Elle Fanning as Catherine the Great and Nicholas Hoult as Peter III of Russia

16 Books and 1 Zine to Read After Bingeing Hulu’s The Great

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I have never been the type to romanticize royalty. I do not read about the Queen or the weddings and babies. It has always felt too far away and rose-colored. I can understand the fascination with it, 100%, but the whole being-saved-by-a-prince narrative wasn’t something I ever incorporated into “play time” growing up. Call me bitter from birth.

The only Queen I really paid attention to was Hera. I obsessed, reading myths about her invoking Greek Goddess-flavored wrath on everyone. So, naturally, I inhaled Hulu’s The Great in two days. The “loosely based on history” show is many things, but rosy is not one of them. It is dark and disturbing at times, but in an I-can’t-look-away sense.

When Catherine arrives in Russia, she is given a bear as a pet. This made me think of all of the wild pets and habits of royalty and the rich in history—namely squirrels. (They were incredibly popular in America as well, apparently.) Aside from procuring expensive perfumes and exotic pets, the politics and controversies of the time are intoxicating to read.

Here are some reads to enjoy while we wait for another deliciously dark season of The Great.

Catherine The Great: Love, Sex, and Power by Virginia Rounding

love sex and power catherine the great

To actually read up on the real history of Catherine, Virginia Rounding’s biography is a perfect place to start. The Great correctly depicted Catherine’s controversial sexual appetite and passion for the Enlightenment. Consider it research in preparation for season 2.

Queen, Empress, Concubine by Claudia Gold

queen empress concubine book cover

A small percentage of women rise to power as successfully or for as long as Catherine the Great did. Queen, Empress, Concubine also tells the stories of forty-nine other women rulers that you may not know about, in 4-6 pages each—a kick-ass coffee table book, definitely.

Queen Victoria’s Matchmaking by Deborah Cadbury

queen victorias matchmaking book cover

Catherine found herself in Russia at age sixteen after an arranged marriage, as did Marie Antionette and others. While it was not Queen Victoria to pair Catherine and Peter together (that would be Empress Elizabeth), Queen Victoria used her limited power as a matchmaker for over thirty of her grandchildren, unknowingly eventually causing World War 1. This is a fascinating historical portrayal of how families were invented and driven by the politics of the time.

The Pearl: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in Catherine the Great’s Russia by Douglas Smith

pearl book cover

The Pearl examines an affair and marriage between Count Nicholas Sheremetev, the richest man in Russia, who owned 210,000 serfs, and Praskovia Kovalyova, an opera singer in his serf theater. Apparently, Nicholas’ letters are extremely moving and their love was “true” … but, like The Great, it’s pretty messed up.

A Treasury of Royal Scandals:  The Shocking True Stories of History’s Wickedest, Weirdest, Most Wanton Kings, Queens, Tsars, Popes, and Emperors by Leslie Carroll

the treasury of royal scandals book cover

Royal Scandals deep dives into how, and which, royals found themselves in a web of scandals. A book full of the most salacious gossip about people who were the worst … what’s not to love about that?

Royal Pains: A Rogue’s Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds by Michael Farquhar

royal pains book cover

Royal Pains details twelve horrid “bad seeds” of royal families. Carroll sets the scene for what life must have been like for the individuals depicted, before they behaved so badly.

It is worth noting that Carroll has also authored Notorious Royal Marriages, Inglorious Royal Marriages, Royal Romances, and Marie Antoinette-centric historical fiction under the name Juliet Grey.

The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure: Catherine the Great, a Golden Age Masterpiece and a Legendary Shipwreck by Gerald Easter and Mara Vorhees

tsarinas lost treasure book cover

Vrouw Maria, a ship en route to Catherine, with priceless masterpieces on board, sank in the Baltic Sea. In 1999, it was found by a Finnish wreck hunter on the bottom of the sea, upright, and perfectly preserved. Yes, please.

Sex With Kings by Eleanor Herman

sex with kings book cover

A mistress’s function, they say, centered around companionship to the king (and sex). Since the king had to marry and produce an heir with a woman that he didn’t choose and potentially didn’t like … his mistress had the power to persuade him.

Sex With the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers, and Passionate Politics by Eleanor Herman

sex with the queen book cover

So much of The Great (and history in general, let’s be honest) is influenced by who is in whom’s bed! A followup to Herman’s Sex With Kings, Sex With the Queen focuses on ladies from Marie Antoinette to Catherine the Great to Princess Diana.

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman

the royal art of poison book cover

When Peter (spoiler alert) consumed poisoned borscht in The Great, this storyline illustrated royalty’s fear of others tampering with their food. Royal tasters were employed by the exceedingly paranoid, but it didn’t really matter what precautions anyone took since poison unknowingly had its place in makeup and in medicine for years.

The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak

winter palace book cover

If historical fiction is more your flavor, try Stachniak’s The Winter Palace. Barbara, a servant close to the throne, narrates the story of Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg’s transformation and journey to becoming Catherine the Great.

Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie

peter the great his life and world

In order to understand just how foolish and horrible Nicholas Hoult’s young Peter is, read about how much more competent of a leader his father was. Was he imperfect and cruel? Oh, yes. Did he torture and kill his own son Alexei? Also yes.

The Empress of Art by Susan Jaques

the empress of art book cover

The Empress of Art focuses on Catherine’s dedication and drive in creating a cultured Russia. Catherine expanded St. Petersburg and successfully established it as a great city, as well as creating the Heritage Museum. Read all about all her artistic successes that her drunken buffoon of a husband would never have accomplished.

Love & Conquest: Personal Correspondence of Catherine the Great and Prince Grigory Potemkin, edited and translated by Douglas Smith

love conquest book cover

Love & Conquest is both personal and political and tells Catherine and Grigory’s story in their own words. Catherine was famously a romantic and loyal to her lovers, but she didn’t let that influence how fierce and powerful a leader she could be, as Potemkin eventually discovered.

Doomed Queens: Royal Women Who Met Bad Ends, From Cleopatra to Princess Di by Kris Waldherr

Doomed Queens book cover

Sometimes … being a royal doesn’t work out quite as well as it did for Catherine. Doomed Queens tells the darker and less successful stories throughout history, with a healthy dose of humor.

Catherine & Diderot: The Empress, the Philosopher, and the Fate of the Enlightenment by Robert Zaretsky

catherine and diderot book cover

Catherine praises the Enlightenment throughout season 1, and we are briefly introduced to Voltaire near the end. In history, the Enlightenment thinkers that admired Catherine’s quest for knowledge held meetings and frequently corresponded with her. This dual biography focuses on Denis Diderot’s life and accomplishments, as well as his brief stay in Russia.

The Things They Fancied, a zine by Molly Young

the things they fancied book cover

In her words, Molly Young’s The Things They Fancied is about “the sick and twisted hobbies of rich people throughout history.” It is short and sweet and laugh-out-loud funny, like a trendy CliffsNotes summary of the wealthy’s crazy hobbies and habits. Chapters include Germicidal Maniacs, A Pube For Your Thoughts, Yellow Gold, White Teeth, Smut in Venice, Ballad of a Squirrel, and The $50,000 Perfume. Written during the 2020 quarantine, this is a hysterical read when one needs to escape from reality for a bit.

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Alicia Banaszewski
Alicia Banaszewski (she/her) is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minnesota. She is a petite human with a big mouth that writes about books, TV, video games, and feminism. Website: <a href="https://www.aliciabanaszewski.com/">www.aliciabanaszewski.com</a> Twitter: <a href="https://twitter.com/b___ski/">@b___ski</a>