Dec 4, 2008

Review of 'Sex with kings'

Just finished reading this 'Sex with kings : 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge' by Eleanor Herman and I feel very ambivalent about it. On the one hand, it is a very interesting read about a topic that is not covered often - women in history. On the other hand it is written by an author who insults her heroines and is clearly very sexist.

Women in history have been ignored or their lives explained away as anomalies. History is written by the strong and powerful and women's history has been ignored. Nevertheless women in the past ruled, became pirates, took lovers, led battles and triumphed. They do not deserve to be painted in only as an afterthought. So I like the idea and the history in 'Sex with kings'. The author uses primary sources and her research cannot be faulted. It is an interesting book and I would have loved it if it was not for the author's sexism.

It pervades the book and turned my stomach. She makes judgement calls on the heroines of the book. She refers to the king's mistresses as grasping whores, refers to the work as sin and their payment as their ill-gotten gains. Now I understand that these were the attitudes of the time and that this is a history book but her disgust for the métier of these women destroyed my enjoyment of the book. As the world knows, women did not have much choice or freedom under the political systems of the past. The work available included sex work. Why so does a soi-disant historian, who is familiar with conditions and restrictions of the time condemn these women so harshly for exercising the choices available?

Herman describes Madame de Pompadour's job as exhausting and high pressured. Madame de Pompadour always had to be 'on'. Sick days did not exist. She couldn't tell the king to leave her alone, if she wasn't in the mood. Her position was exhausting and it was constant. She had to be wary of usurpers and political plots. Her life was shortened considerably due to stress. And the lesson Herman describes herself as having learned, is to always to there for her husband and to never nag. When he arrives home, she gets up to make him a cup of tea and fetches his slippers and says that she'll never get divorced because she takes care of her man like Madame de Pompadour took care of Louis XV.

It is the wrong lesson. The lesson to be taken from these women who fought for and yielded power is that we are not here for anyone's entertainment. We have, mostly, the choice to say yes or no. We have the choice to be independent and earn our own way and it is a choice that few societies had. The women that Herman discusses were powerful in the only way they could be. Nowadays, many would be involved in politics. Diane de Poitiers might be president. She certainly made laws and signed official papers. These women were strong and deserve to not be insulted by a modern mistress wannabe, who has the freedom to choose.

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