Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sex With Kings by Eleanor Herman

One type of book that I'm always on the look-out for is a history book that is full of interesting stories that I can tell my students. History can be so boring in high school, with all its dates and boring political stuff (yawn), so if I can hook my students with a good story about scandal, gore, or sex, I consider that a plus.

I picked up Sex With Kings: Five Hundred Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge by Eleanor Herman. I knew from picking it up that the book would be more anecdotal than of scholarly merit. As far as meeting the aims of interesting stories, the book met the goal. But, will I buy the companion novel, Sex With the Queen? I am unsure at this point. As useful it would be in the classroom, the price point and the knowledge that I can get the information from other sources deters me.

As a person trained not only in history but to teach it, the first thing I do when I start to read a work of historical non-fiction is to read through the bibliography. I'm looking for two different types of sources: secondary sources and primary sources. The more primary sources used, the more work the author put into not only the research and the writing, but the composition of the thesis of the book. Looking up information in the index of a book and replicating it is easy; reading stained and torn letters from a century ago is a different thing altogether. In Herman's case, the bibliography is a laundry list of secondary sources, biographies of kings, queens, and mistresses. Most of the publication dates ranged in the latter half of the 20th century, though the earliest came from the early 19th century.

My other issue was the flowery and informal language of the book. At times, Herman's narration resembles a tabloid magazine. In reference to the partitioning of Poland on p. 84,
Poland was no longer a sovereign nation, having lost its territory starting in 1786 to Russia, Prussia, and Austria, in a kind of international gang rape.
Just one example of exaggerated prose, and here is an example of unsubstantiated claims.
It was generally accepted that bastards were more intelligent and better looking than legitimate children.
Poor bastards. The legitimate children, I mean. Herman gives no evidence for this claim--who exactly during the time period (those 500 years) accepted this claim? Was it written in letters, diaries, newspapers? While her book is filled with footnotes, most of them are only for quotes that she borrowed from other books.

Her prose also glorifies the role of the mistress over that of the queen, making most of the royals out to be peevish, ugly malcontents who wished they could be as glamorous and loved as the mistress. Her bias regarding individuals is obvious--she nearly canonizes Madame de Pompadour while vilifying Wallis Simpson as "a woman whose face resembled the metal part of a garden shovel." Herman also prefers Camilla Parker-Bowles over that of Princess Diana, referring to her tantrums and "unruly behavior".

So, the book has served its purpose. I will definitely use some of the anecdotes in class to spark interest in history. C