The best biographies of women who made a difference in modern European history

The Books I Picked & Why

Marie Antoinette

By Stefan Zweig, Cedar Paul, Eden Paul

Marie Antoinette

Why this book?

A concise, compelling, and beautifully told story by one of pre-World War II Europe’s finest writers.  Largely based on correspondence between Marie-Antoinette and her mother, Austrian Empress Maria-Theresa, then with the love of her life, Swedish diplomat Count Axel von Fersen, Zweig’s account clarifies the queen’s character development with grace and understanding, and paints a well-rounded, nuanced picture of Marie-Antoinette from her personal pleasures as a mother and lover, to her suffering and courage during the Revolution.  


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Catherine the Great: A Short History

By Isabel de Madariaga

Catherine the Great: A Short History

Why this book?

British historian Madariaga, an expert in the field of eighteenth-century Russia, gives the reader a balanced, up-to-date, and insightful, multi-faceted yet concise, description of the vast empire that constituted Catherine’s Russia.  The author describes how a minor German princess seized the Romanov throne, how she contrived to become an autocrat ruling over all the Russias, and, how during her thirty-four-year reign, Catherine guided her country into becoming a major player in international power politics.


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Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

By Lynne Olson

Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler

Why this book?

Fast-paced and well-researched, this riveting book tells one of the greatest, albeit little-known, true stories of the French Resistance. The only woman to lead a major Resistance network (the largest and most important) against Hitler, Fourcade blended patriotism, boldness, persistence, and bravery – including two escapes from Gestapo jails – into her personal life as a wife, mother, and lover.  When she died, Fourcade became the first female to be given a funeral at Les Invalides, the grand historic building complex dedicated to French military glory. 


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Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands

By Charles Moore

Margaret Thatcher: The Authorized Biography: From Grantham to the Falklands

Why this book?

Impressively researched, elegantly written, and sprinkled with dry humor, Moore’s account is an even-handed portrait of a remarkable woman who turned her sex and her humble background from handicaps into assets, and used her outstanding political skills to become a driving force in twentieth-century British history.  The author addresses his polarizing subject’s inconsistencies, and her bizarre yet conventional personality, to present a multidimensional picture of Britain’s first female prime minister.


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A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

By Frances Harris

A Passion for Government: The Life of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough

Why this book?

Beautiful, intelligent, ambitious, and self-confident, headstrong Sarah sought to parlay her friendship with Princess Anne into political power when Anne became queen.  But Anne disagreed with Sarah’s strident Whiggism, and resented her attempts at manipulation.  Sarah’s persistence in pestering Anne about politics, her arrogance, and her inability to admit either another opinion than her own, or take responsibility for her mistakes, combined with her uncontrollable temper to kill the friendship and with it, Sarah’s political ambitions. 


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