a casahistoria reading list - womens history

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 Reviews of Books on aspects of Women's History


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 All have been read & are recommended by casahistoria.


   Scroll down the page to read about these and other books reviewed on women's history  

Helen Castor: Joan of Arc 

Don’t read this if you want a detailed bio of the Maid of Orleans life. Do read it if you want a clear, well written account of her life and actions within the context of the late Hundred Years War.

Unless you are a student of the late medieval period (and perhaps even if you are) the time between Agincourt in 1415 and the collapse of English rule in France in the 1450’s can be a complex and confused. What Castor has done has been to provide a clear explanation of what the war was about, how it had divided France and then give a clear focus on the main players highlighting the political as well as military pressures each was under. Only then is Joan introduced and her actions presented. This enables the non-specialist reader to better comprehend how she was able to have such great military and psychological impact on the French and then why they then gave her such half-hearted support once she was arrested, put on trial and finally executed by the English. Joan’s intervention – divine or not – did provide impetus at the crucial time for France’s Charles VII which eventually led to pushing the English back to the Pale of Calais.

Castor does not enter the debate as to who exactly Joan’s voices were or whether Joan was saintly or not. What she does is lay out the available historical evidence to reveal a troubled personality, but one in many ways firmly planted in the real world. Her voices told her to don male attire but as she later explains, this wearing of men’s clothes was an attempt to ward off male advances, even although she must have known her persistence in doing so and admitting to it was condemning herself in the eyes of a Catholic Church inquisitors who saw such behaviour as heresy.

Castor’s book (as one might expect given her earlier work) makes clear the role played by strong women in events. Not just Joan, but also Yolande of Aragon, protectress of Charles VII and early and strong supporter of Joan when others had doubts, suggesting a key role in orchestrating Joan's appearance on the scene

If there is a problem with this book it is the paradox that in making its greatest strength the focus on context rather than on Joan herself it sadly underplays the degree of attention given to Joan’s cultural and theological legacy. An epilogue (four pages) attempts to draw attention to this but I would have liked to read more about how her beatification played out as well as the way writers as diverse as Schiller and Shaw placed her in their dramas. Nonetheless Castor has provided a very readable introduction to not just Joan of Arc but also the Hundred Years War. One of the comments on the cover stated the book was amongst  “......the best of popular history”. Can’t argue with that. 

Further Reviews:

Reviews in History
Times Higher Education
New York Times

January ’16 (****)


Helen Castor:
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth

I came to this in a pretty roundabout way – it is not my period at all but I saw it in a History Today list of best current female historians. It was also benefiting from recent publicity as it was the focus of a new BBC history series. For a non specialist it was worth the read. Helen Castor examines the lives of four women who 'ruled England before Elizabeth'. These were Henry I's daughter, the Empress Matilda; Henry II's consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine; and the wives of two of England's least effective kings: Isabella of France (Edward II) and Margaret of Anjou (Henry VI).

Castor's argument is that although not sole monarchs in the way that Mary and Elizabeth Tudor were, these four were able to use their positions as family members/consorts to significantly influence and to varying degrees, direct royal policy. To be honest none appear as especially attractive in a power political sense. All are ruthless in pursuing their aims and very capable of double-crossing and breaking promises. Tenacity seems to be another ability that they had by the bucket load – especially Matilda and Eleanor.

Each of the four are given a straight narrative which takes the reader from post conquest England to the advent of the Tudor new monarchs. This is well supported with clear (and easily understood) references to contemporary writers but does not attempt to provide a complete linear view of the period. However, the four periods examined do coincide with some of the most significant episodes of royal history during the period. And it is "royal history". The focus is on the power politics of those in control. Virtually no mention is made of anyone else or any other social group. This is not a fault of the author but a clear indication of the reality of medieval life. Where its male rulers had personal and political failings the country was generally thrown into crisis which meant baronial strife, conquest and counter conquest of castles and territory with the obvious destruction of crops, villages and property of those not considered by those leading armies to restore "order". The order of those in positions of privilege. Stephen was probably too soft for the age, Richard spent too little time minding the shop, Edward II had a knack of choosing male friends who antagonized his lords whilst Henry VI was pretty ineffectual. In each case a "she-wolf" strove to fill the power vacuum – some more successfully than others.

The four accounts are set in a Tudor framework: we start with young dying Edward VI attempting to change his father's Act of Succession to prevent Catholic Mary from succeeding. The final chapter has Mary installed and uncontested as a Queen ruling in her own right – so much so that despite growing unpopularity is succeeded by another female, Elizabeth. Castor's underlying point (perhaps a little too drawn out) being that conditions had changed by the 16th century with the Tudor state having become sufficiently centralized and institutionalized to weather the types of upsets that earlier would not have tolerated a woman ruler on her own. Hence ambitious and capable women close to power had to find other ways to exercise authority.

This is to be recommended to those who want a clear introductory framework to English medieval monarchy. Castor writes her stories well and in an entertaining way. Good clear maps are provided (which at the same time indicate the ebb and flow of English territorial possessions in France), but most crucially there are extensive family trees for each of the four. Without these to refer to the reader would easily get lost in the web of family and marital connections relevant to the overall story. Less positive is the strange lack of foot or endnotes. Not good for further study, let alone testing the sources used. I have not seen the TV programmes yet – I wanted to read the book first - so am unable to say how well they complement each other.

One last point – as Castor herself writes in her section on sources. Readers wanting to explore characters mentioned in the text could do lot worse than use the online and very comprehensive Oxford Dictionary of National Biographies. The ODNB has bios (some over 30 pages long) written by leading modern historians (the name Castor also appears several times….) and if you have a UK library card or are part of a subscribing global educational institution is totally free! April '12 (****)

Further Reviews:

  • The Literary Review by Peter Marshall, Professor of History at the University of Warwick
  • The Guardian by Ian Mortimer, writer of Medieval Intrigue: Decoding Royal Conspiracies

Jane Conway: Mary Borden: A Woman of Two Wars

This is the story of Ma(r)y Borden, one of those dynamic women who managed to flourish in the male dominated world of the early 20th century. Borden had been given a huge headstart as the daughter of a millionaire from Chicago and this she used to the full. A writer of books achieving both popular and critical acclaim this all gave her an entre into British and French society both before and after the First World War. Her US birth and (second) marriage to a British politician ensured equal social acclaim across the Atlantic. The book is illustrated with many useful photos including several society magazine shots showing her in the 1920's as quite the society woman and hostess.

However there was more to Borden than this. She was a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour and bearer of the Croix de Guerre (Petain himself gave her the additional Palm to the award), presented for her war work in setting up and managing hospitals very close to the Front and also those with the lowest mortality rates. It is claimed her Great War hospitals were the ones of choice for wounded French "l'hospital le plus chic sur tout le front". She repeated this war work in the Second World War and continued to write successfully until late in life.

Conway provides a literary commentary on her books as they were published, attempting to link them into Borden's experiences, but for historians what is most interesting are her sections on Borden's war work. In 1914-18 The British (despite the Nightingale experience) appeared more resistant to having a dominant woman managing field hospitals. The French support for Borden was fully vindicated by results. I was also interested to read that she used innovatory portable hospitals with reinforced windows to withstand blast damage that could be dismantled and rebuilt in a matter of hours. (You can hear an extract
 here from Borden's memoirs, "The Forbidden Zone" describing hospital conditions). Nonetheless, with the awakening of the need today to care so totally for war wounded it is depressing to read of the relatively basic provision in the earlier war especially when what we are reading about is probably of the best care available.

The section on her work in World War II is even more historically interesting. Leading the Hadfield-Spears mobile ambulance unit (an early version of the Korean war M*A*S*H units) she managed front line Franco-British nursing care in France, Italy, north Africa and the Middle East. In this war she found herself more involved in the political machinations of the Franco-allied relationship. Conway is perceptive on the chaos and amateurism shown during the Fall of France as well as the in-fighting involving De Gaulle (which ultimately sees the disbanding of the unit in 1945). Conway notes how Borden's 
Journey Down a Blind Alley, published in 1946, records the history of the medical unit and her disillusion with the French failure to put up an effective resistance to the German invasion and occupation.

It is hard though to escape the paradoxes of her existence. Living a privileged lifestyle she was critical of the British Labour Party for not doing enough to relieve poverty. Given the hectic nature of her life it is clear that she spent little of what would be called "quality time" with her young family despite fighting a long and (clearly for them) disturbing battle with her first husband for custody of them. The author could perhaps have given this more emphasis, especially regarding the impact of the suicide of a daughter which is dismissed in a few sentences. A more direct approach at times to some of the paradoxes outlined above would also help ensure that Borden could be seen more clearly in the context and standards of her time if not those of today. It is these contrasts that make understanding the assertive and successful women of the early 20th century (as well as today?) so interesting.

Jane Conway provides a clear and accessible description of the Borden life and shows how Borden made much of her privileged position using her undoubted courage and management skills. I found myself increasingly involved in the narrative as the story rapidly progressed, especially beyond the 1930's. In the last few years many unsung stories of the role played by key women in both world wars have become more public. Conway presents us here with the life of one such woman whose work and enthusiasm deserves to be remembered by a clear biography such as this. I would recommend this book to be read in particular by students of social as well as women's history. Dec '08 (****)

For more on Mary Borden:
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  Antonia Fraser: Marie Antoinette

Initially started as a holiday read and expecting to read of a weak, dissolute queen this biography (used as the basis for the weakish Sofia Coppola movie) soon began to reveal Marie Antoinette in a somewhat different light. Yes, much of her pre revolutionary time in France was spent out of touch with the country at large and largely oblivious to the real costs of the royal establishment. Yes, she was also rather naive and had a simplistic view of the socio-political structure. However, Fraser shows this to be as much a result of upbringing and Habsburg dynastic demands as because of flaws of character. Post 1789 sees a tougher, more considered MA emerge, a victim of the revolutionary pressures produced by the Ancien Regime of which she was part. Interestingly Fraser draws attention to the misogyny of the Jacobins as an element of the seemingly unjust treatment & trial of MA compared with Loius XVI. This is not so much a sympathetic account as one which makes much use of broad context to make the position of MA more understandable. Sept 2008 (***) 

  Jessica Warner: Craze: Gin and Debauchery in an Age of Reason

Warner writes about the English (London?) gin "epidemic" of the early 18th century. As a piece of social history it is of value, well supported and argued (perhaps too drily though - this has the air of an academic work tweaked to do a Sobel "Longtitude" for a mass market). What is most surprising though is the way the argument shows that the issue was one focussed on women, and that it was the poorest women who emerge as the biggest victims economically as well as socially from the expansion of gin drinking as well as from its ever tighter control (they did most of the streetside selling). The big distillers/publicans were men.... they continued to survive, and were not locked up to the same extent. Dec '07 (***)

  Sarah Helm: A Life in Secrets: Vera Atkins and the Missing Agents of WWII

This story of Vera Atkins, responsible for sending British female secret agents to Nazi France and her cathartic efforts to find out what happened to those who did not return is a compelling, well crafted read. The Atkins life is full of twists and page turning mysteries. However in the process Helm emphasizes the bravery of those sent to France and the amateur incompetence of those who sent them. Equally, the transparent nature of the books structure serves as an excellent example of how history is laboriously researched and worked upon using a variety of sources – in this case very much like a detective thriller. March ´07 (****)

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Antonia Fraser: Love and Louis XIV

 Fraser provides a feminine (as opposed to feminist) look at the reign of Louis XIV. Although it presents an interesting glimpse into the court life of the Sun King, it also reveals the dissolute and egocentric lifestyle of a royalty and nobility whose existence depended on the finances taken from the large tax base provided by a wealthy, absolutist state and from subjects they had little, or wished to have little in common with. Two points emerge ultimately: a better understanding of the future revolutionaries of 1789 and an intriguing glimpse of what might have been in England had such absolutism not been halted in 1642.  Jan'07 (***)


Anonymous: A Woman in Berlin

This diary, written by a Berlin woman in her 30's during the fall of Berlin illustrates clearly and forcefully the real meaning of defeat. Interesting asides on the nature of the Russian conquerors: raised in a society where they received but could not choose they had little concept of "value", even of booty. Most of all it reveals the commonplace nature & acceptance of rape or of attaching oneself to an Ivan lover - for protection and survival. A very human diary of survival in year zero. Sept '06 (****)

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