If your ears ring yet from the snap, crackle and pop of the royal wedding (Meghan, the dress was more or less the real deal; your critics can come fight me), here’s a weekend of princess-lit to prolong the high - or, if you like, cleanse the palate.
Guanya Pau: Story Of An African Princess: Fittingly for the unprecedented mixing of cultures at #HarryWedsMeghan, begin with the first surviving long work of fiction by an African writer, Joseph Jeffrey Walters. This “native of Liberia” put Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar (real person) on his frontispiece before telling the thrilling tale of a princess who takes her best friend and flees a forced marriage. The politics are <eyeballs emoji> - the devout Walters wrote it to contrast polygamous African life with the chaste and superior morals of Christian society; he describes Guanya Pau with “mouth and lips a decided improvement on the typical African’s (!!)” - but it is quite a singular document.
A Tale Of False Fortunes: The sexy, bewitching Fumiko Enchi was perhaps the pre-eminent artist of women’s inner lives in twentieth-century Japan. She turned often to Japanese history in her stories; her most intricate novel, a puzzle-box of a text-in-a-text, tells a mystical tale of the indomitable Teishi, princess of the Fujiwara clan.
King Hereafter: Dorothy Dunnett is one of those writers’ writers - an author whose devotees and copycats have somehow become more famous than she has. We’ll tell you more about her delightful, high-drama historical series some other time; on this list, she’s repped for her portrayal of Groa, the eleventh-century Norse noblewoman who, by marriage to her husband’s murderer, becomes the lady Macbeth. Dunnett couldn’t be less interested in the moral landscape of the Scottish play, but she does preserve one thing from Shakespeare: the radiance of a deep and surprisingly happy marriage.
Cuckold: If anything, Kiran Nagarkar’s prize-winning novel about Mirabai, ‘The Little Saint’ and her riotous life as Crown Princess of Mewar, is less radical than the real story. Relentlessly empathetic - no less to the prince, her husband, than the princess herself - its interests encompass also the morals, music, clothes, food, sexual mores, religious rituals and military tactics of its time. Not all of it works; yet like its princess, it develops a music all its own.
Empress Orchid: Anchee Min’s rip-roaring historical novels are a kind of rebellion against her own (now well-known) beginnings in the machine of Maoist China. All of them re-imagine the lives of hankering, ambitious women who game their stifling surroundings and cheat death to rise to victory. This, her fictionalisation of the life of China’s most adept concubine and last empress dowager, Cixi, is just criminally good fun. (Although god, please help us forget her description of the concubine punished to float limbless in a jar for life.) Bonus: for even more magnificent ambition, read Shan Sha’s fictionalisation of the life of the only woman emperor of China, Wu Zetian. It’s called, er, Empress.
Mirage: Remember when every circulating library put copies of a trash fire called Princess by Jean Sasson front and centre on their romance shelves? Mirage is ten times riper. In fact, the only thing more melodramatic than the events of the novel is the fact that its author, Soheir Khashoggi, was the sister of the world-famous arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi, and wrote a fictionalised version of her brother into the story. Innocent virgins, cruel sheikhs, facial reconstruction, bikini waxes with sugar syrup, white male saviours - they’re all here. Put a brown paper bag over the cover and read it on a picnic this Saturday.
Wonder Woman: Warbringer: We thought of excluding all comic-booky, science-fictional princesses from this list, but then we could not have brought you one of the most refreshing surprises of 2017. In a young-adult fictionalisation of everyone’s favourite superhero, novelist Leigh Bardugo extends the story of Diana of Themiscyra to include a mysterious descendant of Helen of Troy, a heartbreaking exile from the land of the Amazons, and (what else?) a fight for the fate of the world. Wonderfully charming, feminist and fun. Bonus: The Princess Of Mars, Edgar Rice Burroughs’s pioneering science-fiction novel about space princesses -- but it’s mostly about its manly earthling hero rescuing the eponymous young lady. :/
Princeless: Jeremy Whitley’s comic-book series about a dark-skinned, corkscrew-haired kid is all about a royal daughter fighting her own dragons and escaping from prince charming. This pre-dated Disney’s decision to make all its princesses a bit more bad-ass, so there’s a bit of her in Brave, a bit in Frozen, and a bit in Moana. Yet they haven’t gotten around to being quite as cool as the acerbic, frowning Adrienne Ashe, the most piratical young princess of all. What is it the kids say these days? #Iconic.
The Birthday Of The Infanta: Hoo boy, when Oscar Wilde took up his pen to describe the royalty, he stopped to give no hecks. A dwarf is delivered to the princess royal for her amusement, but he has no idea that he is any different from her until he is shown a mirror and discovers that he is in fact an object of mockery. Big-time ouch.
Lavinia: We were going to be sad not to be able to put any committed republicans on this list, but then we remembered our favourite anarchist Ursula Le Guin did in fact write a princess novel! This gorgeous late work embroiders the story of a very minor character in the Aeneid - that of the Latin princess who marries the founder of Rome. Ovid never gives her any lines, and most adaptations fixate on the doomed glamour of Dido, queen of Carthage; so of course Le Guin gets Lavinia to rescue herself and tell her own story. Irresistible.
Lord Of The Rings: Ever fantasy novel has a princess; many deserve to be featured on a list about princess novels. Yet none have this trend-setting portrayal of a desperate 24-year-old trapped in a house full of rotting, rotten men, plotting her way out. “I do not fear either pain or death,” Éowyn, lady of Rohan, says. What then? “A cage,” she answers. “To stay behind bars, until use and old age accept them, and all chance of doing great deeds is gone beyond recall or desire.” Slay (the monster), girl.
The Queen And I: Our last recommendation isn’t for a princess, but a queen - Mrs Elizabeth Windsor, in fact, who has to give up the monarchy and move into working-class council housing in this Sue Townsend classic. It manages to be both gently satirical and cross-eyed royalist at once. There, something for everyone!
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