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Book Review by Steve Donoghue for Open Letters Monthly

Kara Cooney

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King

By Steve Donoghue

She stands first, very first at the beginning of a long line of illustrious women in history: the pharaoh Hatshepsut, born around 1500 BC in the Eighteenth Dynasty of what we now call the New Kingdom of ancient Egypt. She was the wife of a somewhat sickly pharaoh named Thutmose and the co-regent of his successor, Thutmose III, who came to the throne as a child – leaving Hatshepsut in a position of effectively sole command of Egypt, a position she held for longer than any other pharaoh, a little over two decades. As far as we can discern from what records we have, her reign was a prosperous one, full of building projects and boasting a populace every bit as satisfied with a female pharaoh wearing a false beard as they would have been with a man.

She’s had a great many biographies even in the last half-century (including, perhaps most notably, Joyce Tyldesley’s excellent 1996 volume), and she’s the subject of Kara Cooney’s new book The Woman Who Would Be King, a thoroughly entertaining thing that sets the stage by asking a lot of just the right big questions:

What may consign Hatshepsut to obscurity is our inability to appreciate and value honest, naked, female ambition, not to mention actual power properly wielded by a woman. Posterity cherishes the idea that there is something oppressive and distrustful about women who rule that there is something oppressive and distrustful about women who rule over men – that their mercurial moods have the power to destroy, that their impolitic natures ruin carefully tended alliances, that their agenda on behalf of their children will endanger any broader political interests. These critical perceptions make it difficult to properly rank Hatshepsut’s achievement in history. We lose the opportunity to either laud her for her successes or dissect her methodologies and tactics. How does one categorize a female leader who does not follow the expected course of disaster and shame, one who instead puts everything to rights in the end, in a way so perfect that her masculine beneficiaries just sweep her victories under the run and ignore her forever?

Cooney is concerned throughout with uncovering the most elusive aspect of her subject: her humanity. This is impossible, of course, as Cooney must know as well as anybody – the sources don’t even begin to furnish enough material to be plumbing anybody’s psyche. But Cooney goes at it with gusto just the same, and she admits at the outset that she’ll be indulging in exactly the kind of imaginative reconstruction that characterizes historical fiction rather than historical fact. It’s an effort at counter-balancing: “When historians began to correct the simplistic misconception of Hatshepsut as an overreaching witch,” she writes,

some ended up turning her into a selfless, first-wave feminist, willing to sacrifice her sexuality for her career, dynasty, and family, paving the way for her nephew’s future success as king. And as for academia, most Egyptologists became so mired in the thousands of monuments, statues, and inscriptions she left behind that many forgot Hatshepsut was human at all.

It’s in the doomed endeavor to find that human Hatshepsut that Cooney enlists her imaginative reconstructions, and they’re unfailingly interesting, although they’re entirely composed of conjecture (and there may be just a smidge too many of them):

Hatshepsut hurried into the temple of Ipet-sut, the Chosen Place for the gods of Thebes, moving through a series of majestic plastered gateways, sun-filled courtyards, cool columned halls, and dark, smoke-filled inner sanctuaries, to her own robing rooms. As was her daily custom, she bathed in the sacred lake within the temple walls; the dawn air chilled her flesh.

Cooney has done a great deal of research; her bibliography updates the previous popular Hatshepsut biographies, and her conjectures are always thought-provoking. As an evocative introduction to the current state of our knowledge about this remarkable woman, Cooney’s book could scarcely be bettered, and if her flights of imagination are the price to be paid for that excellence, well, it’s a very gentle price. In fact it’s hard to think how the whole thing could have been done otherwise.