The Life of Charlotte Brontë – Elizabeth Gaskell

When Charlotte Brontë died in 1855, she was a famous novelist. Her literary reputation was high after the success of Jane Eyre, Shirley & Villette. However, her personal life was still a subject for gossip & ill-informed rumour. When Charlotte’s friend, Ellen Nussey, read an article that mixed critical acclaim with gossipy innuendo about Charlotte’s life, she encouraged Charlotte’s father, Patrick, & her widower, Arthur Nicholls, to commission a response that would silence the gossip. Although Arthur would have preferred a dignified silence, Patrick was persuaded & he agreed with Ellen that Elizabeth Gaskell was the right person to write such a response. Elizabeth Gaskell was not only a respected novelist herself but had known Charlotte in the last years of her life. The familiar story of the Brontë sisters begins with Gaskell’s biography so, instead of retelling that story, I’m going to focus more on the writing of the biography & its effects on Brontë biography ever since.

The book that resulted is one of the greatest biographies ever written about a writer. Gaskell had admired Charlotte & had a profound sympathy for her struggles as a writer & as a woman. She had been just as avid as everyone else to discover the identity of the author of Jane Eyre, which had been published under the pseudonym Currer Bell in 1847. Through her friendship with philanthropist Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth she met Charlotte & they became friends. Gaskell heard from Charlotte herself the sad tale of death & illness that had haunted her family & observed at first hand the struggle Charlotte made to overcome her shyness & her ill-health to enjoy the fame that her books brought her. They corresponded & visited each other so Gaskell was already predisposed to defend Charlotte from any slights when she was asked to write a memoir of her friend. The charge that Jane Eyre was a  “coarse” book, unsuitable for young girls to read, was especially offensive to Gaskell & so she was determined to emphasize the dutiful womanliness of Charlotte Brontë. Her book would show that the unique experiences of Charlotte’s life & her devotion to the truth had fed into the work & charges of coarseness & unwomanliness were completely unjustified.

The publication of the Life caused an immediate storm & scandal. The public’s desire to know more about the author of Jane Eyre was amply satisfied by the book although those who felt slighted or slandered were not long in coming forward. Gaskell’s research had uncovered the truth behind the Lowood scenes in Jane Eyre & she did not scruple to name names when she described Cowan’s Bridge & its head, the Rev Carus Wilson, the original of the odious Mr Brocklehurst. She also retold the story of Branwell Brontë’s employment with the Robinson family & believed his story of his passion for Mrs Robinson & blamed her for Branwell’s decline into alcoholism & death. When Gaskell was writing the book, she jokingly asked her publishers, ” Do you mind the law of libel. I have three people I want to libel …”. Unfortunately it was no joke when she was threatened with lawsuits by Lydia Robinson (she had remarried after her husband’s death & was now Lady Scott) & the family of Carus Wilson. A second edition was already in print but the third, corrected, edition took her months of work & was eventually longer than the first edition. The edition I read was the first edition which has all the libelous bits intact. Gaskell’s righteous anger is clear in these passages & also her reliance on the evidence she gathered from Patrick Brontë & Ellen Nussey as well as Charlotte’s own letters.

Patrick Brontë admired the book & felt that it did justice to his daughter but his reputation suffered as well. The picture of Patrick as a stern misanthrope, cutting up his wife’s silk dress & destroying his children’s coloured boots as too frivolous, made him seem a crank. Gaskell got these stories from a couple of disgruntled former servants but she was too intimidated by Patrick to ask him for his side of the story. He generously refused to reproach her for the portrait she drew of him & it has been said that his reputation has only recently been rehabilitated by the work of biographers like Dudley Green & Juliet Barker. Gaskell also suppressed evidence that didn’t fit with her thesis of a woman made great by suffering. She went to Brussels, where Charlotte & Emily Brontë attended the Pensionnat Heger. Here, Charlotte fell in love with her teacher Constantin Heger, the model for Paul Emanuel in Villette. She wrote him passionate letters which Madame Heger had kept & which she showed to Gaskell. Horrified by this evidence of Charlotte’s love for a married man, Gaskell attributed Charlotte’s misery during her second year in Brussels to worries about Branwell & her family. The secret of the letters was kept until the early 20th century when the Heger’s son donated them to the British Library.

One of the great strengths of the biography is the use that Gaskell made of Charlotte’s letters. Charlotte’s own voice, in her letters to Ellen, to her publishers George Smith & William Smith Williams & to Gaskell herself, is vigorous & alive. Her opinions are pithy &, even though Gaskell edited the letters carefully to remove any details or comments that detracted from the image she wished to present, it was impossible to silence Charlotte’s unique voice. Gaskell was a novelist & the narrative reads like a novel, once the early scene setting chapters are past. The story itself could not be more compelling & although she fudged some unpalatable facts & got things wrong, Gaskell’s version was substantially true. She may have emphasized Charlotte’s domestic virtues over her literary talent, but those domestic virtues were part of Charlotte’s life just as much as her work. It wasn’t until the later twentieth century that the Brontë Myth (as Lucasta Miller calls it in her wonderful book of that name) of the scribbling sisters in their isolated moorland home was overturned. Gaskell’s version of Charlotte’s life isn’t the only one to read if you want a complete view but it’s the only biography written by someone who knew Charlotte & who had a profound sympathy for her life & her work, a fellow novelist who admired the work & was passionately committed to the rehabilitation of her memory.

Joan of Arc – a history – Helen Castor

Everyone knows the story of Joan of Arc. The peasant girl from Domrémy who heard voices as she tended her father’s fields. Voices that she believed came from Heaven. These voices told her to go to the Dauphin Charles, fighting a crippling civil war against the English & Burgundians, lead his army, push the enemy out of France & crown him King. We know that Joan did all this but, when the victories stopped, she was captured by the Burgundians, put on trial by the Church as a heretic, handed over to the English & burned at the stake. Fifty years later, in a different political climate, Joan was rehabilitated by the Church & in 1920, she was made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. I read this story, with illustrations I still remember, in my Children’s Encyclopedia over 40 years ago.

Helen Castor has taken this story & retold it in a fascinating way. Most accounts of Joan’s story begin in Domrémy, in Joan’s childhood, then take us on that journey to the Dauphin so that we’re already convinced of her mission before she arrives at Chinon. In this book, Joan doesn’t even appear until a third of the way through. Castor describes the political situation in France in the early 15th century. She begins with the battle of Azincourt (the English Agincourt) in 1415, describes the split between the victorious English & Burgundian faction, who had the support of the mentally afflicted King Charles VI & the Armagnac faction, supporting the heir to the throne, Dauphin Charles. The reader becomes aware of Joan as the Dauphin does, without knowing any of the traditional backstory. Her deeds seem even more amazing in this context. The desperation of the Armagnacs to believe her story, the decision to give her troops & let her try her luck as they were in such desperate straits, the raising of the siege of Orléans & the triumphant journey to Reims Cathedral to see the Dauphin crowned King. This was the high point in Joan’s story.

Once the Dauphin was crowned, however, no one seemed to know what to do with Joan. She was single-minded in her desire to drive the English out of France & frustrated that Charles wouldn’t give her the troops she wanted to carry out her plan, that plan that she said had been communicated to her by her voices. Eventually, she was captured by the Burgundians as she tried to relieve Compiègne, just outside Paris. Handed over to the Church as a heretic, she was interrogated, put on trial & declared a heretic. Her voices came from the Devil & her determination to wear male clothing was against the teaching of the Church. Joan briefly recanted when she was confronted with the scaffold & sentenced to life imprisonment. However, she soon restated her belief in her voices & returned to her male clothing. The Church then handed her over to the secular authorities for sentencing & she was burnt at the stake on May 30, 1431 at the age of nineteen.

Joan is one of the few medieval women whose life was so completely documented. The transcripts of her trial & then of the rehabilitation are full of eyewitness accounts of her childhood & her career, the kind of detail that is vital to any biographer. Helen Castor does a wonderful job of explaining just how unusual Joan’s journey was. For a teenage girl to get as far as she did with such self-belief & determination was extraordinary. Castor doesn’t try to explain Joan’s voices. There have been theories that she had epilepsy or was mentally ill. There have been theories that she was an illegitimate member of the royal family. It’s like the theories about Shakespeare’s plays. Some people can’t believe that William Shakespeare from Stratford wrote the plays. Some people can’t believe that a peasant girl from Domrémy could have accomplished what she did. Joan’s story has all the elements of fairytale or myth but, by going back to the sources & writing without the benefit of hindsight, we can see why the Dauphin wanted to believe in Joan. Her initial success had more to do with politics than piety but, no matter the machinations at Court, Joan’s own belief never wavered.

The detailed account of her trial shows Joan, a young woman, ill, in prison & alone, interrogated & questioned by large groups of men – Churchmen, lawyers, doctors – & confidently giving her answers as they circled around her story, moving backwards & forwards in time, trying to trip her up on detail, trying to get the admission they needed about the heretical nature of her experiences & beliefs. The outcome of the trial was never in doubt but the lengths that these men went to, either to save her soul for God by her recantation or make her an outcast from the Church if she stuck to her story, was remarkable. This is a fascinating story, so well told. Even if you think you know the story of Joan of Arc, Helen Castor’s book is comprehensive, sympathetic & full of telling detail. This is not a book about a saint; it’s the story of a young woman who took the medieval world by surprise & achieved more than anyone could have imagined.

The Civil Wars of Julia Ward Howe – Elaine Showalter

Shiny New Books no 10 went live a few days ago & I’m very pleased to have a review in it. I enjoyed Elaine Showalter’s new biography of Julia Ward Howe very much. Here’s the beginning of my review,

Julia Ward was born in 1819, to a wealthy New York family. Her father’s fortune was in banking and, despite his strict religious beliefs, he felt no guilt about his wealth and spent it accordingly. After Julia’s mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her seventh child at the age of only twenty-seven, Samuel Ward’s grief took the form of stricter religious observance. Julia and her sisters were brought up as accomplished young ladies, while her brothers were sent to school. The Ward girls were taught French, dancing and music at which Julia excelled. Their social circle was restricted to family and Sundays were dominated by church services and improving literature. Julia later wrote,

The early years of my youth were passed in seclusion not only of home life, but of a home life most carefully and jealously guarded from all that might be represented in the orthodox trinity of evil, the world, the flesh, and the devil.

You can read the rest here.

There are lots of other enticing reviews in this new issue. New biographies of Thomas De Quincey & Anne Brontë (both of which I definitely want to read), more British Library Crime Classics, the new OUP edition of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education (which I’ve just finished & will be reviewing soon), reprints of books by Eric Ambler, Angela Thirkell & Eudora Welty & much more.

The Amazing Mrs Livesey – Freda Marnie Nicholls

Ethel Livesey was born in Manchester in 1897 as Florence Elizabeth Edith Swindells (an ironic name given her future career). She led a life of criminal deception & fraud. Married eight times, mostly bigamously, divorced five times, she had over forty aliases. Ethel (I’ll call her Ethel as that was her most famous alias) was a sociopath who “couldn’t lie straight in bed” as one of her victims said of her in court. She lived in a fantasy world where she was a famous film star or opera singer & often took her aliases from the names of famous people. She felt she was entitled to an easy life & she had no compunction about the means she used to achieve it. Freda Marnie Nicholls has written the book as faction, which is my one real problem with the telling of Ethel’s story, but I’ll come back to that.

Ethel’s life of deception began when she married a young soldier, Alec Carter, in 1914. He was a few years older, a stationer who worked with his father. Alec enlisted in 1916 & went to the Front, leaving Ethel with his family in Manchester. Ethel was pregnant & soon became bored, especially as she disliked her in-laws. She was able to access Alec’s pay by using a ring paper, which was given to the dependents of soldiers serving overseas. Instead of helping out with expenses at home, Ethel spent the money on clothes & partying. When Alec was reported missing in November 1916, Ethel took to her bed. She gave birth to a son, Frank, a few weeks later but refused to care for the baby. One night, she slipped out of the house & disappeared. She never saw her son again. Soon, Ethel was living with another soldier & was in court for the first time when a boarding house keeper reported them to the police for fraud. Ethel convinced the magistrate that she had been taken advantage of when ill & plied with drink. He believed her & the charge against her was dismissed.

Ethel married Ray Ward just a few months later, another soldier (bigamously as it turned out because Alec wasn’t dead). She soon had two ring papers to draw on after meeting yet another soldier while Ray was on active service. She successfully juggled her two identities for a while but slipped up & ended up on a good behaviour bond. Ethel also made a practice of deceiving shopkeepers into giving her credit. She was attractive, well-spoken & confident. She had no compunction about obtaining clothes & jewellery on false pretences. I won’t go through her whole career but at one time or another, Ethel stowed away on a cruise ship, attached herself to a vice-regal party by claiming to be an opera singer, pretended that she had entertained the Duke & Duchess of Windsor on the French Riviera, claimed to have nursed survivors of the Blitz during WWII, was connected to the famous Coats cotton family & married one man after another, usually without obtaining a divorce from the previous husband.

She spent time on the Isle of Man with Thomas Livesey & she changed her name by deed poll as his wife wouldn’t divorce him. She convinced him to put all his assets in her name so that his wife couldn’t access them & then walked out, taking everything with her. She even claimed to be the wife of an Australian Test cricketer. She had a few stints in prison for fraud & obtaining goods by deception but, when released, she just moved to a new town, adopted a new name & started all over again. The worst thing Ethel did was abandon her children. She had two children, Frank & Basil, when she was married to a man called Anderson. She would leave the boys, aged only six & five, for days at a time, leaving a shilling on the table for every day that she planned to be absent. One day, she just didn’t come back. It was during the Depression & neighbours looked after the boys until Social Services took over.

Ethel’s biggest crash came after her planned wedding to a Sydney civil servant, Rex Beach, was called off in spectacular circumstances. It was December 1945 & Ethel was spending the money she’d stolen from Thomas Livesey. The wedding was to be one of the social events of the season with extravagant amounts of money spent on food, flowers & the wedding dress. There was maximum publicity in the newspapers leading up to the event but, on the day of the wedding, Rex called it off after a friend alerted him to Ethel’s past.Ethel was still being pursued for unpaid bills relating to the wedding years later. She eventually served more time in jail for fraud (there were outstanding warrants for her in most states of Australia) & then disappeared again after briefly reconnecting with her sons.

I read The Amazing Mrs Livesey in a day. I know it’s a cliche but it’s a real page-turner. However, I was disappointed at the author’s decision to fictionalise parts of the narrative, making it faction instead of either fact or fiction. The Author’s Note at the end of the book made it all even murkier.

Written as narrative or factional history, real people and actual events have been woven together with fictitious character names, and imagined conversations to bridge occasional gaps in the storyline or account for unnamed people.

I was expecting a non-fictional narrative & was surprised by the fictional scenes. I wish the Author’s Note had been at the beginning of the book rather than the end. It was easy to see which chapters had been sourced in court documents & newspaper research & this was the part of the book I really enjoyed. Marnie Nicholls also writes that there were several stories where Ethel might have been the culprit but these couldn’t be proved so she left them out. However, the story of the stowaway opera singer, also unverified, was too good a story to leave out! I suppose I was expecting a bit more intellectual honesty from a book marketed by the publishers as biography. I can understand why Marnie Nicholls didn’t write a novel as the facts are just too unbelievable. I was reminded of Jane Austen’s advice to her novel-writing niece, Anna,

I have scratched out Sir Thos. from walking with the other men to the stables, &c. the very day after his breaking his arm – for, though I find your papa did walk out immediately after his arm was set, I think it can be so little usual as to appear unnatural in a book.” (Letter. August 10th 1814)

No one would believe Ethel Livesey’s story if it was written as fiction & I’m impressed by the amount of research that has gone into the book. Marnie Nicholls heard of the story from Ethel’s granddaughter, who had done a little digging while searching for her father, Frank’s, birth certificate. Frank had talked about his mother but was very bitter about her abandonment of him as a child. The most amazing find was a Cinesound newsreel that Ethel paid for in the aftermath of the abandoned wedding. The newsreel was shown in cinemas around Australia & featured Ethel proclaiming her innocence & pleading for understanding in her troubles. She also takes a swipe at “Sydney society” who have abandoned her. Ethel seems to have been a completely heartless, amoral woman who had no compunction about the shopkeepers she defrauded, the friends she stole from, the men she deceived or the children she abandoned. The most amazing thing about the amazing Mrs Livesey was that she managed to elude detection & keep deceiving people for as long as she did.

The Lost Tudor Princess – Alison Weir

I love reading about marginal characters. In her lifetime, Lady Margaret Douglas was anything but marginal. However, in the last 400 years, her story has been overshadowed by the stories of those other Tudors & Stuarts – Mary I, Elizabeth I, the wives of Henry VIII & Mary, Queen of Scots – & although she was related to them all, her own story has been lost. I was very pleased to discover that one of my favourite biographers, Alison Weir, was writing about Margaret & the result is a new & fascinating angle on Tudor politics.

Lady Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Henry VIII’s sister, Margaret, Queen of Scots, & her second husband, the Earl of Angus. Queen Margaret’s marriage to a Scottish nobleman after the death of James IV at Flodden, may have been necessary for her own protection, but it meant she lost support among the fractious Scots nobility. She was deprived of the custody of her sons, James (now James V at the age of only 1) & baby Alexander, & forced to flee to England to seek the protection of her brother. This meant that her daughter, Margaret, was born in England. This had important consequences as the succession to the English throne became increasingly tangled in the later years of Henry VIII’s reign.Queen Margaret’s marriage to Angus was not happy & they separated when Lady Margaret was a child. She spent most of her childhood with her father in England at the court of her uncle. She grew up with Princess Mary, shared her education & her devotion to the Catholic religion, & was a favourite of the King. She served in the households of Henry’s Queens & her marriage prospects were important as she became a factor in Henry’s political machinations.

Margaret fell disastrously in love with Lord Thomas Howard in 1535 when she was around 20 years old. As I described in this Sunday Poetry post, the lovers were thrown into the Tower & Margaret was lucky to escape with her life. The result was that Henry passed an Act of Parliament making it a treasonous offense to aspire to marry anyone in the line of succession without the King’s permission. This had momentous consequences in Margaret’s later life but, even so, she fell in love again, three years later, to another member of the Howard family (Charles Howard, brother of Queen Katherine Howard) & was lucky to be pardoned again. Margaret must have felt frustrated, bored & unsure about her future prospects as she was by now in her late twenties, practically an old maid by 16th century standards. Eventually, Henry agreed to her marriage to Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, a Scots nobleman with his own claim to the Scottish throne.

Lennox had spent much of his early life in France (where he adopted the French spelling of his surname) but returned to Scotland on the death of James V in 1542. James’s death had left another child to inherit the throne, & a daughter at that, six day old Mary. Lennox’s family had a long-standing feud with the Hamiltons, the Protestant Earls of Arran, & a power struggle was in progress as factions fought over the Regency. Lennox hoped to strengthen his own claim to the English throne by marriage to Margaret but, surprisingly, their marriage became a love match & they were devoted to each other. As the Protestant faction in Scotland gained the ascendancy, the Lennoxs spent most of their time in England, at their estates in the North. Margaret spent time at Court, serving Henry’s last queen, Katherine Parr, but, as a Catholic, avoided London during the reign of her cousin, Edward VI. She was overjoyed when her friend & cousin, Catholic Mary I, ascended the throne, but disappointed when Mary died only five years later & the Protestant Elizabeth became queen. Margaret was also furious that she had been denied the earldom of Angus when her father died. Accusations of illegitimacy were leveled against her as well as her sex & her English birth. She fought futilely for years to succeed to the earldom.

It is now, with her rival in power, that the real Margaret emerges, a strong, ‘masterful, ambitious woman’  of forty-three ‘with more than a dash of Tudor spirit’, whose ambitions and prejudices had hitherto been fed, or kept in check, by circumstances, and who had been denied her rights to a great earldom and a crown. It would not be surprising if she felt angry and wronged, especially now that she found herself in opposition to a powerful enemy (Elizabeth) who represented everything she despised. Margaret had already demonstrated that she had an audacious, passionate nature and a talent for dangerous scheming, and it was at this time that her relentless ambition and determination came into evidence. Sher did not shrink from what Elizabeth would certainly have seen as treasonable activities, although Margaret would not have regarded them as such. Two forces now drove her: her fierce ambition for her sons, and a burning desire to see England and Scotland united under Catholic rule.

Margaret had eight children, of whom only two sons, Henry, Lord Darnley & Charles survived childhood. Margaret’s ambitions soon centred on the possibility of marrying her son, Darnley, to Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary had been sent to France as a child & had married the Dauphin, who briefly reigned as Francis II. After Francis’s death, Mary returned to Scotland & her second marriage was an important political decision. It was assumed that a Queen Regnant must marry & the political & religious differences in Scotland made her choice fraught with difficulty. Various Catholic foreign princes were proposed; Elizabeth I even offered her own favourite, Robert Dudley, & Margaret was keen to unite her own claim to the English throne to the claim of the Queen of Scots. Darnley had been born in England which was seen as a distinct advantage. However, Margaret had learned nothing from her own romantic history & pursued her intrigues even though she knew Elizabeth would disapprove of two potential successors combining their claims.

Darnley went to Scotland where Mary fell in love with him. He was a stupid, weak, vicious young man, handsome, but fatally spoilt by his doting mother. The marriage was famously disastrous & soon broke down. Darnley’s murder in 1567 devastated Margaret, who blamed Mary for Darnley’s death, which led to a feud between the two women that wasn’t healed for many years. The only bright spot for Margaret was the birth of James, her first grandchild, undisputed heir to the Scottish throne & an obvious successor to Elizabeth, who seemed increasingly unlikely to marry & have children of her own.

Although Margaret spent more time imprisoned in the Tower after Darnley’s marriage to Mary, she was undeterred in her ambitions. She was fortunate in her two great supporters & friends at Court, William Cecil & Robert Dudley, who did not abandon her &used their influence with Elizabeth in her favour. .After Mary was forced from the Scottish throne & fled to England where she spent the next eighteen years in genteel imprisonment, Margaret was relentless in pushing for her to be tried for the murder of Darnley. Eventually, she accepted that Mary was innocent of the foreknowledge of the plot & the two women were reconciled. Lennox was recalled to Scotland to act as Regent for his grandson, King James, a dangerous job that was virtually a death sentence. The Lennoxs were unhappy to be parted but Margaret played a crucial role in his Regency, as a source of contact with Elizabeth’s Court & an advisor through their constant correspondence. Lennox was assassinated in 1571, leaving Margaret bereft & focusing all her thoughts on her only surviving son, Charles.

Margaret’s final intrigue was her scheme to marry her son, Charles, to Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of the formidable Bess of Hardwick. Bess was married to the Earl of Shrewsbury, jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots, no stranger to intrigue herself. Although Bess & Queen Mary had a strained relationship, Mary was keen to help her brother-in-law Charles to a good marriage or maybe she was just bored & eager to help along a budding romance. Margaret was perennially hard up & Bess was keen to see her daughter married to a potential heir to the throne. The two matrons contrived a meeting between the young couple, they duly fell in love & were secretly married. Queen Elizabeth was furious & even more so when a baby girl, Arbella, was born, another potential heir to her throne born on English soil. Elizabeth instituted an inquiry into what she saw as a treasonable conspiracy & Margaret was once again imprisoned in the Tower. Eventually she was released & lived with Charles, Elizabeth & baby Arbella in Hackney, deeply in debt & worried about Charles, who was soon to die of tuberculosis. Margaret then spent her final years trying to have Arbella recognised as her father’s heir to the Lennox estates. She died at the age of 62 in 1578.

As Weir writes at the conclusion of the book, it’s amazing that Margaret Douglas lived as long as she did. Not many Tudor women left the Tower alive & Margaret was imprisoned more than once & suspected of treason several more times. She was ambitious & a determined intriguer who schemed for her family’s advancement until the end of her life. During the reign of Henry VIII, at a time when almost all the potential heirs to the English throne were female, she played an important role in the political machinations of the Court although she had little power herself. Her marriage was arranged yet she & Matthew were very happy together. She was the dominant partner, the driving force in their relationship, & he wrote to her constantly when they were parted, addressing her as My Dear Meg & Dearest Madge. She outlived everyone who was of any importance to her, except little Arbella, & struggled with debt throughout her life. Her ambition was driven by a burning sense of injustice that her rights to inheritance had been trampled on, mostly because of her sex. I can imagine her as a suffragette; prison & hunger strikes would have held no fears for this indomitable woman. Alison Weir, as always, has written a meticulously researched account that is as gripping as a novel. If you love Tudor history as I do, this book will illuminate the life of a woman usually seen in her role as Darnley’s mother or Mary, Queen of Scots’ aunt. Weir puts Margaret Douglas back in her rightful place as an important player in Tudor politics.

John le Carré : the biography – Adam Sisman

Hearing Adam Sisman talking about his biography of John le Carré on the Open Book podcast a few months ago was so fascinating that I was keen to read the book. I decided to listen to the audio book because it’s read by Michael Jayston who has narrated so many of le Carré’s novels over the years. I especially remember listening to The Constant Gardener, one of my favourite le Carré novels. I always see Jayston as Nicholas II (after his performance in the movie version of Robert K Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra) but his voice is perfect for this book.

I found the interview with Adam Sisman so interesting because he talked about the process of writing the biography. Other biographers, including Robert Harris & Graham Lord, had proposed biographies of David Cornwell (le Carré’s real name) in the past but his reluctance to reveal himself was a barrier. Sisman was able to interview Cornwell at great length during his research & always maintained that his book would be as objective as possible. Cornwell obviously trusted Sisman with more of his story than he had allowed anyone else although there were areas he refused to discuss. Most importantly, he refused to talk about his time as an agent & then agent runner for MI5 & MI6 in the 1960s. Sisman researched this part of the book through interviews with David’s colleagues & archival research.Their relationship certainly never became cosy & only last week, I read this article in The Independent, about the sale of the film rights to the biography where Sisman reveals the ambivalence Cornwell felt about the book. It also reveals the essential canniness & business sense of Cornwell. The film rights in the biography have been sold to The Ink Factory, a company owned by two of Cornwell’s sons (with seemingly a fair amount of input from the author) although Sisman had to pitch the project to them like any other writer. They also produced the recent adaptation of The Night Manager.

David Cornwell’s life was profoundly influenced by his unhappy childhood. His father, Ronnie, was a con man, a deceiver, womaniser & thief who was declared bankrupt several times & spent time in prison. David’s mother, Olive, left her husband & her two sons, David & his older brother, Tony, when the boys were quite small. They had no contact with her for years & the grief of her departure had a devastating impact on the boys. Ronnie’s career consisted of mad schemes, charming money out of just about everyone he ever met, setting up businesses that always paid him a generous salary but somehow never returned anything to his investors. He lived his life one step ahead of the law & sometimes tripped & ended up in court. He was a constant source of unwilling pride & of embarrassment to David who became adept at an early age at hiding his true feelings.

He was sent to boarding school at Sherborne at a young age &, when he was just sixteen, decided to go to Berne alone to study German language & literature. He studied at Oxford, became a teacher, working at Eton, married his first wife, Ann, & began writing fiction. He was also recruited by MI5 & worked as a diplomat in Germany & Switzerland for several years. However, the publication of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in 1963 was a turning point. He left the intelligence services & became a full-time writer. His name is indelibly associated with the great espionage novels of the Smiley series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy & Smiley’s People but his later novels have been just as successful, many of them being adapted for television & movies.

I loved reading about the process of writing the novels, the research undertaken all over the world. Almost as interesting is the extent to which David (I feel as though I’m on first-name terms after these last weeks of wanting to get back into the car to listen to a bit more of what happened to David next) has mined elements of his own life & especially his relationship with his father in so many of the books. Ronnie appears most recognisably in A Perfect Spy, the most obviously autobiographical of the novels but relationships between fathers & sons are integral to several other novels & aspects of Ronnie, & of David himself, creep into many characters. I also enjoyed reading about the process of adapting the books to other media. Cornwell was involved in the scripts for several of the adaptations & there are wonderful stories about his time on the set of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold with Richard Burton (who hated the director & wanted Elizabeth Taylor to play the love interest), & the friendship that developed between David & Alec Guinness during the production of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It’s also fascinating to see how his anger at corruption & injustice has grown over the years & is channelled into his fiction – American imperialism in The Tailor of Panama, the plight of the Palestinians in The Little Drummer Girl or the iniquities of big pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener. Far from running out of topics to write about after the end of the Cold War (a suggestion that infuriates him), he has continued to find new villains to write about.

If I have a criticism of the biography, it’s that Sisman goes into almost exhaustive detail about everyone David has ever known or worked with. The book is very long (over 26 hours on audio so about 600pp) & it feels as though Sisman wanted us to appreciate the depth of his research. He also quotes far too many reviews of the books. I know he wasn’t writing a literary appreciation of the work but fewer quotations would have made his point just as well. He does quote the stinkers as well as the raves. Essentially though, all Sisman’s research can’t really get to the depths of David Cornwell’s character. For all his apparent openness in the interviews Sisman conducted, he has told so many versions of himself & his life to so many interviewers over the years that the truth is hard to discover. There seems to be more of Ronnie the obfuscator & conman in David than has ever been acknowledged. His years in MI5 & MI6 added extra layers to his character that have hardened over the years. We don’t really see much of the family man (he has three sons with his first wife & another son with his second wife, Jane) but maybe that was a conscious decision by Sisman not to intrude on their lives. The Cornwells have lived in Cornwall for over 40 years & there are some lovely stories about his meticulous working habits, walking along the cliff paths, talking to himself as he plans his books. He rarely gets involved in the London literary scene, he almost seems to despise it, & doesn’t seem interested in using his celebrity although he has been generous to various philanthropic causes.

I was intrigued to read recently that, after many years of refusing to write a memoir or autobiography, Cornwell has written a memoir called The Pigeon Tunnel which will be published in the UK in September. Coming so soon after Sisman’s biography, I wonder if it was prompted by the wish to put his own side of the story or if the process of remembering & telling Sisman his stories led to the desire to write about his life himself? Interestingly, The Pigeon Tunnel was the working title for several of his novels over the years so I wonder if he’s planning to play another joke on his readers by promising to reveal more than he will actually deliver? The subtitle is A Writing Life so it may be more about the professional than the personal life. After reading this absorbing biography, I’m looking forward to finding out.

Charlotte Brontë : a life – Claire Harman

2016 is the bicentenary of the birth of Charlotte Brontë. There will be many books & articles published next year about Charlotte of which this new biography by Claire Harman is just the first.I’ve read dozens of books about the Brontës but can never resist just one more, especially when it’s written by Claire Harman, who has written so well about other writers – Fanny Burney, Sylvia Townsend Warner & Robert Louis Stevenson.

The story of the Brontë family is so well-known that, instead of retelling it here, I thought I’d focus on some of the aspects of this book that particularly struck me. The last major biography of Charlotte was published in 1994, Lyndall Gordon’s wonderful book, Charlotte Brontë : a passionate life. I have a recording (taped from the TV in the olden days) of a BBC program from 1995 about Charlotte which I’ve watched many times. It focused on two photographs that had recently been identified as being of her. One of these was discovered in the archives of the National Portrait Gallery & the other belonged to Audrey Hall, a member of the Brontë Society & a connection of Ellen Nussey, Charlotte’s friend. The program followed Audrey Hall as she tried to authenticate her photograph &, incidentally, allowed some of the odder members of the Brontë Society to discuss their psychic experiences of being contacted by Charlotte & their disapproval of Charlotte’s husband, Arthur Nicholls for only being interested in Charlotte once she was famous.

Lyndall Gordon was interviewed in the program & spoke very movingly about the letters Charlotte wrote to Monsieur Heger. She also talked about the thesis of her book, which did away with the image of Charlotte as a dutiful daughter & sister with her writing coming out of nowhere which had been promoted by Elizabeth Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte. Gordon’s book portrayed Charlotte as a professional writer who used the circumstances of her life in her fiction. She also used the NPG photograph of Charlotte on the cover of her book instead of the portrait by George Richmond which is a very flattering image of Charlotte if it’s compared with descriptions of Charlotte by those who knew her. I was fascinated when reading Claire Harman’s book to discover that the NPG photo is now thought to be of Ellen Nussey rather than Charlotte so the Richmond portrait is back on the cover of the book (there’s more about Claire Harman’s theory about the photographs in this TLS article).

Claire Harman is very good at exploring how Charlotte used her experiences in the fiction. Not only the major events, such as her unrequited love for her teacher in Brussels, Monsieur Heger, or the scarring experience of the Cowan Bridge school that became Lowood in Jane Eyre, but the emotional resonances of the deaths of her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, when Charlotte was only a child.

But the griefs and fears expressed in Charlotte’s dream (when she was at boarding school, that Maria and Elizabeth returned but were society ladies who dismissed her) touched a nerve that resonated painfully all her life : the understanding that there was a loss beyond loss, that bereavements might not only multiply but intensify. Such feelings torment the protagonist of Villette at the novel’s crisis, the eye of suffering tin that most suffering book : “Methought the well-loved dead, who had loved me well in life, met me elsewhere, alienated: galled was my inmost spirit with an unutterable sense of despair.” Time does move on for the bereaved, but alarmingly. Healing, ‘recovering’, from a death is also a form of estrangement, a further loss.

I also enjoyed the way that Harman sees Charlotte using the vast body of juvenilia in her later work. Charlotte & her brother, Branwell, created a world they called Angria. They wrote millions of words about the characters of Angria, stories, histories & fantasies that Charlotte came to call “the world below”. She finally realised that her indulgence in her Angrian fantasies was like a drug & she famously wrote her Farewell to Angria when she decided to leave it behind. However, elements of Angria crop up in her novels, especially Jane Eyre.

With the massive literature of Angria and The Professor to her credit already, Charlotte had served as long and hard an apprenticeship as any writer could expect, but the perfection of Jane Eyre still takes one by surprise. The story itself is one of the most gripping ever written, and the telling of it effortlessly clever and assured: Adele’s childish prattle as she introduces herself to Mademoiselle guilelessly exposes Rochester’s chequered past; Mrs Fairfax is both friendly and secretive; … And, although the novel is thoroughly Gothic in its use of dark stairways, mad women, mysterious laughter, fire, exile, near-starvation – the whole glorious gamut, in other words – Jane’s resolute common sense, fatalism and instinct for the rational allow the enjoyment of all this “burning clime” material without degenerating into the incredible.

One phrase of Harman’s that I loved was her description of Charlotte’s authorial interruptions as “Another bog burst from Charlotte’s seething substratum“. The bog burst refers to a real incident from Charlotte’s childhood when Branwell, Emily & Anne were out on the moors one day with a servant when there was a bog burst caused by a build up of gases in the peat. Although Charlotte wasn’t there, she would surely have heard about it & read the poem her father, Patrick, wrote about it. The particular bog burst referred to here is in Shirley, when Charlotte suddenly breaks into a passage about Shirley’s charitable plans for the neighbourhood with an extraordinary description of a scheming (non-English) woman the author has once known, obviously Mme Heger.

Charlotte (or the narrator) breaks in to all the novels with these asides to the reader – the most famous being “Reader, I married him” in Jane Eyre. What did the first readers of the novels make of it? They must have been mystified. What did the Hegers make of it & what did they make of Villette, the novel most closely associated with Charlotte’s time in Brussels? Charlotte tried to prevent her novels being translated into French but was she still trying to make contact with Monsieur Heger even though he had refused to reply to her letters? Had she turned her unrequited love into rage? Claire Harman also speculates that Madame Heger retrieved & pieced together Charlotte’s letters to her husband (which he’d thrown away) to use as proof that Charlotte was mad if any scandal ever touched her school. I feel as though I need to reread all the novels again as I’d never noticed that description of Madame Heger in Shirley. What else have I missed?

Claire Harman’s book is a sober, low key retelling of Charlotte’s story. There’s very little new information, although she does identify a drawing in an atlas owned by Charlotte as a self-portrait, but I did enjoy Harman’s insights into the novels & the way that Charlotte’s experiences in Belgium are evident in all her fiction, not just The Professor & Villette.

Testament of Friendship – Vera Brittain

A few weeks ago I read John Forster’s biography of Charles Dickens & one of the things I loved most about it was that Forster & Dickens were friends & he brought all his personal knowledge of Dickens to the biography. Vera Brittain’s biography of Winifred Holtby is also the story of their friendship. I first read this book over 20 years ago &, as it’s 80 years since the death of Holtby this month, I wanted to read it again.

Winifred was born in 1898, the daughter of a farming family in Yorkshire. Her schooldays were unremarkable, the most memorable event was being caught up in the Zeppelin raid over Scarborough during the War. Her family life was happy. Her father, David, ran the farm & her mother, Alice, eventually became the first female County Councilor in the East Riding, an achievement Winifred was very proud of. She based Mrs Beddows in her novel South Riding on her mother. In the last year of the War, Winifred joined the WAACs & helped to run a hostel in France for a Signals unit. It was at Huchenneville that she met her lifelong friend Jean McWilliam. Jean later emigrated to South Africa & their correspondence was published as Letters to a Friend.

Vera & Winifred met at Oxford after WWI. On the surface, they were unlikely friends. Vera had nursed throughout the War, had lost her fiancé, her brother & two close friends. She returned to Oxford bruised & exhausted by her experiences. Winifred’s war had been quite different. Too young to join up until almost the end, she had lost no one close to her. Physically they were quite different. Winifred was tall, blonde, gregarious & outgoing. Vera was small, dark, pretty & intense. They first met during History tutorials & clashed over a debate where Vera felt ambushed by Winifred & the other students who hadn’t suffered as she had done. Eventually though, they became friends &, when they graduated, decided to live together in London to pursue their dream of becoming writers.

Winifred’s first novel, Anderby Wold, was accepted for publication & she was also in demand as a teacher. She was careful never to accept a full-time teaching post because she knew that writing & journalism was what she wanted to do. Vera & Winifred also became involved in the League of Nations Union (the precursor of the United Nations) & did a lot of lecturing for the cause of peace in Europe. Winifred’s life was so full of commitments that it’s exhausting to read. She became involved in encouraging Trade Unionism in South Africa after she spent five months touring & lecturing there; she wrote for the feminist journal, Time and Tide, & became a member of the Board; she continued tutoring & lecturing for the causes of peace & feminism that she felt so strongly about & she kept writing fiction. She was always disappointed in the results because she felt she was never able to satisfactorily carry out her original inspiration.

Winifred also spent a considerable amount of time supporting friends & family. She was an integral part of the household when Vera married Gordon Catlin in 1925 & helped to look after the children & encourage Vera in her work, especially when she was writing Testament of Youth. Family responsibilities also took her back to Yorkshire & she supported many friends both emotionally & financially when she could. She was always in demand as a lecturer & reviewer & her own needs often took second place. When she was at Oxford, so many friends came to her rooms to talk about their problems or just as a meeting place that she often had to go to the library to study, leaving them in possession. This exemplifies Winifred’s unselfishness but also highlights one of the downsides of her nature. She was so busy supporting other people that her own needs often went unrecognised. She had never been strong & when her health began to fail, she was eventually diagnosed with kidney disease. She died in September 1935 at the age of just 37.

Testament of Friendship is such an interesting book on many levels. On one level, it’s the story of a woman who was loved by everyone, almost a saint in her unselfish devotion to other people. It’s the story of a life cut short by illness & of potential unrealized. On another level, this is as much a book about Vera as it is about Winifred. Even the title of the book links it to her own Testament of Youth. Vera’s motives for writing the book have been much analysed. She states in the Prologue that she wanted to write a book about female friendship, a relationship that has not been celebrated as male friendship has been through the centuries. She wanted to celebrate a friendship that had saved her sanity after the losses of the War & maybe wanted to atone for her own feelings of guilt over taking advantage of Winifred’s good nature. There’s definitely an element of guilt here but there’s also a feeling of proprietorship over Winifred’s life that upset Alice Holtby & Winifred’s other friends. Vera was Winifred’s literary executor & saw South Riding through the Press after her death, even though Mrs Holtby didn’t want it published.

Vera even gave Winifred a love story, a romance that, in reality, was so tenuous as to hardly exist. Was this because she wanted to show that Winifred had been a “normal” woman (far from the rumours of lesbianism & ménage a trois that circulated about Winifred, Vera & Gordon) or was it from a feeling of guilt that the demands of Vera, her family & friends prevented Winifred ever having time for a life of her own? After reading Testament of Friendship, I went back to Vera’s diaries of the 1930s (published as Chronicle of Friendship) & read the entries for Winifred’s last days. I was astonished all over again at how Vera stage-managed a death-bed proposal of marriage from the man she calls Bill in the biography at a time when Winifred was so ill that she could hardly see or recognize anyone. In the biography, this is presented as the touching end to a lifelong romance.

I loved the way the book opens, with a conscious imitation of the way Elizabeth Gaskell begins her Life of Charlotte Brontë. The pilgrimage to a Yorkshire village, recreating the steps of the literary pilgrim through the village to the churchyard where Winifred’s grave lies. It’s a beautiful piece of writing, the descriptions of nature & the countryside are just gorgeous & she ends with a description of the grave & the explicit comparison of Winifred with Charlotte Brontë. When I reread Testament of Youth earlier this year I noticed how often Vera prefigures the end of her story all the way through. She does this again here. I also loved all the details of Winifred’s journalistic career & her work with Lady Rhondda, owner of Time and Tide. The quotations from Winifred’s letters bring her to life with all her good humour & self-deprecation.

One of the lingering questions in a biography of a woman who died so young is, what might she have done differently if she’d known that she would die at 37? Would she have concentrated on her fiction? Would she have been more ruthless about the encroachments of others? Somehow I don’t think she would. She was ill for several years before her death &, apart from her determination to finish South Riding, she kept on as she always had – supporting her friends, even going on holiday with Vera & her children when she was obviously not well so that Vera would be able to keep believing that she would recover. Testament of Friendship isn’t the whole story of Winifred Holtby (Marion Shaw’s The Clear Stream is an excellent modern biography) just as Forster’s Life of Dickens isn’t the whole story of Charles Dickens. Both books, however, are invaluable for the personal insights they give into the lives of their subjects.

Anglophilebooks.comCopies of many of the books mentioned in this post can be found at Anglophile Books.

Lucy Maud Montgomery : the gift of wings – Mary Henley Rubio

I don’t think I read any of L M Montgomery’s books when I was a child. I remember enjoying the TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables & I may have read the book afterwards but it was Montgomery’s Journals that were my first real exposure to her work. I borrowed them all through ILL & was amazed at the difference between Maud’s often unhappy life & the sunny atmosphere of her novels. This biography, by one of the editors of the Journals, reinforces that impression. It’s an excellent, if often harrowing, read.

Maud was brought up by her maternal grandparents on Prince Edward Island, the famous setting for her most loved books.Her mother died when Maud was only a small child & her father left the Island & eventually remarried. Maud’s grandmother was a sympathetic but conventional woman; her grandfather was stern & very dismissive of the ambitions & dreams of a mere girl. Maud had to struggle for her education & she used her journals as an escape from her life when it became difficult. Eventually she became a teacher & began writing stories & poetry which she sold to newspapers. Her emotional life was difficult. She was bright, vivacious & talented at recitation & story telling. She was also very conscious of the downside of living in a small community where gossip could be deadly. Her grandfather’s sarcasm at her ambition or her presumption in “putting herself forward” had the ability to dampen Maud’s spirits.

Maud had to contend with intrusive talk about her prospects as she grew older & was still unmarried. Her Journals describe a passionate relationship with a young man, Herman Leard, with whose family she boarded when she worked as a teacher. This secret relationship was vividly described in the Journals but Maud never mentions the fact that Herman was engaged to another girl at the time. How much was true & how much was romantic imagination? One of the most fascinating things about the biography is in exploring the truth of the Journals. Maud rewrote them years after the events were originally described & Rubio explores not only the accounts in the Journals but also what she discovered in the process of editing & publishing the Journals in the 1980s. She was able to interview many people who were mentioned in the Journals & it’s often amazing to see the differences between the way Maud records an incident & how others viewed it.

Nowhere is this disconnect between Maud’s reality & what others remembered than in her account of her marriage. Maud married Reverend Ewan Macdonald when she was in her thirties. Ewan was an Islander, like Maud, & they were secretly engaged for five years before marrying in 1911. Ewan was a good man, kindly & caring to his parishioners. Unfortunately he suffered from depression & the social stigma of any kind of mental illness combined with the medications he took to relieve his symptoms, made his life a misery for much of their marriage. Both Ewan & Maud seem to have been severely over-medicated for much of their lives. Ewan saw doctors who prescribed bromides & sedatives but he was also self-medicating with other over-the-counter medicines while Maud often dosed him with her homemade wine or brandy. The strain of parish work in small communities, “keeping up appearances”, & later problems with their eldest son, Chester, played on Maud’s nerves & led to her taking all kinds of medication. She often seems to be on the verge of a complete nervous collapse. Maud’s Journals portray all this in great detail but she was also able to put on such a good face to neighbours & parishioners that many people who knew the Macdonalds in their parishes in Norval & Toronto were amazed when they read the Journals. Even their maids, who lived with the family, were shocked to discover what Maud had written. They were also shocked by Maud’s caustic opinions about many of the people she knew in her daily life.

I found the description of Maud’s literary career especially interesting. The success of Anne of Green Gables was enormous & laid the foundation for Maud’s career. The financial rewards compensated for Ewan’s lacklustre career & Maud certainly enjoyed her fame. Sometimes the effects were two-edged, as when the success of her books led to such an increase of tourists making the pilgrimage to PEI that Maud could no longer relax when she went home. I also couldn’t help wondering how Ewan felt about his wife’s career & whether the humiliation of being sidelined, both financially & emotionally, may have contributed to his depression. As Rubio writes at the end of the book, we only have Maud’s side of the story so Ewan’s story will never be told. Maud’s lawsuits with an unscrupulous publisher dragged on for years & she felt stifled by the demands of her public for stories with happy endings. Her popularity did her no favours with the literary critics, nearly all of them men. Although Maud worked hard to promote Canadian literature & help young authors, her books were sneered at by male critics who relegated her to the lowly status of an author of children’s books & romances. Even her later books, such as A Tangled Web, which she intended for an adult audience, were invariably shelved with the children’s books in libraries & bookshops.

Mary Henley Rubio’s biography is the product of many years research & the thoroughness of that research is evident on every page. When I was reading the Journals, especially the final one, I can remember having to put the book down several times & read something light because Maud’s final years were just so grim. I felt the same way when reading this biography. The contrast between the sunny skies of her novels & the storms & dramas of her life is so great that it was useful to be able to look at it from the outside with the perspective of a biographer rather than to be inside the maelstrom with Maud as it often felt when reading the Journals. Reading the biography has also made me want to read more of the fiction. Last year, I read Jane of Lantern Hill & Rilla of Ingleside when they were reprinted by Virago & I have the Emily books & A Tangled Web on the tbr shelves.

Victoria : a life – A N Wilson

The life of Queen Victoria is very well-known & I’ve read many books about her. I’ve read biographies, her letters to her daughter, biographies of her children, her servants, her Prime Ministers, her ancestors & books on many aspects of the Victorian period. So, another biography of Queen Victoria & especially a biography I listened to on audio for almost 20 hours, has to be fresh & different to engage my attention. Instead of retelling the story of the book, I thought I’d concentrate on what makes this biography different from the others I’ve read over the years.

First of all, it’s the writing style & the persona of the author. A N Wilson is a distinguished biographer & novelist. I’ve read several of his biographies & non-fiction books & enjoyed them all. I have his massive biography of Tolstoy on the tbr shelves & I’ve just bought the audio book version on Audible so I may listen rather than read as the book has been there for many years. Wilson’s style is amused, sympathetic, almost confiding. He obviously felt considerable affection for Victoria & he delights in quoting her most unreasonable comments from her letters. This isn’t done in a mean-spirited way, as though he’s showing how ridiculous she was, but as a way of showing how human she was, as inconsistent as any other person. He shows the Queen in all her contradictory moods. He also emphasizes parts of her character & personality that haven’t been emphasized enough.

The importance of the Queen’s German heritage is a major theme of Wilson’s biography. Victoria was three-quarters German, after all. Her paternal grandmother, Queen Charlotte, was a Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz & her mother, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg was also German. She married Albert, nephew of Victoire, & her closest advisors in her girlhood & the first years of her reign were Baroness Lehzen, her governess, & Baron Stockmar, Albert’s friend & advisor who became hers as well. She spoke German as easily as she did English &, when she was especially agitated or excited, her written English took on the grammatical constructions of German. Prince Albert’s dream of a liberal German state headed by Prussia was also Victoria’s dream. Victoria wasn’t very interested in European politics early in her reign but, especially after Albert’s death in 1861, as her children married into European royal houses, she grew more involved & more determined to do what she could to realise that vision. Her role as Grandmother of Europe allowed her to interfere in everything from the marriages of her grandchildren to whether or not a particular member of a German royal house should accept the crown of Greece.

Wilson also disputes the extent to which Victoria withdrew from public affairs in the years after Albert’s death. She certainly suffered from extreme grief & depression in the 1860s & she shrank from public engagements & speeches because of her shyness. However, she didn’t neglect her role as constitutional monarch & demanded to be kept up to date on all political matters – even if that meant that her ministers had to travel to Osborne or Balmoral to consult her & keep her informed. She could be stubborn & unreasonable but she had been well-trained by Albert & Stockmar in the duties of a monarch & she was determined to be involved in everything that concerned Britain & the Empire.

Victoria’s relationships with her Highland servant, John Brown & her Indian secretary, Hafiz Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi have always been controversial. One of Victoria’s most endearing qualities was her lack of racism or prejudice, her “lack of side” as Wilson calls it. She felt completely at home among her Scottish subjects, especially Highlanders, & she was fascinated by India. Her title of Empress of India may have been a bit of a joke to some politicians & critics but Victoria was proud of her connection with India & its people. Whether she was ever actually married to John Brown will probably never be known. Wilson sets out the anecdotal evidence for & against. I’ve always thought they had a genuine friendship. Victoria enjoyed being looked after & cared for & Brown was devoted to her care. He wasn’t cowed by her & spoke his mind, which she enjoyed. The Munshi was a more shadowy character. He taught Victoria Hindustani & was given access to documents that he probably should never have seen but he came to symbolise India to the Queen & she refused to believe the stories about his disreputable conduct & dubious associates. The more her children, servants & ministers tried to remove Brown & the Munshi, the more Victoria clung to them.

Victoria’s servants, especially her Private Secretaries & doctors, were especially important. A sensible Private Secretary with a sense of humour, like Sir Henry Ponsonby, was vital if the everyday business of government was to continue. Ponsonby knew how to manage the Queen. He had a genuine liking for her & knew how to handle her moods. He was a necessary go-between for the family & politicians. Of her doctors, Sir James Reid was a favourite. He was Scottish (always her first requirement in a physician) & was well-suited to the demanding post of caring for the Queen & her household. Amazingly he never saw the Queen undressed or even in her bed until her final illness. Wilson quotes from Sir James’s biography, written by Michaela Reid (she married his grandson) & based on his private papers, so of course, I’ve ordered a copy. I also have a biography of Henry & Mary Ponsonby by William M Kuhn on the tbr shelves. One book just leads to another…

I enjoyed reading about the Queen’s sometimes volatile relationships with her Prime Ministers & her controlling, sometimes truly deplorable behaviour to her children. She could be selfish, unreasonable, petty & ungracious (her last audience with Gladstone is an example of just how ungracious she could be) but I find her completely fascinating. A N Wilson’s biography is a joy to read & I really enjoyed Gareth Armstrong’s reading of it. If you think you’ve read enough biographies of Queen Victoria, maybe you should read (or listen to) just one more.