Tag Archives: history

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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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard

A few years ago, I joined a musical theatre group. The first show I was involved in was a “concert” – a selection of songs from a variety of shows, all on a similar theme – with the theme “the darker side of musicals”. There were several songs from the Sondheim show “Assassins,” including “The Ballad of Guiteau”.

To be honest, it was the first time I’d ever heard of Guiteau (or Czolgosz, the assassin of McKinley). I vaguely knew about Garfield, but only as one of the list – an assassinated president, or one of the Reconstruction presidents; someone to be recited, not someone to be learned. We spent almost no time on the late 19th century in my history classes in high school, and what we did learn was the social changes – things like yellow journalism or the labor safety reforms. Reconstruction went from Andrew Johnson to the Civil Rights movement with hardly a stop in between.

But the song is interesting, and I wanted to know how accurate it was. So I went on Wikipedia, read a bit, got even more interested, and heard about this book. Of course, Reconstruction-era American politics is not hugely popular or available in the UK. Luckily, my mom was also interested and bought it for our joint Kindle account.

I came away from this book with three overwhelming conclusions. First, Guiteau was certifiable and should have been institutionalised. I understand why he was executed. But there’s not a chance that he understood the moral implications of what he did. He transformed single, isolated events into a divine mandate, and he genuinely believed that other people – people like Chester Arthur (the vice president) and General Sherman (of the march to the sea), whom he’d never met – would back him up.

Second, Garfield was amazing. He was incredibly intelligent, and once he got into the habit of learning (which did take him a while), he was unstoppable. He started off in nearly devastating poverty, and was president of his alma mater by the time he was 25. He was a family man – incredibly close to his mother [his father died when he was under the age of 2] and siblings, increasingly devoted to his wife, and an involved father. He didn’t want to be president – he didn’t even really want to be in politics, but saw it as the best way that he could make a difference – but when it was pushed on him, he did as much as he could to be the best president he could be while still staying true to his own values and ideals. Even when he was dying, he was unselfish: telling the doctors that they were doing a good job, telling his wife that he wasn’t really in pain, doing what he could to make even his death not about him.

Third, Doctor Bliss was almost completely responsible for Garfield’s death. Guiteau was crazy, but he wasn’t wrong when he said that he was responsible for the shooting but not the death. Bliss had an undeserved sense of entitlement that led to him claiming sole responsibility for Garfield’s care, even to the extent of keeping his family away. He put his own reputation and desires above the care of his patient, and that is just wrong no matter what year it is. I don’t care that the medical convention at the time was anti-antisepsis, or that hospitals weren’t acceptable/accessible for anyone other than the indigent. This is the President of the United States. GET A SECOND OPINION. When the man’s personal doctor comes in? LET HIM COME IN. When Alexander Graham Bell comes in with his device to locate the bullet? LET HIM LOCATE THE BULLET – instead of telling him where to look and not allowing him to look anywhere else in the body (even as a control point! And had Garfield on a metal-spring mattress when Bell is using a metal detector!) The anti-antisepsis stuff I can forgive, because that was the conventional wisdom at the time, but the fact that he refused to acknowledge that septicemia had set in? The fact that he blatantly lied in all his press releases saying that the president was fine? And the fact that he refused to allow any sort of dissent for his opinion even after Lucretia Garfield said publicly that she’d never asked him to be her husband’s doctor? That’s delusion of an entirely different kind than Guiteau’s, and was much more devastating to Garfield.

Those were my main conclusions, but there was a lot else in the book that I found new and interesting. (I was coming in with almost no knowledge, so pretty much everything was new and interesting.) I didn’t know much about the Republican party post-Civil War, so I didn’t know much about Conkling and the spoils system. I ended up being a bit proud of Chester Arthur for breaking free of Conkling’s hold and carrying on with Garfield’s civil service reforms – and I must admit that I gave a bit of an evil laugh when Conkling lost his seat through his own hubris.

I also didn’t know anything about the reaction to Garfield’s death. In the book, the way it comes across – and I certainly hope that this is accurate – is that Garfield was personable enough and popular enough with all groups of people that the announcement of his death affected everyone – from freed black people to die-hard southerners to political rivals – and brought them closer as a nation. People didn’t riot against each other; they may have banded together against Guiteau but society didn’t fracture. Emotionally reuniting the country is something that Garfield may have been able to do while living – he was certainly making progress at it – and something that was sadly achieved by his death.

As for the book itself, it was a very quick read – Millard makes it entertaining as well as informative, and there’s nothing in it that can be considered dry or unnecessary. It seemed a bit short to me, but that could be because I’m also reading a book about the history of the Mediterranean, and I’m only 20% through it after almost six weeks. (That one is verrrrrry long and dense.) It didn’t feel incomplete; it just went very quickly and I still want to know more. This is especially surprising because I generally don’t care about 19th century politics – but Garfield-the-person was so interesting to me that I want to know him better. [I’m satisfied with my level of knowledge of Guiteau now though. *shudder*]

To sum up: I would recommend this book, whether you’re already interested in the time period or not. Also, give “The Ballad of Guiteau” a listen and be amazed at Sondheim’s writing and research (as well as Millard’s).

….now to find something similar about Czolgosz and McKinley…..

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The Morville Hours, by Katherine Swift

This is another one, like Mr. Rosenblum’s List, that’s on my local library’s sort-of-book-club list. Unlike Mr. Rosenblum’s List, I had heard of The Morville Hours before.  It had always sort of intrigued me, but other things always had my attention. Plus, I’m not really a gardener, so it never seemed like the kind of book that I just had to read right now.

But I am a medieval connections afficianado, and when it’s on a book club list, you’ve got to at least give it a try. And I liked it – not that I thought I wouldn’t. But I did find it a bit soporific – I could read a full section at a time, but that was about my limit, and after finishing it this morning I slept for two hours.

I’m not completely blaming my narcolepsy on the  book – I’ve been very mentally and physically busy in the last while, and it’s been hot (highs around 90F, lest any of my US readers think I’m exaggerating), and I’m on a sort of down time until my job starts. But reading a book that is so imbued with the rotation of the hours, months, and years added to my sense of placidity.

The book combines descriptions and history of the medieval “book of hours” – a prayer book detailing the prayers and readings for the times of day (Matins, Vespers, etc.) – with the liturgical year, the agricultural year, the building of a massive garden (really a series of gardens) in a stately home over twenty years, and some of her own personal and family history. It’s organised around the canonical hours, and each of the chapters fits the emotional theme of the part of the day –  Matins is about beginnings, childhood, newness, planning, and Christmas and early winter, for example.

In addition to giving the history of the garden, and herself somewhat, and the liturgical calendar, Swift gives us the history of the house and the area. The area has been settled since Celtic times, with a fortification from the Saxons and a castle and stately home since the Normans. It was important in the Civil War, saw the transition from farming to mills and factories to industrialised unemployment. The house itself shifted from family to family over the centuries, as these things often do, and those families are also touched on in some of the chapters.

It also, as it’s a book about a garden, has descriptions and histories of some of the plants. I have to admit, I’m not very good at botany. I always wish I were better at it, but I’m really not good. I’m an inside person primarily, who looks at flowers and plants and goes “how pretty!” but usually doesn’t know or remember the names (either common names or Latin names) beyond “tulip” or “rose” – and only those if they are blooming. That said, Katherine Swift’s descriptions helped me see the plants, even if I didn’t have a good cultural memory of what she was describing. She’s a very evocative writer; I found myself living in a Shropshire village through the seasons even though I’ve never been to Shropshire in any sort of weather.

It’s a good book; I don’t think I’d read it again except as a reference for some of the liturgical and monastic references, but I’m glad I’ve read it once. It flows very well, moving seamlessly between the garden and the history and the personal anecdotes. Especially if you like gardens, it’s one you should pick up.

 

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Ladies of Liberty, by Cokie Roberts

We hear a lot in the US about the Founding Fathers – the Revolutionary War heroes who wrote/signed the Declaration and the Constitution, who dedicated their lives to the country and shaped the nation we have today. We hear less about the Founding Mothers – the women who subsumed their relationships and sometimes their own preferences into the politics and struggles of the new country.  Oh, sure, we know a bit about Abigail Adams, maintaining a Massachusetts farm while her husband was creating a country, and Dolley Madison, who saved the portrait of George Washington during the War of 1812, and sometimes there might be a collection of biographical sketches of First Ladies – but there’s not even close to the depth of research given to the Presidents and other major male figures.

Cokie Roberts is trying to redress the balance with this book. It’s extensively researched and documented (as far as I can tell) without ever being dry and dusty (for more than a few sentences at least). Overall, she does an excellent job of bringing the women to life.

And it’s about more than just the First Ladies/White House hostesses. Obviously they make up a bulk of the book, being the female focal points of their respective administrations, and they are covered in detail during – and sometimes before and after – the relevant administrations (except for Elizabeth Monroe, who seemed to have been private and sick most of the time), but the book also covers the Ursuline nuns of New Orleans, the free black women societies who made huge strides in educational access, Theodosia Burr, and other wives, socialites, reformers, and writers of the first six administrations.

Structurally, it’s fairly straightforwardly chronological, with one chapter for each presidential term from John Adams until the election of John Quincy Adams. The women thread into and out of the book much as they would have in the national consciousness of the time – which can seem a bit chaotic but does give a sense of the real-time history. There were quite a few personalities that probably deserve their own biographies – and not just the obvious candidates like Abigail Adams, Louisa Adams, and Dolley Madison.

There were some timing coincidences for me during my reading. I’d just finished reading abut the War of 1812 in the book when one of my favourite podcast series had an episode about the Bombardment of Baltimore, and BBC History podcast had an episode about the War of 1812. And reading about Theodosia Burr made me want to reread Burr – and then I heard that Gore Vidal had died.

(I also wanted to reread The President’s Lady when Rachel Jackson came up, but she never played a big role in society and the book ends at John Quincy Adams’s election.)

This book definitely gave me a new/different perspective on key, well-known figures. I think of Thomas Jefferson, for example, as a man of refinement and education, so to see him derided as a sort of hick with no manners was a bit startling. (Not Cokie Roberts’s derision, I should point out, but public opinion at the time.) I also lost a bit of respect for Abigail Adams for her vehement support of the Alien and Sedition Act, the PATRIOT Act of its day, if not worse. I also found Louisa Adams incredibly fascinating and contradictory, and want to read more about her  (when I’m next in an early-America mood).

It’s not a book for American history beginners, and it was easy to put down – but it was also easy to come back to, and I definitely learned a lot.

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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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The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

There’s a bit of trend right now of explaining complex and lengthy topics using a specific number of short examples. I was first aware of it from “A History of the World in 100 Objects” where one of the British Museum curators picked 100 items from the BM’s collection that he felt best represented the scope of world history. (It’s a great podcast, and I learned a lot about non-European history while listening to it. It’s still available for download from the BBC, too.) Since then, I’ve seen several other “history of x in x objects” things, including a podcast called “Shakespeare’s Restless World” which is basically “The History of Shakespeare’s London in 20 Objects” or however long it ends up being.

And there’s this, The Story of English in 100 Words, which basically does the same thing as AHOTW, but with the English language in place of world history and with words instead of objects. David Crystal starts at the very beginning – or one of the recorded beginnings – of language in the British Isles, with what we know of Celtic, and goes through the words until he reaches the twenty-first century and “twittersphere”.

The most interesting thing about this book, besides just the etymological information about the words (“warrant” and “guarantee” share a ultimate derivation, but entered English at different times, for example) is its mix of cultural history and etymology. There’s history on the individual words, sure, but a lot of the words are picked not for themselves, but for the type of word they are. This word is from Church Latin, for example, and here are some of the other words that came in about the same time and for the same reasons. This word has shifted meaning for cultural and social reasons, and here are some other examples of how this happens. It’s not just a history of these particular words; it’s a history of how English has worked over the years.

Of course, with a combination of cultural history, linguistic history, and specific etymologies, there are only two ways you can go: ridiculously dense or skimming over the top. This book chooses the latter option. It’s definitely the right choice, but I will admit to being a little disappointed at the lack of depth in some entries. There were times when I wanted etymology but got history, or wanted history but got etymology. But that’s my problem, not the book’s.

If you like bite-sized history, if you like words and stories and stories about words, if you are at all interested in English, this book is a good gateway. An introduction to the craziness that is English grammar and orthography, and the way that people have treated both of them over the years.

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Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

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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Filed under General Fiction, Historical