The best books about five of the most fascinating women of sixteenth and eighteenth century Europe

Kevin O'Connell Author Of Bittersweet Tapestry: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe
By Kevin O'Connell

The Books I Picked & Why

Mary Queen of Scots

By Antonia Fraser

Book cover of Mary Queen of Scots

Why this book?

I am truly excited to recommend this stunning biography of Mary Stuart – one of my very favourite historical figures – whose incredible story is vividly brought to life by Dame Antonia Fraser, one of my very favourite authors,  such that the reader will experience each dramatic step of Mary’s path to immortality.

I love the complexity of the tale – and of Mary herself. It’s difficult to remember that this is a true story: Mary was literally born Queen of Scotland, mere days after her father’s death. Having spent most of her early life in France, becoming Queen of France at fifteen, she was widowed shortly thereafter, at which point, Mary returned to Scotland as Queen; despite a promising beginning, the passionate, brave but impetuous Mary would have an extraordinary – but troubled – life and reign. 

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The Life of Elizabeth I

By Alison Weir

Book cover of The Life of Elizabeth I

Why this book?

It’s wonderful to have the opportunity to recommend this particular work of Alison Weir. A brilliant historian, she – by means of both traditional, meticulously-researched biographies, as well as in her historical fiction offerings –  chronicles many aspects, and a number of personages of Tudor England in all of its – and their – colourfully untidy turbulence. 

Her account of Elizabeth I’s life is amongst her best. I especially appreciate the skillful way in which Weir continuously “introduces” the reader to Elizabeth, as the compelling figure she is – fascinatingly intricate, brilliant, and annoyingly contradictory. Just when one seems to understand her – Weir drops yet another paradox – as the reader learns that this supposedly staunchly Protestant daughter of Henry VIII maintained most aspects of orthodox Roman Catholic practices – including a crucifix – in her private chapel royal.

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Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie

Book cover of Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

Why this book?

I was once casually asked, “Who is Sophie Frederikke Auguste, Prinzessin von Anhalt-Zerbst?" Curious, shortly thereafter I discovered her identity in Robert Massie’s extraordinary biography of her whom history remembers as Catherine the Great, the last Empress Regnant of Russia. Daughter of an obscure German prince, through the tireless efforts of her mother Sophie, arrived in Russia in her early teens with a prospect of marriage to the then heir to the throne.

I find Massie a brilliant chronicler; he fascinates me – almost as much as does Catherine herself. He effortlessly writes non-fiction as were he a novelist, telling a lush, colourful – and frequently violent – story of an extraordinary, near-singular woman. Catherine is a perfect subject for him – dazzling, intricate, contradictory, and ferocious in her own way.

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Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France

By Evelyne Lever

Book cover of Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France

Why this book?

I am perhaps more familiar with – and fonder of – Marie Antoinette than I am of any other historical personage. Emersed in French history since an early age, I have had a near-lifetime fascination for this complicated woman – who never said, “Let them eat cake!” 

Having researched Antoinette exhaustively (most recently, in connection with her periodic appearances in my own books), since first reading Evelyn Lever’s masterful, beautifully-written work some twenty years ago, I have found myself frequently returning to it. I am drawn to it for its depth and detail, as well as her balanced treatment of an, in many ways, controversial figure. I recommend it as it is a perfect introduction to the life of a captivating woman, as well as presenting a highly satisfying experience for any lover of fine biography. 

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Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour Du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era

By Caroline Moorehead

Book cover of Dancing to the Precipice: The Life of Lucie de la Tour Du Pin, Eyewitness to an Era

Why this book?

Having read numerous books about the French Revolution, amongst my favourites is this fascinating biography of Lucie Dillon – who became Lucie du la Tour du Pin – by Caroline Morehead. I unhesitatingly recommend it, certain that, from Morehead’s striking presentation, most readers will experience a keen sense of what it was like to live during the twilight of the Ancien Régime, and thence on, into and through the nightmare that followed. As an Irish-French aristocrat, whose father commanded the regiment of the Irish Brigade of France that bore the family’s name, whilst her mother was a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette, Lucie was in a singular position to observe and chronicle the tragic upheaval. 

Relying in part on Lucie’s own published memoir, as well as numerous primary sources, including family papers, which her meticulous research uncovered, Morehead tells a powerful story of loss and survival. 

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