Bad Girls - Jan Stradling

The most powerful, shocking, amazing, thrilling & dangerous women of all time. Breathtaking, at times inspiring and always riveting, this book takes the reader into the lives and times of 32 of history's most ruthless and ambitious women.

~from back cover

 

 

 

This lovely little history book, decked out in french flapped-goodness, gives readers a little glimpse into the lives of 32 women throughout history who, in one way or another, have been deemed infamous "bad girls". Stradling covers the classic tales such as those of Elizabeth Bathory, Madame Mao, Mary I, Messalina, Typhoid Mary ... but she also throws in a few lesser well-known names such as the pirate Shi Xianggu, New Zealand's cross-dressing conwoman Amy Bock, Phoolan Devi or Leila Khaled. Not all the women here have tales that are clear-cut evil, some are more a matter of making poor choices based on circumstances, or some were just consumed by a desperate need for attention and respect. Then again, some are most definitely, mind-boggling disturbing. Makes one shake their head in disbelief, but also makes for fun reading! Just some of the topics covered:

 

* Boudica --- Celtic warrior queen who was beaten, left widowed and forced to watch her daughters being raped... can't blame a mama for snapping a bit, right?

 

* Mary I aka "Bloody Mary" -- first daughter of Henry VIII, mostly ignored and desperate for attention... so she went to desperate lengths to get what she wanted...

 

* Empress Catherine of Russia -- stuck with an incompetent, insensitive dolt for a husband. Compelled her to snag his throne for herself, sometimes by whatever means necessary, "for the good of the country"

 

* Belle Starr -- known as a female Jesse James, married twice to two different outlaw men, got arrested with 2nd husband. Both sentenced to 1 year but both out by 9 months. She also had a tendency to choose Cherokee men for lovers; even if the relationship went bust, she was always desperate to keep a portion of their lands for herself.

 

* Imelda Marcos -- First Lady of the Philippines, attitude similar to that of Marie Antoinette, believed she was "giving the poor something nice to look at" while ignoring the fact that she and her husband were running the country's finances into the ground.

 

 

There were a couple stories in here that I didn't know much about but after reading about them here I am definitely curious to know more! I couldn't believe the story about Roman Empress Messalina and the prostitute Scylla allegedly bedding 25 men in one night! Dang, ladies!

 

There was also the story about Ranavalona, who started as a servant to the king of Madagascar. Ranavalona's father once tipped off the king to rumor of an assassination attempt. As a thank you, the king adopted Ranavalona, had her richly educated and trained in court life. When she reached the age of 22, the king had her married off to his favorite son. The son had 12 wives but Ranavalona was immediately bumped to #1 position. When her husband came to power, Ranavalona turned out to be quite the traditionalist, ordering the execution of anyone who was for Westernized ideas or Christianity. She ended up wiping out 1/3 of Madagascar's population! 

 

I found this book most helpful with the information it provided about Mata Hari, as I was reading a number of books about her and appreciated the supplemental info this particular one offered up. It talks of how, as a child growing up in the Netherlands (when she went by her birthname Margaretha Zelle), she had a naturally olive complexion and dark eyes in a land of blonde-haired, blue-eyed folks. Her father called her "an orchid among the buttercups". Sadly, her beloved father later abandoned the family. Once grown, she tried to attend college for a teaching degree but after taking up with the college director she was forced to leave. Scandalous! :-P She later met Captain Rudolph MacLeod (or Mcleod, depending on what book you read about her), 40 years old to her 18.

 

After they marry and she becomes pregnant, she discovers her man is an alcoholic but reasons that as a military wife she does get traveling perks, so she decides to stick it out. Through her travels she reaches the land of Java and immediately becomes enamored... so starts the first tricklings of the legendary "Mata Hari". Strangely though, while she was living there, both children fell victim to poisonings. Her daughter survived, her son did not. After the family moves back to Europe, Margaretha suffers beatings from her husband. She applies for and is granted a divorce and awarded custody of her daughter. Sadly, her ex refuses to pay child support so Margaretha is forced to leave her daughter with him until she can come back rich. It's shortly after this custody battle that she gets the inspiration to take up life as a dancer, officially taking the stage name Mata Hari or "Eye of the Dawn" in Malay language.  She tours Europe for 10 years as a dancer / striptease artist, making that money but depressed because her lifestyle is not suitable to have her small daughter around. But she can't give up the life because the money is good and she loves the fame. 

 

By the start of World War 1, she is nearly 40 years old. It's harder for her body to keep up with the dancing so she decides to become a courtesan to high class clientele, one such being a high ranking German official. This liaison is rumored to be her start in the spy game. Mata Hari later gets an offer from the French govt. to spy for them, which she accepts, but she is later caught by MI5 in England (who believe she's still working for the Germans). She tries to schmooze her way out of trouble by attempting to seduce another German official but he seems to see through it right away, giving her false info which gets her in trouble yet again when she passes it on. 

 

Mata Hari ends up being executed in 1917 but in 1999 her case was reopened and MI5 decided there wasn't enough evidence to warrant a death penalty (lotta good it did her at that point!).

 

This history book is great fun for new and established history buffs alike. If you're just now getting an appreciation for history books, this is a perfect book for beginners since the sections are short and are written in an engaging and easy to understand style. Not overwhelming yet enough to peak one's curiosity to read even more on these ladies. Longtime history buffs (like myself) can also have fun with this as you are reminded of stories you may have forgotten over the years. The book also features a ton of gorgeous photos and illustrations throughout.