Erickson, Carolly 1943-

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Erickson, Carolly 1943-


Born April 12, 1943, in Los Angeles, CA; daughter of Roland L. and Louise Bliss; children: Hal. Education: University of Washington, Seattle, double B.A., 1963; Columbia University, M.A., 1964, Ph.D., 1969.


Home—HI. Agent—International Creative Management, 40 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.


Barnard College, New York, NY, lecturer in history, 1964-66; San Fernando Valley State College (now California State University—Northridge), Northridge, CA, instructor in history, 1966-67; Mills College, Oakland, CA, assistant professor of medieval history, 1967-70; full-time writer, 1970—. Lecturer at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York, 1965-66.


Medieval Academy of America, American Historical Association, Medieval Association of the Pacific, West Coast Association of Women Historians, Phi Beta Kappa.



Bloody Mary, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1978, reprinted, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Great Harry, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1980, reprinted, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.

The First Elizabeth, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1983, collector's edition, Easton Press (Norwalk, CT), 1989, reprinted, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1997.

Mistress Anne: The Exceptional Life of Anne Boleyn, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1984, reprinted, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1998.

Bonnie Prince Charlie: A Biography, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1989.

To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette, William Morrow (New York, NY), 1991, reprinted, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2004.

Great Catherine, Crown Publishers (New York, NY), 1994.

Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1997.

Josephine: A Life of the Empress, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1999.

Alexandra: The Last Tsarina, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Lilibet: An Intimate Portrait of Elizabeth II, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2004.

The Girl from Botany Bay: The True Story of the Convict Mary Broad and Her Extraordinary Escape, John Wiley & Sons (Hoboken, NJ), 2005.

Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchs, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2006.


(Compiler and author of introduction) The Records of Medieval Europe, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1971.

The Medieval Vision: Essays in History and Perception, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1976.

Civilization and Society in the West, Scott Foresman (Glenview, IL), 1978.

Our Tempestuous Day: A History of Regency England, Quill/Morrow (New York, NY), 1986.

Arc of the Arrow: Writing Your Spiritual Autobiography, Pocket Books (New York, NY), 1998.

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2005.

The Last Wife of Henry VIII (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2006.

The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon's Bird of Paradise (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2007.

The Tsarina's Daughter (novel), St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2008.

Contributor of articles to periodicals; book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. Several of Erickson's biographies have been translated into Italian, Spanish, and French.


Several of Erickson's works have been released as audiobooks.


Originally a scholar of medieval history, Carolly Erickson has made a career of writing biographies of famous European historical figures. Though she has written nonfiction books about such leaders as Charles Stuart, her focus has primarily been on women who have ruled over such nations as England, France, and Russia. Erickson bases her books on historical fact, but she also indulges in speculation about what is not recorded. For some critics of her work, this has made for the creation of lively histories that have broader appeal for general audiences; other reviewers, however, have criticized her novelistic approach.

Among the historian's first biographies are books that focus on the Tudors of England. The lives of Mary Tudor, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and the ill-fated Anne Boleyn are explored in Bloody Mary, Great Harry, The First Elizabeth, and Mistress Anne: The Exceptional Life of Anne Boleyn. Erickson brings to her studies both historical expertise and narrative talent, along with an eye for relevant detail. The result, according to several reviewers, is history that engages like fiction. As Edward White put it in his review of The First Elizabeth for the Los Angeles Times Book Review: "Those familiar with Elizabethan life and times will find no fresh discoveries and few surprises. What they, and everyone else, will applaud is a masterpiece of narrative, a story so absorbing that it is as hard to put down as a fine novel."

Reader response to Erickson's approach has been enthusiastic, and nearly half a million copies of her books have been sold worldwide. Her first biography, Bloody Mary, examines the life of Henry VIII's eldest daughter, Mary Tudor. A staunch Catholic who was bastardized by an Act of Parliament to facilitate her father's remarriage, Mary tried to restore the Roman faith to England during her short reign. Though she married a Catholic prince from Spain, her campaign failed. Furthermore, her role in the burning of three hundred Protestant resisters was recorded in John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, and this widely read document contributed to her unpopularity. In Erickson's book, the queen is reevaluated, and John Kenyon reported in the Washington Post Book World that the study "tries to do full justice to her." Kenyon went on to state: "Erickson's great strength is that she deals fully with Mary's life before her accession; indeed, her five-year reign is for once set in proper proportion, occupying less than a quarter of the book. Without venturing into amateur psychology, she exposes and analyzes the tensions created by an upbringing which was irrational and unnatural even for a princess of royal blood." While critic Paul Johnson also found Erickson's portrayal of Mary praiseworthy, he missed what he referred to in the New York Times Book Review as "the important structural changes in the historical picture of the reign…. What I should like in short," he concluded, "are the historical nuts and bolts which made up the machinery of the Marian restoration, and these Miss Erickson cannot, or does not, give us. Instead we have a well-organized, readable and sympathetic portrait of a sad and lonely lady."

In Great Harry, Erickson shifts her focus from daughter to father, making Henry VIII the subject of her second biography. Remembered largely for his gluttonous ap- petites and his procession of wives, Henry was a man of many faces with a difficult character to assess. But "in this splendid biography, Carolly Erickson does what is most difficult with a legendary figure," wrote Robert Kirsch in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. "She convinces us to suspend judgement of the caricature, the mythic royal satyr, the gouty old monster, to allow us to experience the life as lived."

According to a Times Literary Supplement reviewer, Erickson's popular account of Henry VIII is intended for the general reader; the book "does not pretend to say anything new, but it tells the old story forcefully and well." Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Christopher Hibbert expressed a similar view. Erickson "disclaims any intention of arriving at a fresh assessment of the reign or of detailing the political accomplishments of Henry or his ministers. But she has written an admirable biography, graphic, judicious, carefully researched, skillfully constructed and full of those telling details that are an essential ingredient of the narrator's art."

Similar in approach to Great Harry, Erickson's third biography, The First Elizabeth, "de-emphasizes the public events of Elizabeth's reign in favor of the neglected years before it, and paints in rich detail the queen's daily life instead of the foreign and domestic intrigues that cluttered her reign," Mark Caldwell reported in the Village Voice. Erickson draws her information from cited sources, using as dialogue only those conversations that have been verified. She is careful, as well, not to impose modern-day attitudes on her Renaissance characters, as she explained to Leah Garchik in a San Francisco Chronicle interview: "It would be very easy to go over the cliff into feminist polemics. But I try to write from the subject's perspective." Garchik added that "Erickson never speculates about what Elizabeth might have been thinking, nor imposes insights of modern psychological thinking. Every hint of personality is drawn from a specified document."

Erickson's humanized version of Elizabeth portrays the queen as not only vain and conniving, but as an overtly sexual creature who used her single status to protect her power. "If you were married," the Scots envoy Melville reportedly told the monarch, "you would be but queen of England; and now you are both king and queen." Here, as in earlier works, Erickson sets the queen's actions against a Renaissance background in which everything from the sanitary conditions at Hampton Court to the philosophical biases of the queen's childhood teachers are revealed. "These scenes give Erickson's work a wonderful sense of depth and texture," reported Alida Becker in the Philadelphia Inquirer. "And they build on each other until, at the close of the book, the aged but already legendary ‘Virgin Queen’ has been rendered an intensely human, even poignant figure."

Erickson's additional biographies include Bonnie Prince Charlie: A Biography, on Charles Stuart, the prince who failed to reclaim the English throne from the Tudors. She also wrote about later queens of England in Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria and Lilibet: An Intimate Portrait of Elizabeth II. Reviewers of Erickson's biography of Bonnie Prince Charles noted that she adds considerable depth to his character, showing how his transformation from a heroic figure to a defeated "pathetic old man" was a matter of gradual development rather than abrupt transformation, according to Kevin Turner in M2 Best Books. Christopher Hibbert, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called Bonnie Prince Charlie "a narrative as accomplished as any Ms. Erickson has written. From her crisply written pages there emerges a convincing picture of Charles Stuart, stripped of the myths which over the years have accumulated around him, yet never reduced to the obstinate, self-destructive charlatan some other authors have portrayed. In her skillful portrait are the recognizable features both of the romantic hero of Scotland and of the bitter, disappointed exile, the sad spectacle of the Florence opera's sideshow."

Critics offered mixed reviews of Erickson's work on Queen Victoria. In a review of Her Little Majesty, a Publishers Weekly contributor described the historian's style as "gushy," but commented that Erickson "has a knack for plucking pithy quotes, and the essentials of the queen's life are often deftly set out." Lilibet is the story of the twentieth-century monarch Queen Elizabeth II of the House of Windsor. In this book, according to a Publishers Weekly writer, Erickson takes "a less-than-colorful biography subject" and creates an "entertaining and substantial" work. To many observers, the queen—who continued to reign over England in the early twenty-first century—appears to be an overly formal and stiff titular head of state who is also emotionally distant. However, Erickson portrays her in "a primarily sympathetic light," according to Margaret Flanagan in Booklist, and shows some of the reasons why the queen's upbringing made her the woman she became.

Erickson leaves England behind in several of her biographies, writing instead about famous women in Russian and French history. In To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette, Erickson profiles the controversial eighteenth-century French queen. The fifteenth child of Austrian Empress Maria Thérèse, Marie was married to the future King Louis XVI at the age of fourteen. Marie soon proved ill-prepared for the court intrigue at Versailles, and her lavish lifestyle tarnished her reputation among both the nobles and the general populace. When political and financial difficulties erupted in France during the 1780s, the monarchy fell. Marie was condemned to death by revolutionaries and executed by guillotine in 1793. Historian critic Hugh Gough described the work as a "very traditional anecdotal narrative, best viewed as a romantic historical biography. It draws on standard source material, is less teleological than its title would suggest, and has some well-written sections on court life in Vienna and Versailles." "This smoothly written biography concentrates on social history," noted Publishers Weekly contributor Genevieve Stuttaford, who called To the Scaffold a "highly readable account."

Erickson's Great Catherine explores the life of Catherine the Great of Russia. A Publishers Weekly reviewer described the book as a "sympathetic, vibrant portrait" that "presents a shrewd, headstrong, cultivated woman." In Booklist, Donna Seaman wrote that this "fluid, captivating portrait … reads like a first-rate historical novel." Erickson's Alexandra: The Last Tsarina features the woman who married Nicholas II, the last tsar to rule Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution occurred in 1917, giving political power in that country over to the Bolshevik Party. While noting that this version of the story is "less expansive" than an earlier biography of Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie, Library Journal critic Marcia L. Sprules pointed out that Erickson makes "a complex time accessible to general readers."

In Josephine: A Life of the Empress, Erickson tells the story of Josephine de Beauharnais Bonaparte, the wife of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. In Historian, Cynthia S. Bisson commented that although Erickson "does not succeed in making Josephine an attractive person," she "does an excellent job of evoking physical surroundings and atmosphere in her descriptions of palaces, ballrooms, trips, and storms."

The author set off in a new direction with The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, a completely fictional account of King Louis XVI's ill-fated wife, who was beheaded in the French Revolution. The book "is a historical entertainment that elaborates imaginatively and whimsically on the actual lives of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, Axel Fersen, and their peers," Erickson stated on the Reading Group Gold Web site. She added, "My intent in [the book] was to give the reader the cathartic, visceral experience of reliving Marie Antoinette's life—as fictionally elaborated."

Sympathetic to the real-life woman, Erickson portrays her as a flawed but intelligent and compassionate person who never actually uttered the infamous phrase, "Let them eat cake!" A Kirkus Reviews critic dismissed the book as a "pulp romance," but a Publishers Weekly contributor felt that the work "engagingly reflects Marie Antoinette's progression from privileged adolescent to royal mother of four." Judith Warner, writing in the New York Times Book Review, also praised the work, stating that Erickson "presents, overall, a very human and multi-textured portrait of a queen who all too often has been reduced to a historical one-liner. Her Marie Antoinette is a dutiful daughter, a devoted mother, a committed wife and a passionate romantic. She even has a social conscience. This may be pure fiction, but it hardly matters."

Erickson shifted gears altogether with the publication of her adventurous 2005 biography titled The Girl from Botany Bay: The True Story of the Convict Mary Broad and Her Extraordinary Escape. This is the true tale of a woman who was imprisoned for robbery in England and deported to Australia, which at the time served as a penal colony for many of England's convicted criminals. Faced with disease, forced labor, and other hardships, Mary Broad devises a daring plan to escape on a stolen ship, along with several other convicts, and sail to the Dutch colony in Indonesia. After braving a treacherous sea voyage, the escapees find freedom for a few brief months before being recaptured. Taken back to England, Broad gains sympathy from several important people with her tale of woe and, with the assistance of the famous author James Boswell, is eventually pardoned and set free. The basic facts of Broad's story are true, though Erickson embellishes the tale considerably with speculation about what is not recorded about her subject. A Publishers Weekly critic especially appreciated the author's "stark and harrowing account of what prisoners endured," while a contributor to Kirkus Reviews described The Girl from Botany Bay as a "compelling tale with a gritty heroine."

In 2006 Erickson added to her bibliography a work of fiction, The Last Wife of Henry VIII, and a work of nonfiction, Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchs. The former is a fictionalized memoir of Catherine Parr, the only wife to outlast King Henry VIII. A Publishers Weekly reviewer found that the title character "surprises and delights as her own woman, one who, in the end, gets everything she wants." Royal Panoply, on the other hand, provides biographies of British monarchs from William I through the present in a manner that, according to a Kirkus Reviews contributor, is "knowledgeable" but "fairly dispassionate." The critic went on to note that while there are "no surprises here," the work is "fairly accessible." In a Publishers Weekly article the biographical sketches were praised a bit more, and were called "fascinating … great stories."

In The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon's Bird of Paradise, Erickson offers a fictional look at Empress Josephine of France, recounting her many romantic encounters and her role in Napoleon's downfall. "Fans of Erickson's earlier historical fiction … will enjoy this latest concoction," remarked Library Journal contributor Kathy Piehl. "Rollicking good, admittedly unhistorical, fun—complete with all the dish on the great and powerful, and what they wore, that an Empire-waisted fashionista could desire," wrote a critic in Kirkus Reviews.



Erickson, Carolly, The First Elizabeth, Summit Books (New York, NY), 1983.


American Spectator, August, 1994, Florence King, review of Great Catherine, p. 72.

Booklist, May 15, 1994, Donna Seaman, review of Great Catherine, p. 1670; March 15, 1999, Jay Freeman, review of Josephine: A Life of the Empress, p. 1286; December 15, 2003, Margaret Flanagan, review of Lilibet: An Intimate Portrait of Elizabeth II, p. 722.

Contemporary Review, October, 1997, review of Her Little Majesty: The Life of Queen Victoria, p. 224; August, 2002, review of Alexandra: The Last Tsarina, p. 123.

Historian, spring, 2001, Cynthia S. Bisson, review of Josephine, p. 675; winter, 2005, Hugh Gough, review of To the Scaffold: The Life of Marie Antoinette, p. 793.

Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, December, 2004, D.L. Lewis, review of The Girl from Botany Bay: The True Story of the Convict Mary Broad and Her Extraordinary Escape, p. 235.

Kirkus Reviews, September 15, 2004, review of The Girl from Botany Bay, p. 899; July 1, 2005, review of The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, p. 701; March 1, 2006, review of Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchs, p. 220; July 15, 2007, review of The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon's Bird of Paradise.

Library Journal, January, 1997, Jean E.S. Storrs, review of Her Little Majesty, p. 110; April 1, 1998, Don Wismer, review of Her Little Majesty, p. 141; April 15, 1999, Thomas J. Schaeper, review of Josephine, p. 108; August, 2001, Marcia L. Sprules, review of Alexandra, p. 122; August 1, 2005, Anna M. Nelson, "Tragic Royals," review of The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, p. 68; August 1, 2007, Kathy Piehl, review of The Secret Life of Josephine, p. 66.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 25, 1980, Robert Kirsch, review of Great Harry; March 27, 1983, Edward White, review of The First Elizabeth, p. 2.

M2 Best Books, January 22, 2002, Kevin Turner, review of Bonnie Prince Charlie: A Biography; April 11, 2002, Justin Doberty, review of Bloody Mary; April 12, 2002, Ian Sanderson, review of The First Elizabeth.

New York Times Book Review, January 15, 1978, Paul Johnson, review of Bloody Mary, p. 10; June 29, 1980, Christopher Hibbert, review of Great Harry, p. 11; January 8, 1989, Christopher Hibbert, "Hero in a Ragged Kilt," review of Bonnie Prince Charlie, p. 16; December 4, 2005, Judith Warner, review of The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, p. 69.

Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 1983, Alida Becker, review of The First Elizabeth.

Publishers Weekly, March 8, 1991, Genevieve Stuttaford, review of To the Scaffold, p. 61; May 16, 1994, review of Great Catherine, p. 59; December 30, 1996, review of Her Little Majesty, p. 45; January 5, 2004, review of Lilibet, p. 56; September 27, 2004, review of The Girl from Botany Bay, p. 46; July 25, 2005, review of The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, p. 43; February 27, 2006, review of Royal Panoply, p. 46; May 29, 2006, review of The Last Wife of Henry VIII, p. 32.

San Francisco Chronicle, May 29, 1983, Leah Garchik, interview with Carolly Erickson.

Times Literary Supplement, September 12, 1980, review of Great Harry, p. 985.

Victorian Studies, autumn, 1998, Dorothy Thompson, review of Her Little Majesty, p. 137.

Village Voice, April 19, 1983, Mark Caldwell, review of The First Elizabeth, p. 44.

Washington Post Book World, February 12, 1978, John Kenyon, review of Bloody Mary.


BookBitch, (July 16, 2008), Barbara Bamberger Scott, review of To the Scaffold.

Curled Up with a Good Book, (July 16, 2008), Barbara Bamberger Scott, review of To the Scaffold., (July 1, 2008), review of The Secret Life of Josephine.

Reading Group Gold, (July 1, 2008), "A Conversation with Carolly Erickson."

Romantic Times Online, (July 1, 2008), Kathe Robin, review of The Secret Life of Josephine.