The Weekend Bookshelf (Georgian Edition): The Trials of the King of Hampshire, The English and The Annotated Pride and Prejudice

Royal History: The Trials of the King of Hampshire: Madness, Secrecy and Betrayal in Georgian England by Elizabeth Foyster. 

The madness of King George III made the mental health of the wealthy and powerful a national concern. The early nineteenth century saw the invention of the tabloid press as the workers who moved to the cities during the industrial revolution created a market for inexpensive broadsheet newspaper. In this cultural climate, the insanity trial of the 3rd Earl of Portsmouth was a public sensation. The Earl was well connected to the leading cultural figures of his time. Jane Austen’s father was his first tutor and Lord Byron was part of his wedding party. Foyster, co-author of The Family in Early Modern England, places the reader in the position of the Lunacy Commission, beginning the book with the insanity trial then presenting the evidence concerning Portsmouth’s sanity over the course of his life.

Portsmouth’s experiences reveal the dark side of the seemingly genteel high society of Georgian England. Although George III’s health increased public awareness of mental illness, those deemed to be “backward” or “mad” were treated badly, confined to public or private madhouses and often treated as shameful family secrets. Portsmouth’s trial seemed to threaten the existing social order as the earl’s servants and labourers on his estate testified that he had the mind of a child, challenging the recollections of members of the aristocracy who did not seem to notice anything out of the ordinary when he appeared at balls. Only when Portsmouth cast his vote as a peer in the House of Lords during the adultery trial of Queen Caroline did he appear “muddled” to members of his own social class as he hesitated and changed his mind over the course of the legal proceedings that became the first royal scandal covered by the tabloid press.

Portsmouth’s story unfolds like a novel, filled with blackmail, abductions, adultery, secret marriages, disputed inheritances and family scandals. Readers will find the book difficult to put down. There’s also a Canadian postscript to the story: Portsmouth’s widow eventually immigrated to Canada and settled in Chatham-Kent where the story of “How the Countess of Portsmouth came to Chatham” remains a fixture of haunted walks in his Ontario town. *****

 History: The English: A Social History, 1066–1945 by Christopher Hibbert

I bought The English: A Social History in a second hand bookstore last month, having read and enjoyed Queen Victoria: A Personal History and Napoleon: His Wives and Women by Christopher Hibbert. The English: A Social History is a denser book, filled with details of how English people of all social classes lived their lives from the Norman Conquest of 1066 until The Second World War. The book is divided into four parts: the middle ages, Tudor and Early Stuart times, the Restoration and Eighteenth Century, and Victorian and Modern Times with chapters in each section addressing a single theme. Hibbert uses both documentary and literary sources to illuminate daily life in past centuries but is sometimes too reliant on a single set of texts for a particular theme. (The daily lives of medieval women are summarized through analysis of the Paston letters from the Wars of the Roses alone). The strongest section of the book covers the Restoration and Georgian times as Hibbert captures the sense of England in transition, rapidly becoming more urbanized, populous and connected to the rest of the world. A thorough and readable examination of social change in English history. ***
 Literature: The Annotated Pride and Prejudice: A Revised and Expanded Edition by Jane Austen and David M. Shapard

When Jane Austen’s famous novel Pride and Prejudice was published in 1813, her readers recognized the social constraints that governed the lives of the characters. There was no need to explain why Mr. Bennet had to visit Mr. Bingley before his wife and daughters could be introduced to him or why Lydia Bennet had the power to undermine her sisters’ marriage prospects through her scandalous conduct.  Shapard’s annotations are filled with interesting details about regency society that bring this context alive for the modern reader. What was the purchasing power of Mr. Bingley’s 5,000 pounds per year? (£150,000 to £200,000 in modern income but goods were more expensive and hiring servants was more affordable). Why is Mr. Collins so grateful for the “condescension” of his patroness Lady Catherine de Bourgh. (Only 30% of early nineteenth century clergymen received a living within five years of ordination and half spent their lives as poorly paid curates). Why did the Gardiners leave their children in London when they spent Christmas with the Bennets? (Christmas would not be a family celebration centred on the children until Victorian times). The Annotated Pride and Prejudice is an excellent guide to all things regency that will fascinate anyone interested in Jane Austen and Georgian England.  *****

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The Weekend Bookshelf: The Tudor Brandons, Ivan’s War and Water for Elephants

 Royal History: The Tudor Brandons: Mary And Charles – Henry VIII’s Nearest & Dearest by Sarah-Beth Watkins by Sarah-Beth Watkins.

When Michael Hirst wrote the screenplay for the Showtimes series, The Tudors, he was fascinated by King Henry VIII’s lifelong friend and brother-in-law, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. Hirst wrote in The Tudors: Its’ Good to Be King, “Charles Brandon, was, perhaps, the only man in all of England to successfully retain Henry’s affection over a span of forty years.” Over the course of his reign, Henry remained close to Charles even though his friend committed the transgression of marrying the King’s widowed sister Mary without permission. Charles remained in favour even as Henry ordered the executions of formerly trusted advisers, Thomas More then Thomas Cromwell and queens, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. Hirst made Charles a prominent character in The Tudors, giving the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk their most notable appearance in popular culture since the 1950s Walt Disney film, The Sword and the Rose.

Watkins, author of Lady Katherine Knollys, The Unacknowledged Daughter of Henry VIII, provides a short, readable biography of Charles and Mary in The Tudor Brandons. At the centre of the couple’s story is their elopement in 1515. Mary was the widow of King Louis XII of France and she married Charles Brandon to avoid being compelled to make another dynastic marriage. There would not be another instance of an English princess marrying a subject until Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise married John Campbell, Lord Lorne in 1871. Watkins provides a thoughtful analysis of the circumstances surrounding the controversial royal wedding including reasons why Henry VIII was inclined to forgive the match and the implicit challenge to his authority.

The Tudor Brandons also includes Brandon’s family history (he descended from a long line of opportunists who were often on the wrong side of the law) and Mary’s continued role in Anglo-French relations including her presence at the Field of the Cloth of Gold summit between Henry VIII and Francis I. Mary also exerted a cultural influence at court, shaping trends in fashion and country house gardens in addition to popularizing picnic suppers for the elite. Charles and Mary’s granddaughter Lady Jane Grey, the nine days queen, became a significant figure in later Tudor history and the family remains a part of popular culture today (For another biography of Henry VIII’s younger sister, see Mary Rose by David Loades). ***

History: Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945

There have been numerous books written about the experiences of the British “Tommy” or German “Fritz” fighting on the front lines of the Second World War. In Ivan’s War, Catherine Merridale, author of Red Fortress: History and Illusion in the Kremlin, examines the daily life of “Ivan,” the Soviet soldier in what became known in Russia as The Great Patriotic War. Merridale provides the details of daily life at the front. In the early days of the war, adequate training (not to mention regular rations) were in short supply. Unless soldiers brought their own socks, they spent the war marching in one size fits all foot wrappers. There was no standardized system of leave and military service therefore meant long separations from families who also suffered hardships during the war.

In addition to reconstructing the daily lives of soviet soldiers during the Second World War, Merridale examines broader questions about the motives and worldviews prevalent within the Red Army. What motivated individual soldiers to keep fighting under such harsh conditions? What were the differences in perspective between older people, who might have had military experience from the First World War and the reign of Nicholas II and younger people, who had never known any other political system than the Soviet regime? How were women and religious majorities perceived? What were the factors that contributed to the atrocities committed by the Red Army in Romania, Hungary and East Prussia? Merridale concludes with a thoughtful analysis of the lasting impact of the wartime experience and includes the perceptions of the surviving veterans. ****

 Historical Fiction: Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen.

When veterinary student Jacob Jankowski loses his parents in a car accident, he leaves Cornell university and runs away with a 2nd tier traveling circus during the depression. The book was adapted into an Academy Award Winning film, Water for Elephants, starring Reese Witherspoon and Robert Pattinson.  In the novel, Jacob is ninety – or perhaps ninety-three, he can’t quite remember – looking back on his youth at the circus from his retirement residence. There’s a realism to his old age but his past unfolds like a fairy tale where the heroine is a elephant named Rosie.

Gruen based the novel on a series of true events that took place in Depression era American circuses and the setting is compelling, filled with intrigues on trains between small towns and tensions between performers and roustabouts. The characters have rather one dimensional personalities, however, and the ending is unconvincing. For circus themed historical fiction with more compelling characters, I recommend The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin or Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss. ***

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The Weekend Bookshelf: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, The Luminaries and How to Be a Victorian

Royal History: Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: A True Romance by Amy Licence When King Edward IV of England announced to his council in 1464 that he had secretly married Elizabeth Woodville, his advisers responded “she was not, all things considered, a suitable wife for him, nor a woman of the kind who ought to belong to such a prince.” Elizabeth was not the wealthy foreign princess expected to become queen but the widow of a knight as well as the mother of two young sons. The unlikely royal romance has become part of popular culture, inspiring Philippa Gregory’s novel, The White Queen and a TV series of the same name.

Licence, author of Anne Neville: Richard III’s Tragic Queen and Elizabeth of York: The Forgotten Tudor Queen examines the marriage of Edward and Elizabeth and the culture of their court. The book stands out for its careful examination of the reputations of the King and Queen. Edward IV’s younger brother, Richard III, claimed the throne on the grounds that Edward and Elizabeth’s children were illegitimate. Edward’s reputation as a womanizer and Elizabeth’s image as a schemer suited Richard’s purposes and continue to appear in popular biographies and historical fiction to the present day. Licence examines Edward and Elizabeth within the context of their times, attempting to separate the surviving evidence from Edward IV’s reign from later speculation about the characters of the controversial King and Queen. ***

History: How To Be a Victorian: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman Histories of the Victorian era often focus on the lives of the wealthy and powerful. Goodman is interested in the daily routines of ordinary people in nineteenth century England from the city clerks (whose offices were only heated to 10 degrees in the winter, if at all, necessitating heavier business suits than those worn today) to the farm labourers (who ate better meals in the north where potatoes and oatmeal were widely available than in the south where bread was the staple food). The book is structured as a day in the life for the average Victorian, from stepping out of bed onto a tiny homemade rug made from woven rags to washing dishes by gaslight after the evening meal.

Goodman is uniquely placed to explain daily life in the nineteenth century as she starred in the the BBC historical documentary series, Victorian Farm. Goodman combines diaries, letters and advertisements from the Victorian era with her own experiences doing laundry with a hand cranked washing machine, keeping clean with a pitcher and basin, going to the seaside in a voluminous nineteenth century bathing suit and wearing a corset for months at a time. How To Be a Victorian is a treasure trove of fascinating details about an era that still influences the structure of daily life today. ****

 Historical Fiction: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton In Catton’s novel (winner of the Man Booker prize and Governor General’s Literary Award), a series of unexplained events occur near the New Zealand goldfields in 1866. An enormous fortune appears in the cabin of an intoxicated hermit, one of the wealthiest prospectors disappears and a “camp follower” appears to have attempted suicide. Newcomer Walter Moody stumbles upon a meeting of twelve men at a local hotel determined to get the bottom of these mysteries and he becomes involved in the investigation. The Luminaries includes the classic structure and plot elements of nineteenth century novels. Chapters have headings like “In which Harald Nilssen reneges on a contract; the holy book; Cowell Devlin is confounded; and George Shepard forms a plan.” Characters hold seances, struggle with opium addiction, attempt to hide family secrets and seek their fortunes. Over the course of eight hundred pages, details emerge connecting the characters one another – and the wider mystery – in unexpected ways within a broader astrological framework. The perfect book for a long train journey. ****

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My review of Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar in Canadian Slavonic Papers

I have reviewed Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters, 1913–1918, translated and edited by Helen Azar  for Canadian Slavonic Papers.

Grand Duchess Tatiana, the second of the four daughters of Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Empress Alexandra, was murdered alongside her family in 1918, at the age of twenty-one. The remains of the Imperial family were excavated in the 1990s and are now buried in the Peter and Paul fortress in St. Petersburg. Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar captures the experiences and achievements of the young grand duchess during one of the most tumultuous periods in Russia’s history.

Click here to read the full review in the Canadian Slavonic Papers

Click here to purchase Tatiana Romanov, Daughter of the Last Tsar: Diaries and Letters, 1913–1918

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Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe review in the Royal Studies Journal

My book, Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, has received an excellent review in the Royal Studies Journal.  Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe received the Royal Studies Journal 2016 prize for best book on the history of monarchy earlier this year. Here is an excerpt from the review:

“In an eminently readable and accessible book, Harris, through the use of a variety of printed and manuscript sources, paints a detailed picture of two queens. Though separated by a century, they faced similar struggles and both lost much in those battles. Comparative work can be difficult, but Harris’ work makes for a compelling and informative read. She shows the reader, through their comparison with one another, more about who each of these women were as living, breathing people, and she aptly demonstrates how the role of the consort subtly changed in the century from Henrietta Maria to Marie Antoinette.”

Click here to read the full review in the Royal Studies Journal

Click here to purchase Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette

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Queen’s Alumni Review Article: Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: From PhD dissertation to award-winning book

My most recent article in the online edition of the Queen’s Alumni Review discusses the evolution of Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette from my PhD dissertation in the Department of History at Queen’s University to a book in Palgrave Macmillan’s Queenship and Power series, which received the Royal Studies Journal 2016 prize for best book on the history of monarchy. A paperback edition of the book will be published in 2017.

Click here to read “From PhD dissertation to award-winning book” in the Queen’s Alumni Review.

Click here to purchase Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette

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The cover of my forthcoming book “Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting”

Here is the cover design of my forthcoming book Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting, which will be published by Dundurn Press in April 2017 in Canada and May 2017 in the USA and UK.

The cover of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting features Franz Xaver Winterhalter’s painting of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their five eldest children, which is now part of the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace. The heir to the throne, the future Edward VII, stands next to his mother, Queen Victoria, while Prince Alfred toddles in front of his parents. The royal couple’s two eldest daughters, Princess Victoria and Princess Alice are gathered around the cradle of their infant sister, Princess Helena.

The painting reflects the image of domestic harmony that Victoria and Albert presented to the public. The royal influence on parenting spread throughout the English speaking world. Mothers and fathers from a variety of social backgrounds took their children on seaside vacations and hosted Christmas celebrations where the entire family gathered around a decorated fir tree (a custom from Prince Albert’s childhood).

Behind palace walls, relations between the royal parents were more complicated. Victoria had little affinity for young children, writing, “an ugly baby is a very nasty object – and the prettiest is frightful when undressed. Until about 4 months; in short as long as they have their big body and little limbs and that terrible froglike action.” Albert spent more time in the nursery but the demanding educational program that he drew up for his elder children made the future Edward VII miserable. When her children grew up, Victoria expected to remain the dominant influence in their lives and shape the upbringing of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Victoria and Albert are just one of the twenty-five sets of British and European royal parents from the past thousand years profiled in my forthcoming book. Click here for more information and to pre-order Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting.

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Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe receives 2016 Royal Studies Journal book award

I am pleased to announced that my book, Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, is the recipient of the 2016 award for best book on the history of monarchy from The Royal Studies Journal, which was founded in 2013 by a group of international researchers and postgraduate students with the support of the University of Winchester. The award is sponsored by Canterbury Christ Church University.

Click here to purchase Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette

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Upcoming Guest Lecture: Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada at Innis College, University of Toronto, April 27 at 9:45am

I will be giving a lecture about my book, Magna Carta and Its Gifts to Canada: Democracy, Law, and Human Rights for the Academy for Lifelong Learning Spring Talks at Innis College, University of Toronto on April 27, 2016 at 9:45am. The University of Toronto bookstore will be selling books at the event and a book signing will follow the talk. All are welcome!

Click here for more information about the lecture and ticket prices.

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Friday Royal Read: The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore

The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of Jerusalem: The Biography, Catherine the Great and Potemkin and Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar begins by comparing the circumstances of two teenage boys. The first Romanov Czar, sixteen-year-old Michael I, was at the Ipatiev Monastery in Kostroma when he was approached by a delegation of Russian nobles imploring him to end the Time of Troubles by founding a new dynasty in 1613. Czar Nicholas II’s only son, Alexei, was thirteen when he was murdered along with the rest of his family by Bolshevik Revolutionaries in Ekaterinburg’s Ipatiev House in 1918. Michael and Alexei were the first and last heirs to a troubled dynasty that shaped Russian history for more than three hundred years.

The most famous figures from the Romanov dynasty, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Nicholas II are well known and have been the subject of dozens of books. Montefiore provides a fresh perspective on these rulers but the book really shines in its reinterpretation of more obscure Russian rulers. Peter the Great’s father, Alexei I has long been stereotyped as a meek and mild figure because of his piety but Montefiore makes clear that he was “an intelligent, restless and sharp tongued reformer who did not suffer fools gladly.” Peter the Great’s niece, Empress Anna’s harsh treatment of her nobles is often dismissed a personal caprice but Montefiore places her actions in the context of Peter’s determination to keep the nobility from becoming too powerful and threatening the ruler’s prerogatives.

Montefiore demonstrates the enduring influence of particular noble families from the seventeenth until the twentieth centuries such as the Dolgorukys and the Golitsyns. The support, or at least the obedience, of the nobility was crucial to an Emperor or Empress’s success as a ruler and is one of the reasons why serfdom existed in Russia until 1861, long after it had been abolished elsewhere in Europe. (Readers interested in the fate of the Russian nobility after the Revolutions of 1917 should read Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy by Douglas Smith.)

Montefiore avoids the names and patronymics familiar to readers of Russian novels and instead makes extensive use of nicknames to differentiate between Romanovs with similar names or successive generations of the same noble families. (A cast of characters at the beginning of each section provides the full names, titles and positions of all the people discussed in the book).  There are times when this device is effective: the inclusion of Catherine the Great’s nicknames for her favourites such as Alexander “Iced Soup” Vasilchikov and Alexander “Mr. Redcoat” Dmitriev-Mamonov provides insights about how she felt about them and why some were far more influential than others. For the reign of the last Czar, Montefiore makes use of the nicknames used within the Imperial family, bringing the reader closer to Nicholas II’s conflicts with his relatives in the last years of the Romanov dynasty.

In the early chapters of the book, however, the nicknames make the powerful figures of seventeenth century Russia seem like characters out of folklore, undermining their political significance. The Polish noblewoman and warlord Marina Mniszech, consort of False Dmitri I and II is called “Marinka the Witch” in the book and Alexei I’s sister, Irina, is described as a malevolent spinster. Since there are no other figures in this section named Marina or Irina, these nicknames are unnecessary and provide a needlessly one dimensional image of these two powerful women.

Throughout The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1917, Montefiore makes clear that in an absolute monarchy, the personal is political and that the favourites and interests of each sovereign shaped state policy for more than three hundred years. Montefiore brings the Romanov rulers to life and addresses their impact on Russian politics and society today.

Other Books about the Romanov Dynasty:

The Romanov dynasty from beginning to end has been the subject of at least four major English language books before The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore.

The magisterial The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russias by W. Bruce Lincoln separates the personal narratives of individual Czars from their domestic and foreign policies, providing a wider history of Imperial Russia as well as history of the dynasty. Like Montefiore, Lincoln devote an extended section to the last Czar and the collapse of the Romanov dynasty.

In The Romanovs: Ruling Russia 1613-1917, Lindsay Hughes provides an insightful analysis of the dynasty, highlighting the changing role of women in Imperial Russia. The impact of Peter of the Great’s reforms on the Russian elite  receives particular attention. Readers interested in the wider impact  of each Czar’s personality and policies both within Russia and abroad will want to turn to the books by Lincoln and Hughes after reading Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918.

 The Romanovs: The Rise and Fall of a Dynasty. by Ian Grey is written in a dry style with a much greater focus on the well known Romanov rulers than the lesser known sovereigns. He challenges the idea that the Romanovs were a tragic dynasty throughout their history and argues that Nicholas II’s predecessors often ruled successfully. Grey was writing in the 1960s and the role of the Soviet Union in the Cold War influences his interpretation of Romanov Russia.

The Tragic Dynasty: A History of the Romanovs by John Bergamini is written in an accessible style and covers the entire three hundred year scope of the Romanov dynasty. Like Grey, however, Bergamini was writing before the collapse of the Soviet Union and therefore did not have access to the full range of sources available to historians today. The book also contains numerous genealogical errors.

Next: Royal Tourists, Colonial Subjects and the Making of a British World, 1860-1911 by Charles V. Reed

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