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Queens And Empresses In Historical Novels, by Stephanie Cowell

There are powerful queens and empresses (Elizabeth I, Cleopatra, Catherine de Medici, Isabelle of Castile, Eleanor of Aquitaine) and those who were victims of kings and ministers (Mad Joana, Caroline, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard). They often have a great deal of money, fantastic dresses and jewels, and the adoration of the multitudes.

Imagine never having to buckle your own shoe or sandal, sixteen attendants lounging around (and never a moment’s privacy) and 5000 dresses in the wardrobe (Good Queen Bess!). It is a great life except for having your best friend conspire against your life or being divorced for barrenness or having your head cut off. It is an adventurous life to read about after a day of laundry, children or the demands of an office… but there was certainly no job security.

I met Sarah Johnson, the author of Historical Fiction II: A Guide to the Genre and compiler of the blog Reading the Past at the semi-annual Historical Novel Society US conference. She told me, “It’s safe to say that the fascination for such novels has been ongoing for some time. Dumas was writing novels about Marguerite de Valois and Marie Antoinette in the 1840s and 50s, for instance, and he wasn’t the first. The majority of novels about queens take place in eras (12th through 18th centuries) when women had little say in the major decisions affecting their lives, but most queens, whether they were rulers themselves or consorts, had a wide sphere of influence. Plus these women were served the finest cuisine, wore the most expensive gowns, had the most talented artists and musicians around them… and readers love descriptions of court life. (This is assuming the queens didn’t end up in the Tower or its international equivalent!)”

Sandra Gulland, author of a magical trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte answered, “I think we simply are hungry for stories of women in a position of power, because it’s so rare.”

Novelist CW (Christopher) Gortner told me, “We’re fascinated both by the queens’ celebrity appeal as well as their fragility. Their lives, while outwardly glamorous, were full of trials and tribulations, tragedies and triumphs: we know that they struggled to survive. Their fragility and courage exert a powerful effect on our imaginations.” Christopher is the author of several novels about queens, including The Queen’s Vow, which follows young Isabella of Castile in her dramatic rise to power.

But can anything else be said about Anne Boleyn?

“I’ll say yes,” replied Sarah Johnson, “because I know we haven’t seen the last of Anne in historical fiction! Every author brings a new angle on her life to the table, or at least tries to.” Christopher Gortner added, “Anne Boleyn went for the crown and she got it. And it destroyed her. But she did it anyway. She’s tough to beat, in terms of sheer drama and pathos. “

Christy English, author of two novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine (To Be Queen and The Queen’s Pawn) told me, “The queens of the past show us what is possible in an imperfect world. Women like Eleanor of Aquitaine defy the odds in their lifetimes, opening doors that should remain closed, fighting battles that seemingly cannot be won, and yet, they win them. This is why queens are so inspiring to me.”

Eva Stachniak tackled the most fascinating Empress of all in her novel The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great. She said, “Even Catherine the Great had to face some limitations. An unwanted pregnancy stopped her from assuming power at once. She could not command troops in battle.”



Stephanie Cowell’s author website:

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United States (and beyond)


United Kingdom (and beyond)


Australia (and beyond)

Marrying MozartClaude & Camille: A Novel of Monet     The Winter Palace (a Novel of the Young Catherine the Great)The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteA Secret Alchemy

Writing Historical Novels


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