Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Q&A with Leah Redmond Chang


Photo by Shelyn Jae



Leah Redmond Chang is the author of the new book Young Queens: Three Renaissance Women and the Price of Power. Her other books include Portraits of the Queen Mother. A former professor of French literature and culture at The George Washington University, she lives in Washington, D.C.


Q: What inspired you to write this book about three Renaissance-era queens?


A: The real inspiration was the young Elisabeth de Valois. I had written a lot about Catherine de’ Medici, the French queen mother, but I was surprised by how little I knew about her daughter, Elisabeth, who became the queen of Spain. Why was that? I wanted to know more about her.


As I proceeded, I began to realize how important Mary, Queen of Scots was to the lives of both Elisabeth and Catherine, and vice versa. Mary is well-known, of course, especially her rivalry with the English queen, Elizabeth I. We tend to hear less about her relationships with other queens. But those relationships were critical to shaping the woman that Mary, Queen of Scots became.


The driving questions behind the book began to gel as I delved deeper into the research. I could see that while the historical events of their lives linked these women together, there was also something thematically similar about their biographies. They faced parallel challenges that had everything to do with being young and female, living in the orbit of power.


When you put them together, these women show us what it was like to be a young royal woman in the Renaissance.


Q: How would you describe the relationships among the three women?


A: Catherine, Elisabeth, and Mary were family and lived for many years together at the French court. Elisabeth was Catherine’s oldest daughter and Mary was Catherine’s daughter-in-law and one of Elisabeth’s closest friends during childhood. For many years, they were all quite close.


Eventually, though, after they fanned out to different kingdoms, distance and politics began to fray their relationships. And as Mary would discover, friendship and marriage bonds could not compete with the blood ties that bound Elisabeth and Catherine to each other.


Ultimately, Young Queens is a sad story. I came to wish that politics hadn’t gotten in the way because Catherine, Elisabeth, and Mary really needed each other’s support.


They all had to grapple with an unavoidable truth – that dynasties and empires were built on the bodies of young women, that the queen’s body served as a political tool. This was a hard truth, one that Catherine, Elisabeth, and Mary learned in terrible ways.

Q: The writer Louisa Thomas said of the book, “To be a queen in Renaissance Europe was a tricky thing: to have the power to shape the world, but also to be at the mercy of many forces--and to have to fight, even to survive. Young Queens is an ambitious book about three fascinating women, meticulously researched and vividly told.” What do you think of that description, and how did you conduct your research for the book?


A: I loved the way Louisa Thomas described Young Queens. I think she articulates an important paradox of the Renaissance: in theory, these queens possessed great authority yet so often they found themselves completely powerless.


I thought hard about how I was going to tell this story. I wanted to flesh out these queens and their times as narratively as possible, to write “history” almost like a novel. I’m gratified to know that Louisa Thomas thought I succeeded in some measure.


As for my research methods, I always look for source texts from the 16th century. Luckily, we still have a lot of extant material. For sure, there are gaps and silences in the archives and, inevitably, there are certain things we will never know. But I found great material that allowed me to create an intimate portrait of the three queens. I read hundreds of letters, looking for the authentic voices of these women.


Q: What do you see as these queens’ legacy today?


A: The protagonists of the book are 16th-century queens, but Young Queens isn’t really about royalty. Rather, it’s about women and power, and about the cost of being female in the Renaissance.


We often turn to the histories of royal women for court scandal and intrigue, and there is certainly plenty of it in the intertwined stories of Catherine, Elisabeth, and Mary! But I see this book chiefly as a story about how women get entangled in political systems, how their minds and bodies are politicized in the pursuit of power.


Of course, men and boys, too, had to contend with relentless pressures that came with a dynastic system, but women had to deal with those pressures differently. We are still wrestling today with the role that women’s bodies play in social values and politics.


Catherine, Elisabeth, and Mary are part of a long history of gender, politics, and power. We can turn to them to consider the ways women must negotiate and wield power – and how they can be crushed by it.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I am sifting through a few ideas. I want to live with each of them for a little while before deciding which direction to go next. But I can say with certainty that the next book will also deal with women and power.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I am on Instagram, Twitter, and now Threads, but the best way to follow my work is through my website at leahredmondchang.com or through my newsletter on Substack, which you can also access through my website.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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