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Elizabeth the Queen

I’ve read quite a few of Alison Weir’s historical biographies and am a big fan of her writing. Elizabeth the Queen has been on the shelf for a long time. Well, most of the books I reading have been; either they get read straight after being bought or they go in the pile only to surface years later. Anyway, still largely reading non-fiction. I’m currently 30,000 words through my 120,000 word work-in-progress so I think the non-fiction streak will continue for a while.

I enjoyed this a great deal. The writing is engaging and the court around Elizabeth comes to life quite vividly. I read this shortly before I read Fools and Mortals so I enjoyed having the real background to the setting. One of the interesting themes of the book is Elizabeth’s refusal to marry and the various factors that may have influenced that. In reality, Elizabeth had very little choice about who she might marry – there were few men equal in status to her, and most of them were Catholic. Of course, she showed little inclination to give up being supreme ruler of England. If she’d married her husband would have been her superior and she does not appear to have really believed that women were inferior to men. The prevailing opinion that women should not rule meant that she could never openly express that opinion so it must be inferred from her letters. Weir also posits that given the fate of her sister Mary and several of her father’s wives, Elizabeth may have subconsciously associated marriage with death. In her lifetime there were rumours of affairs and illegitimate children but they seem hardly credible in hindsight. I came away from the book thinking that she may have been asexual. Elizabeth clearly enjoyed flirting with men, as evidenced in her letters and contemporary accounts, and she had several emotional intense relationships, but did not seem to have to work terribly hard to repress her sexuality.

There’s a lot more to the book than speculation about marriage, even though this is tightly bound up with her diplomatic relations with other countries. It gives a lot of information about the court and the characters present, about Elizabeth’s finances and the corruption inherent in the system of patronage that was the 16th century economy. There’s a lot of detail about how Elizabeth negotiated her way between her powerful neighbours, France and Spain, and cleverly avoided wars she couldn’t afford. War wasn’t always avoidable, but a different ruler might have gone to war much more frequently given the circumstances.

I would highly recommend it. Informative, entertaining and very readable.

Half the Sky

Sometimes there are books that really make an impression, that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn is a book like that.

It covers the experience of many women in the developing world, including sex trafficking, honour killings, lack of access to education, inadequate healthcare, maternal mortality, genital mutilation, the use of rape to control, and domestic violence. It relies on anecdote and stories to make its points, and in some places those stories are harrowing.

Nothing in this book should really come as a surprise. It’s not like these things haven’t been happening for a very long time. It is useful to be reminded once in while, but tragic that we need reminding.

There’s a lot missing from Half the Sky. There’s no real acknowledgement that these things happen in the developed world too, and the discussion of the impact of poverty is reduced to suggestions about where best to put your charity. Many of the experiences of women in this book are entrenched systemically and no amount of charity and micro-finance are going to change a global system that relies on most people being poor so that a few can be rich. And there’s very little discussion of how this inequality supports the developed world; perhaps because that might get in the way of persuading us that we can do something.

And that’s why this book is having so much impact; (not just on me, the internetz is mad for it) because it makes the reader feel like they can do something to help, something to change things. I’ve joined Kiva as a result of reading this book. I have mixed feelings about charity (it’s paternalistic, corrupt, can entrench harmful cultural attitudes) as I think it acts as a sticking plaster on wound but fails to remove the thing that cut you, but the stories in this book show how it can be positive. Change only happens in tiny steps that build up into something much bigger and this book shows what a difference the tiny steps make. What it doesn’t address is just how hard it is to build up enough tiny steps to achieve real change and that can be demoralising if you haven’t made your peace with that to start with. The thing that you do may only be a drop in the ocean, but if there were no drops there’d be no oceans.

Still, being difficult to the point of near impossibility is no reason not to do something. So, go read the book, be reminded how much there is to change and see if you’re motivated to act.