Thursday, May 17, 2012

History as light reading? Who knew!



3 out of 5 stars

Like other popular history books, the tone of Royal Pains is lively and flippant, with a 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' kind of intimacy, as though the profiles it contains are bits of juicy gossip heard at the latest coffee klatsch. Though I understand why this kind of convivial narration is used--coupled with the fairly sensationalist subject matter, it helps draw in a wider audience and keep them reading, most likely with the idea that they'll stay unaware of the fact they're taking in and enjoying history--the casual tone occasionally becomes a bit too much so, taking away from the drama and impact of a particular tale. And while most of the personages profiled by the book fit into one of the categories given by the subtitle of A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds, there's one that has had the description "royal pain" thrust upon him without actually having done anything to warrant that label. Pauline Bonaparte and Princess Margaret? Definitely brats. Vlad the Impaler and Ivan IV? Most certainly brutes, of the highest order. King John and Elizabeth Bathory? Yup, bad seeds. Very bad seeds. However, Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence and Avondale wasn't particularly brutish, bratty, and while he was somewhat intellectually diffident and free with his sexual favors (what male member of the royal family wasn't?), I certainly wouldn't characterize him as a bad seed. He's included for the mere fact that, decades after his birth, someone decided that he was Jack the Ripper and, despite the fact that royal diaries and itineraries clearly place "Eddy" away from Whitechapel when each crime was committed, stuck to that story, creating a distorted mythos which spread and took on new dimensions of horror and depravity each time a new "researcher" got their hands on it. Carroll states at the end of Prince Albert's entry that it's the mere fact of this continued infamy which classifies him as a royal pain. It seems to me, with the wealth of other historical royal pains out there, that Carroll could have featured one who was an actual brat, brute, or bad seed rather than someone as hapless as Prince Albert.

That said, I still enjoyed reading Royal Pains. Not because I'm particularly enriched; usually I don't discover anything about these people I don't already know. (I think the only new information I got came in the entries for Pauline Bonaparte and Archduke Rudolf of Austria.) However, when written well (and despite my comments about the casual tone of the book, Royal Pains is well-written), popular history books can be quite entertaining, as this one was, and a pleasant way to while away the hours.

Read April 26-May 4, 2012
Originally reviewed on Goodreads May 5, 2012

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