecessor, Sex with the Queen starts the book by dispelling a lot of myths. Kings detailed how being a royal mistress could be a hectic, demanding, soul-killing job, because a mistress's privileges lasted only as long as her king's favour did.

However, Sex with the Queen reveals how being a princess or a queen wasn't much better. Herman gives countless examples of fifteen-year-old girls landing, friendless, on foreign shores to be sold into marriage to repulsive, cruel, homosexual, impotent, stunted, mentally retarded and often insane kings - while battling all of their scheming courtiers and family members, to boot. Herman lists the foibles and fetishes with a thoroughly infectious glee.

However, Queen is somewhat different in tone than Kings, mainly because the sexual politics were so different. While some female rulers (most notably, the freakin' awesome Russian Empresses Elizabeth and Catherine the Great) ruled independently while keeping a string of handsome and lavishly-compensated lovers, just as many queenly love affairs ended with the erring royal's death, exile, or genteel imprisonment.

Sex with the Queen, instead, places a lot of focus on romanticism - on miserable women seduced by the opportunity of love and happiness in a court full of mean-spirited, inbred hillbillies. Sophia Dorothea of Hanover (the mistreated wife of King George I of England who had a passionate affair with the Count of Konigsmarck) has a particularly tragic and cinema-ready story.

That being said, sometimes the book plays the romance card a little too heavily, occasionally giving in to purple language and treacly conjecture about the ecstasy these queens experienced in the non-syphilitic, emotionally stable, mentally mature, politically astute, and of course well-endowed embraces of their lovers.

Thankfully, Sex with the Queen doesn't leave out the politics that influenced royal marriages and extramarital relationships. As we soon discover, nations were willing to overlook queenly indiscretions if the results of said affairs worked towards the good of the country. The Russians embraced the German-born Catherine the Great after Csar Peter III died of a stroke (the kind that leaves suspicious bruises around the throat) and tolerated her affairs because her successful policies turned Russia into a significant world power. And Herman reveals two kings who were perfectly content to let their wives and their wives' lovers "make love and policy" since it left them time to pursue hunting and other recreational interests.

There is a fair bit of romanticization and exaggeration in this book, to be sure, but that doesn't stop it from being entertaining as hell, a heady mixture of political history and scandalously elaborate dirty laundry.
A-

You can purchase Sex With The Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics here.

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