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

Who am I?

Whilst I was born in America, growing up in an old Irish family with a long history and a powerful sense of its past, I learnt a great deal of Irish, British, and European (especially French) history from an early age – proving valuable in both of my careers – one, as an international business lawyer, the other as a full-time writer of historical fiction. As a result of a “very Irish” numinous connection with the Gaelic poet, Eileen O’Connell, I frequently find myself drawn to books about strong, courageous, and memorable women – particularly those who lived in interesting times, such as the tumultuous days of Sixteenth and Eighteenth-Century Europe.  

I wrote...

Bittersweet Tapestry: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe

By Kevin O'Connell,

Book cover of Bittersweet Tapestry: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe

What is my book about?

As Bittersweet Tapestry, the third volume of Kevin O’Connell’s continuing Derrynane Saga opens, Eileen O’Connell and her husband, Arthur O’Leary, an officer of the Hungarian Hussars, have departed Vienna – where she served for almost a decade as governess to Maria Theresa’s youngest daughter, now Marie Antoinette, Dauphine of France. 

Their life in Ascendancy-ruled Ireland is in stark contrast to what they left behind, as well as to that of Eileen’s brothers, officers in the Irish Brigade of France, her youngest one, Hugh, now wed to the French Princess Royal. The Irish story evolves into a dark, violent, and bloody tale...ultimately involving an epic tragedy – which results in what has been called, “The greatest poem written in (Ireland and Britain) in the whole Eighteenth Century.”

The books I picked & why

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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. 

Mary Queen of Scots

By Antonia Fraser,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Mary Queen of Scots as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“A book that will leave few readers unmoved.”–San Francisco Chronicle

She was the quintessential queen: statuesque, regal, dazzlingly beautiful. Her royal birth gave her claim to the thrones of two nations; her marriage to the young French dauphin promised to place a third glorious crown on her noble head.

Instead, Mary Stuart became the victim of her own impulsive heart, scandalizing her world with a foolish passion that would lead to abduction, rape and even murder. Betrayed by those she most trusted, she would be lured into a deadly game of power, only to lose to her envious and unforgiving…


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.

The Life of Elizabeth I

By Alison Weir,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Life of Elizabeth I as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Elizabeth the Queen begins as the young Elizabeth ascends the throne in the wake of her sister Mary's disastrous reign - both a woman and a queen, Elizabeth's story is an extraordinary phenomenon in a patriarchal age.

From Elizabeth's intriguing, long-standing affair with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to her dealings - sometimes comical, sometimes poignant - with her many suitors, her rivalry with Mary, Queen of Scots, and her bizarre relationship with the Earl of Essex, thirty years her junior, here, in rich, vivid and colourful detail, Alison Weir helps us comes as close as we shall ever get…


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.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman

By Robert K. Massie,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Catherine the Great as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The fascinating true story behind HBO's Catherine the Great starring Dame Helen Mirren as Catherine the Great.

Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into empress of Russia by sheer determination. For thirty-four years, the government, foreign policy, cultural development and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution.

Robert K. Massie brings an eternally fascinating woman together with her family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers and enemies - vividly and triumphantly to life.

History offers…


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. 

Marie Antoinette: The Last Queen of France

By Evelyne Lever,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Marie Antoinette as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Married for political reasons at the age of 14, Marie Antoinette was naive, impetuous, and ill-equipped for the role in which history cast her. From her birth in Vienna in 1755 through her turbulent, unhappy marriage, the bloody turmoil of the French Revolution, her trial for high treason during which she was accused of incest, and her final beheading, Marie Antoinette's life was the tragic tale of disastrous circumstances colliding.

Drawing upon her diaries, letters, court records, and memoirs, Evelyne Lever paints a vivid portrait of Marie Antoinette, her inner circle, and the lavish court life at Versailles. What emerges…


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. 

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

By Caroline Moorehead,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dancing to the Precipice as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Lucie de la Tour du Pin was the Pepys of her generation. She witnessed, participated in, and wrote diaries detailing one of the most tumultuous periods of history. From life in the Court of Versailles, through the French Revolution to Napoleon's rule, Lucie survived extraordinary times with great spirit. She recorded people, politics and intrigue, alongside the intriguing minutia of everyday life: food, work, illness, children, manners and clothes.

Caroline Moorehead's richly novelistic biography sets Lucy and her dairies in their wider context, illuminating a remarkable period of history.

Dancing to the Precipice was shortlisted for the Costa Biography Award…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in France, empresses, and nobility?

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