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Henrietta Maria: Charles I's Indomitable Queen

By Alison Plowden
Review by: Jen Lofquist

07/06

I’m the kind of girl that reads the last sentence in any book to find out how it ends. I don’t enjoy tension—of any kind. So I tend to read a lot of history—you know how it ends. Henrietta Maria is like that. It ends poorly. Her husband’s head gets chopped off in the only judicial murder of a reigning monarch in English history, presaging the French revolution by 130 years—those trendsetters!

This perhaps is the challenge of non-fiction writing. You can’t create characters, you can’t make them say stuff, and you can’t make things have a happy ending. Yet, you can make it interesting—which is the hardest “can” of all. You have to build the story and intrigue the reader, while never losing sight of the truth and never wandering from it. It’s a narrow, unforgiving art.

Women historians are notoriously few and far between, and even then, they face a tough road. Antonia Fraser was suspected of not doing her own research. Barbara Tuchman is rather disrespected in academic circles. Try to name more, and you start grasping. Yet males come quickly: Roy Strong, Mark Kurlansky, and my personal favorite Garrett Mattingly.

At the same time, well-documented women subjects of histories are fewer and farther between. It is the rare woman that rises above the wife in pre-modern history. She’s usually royal and she’s usually unusual—Elizabeth I, Mary Tudor, Catherine de Medici.

Henrietta Maria was the daughter of Henry IV of France, wife of Charles I, and mother of Charles II. She was a Catholic in a Protestant country. She was a devoted wife and an over-bearing mother. Everything is there for a book that thrills the senses—war, beheadings, Charles II sleeping his way through England, and a daughter married to a transvestite French prince. Hollywood couldn’t have made this stuff up.

So why was this book so boring?

I skimmed, I skipped, I jumped. Thought maybe after Cromwell comes on the scene that the fun would start. Nope. How about after the king gets decapitated? Nope. Charles II and his panty-raids? Nope. At 304 pages, I really would have liked something more.

But on and on it drones. Until you reach the end. And then you wonder—why did I do this to myself? Because I really wanted to know about her, but even after reading it, I don’t know her at all. Maybe it was in the pages I flipped through hoping it would get better.

A biography is a chance to bring people back to life. Antonia Fraser’s masterpiece of Mary, Queen of Scots, for example, let me know this woman. Perhaps, Henrietta is simply not documented enough to give a clear vision of this woman, but I doubt that’s the case—enough letters were quoted to lead me to believe that there are warehouses full of this stuff.

Things that were historically thrilling (the conversion of her third son and his death) were covered in one page. Things that could have been mentioned in passing (Henrietta’s obsession with marrying her son Charles to La Grande Mademoiselle of France, Louis XIV’s sister) was covered until I wanted to scream. I think Ms. Plowden let the amount of material she had determine the priority of the book, rather than the significance.

In the end, Henrietta is an interesting woman, still waiting to be the subject of an interesting book.

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