Last month, I spent a few weeks in Tasmania, on assignment in a house full of little girls. As you might imagine, this involved proportionately large quantities of dolls, tutus, and books about princesses.
Real, historical princesses.
Like this classic (1960) young adult novel by Margaret Leighton. Journey for a Princess is the story of Elstrid (or Aelfthrith), youngest daughter of Alfred the Great, growing up under the shadow of her elder and more successful siblings at the Wessex court. But when a Viking noble on a diplomatic mission to Alfred's court asks for her hand in marriage, the king buys time by sending Elstrid on pilgrimage to Rome with her aunt--via Flanders, where the Countess Judith has some matrimonial plans of her own. As Elstrid's journey continues, she finds that as Alfred's daughter she has much more danger and duty to face than she ever imagined.
I didn't know anything about the historical Elstrid when I began reading this book, so about halfway through I realised I had no idea how the story was going to end! I enjoyed the suspense that added to the book, and I loved seeing Elstrid's ninth-century world, from Wessex to Flanders to Rome, through her eyes. I don't know what Margaret Leighton was like as a scholar, but she certainly showed a detailed familiarity with the people, places, and everyday life of Western Europe at the time, which makes the story very vivid and immersive.
On the other hand, I thought the first half of the book was a little slack. This pays off in the final quarter, which is a really fun (though probably not historically accurate) blend of romance and adventure as open rivalry breaks out for Elstrid's hand and the alliance with Wessex.
I'd also note a reservation about the worldview of the story, which is pretty pro-Rome--Elstrid and her aunt accompany the payment of the Peter's Pence tax from Wessex to Rome, which is seen as an unequivocally good and proper thing in the story, for example. No doubt that's a historically accurate attitude for the characters to have, but it wasn't one that was widespread at the time (the rest of Europe wasn't paying Peter's Pence at that point) and I thought this and other elements betrayed the author's pro-Roman perspective. Protestant readers will probably want to look out for that.
Otherwise, there was lots to love in this story. Like much young adult fiction, this is a story about a girl reaching adulthood, with the responsibilities and new experiences that come with growing up. Unlike a lot of YA, however, Journey for a Princess is about living up to real standards of maturity, rather than asserting a right to immaturity. Elstrid's journey requires her to take more and more responsibility for more and more areas of her life. As a princess in ninth-century Europe, she must learn that her foolish decisions may cost lives--and that the wise choice she doesn't want to make may carry its own happiness with it.
Journey for a Princess is not just a vivid look at a little-known period of European history; it's also an inspiring picture of faithful and feminine strength. It's good enough to be a rewarding read at any age, but I would particularly recommend it for girls between 8 and 15.
Sadly, Journey for a Princess is currently out of print, but it is available on the Open Library.