England has seen a good share of kings and queens; however, there have been only six queens regnant those who were ruling, or reigning queens, and not merely female consorts. In Sovereign Ladies, British historian Maureen Waller, who has written extensively about English history, focuses exclusively on the lives of these women who, with one exception, have been extremely competent, if not brilliant, sovereigns.

Waller has created an absorbing, thought-provoking historical narrative in vigorous prose that transports readers absolutely into the minds and times of these monarchs, while examining their lives, loves, travails and work from a female viewpoint. This perspective, however, is one that the author carefully keeps distinct from any pretensions to modern feminist ideas. She is intimate with, rationally sympathetic to and honest about her subject ladies and the limitations of both their sex and the parameters of queenly office, painting her royal portraits with insightful observation, obeisance where it is due and blunt opinions (among them, her assertion that Queen Elizabeth II was a less than stellar mother, and her children, according to those who know them, are arrogant, spoilt and selfish ) about the all-too-human frailties of these divinely anointed queens.

There has been much coverage of the lives of the faith-obsessed Mary I, the powerful Virgin Queen Elizabeth I, the long-reigning Empress Victoria and the present-day restrained English queen, and Sovereign Ladies gives them their due. Most interesting, however, are the sections on Queens Mary II and her sister, Anne, of the House of Stuart. These are lesser-known stories, of perhaps less gifted queens regnant who, when called to duty, took their own measure, and stepped forward to serve loyally, compassionately and competently.

Sovereign Ladies offers illuminating perspectives about the foundations of the English monarchy (and, indeed of English culture, past and present), its glorious ascent and its gradual decline into an office in which the queen does not rule, but offers more lukewarm support: She is there to be consulted, to encourage and to warn. Waller's epilogue, while giving an apt historical summing up no mean feat given the time-span involved echoes this tepidity. Will there be another queen, or will the sun finally set on the monarchy? Who knows? says she.

Alison Hood is a writer in San Rafael, California.

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