Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

Or maybe the sons…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The Winter Queen of the title is Elizabeth, daughter of James VI of Scotland, later James I of England, and herself briefly Queen of Bohemia, through her marriage to Frederick, also known as the Palatinate. Elizabeth and Frederick produced an alarming number of children, the majority of whom lived into adulthood, and as their sons and daughters grew up and contracted marriages or made alliances, they spread their influence throughout the ruling families of 17th century Europe, thus being involved in all the major events (aka wars) of that turbulent period. The book is ostensibly about the four daughters who survived their childhood years – Elizabeth, Louise Hollandine, Henrietta Maria, and Sophia.

Did you notice that sneaky word “ostensibly”? In fact, the book is much more about the kings and sons than it is about queens and daughters. (Feminists may wish to look away for the next couple of sentences.) This is completely understandable since, at that period as in so much of history, women generally played a very small role in events, limited as often as not to being pawns in the diplomatic marriage market. There’s no doubt Elizabeth’s sons led much more interesting lives than her daughters, especially since only two of the girls married, and one of those died almost immediately afterwards. (You can come back now.) So I’m not complaining about the fact that Goldstone spent far more time with the men than the women – I’m merely pointing out that the title is a little misleading and the book may therefore set up false expectations in the prospective reader.

Goldstone writes breezily, with a great deal of affection towards her subjects, and with a lot of humour. The history can sometimes feel a little superficial – she is trying to cover a lengthy and complicated period in a relatively compact book – but it’s fun, and the characterisation is great. I use the word ‘characterisation’ intentionally, because she tells her story almost as if she were writing a novel – a comedy of manners, perhaps, with the odd episode of tragedy thrown in to leaven it. I feel that all sounds a little dismissive, and I don’t mean it to be. There’s lots of history in here, clearly excellently researched, and the non-academic style makes it approachable and easily digestible. The book is a pleasure to read, which is not something that can always be said about history books!

The first few chapters give a biography of Elizabeth (the Winter Queen) and then in the latter two-thirds or so of the book, Goldstone moves on to the daughters, rotating through them, giving them each a chapter in turn. So in total each daughter merits around four chapters. You can tell from this that we largely get a broad overview of their lives rather than the detailed minutiae that tends to appear in a single subject biography. Given the fact that in reality none of the women lived particularly exciting or historically significant lives, I felt this was plenty.

Triumph of the Winter Queen by Gerrit van Honthorst
The Queen surrounded by her many, many children in various allegorical poses.

But in fact, most of the chapters start with one of the daughters and then promptly swing away to her brother, husband, suitor or male friend. We follow a couple of the sons to England where they were involved in the events leading up to and following the execution of Charles I. Through Elizabeth, we spend some time in the company of her friend and teacher Descartes. Henrietta Maria married but then died too young to have much of a story to leave, poor thing. Through Louise, a skilled painter in her own right, we learn something about the artistic movements of the time. And through Sophia, the one who married and lived, we are taken into the politics of succession – the various manoeuvrings of those in power to gain territory through war, alliance and inheritance, again told mostly through the men’s stories.

Along the way, Goldstone brings the characters, male and female, to life by including their own words from correspondence and journals and by telling anecdotes about them. This gives a great and, I assume, accurate feel for their different personalities, and Goldstone delves back into their childhoods to show how their early experiences helped to mould them into the women (or men) they became. On the whole, the daughters seemed to be a pragmatic bunch. The various religious shenanigans in Europe meant that there was a limited pool of suitable matches for impoverished Protestant princesses, so those who didn’t marry took religious orders – one converting to Catholicism to do so. Sophia was the one who interested me most, not only because her life as a daughter, wife and mother of powerful men meant that she was more involved in events, but because she loved to write and had a witty, acerbic style that gave a real feeling for her and for the people she somewhat wickedly observed.

Nancy Goldstone

Overall, I enjoyed this book. That particular period of history is complicated by all the religious squabbling and ever-shifting allegiances so my eyes glazed over from time to time, but Goldstone does an excellent job of simplifying it and helping the reader through the maze. I thoroughly enjoy her writing style and would mention that her footnotes are not to be glossed over – often the best humour in the book is hidden in them. The book wasn’t quite what I was expecting, and the daughters weren’t as interesting as I’d hoped, on the whole, but there was plenty to keep me engaged in the stories of the sons, fathers and husbands. Next time though, I’d hope Goldstone could find women who were more interesting in their own right (as she did with Catherine de’ Medici and Marguerite de Valois in her previous book The Rival Queens) or not set up false expectations in her title. Not every book has to have a feminist angle, especially when there isn’t one, and The Children of the Winter Queen would have worked just as well, I feel. Recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Little, Brown Book Group.

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26 thoughts on “Daughters of the Winter Queen by Nancy Goldstone

    • This one is actually factual, but she writes as engagingly as if it were fiction, so you may well enjoy her. I also enjoyed her previous book, The Rival Queens, where the women really were the central characters… 😀

      • Ack, I should have caught that it was nonfiction! I read so many history-type books from both genres that I sometimes forget the line between the two! I should have just said I love history. 😊 I am taking note of The Rival Queens for sure.

        • I love historical fiction too though I don’t seem to have been reading much of it recently – I seem to be on a constant diet of classics and vintage crime at the moment. Must change that!

  1. This does sound good, FictionFan. You make an interesting point about the way Goldstone goes about this one: telling it as though she were telling a story. I think that’s an interesting way to go about the task, and I’m glad she took that approach. I often thing that’s a much more interesting way to tell about history. And it is a fascinating era…

    • I do like her writing. People who want heavyweight history might find it a bit light, but she does her research very well and she makes the history fun, which isn’t always the case! And she tends to go for subjects who’ve not been covered by 9000 other books. Good stuff! 😀

  2. What you said about Goldstone’s coverage of the lives of women at this time makes sense. I’m glad she was not tempted to put a twenty-first century spin on the events as some authors do.

    • Me too! I hate the tendency to rewrite history to make it suit a modern political agenda. So I enjoyed the book, but felt the slightly misleading title might lead to disappointment…

    • Ha! It certainly is, and my lack of interest in all these religious shenanigans is profound! So well done to Nancy Goldstone for keeping my interest all the way through it… 😀

  3. You’ve written another excellent review, FF, but this isn’t a genre I’m enamored of so I’ll have to pass (and my bloated TBR thanks me for that!). Still, how fascinating that anybody could have that many kiddos, even if they were probably tended to by governesses and nannies!!

    • There’s no doubt reading factual history can be really time-consuming and often dull, which is why I like Goldstone – she actually makes it enjoyable! Haha – I know! I was going to say how many children she actually had, but realised I’d lost count somewhere along the line… 😉

  4. If we agree that a feminist is someone who wants equality for men and women, I don’t think pointing out that the lives of these women are shaped by the men in them, given the time period, is naturally anti-feminist. Perhaps one could argue that giving these women any attention in the page, again, considering the time period during which they lived and the fact that they were pawns/property, is a feminist act?

    • Ah, the problem is though, that although WE agree that’s what feminism is about, a huge proportion of modern feminists are perpetually angry about the slightest trivia (such as the furore over whether Meghan NEEDED a man to walk her down the aisle – maybe she just WANTED one to!) and seem to hate and want to eternally disparage all men – not a form of feminism I’m interested in. And a lot of writers pander to that, I feel, by distorting history to give women a relevance in events they generally didn’t have. Well done to Goldstone for not doing that, but it meant I felt the book was misleadingly titled. I thought the picture she gave of their lives felt pretty accurate though, and her previous book, The Rival Queens, concentrated on two women who actually played important roles in history, so I’m happy with her style of feminism – just not sure the angry feminists will be… 😀

      • I definitely got from your review that the title was misleading, and I hate when authors do that. They essentially ruin their own books. I was working on a review last night about a memoir with sex in the title, as in using abstinence as a peacemaking tactic, but in the book she says she hates being asked about that. Well, don’t put it in the title, lady!

        I think the women you’re referring to are called “womenists.” At least, that’s what I heard them termed once, and I like that. They don’t want equality, they want men GONE.

        • Ha! I know – I wondered if in this case her publishers had forced the title on her to capture the “women’s market”. Though I think she specialises in books about historical women, so maybe she didn’t realise she was mostly talking about the men…

          That’s certainly politer than the word I use – but only inside my head… 😉

          • It’s from this movie called PCU, which stands for Politically Correct University. It came out in 1994 and captured a time when college students were trying to take up important causes, but had no idea what they were talking about. I see this now myself in the wars about free speech on college campuses. For example, their was case of a professor getting in trouble because a student felt it was “triggering” for the professor to teach about the Holocaust. In the film PCU, you see kids picketing to “free Mandela!” (he was already released), the Causeheads (“They find a world-threatening issue and stick with it for about a week.”), and (I double checked the spelling) Womynists.

            • Haha – I do love political correctness and student politics! I must admit my entire generation was at a loss when they finally freed Mandela – we had to find something else to protest about, and all those great protest songs were suddenly out of date… 😉

  5. ‘an alarming amount of children’ LOL I can relate to this statement, especially right now! Yes not surprising that women play a small role in this book, even if the title suggests otherwise. You can’t re-write history (unfortunately).

    • Hahahahaha! By poor Elizabeth’s standards, you’re a mere beginner! 😉 I’m mega-impressed that you’re finding time to get around the blogosphere – SuperMom! Yes, that’s exactly it – I’d rather have accurate history, which I felt this was, than have it distorted to suit what we wish life had been like… 😀

  6. I am very interested in history although I have to confess I get somewhat confused as to the changes that happened during this period so this sounds the ideal sort of book to read – I like my history to be easily digestible and it sounds as if this author has filled this brief magnificently.

    • Ha – I have no idea who was allied to whom and why, but she did make it clear enough for me to follow while I was reading even if I then instantly forgot again! 😉 I do like her writing though – she’s very easy to read and puts in a lot of humour…

  7. This sounds interesting. I’ve read a little bit about Elizabeth before and have just recently finished reading a book about her son Rupert, but I don’t know much about the rest of the family. I would like to read this one, despite the misleading title – while it’s always nice to see historical women being given some attention, I completely agree with your comments on looking for feminist angles that aren’t really there!

    • Elizabeth herself did have an interesting life I thought – more so than her daughters. And I loved the sections about Rupert, and ended up wanting to know more about him. I hadn’t realised he was Elizabeth’s son – all these relationships make my head spin! But now that I know Elizabeth had more children than the old woman who lived in a shoe, I’ll just assume everyone is either her son or daughter till I learn otherwise… 😉 I think you’d enjoy this one, and she has a lovely easy writing style.

  8. You do make this sound tempting although I rarely read history, even if I’m interested in the subject/time period. It takes me forever and I just don’t seem to have the stamina. When you said her style was breezy I thought, “Oh, that’s a historian for me!”

    • I read loads of history as you know, but some of it is so dry and overstuffed with irrelevant detail it takes me forever to wade through. What I like about Goldstone is that her writing style is so easy and flowing, she actually is a pleasure to read, so I’d definitely recommend her as very approachable! 😀

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