“I wanted to stomp out of the banquet hall, but that would have been the temper of a twelve-year-old, not the noble response of a princess.”
This is about as far in the opposite direction of Peter Pan as you can get in a book for youth. It’s the first person story of a female protagonist based on historical fact, and I had completely forgotten it existed until two weeks ago. I was at a bookstore and saw Cleopatra lying haphazardly on a table. I think I may have dropped everything to point and gape.
As it turns out there’s 18 books in the Royal Diaries series, and even some TV movies based on them including this one so obviously I have to check that out. The only books I had though were Cleopatra and Marie Antoinette, and I loved them. They’re beautiful hardcovers with gold trimmed pages that make them seem oh so regal. While I grew up rereading these ladies’ fictional innermost thoughts, I didn’t think the series was as recognizable as some children’s classics. But then my roommate came home, saw Cleo on the couch and burst out “Oh my God I loved those books!” so maybe I was wrong.
I majored in history at university so it’s probably not a shocker that many of my favourite books as a kid were historical fiction. History is great because basically it’s an endless string of stories with the most outrageous characters, incredible settings and ridiculous plot twists that all actually happened. Look at Cleopatra – her life was so remarkable even Shakespeare wrote about it. This book focuses on Cleo from age 12-14, of which not much is actually known.
As you can probably gather from the series title, it’s written as a diary. So off the bat it’s obviously a lot of conjecture because who knows how 12-year old Cleopatra felt about anything. She begins on “3 Januarius, Morning” of 57 BC, just after her father, aka the Pharaoh, goes into hiding because of threats on his life. It follows as she leaves with him for Rome where they spend two years soliciting help to reclaim the throne, and eventually their triumphant return.
While the details of Cleopatra’s thoughts and friendships are invented, the general life events and culture of both Egyptian and Roman societies are based on fact, according to my Wikipedia research anyway. But it’s not really one of those children’s classics you would re-read and enjoy as much as an adult (though for sentimental reasons I had SO much fun going through it again). Some things that I breezed over when younger now caught my attention – exhibit A: “Has father lost his mind? Maybe he is just drunk again, I thought, for he does worship Dionysus, the god of wine.”
For reasons unknown I now find that line hilarious. It also gives a taste of the educational purpose of the book, because I’m pretty sure Cleo wouldn’t need to specify for her own diary who Dionysus is, but that’s likely how I first found out his title. If I wanted to read about Cleopatra now I’d pick up something with more substance and less focus on the presumably fictitious romance between her best friend maid and her bodyguard. But as a 12-year–old myself, I was hooked. It’s perfectly suited for its intended audience.
A historical note at the back clarifies a bit of what is real and what’s imagined, as well as how the rest of Cleopatra’s life plays out. The diary part itself ends on a hopeful note (especially re the maid/bodyguard romance – I know you were all super worried about them) which is a far cry from the double suicide/snake bite eventual ending to Cleo’s life. Lots of fun cameos too from the colourful characters that litter her biography including Cicero and a brush with Marc Antony in a kitchen garden that I can’t imagine actually happened.