Shetland – Ann Cleeves

I’m a big fan of Ann Cleeves’ Shetland novels. If you click on the link for Ann Cleeves in my labels list on the right >>>, you’ll see all my reviews. I also enjoyed the TV series even though Douglas Henshall wasn’t initially my idea of Jimmy Perez.  He’s grown on me though! The second series is on UK TV at the moment so I hope we see it here in Australia at some stage. Martin Edwards has reviewed it here & he includes a link to an interesting article by Cleeves in The Guardian about violence on TV.

With an interest in the books & a fascination with the Shetlands, this gorgeous coffee table book was irresistible. As well as the most beautiful photography (by a number of photographers), Ann Cleeves writes about her own connection to the Shetlands, her first visit years ago when she took a job as cook at the bird observatory on Fair Isle, meeting her husband & the many trips since then. She also describes the landscape, flora & fauna & the different characteristics of the many small islands that make up the Shetland group of islands. The varied bird life in particular attracts a lot of tourists & the bird observatory was the scene of the murder in Blue Lightning, the first Shetland novel I read (even though it was the last book in the first Quartet).

I love reading about writers’ inspiration, how they come up with their ideas & Cleeves describes the moments when the plots of some of her novels were born. She also talks about the filming of the TV series & how she takes the production crew on trips to look at locations & give them a feel for the landscape. Certainly, Shetland itself is one of the stars of the TV series, so she has definitely managed to inspire the producers of the series with her own love of the islands.

Some coffee table books are beautiful to look at but the text is pretty bland. This book is an exception as Ann Cleeves manages to combine the kind of information tourists want to know (she describes the Up Helly Aa fire festival & the midsummer music festivals) with descriptions of wildlife & landscape as well as the history of the islands. She also describes the ways that the locals are looking to the future with tourism taking over from the oil rigs as a source of income with the fishing industry as a constant throughout Shetland’s history. Unlike many coffee table books, I read every word of this one. If you’re a fan of the books or the TV series, you’ll enjoy Shetland.

SPQR : a history of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard

I know very little about the ancient world. My knowledge of the Roman Empire doesn’t really stretch much further then Roman Britain, apart from a few famous names – Romulus & Remus, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Claudius, Nero. After enjoying Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii, I was eager to read her new book about Rome in the hope of enlightenment.

The title – SPQR – is the abbreviation for The Senate and People of Rome. This book tells the story of Rome from it’s earliest beginnings until 212 CE. Opening with the dispute between the aristocrat Catiline & the famous orator, Cicero, in 63 BCE, we then go back to Rome’s beginnings to investigate the myths that lie at its heart. The twins, Romulus & Remus, suckled by a wolf, are the traditional founders of Rome. Mary Beard explores the origins of this story & whether there is any archaeological evidence to edge the myth towards history. Rome’s beginnings were agricultural, ruled over by a monarchy, but by the 5th century BCE, Rome had become a Republic, with a class system that encompassed both slaves & free citizens, patricians & plebeians. The decision to appoint official representatives of the people, known as tribunes, was crucial & eventually the second-class status of plebeians was virtually abolished as all major offices were opened to them.

The expansion of Roman power was crucial in turning the Republic into an Empire. The successes of the Army & its Generals led to a period of civil war & political assassinations that ultimately led to autocratic rule being re-established. The triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey & Crassus, instigated to consolidate their power in the Senate, deteriorated as Caesar increasingly tried to shore up his own position at the expense of the other two. Julius Caesar’s attempt to become a dictator ended with his assassination but it was his heir, Octavian, who renamed himself Augustus & became Rome’s first Emperor. The story of the Julio-Claudian Emperors is probably the best known part of the story. Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius & Nero, their wives & families are notorious figures. The stories of excess, cruelty & betrayal are familiar through film, books & television. The empire continued on after them, with another ten emperors after Nero until 212 CE.

As interesting as the stories of the elite were, I was just as fascinated by the stories of ordinary Romans. These stories of ordinary people are difficult to find but Mary Beard has done just that in her previous books & TV series like Meet the Romans. In this book, she shows us what it was like to live in Rome. The diet, the houses (the rich lived on the ground floor with the poor at the top of the house. The bars, shops, baths & workplaces. In ancient Rome it was the poor who went out to eat as they had no way of cooking in their tiny apartments. She discusses marriage, the status of women, family relationships, the treatment of children, the ways of becoming a citizen & the entitlements that came with that status. These chapters give a real depth to the story of Rome & a feeling of what life was like then, in a period so long ago that it’s difficult to grasp. It also reminds us that, no matter what the Emperors or Senators were doing, life went on for the vast majority of Romans. Did it really matter which Emperor was on the throne? The plots & conspiracies, the foreign wars against rebels & enemies, impinged very little on the lives of ordinary people.

SPQR is engaging & absorbing. It’s the perfect introduction to the history of ancient Rome & it’s made me want to read more about the Empire in the works of the ancient authors like Tacitus & Suetonius as well as modern interpretations.

The English Festivals – Laurence Whistler

Just after WWII, the artist Laurence Whistler (brother of Rex), wrote this charming book about English festivals through the year. He wanted to remind his readers of the ancient origins of the festivals they were celebrating & also revive in some way the festivals that had gone out of fashion & been forgotten. Whistler not only describes the origins of the festivals but also gives instructions for celebrating them in the present day, especially the more obscure ones. There’s a feeling of nostalgia for a lost world, not surprising just after the war, but there’s no wallowing in the idea of a lost golden age. Whistler has an acerbic tone at times that I loved as he dismisses the half-hearted, wishy-washy observance of the festivals that was current in the mid 20th century. This book is a plea to be more observant of the passing year, especially as city living means that many people don’t notice the signs of time passing that are more obvious in the country.

The book also springs from a desire for some normality & certainty in life after the horrors & disruption of the war. Both Laurence’s brother, Rex, & his wife, Jill, died in 1944. I have Whistler’s memoir of his wife, The Initials in the Heart, on the tbr shelves & it’s also just been reprinted by Dean Street Press. Whistler describes the need for ritual in our lives,

Even those who doubt the reality of these Agents for and against us may admit the truth of what is said about human nature; our need in childhood, and indeed throughout life, of ‘that union of change and permanence which we call Rhythm’, which events like Christmas and a birthday so well provide.

After an Introduction which describes the historical origins of many of our festivals & customs, whether Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman or even prehistoric, the book begins, appropriately enough for this time of year, the book begins with Christmas, the custom of the Christmas tree, popularly ascribed to Prince Albert but actually beginning with the earlier Hanoverian monarchs. Most interesting for me was his discussion of the Christmas carol, which is never a hymn but was originally a dancing song (there’s even a list of carols at the end of the book, divided into Very Well Known, Less Well Known & Specially Recommended, Secular Carols & carols for Easter, May & Whitsun).

Whistler’s own preoccupations as an artist are obvious throughout the book as he describes church decoration as it is & as it should be with suitable instructions,

It is an old custom to decorate a part of the parish church … Every feature is treated independently, yet the effect might be better if all would agree to subordinate their ideas to a general design. When the architecture is good the decoration ought to enunciate its lines instead of confusing them, and it would be a mistake to think symmetry dull.

He can be sharply critical as well,

Indeed, contemplating the insipidities relished by certain High Anglican and Roman Catholic priests, the church-shop gadgets and vapid pictures with which they dado their churches, up to a tide-mark of sentimentality, one is driven to speculate whether the best guardian of good architecture is not, after all, the Evangelical parson who leaves it alone.

He describes the attempts of the Church to claim New Years Eve as a Church festival rather than a secular party,

The Church had attempted in the fifth century to baptise the festival by renaming it the Feast of the Circumcision; but perhaps the Gentiles of the North were not greatly stirred by that event. The customs of the day, once pagan, are now secular: and thus, unredeemed, the final minutes of December 31st are somewhat sobering to a thoughtful person.

The ceremony of First Footing is described although he’s less impressed with the traditional song,

From a much older England we derive the custom of dancing-in the New Year to which Scotland has now added the refinement of Auld Lang Syne, that heartbreaking dirge of the lachrymose. It would have been better if we had adopted the midnight flourish of trumpets introduced by the Prince Consort in 1841; but trumpeters are hard to come by.

I won’t go through the whole year because that would make this post ridiculously long. I just wanted to give you a taste of Whistler’s style which I enjoyed as much as I enjoyed the information about the origins of the festivals themselves. Not all the festivals are connected to the Church, although the Church did appropriate many pagan festivals as part of their mission to convert the population. Almost forgotten rural festivals are described, such as Plough Monday, the day when work was resumed on farms after Twelfth Night & Rogationtide, when the community would go out Beating the Bounds of the parish by walking the boundaries. This ceremony has been revived in recent years & not only in the country as you can see here. Midsummer Eve has very ancient pagan origins,

The atmosphere of the night was indeed thick with magic, Oberon’s magic. If a girl walked backward into the garden, uttered no word, but picked a rose and put it away unseen until Christmas, it would be found as crisp and fragrant as the night she picked it, and her future husband would come up to her and take it out of her dress.

Whistler’s distress at the demise of these customs is evident in his appeal not to forget the past in the rush to enjoy the supposed advantages of the present,

Yet who will convince the up-to-date countryman that he has lost anything at all, duped as he is by the notion of infallible Progress? The delusion is carefully fostered by the newspapers, most of all when they speak with feigned regret of the quaintness of the ‘quaint old days’. Songless and joyless in his work he may be, and cut off from spiritual union with his fellows and with the earth – but the Grid is coming to the village, and in the new cottages there will be ‘H. & C.’
Who will convince him that an attempt to restore that union is not the same thing as antiquarian sentimentality, for which he would reasonably claim that he has ‘no time’? ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.’ We do. And we find that, made without art or love, the bread itself becomes tasteless.

Maybe there’s a little of the townsman taking for granted the benefits of electricity & hot & cold running water to people living in rural districts who have had to use candles & get their water from a well in these remarks but I think there’s a deeper truth here about the benefits of being in tune with the seasons. How much more relevant these days when we can eat tomatoes & cherries all year round if we want to. The modern movement to eating locally & seasonally is the reaction to the last 70 odd years of Whistler’s idea of Progress.

Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. The English Festivals is a lovely book for anyone interested in English history & customs. There are many quotes from other authors & Whistler’s own opinions are never far from the surface.

Dean Street Press kindly sent me a review copy of The English Festivals.

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.

2015 Anniversaries

This is a great year for anniversaries, both historical & literary. I plan to read something about all of these anniversaries this year. I’ve already mentioned the 200th anniversary of Anthony Trollope’s birth & I’ve already read two Trollopes this year, Cousin Henry & John Caldigate.

The 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta has been in the news lately, with an exhibition at the British Library & a number of books about the charter & about King John. Is John the one irredeemably bad king in English history? Richard III used to hold the title but he’s been almost completely rehabilitated now. I suppose John, Ethelred the Unready, & Edward II are seen as wicked or incompetent, with Henry VI & Charles I not far behind. I’ve borrowed Stephen Church’s new book from work & look forward to learning more about 1215. I’m afraid I can’t get the picture of Claude Rains as Prince John in The Adventures of Robin Hood out of my mind…

The Battle of Waterloo was 200 years ago. I’m not a big fan of military history so I’m going to read Georgette Heyer instead. However, in my defence, An Infamous Army was recommended reading at several British military colleges because of the accuracy of Heyer’s research. I may as well get some romance & sparkling dialogue with my military history. I’m listening to the audio book read by Clare Higgins &, so far, it’s living up to the romance & sparkling dialogue of the best Heyer. I don’t know about Lady Barbara but I’m in love with Charles Audley already (half way through).

2015 is also the 70th anniversary of VE Day. Victory in Europe was an occasion for rejoicing & sadness as the toll the war took on everyone, in the services or on the Home Front, was enormous. I have plenty of books on WWII on the tbr shelves to choose from, but I think I’ll be reading one of the new Persephones, London War-Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes.

It’s the 80th anniversary of the birth of Carol Shields. I had great plans to reread all her books this year but, it’s June & I haven’t started so I’ve decided to regroup. Where has the year gone? I don’t know why I thought I’d start any kind of reading challenge at the beginning of the year, in summer, my least favourite season of the year. Winter is a much better time for me to settle down to a reading plan. A warm house, lots of tea & a cat or two on my lap – perfect. I’ve started rereading Mary Swann & next, I plan to read the Letters I bought last year.

It’s also 80 years since the death of Winifred Holtby. After recently rereading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I want to reread her biography of Winifred, Testament of Friendship, as well as at least one more of Winifred’s novels from the tbr shelves.

Any other anniversaries I should be aware of? On second thoughts, maybe I’d rather not know, the reading year is filling up quite fast enough…

The Lady Queen : the notorious reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem and Sicily – Nancy Goldstone

I know very little about Italian history & even less about Italy in the medieval period so, when I picked up this biography of Joanna I of Naples, I was interested to learn more. What a fascinating journey it turned out to be.

Joanna was born in 1326, and, after being orphaned very young, grew up at the Court of her grandfather, Robert the Wise, King of Naples & his second wife, the very religious Sancia of Majorca. Robert was a descendant of the Angevin rulers & held his kingdom of Naples as a fiefdom of the Papacy, paying a yearly tribute for the privilege. Robert’s reign was a golden age of prosperity but there were problems, mostly of Robert’s own making. Robert’s second marriage, to Sancia, was childless, mostly because she was extremely religious & would not allow him his conjugal rights. As Robert had no living sons, this was a problem for the succession. He made his granddaughter, Joanna, his heir but, in so doing, dispossessed his nephew, Carobert, the son of Robert’s elder brother. Carobert was sent off to Hungary to become King in due course. However, the long-term consequences of this decision would have a catastrophic effect on the security of the kingdom during Joanna’s reign. Robert attempted to address Carobert’s grievances by offering to marry Joanna to his son, Andrew. The boy was a year younger than Joanna & arrived in Naples at the age of six. Joanna & Andrew were married soon after & Robert made all his nobles swear allegiance to the couple as the future king & queen. It was hoped that this would satisfy the Hungarian claims to the throne of Naples.

Joanna came to the throne at the age of 17. She had had a thorough education in courtly ways from her grandfather & in religious matters from her step-grandmother, Sancia. Joanna’s marriage, however, was not a happy one, despite the birth of a son, Charles Martel. Although Joanna & Andrew had been brought up together, they were not close. There was prejudice against Andrew by the leading nobles, both because he was Hungarian & because his marriage to Joanna prevented one of their sons from becoming king. Andrew was also compared unfavourable with Joanna’s cousins, the Durazzo & Taranto families, who also aspired to the crown. Joanna faced many challenges during her years as queen but none was more confronting than the murder of Andrew by a group of jealous nobles in 1345, just two years after she came to the throne.

Joanna’s Hungarian in-laws were outraged & Andrew’s brother, Louis, now King of Hungary & his formidable mother, Elizabeth, demanded justice. They also used the murder as a lever to push Louis’ own claims to the throne of Naples. Joanna was accused of involvement in the murder & was forced to flee Naples & seek the Pope’s protection at Avignon. She was then forced to go on trial for her husband’s murder at the Papal Court before Pope Clement VI. Joanna convinced the Pope of her innocence although she wasn’t able to save the lives of many of her closest friends & supporters who were imprisoned, horribly tortured & executed by the Hungarians, who ruled Naples after her flight. Joanna had to leave her young son behind & he was taken back to Hungary by his relations, where he died soon after.

Joanna knew that she had to remarry quickly. She needed a champion, a proven warrior who would help her regain her kingdom. She chose Louis of Taranto, who had his own claim to the throne of Naples. Eventually, after bribing the Pope with the transfer of the city of Avignon to his authority, the Pope recognized Joanna’s marriage to Louis & advanced the money they would need to amass an army to drive the Hungarians out of Naples. They were successful & by 1349, Joanna had reclaimed her kingdom. Unfortunately, Joanna’s personal life was never easy. She & Louis had two daughters, who both died young. Their marriage collapsed soon after the return to Naples & Louis was accused of treating Joanna very badly, attacking her physically & flaunting his affairs. Joanna married twice more. After Louis’ death in 1362, she married James IV, King of Majorca. This was another disaster. James had been imprisoned as a young man by the King of Aragon for over 15 years & emerged from this ordeal with this health shattered, both physically & mentally. After James’s death in 1375, Joanna finally found the husband she had needed all along. At the age of 49, she married 55 year old Otto of Brunswick. Otto was a member of a minor German noble family, a very inferior match in worldly terms. However, he was a fine soldier, had no claim to the Neapolitan throne & no expectations of usurping Joanna’s prerogatives. Unlike her first three husbands, Otto had no prospect of being crowned King Consort & doesn’t seem to have expected it.

Joanna’s relations with the Papacy were also fascinating. She was bound very closely to the Pope of the day because of Naples’ status as a vassal of the Papacy. Joanna’s relations with successive Popes were vital, both because the Pope had such power over the kingdom & its people in both a spiritual & a practical sense. Joanna was excommunicated several times & Naples placed under an Interdict. However, Joanna mostly managed to steer clear of major disruptions, quite a feat during this time when the Pope had been forced to flee Rome for Avignon &, near the end of Joanna’s reign, she became involved in the Great Schism, when there were two Popes vying for legitimacy.

It can be very difficult to get a sense of the life of an individual woman in the Middle Ages, especially when there are no private letters or diaries to consult. Joanna speaks to us in the form of official letters but also in her actions. She was remarkable because she was the only woman in this period to rule in her own right. Although she needed to marry to support her rule, she never allowed her consorts to rule alongside her. She was incredibly unlucky as her reign coincided with outbreaks of plague & the growth of the Free Companies, bands of mercenaries let loose across Europe after the conclusion of wars. Economic conditions were also bad, with poor harvests & the collapse of the great banking families who had financially supported Joanna’s grandfather, Robert the Wise. Joanna faced constant plotting by her Hungarian relations as well as her Neapolitan family, all of them ruthlessly ambitious. She also had no heir, which only increased the plotting as the factions circled her throne.

Joanna has had a reputation as a wicked adulteress, murdering her first husband & committing almost any crime. However, these stories seem to have more to do with the fact that she was a woman than with any truth about the accusations. She was the last ruler of Naples to hold Provence & to extend her rule to Sicily & Piedmont. She was a solicitous ruler to her people & did what she could to relieve the many privations they suffered due to plague & disaster. She built hospitals & tried to promote justice for all her subjects. Pope Clement VII wrote of Joanna after her death,

Of all the illustrious women of this world, Joanna, radiant rose among thorns, infolded us, the whole Roman Church and her subjects in an amazingly sweet scent … She passed on from the misery of this world to the beatitude of God’s kingdom where she lives and reigns and where, despising and mocking her adversaries, she recovers the sceptre that has been taken from her and receives her crown among the same martyrs.

Clement owed his position to Joanna as she had supported him during the Schism so his accolades are not entirely objective. However, I certainly agree with Nancy Goldstone that Joanna was a remarkable ruler who achieved an enormous amount for a woman in the 14th century. Goldstone tells a complicated story with great clarity. I was able to keep track of the many different factions & families even though I listened to the book on audio. I also have her book, Four Queens, about the Provencal sisters who all married European kings, on the tbr shelves & I’m looking forward to reading it, as well as reading some more Italian history.

Henry VIII : the quest for fame – John Guy

I mentioned the Penguin Monarchs series a little while ago & I’ve now read one of them – John Guy’s biography of Henry VIII, subtitled The quest for fame.

The books themselves are lovely. Small, pocket-sized hardbacks; white boards with a paper wrap around half-size jacket. Guy is a well-known writer & historian of the Tudor period. I enjoyed his biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots, My Heart Is My Own, & his last book, The Children of Henry VIII, so I was looking forward to this book. I was also interested in how he would write a biography of such a larger than life figure as Henry in just 100pp. Actually, I think that’s going to be a challenge for most of the authors in this series.

John Guy tackles the task by focusing on one aspect of Henry’s character while also managing to tell a coherent story mentioning the vital signposts of his life & reign. Henry VIII was consumed by his desire to be a chivalric champion

Henry was never meant to be king. He was brought up in his mother’s household & was very close to her. A fascinating manuscript illustration was discovered only a few years ago which may show young Henry weeping for his mother’s death. Henry’s father, Henry VII, famously usurped the throne by defeating the last Yorkist king, Richard III, at Bosworth in 1485 & his marriage to Elizabeth of York was meant to bring together the two warring factions. The Tudor kings may have spent the next fifty years pursuing the last Yorkist claimants but, by & large, their reigns were peaceful. Rather than foreign invasions, the desire for a male heir to continue the dynasty would become a focus of the reign of every Tudor monarch.

Henry VII’s eldest son, Arthur, died at the age of just 15 which meant that young Henry, his father’s only surviving son, became the heir. Henry VII’s grief at the death of Elizabeth of York in 1503, just a year after Arthur’s death, changed his character. His health declined, he became suspicious & almost paranoid in his desire to protect Henry from any evil influences. When his father died in 1509, Henry was just eighteen & he was determined from the first to make his mark in European politics. He had a full treasury & a boundless belief in his own ideas. He was determined to go his own way & attempted to do this by marrying his brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon, in an attempt to forge an alliance with her father, Ferdinand of Spain. He tried, at various times, to ally himself with Francis I of France, Ferdinand’s successor, Charles V & the various Popes in Rome. He tried to annex Scotland, whether through conquest in war against his nephew, James V, or through marriage alliance through the proposed marriage of his son, Edward with the baby Mary, Queen of Scots in the 1540s. None of his foreign wars were very successful & his loving, respectful relationship with the Papacy came to an end when he wanted to divorce Katherine & marry Anne Boleyn in his desperate search for a male heir.

John Guy is very good at elucidating Henry’s character. Henry was eager to impress those he respected & admired, from Archduke Philip, who was shipwrecked in England in 1506 & dazzled the teenage Henry with his abilities as a jouster & all-round sportsman to Francis I & Pope Julius II. Henry also showed a remarkable ability to believe whatever was most convenient for himself, from choosing the passages in the Bible that supported his contention that his marriage to Katherine was invalid (while ignoring others that said the opposite) to his refusal to see those he had dismissed from his favour, from his wives to his most trusted courtiers & servants. Once they had disappointed or betrayed him, he never saw them again. It was as if he had deleted them from his memory, out of sight, out of mind. It was on to the next wife who would surely give him the son he craved, or the next minister who would carry out his grand plans. He is at his worst in the mid 1530s when he persecuted Thomas More, Bishop Fisher & the Carthusian monks for their refusal to accept the break with Rome.

I also enjoyed Guy’s discussion of the way that Henry created his own image through his acquisitions of art & property. He became enormously wealthy through the Dissolution of the Monasteries, part of his break with Rome & the establishment of a new Church of England with Henry himself as the head. He commissioned tapestries woven with gold thread depicting the stories of King David (he loved the story of David so much that he eventually had nine sets of tapestries depicting the story) & Solomon. The quality of the work rivalled anything owned by the Pope. He patronised Hans Holbein, who produced a new style of portraiture at Henry’s Court. Holbein’s image of the king, standing full square & staring us straight in the eye, is still the image most of us see when we think of Henry.

Henry’s last years were dominated by his own ill health, both physical & mental. He never recovered from a fall from his horse in the early 1530s which resulted in an ulcer on his leg that refused to heal. His paranoia grew as he aged & his temper grew more uncertain. His last wife, Katherine Parr, narrowly escaped arrest when she disputed religion with Henry. He was about to have her arrested for heretical views, encouraged by the conservative elements at Court. Fortunately she was warned in time & convinced Henry that she had only wanted to divert his mind from the pain of his leg with her arguments & that she would, of course, be guided by him in everything. It’s hard to be sure whether Henry was serious about arresting Katherine or was he just trying to frighten her into obedience? It must have been a terrifying experience to be at Henry’s Court in those final years.

Henry VIII : the quest for fame is an excellent introduction to Henry’s life. There’s also a lot to enjoy if you’ve read other biographies of Henry as John Guy brings a new perspective to his portrait of the most famous monarch in England’s history.

Next up is Stephen Alford’s biography of Henry’s son, Edward VI. Just as it’s a difficult task to write a short biography of a king like Henry VIII, it will be interesting to see what Alford does with a boy who became king at the age of nine & was dead at sixteen.

Where Stands A Wingéd Sentry – Margaret Kennedy

In the Foreword of this book, written in May, 1941, novelist Margaret Kennedy looks back over the last year.

A year ago today the French line was broken near Mézières. From that day until the end of the first phase of the Battle of Britain, in October, we in this country were living through a supreme experience: supreme in the collective life which is our history and supreme in our individual lives. Many of us were more frightened than we had ever expected to be. Many, before the year was out, found themselves being braver than they had ever expected to be.. We discovered unsuspected passions and loyalties. We realised which things we valued most.

Where Stands A Wingéd Sentry is Kennedy’s account of life in England from May to September 1940. The book was written up from her diaries of the time, for an American audience. She changed the names of people & places & acknowledges that much has changed even in the short period between the summer of 1940 & 1941 when the book was published. I found it to be an incredibly honest account of the emotions & fears of one woman & her family in a period when a German invasion seemed imminent & inevitable. It reminded me of the comforts of hindsight & of what I really value in the fiction & memoirs I’ve read of this period. The knowledge that we have, that Germany would not invade & that although there would be hardship, destruction & death, Britain would survive, was not available to Margaret Kennedy. No matter how much research a modern novelist does into the period, they can never create the atmosphere & the immediacy of a first-hand account like this one.

In 1940, Margaret Kennedy was living in Surrey with her three children, a friend’s daughter, her mother-in-law & her children’s Nanny. Her husband, David, was a barrister in London, coming down for evenings & weekends. The invasion of France seems unbelievable at first, even after the German invasions of  Norway, Holland, Denmark & Belgium. However, the reality soon hits home with air raid drills & road blocks being placed along the coast roads in preparation for Hitler’s inevitable invasion of England.

Cotter says they are hastily putting up log barricades on all the roads and taking down the signposts, and the farmers have orders to put obstructions in large fields where troop-carrying planes might be landed. The British Legion has been told to guard the local telephone exchange. There are notices in the village telling us what to do if we see parachute troops coming down. We are to lock up all cars and bicycles at night and if we leave a car unattended it must pretty well be disembowelled. Apparently it won’t do to just take out the ignition key because the Germans know about hairpins.

Kennedy & her husband decide that she & the children should move to Porthmerryn, a Welsh coastal village where Kennedy lived as a child. David will stay in London to work & also because he’s an air raid warden & his mother will return with him. Nanny & the children go on ahead while Margaret closes up the Surrey house. As the children set off for Porthmerryn, they see trainloads of soldiers returning from the evacuation at Dunkirk. Friends come down to say goodbye & Margaret is reminded of the Munich crisis. The same feelings of unreality & the same conversations with friends canvassing all the many possibilities.

Porthmerryn is a village of three communities. Downalong, where the fisherman & local people live; Upalong, full of retired middle class professionals who’ve bought houses there to take advantage of the fishing & the golf; & the Artists, who live between the two communities. The Artists arrived in the 1890s to paint the coast & the seagulls & more artists come every year to live cheaply & soak up the atmosphere. Kennedy is surprised that Porthmerryn has not changed at all since she was last there. The war doesn’t seem to have touched it at all except that all the fishing boats went off to Dunkirk & haven’t yet returned. even that didn’t matter much because it’s not the fishing season so they weren’t needed. There’s still plenty to eat, the blackout is very sketchily enforced & the weekenders come down for their holidays as usual. People who went to the East coast for their holiday last year have come to Wales this year.

The Kennedys consider sending the children overseas but worry about the dangers of the voyage. They’re also uncomfortable about the inequality of the schemes on offer. Middle class children will have advantages that working class children would never be offered & eventually they decide that the children will not go. In July, the first air raid warning causes considerable panic but, apart from the harbour, there seem to be no obvious targets in the area. Nevertheless everyone goes through their drills & the children take it all in their stride, incorporating air raids into their games & dropping to the ground just as they’ve been taught when a loud bang goes off unexpectedly. Margaret’s reaction to the raids is not so much fear as anger with a rueful realisation that she’s essentially helpless to change her circumstances.

After luncheon I climbed along the cliffs to Spaniard’s Point and sat on the end of it and contemplated the sea. Suddenly a huge plane shot down out of the sky. I don’t know where it cam from, but as it roared over Spaniard’s Point I could see the black crosses on it.
I wasn’t frightened, I was in such a rage. My skin crawled on my bones and I jumped up and shouted:
“You …!” (A word no lady would use.)
And I picked up a small stone and flung it at the plane. At least I meant to fling it at the plane, but it went in the opposite direction, as things always do when I throw them.

There is humour in the book as well as the constant worry & uncertainty about the future. I loved her description, half serious, half embarrassed, about the village’s reaction to the young R.A.F. pilots,

Everybody loves the R.A.F. Today i saw a young pilot walking down Fore Street – one of those pink, stodgy-looking boys who are working these miracles … People turned to look after him, as they passed, with a kind of worship in their eyes. The shop people came to their doors, and all the way up the hill people turned round to stare. We did not cheer. There was a feeling in the air which went far beyond cheering.

Then there’s her description of the influx of those she calls the Gluebottoms, people who have left the cities for the safety of the country but expect all the facilities they had at home. She’s most annoyed at the number of able-bodied young women who seem to have no thought of joining the services.

I look at the Gluebottoms, sitting on the sands until it is safe for them to go back to their comfortable lives. It’s well for them that the shelterers (those who have been left homeless from raids) are not all Communists and that there is such a strong feeling in this country for tolerance and common sense. England after the war is going to belong to the shelterers. And it won’t be the England Bob (a Communist friend) wants, or the Gluebottoms’ England either. It will be a land fir for human beings.

Meanwhile, Margaret worries about David, living in London & spending his nights as an air raid warden. His experiences give a different perspective to the family’s life on the coast.

One of the wardens, bombed out of his sleeping place, pulled himself from the wreckage and walked along the street to get to a friend’s house to ask if he could sleep there the rest of the night. In the blackout he walked into a rope stretched between two houses to stop people going up that street because the houses were unsafe. He fell over the rope and both the houses fell down. In the warden’s log the entry just says, “At 3.30 A.M. Mr Gamble collided with two houses and demolished them.”

Margaret is often worried about the morality or otherwise of the decisions she & David make – about the children, about where they live & the contribution they can make to the war effort. She knows how lucky she is & spends a lot of time praying for the country as well as for her family’s safety, while also realising that Germans & Italians are praying the same prayers to the same God & wondering how to reconcile that. Early in the book, she attends a service for the National Day of Prayer & remembers singing the same hymn, O God our help in ages past, at the memorial service for her brother, killed in Palestine in 1918, then again, only a few months later, at the Armistice. At the end of the summer of 1940, the invasion scare seems to have died away and, although the bombing raids continue, the weather will deter any plans of invasion until the following year.

The leaves are beginning to turn and today I have rinsed through and dried our bathing dresses and put them away till next year. The summer is over.
What a summer!
I was just going to write that I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. But when I think how lucky we have been so far, and what others have had to suffer, I feel I have no right to say that. Some great sorrow may come to this family still. I may then earn my right to say it.
But we have certainly taken life to pieces and found out what it is made of. We have come a long, long way since we all went to church on the National Day of Prayer.

I read about Where Stands A Wingéd Sentry from the extensive list of books on WWII by women on Scott’s blog, Furrowed Middlebrow, & I was able to borrow a PDF copy of the book from Open Library. The title is a quotation from a poem by Henry Vaughan which I posted in Sunday Poetry last weekend.

Home – Francis Pryor

I love history, & especially British history. My interests started with the Victorians, then the Tudors & Stuarts (in both England & Scotland). Richard III dragged me back to the medieval period, than I became interested in the Anglo-Saxons. I’ve only recently started reading about Roman Britain & the 18th century – it took a while for the Georges to make an impression. Prehistory, though, has always confused me. I find it hard to come to terms with all the thousands of years before the Romans invaded in 43 AD. However, I’ve enjoyed Francis Pryor’s previous books & I thought the subtitle of this one – a time traveller’s tales from Britain’s prehistory – sounded intriguing. I’m so glad I picked it up because if you’re looking for an accessible book about Britain’s prehistory with a little autobiography & quite a few opinionated rants thrown in, then this is the book for you.

For those of you that are as confused as I am, the book covers the Mesolithic, or Middle Stone Age    (9600-4000 BC), the Neolithic (New Stone Age 4000-2500 BC), the Bronze Age (2500-800 BC) & the Iron Age (800 BC-AD 43). You can see what I mean about the length of time in each of these periods.

The title of the book is Home & it’s the role of home & the family that Francis Pryor is exploring as a way of looking at Britain’s prehistory. He was an archaeologist for over 50 years & is probably best known for his work on Time Team & the documentaries he made based on his previous books, Britain BC & Britain AD. His best-known projects have involved prehistoric sites such as Flag Fen, Fengate & Etton, all of which are referenced in the book as examples of different periods of Britain’s history.

I particularly enjoyed the way that Pryor uses his practical experience at every stage, often disagreeing with earlier academic historians who may never have actually been involved in an archaeological dig. Francis Pryor has also been a sheep farmer in the Fens for the last thirty years & his farming experience has informed his theories about what our prehistoric ancestors did & why they did it. He continually emphasizes the fact that our ancestors weren’t so very different from us. There may be areas of their lives that we can’t penetrate – mainly to do with religious beliefs – but they needed to feed their families & they were intelligent enough to work out how to build a watertight shelter, where to site their houses & farms, which crops to grow & livestock to rear. He has also discovered an enormous amount through replicating the techniques of the farmers of the past. The idea that hunter gatherers led a subsistence existence, moving around constantly living in flimsy structures & with no time for anything but survival, has been debunked in recent years.

The widespread belief persists that our hunter-gatherer (i.e. pre-farmer) ancestors led impoverished lives. They would spend all day chasing around after scarce and flighty game, only to arrive back in the hovel, or cave at night-time, empty handed, or at best, with a moth-eaten hare or a hibernating hedgehog. Meanwhile, the wife and children had been out in the woods grubbing around for a few edible roots, or buried nuts. They gobbled down this unenviable repast over a flickering fire, then collapsed, still hungry, into a fitful sleep, always keeping one eye open in case the fire died down and a passing cave-bear might be feeling peckish.

One of my favourite examples involves an Iron Age roundhouse that was constructed as the Iron Age people would have built it. It withstood a ferocious storm much better than the modern huts close by. At every point, Pryor considers what any human being would do in that situation to feed a family, build a house or create a community & looks at the evidence with this common sense in mind.

I enjoyed the stories about the archaeological digs he has taken part in & directed, many of them in the Cambridgeshire Fens, a part of Britain that he obviously loves & feels a real affinity with. Etton is on the edge of the Fens. The enclosure was first constructed in around 3700 BC & in use for about 300-400 years. When Francis & his team started excavating, it was the site of a quarry & they had about a year before the quarry owners would come in & start extracting gravel from the site. The amount of material that had been preserved in the waterlogged conditions was amazing. The site was in two halves, one where people & livestock lived & the other where rituals & ceremony would have been conducted. The water had preserved large quantities of wood & Francis’s wife, Maisie Taylor, an expert in prehistoric wood working, found that different areas of the enclosure were obviously being used for different processes.

Then, more unusual items were found. A 2 ft length of twine was discovered which seemed like an unusual thing to have been casually lost as it represented a considerable amount of work. This discovery, in the centre of the enclosure ditch, & other similar discoveries led to the theory that the people who lived at Etton were deliberately depositing items in memory of their ancestors. At other sites, skulls had been found in ditches & at Etton, pots, a sea-urchin & even a fox’s skull had been buried. The deposits were found at intervals all through the depths of the ditch. The objects that were found weren’t broken or worn so were unlikely to be rubbish that had been tossed aside. There was a pattern to the siting of the deposits & the shape of many of the objects suggested a human head, maybe an offering or a symbol of an ancestor. Quern stones, used to grind grain & therefore very potent symbols of the home, were also found. They were broken deliberately, so as to make them useless in this world but maybe they were to be used by the ancestors in the next world? Pryor’s theory about these deposits is influenced by his memories of his family’s place in the graveyard of their local church.

You can read something of our family history in the inscriptions on the tombstones – and that’s what I think those neatly arranged and covered-over ‘placed deposits’ in the Etton enclosure ditch are essentially all about. They’re permanent records of the doings of long-vanished relatives. I would imagine that every year the members of the family would have stood around their ‘own’ ditch segment, while a senior, older person recited the deeds – real and mythical – of the ancestors. It was part of the continuing process of educating the young and of binding people together, with their common family histories and shared memories. Had I lived in the earlier Neolithic, my life would doubtless have been commemorated with a carved flint trowel.

There are many other case studies describing family & community life in Britain throughout prehistory. I think it was the idea of home being at the centre of the book that made it all make sense. Francis Pryor even calls the period around 1500 BC the Domestic Revolution, the period when roads & trackways had been built, the landscape had changed & different groups of people were brought into contact, forming larger social groups. There are so many interesting ideas in this book, which is written in an accessible, almost conversational style. I could hear Francis Pryor’s voice as I read, having seen him on TV & read his blog, In the Long Run, for the last few years. I was prepared for the opinionated rants, & especially enjoyed the one about the delights of growing vegetables, being a veggie grower myself in a small way. It’s all this practical common sense that informs every page of this book & makes us see our ancestors as just like us rather than as creatures from another planet.

Francis Pryor has also recently started writing detective fiction. His first novel, The Lifers’ Club, features archaeologist Alan Cadbury. The publication was crowd funded through Unbound, a site where readers can contribute towards the costs of publishing an author’s work. I have The Lifers’ Club on my Kindle & I’m looking forward to reading it soon. Francis’s second book, The Way, the Truth and the Dead, is currently 49% funded.

Royal Escape – Georgette Heyer

I’ve always known that Georgette Heyer wrote historical novels as opposed to her historical & Regency romances. She wrote several novels about real historical figures – William the Conqueror, John, Duke of Bedford – and this one, Royal Escape, about Charles II & his flight into exile after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. I also knew that Heyer’s research for her novels was prodigious & extensive. I was still surprised when I read the relevant chapter in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Charles, after reading the novel, just how accurate she was. Names, places, incidents, all taken direct from the historical record & recreated as very exciting fiction. I listened to Royal Escape on audio, read by Cornelius Garrett who did an excellent job. Garrett is one of my favourite narrators. I remember his reading of Anne Perry’s WWI series some years ago. I loved it so much that I would wait for the library to get the audio book rather than read the stories myself.

Royal Escape begins in the aftermath of the Battle of Worcester. The Civil War is all but over. Charles I has been executed two years earlier & his son, now King Charles II, has made an attempt, with the help of the Scots, to regain his throne from the Parliament forces. Unfortunately Charles’s experiences among the Presbyterian Scots did not endear him to them & his potential English supporters disapproved of a Scots army invading England. At Worcester, the Scots failed to rally & the Royalists were defeated. Charles is now a marked man & must try to get to France where there are many Royalist exiles & he will find support at the court of Louis XIV.

Charles decides to travel with just one companion, his great friend, Lord Wilmot. Harry is an older man (& father to the Restoration poet, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester which I didn’t realise until after I’d finished the book), absolutely devoted to Charles but almost comically unfit for the disguises & stratagems of a fugitive. The only concession he will make to a disguise is to ride with a hawk on his wrist as though he were just out for a day’s hunting & he insists on his manservant accompanying him. Charles, on the other hand, a young man of only 20, is far more easygoing & is prepared to wear rough clothing, cut his hair, have walnut juice rubbed on his face, be lead about the countryside by the poorest of his subjects & obey their directions meekly & with a good grace.

The tale of Charles’s flight is such a good story, with so many near misses, comical incidents & instances of great bravery & loyalty that it seems like a fairytale. It was one of Charles’s favourite stories when he came to the throne & he apparently bored his courtiers by telling it so often. Charles certainly never forgot the many people who helped him & it’s remarkable that he was never betrayed when it’s estimated that more than 60 people knew of his whereabouts during the six weeks he was on the run. By good luck, he found himself among the Catholic families of the West Country & was impressed by their loyalty & faith, especially after the rude, harsh religion of the Scots Covenanters. It’s been speculated that his later inclination towards Catholicism may have had more to do with this experience than with his French mother’s teaching.

He famously spent a day hiding in an oak tree, hid in priest’s holes in country houses & impersonated a servant (quite badly) when traveling with Jane Lane & her sister. He rode through troops of Parliamentary soldiers & ate in servant halls, often drinking a toast to his own health without his companions knowing who he was. Charles was touched by the loyalty shown him & repaid it with good humour & an awareness of the risks taken by the Penderels, Lanes, Giffards, Wyndhams & Gunters in aiding him. Eventually the King boarded a ship at Shoreham & made his escape to France.

Royal Escape is a story of great charm. Charles himself is a very sympathetic character, although his wicked sense of humour almost betrays him several times. Harry Wilmot provides the comic relief but his obvious love for Charles redeems him from being just a figure of fun. Cromwell & his New Model Army may have won the war but they had a long way to go in winning the hearts & minds of the English people. Charles, with his easy charm & sincere gratitude for the help he received, did more for the Royalist cause on his flight than he could have known.The legends that grew up about his escape kept the memory of the Stuarts alive over the long nine years before the Restoration.

Anglophilebooks.comAnglophile Books not only has a copy of the book but also the audio book (on cassette) of Royal Escape.