History, by and of Women

By John Mercury February 15, 2024

This week, I’ve been spending time in what I’ve come to think of as the Anne de Courcy extended universe.

De Courcy, a British journalist and prolific author of popular history books, writes about the past through the stories of women of the era. Some of her books are biographies of famous figures, such as Diana Mosley and Coco Chanel. But she often uses groups of lesser-known (though usually still very rich) women to tell the story of particular periods or events.

Debs at War” and “1939: The Last Season,” for instance, describe World War II and its upending of the British class system by following the lives of London debutantes. “The Fishing Fleet” chronicles British colonialism through a group of women who were both privileged and oppressed. As young women, they faced lives of poverty and isolation if they did not manage to marry, and legal and social subjugation even if they did, thanks to the repressive patriarchal system of the time. But as white, upper- and middle-class British citizens, they were also able to reap the financial and social gains of Britain’s harsh, extractive colonialism by marrying officials of the British Raj.

After reading a few of her books, I began to notice recurring characters, rather like the second-string superheroes who show up in various Marvel movies. “The Viceroy’s Daughters,” for instance, is about Irene, Cynthia and Alexandra Curzon, whose father was Viceroy of India from 1898 to 1905. The Curzon sisters pop up again in de Courcy’s books about Mosley, who was the mistress and then second wife of Cynthia’s husband Oswald, and Chanel, whose social circle included Alexandra and her husband, the closest friend of the Duke of Windsor.

Her books certainly aren’t an egalitarian lens on history; many of her subjects were among the wealthiest women of their time. But, particularly because of the way they interlink with each other, they highlight how women formed their own networks of influence, and shaped the social and political systems of the time in ways that often get overlooked by other historians. That makes de Courcy’s books a satisfying corrective to what I’ve come to think of as “secretary syndrome”: the habit of focusing on men as main characters of history, and only considering women insofar as they were their secretaries, wives, daughters or lovers.


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