Reading History: The Tragic Daughters of Charles I (by Sarah-Beth Watkins)

My thanks to NetGalley for a copy of this book for review.

I have to confess that when it comes to English royalty, I’ve never been much of a fan of the Stuarts. Somehow they lacked the charismatic panache that characterized their successors the Tudors, or the operatic tragedy of the Plantagenets. They just seemed rather bland in comparison to all of this.

Recently, however, I’ve taken an interest in them. They embodied all of the contradictions of the era, drowning in opulent wealth and yearning for absolute power yet struggling with the financial and political limits imposed by Parliament. Given these contradictions, is it any wonder that one of them, Charles I, ended up losing his head to the executioner’s axe?

Sarah-Beth Watkins takes as her subject the doomed daughter of this doomed monarch. As the title of the book suggests, Charles’ daughters fared little better than their father. Several died before they reached the age of 20, and those that lived to be older, Mary and Henriette, died before they reached 30, the former from smallpox and the latter as the result of a stomach ailment (and possibly poison).

Throughout their young lives, both Mary and Henriette faced struggle and difficulty, particularly once they were married to foreign princes: Mary to William of the Netherlands and Henriette to Philippe, brother of Louis XIV. Both also found themselves at the center of politics, first as their brother attempted to regain his throne and then, after his restoration, in the feuds and jostling that inevitably arose between the powers of Europe. In a bitter twist, Mary survived to see her brother return to the throne but died shortly afterward.

Given that she lived the longest and was married to the brother of the King of France, Henrietta’s life takes up the latter half of the book. Though plagued by personal sadness–her husband was abusive and paid more attention to his male lover than he did to her–she was nevertheless a savvy political player and a valuable ally for her brother at the heart of the French court. Through her closeness to both her brother and her brother-in-law the king, she was able exert a formidable influence on politics, and one can’t help but wonder how much more she would have been able to accomplish had she but lived longer.

Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I thought I would. The prose is, unfortunately, rather clunky, and it lacks a certain dynamism. One learns a lot from the book, but I found it very easy to get bored while reading it. I strongly suspect that this has to do with the fact that there just isn’t a whole lot of material due to the very young age at which these women died.

Relatedly, the author tends to use far too many long quotes from primary sources. One gets the sense that she felt pressed to fill out the book to a standard length. While, of course, it is customary to include at least some quotes from letters, diaries, etc., the sheer length of the ones in this book become distracting after a while, and they certainly break up the momentum of the narrative.

That being said, the book is a serviceable introduction to these tragic young women. While their own lives were cut tragically short, those of their descendants would go on to be rather illustrious. Mary’s son William would in fact go on to become King of England as William III, while Henrietta’s descendants would go on to sit on the thrones of several different countries. Through their children, the tragic daughters of King Charles found their own form of immortality.

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