I’ve read three excellent books in the last week so I thought I’d write one post with all three as I don’t think I’ll have time this week to write longer posts & I don’t want to forget the details. In a way, they encapsulate my reading interests. A historical biography, a 19th century novel & a murder mystery.
Matilda of Flanders was the wife of William the Conqueror. Biographies of early medieval women are few & far between because there is very little information. Queens & abbesses are the only women whose lives may be chronicled at all & almost always in relation to their family – father or husband. Matilda was the daughter of the Count of Flanders, descended from the royal houses of England & France & very proud of her lineage. It is said that when she was told that William, Duke of Normandy wanted to marry her, she refused contemptuously because he was illegitimate. William had succeeded his father as Duke at the age of nine & surprisingly had survived the endless plots & assassination attempts. The chroniclers say that he rushed to Flanders, grabbed Matilda by the hair & beat her unmercifully. She was taken to her rooms more dead than alive but, when she recovered from her injuries, declared to her father that she would marry no one but William. This is one of many legends & stories about Matilda that Tracy Borman debunks. The chronicle that relates the story was written 200 years later & there is no known contemporary source for the story.
Tracy Borman has been able to get a little closer to Matilda than to many other medieval queens because she often acted as Regent of Normandy when William was in England – most famously in 1066 when he was defeating King Harold but also in the difficult years afterwards as he was consolidating his rule. Matilda was an active Regent, signing charters & conducting diplomatic negotiations with neighbouring rulers. Even after her eldest son, Robert, had grown up & she shared the regency with him, Matilda was the dominant partner.
The marriage of William & Matilda was considered a happy one & they had at least nine children. Conflict between them intensified, however, as their sons became adults. Matilda’s favourite was the eldest son, Robert, contemptuously called Curthose (short-boot) by his father on account of his short stature. His stature may have been inherited from Matilda who was a tiny woman, only just over four feet tall. William had no time for the boy &, although he was destined to become Duke of Normandy, he was ignored by his father in favour of his younger brothers, William (later William II of England) & especially Henry, the youngest. Matilda’s support for Robert, even to the extent of supporting him in a rebellion against his father, soured her relationship with William, although he was said to be devastated by her death.
Tracy Borman’s biographies are always well-written & full of the details about women’s lives that I find fascinating. I enjoyed her earlier books about Henrietta Howard & Elizabeth I very much. Matilda was a forceful woman, not content to be merely the subservient partner in her marriage, & that was unusual in this period. I enjoyed finding out more about her life.
The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope is a classic adventure story with a gorgeous romance as well. It’s probably one of the most famous adventure stories of all time & has been filmed at least twice – with Ronald Colman in the 1930s & Stewart Granger in the 1950s. Rudolf Rassendyll, a descendant of the royal house of Ruritania (but on the wrong side of the blanket) has inherited the red hair of the Elphbergs & enough money to idle his time away. He decides to visit Ruritania for the coronation of his distant cousin, Rudolf V. As soon as he arrives, he becomes involved in misunderstandings because he looks so much like the King. The two cousins meet & spend the night before the coronation drinking. The King’s jealous brother, known as Black Michael, drugs the King’s wine, hoping that his non-appearance at his coronation will allow Michael to usurp the throne. When the King can’t be wakened from his drugged sleep, Rudolf is persuaded to take the King’s place.
Rudolf is coached in his role by two of the King’s retainers, Colonel Sapt & Fritz von Tarlenheim. With their help, he is crowned King &, when they discover that the King has been kidnapped by Michael & is being held at his castle of Zenda, Rudolf continues the impersonation while plans are laid to free the King. Rudolf doesn’t plan to enjoy his new role so much or to fall in love with beautiful Princess Flavia, the woman who is expected to marry the King although she doesn’t love him. Rudolf must play a wily game, as Michael & his henchmen can’t expose him without exposing their own misdeeds. The scene is set for an exciting story of plots & counter-plots, sword fighting & romance. There’s also an extra layer of complexity to the story as Rudolf realises that he would be a worthier King than his cousin but is too honourable to allow him to die so that he can remain King & marry the woman he loves.
Bill Slider is one of my favourite detectives. Cynthia Harrod-Eagles has written over a dozen books in this series & I always look forward to meeting up with Bill again. Melanie Hunter is an ordinary young woman. She works at the Natural History Museum, lives with her real-estate agent boyfriend in a flat in Shepherd’s Bush, loves her dog, Marty. There seems no reason why she should have gone missing, let alone be murdered. But, when her neighbour reports her missing, & then her body is found soon after, Slider’s team start digging into Melanie’s life & find that she had secrets.
Melanie’s father was killed in a train crash when she was a teenager. Her mother remarried, a strict, unsympathetic man who Melanie never liked, but after a few rebellious years, Melanie settled down, studied hard & became a palaeontologist. Her career was on track, she was living with her boyfriend, Scott Hibbert, & they planned to get married. Scott had gone to a friend’s wedding for the weekend, Melanie had drinks with her friends, came home, went out again almost immediately taking only her keys & disappeared. Downstairs neighbour, Ronnie Fitton, alerted the police because Melanie would never have left the dog alone. However, when Melanie’s body is found & the investigation starts, no one’s secrets are safe. Fitton murdered his wife in a notorious case & spent years in prison. Scott Hibbert wasn’t at his friend’s stag night as arranged & Melanie’s stepfather’s alibi for the night in question looks increasingly shaky. Melanie was loved by everyone but someone must have had a motive for killing her. Was it someone who loved her too much?
Cynthia Harrod-Eagles writes a beautifully-constructed police procedural with clues, suspects & red herrings a-plenty. Bill & his team are old friends now. Jim Atherton, suave, too clever for his own good & now, after many commitment-free years, settling down with Emily & their Siamese cats. Rita Connelly, a newer member of the team, compassionate, clever & determined to do well. My favourite character is Detective Superintendent Fred Porson. Porson’s malapropisms & mangling of the language are hilarious but he’s a supportive boss & lets Slider get on with the job with minimum interference, except when the Press are demanding arrests. Bill’s family life is also happy with his wife, Joanna, baby son George & his father all sharing the house. Harrod-Eagles is such a good writer & Kill My Darling is an absorbing novel that I read virtually in one sitting.