Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786
Carolly Erickson primarily writes biographies of famous personalities in European history. “I have found the past compelling since the age of fourteen or so,” she once remarked. Even before she began her undergraduate work in history at the University of Washington, from which she received her double B.A. degree in 1963, she had “a feeling I might some day write history for the general reader.” She earned her doctorate in history from Columbia University in 1969. To support herself, she played piano in cocktail lounges in New York City. For several years, she taught history at Barnard College and Brooklyn College, and then at San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge) and Mills College. By the mid-1970’s, however, she had become a freelance writer aiming at a wide, popular audience.
Erickson’s first two books, The Records of Medieval Europe and The Medieval Vision, reflected her interest in the Middle Ages. In the late 1970’s, Erickson began to focus on early modern Europe. She has spent considerable time traveling and conducting research in England. Indeed, English subjects predominate in her writing, beginning with four books published between 1978 and 1984 that deal with famous personalities from Tudor England. Mary Tudor, the subject of Bloody Mary in 1978, was queen of England from 1553 to 1558. Mary’s father, Henry VIII (Great Harry) was the king from 1509 to 1547. Erickson next published a biography of Elizabeth I, who was Henry VIII’s second daughter and ruled England in the Elizabethan era (1558-1603). Finally, Erickson turned to the life of Anne Boleyn (Mistress Anne), who was one of Henry VIII’s six wives and the mother of Elizabeth I.
This cohesive group of biographies on some of the most fascinating personalities of English history in the Tudor period made Erickson a best-selling popular biographer. While Erickson’s biographies reflect a considerable mastery of the historical sources and literature, they do not present new historical information. Rather, they construct a well-written narrative of the person’s life and times. She says of her biography of Elizabeth: “It would be very easy to go over the cliff into feminist polemics. But I try to write from the subject’s perspective.”
A second important feature of these biographies, except for Great Harry, is that Erickson generally selects women as her subjects. In the case of Anne Boleyn in Mistress Anne, Erickson provides a balanced yet sympathetic analysis of the precarious situation that women faced in negotiating the sexual mores that pervaded court politics in Tudor England.
Erickson’s next books deal with a later period in English history. In a departure from her biographical writing, Our Tempestuous Day looks at the decade between 1810 and 1820 known as the Regency, when the prince regent, George IV, ruled for his insane father, George III. The use of telling incidents and vignettes is similar to her handling of detail in the Tudor biographies. In this case, the method captures the tensions and complexities that gave Regency England its unique spirit. With Bonnie Prince Charlie, Erickson returned to biography. Charles Edward Stuart was the grandson of King James II, who was deposed in 1688. He attempted to lead a rebellion against the ruling monarch in 1745. Erickson narrates the course of the ill-fated rebellion and portrays Bonnie Prince Charlie as he was transformed from a dashing leader into a drunken, broken man.
Erickson continued her biographical studies of female subjects. To the Scaffold relates the story of the French queen Marie Antoinette, while Great Catherine profiles the empress of Russia. Both these women lived during the eighteenth century, but the course of their lives was very different: Marie Antoinette was executed during the French Revolution, while Catherine ruled Russia in her own right. Erickson makes the autocratic Marie Antoinette more human and sympathetic then she is generally depicted, and extensive use of Catherine the Great’s letters and memoirs gives her a feminine vivacity that is sometimes overshadowed in analysis of her political achievements. Erickson again returned to the English royal family with Her Little Majesty, a life of Queen Victoria, who ruled Britain from 1837 to 1901. Two other biographies reveal sadder tales: Josephine profiles Napoleon’s first wife, who was empress of France from 1804 until her marriage was annulled in 1809, while Alexandra offers a portrait of the last czarina of Russia, who was murdered with the rest of her family in 1917.
Throughout her career as a historian, Carolly Erickson has been able to make important historical personalities and their times both informative and engaging for the reader. Her strength as a historical writer is an ability to use narrative to bring out the drama of historical events and to create a vivid context through describing daily life in particular historical periods.
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