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The best books on Strong Women in Bad Marriages

recommended by Nancy Goldstone

The author of The Maid and the Queen takes us on an enjoyable ride through European history, looking at well-connected women who outwitted their husbands or asserted their independence.

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How did you come up with the theme of “strong women in bad marriages” for our conversation?

I was looking over the books I enjoy and can recommend highly, and this was undeniably one of the underlying themes that seemed to tie them all together. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a strong woman is likely to have more difficulty in marriage. At least, that definitely applied to a number of royal wives! What is interesting is that sometimes they triumph over their husbands, and sometimes their husbands triumph over them.

For our first example of just such a strong woman, let’s go back to the Middle Ages to someone who was considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe and one of the great heroines of the middle ages – Eleanor of Aquitaine.

This is one of Alison Weir’s best books. I think she has managed to teach history to more people than Oxford University, because her books are so well written and easy to follow. She is especially good at taking time to explain the world that she writes about, so the reader gets a real feel for what it was like to live in the middle ages. Her books emphasise the colour and pageantry of that era – what everyone wore, what their jewels were like. I love that kind of book.

What was her heroine, Eleanor, like as a person?

Eleanor lived in the 12th century and was a great heiress. She owned Aquitaine, a large duchy in southwest France. She was originally married to the French king, Louis VII. He was two years older than she was, but hers was the stronger personality and he was no match for her. She ran him around.

What did she do?

He was very pious and he was in love with her. She was beautiful and very sexually active, and he was apparently less so. They had a great deal of trouble having a child.

When you say she was sexually active, does that mean she had lots of lovers on the side?

I think she tried to like Louis at first, but soon gave up and started taking lovers. She was never able to conceive a son with him. Someone gave her the idea that this was because they were too closely related, and hadn’t initially gotten a letter from the pope approving the marriage. When she decided she didn’t want Louis anymore, she asked for an annulment based on this lack of a papal dispensation. Louis agreed to her request, not realising that she had already set up her next marriage – to Henry II [the king of England]. Eleanor was 30 at the time of her second marriage, and her new husband was only 19. Henry and Eleanor seemed to have had a good marriage for about 10 years. She certainly gave him many sons.

Which was quite amazing given that she married him at 30, which in those days was ancient.

What is amazing about Eleanor is that she lived to 82. Now that was ancient for the middle ages. She ended up long outliving Henry. Their marriage broke down when she was in her forties and he in his thirties. That’s when he began openly to prefer other women and take lovers. But Eleanor gave as good as she got – before she married Henry, she had an affair with his father.

It sounds like something straight out of a gossip magazine.

That’s why I love these women. But the problem for Eleanor was that when her marriage went sour, Henry actually put her under house arrest – a situation that lasted for 10 years before she was released. Her sons were very loyal to her, so in the end they got her out.

Your next book tackles the age-old problem of marriage not being big enough for three people. This time Catherine de’ Medici, queen consort of France in the 16th century, is the wronged woman.

This book made me think of Princess Diana. But in terms of marriage, Catherine de’ Medici had it much worse. At least Princess Diana was young and beautiful, although of course it is heartbreaking that she died. Catherine de’ Medici was not attractive. She married Henri II, who eventually became the king of France. But Henri was only a second son when he got married, and was never meant to inherit the throne.

Presumably theirs was a business marriage.

Exactly. It was to promote his father’s hopeless campaign in Italy. Catherine came from a very rich merchant family but was essentially of lower birth. The problem was that her cousin – who was the Pope, and who had arranged the marriage – died soon after she arrived in France. His successor in Rome repudiated the alliance, and so Catherine lost almost all of the money and property associated with her dowry. She came to the marriage with nothing.

In what way did she manage to be strong in spite of all this?

She hung in there. The French wanted to annul the marriage. Catherine’s husband, Henri, didn’t love her. He wanted another woman, Diane de Poitiers, who was much older than him. Diane was a great beauty, but she really worked at it! She would get up every morning at dawn and take a cold bath. Then she got on her horse for hours, and afterwards only had a light lunch.

How did Catherine cope with this?

Catherine was unable to provide an heir at first, but then the three of them worked out an arrangement because Diane de Poitiers didn’t want Henri to annul his marriage to Catherine. She was afraid he might end up marrying someone younger and more beautiful, and not want Diane as a lover anymore. So Diane helped Catherine to get pregnant. She would warm Henri up in her bed and then send him on to Catherine! This innovative method appeared to work, as Catherine ended up conceiving a number of sons.

I must say, I didn’t realise that Her Royal Highness Princess Michael of Kent was an author. Do you think she does this amazing story justice?

Many people have written about Catherine and Diane. I chose this book over the others because the gossip is so delicious! But a reader should bear in mind that it is terribly one-sided towards Diane.

There is a mystery surrounding the author of your next book, The Heptameron. Many believe that it was written by Marguerite of Navarre in the 16th century.

I think it was definitely written by her. She wrote other books and was a very intelligent woman.

For those who don’t know, can you tell us a bit about who she was?

Marguerite was the sister of François I, King of France. She was originally married to Charles IV of Alençon, who died in 1525. After she was widowed, Marguerite was strongly encouraged by her brother to marry a younger man for political purposes. This second marriage was not happy. Marguerite’s new husband, Henry II of Navarre, didn’t really want her. She was an intellectual who was interested in humanism, the Reformation and the Renaissance. He was much less educated, in addition to which he was also coarse and, frankly, brutish.

How did she cope with the marriage?

She just had to endure it. Even though her husband was violent, divorce was not an option for a French princess in those days. One of the ways Marguerite fought back was to write this book. She was inspired by a new French translation of The Decameron, written by an Italian, Giovanni Boccaccio, in the 14th century. The Decameron used the literary device of 10 people telling 10 stories each, so it contained a hundred short stories, almost all of them about love. Everyone at the French court read and discussed the new translation – it was like a 16th-century book group. After reading it, Marguerite also decided to write a book of 72 short stories, but with one big difference – the stories in her book were supposed to have actually happened. She only included anecdotes that she knew to be true, or that came from a source which she trusted.

What kinds of story was she telling?

They are about love and the battle of the sexes. The first two stories are very harsh. Marguerite is clearly getting her revenge on her husband, and men in general. The rest of the anecdotes are much funnier and cleverer. This is a good choice if you want to learn about the period, because these are the voices of real people. Think of it as being a bit like Desperate Renaissance Housewives!

Next up is Murder of a Medici Princess, which focuses on the tragic death of Isabella de’ Medici who lived in Renaissance Italy.

This book is about a very strong woman – Isabella, the daughter of Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, the powerful ruler of 15th century Florence. Isabella was Cosimo’s favourite daughter, but even so she was obliged to marry Paolo Giordano I Orsini, a member of the lesser nobility, for political purposes. The Medici family was very wealthy, and Isabella was used to a luxurious life surrounded by beauty, art and literature. Her husband, on the other hand, owned one shabby castle in the middle of nowhere. She went there for one season, then for the rest of her life she lived in Florence away from him.

So she couldn’t handle life out in the sticks?

She really did not like it, or him. She had her way for a very long time, and there was nothing he could do about it because she was her father’s favourite daughter. Cosimo protected her.  He wanted her to stay home in Florence to run his court. All the parties were much better when she was around to organise them.

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How did it all end up in murder?

Isabella’s father died and she fell afoul of her brother’s mistress. Also, Isabella represented a significant political threat. Catherine de’ Medici, who was queen of France by this time, believed that she had a stronger claim to Florence than Isabella’s brother. If Isabella fled to Paris and allied with Catherine, together they might have overthrown Isabella’s brother and his mistress. To prevent that from happening, her brother had her strangled.

Finally you have chosen Wedlock, subtitled “The True Story of the Disastrous Marriage and Remarkable Divorce of Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore”.

Mary Eleanor Bowes, an ancestor of Elizabeth II, lived in the 18th century. She was an exceedingly wealthy woman. Her father made a fortune in coal, and as his only child she inherited everything when he died. This made her a very attractive candidate for marriage. Her first husband, whom she married when she was only 18, was the Earl of Strathmore. That’s how she became a countess – he got the money and she got the title. Interestingly, Mary did not exhibit a particularly strong character when she was younger. She had been spoiled by her parents and was only interested in parties and dresses. She was unhappy with her first marriage because her husband was older, cold and distant. She was 27 when he died.

So she went for love in her next marriage, with disastrous results.

Yes – she got duped. Mary fell prey to a con man who feigned being wounded in a duel in her honour so that he could beg her to marry him on his “death bed”. Of course he recovered as soon as she said yes, and turned out to be possibly the worst husband in history! He took her money, and physically and mentally abused her. What is so good about this book is that, in addition to being very well written, it chronicles Mary’s transformation from victim to strong, independent woman. At the beginning you don’t feel much sympathy for her, but by the end you are rooting for her all the way. We all owe her a debt – it was she who actually made divorce possible. Because she was both titled and wealthy, she managed to take her case to the courts.

Tell us about your new book, The Maid and the Queen, about the extraordinary queen who championed Joan of Arc – she sounds like one of history’s strong women.

My new book is about Yolande of Aragon, 15th century queen of Sicily, and her (until now) overlooked influence on the story of Joan of Arc. Yolande was a brilliant strategist and diplomat who happened to be the mother in law of the dauphin [eldest son of the king of France]. She also seems to be the exception that proves the rule – Yolande was a very strong woman whose marriage was actually pretty good.

I am a great admirer of Joan of Arc, who was one of the most courageous women in history, but like everyone else I was perplexed by her mysterious story. How did Joan, an ignorant peasant girl, get in to see the dauphin? What secret sign did she show him that convinced him to follow her advice? How did a 17 year old girl manage to lift the siege of Orléans in a single week? All of these questions are answered in my book. Although other people have hypothesised that the queen of Sicily was responsible for the introduction of Joan of Arc to the court of the dauphin – the first person to do so was Jehanne d’Orliac, a French historian, in 1933 – until now no one has ever proved it. Mine is the first biography of Yolande in English, and the first to demonstrate not only how she brought Joan into the political situation but also why she did it, and more importantly what inspired her to do so.

What strikes me about your theme of strong women and terrible marriages is just how modern their predicaments sound.

Yes. I think that each of the women in the books I have chosen was very courageous in her own way – and it is interesting to see how modern they were in their approach to life. So many of the issues that women grapple with today, it would seem, have not changed over the centuries.

March 29, 2012

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Nancy Goldstone

Nancy Goldstone

Nancy Goldstone is a historian and author. She is author of Four Queens, The Lady Queen, about Joanna I, and The Maid and the Queen about the relationship between Joan of Arc and Yolande of Aragon and Rival Queens, about the relationship between Catherine de' Medici and her daughter, Marguerite de Valois. She lives in Westport, Connecticut.

Nancy Goldstone

Nancy Goldstone

Nancy Goldstone is a historian and author. She is author of Four Queens, The Lady Queen, about Joanna I, and The Maid and the Queen about the relationship between Joan of Arc and Yolande of Aragon and Rival Queens, about the relationship between Catherine de' Medici and her daughter, Marguerite de Valois. She lives in Westport, Connecticut.