Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Last Queen (Historical Fiction)

Author: C. W. Gortner
Publication Date: 2006
Length: 368 pages
Cost: The list price for the hardcover is $25.00. New copies are available at Amazon for $10.20, and used ones for $4.96, but these are softcovers. The Kindle edition is $8.25.
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in the library stacks when I was looking for one of the author's more recently published books.

The Backstory

The admirably unconventional subject of this novel is Juana I of Castile, better known as Juana la Loca (Juana or Joanna the Mad). Juana lived a dramatically tragic life during which she was pulled between a variety of different self-interested parties. She is known as "the Mad" for a variety of reasons that seem to be at least somewhat fabricated. It is clear, however, that both her husband and her father were intent upon controlling her in order to control the kingdom of Castile, and, unfortunately for Juana, they were largely successful.

Juana was born in Toledo in November of 1479, the third child of the famous Ferdinand and Isabella (Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabel of Castile). Ferdinand and Isabella were the power-couple of their day--each of them held their respective kingdoms in their own right, and together, they completed the famous Reconquista of Spain, defeating the Moors who had inhabited the majority of the penninsula since the 8th century and initiating the first steps to unifying the country.

It was no surprise that Ferdinand and Isabella were interested in consolidating their position with other monarchs and dukes of similar standing in Europe. One way they accomplished this was through the political marriages of their children, and none would turn out more significant than Juana's marriage to Philip the Fair of Flanders. Philip was the son of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, and destined to be his heir to his extensive realm. At the time, Philip was acknowledged to be the Duke of Flanders when he married Juana in 1496. During the course of their marriage, they had six children, but the marriage was not a happy one. Philip was rather insecure and subsequently power-hungry. He was also regularly unfaithful to Juana, and this didn't go over well.

A series of tragedies transformed Juana from a Spanish Infanta to the heir to the kingdom of Castile. Her brother, her older sister Isabella, and Isabella's young son all died within a few years of each other. Without other brothers or direct male relatives to inherit, Juana became the Castilian heir (her father, Ferdinand, was confined to ruling Aragon after his wife's death). Juana's mother, Isabella, died in 1504, leaving Juana queen of Castile with Philip as her consort. This didn't go over well with her father, Ferdinand. Ferdinand married Germaine de Foix, neice of the French king, in the hopes of having other children who could rule both Castile and Aragon (he was unsuccessful).

It seems that this is the time when claims that Juana was insane start to materialize. Philip announced that he believed that Juana was unable to govern due to her mental state to the Spanish court in 1506. Ferdinand lost a great deal of support from the Castilian court after he embarked on the French marriage, and he was forced to acknowledge Juana and Philip's authority. However, he also signed an agreement with Philip that stated that Juana was unstable and unable to rule, which could have either been an expression of the truth and the need to provide for legitimate government in Juana's stead through Philip or an expression of Philip's insecurity and desperate bid for power. Philip succumbed to typhoid fever in the summer of 1506, leaving only Juana and her claim. In order to further control her, Ferdinand had her confined to a convent in Tordesillas.

After this, Juana was never again directly involved in any events related to Castile. Ferdinand died in 1516 without a male heir. Juana had transformed from his political rival to his successor. Juana was visited by her now adult son, Charles, and she agreed to allow him to rule in her name. He continued her confinement for the rest of her life. It is here that she exhibited symptoms of clinical depression, but this could have easily been caused by her confinement rather than by mental instability. She died there in 1555, only three years before her son, Charles.

Images Reference:

Juana of Castile by Juan de Flandes, c. 1500

Philip of Flanders (Philip the Fair) by the Master of the Magdalen Legend, c. 1500

Isabel I of Castile, painter unknown, c. 1485

What About The Book?

This was a great read, and I highly recommend it. It was a refreshing change from the nearly endless selection of Tudor historical fiction. The novel is composed from Juana's point of view, and I find this to be an interesting choice made by a male author--very rare indeed. Gortner does an admirable job seeing events from Juana's point of view, but his focus is clearly events rather than delving into the depth of feeling that would truly make Juana a three-dimensional character. On the other hand, the events truly make the story--the reader is enthralled, eager to discover what happens next in this exciting, but tragic, narrative.

The author does a good job of casting Juana's character throughout the novel, although her relationship with her parents is a little underdeveloped, and her husband, Philip, had the potential to become a more well-rounded character. Juana's relationships with her mother and father nearly entirely seal her fate, and a greater understanding of these relationships would have made the events that involve these characters more understandable. Her relationship with her mother is woefully underexamined save a few key scenes and letters, and her relationship with her father isn't entirely teased out as fully as it should have been in the latter portion of the novel. In particular, some of her father's actions and decisions at the end of the novel seem out-of-place. In Philip's case, he seems to transform from one exreme to the other without much more than a cursory explanation, and a greater exploration of his character would have made the series of events connected to him appear more realistic.

The events are mostly true, although the author's spin on them from Juana's point of view is mostly--if not entirely--interpretive. The author provides a short Afterward at the end of the novel in which he mentions an assessment of how much of the novel was interpreted and how much of it was based on primary sources. I think he is a little liberal in his claim that so much of it was true and so little of it a sign of literary license--there are several elements in the plot that jump out to readers as "probably interpreted" by the author regardless. For example, Juana and Philip had started living apart by the time Juana was declared the new queen of Castile, but Gortner paints a picture of an abused wife physically and emotionally violated by her husband and nearly literally held as a prisoner in her own house. It is more likely that Juana had moved away from her husband, plunging into a form of cold indifference. I have to give Gortner credit--he did give a list of further reading at the end of his novel, which is something I don't think I have ever seen before in a work of historical fiction.

Gortner has a soft spot for Juana. It is clear that he doesn't believe that she was truly ever mad, and if she developed a form of madness, it was more explicably a form of depression developed after years of conflict with her family, and after years of confinement. There were several rumors that indicated she was mad, and Gortner attempts to explain those events and incidents in the novel in a way to dispel any assumption she wasn't mentally stable. In fact, because of this, it would help to have a general background in Juana's life and why people thought she was insane--and Gortner's suggestions for further reading are probably the best sources.

The novel is extremely enjoyable and a read that is nearly impossible to put down. The story of Juana of Castile is truly evidence that historical truth provides a much more engrossing story than fabricated fiction.

Rating: Between an 8.5 and a 9. It was a fantastic story.
Buy It or Borrow It: Since the softcover is so reasonably priced, it would probably be worthwhile to buy it. If you do, you'll have the list of further reading availble to you. My recommendation is to read the book, then read one or two of the suggestions the author makes, and later, reread the book. Trust me, it is that interesting.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Time of Terror (Historical Fiction)

Author: Seth Hunter
Publication Date: 2010 in the US (2008 in the UK)
Length: 391 pages
Cost: The list price for the hardcover is $24.95, but you can buy a new hardcover from Amazon for $16.47. The Kindle edition is $9.99, and there is presently no paperback available.
Where Did I Hear About It: I pulled it off of the "New Books" shelf in the library.

The Backstory

The novel is set in 1793, and its central figure is Nicholas Peake, a young ship's commander with an exhaulted father and a none-too-conventional mother. Through a series of events, he is given a new identity (Nicholas Turner, American), a new ship (Speedwell, also American), and a mysterious cargo of tobacco to bring to Le Havre by the British government.

Turner falls in with three important people in Paris, Gilbert Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Sara Seton. Gilbert and Mary are romantically linked, and Sara, a friend, is the wife of a French aristocrat in exile in Austria. It is through them, particularly Imlay, that Turner is involved in the important events of the day. France is in the midst of the Reign of Terror of Robespierre and his Committee of Public Safety. At this point, no one is safe--countless innocent people fill the available prisons and batch after batch are executed by the guillotine daily. Mary stays out of the action by retiring to her home just outside of the city, and after a while, the reader will not see much of her. Sara, under a different surname, attempts to hide her aristocratic link from the authorities, living in Paris. Imlay is some sort of agent with some kind of plan that isn't clear to either Turner or the reader for most of the book. The only thing Turner and the reader know is that Imlay believes that the Terror has gone far enough and someone needs to end it.

There is lots of action in this novel, all following Turner. Turner meets with action at sea, both natural and with other ships, and he moves from England to France multiple times with new orders from the English, all centering around an attempt to bring down the Revolutionary government. On the inside, it is clear that all is not well in France as dissent is revealed from within, and notable potential victims of the Terror start to mount up, including Thomas Paine of American fame. It is clear to Turner that Imlay is playing some sort of double-game with him as well, and even Turner himself spends some time in prison. When Turner begins to figure out the plot and its purpose, the Terror comes to a head for all characters involved, and not all come out alive.

What About The Book?

This is A GREAT BOOK! Hunter has many things going for him--he knows maritime history well, he knows ships well, and he knows the time period well. This combination helps him write a really great story that keeps the reader guessing until the very end.

Although Hunter knows maritime history and ships' terms, he does not allow that knowledge to bog down the narrative. Even someone with no knowledge of ships can figure out what he's talking about when he discusses a portion of the ship that, say, is damaged in some way. He also knows the events during the Reign of Terror, and he manages to make them part of the novel without "forcing" them in, in an unclear or unrelated way. He puts a story together very well, focusing on the action rather than trying to explain every little detail of every possible event. For example, he jumps between what are clearly important events and many times, will leave out a direct description of what occurs in between those events, alluding to what may have happened in succeeding chapters. This technique works very well--the reader never feels like something was missing or lost, and instead, often feels a sense of relief that he/she doesn't have to plod through less interesting, and unrelated, events to the story.

The only drawback is that outside of the events and the setting, it is hard to picture this as a true historical fiction. It has a modern feel to it--modern in its beliefs, attitudes towards society, and dialogue. All women are pretty well liberated here, which is great from a modern standpoint but completely incorrect in the context of the times. There is a focus on the importance of money and the incorporation of a little too much of modern economic theory into it that provides a very intersting plot line, but is perhaps too much interpreted from today's lens. It is also very simply written with focus on action and dialogue--don't expect any long descriptions here, and for some, that will detract. Otherwise, it keeps the reader interested throughout, and all events are put to a purpose by the author.

Rating: A 9. It was great--a little too quick a read, but enjoyable from beginning to end.
Buy It or Borrow It: With a book like this and a price around $15, you can't go wrong to buy it. However, you won't lose anything by borrowing it, either. I do recommend you do one of those, though, because it is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Artemis (Historical Fiction)

Author: Julian Stockwin
Publication Date: 2002
Length: 344 Pages
Cost: The original hardcover cost around $27.00, but new paperbacks start just over $10.00 now. There is no Kindle version available at present.
Where Did I Hear About It: I walked around the library looking for maritime historical fiction, and I came across this book.

The Backstory

Artemis is the second in a series of novels centering around Thomas Kydd, a young man impressed into British naval service in the 1790s. Kydd is accompanied by one Nicholas Renzi, a man with a mysterious, but affluent, past. This novel begins with the transfer of Thomas Kydd and Nicholas Renzi from the Duke William to Artemis, where they meet with almost immediate action, spotting a hostile French ship as the novel opens. Artemis is damaged, but victorious, and returns to England for much needed repairs. The crew is hailed as heroes, and for a short time, they remain on shore where Kydd meets his sister, and later, his family. After ironing out details at home, he and Renzi rejoin the Artemis, embarking on a mysterious voyage to India. The rest of the novel centers on the ship and crew's adventures as they all become circumnavigators, visiting China, several notable Islands, and rounding the Straits of Magellan. In the process, Kydd and Renzi meet with multiple challenges, including a young lady that piques Kydd's interest, a visit to China, and help lended to an English astronomer.

At the end, there seems to be promise for Kydd and Renzi in moving up the ranks of sailors. There are currently 11 books in the series, and the premise of the whole is to document Kydd's rise from the lowest-level sailor to the status of admiral. As this is the only book I have read, I am unsure whether the 11th book is the last in the series, or if there will be more to follow.

What About The Book?

Julian Stockwin has a very strong background in maritime history--he knows ship terms from fore to aft, and the novel is peppered with descriptions that would be the envy of the most widely-read scholars in the field. However, the novel suffers from several important shortcomings that are entirely independent of this history.

First, the ship terms will get in the way for anyone who is not well-versed in their meanings. Even more confusing is the dialogue, which is often expressed in a combination of dialect and sailor-speak when it involves the common sailors. There are also several "traditions" and "ship customs" that will make perfect sense to readers "in the know," but their significance is not explained for those of us who lack this knowledge. As a result, the novel takes on the character of having been composed for a specialized audience and not to entice those of us who lack background but abound in curious fascination and the desire for a good story.

The plot is another shortfall, and it is probably the most important. This book is too much a part of a series and not enough a novel in its own right. It is perfectly understandable for there to be loose ends meant to be addressed by future books, but that arguably goes too far and cripples this book irreversibly. In addition, the plot is a little bit too neatly laid out whereby seemingly insurmountable events and forces are circumvented without any consequence to the characters. This makes the action feel very unrealistic, and this tendency becomes so persistent that by the action rounding out the story, you already know everything is going to turn out just fine for everyone of any importance. For example, when Kydd returns to England after the battle with the French ship, he meets up with his sister. She convinces him to return home, against his inclinations, to help his father, whose wig business is failing. In a matter of a few quick chapters, what would be a nearly devastating set of circumstances for most is neatly tied up with a bow so Kydd can return to sea--Renzi conveniently turns up, a "brilliant idea" is formulated to transform wigmaker Dad into schoolmaster, and voila, Kydd makes it back to the ship just in time before it embarks on the voyage that takes up most of the narrative. If this were the only example of an all-too-conveniently laid plot, it wouldn't make as much of a difference, but EVERY conflict or event turns out very similarly without fail.

There is also a tendency for events to occur without much seeming significance to the plot. I suspect the purpose is to introduce the reader to "what happens on ships" but, if the author is intent upon producing a series of books, I am sure he will have (or has had at this point) ample time to put those events to better, more significant, use. At one point, an illness breaks out on board the ship, which is potentially devastating under the circumstances. Renzi, being "book-learned" is put to use as a surgeon, but this has no point at all as he basically does nothing useful to the plot--not even something bad that would be useful to the plot. In addition, although this is an extremely important event in the real-life experience of being at sea, the whole thing is up and done in about 10 pages with the losses to the crew being chalked up as "that's just the way it is." Basically, if this had never happened in the narrative, the reader wouldn't have missed it, so the reader must ask; what is the point? Unfortunately, this is just one example of the reader asking this important question--there are many, many others.

I won't wreck the plot or the end, but I will say that the novel wraps up with another, again pointless, event, leaving the reader to ask; what the hell was that?

Rating: A 2. It's an uncaptivating read that with a combination of the reader asking "huh?" and/or knowing in advance that everything will work out just fine.
Buy It or Borrow It: Don't go near this one. In a world with a 20-novel Patrick O'Brien series available and countless other maritime historical fiction besides, there is no need to pick this series up. There is a reason this series has not received very much attention beyond the hype of the first novel, Kydd. Given the attention to Kydd, however, that novel may be worth a read--but, if it is, you'll be sadly disappointed to continue the series any farther with Artemis as its follow-up.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Anne Boleyn (Joanna Denny Biography)

Author: Joanna Denny
Publication Date: 2004
Length: 327 pages with endnotes and an index
Cost: $26.00 for the hardcover, between $15.00 and $17.00 for the paperback, and on the Kindle for $9.99
Where Did I Hear About It: I actually found this in the library in the biography section.

The Backstory

There has never been a character who has fascinated the imagination and polarized historians more than Anne Boleyn.

Anne was born sometime between 1501 and 1507 to Thomas Boleyn and Lady Elizabeth Howard. The family home was Hever Castle in Kent, and Thomas regularly visited the continent during his career as a diplomat. Anne had two siblings--Mary, believed to be the eldest, and George, who may have been older or younger than Anne depending upon the year of her birth (he was born around 1504). Thomas' familiarity with foreign courts and positive reputation led to an offer made by Archduchess Margaret of Austria to have Anne as a part of her household. In 1514, Anne moved on to France to attend Henry VIII's sister, Mary, as Queen of France. Anne later transferred into the service of the new Queen Claude at the accession of King Francis I. In 1521, Anne's father recalled her to England in the hopes that her marriage to her cousin, James Butler, would end a dispute in the family over the Earldom of Ormonde in Ireland.

When these marriage plans fell through, Anne became more of a fixture in the English court. She made her first recorded appearance there sometime in 1522, and she participated in a pageant, much noted because of her appearance as "Perseverance" in it. She was, supposedly, briefly betrothed to Henry Percy, the future Duke of Northumberland, but a combination of forces (may have) worked against this match, including Henry Percy's father and even Cardinal Wolsey, then Henry VIII's chief advisor.

Anne came to Henry VIII's attention sometime between 1525 and 1526. Anne refused to submit to his advances, which only inflamed his infatuation with her. The result, often termed the King's "Great Matter" dragged on for years. It included Henry's multi-front attack on his marriage to Katherine of Aragon--his attempt to draw the French clergy to his side of the matter, his attempt to persuade the Pope to annul this union, and a trial in a public court in England. The result was Henry's decision to declare himself head of the English church, to sever from Catholicism, and to declare is marriage to Katherine null and void because of her previous marriage to his long-dead older brother, Arthur.

After meeting with Francis I in Calais, Henry and Anne married quietly, somewhat secretly, but with intent to legitimize an increasingly visible pregnancy. The date is generally given as January 25, 1533. On June 1, Anne was crowned and anointed Queen in a way never seen before or since--using the same crown of Edward the Confessor that was used to crown reigning monarchs (which at that point, had all been male--this crown was lost, supposedly during the Commonwealth under Cromwell).

Anne didn't last long as wife or Queen. Her first child, Elizabeth, was certainly a disappointment, but a succession of three other failed pregnancies was enough to parallel his failed marriage to Katherine in Henry's mind. In May 1536, she was arrested, taken to the Tower of London, and accused of adultery with five men, one of whom was her brother. The men were tried first and all found guilty. The verdict a foregone conclusion, Anne was sentenced to death at her own trial. Her alleged partners in crime were executed on May 17, 1536, and she was beheaded by a swordsman from Calais two days later.

On May 14, Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared Henry VIII's marriage to Anne null and void--Elizabeth was a bastard and Henry went on, 11 days later, to marry his third wife, Jane Seymour.

What About The Book?

This book is very readable. Denny explains people, situations, and events very clearly without entangling herself in the details of the history or the sources. The biography covers the whole history of Anne's life, and it puts forth a number of new theories. Most striking is Denny's assertion that Thomas Boleyn was not the grasping, ambitious man without a care for his children that is often portrayed elsewhere. She makes a very convincing case for his having been a very prudent and loving father--a more compelling case than ever was made to the contrary. Denny reveals that Thomas was not in favor of Mary becoming Henry's mistress, and that he may have even recalled her from her service in France because of her licentious reputation there.

What's wrong with this biography? It is one of the most unapolegetically biased histories of anyone or anything I have ever read. Denny has no love for Katherine of Aragon or her daughter, Mary. She views Eustace Chapuys, the Holy Roman ambassador to England with equal scorn. Her theory is that Anne was an ideal paragon of Christian virtue and that she viewed herself, and her elevation to queenship, as her being anointed by God to promote the cause of Protestantism in England. Katherine and Mary just didn't lay down all to pave the way for Denny's heroine, and they are branded as traitors and plotting the death of King Henry.

Anne was clearly debased by her detractors after her death, and the fact that all of the sources available do not paint her in a particularly good light is a symptom of this. Denny is right to question these interpretations of Anne as spiteful, cruel, and ambitious. However, she swings the pendulum too far in trying to rehabilitate her reputation by trying to make a case (a poor case) for her having been all good instead. A lot of evidence to the contrary is famously written out of this biography--for example, Denny gives no time to Anne's arguments with Henry after their marriage, which seem to be a fairly well-known fact. She also refuses to detect any sign that Henry was tiring of Anne going into the third year of their marriage. As a result, Anne's fate appears to come a little too much out of nowhere.

Denny also sees Anne as a full-fledged Protestant--a fully developed version of what a Protestant may be today. This is short sighted. Although Anne clearly was sympathetic to the ideals of Protestantism, including the availability of the Bible in English, Denny forgets that Protestantism was a mere embryo of itself in the 1530s, between 10 and 20 years after Luther's fated nail affixed his premises to the church door. To claim that anyone was a Protestant, foregoing all of the trappings of long-standing, traditional Catholicism, in this period is in error. Denny claims that as much as half of London was Protestant by the time Anne was executed, and she uses this statistic as proof that Anne couldn't possibly have been as disliked by the people as others believe she was. There are too many reasons to enumerate why this is impossible--it just presumes too much.

One very positive thing that comes out of this is an understanding of just how few sources there are that really shed light on who Anne was. The same sources have been picked over and over again, but they must not be particularly revealing--especially if Denny managed to find enough in them to support a number of her very questionable, very two-dimensional theories.

Rating: Sadly, I have to give it a 3. The bias and presumptions that Denny makes in this biography invade the text too far to allow one to gain much by trying to wade through them.
Buy It or Borrow It: Just don't, either way. Although not focusing on her, you'll get more out of David Starkey's Six Wives on Anne than you will get out of this biography.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wolf Hall (Historical Fiction)

Author: Hilary Mantel
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 532 Pages
Cost: $27.00 for the hardcover
Where Did I Hear About It: A combination of an interview on BBC Radio 3's Nightwaves program and an independent search for recent historical fiction led me to this book.

The Backstory

Thomas Cromwell, mysterious minister to Henry VIII, is the subject of this novel. The reader will see the events of the English court between 1527 and 1535 through his eyes, and through this lens, the reader will be more extensively introduced to a cast of characters often hovering in the background of other Tudor histories and novels. The reader meets Thomas More, Stephen Gardiner, Thomas Cranmer, and Cardinal Wolsey with a more intimate glimpse than ever before. It is Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Princess Mary, and Katherine of Aragon who are relegated to the background of the novel, even if the events surrounding them do drive its plot.

The novel begins with an event in Cromwell's youth--an escape from a brutally cruel, drunk father abroad where the reader learns later he becomes acquainted with business. In 1527, Cromwell is in Cardinal Wolsey's service, arguably the most powerful man in England at the time. Between the events surrounding Henry's attempt at divorce from Katherine and the introduction of Anne Boleyn, Wolsey is stripped of power and eventually condemned to die. Cromwell, because of his complex personality and ability to maneuver the court politics of the day, rises rather than falls after this, becoming Henry's chief minister. A growing murmur in the background is the dispute over the administration of the English church--Henry's usurpation of control from the Pope and the beginning of the dissolution of the monasteries under Cromwell's observation. The text is full of references to people and events of the day--even the references to food, gifts, and minor characters are essentially accurate, if not based on the best possible information.

The novel ends in 1535, focusing on the events of that year, including the execution of Thomas More.

What About The Book?

This is probably the most detailed, historically accurate portrait of Tudor England at this time that has been put into novel form. The research is exceptional, and Mantel finds a way to weave even the most insignificant events and people into the narrative. Mantel supplies a list of the different characters in the different parts of the book at the beginning of the novel, which is a help to those who do not know the history.

Unfortunately, this isn't a very compelling read. It took me a very, very long time to finish it, and often, I had to think to pick it up. Better novels draw the reader back to them in ways this one does not. I think the novel suffers from two main problems--a lack of endearing characters and the fact that it is a historian's historical fiction.

The characters aren't particularly interesting people. The choice of Thomas Cromwell is a unique one, and much to be applauded. However, you don't finish the novel feeling like you "know" him any better than you did when you started, and this may have been Mantel's intention. Seeing the events through Cromwell's eyes makes him fade into the background, and constant references to his unknown past, his "shady" character, are many, and do not draw the reader into this largely mysterious figure. Most of the figures that surround Cromwell on his own level feel very interchangeable--Wolsey could be traded for Gardiner or Cranmer, and the reader wouldn't notice the difference. One of the problems is the sheer volume of characters. This is accurate given how many people would have been a part of Cromwell's life, but it doesn't make for easy reading, especially for someone who doesn't know the history well. As a result, you don't get to know anyone at all, and it makes it hard to feel anything for the characters as they experience some of the difficulties of the times.

Mantel is interested in the history, and she writes it without sacrificing it to the action of the novel, which is something nearly everyone who writes anything fictitious about this time period does. I am very impressed by that. However, her focus on the history sacrifices a great deal of character development and description of place, of the setting. Most of the work is dialogue-based, so you don't get a sense of the scene at all, and informed readers can probably fill this void with what they know of the period. You don't even learn where the places most often visited by the main characters are in relation to each other. Because she wants to include all of the important events of the day, I think this leads her to incorporate many more characters than safely make up a novel that is readable to historians and non-historians alike.

The title, Wolf Hall, is an odd one, and this baffles me even to this point. Wolf Hall is the family home of the Seymour family, the family from which Henry VIII's third wife comes. Wolf Hall is referenced only a few times in the whole work, and although Seymours do appear now and again, this is well before their rise with Jane's marriage. There is a key reference at the end--one I won't spoil for those who may read this book--that was probably meant to imply the "future" that the novel doesn't cover, but I really think that this title falls very, very flat and even misleads the reader. When I first picked up the novel, I thought it was going to be about Henry's decision to be rid of Anne, his marriage to Jane, and the birth of his son, Edward. The book covers the period before this is even a thought, and I was surprised by that--I am sure I am not the only one who would be.

Rating: This is tough--as a novel, I'd probably give it a 6, but as a historical fiction that is actually historical, it gets a 9.
Buy It or Borrow It: Borrow it--given how much hype it has had, it will definitely be available somewhere accessible for you. However, if it starts to bore you, you may want to put it down rather than wait for the action to draw you back in because it won't. There is A LOT to admire here in the history and in fleshing out at least some of Cromwell, so it is more than worth a try.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

History Fact Check: The Tudors Season 1

Program Review

Just in case you missed the endless hype over the last few years, The Tudors is a series, featured on the Showtime movie network, that is based (loosely) on the life of Henry VIII. It has been marketed as Showtime's attempt to compete with HBO's home-grown programming, complete with that historic feel created so brilliantly by the BBC and Masterpiece Theater. The show has run for four seasons, completing its fourth and final season this past spring.

No one is going to claim this is historically accurate, not even the series creator, Michael Hirst. If there is ever a choice between historical accuracy and soap opera-like drama, I'm sure you know where the decision fell. Overall, the series is extremely interesting, even to the strictest of historians (like myself). However, it does have its drawbacks--the series stays true to the changing cast of characters surrounding Henry throughout his reign to the point that the only constant characters are Henry (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) and Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk (Henry Cavill). If you don't like their characters or absolutely love someone else that gets absented, you're out of luck. For example, the first season incorporates the incomparable talents of Sam Neill (Cardinal Wolsey) and Jeremy Northam (Thomas More), but anyone who knows the history is aware from the first episode that they will not stay with the series for its duration. The length of time certain characters remain in Henry's life works against the series in the opposite way as well. In a program about a man with six wives, you already know that Catherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and Anne Boleyn (Natalie Dormer) will meet their ends before long, but since they remain with the series through the second season, viewers will miss them when the series enters its third.

What's the History?

Season one roughly focuses on most of the 1520s. Henry VIII is married to Catherine of Aragon and has been for "a while," although this period of time is never defined. It is clear that the product of their union is a single daughter, Mary, and that Henry is dissatisfied with this. Of course, there is a lot of womanizing involved in this, mostly focusing on Henry and his friend, Charles Brandon, who Henry creates Duke of Suffolk. Henry is advertised as being "25," but having been born in 1491, he would have been 29 in 1520.

A few things occur that encourage Henry to run headlong toward divorce with Catherine. First, his mistress, Elizabeth Blunt, has a son, Henry Fitzroy, who dies around the age of five or six. There is some implication that Henry considered designating Fitzroy his heir, given he was his only male child. Henry nearly drowns at one point, forcing him to reconsider his reckless lifestyle and lack of a male heir by Catherine. Then, of course, enter Anne Boleyn, beautiful and captivating, and motivated by her grasping family to enthrall the king beyond becoming one of his string of cast-off and soon forgotten mistresses. At the end of the first season, Henry is pursuing a divorce with Catherine through Cardinal Wolsey, desperate to marry Anne.

History Fact Check

The Duke of Buckingham

Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, is played by Steven Waddington in the first season of the series. He is frustrated, being a claimant from the previous Plantagenet dynasty, overthrown by Henry's father. Although he doesn't last long in the series, a few things happen to him--first, his daughter is "corrupted" by Charles Brandon, Buckingham discovering them having sex; second, he hates Cardinal Wolsey, "accidentally" dropping a washing tray of water on him; and third, he is executed by Henry for plotting his assassination.

Indeed, there was an Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, and his appearance in the series around 1520 is accurate. He was a claimant to the throne, but the reference to Edward II is an odd one--Edward II was not a well-liked king. Edward II was overthrown by his wife, Isabella of France, who was subsequently overthrown by her son, Edward III. The Wars of the Roses was based on rival claims to the throne by different descendants of Edward III, so a reference to him would have been more appropriate.

The 3rd Duke of Buckingham was descended from the youngest son of Edward III--Thomas of Woodstock. His daughter, Anne of Gloucester, had a son, Humphrey Stafford, who was created the 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1444. The Buckinghams supported the Yorkist claim to the throne, represented by Edward IV and his children, and the notorious Richard III, Edward's brother.

Although Richard III died in battle at Bosworth Field in 1485, defeated by Henry VII, this didn't mean that the Plantagenet line was entirely extinguished. Edward III had a big and unusual problem in the size of his family--he had many children and nearly all of them survived to adulthood and had children of their own, and to further complicate matters, subsequent generations of his family intermarried, so certain individuals actually had claims to the throne through more than one of Edward III's children. Henry VII knew he was essentially considered a usurper, not only by his own people, but also by monarchs abroad. Henry VIII had an easier time--his father's rule was successful in that it calmed the hostilities that had been fueling the Wars of the Roses, and the English were more than happy to bid farewell to the days of instability and war. By Henry VIII, most had reconciled themselves to a new dynasty as it continued to bring these essential elements to the table.

The supposed liaison between Charles Brandon and Buckingham's daughter is a rewriting of a short-lived relationship between Henry VIII and Buckingham's sister, Lady Anne Hastings. Their sister, Elizabeth, reported this affair to Buckingham in 1510, too early for the series, who immediately told her husband. Her husband, in turn, withdrew her from court and threw her temporarily into a convent. Henry blamed Elizabeth for the loss of his mistress, and he dismissed her from court. This angered Catherine of Aragon, and Henry and Catherine had a very public falling-out as a result.

The 3rd Duke of Buckingham was executed, but not for plotting against Henry in a direct way. The Duke's son, Henry, Lord Stafford, married Ursula Pole, and this presented Henry VIII with a problem. The Poles, like the Staffords, were descended from the Plantagenet line. Ursula's mother, Margaret Pole, was the daughter of the Duke of Clarence, brother to both Edward IV and Richard III. This marriage united both of these pre-existing claims to the throne. This only added to the fact that Buckingham had interfered in Henry VIII's liaison with his sister and his apparent dislike of Henry VIII's favorites, in particular, Cardinal Wolsey. In May 1521, Henry VIII had Buckingham arrested, accused of "witchcraft," attempting by these means to discover how long Henry VIII would live. He was condemned and executed four days later--much to the dismay of Catherine, who was close to his family. The people of London rioted in reaction, but he wouldn't be the last of Henry's victims.

Henry Fitzroy

The series opens with the introduction of Henry VIII's latest mistress, Elizabeth Blunt. She approaches Cardinal Wolsey, explaining to him that she is pregnant with the king's child, and Wolsey makes arrangements for her to leave court in an appropriate fashion. Matters are further complicated by Catherine of Aragon who tearfully confides in Elizabeth regarding her troubled relationship with the king and her inability to have his children.

Elizabeth has a healthy son, who she names Henry. Henry VIII acknowledges that this is indeed his son, and is encouraged by his safe delivery and healthy state. He confers several titles on him later, prompting Catherine to question whether Henry intends to make Fitzroy his heir over her daughter, Mary. Fitzroy dies suddenly, between the ages of five or six, in a personal household provided by the king.

Henry VIII indeed had an illegitimate son he acknowledged named Henry Fitzroy. His mother was Elizabeth Blount, the daughter of a minor noble, who served Catherine of Aragon as one of her ladies in waiting. She was supposedly one of his longer-term mistresses, beginning an affair with him as a teenager. "Bessie" Blount was not married at the time of her affair with Henry, and this diverts from the series (the series shows a young woman in her mid-twenties who is married). In 1519, somewhat before the series is supposed to begin, she gave birth to Henry, called "Fitzroy" in acknowledgement of his parentage (Fitzroy translates to "son of the king"). Her affair with the king supposedly ended after this, and in the series, she is very distraught by his apparent lack of interest in her. In 1522, she married Gilbert Tailboys, whose family was supported by Cardinal Wolsey and who was probably chosen for Bessie as a suitable husband after her affair with the king concluded.

Henry Fitzroy was indeed given several titles, including Earl of Nottingham, Duke of Richmond, Duke of Somerset, but the most telling was his affirmed place as Warden of the Marches toward Scotland. This basically entitled him to govern the north of England. This was a big deal--the only comparable position was given to his daughter by Catherine, Mary, who was sent to the Welsh Marches in the fashion of all those previously given the title "Prince of Wales." Not surprisingly, many people thought this was a sign that perhaps Henry would acknowledge Fitzroy as his heir. However, Henry was indeed aware that setting an illegitimate child on the throne could potentially provoke civil war in favor of any of the remaining Plantagenet claimants to the throne or in favor of his daughter's birthright, so if he ever considered this course of action at all, it was short-lived at best.

Fitzroy did not die as a young child. He was married in 1533 to Lady Mary Howard, daughter of the Duke of Norfolk and member of the Boleyn faction at court, then in favor with the king. However, Fitzroy was sickly, dying of consumption in 1536 without any children.

The end of Cardinal Wolsey

Cardinal Wolsey is introduced in the series as Henry's most trusted advisor. He is clearly looking for advancement, and is willing to sacrifice his moral well-being to do so, which is in direct contrast to Thomas More. He is charged with the task of getting a divorce for Henry VIII so he can marry Anne Boleyn. Since the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, successfully invaded and occupied Italy, the Pope was in his control, and being Catherine's nephew, a divorce would be next to impossible to grant. Wolsey sets up several means to examine the matter, including a local examination with English churchmen, a trial presided by Cardinal Campeggio from the Vatican, and an attempt to solicit the support of the French clergy in favor of his being able to administrate on the matter himself. Through all of his varying successes on the matter, Thomas Boleyn, the Duke of Norfolk, and the Duke of Suffolk conspire to bring him down. Unable to achieve the divorce, Henry strips Wolsey of his titles and authority, sending him to York to live out the remainder of his days in obscurity. Some of his double-dealing is discovered and reported to the king, upon which Wolsey is dragged from York back to London and imprisoned. Presumably while a comedy satirizes Wolsey's life, Wolsey takes his own life in prison.

Cardinal Wolsey climbed up the ranks to become Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor, coming from somewhat unclear but perhaps modest origins. He was the Archbishop of York, but after becoming a cardinal of the Catholic Church, he had precedence over the Archbishop of Canterbury, traditionally the chief churchman in England. Wolsey made a number of enemies while he was in favor, and in addition, he was unable to firmly deliver the divorce from Catherine that Henry so desired. Cardinal Campeggio, sent by the Vatican to preside over the proceedings to decide the validity of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine, decided that the trial would need to be heard by the Pope himself in Italy rather than decided in England--probably with the Pope's encouragement. Anne and her family managed to convince Henry that this was a sign that Wolsey was deliberately slowing the proceedings. As a result, he was stripped of his offices, but he was allowed to remain the Archbishop of York and ordered to return to his see.

Wolsey's main problem was his addiction to power. He had held it, in increasing increments, for many years, and he was unable to view his fall from it as his having gotten off very easy. Anne and her family were aware that as long as Wolsey was around and kicking, he could return to power, and if he did, it was very likely he would work against them. In the meantime, Wolsey offered his services to Chapuys, Charles V's ambassador to England, and to di Passano, Francis I's (of France) ambassador to England. He seemed to be advising them on how best to work against Henry, and this was dangerously close to treason. Henry was, at first, reluctant to proceed against Wolsey, but a coded letter intercepted from Wolsey to the French ambassador in 1530 sealed the deal. On November 5, Walter Walsh, Groom of the Privy Chamber, and Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, arrested Wolsey for high treason. He began the long progress to London, but he never made it--he died on November 29, 1530 in Leicester. He addressed a letter to Henry VIII, warning him against his divorce proceedings and the coming threat of Lutheranism. Although neither Anne Boleyn nor her family were mentioned, his hatred of them was certainly implied.


Season 1 lacks a lot of historical content, compromises history for drama, and simplifies many issues and personalities for the sake of translating history to the TV screen, but the program is still enjoyable to watch. One thing is certainly done very, very well--each program ends on a note that drives the viewer to see the next episode as soon as possible to discover what will happen. That is quite an achievement.

However, I do not recommend ANYONE watch The Tudors in the hopes of learning the history outside of the book. Tudor history is extremely popular, and there are many historians who cover it admirably in very well-written books.

Want to learn more? Here are some suggestions:

Most books on the Wars of the Roses are good, so type it in on the subject line in the library catalogue and see what comes up.

The end of the Plantagenets:

Richard III by Paul Murray Kendall. Probably the most iconic biography of the ill-fated king. If you want to learn about the discrepancies between how we perceive Richard III (see Shakespeare's Richard III if you need to read up on exactly what I mean by that), Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time explores these, but is certainly biased towards clearing his character.

The early Tudors:

The Making of the Tudor Dynasty by Ralph A. Griffiths and Roger S. Thomas fully explains the origins of the Tudors, and is a short, quick read.

Henry VII of the Yale English Monarchs series by S. B. Chrimes is a little dry, like most of the series, but is a very, very good reference for Henry VIII's father.

Catherine of Aragon by Garrett Mattingly is the only biography of Catherine out there that I am aware of. It was first published in 1941 and reprinted in 1990, but will probably be hard to find. However, it is very comprehensive and actually explores many things that other historians gloss over in their general histories about Henry VIII and his wives. If you can find it, read it.

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Vikings: A History

Author: Robert Ferguson
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 382 pages without notes and index
Cost: $32.95 for the hardcover
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this in the "New" section of the library, having a vague recollection of the author. I looked back through my copies of BBC History Magazine, and the author composed a cover feature for the magazine in December 2009; however the title of his book is listed there as The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings. I believe this is an American publication of the same book.

The Backstory

What scholars term "The Viking Age" loosely spans between the 8th and 11th centuries, and the "Vikings" are generally identified as Scandinavians living in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark at that time. The beginning of "The Viking Age" is most often considered to be June 8, 793 B.C.E., when a group of "vikings" attacked the abbey at Lindisfarne in what was the beginning of centuries of similar raids on forts, towns, churches, and cities throughout Europe and into Asia. There are several theories surrounding why these raids suddenly occurred and were carried out with memorable ruthlessness. There seems to have been tensions between the Christianized parts of Europe and those that remained heathen, and recent scholars identify Charlemagne's brutal treatment of Saxons in his empire (who were pagan) as one possible reason why attacks on buildings with distinctly Christian associations were so violent. Another possibility involves an increase in the population in Scandinavia to the point that bands of young men had to find their fortune, literally and figuratively, away from home. Whatever the reasons, "The Viking Age" can be viewed in two distinct stages--raiding and later, settlement.

Some of the greatest names of the early medieval period are associated with "The Viking Age." In Ireland, the semi-mythical king, Brian Boru, is said to have engaged in a definitive battle with the Vikings, the Battle of Clontarf, in 1014 after years of viking settlement and assimilation. In England, King Alfred the Great proved a formidable opponent to the viking leader, Guthrum, and their mutual respect led to the development of the "Danelaw," or the division of England into two "kingdoms" administered on one side by Alfred and on the other by Guthrum. Aethelred the Unready, ruling England about 100 years after Alfred, proved too week to counter continuous viking attacks, and his death, followed quickly by the death of his son, Edmund Ironside, left England in the hands of King Cnut. Cnut would famously marry Aethelred's widow, Emma. Viking raids in France began during the reign of Charlemagne and would continuously threaten the stability of the Frankish empire after the division of his kingdom among his sons. Viking expansion led to the settlement of Iceland, Greenland (temporarily), and part of North America (also temporarily). Their history comes down to us through sources left behind by those who were subjected to their violence, a series of sagas and poems composed by Scandinavians, and some descriptions made by observers, notably Ibn Fadlan, a Muslim.

As settlement slowly replaced raiding as the primary goal of the vikings, "The Viking Age" came to a close in the 11th century. A viking imprint was left in places like England, Normandy, and Ireland, where the vikings settled the longest. The image of a fur-covered warrior bearded, with long hair, and a horned helmet is primarily the creation of the Victorian Age, whose historians attempted to make the vikings into an "other." In reality, the vikings were one piece of an intricate, interacting puzzle in the early Middle Ages, and as much as their culture was felt in places they attacked, and later, settled, influences from these people were not unfelt back home in Scandinavia. The greatest influence was Christianity, which was gradually introduced through a combination of interaction with Christians, efforts by missionaries, and the influence of kings and noblemen who chose Christianity over traditional paganism. By the 11th century, raiding became a thing of the past as kingdoms solidified into political units more difficult to deal with. Without question, "The Viking Age" had a profound impact on those who lived through it in language, settlement patterns, shipping culture, and art.

What About the Book?

Writing a comprehensive, readable history of a time period that spans 300 years and dozens of cultures is a nearly impossible task, although Ferguson takes it on admirably. The book is a good read and manages to skim the surface of the major time periods, individuals, and areas associated with the vikings. However, I'm afraid this was too big a task overall--but you can't blame the author for the nature of the beast. A history like this could have spanned volumes. Every time period, every part of Europe mentioned here, could have formed a book in and of itself without trouble. Ferguson makes a valiant attempt to try and put it all together in one, and it is a good overview that introduces the readers to a variety of interesting cultural elements and people.

The problem with this book, outside of the sheer amount of information, is how it is organized--and I am sure not everyone would agree with me about this. Ferguson bounces around between different parts of Europe and Asia, it seems to try and make a homogenized whole of the book chronologically. However, with so many people and so many sources, it really is impossible to follow the same area of Europe or Asia through it as an "uninformed" reader. Areas I know something about, like England's history, were far more readable to me because I knew the names and I knew the chronology. However, I didn't have the background to make the same connections and evaluations regarding France, Spain, Iceland, Scandinavia, Denmark, and parts of Asia, and this was a drawback. One would be hard-pressed to find someone with very solid footing in all of these areas throughout this period. I think that the organization of this book is a product of the author's knowledgeablity of this topic and probably, these areas. It is clear from his biography that he knows this topic very well, but in his attempt to include everything, he forgot that not everyone has that fundamental background. If he had focused on one area, brought it through "The Viking Age," and moved on to another, I think the reader would have had an easier time. Because it is not organized that way, the reader has to remind himself/herself who the people are each time Ferguson returns to the different areas of Europe and Asia--a drawback if you don't read the book in large chunks.

In addition, Ferguson also attempts to include too much information that regularly leads him on tangents. These tangents are definitely interesting, but they put the reader in a position where he/she is consistently asking "where is this going?" In fact, this lack of perceived unity is an argument for retaining the original title of the book, The Hammer and the Cross, because it actually gives the reader something with which to unify many of the these tangents. As a reader, I was expecting a history of the vikings only, but this is a history of the vikings and viking culture's interaction and acceptance of Christianity. Had the original title been retained, I would have had different expectations for the book--expectations that better aligned with the content.

As an advertised history of the vikings, there is a lot this book leaves out, including any detail about their social structure, their craftsmanship, and their culture. Women make brief, often unnotable appearances. Much of the book is a detail of the main viking leaders of the age and a history of their deeds and effects on the areas of Europe and Asia in which they operated. The rest focuses on Christianity and its gradual adoption by viking culture in Denmark and Scandinavia. To these ends, Ferguson does an admirable job. The writing produces a "quick read" effect for the reader. He clearly researched this very extensively, and he throws in a great deal of archaeological and documentary evidence, which is a great strength. The book feels the lack of an Epilogue or a chapter to round out the age properly, but the information is excellent and the book is generally very enjoyable.

Rating: A 7 as a history of the vikings. An 8.5 as a history of the vikings and Christianity. Admittedly, I wouldn't have picked this up had it been advertised as a history of the vikings and Christianity, which would have been a great loss.
Buy It or Borrow It: In this case, buy it if you're an avid viking fan or researching the topic--all of your primary sources are named in here at least once. In other cases, borrow it and photocopy the parts of it that focus on the time period or geographic area of your interest. Don't buy it if you're just looking for a good read--this is a bit too historian-speak for that.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Film Interlude: Victoria and Albert

Year Released: 2001
Production Company: BBC
Rating: PG
Starring: Victoria Hamilton, Jonathan Firth

What's the Story?

This two-part TV mini-series covers the life of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert from before Victoria's accession to Albert's death.

It begins with an older Victoria, confined to a wheelchair and brought into a room where Albert's grooming tools are being laid out by her servants. Then, the story flashes back to when Victoria is under the care of her mother, Victoire, the Duchess of Kent and Sir John Conroy. Victoria is visited by her two German cousins, Ernest and Albert, and isn't particularly interested in Albert, deeming him dull. Although kept away from the royal court, she attends her uncle's birthday--William IV portrayed by Peter Ustinov--where his dissatisfaction with the Duchess of Kent's decision to seclude Victoria is demonstrated to the court. Victoria is notified about her uncle's death in 1837, just after she turned 18 years old, and she becomes queen of England. Here, she separates herself from her mother, dismisses Sir John Conroy, and meets MP Lord Melbourne who is her first favorite and trusted friend.

King Leopold of Belgium makes a state visit and pushes Albert's suit on Victoria, and although her ministers are opposed to receiving Albert, Albert visits Victoria with his brother, Ernest. Although Victoria had declared that she was opposed to marrying at all, she is immediately taken with Albert, and asks him to marry her. However, Albert expresses deep concerns about his feelings for Victoria--although he is aware of her deep feelings for him, he admits that he does not love her. Albert immediately becomes aware of his situation as his wife goes off to work after their first night together. He offers to help Victoria, but this is dismissed. Albert encourages changes in the royal household and works to reconcile Victoria and her mother. Victoria becomes pregnant and gives birth to their first child, and Albert's devoted love for his children is born along with her. Gradually, Albert's influence in the royal household grows, especially after their two-year-old daughter takes ill.

The story cuts to around 1850 when Victoria and Albert have several children together and have created a warm, close home for them together. Albert works tirelessly on the Great Exhibition of 1851, which is opened by a speech by Victoria where she expresses her thanks to Albert for all of his hard work. In a moment stolen before a state event, Albert expresses his emotional reaction to Victoria's speech, and he tells her that he loves her.

The story cuts again to another ten years later where Victoria visits her mother while her mother lays close to death. Victoria and Albert's oldest son, Edward or Bertie, isn't serious enough about his studies, and is admonished by his father for this. Albert later visits Bertie at school and returns home wet and increasingly ill. As the family sets up for the Christmas holiday, Albert dies, and Victoria, after sobbing, lights the candles on the Christmas Tree in memory of Albert.

The last scene cuts back to the older Victoria, sitting in the dressing room, examining Albert's things and lost in his memory.


This is worth seeing, especially if you're a fan of BBC multi-part period dramas. You'll see a lot of familiar faces from other BBC series, including Diana Rigg. Just like the others, it's long--the total running time is over three hours, and the series was originally divided into two installments of just over an hour and a half each.

The series spends a little too much time on Victoria by herself and not enough on Albert--Albert marries Victoria over an hour into the first half of the program, and his appearances prior to that are reserved to a few snippets. If the program was going to be called "Victoria and Albert," Albert should have had just as much time on screen. I think that the relationship between Victoria and Albert is portrayed very realistically, as is Victoria's character. Albert is a little stiff, but he did have that reputation in reality, so this may be equally realistic. Peter Ustinov is really fantastic as William IV, and Diana Rigg does an equally good job as Baroness Lehzen, Victoria's "governess." Victoria Hamilton, who has appeared in many BBC dramas, is a very convincing Victoria. With this combination of characters, it would be hard to go wrong.

The story follows history pretty closely with few snags. It does conveniently skip a few things, and it downplays the fact that Albert was not particularly well-liked, mostly for prejudice against foreigners, but also because of his "priggishness." The differences between Victoria and Albert are also downplayed--Albert disliked public engagements and late nights, while Victoria tended to enjoy them.

The program gives enough history--history that could fit into the two parts, that is. This easily could have been a six- or seven-part series, too, covering their growing family, the purchase of properties in Scotland and on the Isle of Wight, the changes in politics, their eldest daughter's marriage, and/or their state visits abroad. However, it could easily become too long, so although the series skips several things that would have been intersting to include, the viewer isn't left in want of them.

Overall, it was very enjoyable judged on its own. It isn't as colorful as some other BBC series, but the actors do not disappoint given the focus is on relationships with events in the background, and the writers deserve credit for sticking to the history probably more strictly than any other BBC series I've seen.

Final Verdict: I give this a solid B. I'll probably rent it again somewhere along the lines, but I didn't feel the need to watch it several times over or to run out and purchase it.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"We Two" Victoria And Albert: Rulers, Partners, Rivals

Author; Gillian Gill
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 383 pages without notes and bibliography
Cost: $35.00 for the hardcover
Where Did I Hear About It: I found this wandering around in the library, and I was attracted to the subject having just seen the new film, The Young Victoria.

The Backstory

I think you would be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn't heard of England's Queen Victoria. She is the longest-reigning monarch in English history, and during her administration, England was transformed from a small, island country into the center of a massive empire that covered 1/4 of the globe. She is also associated with a social and cultural trend we term "Victorianism," which in today's society is a byword for a dull marriage to industrialization at the expense of the masses, the widely rejected concept of the "separate spheres" of men and women, and sexual prudism.

Victoria was born in 1819, the daughter of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, and his wife, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. For a long time, it didn't seem probable that Victoria would ever become queen. Her father was George III's fourth son, preceded in the birth order by the future King George IV, Frederick, Duke of York (who died in 1827, three years before his older brother), and William IV. George IV had a daughter, Charlotte, who died in childbirth along with her infant son, and neither Frederick nor William IV had legitimate children. Although the fifth son, Ernest, Duke of Cumberland, did have a son, George, Victoria was the offspring of the fourth son, and therefore, preceded him in the family line. Victoria was a woman, and certainly at a handicap in the minds of the English population at the time, but Elizabeth I set a standard for successful female monarchs, and England would only rejoice at the prospect of the reign of a second Elizabeth.

As her father died in 1820, Victoria was raised by her mother who was dominated by Sir John Conroy, an overbearing man who viewed Victoire and her little daughter as his ticket to power. Throughout her childhood, Victoria was constantly watched and her life was heavily regimented. In 1837, her uncle, William IV, died, and Victoria became queen.

A year before, Victoria first met Albert, her first cousin and son of the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. His parents, Ernest III of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld and Louise of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg was initially a happy one, but Ernest did not discontinue his sexual exploits, and the couple separated in 1824. Albert spent his youth with his older brother, Ernest. They shared an education at home until sent to the University of Bonn. Albert's marriage to Victoria had been contemplated by many family members, the most prominent of which was King Leopold of Belgium. Albert returned for a second visit to England in 1839. The visit was a success, and Victoria and Albert married in 1840.

Victoria and Albert had nine children together, and all of them lived to adulthood. Prince Albert saw his greatest triumph with the Great Exhibition of 1851, and he increasingly insisted upon having a hand in foreign affairs. Victoria was popular with the English people, but the public remained skeptical of a cold, foreign prince. Albert's biggest problem lie in his status--he was offered no official position other than "prince consort," which was an elastic title that had never been defined in terms of place and function in England. Although Victoria implicitly trusted Albert and he became her personal secretary, he never fit comfortably into what he viewed as a second-rate role in England.

Albert died in 1861 of typhoid fever after having visited his son, the future Edward VII, at school. For some time, Victoria blamed Edward for his father's death as they had spent many hours outdoors together in the rain, but it is clear that Albert was suffering from the disease long before this visit and his unwillingness to rest sapped his immune system's ability to fight the illness. Victoria went into mourning and would dress simply, in black, for the rest of her life. Victoria died in 1901 at the age of 81 having outlived her husband by nearly 40 years.

What About the Book?

Gill's book is an exceptional scholarly work that reads very comfortably from cover to cover. Occasionally, the progression of chapters does not entirely work together. Because she treats topics in each chapter, one chapter may proceed through several years in the history of the couple, and the reader is sometimes forced back as many as ten years when a new chapter, or topic, begins. This forces the reader to remind himself/herself of the circumstances surrounding that particular time frame, but those circumstances may have been covered 150 pages before in the book. In addition, there are a few places where she alludes to a certain issue, but will put off discussing that issue for several chapters. I read the book in a few long sittings, which made dealing with these inconsistencies easier, but if someone is going to read it chapter by chapter over the course of a few weeks, it may be difficult to recall people and events between them.

One thing that readers will probably conclude is that neither Victoria nor Albert come out of the book as likable characters. Albert is fully the prudish, controlling, misogynist German prince of English lore and Victoria is the needy, lovestruck, obedient wife featured in numerous films and mini-series. Gill is plagued by a few problems, including an all-blinding feminism that creeps into the book. Although she attempts to explain circumstances in the context of their time, her view of Albert is clearly biased from the start. For example, she treats Victoria's life in nearly 90 pages at the beginning of the book, and Albert receives about 55 as his share. Gill mentions Albert's glowing points--his tender nature as a father, his intelligence, and his concern for his wife's well-being. However, everything Albert did and believed comes under critical scrutiny to the point that one finishes the book truly doubting whether Albert had any good qualities, whether Victoria was the strong character Gill asserts at the beginning of the book, or that they ever had a loving relationship regardless of the existing evidence--their successful marriage by royal standards and notably, their nine children.

For all of these faults, the book is extremely enlightening and well-researched. Gill clearly examined numerous documents, and each topic forms a tight, detailed chapter even if the chapters don't fit together for the ease of the reader. The writing style makes it easy to read, and it is probably the best analysis of the relationship between Victoria and Albert ever composed. The reader has to be aware of the author's biases and sift through the information, but there are enough facts to do this included in the text. Gill also assumes that her readers may not understand things like the order of succession, and she spends time explaining these, which I am sure will help many readers along. Her writing style is very fluid and clear, and her treatment of the topic is interesting enough that readers will complete the book having gained something from it whether or not that reader has a strong background in Victorian England to start with.

Rating: 7.5, but that is based on my coming to the book without much of a background in the history. I learned a great deal, but I'm not sure that someone else who has a greater familiarity with Victoria and Albert would feel the same given the bias of the author.
Buy It or Borrow It: Definitely borrow it at the moment. Since it was published last year, a paperback probably won't be available for a little while. The notes are excellent, and if someone is studying the subject, I would recommend purchasing the book when it does come out in paperback for research purposes.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Marie Antoinette

Author: Antonia Fraser
Publication Date: 2001
Length: 458 not counting Index and Bibliography
Cost: $35.00 for the hardcover, although I am sure that there is a paperback edition out by now that is probably more modestly priced
Where Did I Hear About It: Browsing through the library stacks

The Backstory

Marie Antoinette invokes a lot of different images, and it would be a rare case to find someone who hasn't heard of this many-times-villianized Queen of France. She was born in Vienna in 1755 to Emperor Francis I and Empress Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire. After a bout of smallpox ravaged the royal family, Marie Antoinette became the choice of the royal Bourbon house of France for the French heir (traditionally termed the "Dauphin"), Louis Auguste. She was married to Louis by proxy in 1770, and later, made the long trek to France to meet her husband. As Marie was meant to symbolize an alliance between Austria and France, her reception by the court in France was naturally mixed.

Louis Auguste's grandfather, Louis XV, died in 1774 of smallpox, and Louis Auguste became Louis XVI. Marital problems plagued the royal couple during the first years of their marriage. There is good reason to suppose that the marriage was not consummated for close to 7 years, putting the future of the French royal family in danger and making the specter of annulment a very real possibility for Marie. The problem was exacerbated by Louis XVI's brother, the Comte d'Artois, who fathered a son in 1775--the first family offspring of the next generation, and therefore, the heir to the French throne. In 1777, Marie's older brother, Emperor Joseph (her father had since died), paid a visit to the royal couple, and, after a man-to-man pep talk, the marriage was consummated and regular sexual relations commenced. The result would be four children, Marie Therese (1778), Louis Joseph (1781), Louis Charles (1785), and Sophie Helene Beatrice (1786). Louis Joseph would die of what was probably spinal tuberculosis in 1789, and Sophie only lived a year after her birth.

Marie wasn't popular with the French for the majority of her reign as Queen. She was frequently satirized in comics, and the progression of their content is very asymptomatic of how the public felt about her. Early on, Louis XVI's rumored "impotence" was featured, and later, Marie's attempts to find sexual satisfaction with others. This transformed into comics that claimed she was romantically involved with many people close to her, including her brothers-in-law and her close female friends. Later, she was the scapegoat for the conspicuous consumption of the untaxed nobility--and this was the most dangerous charge. Two wars--the Seven Years War (also known as the French and Indian War in the US, lasting from 1754 to 1763) and the American Revolution had dramatically increased France's debt, causing rampant inflation and devastating poverty. The court, led by Louis XVI and Marie, continued on as usual, purchasing expensive properties and enjoying a wide range of luxury goods while the country suffered.

In 1789, the national unrest came to a head. The "Third Estate"--a legislative body made up of people who would have been considered of the "common" variety--declared itself a National Assembly with wide-reaching legislative powers. Louis XVI was a figure who lacked the definitive nature of his forefathers, and therefore, he could do little to stop the progression that followed. The National Assembly began with the introduction of a Constitutional Monarchy, but gradually, the king and his family were boxed in by an increasingly hostile public. They were eventually moved from the royal palace at the Tullieries to prison, where they were interrogated. Louis XVI was declared in violation of the laws of the new state, and he was killed by the guillotine in 1793. Marie Antoinette, having lost her royal title, was herself executed 10 months later.

Marie Antoinette is typically portrayed as living in excessive luxury, completely oblivious to the suffering of the poor. She is attributed with the phrase "Let them eat cake" in response to the assertion that the people were without bread.

What About the Book?

If all you're after is a good overview of her life, then, you will not be disappointed here. This was admittedly what I was after--I knew little about the events of Marie Antoinette's life before I read this book. However, if you're expecting more, you will be disappointed. The book lacks substance and the author's connection with the material. You get the sense that Antonia Fraser just decided one day to write about Marie Antoinette because she could--not because she was fascinated by the subject or determined to learn and write about something new.

There is very little analysis of the sources, which for some is a boon because the biography forms a narrative that flows very naturally. There is the occasional historical note, accented by a star next to terms or people in various places, but this is really the end of any strong evaluation of the available sources about Marie's life. Fraser does make some attempts, but they do not go very far. For example, she does lightly discuss the possibility that Marie Antoinette had an affair with Count Fersen, a Swedish family friend and soldier, and although Fraser seems convinced that the affair took place, the evidence she presents actually implies the opposite was true, of which Fraser is unaware. Her interests are also obvious, but this affects the balance of the text. Fraser is very interested in Marie Antoinette's life at court before the French Revolution, but the Revolution is treated more briefly than perhaps it should have been in the narrative. In addition, the Epilogue is a disappointment. It doesn't tie the biography together, and instead, treats some events and people heavily and others, not at all (Marie's daughter is discussed at length, while her son, who died very controversially in 1795, is featured in about a paragraph).

Finally, Fraser, in attempt to deliver a good story, fails to see beyond what the sources literally tell her about Marie and her life. Although it is only appropriate to be sympathetic to Marie and her family, and the horrible fate most of them met, Fraser lets this distort some very important fundamentals about Marie and the beginning of the French Revolution. Marie was a part of a culture of nobility that lived only to please itself. Of course, this culture included countless other people, too, but that doesn't negate her involvement as one half of its center. She was entirely oblivious to the suffering of the people, and this was her one major flaw--a flaw acquired by a lifetime spent in royal comfort and ease. She certainly didn't do anything to directly hurt the people, but, while she and others like her were able to run up millions of livres of debt to buy fine things, hundreds of thousands of other people in her realm couldn't buy a loaf of bread to feed themselves. Even when the French Revolution began, Louis XVI and Marie were unable to shed the trappings of wealth and the court ceremony in favor of providing something for the people. Had they done so, the outcome may have been very different. In being such a great fan of Marie, Fraser really misses this point, and I think if she had grasped it, the book would have gained the extra depth it obviously lacks.

Rating: 5--it's enjoyable, but you won't walk away being "wowed"
Buy It or Borrow It: I'm not sure I'd really put in a vote for reading it at all. Certainly don't buy it unless you find it in a used bookstore, in paperback form, for $5 or less. If you don't know anything about the period or about Marie, like me, borrowing it and reading it is worth your time if you're suddenly hit with an interest in this topic. However, don't expect more than the story of her life--no major revelations here.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The First Queen of England: The Myth of "Bloody Mary"

Author:Linda Porter
Publication Date:2008
Length:About 418 pages, not including Index and Bibliography
Cost:List price is $27.95
Where Did I Hear About It:Browsing through the Biography section of the local library

The Backstory

Mary Tudor, later Mary I of England, was the only living child produced by the union of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon. She was born in 1516, the first child to survive after her mother's four miscarriages, one stillbirth, and the death of an infant son in his second month of life. At first, the fickle Henry was encouraged by his little daughter, taking her as a sign of healthy sons to follow. When he eventually lost all hope of other heirs by his wife, he took steps to have his marriage to Katherine annulled, and later, Mary bastardized. Mary and Katherine, physically separated but in regular correspondence, were suddenly thrust backstage. Henry severed England's ties to the Roman Catholic church, thereby allowing him to put away Katherine and take a new wife in the form of the much maligned Anne Boleyn. In the meantime, Mary was urged, coaxed, and threatened into renouncing her titles and rightful place in the English succession. Upon the birth of her sister, Elizabeth, she was sent to live in her household and serve her as one of her maids of honor--an unprecedented move against the heir presumptive to the throne. After her mother's death, she bowed to pressure from all sides and admitted the illegitimacy of her parents' marriage and thus, her own illegitimacy.

Relations between Mary and her father improved through the intercession of three of his subsequent wives, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, and Katherine Parr. Upon Henry's death in 1547, both Mary and Elizabeth were still considered illegitimate, but they were written into the succession after their brother, Edward. Edward, a fervent Protestant, was extremely hard on Catholic Mary, desperate to make her conform to the laws of the land. Mary, conscious of having bowed to pressure regarding her legitimacy, was unwilling to breach her conscience a second time. Equally heavy coercion had no effect on the practice of her religion. However, things were bad enough that Mary considered escaping from England to her Hapsburg relations on the Continent. It is fortunate that she did not take this course of action--Edward was dead in 1553, the victim of a respiratory infection. Edward and his council attempted to subvert Mary's succession by declaring her cousin, Jane Grey (see above) queen, but this was short-lived.

Mary was queen for a very short time, but she was England's first woman monarch in her own right. She and her council ruled the country effectively, attempting to adapt an English version of Catholicism to the changes that had already taken place in the church. She had a very effective council, and her many years of struggle had produced a capable, strong woman with the resolve to lead the country. She married Philip of Spain in 1554, but Philip's priorities were in the Low Countries, and although he was kind to Mary, he was less-than-content with a bride 11 years older and having remained so long content single. Mary suffered two "phantom pregnancies," and she died in 1558. Philip and Mary never had children, so she was succeeded by her younger sister, Elizabeth.

Mary is a much maligned character in English history, often viewed by seemingly objective historians as both a less-desirable precursor to the more famous Elizabeth and as a momentary set-back to England's inevitable course towards patriotic Protestantism. She earned the nickname "bloody Mary" after sentencing 300 Protestants to death by burning for heresy.

What About the Book?

This was an exceptionally enjoyable book, which I didn't expect. I figured that Mary's life would be a good follow-up to Jane Grey, and I enjoyed this biography far more. Linda Porter is a very good writer--capable of taking complicated historical documents from the period and transforming them into a coherent narrative, easily readable by the least proficient historians. Although over 400 pages long, it doesn't feel that way to the reader--the reader is constantly seeking to learn more, to read one last page, and it is a hard book to put down.

The history is good in this book--Porter clearly takes her information from existing sources. She is mindful of the weaknesses of some of these sources and the authors who composed them, and this is a point she makes often to her readers. However, this is a biography of Mary and not an examination of why Mary obtained the nickname "bloody Mary," which makes the title deceiving. She does flesh out Mary's character in ways that other authors have entirely ignored--Porter did not come to the table having formed any opinions about Mary, and she allowed the available sources to tell her who Mary was rather than relying upon the prejudices of generations of previous historians, colored by the magnificence of Elizabeth's reign.

There is the occasional flaw in her work--on the minor side, she includes a portrait that probably isn't Mary and identifies it as the queen about 7 years before she was crowned. The sitter is a very matronly, but very attractive woman, who bears no resemblance to portraits of Mary known beyond a doubt to be her. Given there are so many likenesses of Mary to choose from, this choice seems a poor one. In addition, the end of the book wasn't quite as good as the rest. Porter covers Mary's reign in the context of its events. It reads like a chronology rather than a biography, with fewer insights into Mary and her view of the events of the day. She indicates that Mary wrote often to her husband, Philip, but she doesn't reference many, if any, of those letters, and they are probably the key to seeing events from Mary's point of view. Porter also asserts that Mary died of a viral fever that was widespread in 1558, and other biographers seem to believe that Mary had some form of cancer as evidenced by her last phantom pregnancy.

The Epilogue of the book was probably the biggest let down. Rather than examine the development of the myth of "bloody Mary," like the title implies, Porter gives a rundown of what happened to each of the biography's characters in a post-Mary world. Although interesting, I think that the reader would have been more interested in how Mary's reputation was blackened in subsequent years. Porter does touch upon this in the narrative, but only one source is referenced several times without further examination.

Overall, this is an exceptional read--it puts Mary in a whole new light, even for people who have been studying the Tudor age for some time. It also breeds a sense of respect and understanding for Mary in the reader that has hitherto been undeveloped and even stifled by our perception of Elizabeth, constructed by countless histories, biographies, TV miniseries, and movies.

Rating:8.5, maybe even a 9
Buy it or Borrow it:This is a tough one. I liked it enough that I wouldn't have minded adding it to my library, and I will probably read it again somewhere along the line. If you find a good used copy of this, it will probably go for under $10, and if so, it is well worth opening your wallet. You probably can find a softcover edition of this, too--if not now, then, soon--and that would be worth it. However, if you're skeptical about the content, and perhaps even don't like Mary much, you may want to scout it out in a library first, just to make sure you'll like the content.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Lady Jane Grey: A Tudor Mystery

Author: Eric Ives
Publication Date: 2009
Length: 293 pages, not including index and notes
Cost: About 30 dollars from a bookstore
Where Did I Hear About It: BBC History Magazine

History: The Backstory

Who is Jane Grey? For those of you who don't know, there was a time when it looked like she was going to be queen of England, displacing both Mary I and Elizabeth I, the famous daughters of the many-times-married Henry VIII. Edward VI, Henry's only legitimate son, succeeded him upon his death in 1547. However, Edward was only 9 years old, and more alarmingly, he was a sickly child. Edward became seriously ill in the spring of 1553, dying on July 6 of that year. In the meantime, a new design for the succession of the crown was devised. Henry VIII stipulated that after Edward would come his older sister, Mary (daughter of Katherine of Aragon) and then, Elizabeth (daughter of Anne Boleyn). However, Henry never backed down from his claim that his marriages to each of the girls' mothers had been "unlawful," and therefore, the girls were illegitimate. Whether through prompting by the Regency Council appointed to assist Edward in governing or by Edward himself, within months of his death, the succession was changed to exclude Mary and Elizabeth entirely. Instead, the crown would fall to the daughter of Henry VIII's niece, Jane Grey (Jane's mother was the daughter of one of Henry's sisters). Jane was rushed into London to be proclaimed queen at first, with the full force of the peers of the realm behind her. However, when Mary managed to muster a formidable defense against this violation of her right, not bowing meekly as she was anticipated to do, Jane's support fell apart entirely. Mary was proclaimed queen throughout the realm, the councilors and peers sheepishly sought her favor and forgiveness, and Jane was imprisoned in the Tower of London. Although tried and convicted for treason, Jane expected that she would been pardoned by Mary. In the end, Mary decided to execute her, which was done at the Tower in February, 1544. Jane "reigned" for 9 days total, and is often entirely left out of the rolls of the monarchs of England.

What About the Book?

This book was a good read overall, although I don't entirely buy Ives's theories. He admits fully that there is a lack of evidence relating to Jane at the beginning, but this doesn't produce a sense of caution when making conclusions about her. On the other hand, he discusses Jane probably the least often of any of the characters in the book--perhaps a better title could have been considered that implied simply the "history" of the succession between Edward, Jane and Mary. In fact, Ives' main aim seems to be to rehabilitate the reputation of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. John Dudley is usually branded by historians as masterminding the whole transfer of the crown from Edward to Jane and bypassing Mary in order to grasp at power himself. Historians imply that he was "in control" of the young, naive Edward and knew that he would not be able to influence the older, more confident Mary should she succeed. Therefore, they conclude, Dudley encouraged Edward to pass the crown to the young, and equally naive Jane, who was conveniently married to Dudley's son, Guildford, in the spring of 1553. Thus, Dudley could keep his prominent court position and even have a son on the English throne.

Ives claims many things about Dudley. He attempts to assert that Dudley demonstrated signs of insecurity and even intense loyalty to whoever the monarch happened to be at different points in his life. However, his evidence for these assertions isn't strong. For example, he examined the ways that Dudley characterized himself in letters and noticed a pattern of personal debasement or "unworthiness" expressed in them. This is common throughout the period--some variation on "your most unworthy and humble servant" appeared on every letter composed at the time. Therefore, I don't think that this can be taken as the kind of evidence that Ives claims it to be. He also skirts over the issue of Jane Grey's marriage to his son, Guildford Dudley, while considerations for the succession were in order. Although it hadn't been firmly decided upon, by Ives' reckoning, when Jane married Guildford, Dudley had to be aware of the possibilities long in advance of a final decision. Marrying someone related the royal family was never lightly considered at the time, and it was probably more of an issue in the 1540s and 1550s than any other time because Henry had only three children, two of whom he declared illegitimate. Dudley may not have had designs for himself, but he would have enjoyed quite a considerable position should Guildford and Jane actually ruled England. Dudley may not have been influencing Edward directly to change the succession, but by the time the two young people wed, he certainly knew the possibilities.

Ives' style is excellent--this is a read for anyone, not just the history buff. His chapters are short and to the point, and he divides the book into sections, focusing first on the key players and second, on the events. In the second half, the book improves in that it is very clear that he extrapolates his theories from a lot of existent sources, throwing his vast knowledge of the period into the mix for a great analysis of what happened between Jane's accession and her execution. He introduces to the reader the little that is out there about Jane from the short years of her life, and, after reading many similar accounts clearly based on a lot of guesses, this was particularly refreshing. His insight into the changes made by Edward to the succession is an equally rewarding read, and Ives is probably the first author who traces the progress of those changes. I wish he would have continued this pattern until the end of the book--instead, his last chapter focuses on "Jane the Legend" through the 16th - 20th centuries. This wasn't interesting to me--not as interesting as his history--but this may be a bright spot for others who have heard about Jane through media other than history.

Rating: 6.5 to 7 out of 10
Buy it or Borrow it: Borrow it rather than buying it. It's only out in hardcover right now, and 30 bucks for a book of less than 300 pages of content is steep. I don't think this will become a reference for anyone interested in the history, but if you are interested in the primary sources that went into this, the notes are photocopiable. I like it a lot, but I'm not sure it will be worth a second read yet.