Books I’ve Read This Week: The House of Windsor

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 37: The House of Windsor In recent weeks, I have read numerous books about the modern royal family including innovative new biographies of two of the most controversial members of the royal family in the 20th century: King Edward VIII and Princess Margaret. I also read a novel inspired by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, scholarly studies of broader themes in the history of the monarchy such as the establishment of the House of Windsor and royal last wills and testaments, a history of Anglo-Russian royal visits during the reign of Czar Nicholas II and a Canadian perspective on the Queen Mother. Here are this week’s reviews:

#253 of 365 Edward VIII: An American Life by Ted Powell

Date Read: October 1, 2018

Genre: History/Biography

Acquired: Received a Review Copy

Format: Hardcover, 322 pages

Review: A fresh perspective on King Edward VIII that examines the impact of American society and culture on his life and brief reign. The book includes excellent analysis of British vs. American press coverage of Edward’s activities as Prince of Wales, which remains relevant to present day royal coverage. There are also insightful conclusions concerning Edward’s inner turmoil and the increasing conflict between his public and private lives during his years as Prince of Wales, which eventually culminated in the abdication crisis once he succeeded to the throne in 1936.

The subtitle of the book, An American Life, however, does not quite capture the complexity of the material. The early chapters are more focused on Canada including his popular 1919 Canadian tour and his purchase of a ranch in Alberta. There are numerous instances of Edward describing his affinity to Canada rather than the United States quoted in the book. Edward’s public role was different in Canada than in the United States and there are also cultural differences. A little more analysis of Edward’s shift from an identification with Canadians to a more American social circle would have enhanced the book.

Edward’s visits to the United States after the abdication crisis are passed over quickly and I would have been interested to read more about this period of Edward’s life, including his term as Governor of the Bahamas. Edward VIII: An American Life is a thought provoking read that might have been better titled “King Edward VIII Abroad” as it goes beyond the United States to place Edward in the context of popular opinion in the wider British Empire and Dominions in the 1920s and 1930s.

#254 of 365 Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown

Genre: Biography

Date Listened: September 12-13, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 12 hours and 23 minutes

Review: A biography of Princess Margaret assembled from more than 99 perspectives on her life from the Home Secretary who witnessed her arrival at Glamis Castle in 1930 to the Christie’s auction catalog of her possessions at the time of her death in 2002. In between, Margaret struggled to find a satisfying public role, decided not to marry the divorced Peter Townsend amidst constitutional controversy, endured a turbulent marriage to Antony Armstong-Jones, Earl of Snowdon, spent holidays in Mustique, was asked to leave an event by a Beatle and snubbed Elizabeth Taylor. The anecdotes assembled in the book are entertaining, irreverent and sometimes inappropriate.

Although Margaret burned most of her correspondence, she was mentioned in the memoirs and diaries of numerous prominent figures over the course of the second half of the 20th century and always made an impression. The author draws upon a wide range of sources including his own musings about how her life would have unfolded if she had made a different marriage or become queen instead of her sister. However, there are key perspectives missing. Margaret traveled extensively around the Commonwealth but voices from these tours are limited. The absence of Canadian, Australian or Caribbean sources is notable.

Brown mentions that Margaret loved her children, encouraged them to pursue careers of their choice and that they have successful lives.  Their thoughts concerning their mother are entirely missing from the narrative. Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret is an engaging, innovative but incomplete portrait of the Princess. The audiobook narrator, Eleanor Bron, manages a full range of British accents from clipped royal tones to the Liverpool voices of the Beatles.

#255 of 365 The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

Genre: Fiction

Dates Listened: September 14-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 17 hours and 54 minutes

Review: A fun royal romance inspired by William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. While the characters are fictional, the authors have clearly researched the ambiance of Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace as well as the intense public scrutiny faced by the royal family and their social circle. At the centre of the novel is what happens when a regular person used to a private life becomes involved in a royal romance and is suddenly being literally chased through London by paparazzi. The authors have great fun with the way royal rumours circulate in the press. For example, “Some people swear Nicholas has a wooden leg and that’s why he never plays polo anymore.” The novel is filled with entertaining details satirizing the British upper classes. The couple’s Oxford classmate Penelope six names gets married and becomes Penelope eight names!

I especially enjoyed the royal couple’s group of university friends who do their best to form a protective bubble around them including Gaz (short for Garamonde, grandson of the man who invented the namesake font) and Joss, whose avant garde fashion designs always attract headlines. Trouble comes when one of these friends decides to make his career as a journalist by publicizing a royal scandal. Freddie (based on Prince Harry) is always charming and mischievous and finds himself at the centre of a few royal scandals of his own. A very entertaining novel that is especially enjoyable for readers who follow royal news!

#256 of 365 The Windsor Dynasty 1910 to the Present: ‘Long to Reign Over Us’? edited by  Matthew GlencrossJudith Rowbotham and Michael D. Kandiah

Date Read: September 19, 2018

Genre: History and Politics

 Format: E-Book, 299 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto 

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles concerning the enduring survival of the House of Windsor from the accession of King George V to the present day, a period that saw the overthrow of numerous other European monarchies. The contributors argue that the British monarchy should be taken seriously as a political insitution rather than being dismissed as an anachronism or a tourist attraction. The unique qualities that differentiated the Windsor monarchs from their predecessors are emphasized over the course of the book. Both King George V and King George VI were second sons who were educated for naval careers rather than kingship and they approached the role of king as a duty to the nation rather than a personal privilege, an outlook shared by Queen Elizabeth II.

There are numerous chapters concerning the mutually beneficial relationship between the monarchy and the military from the First World War to the careers of Prince William and Prince Harry in the 21st century. The surprisingly recent emergence of opinion polls concerning the popularity of the monarchy is the subject of a fascinating chapter. The constitutional advice received by King Edward VIII during the abdication crisis of 1936 also receives a thorough critique. Essential reading for anyone interested in British history and the modern monarchy.

#257 of 365 Imperial Tea Party by Frances Welch

Genre: History

Date Read: September 21, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.ca

Format: Hardcover, 288 pages

Review: An enjoyable book about the three major Anglo-Russian royal visits during Czar Nicholas II’s reign: Balmoral in 1896, Reval (now Tallinn, Estonia) in 1908 and Cowes in 1909. Welch captures the atmosphere of the tours with the heightened security surrounding the presence of the Russian Imperial family in Britain, misunderstandings between Russian and British officials, excited newspaper articles about large royal family gatherings and relations between the individual members of the Russian and British royal houses. The chapters are organized according to the daily itineraries of the visits. There are numerous anecdotes about the Russian Imperial children including Queen Alexandra’s efforts to match her grandson, the future King Edward VIII, with one of Czar Nicholas’s daughters.

The wider political context surrounding these royal visits, however, is summarized quickly and the brief account of George V’s reluctance to provide refuge for the Romanovs in Britain does not take into account the latest books about these complicated circumstances, including Helen Rappaport’s 2018 book The Race to Save the Romanovs. Imperial Tea Party is a good book that could have been even better with more political context and sources.

#258 of 365 The Queen Mother and Her Century by Arthur Bousfield and Garry Toffoli

Date Read: September 25, 2018

Genre: Biography

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 177 pages

Review:  A Canadian perspective on the Queen Mother, written at the time of her 100th birthday. The book is richly illustrated with photographs and memoribilia from royal tours in addition to formal royal portraits. There are detailed itineraries of the Queen Mother’s Canadian tours, especially her 1939 tour with King George VI, which include the press coverage of the time. The impact of Canada on the royal family’s public image and approach to Commonwealth tours also receives extensive attention. For example, the nickname “Queen Mum” first appeared in print during a 1954 Canadian tour. The book was published in 2000 and is slightly dated today as the Queen Mother’s official biography and selections from her correspondence have been published since then, providing more details concerning her life and travels. Nevertheless, a good overview of the Queen Mother’s relationship with Canada with some rarely seen illustrations.

#259 of 365 Royal Wills in Britain from 1509 to 2008 by Michael L. Nash

Dates Read: September 27-30, 2018

Genre: History

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Format: E-Book, 225 pages

Review: A good analysis of key themes in the history of last royal wills and testaments. Nash examines how royal wills were a means of establishing the difference between state and personal property, and expressing preferences concerning the succession. Distinct themes in the history of wills drafted by royal women are also highlighted in the text. Since royal wills have been sealed since 1911, there is little new information concerning modern royal wills beyond observing that the recipients of certain bequests, such as the Burmese ruby bracelet owned by Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Louise, remain unknown. I would have been interested to read more about the structure of early royal wills and how they were drawn up and witnessed. There is some very interesting material in this book but due to restrictions on source material, a complete history of royal wills has yet to be written.

Toronto Public Library Lecture on September 19, 2018: Royal Weddings from Victoria and Albert to Harry and Meghan

George Hayter’s painting of the wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert

I will delivering a lecture at Toronto Public Library, Leaside Branch on Wednesday, September 19, 2018 at 2pm about the history of Royal Weddings from Victoria and Albert to Harry and Meghan followed by the sale and signing of my most recent book Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting. All are welcome.

Click here for more information

Washington Post Interview: ‘The king and his husband’: The gay history of British royals

I discussed the history of royalty and same-sex relationships with Kayla Epstein at the Washington Post. Here is an excerpt from the article:

“Ordinarily, the wedding of a junior member of the British royal family wouldn’t attract much global attention. But Lord Ivar Mountbatten’s has.

That’s because Mountbatten, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, is expected to wed James Coyle this summer in what has been heralded as the “first-ever” same-sex marriage in Britain’s royal family.

Perhaps what makes it even more unusual is that Mountbatten’s ex-wife, Penny Mountbatten, said she will give her former husband away.

Who says the royals aren’t a modern family?

Though Mountbatten and Coyle’s ceremony is expected to be small, it’s much larger in significance.

“It’s seen as the extended royal family giving a stamp of approval, in a sense, to same-sex marriage,” said Carolyn Harris, historian and author of Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting.“This marriage gives this wider perception of the royal family encouraging everyone to be accepted.””

Click here to read the full article, “The king and his husband’: The gay history of British royals” in the Washington Post.

Here in Canada, the article has also been featured in the National Post.

BBC Interview: Theresa May and the art of the curtsy

Theresa May

I discussed the history political figures curtsying (or not curtsying) to members of the royal family with BBC News. British Prime Minister Theresa May has attracted attention for her low curtsies. In contrast, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard declined to curtsey when the Queen visited Australia.

Click here to read “Theresa May and the art of the curtsy” at BBC News

 

Town and Country Interview: Why Princess Eugenie’s Children Likely Won’t Have Titles

Princess Eugenie

I discussed Princess Eugenie’s upcoming wedding and titles for any future children with Town&Country. Since royal titles are passed through the male line, it is unlikely that her children will have titles unless her husband Jack Brooksbank receives an earldom from the Queen.

Click here to read “Why Princess Eugenie’s Children Likely Won’t Have Titles” in Town&Country

My interview with Town&Country was also quoted in The Daily Express

 

Books I’ve Read This Week: Queens and Empresses

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 30: Queens and Empresses: In recent weeks, I have been reading extensively about one of my favourite topics, the political and cultural influence of royal women. I will be delivering a lecture about Catherine the Great and the Hermitage later this month as part of a royal history lecture series on a Baltic Sea cruise and I have therefore been reading extensively about Catherine’s famous art collection. I am also working on a feature article about royal wedding dresses to be published in time for Princess Eugenie’s wedding this October, and so I have been reading more about royal fashions from the eighteenth century to the present day. I also recently read three more titles from the Palgrave Macmillan Queenship and Power series. Here are this week’s reviews:

#204 of 365 Royal Women and Dynastic Loyalty edited by Caroline Dunn and Elizabeth Carney

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 207 pages

Acquired: Borrowed From Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Date Read: July 25, 2018

Review: A collection of articles about royal women and their contributions to royal dynasties from classical times to the 19th century. While there are familiar figures examined in this volume, such as Mary, Queen of Scots and her son James I’s queen, Anna of Denmark, most of the contributors examine comparatively overlooked figures. There are chapters concerning Empress Elizabeth Christine (the mother of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and the grandmother of Queen Marie Antoinette of France), and the little known royal women of the 17th century Ottoman Empire who served as stabilizing figures during an uncertain time for their ruling house. 

The authors draw conclusions that continue to be relevant to the history of monarchical government, women and power, and royal court culture. For example, in her chapter on Queenship and the Currency of Arts Patronage as Propaganda at the Early Stuart Court, Wendy Hitchmough observes that royal palaces continue to be sites of national identity and memory, as demonstrated by the recent Remembrance Day poppies installation at the Tower of London and the role of Kensington Palace as a site for mourning Diana, Princess of Wales.

Since the book is based on a series of conference papers, the chapters are short and sometimes end abruptly, especially the opening chapter about King’s Daughters, Sisters, and Wives: Fonts and Conduits of Power and Legitimacy by Waldemar Heckel. I hope that the contributors will expand their research into longer articles and books as the chapters in this volume examine important and often overlooked historical figures and their contributions to dynastic legitimacy.

#205 of 365 The Empress of Art: Catherine the Great and the Transformation of Russia by Susan Jaques

Genre: Biography/Art History

Acquired: Purchased from Amazon.com

Format: Paperback, 480 pages

Date Read: July 25, 2018

Review:The Empress of Art provides a good overview of Catherine the Great’s art patronage and the development of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. Jaques writes in an engaging, accessible style, and places the acquisition of key art collections such as the Walpole paintings within the context of the wider events of Catherine the Great’s reign. The author has visited Saint Petersburg and demonstrates a familiarity with the historic buildings of the city, Catherine the Great’s influence on architecture, and her role in setting wider cultural trends.

In addition to detailing Catherine’s cultural activities, Jaques explains the ultimate fate of the paintings acquired by the Empress. While some of Catherine’s purchases remain on display at the Hermitage museum, her grandson Czar Nicholas I sold some of the pieces that he judged to be inferior while other acquisitions were destroyed by fire or sold to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. during the Soviet period. 

Unfortunately, there are some historical errors sprinkled throughout the book, especially toward the beginning and end. The errors concern names, dates, and, most often, the family relationships between royal personages. (For example, Maria Josepha was Maria Theresa’s daughter, not her daughter-in-law. A daughter of the last Byzantine Emperor did not marry a czar, as stated in the book. Instead, a niece of the last Byzantine Emperor married a Grand Duke of Muscovy, Ivan III. The title of czar was not in use until their grandson’s reign.) While these errors do not undermine Jaques’s overall argument that Catherine was a key cultural patron with a lasting legacy in a number of different spheres, they are distracting for the reader.

The Empress of Art is an engaging biography of Catherine the Great as a cultural patron that is especially useful for visitors to Saint Petersburg and the city’s Hermitage Museum. Includes illustrations of key paintings and architecture from Catherine’s reign.

#206 of 365 Queenship and Counsel in Early Modern Europe edited by Helen Matheson-PollockJoanne Paul and Catherine Fletcher 

Genre: History

Date Read: July 26, 2018

Format: E-Book, 291 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Review: An excellent collection of scholarly articles about how early modern queens exercised and received political counsel. The book includes fresh perspectives on Tudor and early Stuart era queens who are often reduced to one dimensional portrayals in the popular imagination.

For example, Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, closely associated with her nephew Holy Roman Emperor Charles V because of the circumstances of the breakdown of her marriage, in fact had a more complicated attitude toward English foreign policy and was not always perceived as placing Spain’s interests first. Henry VIII’s sister Mary, Queen of France, famous for marrying Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk and incurring the King’s displeasure in fact remained closely interested in Anglo-French relations for the rest of her life, and attempted to maintain her own network of connections during her brief marriage to Louis XII. Mary, Queen of Scots paid careful attention to her household, avoiding appointing the wives of privy Councillors to attend her in a personal capacity in an attempt to separate her public and private spheres. Queen Elizabeth I made use of her classical education to affirm her authority over male Councillors.

In addition to chapters reassessing well known queens, there is analysis of little known queens consort and the manner in which they exerted political influence. The book’s focus on the early modern period allows for exploration of how royal women’s roles were passed through the generations. For example, there is a chapter about Bona Sforza, Queen of Poland followed by a chapter about her daughter, Catherine Jagiellon, Queen of Sweden, two queens consort who deserve to be more well known. The book comes together as a cohesive whole, with parallels drawn between the various queens discussed in individual sections and wider conclusions presented about the range of roles for a queen in the sixteenth century. Highly recommended for scholars and general readers interested in early modern queenship.

#207 of 365 Queens Matter in Early Modern Studies edited by Anna Riehl Bertolet

Genre: History

Format: E-Book, 399 pages

Acquired: Borrowed from Robarts Library, University of Toronto

Dates Read: July 28-August 2, 2018

Review: A collection of scholarly essays dedicated to Carole Levin, the co-editor of the Palgrave Macmillan Queenship and Power book series. I am honoured that my own book is mentioned in Charles Beem’s essay concerning the development of the series, which states, “…Carolyn Harris’s Queenship and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: Henrietta Maria and Marie Antoinette, a provocative comparative study of two queens who suffered miserably at the hands of revolutionary ideologies.” The chapters are divided by theme, presenting a broad range of perspectives on early modern queenship, especially the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. I found the chapters about Elizabeth I’s role as a godparent (she had at least 114 godchildren over the course of her reign including John Harington, inventor of the flush toilet), and the comparisons between Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots especially fascinating. An interesting and informative read.

#208 of 365 Catherine the Great: Art for Empire: Masterpieces from the State Hermitage Museum, Russia

Genre: Art History

Date Read: July 30, 2018

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 328 pages

Review: The book that accompanied the 2005 Catherine the Great exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario. A nice balance between beautiful illustrations of works of art collected and commissioned by Catherine the Great, and insightful essays about the different facets of her role as patron of arts. The art historians focus on the variety of different art forms in Catherine’s collection including paintings, sculpture and cameos, her motives for amassing such an extensive art collection, and the question of whether she possessed good taste or was simply a “glutton for art” who bought large collections without considering the merits of the individual works. The essays concerning her patronage of women artists including Elisabeth Vigee LeBrun and Marie-Anne Collot are especially interesting. I would have been interested to read a concluding essay about the expansion of the Hermitage museum’s collection after Catherine the Great’s reign.

#209 of 365 The Royal Wedding Dresses by Nigel Arch and Joanna Marschner 

Genre: History and Fashion

Date Read: August 2, 2018

Acquired: Read at Toronto Reference Library

Genre: Hardcover, 176 pages

Review: A beautifully illustrated history of royal wedding fashion from Henry VII and Elizabeth of York to Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. Although the title suggests that the book examines wedding dresses alone, the authors also look at the fashions worn by royal bridegrooms, bridesmaids and guests. There are some fascinating examples of royal brides adapting traditional bridal fashions to reflect their own preferences including Queen Marie of Romania choosing a tulle veil instead of the wedding lace favoured by most of Queen Victoria’s descendants, and her cousin Princess Margaret of Connaught choosing an Irish made gown embroidered with shamrocks to reflect her happy memories of spending time in Ireland as a child. I would be interested to read an updated edition that includes the last few decades of royal wedding fashion.

#210 of 365 Marie Antoinette’s Head: The Royal Hairdresser, the Queen, and the Revolution by Will Bashor

Genre: History

Date Read: August 7, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 299 pages

Review: An excellent read, especially in tandem with Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the French Revolution by Caroline Weber. Bashor examines the life and hair-raising exploits of Leonard Autie, who rose from obscure origins in Gascony to become Marie Antoinette’s hairdresser and confidant. Both the hairdresser and Marie Antoinette’s milliner, Rose Bertin, became recognizable public figures in their own right and were nicknamed Ministers of Fashion, setting precedents for future celebrity stylists and fashion designers.

I especially enjoyed the chapters about the Flight to Varennes, where Leonard acted as a secret messenger for the King and Queen, and his brother may have unwittingly foiled the royal family’s plan to flee France. Leonard had a long career after the French Revolution, styling the hair of the Russian Imperial family, including the murdered Czar Paul I for his state funeral. Marie Antoinette’s Head is lavishly illustrated with images from the French archives of Marie Antoinette, her family and her famous hairstyles. Highly recommended.

Marie Claire Interview: Here’s Why Meghan Markle Wears So Many Dresses with Pockets

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex

My Daily Express interview concerning the Duchess of Sussex’s dresses has been featured in a piece for the Marie Claire magazine website.

Click here to read Here’s Why Meghan Markle Wears So Many Dresses with Pockets at Marie Claire.

 

Daily Express Article: Duchess of Sussex Birthday: Why Meghan Chooses to Wear Dresses with Pockets

Meghan Markle

I discussed the Duchess of Sussex’s recent fashion choices with the Daily Express. In recent months, Meghan has worn a number of dresses with pockets and I speculated that she may be subtly encouraging the fashion industry to provide more functional clothing for women through her fashion choices.

Click here to read “Meghan Markle birthday: Why Meghan chooses to wear dresses with pockets” in the Daily Express

Daily Express Interview: Meghan Markle: What was Meghan’s New Zealand symbol on her wedding veil?

Kowhai flowers

I discussed the Duchess of Sussex’s wedding veil with the Daily Express. Meghan chose floral symbols from the Commonwealth nations for the embroidery on her veil. While the Queen and the Duchess of Cambridge have both worn fern brooches during their visits to New Zealand, the Duchess of Sussex chose a different emblem to symbolize New Zealand: the kowhai bloom, considered to be the country’s unofficial flower.

Click here to read Meghan Markle: What was Meghan’s New Zealand symbol on her wedding veil? in the Daily Express

Books I’ve Read This Week: Romanovs, Royalty and Revolution

My New Year’s Resolution for 2018 is to read a book (or listen to an unabridged audiobook) every day: 365 books by December 31. I will post my reviews here each week and provide regular updates on Twitter and Goodreads. Recommendations are always welcome!

Week 27: Romanovs, Royalty and Revolution July 17, 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the murder of Russia’s last Imperial family and four members of their household by Bolshevik revolutionaries in Ekaterinburg. The centenary of this tragic event has prompted the publication of new books and articles concerning the Romanovs and their legacy.

The two most recent non-fiction works about the Imperial family, To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall and The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport examine whether an escape from Russia was possible after Nicholas II’s abdication in March 1917. Hall discusses the difficulties faced by the whole extended Romanov family while Rappaport focuses closely on Nicholas, Alexandra and their children and the political and logistical difficulties that prevented them from leaving Russia.

A recently published historical novel, The Romanov Empress, focuses on Czar Nicholas II’s mother, Empress Maria Feodorovna, the most senior member of the Imperial family to survive the revolution and find refuge in Europe. In the past week, I also read two history books about royal families who faced political upheaval in past centuries as well as a historical novel set in the aftermath of the Japanese annexation of Korea and a history of the Baltic States. Here are this week’s reviews:

#183 of 365 To Free the Romanovs: Royal Kinship and Betrayal in Europe 1917-1919 by Coryne Hall

Genre: History

Date Read: July 9-July 12, 2018

Format: E-Book, 306 pages

Acquired: Received a review copy from Amberley Publishing

Review: A fascinating history of what Europe’s royal families did and did not do to help Czar Nicholas II and his extended family after the Russian Revolutions of 1917. Most books that examine negotiations concerning a possible rescue of the Romanovs focus narrowly on King George V and the British government. In addition to George V, Hall discusses a diverse array of European monarchs including King Alfonso XIII of Spain, who showed a strong interest in the welfare of the Russian Imperial family, Kaiser Wilhelm II, whose assistance was rebuffed by his Russian relatives because of the First World War, and King Christian X of Denmark, whose diplomats provided some aid to imprisoned Grand Dukes in 1919. Hall draws upon British and European archival sources as well as the unpublished diaries of Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Dmitri, who became increasingly outraged by George V’s failure to do more to help Nicholas II.

While I greatly enjoyed the book, I thought the ending could have been stronger, emphasizing all the reasons why there were not more efforts to help the Romanovs, such as the First World War and the poor communications of the time. The book is filled with references to undelivered letters and unsent telegrams that undermined efforts to locate the Romanovs once they were sent to Siberia, let alone develop a viable rescue plan.  Instead, To Free the Romanovs, ends with the loose threads in the negotiations between Russia and various European powers concerning the Romanovs just before the murder of Czar Nicholas II and his immediate family, and the hope that that further information will come to light.

#184 of 365 The Race to Save the Romanovs: The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue the Russian Imperial Family by Helen Rappaport

Genre: History

Format: Paperback, 372 pages

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Date Read: July 13, 2018

Review: A thoroughly researched study of the obstacles to rescuing Czar Nicholas II, Empress Alexandra and their children in 1917 and 1918. Rappaport argues that there was a very narrow window of opportunity for the Imperial family to escape because of the internal political situation within Russia. She includes her own notes on her research process and how she built upon the work of previous authors who have examined the unsuccessful efforts to rescue the Romanovs by Europe’s monarchs.

I found Rappaport’s analysis of the influence of Empress Alexandra’s reputation on attitudes toward rescuing the Romanovs both within Russia and across Europe especially interesting. By 1917, Alexandra had alienated many of her own relatives as well as popular opinion in both the United Kingdom and Russia, and negative attitudes concerning her influence over Nicholas undermined interest her welfare and that of her family.

The book concludes with the former Imperial family’s own views of potential rescue plans. Their reluctance to be separated from one another and to leave Russia means that they would not have supported many of the plans discussed in the book. An engaging and absorbing read, even though the ending is sadly well known.

#185 of 365 The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna by C. W. Gortner

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: July 14-15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Hardcover, 427 pages

Review: An excellent historical novel from the perspective of Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Czar Nicholas II, and sister of King George I of Greece and Queen Alexandra of the United Kingdom. C. W. Gortner brings Maria, nicknamed Minnie, and her colourful family to life. The scenes with Minnie’s sister-in-law and “friendly rival” Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, nicknamed Miechen, were especially entertaining. Gortner provides a nuanced portrayal of Minnie’s marriage to Czar Alexander III, which was successful in many ways but not without its challenges, and shows her frustrations at becoming increasingly marginalized from major decisions during her son’s reign. I would have liked more scenes set outside of Russia as Minnie was prodigious traveler who spent much of Nicholas II’s reign visiting relatives in England, Denmark and Greece. There were therefore opportunities to show more of Europe’s royal courts in the years leading up to WWI. Otherwise, an enjoyable novel inspired by a historical figure who lived through key events in the 19th and 20th centuries.

#186 of 365 Daughters of the Winter Queen: Four Remarkable Sisters, the Crown of Bohemia, and the Enduring Legacy of Mary, Queen of Scots by Nancy Goldstone

Genre: History

Date Read: July 15, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Ben McNally Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 480 pages

Review: An absorbing four generation family saga beginning with the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and ending with the accession of George I in 1714. Goldstone describes the reign of James I, the eventful life of his daughter, Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, and the adventures of her thirteen children, including four gifted daughters. Elizabeth’s youngest daughter, Sophia, actively campaigned for her family to be acknowledged as the senior line in the British succession and her son George I became the first monarch from the House of Hanover.

Goldstone draws interesting parallels between Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth of Bohemia and Sophia of Hanover in their tireless promotion of their family’s interests. In addition to their political significance, Elizabeth’s daughters were part of the intellectual life of the seventeenth century. Princess Elizabeth, corresponded with Descartes, Louise Hollandine was an accomplished portrait artist and Sophia and her daughter supported the work of Leibniz. I would have been interested to have read more about these intellectual currents. For example, there are passing references to prestigious University of Heidelberg without mention of the nature of the scholarship taking place there at the time. Daughters of the Winter Queen is otherwise a fascinating joint biography about an important branch of the royal family who became the direct ancestors of Queen Elizabeth II.

#187 of 365 Twilight of Empire: The Tragedy at Mayerling and the End of the Habsburgs by Greg King and Penny Wilson

Genre: History

Date Read: July 17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 331 pages

Review: A careful and detailed analysis of lives and deaths of Crown Prince Rudolf of the Habsburg Empire and Mary Vetsera who died in an apparent suicide pact at the Mayerling hunting lodge in 1889. Greg King and Penny Wilson examine the myths surrounding the events at Mayerling and the efforts of Emperor Franz Joseph to prevent any further investigation of his son’s death. They present a plausible reconstruction of what might have happened the night that Rudolf and Mary died. King and Wilson also describe the cultural atmosphere of late 19th century Vienna, a city that had one of the highest suicide rates in Europe, and discuss the tensions within Rudolf’s dysfunctional extended family. They provide an especially sensitive portrayal of Rudolf’s estranged wife, Crown Princess Stephanie, who suspected that Rudolf planned to harm himself and attempted to warn other members of the Habsburg dynasty. The book concludes with an epilogue that discusses the colourful life of Rudolf and Stephanie’s only child, Archduchess Elizabeth and the convent founded on the site of Mayerling where daily prayers are still offered for Rudolf’s soul.

#188 of 365 Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 11-July 14, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 16 minutes

Review: The Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910 brought the reign of the last Korean Emperor, Sunjong, to an end. Pachinko is set in the aftermath of this political upheaval, following four generations of a Korean family who face discrimination and changing fortunes in Japan. The first two thirds of the novel are especially good as the political and economic circumstances of Japan and Korea, especially the Depression and Second World War, inform the conditions faced by the central characters. The atmosphere at the boarding house in Korea and in the Korean district of Osaka, Japan, as well as the pervasive obstacles faced by the characters as Koreans in Japan are presented in a compelling fashion.

The narrative begins to the lose momentum once Noa discovers some hidden truths about his family’s history. During the later chapters, there are too many jumps in the chronology and too many digressions concerning minor characters and their love lives. The novel is at its best when its focused on the central characters and their challenges within the wider context of Korean and Japanese history.

#189 of 365 A History of the Baltic States by Andres Kasekamp

Genre: History

Date Read: July 17, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Paperback, 251 pages

Review: A good overview of the history of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania from prehistoric times to the present. More than half of the book is devoted to the 20th century but the major events and historical figures from earlier centuries are also discussed in some detail. I found the analysis of the influence of Baltic Germans on Imperial Russian history especially interesting. Kasekamp notes that “From Peter the Great until the demise of the monarchy in 1917, an astonishingly high proportion (one-eighth) of individuals who served in the top echelons of the Imperial administration were of Baltic German origin” with Baltic influence especially pronounced during the reigns of Peter the Great’s consort and successor Catherine I (who was raised in what is now Latvia) and his niece, Anna. The book includes detailed maps, a chronology of events, and an extensive further reading section organized by time period and theme.