Caught in the Revolution – Helen Rappaport

Helen Rappaport’s new book is a fascinating exploration of 1917 in Petrograd, the year of revolution, seen through the eyes of the expatriates living there. I’ve always been interested in Russian history but I knew very little about the progress of the Revolution from the perspective of the people living in Petrograd at the time. Caught in the Revolution is based on the memoirs & letters of the diplomats, journalists & nurses living in Petrograd during these tumultuous events.

By February 1917 Russia had been at war with Germany & Austria-Hungary for almost three long years.  The progress of the war had exposed all the problems of a pre-industrial society attempting to wage war in the modern age. Although Russia could put millions of men into the field, they were poorly equipped. Supplies had to be transported vast distances & the infrastructure just wasn’t capable of keeping up with the demand. At the centre of the regime was the Tsar, Nicholas II, who decided to take control of the army, leaving the government in the hands of his wife, Tsarina Alexandra. Alexandra was disastrously dependent on Grigory Rasputin & made decisions about the appointment of ministers based on his advice. The government were unable to oppose Alexandra’s wishes & Nicholas was too far away for appeal. Unfortunately Nicholas had faith in Alexandra & refused to change any of the appointments she & Rasputin made. Rasputin was murdered in December 1916 but, by then, it was too late to restore confidence in the government or the Tsar. The diplomatic community, led by the French ambassador Maurice Paléologue & British ambassador Sir George Buchanan, had tried to convince the Tsar that Russia was in trouble but he listened to their pleas politely & ignored them.  The American ambassador, David Rowland Francis, had arrived in Petrograd in April 1916 & was still feeling his way into the post when trouble began.

The situation came to a head in February when shortages of flour led to riots when supplies of bread ran out. Factory workers soon went out on strike & the Cossacks – the Tsarist regime’s most loyal supporters – refused to fire on the strikers. Eventually they mutinied & joined the strikers. The strikes were brutally opposed by the police as the government stood helplessly by & the protesters were emboldened by the restraint shown by the soldiers. American journalists Florence Harper & Donald Thompson found themselves in the middle of several protest marches & were impressed by how good-humoured the marchers were. Thompson had to be careful when taking photos not to be mistaken for a member of the secret police, who were the only people attracting the anger of the crowd. Eventually violence broke out when a group of protesters ransacked a pastry shop & the police responded with machine gun fire. The government was paralysed by a lack of leadership & attempts to convince the Tsar of the seriousness of events were unsuccessful. When Nicholas did decide to return to Petrograd, it was too late. Mutinying regiments blocked his train & he was convinced to abdicate.

The Provisional Government, led by Alexander Kerensky, was welcomed by the people, who expected immediate relief from all their problems. Workers went back to their factories demanding higher wages & shorter hours; citizens expected that food shortages would end; soldiers & sailors who had mutinied & shot their officers seemed to have forgotten about the war altogether. Kerensky struggled to keep his government together & was under threat from the more radical Bolsheviks led by Lenin, who had returned from exile. As a symbol of just how much had changed, Lenin set up his headquarters in the Kschessinska Mansion opposite the British Embassy. The mansion had been built for Mathilde Kschessinska, former prima ballerina & mistress of Tsar Nicholas. Kschessinska had fled to Paris just in time, leaving everything behind. By October, the unrealistic expectations of the people had collided with the ambitions of the radicals. Kerensky was overthrown & Lenin took charge.

That’s an incredibly short summary of the events of 1917. Helen Rappaport describes the political machinations very clearly but the core of the book & what I really want to focus on, are the eyewitness accounts because it’s these accounts that make the book such compulsive reading. The Press were censored by the Tsarist regime so journalists & photographers like Harper & Thompson were frustrated in their attempts to tell the world what was happening. Nevertheless they kept recording the sights & sounds of those incredible months. As soon as the Tsar abdicated, censorship was lifted & they could get their stories out. Many of the protagonists in the book also wrote memoirs after the events based on their diaries or the letters they wrote to family & friends at home.

There are wonderful eyewitness accounts of events like the funeral procession to the Field of Mars near the Pavlovsky Barracks & the Summer Garden for the victims of the Revolution. Already propaganda had taken over truth as many of the victims had already been buried by their families & empty coffins or just planks of wood were carried in procession to represent them. Florence Harper had been to the morgues in the preceding days to see the pitiful sight of people searching among the frozen corpses for their loved ones.

I loved the many intimate details of everyday life described in the book. The expatriates had just as much trouble staying warm, finding shelter & enough to eat as the locals. The fact that they were foreigners often made it more difficult as they were suspected of being spies & traitors. The descriptions of the bitter cold, the dreadful food & the lack of basic necessities highlight the chaos of the times. Sir George Buchanan’s wife, Lady Georgina, & daughter, Meriel, continued their charity work as did other women, often nurses & governesses who found themselves trapped in Petrograd. Revolution didn’t stop the inevitable friction between competing charitable enterprises as Lady Georgina’s hospital was eclipsed by Lady Muriel Paget’s Anglo-Russian Hospital which had been opened in 1916 by Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna & her granddaughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga & Tatiana. The chaos meant that it was difficult to know what was happening, who to trust, how many people had been killed & sometimes, just who was in charge. Nurses like Dorothy Seymour & Lady Sybil Grey struggled with the difficult working conditions, the fear & uncertainty but admitted that they wouldn’t want to be anywhere else. They were seeing history unfold before their eyes.

Among the many unknown witnesses were some famous people. I had no idea that Emmeline Pankhurst, accompanied by Jessie Kenney, travelled to Petrograd at the height of the revolution to advise & support Russian women (whether they were particularly grateful for her advice was another story). She sympathized with the revolutionary cause but also wanted to convince Russia not to abandon the war. She was especially impressed by the women who were serving in the Army in a newly formed Women’s Death Battalion, commanded by Maria Bochkareva. Somerset Maugham was there, on a secret mission from the Intelligence Services to prevent the revolution & keep Russia in the war – rather a tall order! Hugh Walpole was there, working in propaganda at the British Embassy. Most famous of all in later years were John Reed & Louise Bryant. Reed’s account,Ten Days that Shook the World, has been influential in how the Revolution is remembered in the West but Rappaport demonstrates how much more can be gleaned from looking further.

Caught in the Revolution is an exciting story that I found impossible to put down. I read it in two days, caught up in the drama of the times & the stories of the people I came to know so well. Helen Rappaport handles a large cast of characters expertly; I’ve only mentioned a few of the many expatriates whose experiences she weaves into a compelling tale of this most crucial year in the history of Russia & the 20th century I follow Helen on Facebook & I was surprised to read last week that she’s having difficulty convincing TV production companies to commission programs about the Revolution for the 100th anniversary in 2017. I can’t think of a more dramatic event & this book certainly has more than enough personal stories to focus on. Hopefully the idea will be taken up & we can look forward to an adaptation of Caught in the Revolution next year.

A Chelsea Concerto – Frances Faviell

In 1939, Frances Faviell was living in Cheyne Place, Chelsea. She was an artist in her mid 30s & had just met Richard Parker, the man who would become her second husband. She had a facility for languages & trained as a Red Cross volunteer in preparation for the bombing that became more & more inevitable as Germany invaded & occupied Holland, Belgium & France. The Blitz devastated many parts of Britain but Chelsea, close to the main bridges over the Thames, was one of the most heavily bombed areas of London. A Chelsea Concerto tells the story of the Blitz through the eyes of a compassionate, sensitive woman whose common sense, patriotism & sense of humour were tested but never entirely broken by the onslaught.

Faviell’s memoir begins with the process of training as a Red Cross volunteer during the early months of the war. This period of Phoney War allowed London to prepare but also added to the sense of unreality as volunteers were bandaged up after imaginary bombing raids & practiced putting out incendiary bombs with sand & stirrup pumps. Practice shifts in hospitals were interspersed with lectures, including one by a doctor who had served in Spain during the Civil War. His words, “Casualties don’t choose their place of annihilation – the bombs choose them – anywhere – anytime. You must be prepared for anything.”, came back to Frances many times during the years that followed as the sometimes comical practice sessions gave way to the first bombing raids.

Frances Faviell was part of an artistic community in Chelsea that included Rex Whistler, with whom she’d studied at the Slade, & Edith Walker. She lived with her dachshund, Vicki (later nicknamed Miss Hitler because of her German origins), in a flat in a house on Cheyne Place that became a haven for her many friends. Her most prized possession was a green cat made of celadon that she had acquired as she left Peking in 1937. The cat was the Guardian of the Home & the man who gave it to Frances in exchange for her camera, told her that her home would be safe as long as the cat was treated with respect. Mrs Freeth, Frances’ housekeeper, was a remarkable manager who kept the household running no matter what else was happening. Frances acknowledged that she couldn’t have got through those years without Mrs Freeth’s support. On the top floor lived Kathleen Marshman & her daughters, Anne & Penty. Penty was intellectually disabled & was sent to live in the country when the Blitz began. Kathleen ran a dress shop & was a close friend of Frances even though she was older. Other friends included Larry, an American who had joined the Canadian Army & Cecil, a Canadian soldier who fell in love with Anne Marshman. Frances & Mrs Freeth also kept open house for the Civil Defence workers in the area who could rely on a cup of tea or bowl of soup after a long shift.

As the first refugees from Belgium began arriving, her language skills proved useful & she became an interpreter for a group of refugees living in Chelsea.This was a challenging task as the refugees were naturally shocked & traumatised by their experiences. The men were mainly fishermen who wanted to get back to their boats but the authorities had to screen them before allowing them into the community. Frances began teaching them English & tried to find them some employment to keep them busy as idleness & worry led to disputes over cooking & cleanliness. Vegetable plots were successful until the most difficult of the refugees, called by Frances the Giant, accused two others of stealing some of his plot &, once again, the police asked Frances to sort it out.

Other friends needed more support. Ruth, a German Jewish refugee, became suspicious of authority, convinced that she was being followed, her phone was tapped & that They would take her away. Her paranoia led to a breakdown & she attempted suicide. Ruth’s daughter, Clara, became Frances’s responsibility & she paid her school fees while Ruth was in hospital. Another young woman, Catherine, who had fled Belgium ahead of the invading German Army, narrowly escaped death as the refugees were bombed & shot at. She arrived in London alone & pregnant. She had been unable to marry her boyfriend in the rush of war & was obsessed with the shame of her predicament & with the perceived hostility of the other refugees to her plight. Frances supported her throughout her pregnancy & cared for the baby, Francesca, when Catherine failed to bond with her.

The Blitz was unrelenting during 1940. Sirens went nearly every night & sometimes during the day as well. Frances was working at a First Aid Post (FAP) as well as helping the Belgian refugees & also relieving telephonists at the Control Room in the Town Hall, taking messages for the Civil Defence staff. The bombs fell night after night, unexploded bombs (UXBs) were a hazard as well & negotiating the streets in the blackout during a raid had dangers of its own as Frances discovered when she almost fell into a crater that had once been a house. Running into a half-dressed woman who had been thrown clear when the bomb hit, Frances witnesses the efforts of the rescue crew to remove debris & rubble to get to the people who had been sleeping in the basement.

And almost at once there was sudden violent activity in the dead, ravaged street; the wails were drowned in the jarring of brakes, the screeching of engines, and sudden short sharp commands. In the thick evil-smelling blackness it was an eerie and ghastly sight to see all the preparations being made, the paraphernalia unloaded. did any of us realise how terribly dangerous and treacherous it was to have to excavate, shore up, and tunnel in such complete blackness for buried bodies – living or dead? Did we appreciate it until we saw it? I know that I had not until I watched the tunneling for Mildred Castillo and that had been mostly in day-light.

On another journey she was called on to be lowered head first into a shaft to sedate a badly wounded man. The description of this is horrific yet forensic in its detail, even down to the way she held the torch in her teeth & looked back on her acrobatics training with gratitude as she fought nausea & dizziness to stay conscious & help the man.

The sound coming from the hole was unnerving me – it was like an animal in a trap. I had once heard a long screaming like rabbits in traps from children with meningitis in India, but this was worse – almost inhuman in its agony. The torch showed me that the debris lay over both arms and that the chest of the man trapped there was crushed into a bloody mess – great beams lay across the lower part of his body – and his face was so injured that it was difficult to distinguish the mouth from the rest of it – it all seemed one great gaping red mess.

One of the worst jobs Frances was required to do was to reconstruct bodies blown apart by bombs, putting the limbs back together so that the families could be shown a body to identify. Sometimes there weren’t enough limbs & body parts to make the right number of bodies. The macabre nature of the task was mitigated by the knowledge that it just had to be done. There was no time to show fear or to be ill or disgusted; time enough for that when the work was finished. It was only when she had to visit a sick child on the top floor of a house (where no one willingly slept during a raid) that Frances felt afraid.

I think it was during some of those many visits to Raymond … that I first began to know real fear. Up to that time I had not really minded the Blitz at all. I had just married, and we were very happy, although the occasions when we were both together were increasingly rare. Richard was frequently away on tour for the Ministry, and I was often on night duty, but the bombs seemed a macabre background to our personal life, and the fear that either of us would be a victim of the Blitz was a remote thought – but it was one which now began recurringly to enter my head.

Life wasn’t unremittingly awful, even during the worst of the Blitz. Frances & Richard managed to get away from London & go walking on the Downs in Surrey where they watched dogfights overhead & marveled at the beauty & peace in the midst of destruction & death. There were parties in Cheyne Place & amusing incidents to relieve the horror as Frances tried to keep the peace among the refugees & planned her wedding. Little Vicki was unperturbed by the bombs & the knowledge that the Green Cat was serenely sitting on the windowsill guarding the house & its occupants was comforting. Frances was pregnant & had reduced her workload. Then, in December 1940, during the biggest raid Chelsea had experienced, Frances’ home suffered a direct hit & was completely destroyed. Frances, Richard & Vicki survived & were miraculously able to get out of the house with minor injuries. The description of the blast & the dazed aftermath is horrifying. Frances & Richard went to the FAP, not really knowing what else to do & returned to the house to discover that they had been presumed dead. This was the end of their life in Chelsea & the Parkers left London & moved to Esher.

Standing there by the great heap which had been our home without possessing even a pocket handkerchief gave me an extraordinary feeling of freedom mingled with awe. Yesterday it had been a lovely home filled with choice and beautiful objects. Like all the others round it, it had vanished in a few seconds, truly ‘gone with the wind’. I understood a little then of how some of the bombed-out and refugees must have felt, but strangely enough I didn’t mind at all,. I had already learned that home is to be with the person you love, and hadn’t I been wonderfully blessed in having Richard, the expected baby, and even Vicki all saved? As I turned over some of the rubble looking for even a chip of the Green Cat I thought of the Second Commandment, for, like the huge carpets, the heavy furniture and easels, he had simply disintegrated into dust.

This is a devastating book. I’ve never read a better memoir of the Blitz or one that affected me so much. The final chapters are heartbreaking to read & I read the last half of the book in one sitting, compelled & horrified in equal measure. I cannot believe that this book has been out of print for so long & I’m just so pleased that Scott from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog & Dean Street Press have brought A Chelsea Concerto back into print as the first title in their new imprint, Furrowed Middlebrow Books. Virginia Nicholson, author of Millions Like Us, has written the Foreword for this new edition. She describes her search for the author of this remarkable memoir & Faviell’s life after the war as she continued to paint & wrote fiction as well as A Chelsea Concerto & another memoir about life in post-war Berlin, The Dancing Bear (all reprinted by Dean Street Press), which exorcised the memories of the war at last.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a review copy of A Chelsea Concerto.

Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking – Frances Wood

I had mixed feelings about this book. It’s the story of an English student studying Chinese language & history in Peking in the 1970s, during the final days of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. What disconcerted me at first was the tome of humorous incomprehension. I was tempted to pick this up because I’d been reading articles about the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Everything I read emphasized the horror & the tragedy of this period of Chinese history, when the Communist leadership, led by a resurgent Mao Zedong, incited students to form the Red Guard. The Red Guard violently suppressed intellectuals, exalted the role of the peasants & forced so-called class enemies to work in the fields. In the process this new policy ruined the economy & led to millions of deaths from famine as well as the many people imprisoned by the regime. China was almost an unknown land to most people in the West at that time & Frances Wood didn’t know about the atrocities until her return from Peking. The book was based on her letters home & emphasize the absurdities of a regime that she compares to Sellers & Yeatman’s 1066 and All That rather than Orwell’s 1984.

I can’t imagine how Wood kept her sense of humour in the circumstances of her life in Peking. She was one of a group of foreign students studying at a Language Institute & then, she was permitted to study history at Peking University. Living conditions were primitive, no heating in the winter, very little hot water (& that was usually monopolised by the aggressive North Korean students). Washing sheets in the winter & trying to keep the sleeves of a thick padded coat free from soy sauce are only two of the challenges Frances faces. Her Chinese tutors & fellow students lived in a state of fear that their words would be misinterpreted & so real friendships were impossible. Some of the foreign students deliberately tried to question the official version, which changed depending on who was in or out of favour with the leadership of the Party. Teaching materials were bland & uninteresting because so much history was being rewritten & so many books stamped Negative Teaching Material & only available from the library with written permission from a tutor.

Then, there were the compulsory games & the periods spent working in the country, trying to plant rice or bind enormous cabbages with inferior rice straw that broke. Every aspect of life was dictated by the Party & foreigners were restricted in their movements, forced to get permits to travel &, like other Chinese, having to take all their food with them for the journey. There are some beautiful moments, seeing the dawn at the Great Wall, for instance, but most journeys, whether by train or bicycle, were frustrating. The British Embassy staff provided respite for the British students, providing transport for them to get into Peking & inviting them to social events & outings. Wood always feels an outsider & the horrified reaction of most Chinese to Westerners gives her insight into racism at a very basic level,

An immensely tall and lanky Swedish student with a great clump of fair hair got tired of walking along city streets and having the entire population call out Waiguo ren (Foreigner) as if he didn’t know. … The same thing happened to the rest of us, all the time, although we weren’t quite so visible from a distance. Wherever we went, whatever we did, there was always the insistent whisper, Waiguo ren. If you just slipped out of the Institute gates to post a letter, people staggered back, arms flailing, or flattened themselves against walls and stared. I remember one little old lady in her thick black cotton padded suit, hobbling along on bound feet, who had to clutch at a tree when I passed as she muttered Waiguo ren to herself.

After a year in Peking, Frances returns home after a long journey on the Trans-Siberian Railway & through Eastern Europe. She regrets her failure to really become a part of China, unrealistic though such an aim might have been. On her return home, she was paralysed by the choice of cereals at breakfast (even though she’d dreamed of such choice in Peking) & felt paranoid when she was ignored by her fellow travellers on the bus. Frances Wood & her fellow students were witnesses to the essential absurdity of all totalitarian regimes. She was fortunate in being an outsider, able to observe & be amused by the ridiculousness without becoming a victim of the arbitrary whims of the leadership. I enjoyed Hand-Grenade Practice in Peking with reservations. Having just read Christabel Bielenberg’s memoir, The Past is Myself, I had similar questions about writing & reading memoirs. Although written many years after the event, both authors take us back to the people they were at the time with the knowledge they had then. I can only respect their honesty & their ability to strip away the knowledge they gained after the fact & take their stories at face value, for the fascinating slices of life they are.

The Past is Myself – Christabel Bielenberg

Christabel & Peter Bielenberg were married in 1934. She was English but she gave up her British citizenship to live in Hamburg with Peter, a would-be lawyer from a liberal family. The Bielenbergs & their friends thought that Hitler was a joke; they couldn’t believe that his crude appeal to xenophobia & nationalism could really succeed. However, as time went on, they became more & more distressed by the direction Germany was taking. Peter qualified as a lawyer & joined his father’s firm but, when a client who had been acquitted was immediately picked up by the Gestapo & rearrested, he could no longer see any point in practising law.

By the time war broke out in 1939, Peter was working for the Ministry of Economics, eventually spending most of the war managing an aircraft factory in Graudenz. Christabel & their three sons were living in Berlin until the bombing became too intense. They spent most of the war in a village in the Black Forest. Peter’s friends including Adam von Trott, one of the group who planned the July 20, 1944 assassination of Hitler. When the plot failed, Peter was caught up in the aftermath, arrested & eventually imprisoned in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Chris was able to get an interview with the Gestapo officer in charge of Peter’s case & convinced him of Peter’s innocence. He was released & went into hiding for the rest of the war to avoid being called back to his Army unit. The book ends with the arrival of Allied troops at the end of the war.

This is a fascinating memoir that shows a different side to the war. I’ve read many books about the Home Front in England but very few from the German side, let alone by an Englishwoman in Germany. The threat of the Nazis becomes more evident as the years pass. Soon, the Bielenbergs are wary with new people, sounding them out before they can speak freely. Even a joke about Hitler or an unguarded comment can lead to prison. Living under such constant strain must have been wearing. Peter was involved on some level with the German Resistance who opposed Hitler & must have been under surveillance. I found it astonishing that Chris didn’t suffer from discrimination because she was English, even as the Allied bombing raids intensified. I can’t imagine that a German woman would have avoided internment in England during the war. It may have been due to class. The Bielenbergs were a comfortable middle-class family & when they move to Rohrbach, the villagers do all they can to make Chris & the children feel at home.

Life in Rohrbach goes on much as it always has, apart from the problems of rationing. There’s only one Nazi in the village but no-one pays any attention to him. When an American airman is shot down & finds his way to the village, the Mayor rings the nearest town for instructions. When told to lock him up, the only police cell is cleaned, the bed made with fresh linen & an enormous meal offered to the exhausted American. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the movie Mrs Miniver when a German pilot is shot down & spouts Nazi propaganda to the last.

Once Peter is arrested, the pace of the narrative quickens & it reads almost like a thriller. Chris gets permission to see Peter in Ravensbrück & her journey by train (in a compartment with the wife & daughters of the Camp Commandant) & then the long walk around the perimeter of the camp is incredibly tense. Her journey to Berlin to see Lange, the Gestapo officer, & her interrogation, is also full of tension but the anger she feels drives away her nerves. She describes the ruins of the city, meets an old friend who now lives among those ruins, & realises how safe she has been in the country. She is saved from almost certain death when a stranger advises that she leave her train & take the Underground. Later she hears that the train was bombed & many people killed.

On her journey back to Rohrbach, she finds herself alone in a carriage with an SS officer. He tells her of his life in Riga in Latvia &, as his family was persecuted by the Russians, they thought the Germans had come to liberate them. He had Aryan looks so was recruited for the SS & participated in the massacre of Jews in Poland. Once he knows that Chris is not German (she tells him she’s Irish) he pours out his story. When Peter is released from prison, he tells Chris what happened to him through one long night. He never speaks of it again. He was extraordinarily lucky to be prevented by his work from being with the conspirators on July 20 & so was able, with Chris’s help, to be released. Until the war ends, Peter hides near Rohrbach & the whole village must be aware of what is happening.

Chris wrote The Past is Myself in the 1960s & she was criticized for what some critics felt she left out. She does mention the persecution of the Jews & she shelters a Jewish couple for a couple of nights. However, there’s no mention of the Holocaust at all. She acknowledges that she & her family were fortunate. Their life in Rohrbach was comparatively safe, away from the devastating raids of the major cities. The villagers seemed to be sensible, pragmatic people who turned a cynical eye on their government even though they weren’t free to express their feelings too openly. Even Peter’s involvement with the assassination plot was peripheral & he was lucky to be released. Luck seemed to be with the Bielenbergs at every turn. When faced with these criticisms, Chris said that she wrote the book with the knowledge she had at the time. Like many Germans she found it difficult to believe in the enormity of the camps. The newspapers were censored & she just didn’t know, even though she should have been in a position to know as Peter was part of the opposition to the regime. She wrote the book to show another side of Germany to counteract the stereotype of all Germans being Nazis. I think it’s valuable to hear stories from all sides & Chris’s perspective as an Englishwoman is very revealing. The book is a gripping read & I found it fascinating.

Christabel Bielenberg was on Desert Island Discs in November 1992 & I found it very interesting to listen to this after reading the book. I also have the sequel to The Past is Myself, The Road Ahead, on the tbr shelves which describes life after the war when the Bielenbergs lived in Ireland.

Listening to History

I’ve been listening to some great historical biographies over the last month. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book is a history of The Romanovs from 1613-1918. This is a huge subject, telling the story of all the Romanov tsars from Michael, who reluctantly took the throne in the 17th century during the Time of Troubles, to Nicholas II, whose downfall & abdication in 1917 led to the murder of his family at Ekaterinburg the following year. I’ve read a lot of Russian history & there are some periods I know well – Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Decembrist period, Nicholas II – but I knew very little about the 17th century tsars & the Empresses Elizaveta & Catherine I. Montefiore tells his story with gusto & includes as much violence & sex as possible.

The story of the Romanovs is one of excess & violence. Most royal families, at least until the modern period, found themselves at war with each other. There have been many examples of rulers & their heirs not getting along. Power is a precious thing to those who have it & an irresistible attraction to the next in line. The Romanovs were no different. Peter the Great imprisoned his son, Alexis, had him tortured & may have taken part in the torture himself. Catherine the Great wasn’t exactly distraught when her husband, Peter III, was murdered, leaving her to rule. Catherine’s son, Paul, was murdered as well, although his son, Alexander I, never fully emerged from the guilt he felt about his father’s death.

Excess in the form of wealth & extravagant consumption is another theme. From Peter the Great’s determination to build his city on the Neva, St Petersburg, to Catherine the Great’s refurbishment of palaces in the city & at the village of Tsarskoe Selo, where the Imperial family could live more privately, no expense was spared. Catherine was a great collector, amassing the collection at the Hermitage Palace. The incredible wealth of the Romanovs lasted until the end, with the Fabergé Easter eggs of the last Tsars exemplifying the conspicuous consumption of the aristocracy. This excess was paid for by the labour of millions of serfs & citizens. The divide between the autocratic regime & the vast majority of Russians could only lead to disaster. The assassination of a reforming tsar like Alexander II led to the reactionary reign of his son so that even when moves were made towards modernising Russia, they were often stymied by the inherent problems of ruling such an enormous country & the logistical problems caused by the tyranny of distance.

I enjoyed Simon Sebag Montefiore’s telling of the story very much & Simon Russell Beale’s narration was excellent. I did wonder if we needed so many quotations from the racy love letters Alexander II wrote to his young mistress (& later, his morganatic wife), Katya Dolgorukaya, or so many descriptions of knoutings & tortures, but the book has been amazingly successful for a serious history (over 50 reservations on our copies at work) so the author knows what sells. It kept me listening for nearly 29 hours & I listened to the last 5 hours over a weekend as the compelling description of the last years of Nicholas & Alexandra was so enthralling.

My interest in the ancient world led to my other history audio, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra : a life. The last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra is almost a mythic figure. I knew the basic outline of her story but this biography filled in a lot of gaps. Cleopatra was an amazingly determined woman. She was co-ruler with her father & then after his death, with her younger brother as co-ruler & husband, according to tradition because a woman wasn’t thought to be capable of ruling alone. She was able to consolidate her position & survive the attempted treachery of her brother & his advisers. Several plots by this brother, Ptolemy XII, &, after his death, by another brother  & co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV, led to Cleopatra appealing to Rome’s most famous general, Julius Caesar, for assistance. Egypt’s enormous resources made it an irresistible prospect for Rome who were keen to have as many client kingdoms ruled by compliant rulers as possible. Cleopatra’s personal relationship with Caesar, which led to the birth of their son, Caesarion, caused scandal but neither cared. I hadn’t realised that Cleopatra was in Rome, living in one of Caesar’s villas, when he was assassinated. She very quickly left Rome for Alexandria, where she proclaimed Caesarion her co-ruler, thereby satisfying tradition & removing the need for her to marry.

Cleopatra’s relationship with the Roman general Marc Antony has become legendary. Stacy Schiff does an excellent job of picking her way through the myths & the hostile propaganda to try to explain the attraction between them. As most of the contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of the period were written by Roman historians, Cleopatra has been attacked & blamed for everything that went wrong. The relationship between Cleopatra & Antony lasted ten years & they had three children together. Cleopatra needed Antony’s military assistance & he needed the wealth & resources she could bring in his battles with his rival & co-Tribune, Octavius. The personal dynamic between the two men was complicated by Antony’s marriage to Octavius’ sister, Octavia, & Octavius’ reputation as a sickly man, not a warrior like Antony. Octavius had been adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir but Cleopatra had Caesar’s son, a situation that was always a threat to Octavius’ power base. The breakdown of the relationship between Octavius & Antony, complicated by Antony’s affair with Cleopatra & his divorce from Octavia, led to the battle of Actium, where Octavius was triumphant. In the aftermath, both Antony & Cleopatra committed suicide.

I loved all the detail in this book about Cleopatra’s Court & the city of Alexandria. Cleopatra was an incredibly shrewd politician. She used her advantages well. Although she was not thought to be particularly beautiful, she was intelligent & witty, able to enthrall Caesar & Antony. She was also pragmatic in a very cut-throat world. She had her siblings exiled or murdered when they threatened her power; she made her son co-ruler so she didn’t need to marry again; she constantly identified with the goddess Isis to enhance her prestige with her own people & put on extravagant public ceremonies – she knew the value of spectacle in politics. She seems to have been the dominant partner in her relationship with Antony, she certainly had the financial clout & she seems to have been the stronger personality. Antony almost fell apart after Actium, he apparently believed that he would be allowed to disappear into exile. Even his suicide was a mess. Cleopatra was determined that she would not become a trophy for Octavius, paraded through Rome as a captive in his Triumph. She meticulously planned her death (it may have been poison rather than the famous asp) & denied Octavius his prize. Her enduring reputation rests on a few images – smuggling herself in to see Caesar wrapped up in a carpet; floating down the Cydnus River to Tarsus to meet Antony, dressed as Aphrodite; dying from the bite of an asp in her own mausoleum. Stacy Schiff has used the available sources brilliantly to create a portrait of a remarkable woman & queen whose career was unique in antiquity & still fascinates today.

I also want to mention a history podcast that I’ve recently discovered. Dan Snow is a historian & broadcaster & he has a podcast called History Hit. He talks to historians, mostly British, about their latest book or a topic in the news & I’m really enjoying browsing the back catalogue. I’ve recently listened to Anna Keay on the Duke of Monmouth, Adrian Goldsworthy on his new book, Pax Romana, Marc Morris on 1216, Anna Whitelock on the Tudors & Janina Ramirez on the Anglo-Saxons. Of course, it’s all adding to my tbr shelves but everything I see, read or hear seems to do that! You can listen to the podcast at the website or subscribe from wherever you get your podcasts.

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 King is Dead : the last will and testament of Henry VIII – Suzannah Lipscomb

I love books that focus on one incident or a particular period of a person’s life. I sometimes enjoy them more than a grand, sweeping history that takes in centuries of time & a cast of thousands – although I love the odd grand, sweeping history too. Suzannah Lipscomb’s new book focuses on the last few months of the life of Henry VIII & the immediate aftermath of his death.

The last will of Henry VIII has been a contested document for centuries. There have been debates about when exactly it was written, what Henry’s intentions were & how competent he was to draft a will by the final weeks of his life. By December 1546, Henry was very ill. Obese, suffering from intermittent fevers because of the ulcer on his leg, distressed by the factionalism of his Court, with religious conservatives & reformers jostling for position, Henry was determined to leave England with a blueprint for the future of the realm.

The main players at Court by the end of the reign were the King’s brother-in-law, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, John Dudley, Lord Lisle & Sir William Paget, the King’s Chief Secretary. Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester was the leading conservative clergyman & Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury was the leading reformer. Henry’s last wife, Kateryn Parr, had narrowly escaped arrest for her reforming religious views just months earlier & since then, Gardiner had lost favour with the King. Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, uncle of two of Henry’s queens, had fallen from favour along with his impetuous son, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, who was executed for treason in the last weeks of the reign.

Henry began his Will with a list of the men who would constitute the Regency Council for his heir, Edward. He realised that he would be leaving his nine year old son to succeed him & he wanted to prevent the rise of one man as Lord Protector. He named ten men, members of his Privy Council, as his executors & members of the Regency Council & a further six men who were not Privy Councilors. Henry’s personal control over the composition of the Council is evident in that men like Bishop Gardiner & Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk were excluded when they might have been thought essential members of the Council, as they had been close to the King for many years.

Henry VIII’s desire to secure the succession influenced his actions throughout his reign. Would he have married six times if it wasn’t for the desperate need for a male heir? Even in his final months, as his health declined, Henry’s obsessive need to control the future of the House of Tudor & of England, fed into the drafting of his final will. After naming the Regency Council whom he envisaged ruling until Edward was old enough to take power, he enumerated many different scenarios if the unthinkable happened & Edward did not live long enough to marry & have heirs of his own. Although Henry’s daughters, Mary & Elizabeth, had been declared illegitimate, Henry designated them next in line for the throne after Edward although he failed to legitimise them which caused trouble in later years. After his daughters, he ignored the line of his elder sister, Margaret, who had married James IV of Scotland & named the descendants of his younger sister, Mary, known as the French Queen after her short-lived marriage to Louis XI. She had later married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk & had two daughters. No other will of a medieval king had set out the succession in this way & the provisions caused discussion in later years as, one after another, Henry’s three children ascended the throne & then died childless.

Henry also set out his religious beliefs. Henry’s break with Rome had led to him formulating his own peculiar religious belief, somewhere between Catholicism & Protestantism.  He obviously wished that neither extreme should prevail but his wishes in this matter, as in so much else, were ignored. He also set out his bequests to his family & closest friends & servants. The will was dated December 30th 1546 & Henry died three weeks later in January 1547.

Controversy surrounds this last will & testament. Historians have debated Henry’s fitness to make the will, citing his health. The fact that the King didn’t physically sign the will (it was signed with a dry stamp, an impression of the King’s signature that was inked in by his clerks) has led to accusations that it was contrary to his wishes or that it was tampered with after his death to favour Hertford & his faction who swiftly overturned the provisions for a Regency Council & became Lord Protector. Henry’s death wasn’t formally announced for several days & it has been speculated that Hertford & Paget had time to insert clauses that favoured them. Suzannah Lipscomb deals with all these theories very briskly. She discounts most of them by going back to the original sources, most importantly, to the will itself, which has survived & is in the National Archives. Where David Starkey has written that the last lines of the will are cramped & somehow added above the signatures of the witnesses (implying additions to the will after it was signed), Lipscomb disproves this by reproducing the last page of the will which is evenly spaced & written in the same hand as the rest of the document. The fact that his councilors did ignore the will so thoroughly & so quickly has led to speculation that a coup was planned before the King’s death but Lipscomb believes that it’s easy to see this with hindsight &, in reality, fear of treason kept Hertford & Paget from planning their takeover until literally the last hours of the King’s life.

Suzannah Lipscomb does an excellent job of filling in the background of Henry’s life before plunging into the more detailed story of his final months. Far from seeing Henry as a doddering old man at the mercy of his courtiers, she sees him as in control right to the very end. In her opinion, the will is consistent with Henry’s beliefs & view of himself throughout his reign. That he could write, in his plans for the succession, of the possibility that Queen Kateryn might yet have a child or that he might remarry, shows an essential optimism that’s quite touching. He believed that his councilors would follow his wishes for his son’s reign & would have been horrified to know how quickly the provisions of his will were discarded.

The book itself is a beautiful object. The illustrations, many of the portraits of the main players are by Holbein, remind us that these names on the page were real people & how lucky we are to have Holbein’s drawings to bring them to life. The entire text of the will is reproduced in the book as well as part of an inventory of Henry’s belongings that gives a taste of his wealth & the magnificence of the trappings of the Tudor Court. The King is Dead is a fascinating look at the politics of the final months of Henry’s life & the story of how the will was written emphasizes Henry’s control of his Court. His hand was on the wheel until the very end, even though he was unable to ensure that his last wishes were followed.

Jambusters – Julie Summers

I love reading about the Home Front in WWII. Some of my favourite books have been diaries & letters of the period because they offer such an immediate response to challenging times. Jambusters is a narrative history but very much based on interviews & diaries of the women who were members of the Women’s Institute, the WI, during WWII.

The WI began during the Great War. Based on a Canadian model, it was an organisation that brought rural women together to learn new skills & share their experiences. It also became a support to isolated women & a social outlet away from farm & family where they could have a voice. It was also remarkable in being fairly classless. Rural life in Britain in the early 20th century was still quite class bound. The local landowner & his family either employed many of the local population or took the lead in social & community activities. The WI wasn’t structured around class at local level & it was a robustly democratic organisation for the time.

When war was declared in 1939, the government soon realised that food production was going to be a vital part of the war effort. Food imports had been disrupted by the war & they knew that every available resource would have to be tapped. The WI was the perfect organisation to spread the word about government programs & they took on this role with enormous success. I hadn’t realised that the WI’s constitution was based on non-sectarianism & was very strongly anti-war. This meant that there were many discussions at the National Executive level about just what the members could do for the war effort. They decided that they could be involved in food production & the reception of evacuees from the cities & these two areas became the focus of the WI during the war.

The government took full advantage of this vast volunteer workforce although red tape made it difficult for the WI to always be as involved as they wished. The image of WI members making endless pots of jam is a cliché but it is based in truth. The first harvest at the beginning of the war was a bumper one & there was an enormous amount of fruit to be preserved if it was not to go to waste. WIs all over the country mobilised to turn the fruit into jam although they had trouble getting extra supplies of sugar from the government. This is the kind of irritation (along with the endless forms to fill in) that frustrated women who just wanted to get on with the job. However, in spite of this, the jam was made & distributed or sold to keep the WI going because as well as all their charitable endeavours, the WI had to be self-supporting. When the Dig for Victory campaign was in full swing, excess produce was sold to bring in much-needed funds. I loved this quote from Cicely McCall, educational organiser for the National Federation of WIs,

Jam-making was constructive and non-militant, if you liked to look at it that way. It accorded with the best Quaker traditions of feeding blockaded nations. For those who were dietetically minded, jam contained all the most highly prized vitamins. For those who were agriculturally minded, the scheme saved a valuable crop from literally rotting on the ground, and it encouraged better fruit cultivation – thought not, one can only pray, of plums only. And for the belligerent, what could be more satisfying than fiercely stirring cauldrons of boiling jam and feeling that every pound took us one step further towards defeating Hitler?

In August 1941, an editorial in Good Housekeeping summed up the role that women were expected to take on,

Yours is a full time job but not a spectacular one. You wear no uniform, much of your work is taken for granted and goes unheralded and unsung, yet on you depends so much. Not only must you bring up your children to be healthy and strong, look after your husband or other war workers so they may be fit and alert, but you must contrive to do so with less help, less money and less ingredients than ever before.

Of all the stories in this book that exemplified that statement, it was Edith Jones whose organisation & industry just amazed me. She was a farmer’s wife living near Shrewsbury. Married in 1914, she & her husband Jack were tenant farmers at Smethcote. Apart from running the farm with Jack, she grew vegetables & fruit, preserved what they couldn’t eat, kept chickens, made & mended clothes & anything else that was needed. Edith was determined to keep up with her reading & her diary intersperses daily farm news with the latest political drama & the fears of the coming war.

There are so many great stories in this book. I loved the mobile canning vans that were given to the WI by the American Federation of Business and Professional Women. These vans made it possible to preserve the harvest in all sorts of areas that couldn’t afford the equipment. The skills that women learned were also important. Not only in food preservation but sewing for evacuees, knitting for the troops & skills in accounting & good business practice that were essential to account for every penny earned from the sale of goods. As rationing continued, the make do & mend ethos took on great importance & many of the women would have carried on these ideas into their post-war lives. In fact, the WI’s members had considerable input into that post-war world as a result of the surveys they completed on topics such as housing conditions, the availability of sewerage & piped water in rural areas. I had no idea just how primitive conditions were in many parts of rural England in the 1940s & was even more amazed that so much was achieved without the mod cons we take for granted.

Jambusters was the basis of a drama series, Home Fires, that has been shown in the UK. It’s been released on DVD here & I’m looking forward to seeing it. I read Jambusters in just a couple of days & felt quite exhausted as well as full of admiration for the women who did much more than their bit in keeping morale high & the country fed during WWII.

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.