The cover of Eleanor Herman's book, The Royal Art of Poison

Review: The Royal Art of Poison by Eleanor Herman

This time of year, as the temperature drops and the nights draw in earlier and earlier, I stop wanting to spend loads of time outside in the garden and start wanting to curl up with a good book. Every year I think I’ll manage to make a dent in by TBR list, and every year it just… gets longer. Because dammit, these authors just keep coming out with more books!

I know it sounds like a complaint, but it’s honestly not. Like any book-loving human, I’m thrilled when an author I like has a new book coming out. So, when I heard that Eleanor Herman had a new release, I was stoked.

One of Herman’s previous books, Sex with Kings, is one of my favourites: one of the few books that I dip back into again and again and again. I even got my husband reading it (and he loved it too!).

Her latest, The Royal Art of Poisons: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine and Murder Most Foul, does not disappoint. Anyone who’s ever wanted a good overview of the myriad ways people managed to kill each other and themselves, both intentionally and unintentionally, back in the day has found their next read.

Herman delves gleefully into the days of yore, ripping away the silks and gold paint to reveal the filth and rot beneath. It’s a quick read: the tone is kept fairly light and there are plenty of cheeky asides. I will warn you, though: don’t read this either before or after a meal, because she doesn’t mince words and some of the descriptions are pretty horrifying. Versailles sounds like it was ankle-deep in waste of all sorts, and some of the deaths will make you extremely grateful you don’t have to put your health in the hands of 17th century doctors. Also: don’t make the same mistake I did and read this while sick because you will get paranoid!

The book is split into two parts. The first deals with general information about poisoning, antidotes, and how utterly disgusting life was back in the day. The second half dives into the specifics of individual cases of suspected poisoning, including Medici princes; Ivan the Terrible (and his whole family, it seems); great scientists; royal mistresses; and Emperor Napoleon. In many cases, modern-day forensics have been used on the remains in an attempt to discover whether the victim was, in fact, poisoned. It’s interesting on a number of levels, one of which is observing how historical forensics evolved over time (many victims were autopsied soon after death, and the corpses re-examined at later points over the years as scientific knowledge and curiosity increased). It also gives the reader a glimpse of how royal propaganda used poisoning to its advantage.

For those fascinated by such things (and I’m sure I’m not the only one), there’s an appendix which lists various plants and poisons used over the centuries, including their symptoms. Have fun self-diagnosing! The Poison Hall of Fame, which includes the Easiest and Most Painful Deaths, Most Disgusting Symptoms, and Biggest Stomach Blaster is both entertaining and informative as well. Now I know where the term ‘mad as a hatter’ came from!

For anyone looking for an incredibly deep, scientific exploration of poisons and poisonings through the ages, this probably isn’t the book for you. But, as with Sex with Kings, it’s good for anyone who wants an overview on the subject, an entertaining historical read, or a starting point to start digging deeper into a particularly fascinating case.

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