Dissertation Books

Dissertation Books – She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled Before Elizabeth, Helen Castor Read 11/9/15

For some reason when I think of the first Queen of England I always think of Elizabeth I, even though her sister Mary ruled for 5 years before her. Perhaps this is a testament to the impression that Elizabeth I had on British history. Perhaps it is just because she has become almost a myth. I don’t know. What I do know is that I hadn’t heard of any of the other women that make up Helen Castor’s book She-Wolves.

The book explores the curious position that England found itself in when in 1553 all nine candidates to succeed Edward VI were female. Through English history the laws of succession were blurry and bloodstained but there had always been men to fight for the throne. Now for the first time there was no option but for a women to rule. This was a society that saw women as inferior. How could a women rule over her people if she was inferior to half of them? Castor explores how this dilemma had been raging long before the start of the Tudor dynasty.

She-Wolves follows the stories of 4 women who paved the way for Lady Jane Grey, Bloody Mary and Elizabeth I. Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou each had to battle against the disadvantage of their sex and fight for their position in the world. Most have suffered the prejudices of their time and were resigned to history as ‘she-wolves’ ungodly creatures that went against the natural order (thank you Shakespeare).

Castor does a great job of bringing such far off history to life. She acknowledges that the sources she is using are often biased, often exclude the women involved entirely and she has to piece together the story from where they are conspicuous in their absence. This book is a hideous reminder of the fact our society is built on over a thousand years of women not being recorded in their own stories. Castor doesn’t go into the sexism too deeply, frankly she doesn’t need to it speaks for itself. What she does do is paint an honest picture of the women warts and all. They aren’t portrayed as heavenly martyrs fighting against the injustice of their world. They make mistakes, are headstrong and as a result are easier to empathise with.On the surface I have nothing in common with a 12th century queen but Castor tells the story in such a way that I can understand the motivations behind these women’s actions.

I love the structure of this book plus the frequent family trees. By book ending the stories of the earlier queens with that of the Tudor succession it was easier to see the precedent that Mary and Elizabeth had to fight against. In relation to the 16th century queens, it made me realise the impact the Renaissance had in allowing a women to rule of her own accord. Henry VIII was paranoid that his lack of a male heir would result in civil war but I don’t think he counted on the change of attitude that came with humanist thinking. Through education Mary and Elizabeth were able to prove their worth, if they couldn’t be men, they could be the best of women. Through contrast with the events of the past Castor highlights what an incredible achievement it was that England ever had a Queen Regnant.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: anyone interest in feminist history.    

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The Big Read

Books from Childhood – No. 74 Matilda, Roald Dahl

I finally get to talk about a different author and it couldn’t be a better one.

I read this book at a much older age than you are supposed to, although I can’t remember what age that was. I just remember that compared to the other Dahl books on my shelf Matilda appeared enormously thick, all 240 page of it. As a result it took me a long time to get around to reading it but boy was it worth it.

If you don’t know the story Matilda is a girl of 5 years old who has extraordinary intellectual gifts but is neglected by her cruel ignorant parents. She also has to endure her terrifying bully of a Headmistress Ms. Trunchball but Matilda finds away to teach them all a lesson and look out for her caring class teacher Miss Honey. Turns out she has magic powers.

Matilda is every bookish little girl’s dream. Matilda is crazy clever but instead of being bullied as a nerd she is super popular because of her unfailing kindness; I suppose 5 year olds are much less corrupted by social expectations so being clever can be cool. The stupid mean grown ups get taught  a lesson (what child doesn’t want that) and there is a happy ending.

To children this book is hilarious. Dahl is a master of comedy and I feel that this is his funniest work. His humour is both slapstick and satirical ridiculing the way Matilda’s family vapidly worship their TV. The characters of Mr and Mrs Wormwood are just imbeciles and Dahl makes you hate them just the right amount so that you will revel in their downfall but don’t want any serious harm to come to them. Ms. Trunchball on the other hand I would rank amongst the best fictional villains of all time that’s how evil she is. She could’ve been painfully torn limb from limb by a pack of wolves and I would’ve rejoiced but I get why the story didn’t go that way, just in case it gave children some rather disturbing ideas.

There is of course the hilarious Danny De Vito film to which comparison is inevitable. In the book Matilda uses her magic powers much less than in the film and as cool as seeing all her belongings spin round her room is, in the book I like that what Matilda relies upon most is her intellect. It allows for the idea that you don’t need magic powers to over come the difficulties in your life, you just have to be smart about it.

But my favourite adaptation of Matilda is the musical. Not only are the songs brilliant but it captures the atmosphere of the book such much more than the film. It is a celebration of childhood and imagination and it is an utter joy to watch. Go see it.

Rating: 4/5

Would recommend to: all children, everywhere, and their parents too.

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