Sex with the Queen, Reviewed by Benjamin Wong

       sex with the queen

“In royal courts bristling with testosterone—swashbuckling generals, polished courtiers, and virile cardinals—how did repressed regal ladies find happiness?” Well, according to New York Times bestseller Sex with the Queen, queenly happiness takes the form of a “sexy young favourite.” In a survey of royal women’s boudoirs spanning from 11th Century Castile to the Princess Diana saga of the 1990s, Herman provides an addictively readable follow up to her seminal work on royal mistresses, Sex with Kings. She navigates across centuries of women’s history with the sensitivity of a bull in a china shop, while her salacious narrative certainly accords the book a place in the pantheon of great 21st Century non-fiction erotica.

First off, it is interesting to observe how Herman legitimizes her qualifications to write on the topic. A self-proclaimed “royal mistress expert,” Eleanor Herman exclaims on the cover that she is named after Eleanor of Aquitaine, her grandmother twenty-eight times removed, and is related to most of the royal families of Europe. This announcement implicitly suggests that you, a chain smoking day nurse from Connecticut descended from the great proletariat Smith dynasty of Manchester could not come up with the same brilliant conclusion that because Catherine Howard cheated on Henry VIII, she was executed. She also includes a dashing photo of herself in a tiara just in case the reader doesn’t get it (next time I write about peasant revolt, I’ll include a portrait of myself with a potato and pitchfork). Her biggest competitor in popular histories of royal women, the Lady Antonia Frasier, is guilty of name-dropping too. The only difference is that Fraser used her status as a knighted Lady to gain access to obscure and private Bourbon collections, bringing great new sources for her monograph Marie Antoinette: a Journey. Unfortunately, when I look at Hermann’s bibliography, it is apparent that being the 48th generation granddaughter of Charlemagne will only get you free refills at McDonalds and a local library card. I completely understand her situation, as she’s obviously using this Renaissance Fair charade to present herself as a legitimate historical source to the reader, no different from the thrill up every undergraduate student’s leg when they see Professor, Harvard University after the author’s name.

To be honest, I (Benjamin Wong, the 5th generation grandson of Ulaan Baatar peasantry) thoroughly enjoyed the book as light hearted entertainment. However, when looking down from my ivory tower of historiography, there are a few qualms with Herman’s approach to history in general. It would be unfair and unrealistic of me to complain about the subjects of her investigation; writing about queens sells, and when combined with sexual liberation, the work is certainly a New York Best Seller (I’m no marketing guru, but Celibacy with the Proletariat just doesn’t have the same ring to it). This book follows the same concept as the Real Housewives reality series on Bravo: free, independent, and successful women exercising agency over their lives. But apparently nobody wants to see the Empress Elizabeth, the Queen of all Russias, doing paperwork and turning Russia into an integral player in the European state system. Instead, Herman focuses on a rotating list of young male lovers, bastard children, and the fact that she told some princess to “hold your tongue, bitch.” And here’s the problem with her “feminism”; she states that queens were able to exercise agency within their patriarchal societies, but ends up writing her women into the same literary tropes of uncontrolled sexuality and feminine incompetence presented by your local Renaissance patriarch. Herman dedicates almost two chapters to Catherine the Great, but writes her life through her male lovers. Instead of Catherine giving the kingdom of Poland to Stanislaus Poniatowski due to the fact that the Empress needed an obedient puppet ruler to cement legitimacy for the great partitions, the event turns into a 2 am telenovela; Catherine, madly in love with another general, blindly gave away a fifth of her empire as an unofficial divorce settlement so she could run off with her newest stallion. Her success in the centralization of Russia is attributed to the presence of Prince Gregory Potemkin in the royal chambers, who was the only man who could “control” her sexual appetite at night, magically giving her the ability to govern the next morning. She trots out the urban legend that Catherine died in an attempt to mount a horse from below: I have nothing to say besides the fact that she should have titled the chapter 50 Shades of Neigh. There’s nothing inherently wrong about a woman having sex with whom she pleases, but Herman heads into dangerous territory when she states that all Catherine ever wanted was “to be raped and controlled” (with no citation!). There should be no excuse for these instances of simple ignorance and misrepresentation of events, and it is simply disrespectful to both her subjects and the gender historians who have worked tirelessly to present women in history as more than sexual sideshows and lascivious trivia.

This is my problem with certain pop histories, and certain responsibilities needed for someone seeking to educate the mass public on history. Mostly, people consider the things studied in the university as simply “intellectual stuff”, and therefore writing a pop history exempts you from engaging with this “stuff”. But what Hermann is blithely unaware of is the fact that sexism, populism, Marxism and plain old prurience have all worked together in the academic establishment for centuries to either deny Catherine the Great’s historical importance or simply write her off as the star of TLC’s My Strange Addiction. It was Isabel de Madariaga’s biography Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great (1981) that turned the Empress Catherine into a legitimate subject of serious historical study. In the last twenty years, a boom of historical work has come out, and Catherine has shown up on dissertations analyzing her importance in political, IR, economic, feminist, and court studies. Her newfound popularity then filtered down to BBC podcasts and a History Channel documentary before trickling on down to Herman’s clearance bin history Sex with the Queen. It’s therefore disappointing when it is clear that Herman has not leafed through any post-colonial or feminist literature on her subjects within the last 40 years. It is then sort of comical how some “pop historians” such as Herman can exempt themselves from “intellectual stuff” when in fact, she’s subscribing to the same misogynistic, Orientalist, and historiographical themes that were propagated by Oxford historians in the early 20th Century. So yes, call me elitist but I do think any author seeking to claim “non-fiction” status should seek to read a journal or two before beginning to write; from my experience with the figures in the book, Herman’s accounts of Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate, Marie Antoinette, and the Russian Empresses could only be a product of willful ignorance. How well does this work fit into intellectual historiography? In her words, as well as Catherine the Great in a nunnery.

The reason why I’m so hard on Herman is because it has been proven by countless authors that it is possible to reconcile good history and good sales through the hottest new trend: good writing. It is possible to write about early modern Russia without describing its people as “barbaric”, “backwards”, and “oriental”. Likewise, it is possible to make academic work accessible to the public by replacing esotericism with personality. The Lady Antonia Fraser represents the great balance between information and entertainment; utilizing a figure such as Marie Antoinette (whom Cambridge professors thumb their nose at), Fraser sells a fantasy through her writing of court life while treating issues such as childbirth, the unofficial role of women, and the role of mass politics in a large-scale Jacobin smear campaign that forever linked her name with “let them eat cake”. Herman is certainly an excellent writer, and her chapter on the Princess Elizabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate and her cross-dressing husband is absolutely hilarious. However, instead of simply describing Elizabeth Charlotte as a silent, miserable victim of an abusive husband in France and ending it there, why not show her exercising her agency within an unhappy situation through her control of Louis XIV’s social world in Versailles? Although Elizabeth Charlotte may not have achieved happiness through a handsome young lad, like many other women, she did the best she could with a hard knock life, and become the most powerful woman in the French court. The queens and princesses of Europe were neither silent, suffering beings nor the sexually liberated feminists of today, and it is within this middle ground between the individual and her society that each woman’s history can be fleshed out to provide a multidimensional understanding of women’s history.

Verdict: Don’t let Joan Scott catch you reading this. Sex with the Queen is an enjoyable narrative of royal trivia paired best with a glass of wine. Drink whenever Herman writes “sexually frustrated” and “stud”— the paramedics will be reading with you by page 50. For more substantive (yet still accessible and enjoyable) accounts of royal women, try Lady Antonia Fraser (Marie Antoinette, Love and Louis XIV), Robert K. Massie (Catherine the Great) and Stacy Schiff (Cleopatra: a Life).

Works Cited

Fraser, A. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. Anchor Books, 2001.

Herman, E. Sex with the Queen. HarperCollins, 2009.

Madariaga, Isabel de. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great [in English].  New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.


One response to “Sex with the Queen, Reviewed by Benjamin Wong”

  1. Praniet Chopra says:

    I really enjoyed reading your review of Sex with the Queen! The witty humour, popular references, and personal connections made the critique very personalized and relatable. As for the text itself, I completely agree that, as seen with innumerable popular histories, sensationalism seems to be the way to go because it is perceived as more attractive to readers. However, in this pursuit of depicting history through the lens of a gossip column journalist, authors tend often to exaggerate and sometimes (read: often) misrepresent historical occurrences, relaying to their audience a deformed conception of the topic they are describing. It also presents the problem of audience-tailoring, wherein the author might want to portray a phenomenon, “free, independent, and successful women” in this case, but only focus on the more controversial or gossip-worthy aspects, such as their love lives, etc. for the sake of the intended ‘popular’ audience. At the end, I appreciated your recommendations and second that of Schiff’s Cleopatra- it was a truly great read! And finally, “50 Shades of Neigh”? Touché.

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