Category Archives: Historical

The Queen’s Dwarf, by Ella March Chase

Disclaimer: Ella March Chase is one of my favourite people on the planet. I call her my writer mom. Her daughter is one of my best friends and her grandchildren are my honorary nephews.

 

I don’t normally like the 17th and 18th century in English history. I’m not interested in the Stuarts or the Hanoverians.  I find the politicking tedious and annoying, and I find most of the major personalities involved self-absorbed to the point of evil. The literature of the time is verbose, preachy,  and over-reliant on contemporary references. The religious infighting makes me feel sick – I really hate the attitude of “I’m right because God says I’m right and if you don’t agree with me you must be destroyed” no matter who it’s coming from.

So, despite my adoration of the author, I was a bit hesitant about this particular book. Her earlier two books were a lot closer to my preferred time period (both set in the Tudor era, which is just at the edge of my particular interests). But this book sucked me in. I got interested in Charles I and Henrietta Maria, and in the interplay between France, England, and Spain during the first half of the 17th century. I got interested in the women at court, especially the Duchess of Buckingham (she was a Manners, so relatively local to where I am now) and Lucy Hay. I even got a bit interested in the rise of the Puritans.

The main character is Jeffrey Hudson, a small person (not technically a dwarf by today’s medical standards) who’s only about 18 inches tall. He’s from a family on the estates of the Duke of Buckingham, and is placed by the Duke into the menagerie of Queen Henrietta Maria. Buckingham intends Jeffrey as a spy against the queen  and her French court. Jeffrey’s mostly just trying to survive. He’s around and influential for quite a few major events – the queen’s pilgrimage to Tyburn, for example, which directly led to the banishment of her French ladies-in-waiting.

Chase weaves the history in with the story pretty seamlessly – so seamlessly that I would occasionally check Wikipedia to find out more of the background. (Which then, of course, led to the Wikipedia warren – I ultimately spent almost as much time reading about Henry of Navarre and Marie de Medici as I did about Jeffrey Hudson. ) She definitely did her research, and it shows.

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Mr. Rosenblum’s List, by Natasha Solomons

My local library is doing a sort of book club. There’s no schedule, no meetings – just a list of books and an end date. You can read whichever of the books you want, at your own pace, and write a tiny review on the enclosed paper. And at the end of a certain time, the library will collect and collate all the reviews and there will be a voluntary discussion session.

This was the first book on the list so I gave it a try. It tells the story of a German refugee couple in the mid-20th century. Jack, the husband, wants desperately to belong in England and uses a list of instructions given to refugees as his guide, adding to it as he discovers more “typically English” things. Sadie, his wife, wants desperately not to forget their life and family in Germany. As you can imagine, this causes problems. Jack runs into problems fulfilling the list’s edicts – anti-Semitism is subtle but rife in post-war Britain, so he can’t become a member of a golf club, for instance. Sadie, on the other hand, sees her husband’s attempts to belong in Britain as a betrayal of their life “before” and an abandonment of their religion, heritage, and family. Jack is nothing if not persistent, though, and moves to Dorset in order to build his own golf course so that he can become a “real” Englishman.

The main thing that I took away from this book – apart from anger at the attacks and vandalism that come with casual racism, and anger at Jack when he ignores or dismisses Sadie – is a deeper though about “how to belong”. I think everyone can agree that simply following a set of rules isn’t enough to make you “belong” – especially when the rules are slightly different for different social groups. There isn’t one overarching set of rules to say “this is an Englishman” or “this is an American” or “this is a German.” The rules are different for Dorset and London, for upper-class and middle-class and working-class, for impoverished gentry and emigrants, for farm laborers and factory workers.

But the most important thing about “belonging” is not what rules to follow, but when to make up your own rules and when to go beyond the rules. Any group is made up of individuals, often similar but never identical. Jack does a lot better at his quest to belong when he stops trying so hard to get all the details right and just acts normally (for him). Sadie finds her “belonging” by doing what she does best (baking and cooking) but also because she never pretends to be something she’s not.

The other thing that helps with “belonging” is when you yourself are inclusive. Jack never turns anyone away, and makes an effort with everyone he meets to bring them into his project and his life. Sir William, on the other hand, makes an effort to exclude and is, in the end, excluded himself. Exclusion can limit belonging – Jack excludes Sadie who in turn excludes him: it’s not until they both make an effort to include the other in their lives that they come together again.

I would recommend this book – I gave it four stars on the library review sheet. It’s not a must-read, a “why haven’t you read this yet” or anything, but it’s nice, and well-crafted, and well-written. If you happen to pick it up, you won’t be sorry.

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Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes

I can’t quite get a handle on Julian Barnes’s writing. I enjoyed England, England despite the lack of any sympathetic characters; I couldn’t get more than a few pages into Flaubert’s Parrot before it started annoying me so much that I had to stop.  Arthur and George sucked me in, but I’m not sure how much of that is the “true story/true crime” nature of it, the interactions with historically familiar people and places, and how much of it is Julian Barnes’s writing. I fear it is the former.

Arthur and George relates the personal histories of Arthur and George up to the point where their lives intersect. George is the son of a vicar who grows up to be a solicitor and a minor expert in railway law. Arthur is the son of an Edinburgh landlady who grows up to be an ophthalmologist and, eventually, a writer of popular stories.

George is accused and ultimately convicted of mutilating horses and serves three years in prison before being released on probation. He and the reader know that he didn’t do it – in fact, it’s basically physically impossible for him to have done it – and he spends the years after his release applying to everyone he can think of to gain a free pardon. He even writes to Arthur, the famous novelist, who has been emotionally dead since his wife’s death and throws himself into this cause with Sherlock Holmes-like vigour and attention. George is pardoned but not compensated, but even more than that, Arthur’s friendship brings him back into society.

Barnes is coy about the key identifying points of his protagonists, which is probably more effective if you don’t go in knowing those details. I did, though – and they’re in almost every review, including the Publisher’s Weekly blurb on Amazon – so I found the avoidance of those details, and especially the way George’s reveal seemed almost forced in (Let’s have a scene specifically to reveal this point!), really awkward and false.

I also found Barnes’s style very unemotional, matter-of-fact. Some of that may have been George’s personality – he came across as having an almost autistic detachment from other people, including his family, and an insistence on accuracy that serves him well as a solicitor but less well as a defendant. Arthur, on the other hand, is supposed to be relatively passionate, and I always felt distanced from him, and from everything that was happening to and around him. I’m not sure I was supposed to; I’m pretty sure I didn’t really like that feeling.

So I’m on the fence about Julian Barnes. I have yet to read The Sense of an Ending, which for some reason is listed as non-fiction in the bibliography at the end of my copy of Arthur and George – maybe that will help me make up my mind.

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Joanna, the Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily, by Nancy Goldstone

I know quite a lot about England in the late Middle Ages (1100-ish to 1500-ish). I can rattle off kings, battles, works of literature, major and minor social upheavals, geography and demographics, you name it.

I know next to nothing (relatively speaking) about the rest of Europe, and essentially nothing about the rest of the world, in that same time period. I vaguely know some of the major points, but just as names, not as details.

This book taught me a lot, in other words. Not just about Joanna, although obviously I knew nothing about her going in, but about Europe outside of England and France during the Hundred Years War. And it was fascinating. The constantly shifting balance of powers between the kingdoms, other non-monarchical countries, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Papacy – not to mention the Pope versus the Cardinals – was dizzying. And Joanna managed to do that and, mostly, rule alone and keep her power for thirty years.

She had terrible taste in men, though. Her first three husbands were not exactly stable, and each one of them signed treaties and promised faithfully not to interfere with the government of Naples. Of course, as soon as they had the chance, each one of them interfered with the government of Naples. Her first husband was an idiot (possibly in a medical sense) who took advantage of Joanna’s illness to release a notorious murderer from prison, and ended up being murdered. Her second husband was a cousin, who only waited about a month before he started physically abusing her in public. Her third husband had spent half his life in prison, and was mentally affected by that – he also physically abused her and then started wandering the world in search of his own kingdom.

But she managed, somehow. She governed effectively, in the midst of an economic meltdown and a number of Hungarian invasions (her first husband was a cousin, and Hungarian, so they had some claims to the throne), managed to sweet-talk three different Popes into various things, and even controlled Sicily for a while – something the monarchs of Naples had been trying to do for at least 50 years.

The book itself, besides being outrageously informative, is very readable. I powered through it, in part because I couldn’t put it down.  By the end, though, I did notice that Joanna was almost idealised: she didn’t do anything wrong, never made a mistake, was never unreasonable. I didn’t come in with any preconceptions about Joanna (unlike, say, Isabella of France when I read Alison Weir’s biography of her), so I don’t know how balanced the book was or what impressions it was trying to correct. I did feel, by the end, that it wasn’t balanced. I’m sure there were negative things about Joanna, and negative reputations and rumours over the centuries – maybe I’ll seek those out now in an attempt to get a fuller picture. At the very least, I’m pretty sure that some people will have seen her merely as a pawn of the various popes, especially the ones that she got on well with, instead of someone working the system and trying to maintain whatever power and status she had.

It was excellent as an introduction (for me) to “my” time period, outside England. I have added a lot of things to my “must research more” list, including Neapolitan history, the kingship of Jerusalem (Joanna held the title of Queen of Jerusalem, but by now it was an honorific; the lack of information didn’t dim my desire to know more about it at all), the Kingdom of Hungary, the Kingdom of Poland, and the Great Schism.

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The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

A few days ago, I finished reading The Help. I can’t imagine that there are many people reading this who haven’t at least heard of it – I know at least three people who regularly read this are the ones who recommended it to me, at various times – but just in case: In 1962 Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman, an aspiring writer, decides to write about the lives of the black maids working for her circle of friends.

But even that is somewhat wrong, because it gives far too much agency to Skeeter and not enough to the maids. It is, after all, 1962, and the Civil Rights Movement is in full swing. The women might not see themselves as having much power at the beginning, but they certainly do by the end. Skeeter’s project wouldn’t have worked without the cooperation of the maids – and everyone involved knows it.

The shifting of power is a major theme in this book. At the beginning, the world is run by Hilly, a local politician’s wife and Skeeter’s “best friend” – and one of the coldest employers in town. She has the power to make or break anyone, from the black maids and their families to the white women who, for some reason, look up to her, fear her, and follow her every mandate. She struggles to maintain her power throughout the book, isolating everyone who dares to cross her until you’re a little bit surprised that she has anyone left to boss around. At Christmas, I watched “The Flint Street Nativity”, a comedy special about a children’s Christmas program, and there was a character there that Hilly really reminded me of. This character was the leader of a trio, and constantly pronounced social doom on one or the other of her friends in the form of “Come on, we’re not talking to her anymore.”  This lasted until the two friends got wise, and one said, “Let’s talk to each other…and not to her.” I really wanted someone to do that to Hilly: if they all stood up to her, her power would cease.  (Of course, that’s essentially what Skeeter’s project, and its eventual publication, did, even if that wasn’t its original goal.)

The most obvious people in the book who start off with no, or limited, power are the maids. They’re black in a society ruled by white. They’re poor in a culture ruled by money. They’re women in a world ruled by men. Their jobs hang on the good will of the white women, and punishment for any infraction is not limited to firing, but can include exile and/or incarceration. At one point, they talk about the possible consequences of sharing their stories, and imminent death – a very real possibility in the South in the early 60s – is by far the least of their concerns.  By the end of the book, they’ve realised that sharing their stories has given them their own power. Their jobs may be the same, but because everyone in Jackson now knows what their treatment has been, many of them are stronger then before. They are certainly less afraid, and that in itself is a major improvement for their lives.

Skeeter – the white woman who collects the maids’ stories – is part of her own power shift, on two fronts. The first front is, of course, Hilly. This one is completely internal – Hilly doesn’t lose power as much as Skeeter realises that Hilly has no power over her. Up until the end of the book, Hilly attempts to exert her form of power over Skeeter, ostracizing her at every level. Skeeter, though, becomes so involved with her writing and the necessity of keeping her work secret that Hilly’s attempts become almost laughable to her.

The second front for Skeeter’s power struggles is her mother. Skeeter’s mother is a Southern belle of the “old school” – she was surprised and disappointed that Skeeter actually finished college with a degree instead of leaving to get married, she is horrified by the idea that Skeeter would work (again, instead of getting married), and she is constantly demanding input on Skeeter’s hair, clothes, makeup, general appearance, and activities. But, as with Hilly, Skeeter’s writing projects give her a new confidence in dealing with her mother. Her success in getting the maids to talk to her eventually reveals information about their own (former) maid, and the way her mother treated that maid. She finally gets her mother to see her as an adult, and after her mother’s death feels independent enough to leave Mississippi and pursue a career.

There are other, individual power shifts over the course of the novel – like the maid who successfully teaches her pre-school-aged charge good self-esteem mantras and stories about colour-blindness. Or the maid who uses the strength and power from telling her story to Skeeter to finally leave her drunkenly abusive husband. Or the white woman who finds the power to stand up to Hilly, and who openly declares that her maid is her friend. Plus, it’s 1962 so there’s the Medgar Evars assassination, the March on Washington, and the way that the world was changing.

I was also going to say something about the problems of writing any work purporting to show the “reality” of blacks when you’re not, but Skeeter as a character – and presumably Kathryn Stockett as a writer – becomes aware of the patriarchal tone of her first requests and does her best to fight against them. She (Skeeter) still, by the end, doesn’t really have any concept of the consequences that the maids face if their parts in the book are revealed, but the maids themselves are ready to face them – and the implication is strong that at least one or two of the employers will support the maids if Hilly and her coterie strike back.

There is a lot more in this book than just the power struggles, but this is just one blog. Next step? I suppose I should watch the film…..

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Preliminary thoughts on Hood, by Stephen R. Lawhead

I’m in the middle of reading the first of Stephen R. Lawhead’s The Raven King trilogy, Hood. It’s a slightly different take on the Robin Hood story – it’s set in Wales. This is causing me a slight amount of hesitation.

I have nothing against Wales. I think Wales is wonderful and I want to go there someday. But Robin Hood is from Nottinghamshire. Maybe South Yorkshire. And there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be.

Oh, Lawhead has a relatively persuasive argument about why the “original” Robin Hood might have been from Wales – citing the Saxon and then Norman-now-English adaptation of Arthur as a national hero as precedent. But the two cases are not entirely similar – and, to me at least, not similar enough to make it a fully logical connection.

The biggest problem I have with his argument is the assumption that the Robin Hood stories couldn’t have been original to the early 13th century. I don’t know why it’s always assumed that people of the Middle Ages weren’t original and creative thinkers, but that seems to be one of the underlying themes: the stories must come from an earlier source because there’s no way there would have been inspiration in the 13th century.

Yes, it’s true that most of what we think we know about the Robin Hood stories are later (sometimes much later) additions and interpretations. Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks have a lot to answer for. But the ballads themselves reflect quite a lot of 13th and 14th century ideas about life, authority, humour, etc – why try to dismiss them or cram them into an earlier culture?

And, even more, there’s one aspect of Lawhead’s interpretation that doesn’t help: the very name of his main character. His “Robin” is Rhi Bran, a prince of one of the Welsh “kingdoms”. I don’t know enough about Welsh history outside the English occupation to know how valid a Welsh kingdom is on its own, but it’s made pretty clear in the book that “Rhi” is a title. He is Prince Bran. The phonetic resemblance isn’t enough for me to justify turning “Rhi Bran” into Robin. Robin is, and has always been, a nickname for Robert – a name meaning “fame-bright”. Bran means “Raven”. It fits with the “raven king” idea that Lawhead has come up with. It doesn’t fit with the story he’s trying to adapt.

And it’s even more glaring when many of the other names are Welsh variants on the familiar names: Iwan = John, Merian = Marian, etc. But Robin, the main figure, has a name so different that it jars on me every time I read it.

There may be a point later in the trilogy where Bran inherits something more closely related to “Robert”, which would go a long way toward appeasing my onomastic nature. But for right now, it’s proving to be a minor hindrance in my enjoyment of the book.

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The Magnificent Spilsbury and the Case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins

Okay, so I knew vaguely about the Brides in the Bath – I have been to Madame Tussaud’s several times now, and I think George Smith or whatever you want to call him has been featured in the Chamber of Horrors. But I didn’t know many of the details, and a lot of the late Victorian/Edwardian murder sensations blend together in my brain. The only thing I really remembered (probably spurred by the mnemonic there) was that this guy had married women and then drowned them.

What I didn’t know about the case was the bigamy aspect. (Question: is it still bigamy when it’s multiple wives who don’t know about each other? Because he had about three wives at any given time.) He married all of these women in succession, of course, but at the same time he had another wife that he would go back to in between, and a first wife who left him and fled to Canada – but as far as I could tell never actually got a divorce, although I could be wrong about that. Somehow that was almost more disturbing to me than the actual murders: the way he seduced these women and was so charismatic – and how close he came to getting away with it.

Obviously, with a title like that, the case is not the only aspect of this book. It’s also the story of Bernard Spilsbury, a “real-life Sherlock Holmes”, who is sometimes considered the father of modern forensics. It’s not really about his personal life, but it does establish the procedures and principles of autopsies and forensic deduction.

That makes it sound drier than it is. I found the book absolutely fascinating and engrossing. Not just the true-crime bits about the murders, but the information about the forensics of it as well. Possibly the coolest part – and the most convincing to me about the crime – was the “re-enactment” that Spilsbury and his colleagues did in order to establish the means. (Is “means” the word I’m looking for there?) Basically, they used some strong swimmers (women who could handle long stretches underwater), and tested different ways to submerge them. By sharply pulling up on the women’s legs – and keeping them up – they ended up almost killing one of their volunteers, and proving to their own satisfaction the way that the crimes could have been committed.

I couldn’t put this book down. It’s so smoothly and engagingly written that I just raced through it. I do enjoy historical true-crime type stuff, and I enjoyed this one even more than The Suspicions of Mr Whicher – in part because the crime was solved, so that aspect was much more satisfying in this book. Definitely another one that I’ll be pushing on people.

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