Books I’ve Read This Week: Royal Historical Fiction

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 19: Royal Historical Fiction: In the past week, I read six historical novels about royalty. There are certain monarchs who have become iconic figures in popular culture such as Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots and Marie Antoinette and are therefore the subject of dozens of historical novels. I focused on novels about historical figures that have not been dramatized as frequently, choosing novels set in Spain, Russia, Sweden and India as well as England. After six historical novels, I wrapped up the week with a couple of fun books, classic and modern. Here are this week’s reviews:

#127 of 365 The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile by C.W. Gortner

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 15 hours and 53 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Dates Listened: May 17-May 20, 2018

Review:  I enjoy C. W. Gortner’s novels, especially The Last Queen, because he brings a fresh perspective to historical figures and events. Queen Isabella of Castile is an excellent subject for a historical novel because her life and reign were filled with dramatic circumstances and interesting personages. I enjoyed the first half of this book because Isabella’s path to throne was filled with danger and sudden changes in fortune, which provide the novel with dramatic momentum.

In contrast, the second half of the novel moved very quickly through the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, Isabella’s first meeting with Christopher Columbus and waging war against the Moors, leaving out other key events or mentioning them in passing. I thought Ferdinand was introduced too early as part of a fictional teenage romance. It would have been more compelling to have Isabella come of age and develop her own ideas without his influence before their marriage.

While Ferdinand appears in the novel too early, Isabella’s intent to wage war against Granada emerges too late in the narrative, and appears to be Ferdinand’s idea, when it was in fact her intention from the time of her marriage as stated in the Marriage Conditions of 1469. The book ends abruptly, acting as a prequel to The Last Queen (a novel of Isabella’s daughter Queen Juana la Loca). An engaging read but I did not always agree with the author’s pacing and approach to dramatizing Isabella’s reign.

#128 of 365 I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Hardcover, 352 pages

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Date Read: May 21, 2018

Review: I Was Anastasia has a fascinating premise, following the story of the most famous Anastasia claimant backwards and the Russian Revolution and imprisonment of the Romanovs forwards, with the stories meeting in the cellar room in Ekaterinburg where the Imperial family was murdered by Bolsheviks in 1918. The chapters concerning the claimant are interesting as they reveal a broad range of colourful characters who become involved in her quest to be recognized as Anastasia including Rasputin’s daughter Maria, and a Romanov cousin, Princess Xenia, who became an Oyster Bay socialite after the revolution.

The chapters concerning the actual Grand Duchess Anastasia and the imprisonment of the Romanovs in 1917 and 1918, however, contain numerous historical inaccuracies, which are infuriating for readers who have read extensively about Anastasia and her family. The author notes in her afterward that she is not particularly interested in royalty and considers Russian names confusing. These biases are evident in her portrayal of the Romanovs. There are violent scenes involving the Czar’s daughters prior to the murder of the Romanovs that did not actually take place but are presented as historical, even in the author’s afterward. If these scenes had been depicted as the claimant’s imaginings, which differ from the historical record, they might have made sense in the novel but as a dramatization of the actual Anastasia’s experiences, they are completely inaccurate and come across as gratuitous sensationalism.

I Was Anastasia has an interesting structure and approach and would have been a much better novel if the author had focused entirely on the claimant and her imagined memories instead of providing an inaccurate and sensationalized portrayal of the imprisonment of the last Romanovs.

#129 of 365 Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen by Alison Weir

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: May 21-23, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 19 hours and 52 minutes

Review: My favourite novel in Alison Weir’s 6 Tudor Queens series so far. Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife is presented as quiet and contemplative but not a passive figure, as she is often described. Her rise from country girl to maid of honour to queen consort unfolds amidst Tudor intrigue and an engaging cast of characters including the royal family, ladies-in-waiting, ambassadors, political figures and the ambitious Seymour family. The first two books in the series, which focused on Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn respectively, sometimes became mired in the details of Henry VIII’s first divorce but Jane’s perspective provides a sense of how individual courtiers responded to these circumstances.

Jane sometimes compromises her principles to maintain her family’s place in the Tudor court hierarchy and her experiences reflect the difficult choices made by many of her contemporaries at Henry VIII’s court as the king initiated religious and political upheaval. Weir provides a richly detailed narrative, contrasting Jane’s comparatively modest family home, where all the women of her family joined in the labour of kitchen and the herb garden, with the glittering Tudor court where established and rising families jostle for precedence. Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen is an absorbing read and I am looking forward to the publication of the next novel in the series, Anna of Kleve, next year!

#130 of 365 Rebel Queen by Michelle Moran

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: May 22-25, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books

Format: Paperback, 400 pages

Review: The Rani of Jhansi is an ideal subject for a historical novel, a female ruler with a dramatic life and times who deserves to be better known around the world. This novel is not about the Rani, however, but one of her female guards, Sita. A lot of the book is devoted to court intrigue, conflicts and friendships between the women in the Rani’s household and Sita’s concern for her family. The Indian Rebellion of 1857, where the Rani was one of the key leaders, goes by quickly in the last 70 pages of the novel. The book is engaging and readable but it seems like a missed opportunity to focus on the Rani and the Rebellion.

#131 of 365 The Devils of Cardona by Matthew Carr

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Borrowed from one my students

Format: Hardcover, 416 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

Review: This book was recommended to me by one the students in the history of Imperial Spain course that I taught earlier this year. The novel is an absorbing murder mystery set in rural Aragon during the reign of King Philip II amidst the preparations for the royal wedding of the king’s daughter, the Infanta Catalina, to the Duke of Savoy. The novel is well researched and captures the atmosphere of the sixteenth century Spanish kingdoms when the Inquisition was scrutinizing the behavior of Conversos (descendants of Jewish people who had converted to Christianity) and Moriscos (Former Muslims and their descendants who converted to Christianity) for signs of their former religious practices.

The mystery itself was less compelling for me than the setting and historical context but the author maintains a consistent pace and I was interested in Magistrate Mendoza’s investigation to the very end. The novel provides a sensitive and nuanced portrayal of King Philip II and I would have liked to have read more scenes set at the royal court.

#132 of 365 The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson

Genre: Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 11 hours and 56 minutes

Dates Listened: May 24-25, 2018

Review: A fun, farcical novel about a missing atomic bomb and a plot to kidnap the King of Sweden. The last six or seven chapters are especially funny as the calm King and anxious Prime Minister are kidnapped by an anarchist in 2007 (who has himself narrowly survived falling through a roof into a pillow distribution centre in a condemned building). The anarchist, and his much smarter identical twin brother who does not legally exist, have accidentally come into possession of a South African atomic bomb mailed in error to Sweden. Like the twin, the bomb also does not legally exist.

There is amusing repartee between the King and the Prime Minister such as “Fredrik Reinfeld finished pondering&he said to his king,”I have been thinking.””Great,”said the king,”That’s the sort of thing we have Prime Ministers for, if you ask me.” The kidnappers travel to a farm owned by a potato growing Countess who arranges an impromptu dinner party because “no-one should have to abdicate on an empty stomach” and then the Israeli secret agent arrives…

At the centre of the novel are the twists and turns in the life of Nombeko, who goes from latrine emptier to jewel thief to the brains behind a nuclear facility to the king’s unlikely rescuer. The author provides an affectionate portrait of King Carl XVI Gustaf who is unflappable throughout the kidnapping (even fixing a tractor) and always has the common touch. An enjoyable and sometimes hilarious read. I look forward to reading other novels by this author.

#133 of 365 Queen Lucia by E. F. Benson

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Received as a Gift

Format: Paperback, 187 pages

Date Read: May 25, 2018

Review: “My dear, it is just busy people that have time for everything,” declares Lucia to describe her wide array of hobbies and interests including taking up yoga. A 1920s social satire set in a British resort town with lots of quirky characters. The novel was written in the aftermath of the Russian Revolutions of 1917 and Lucia uses over the top analogies about social disorder whenever there is a threat to her leadership of seaside society such as “Bolshevism was in the air!” A fun read but I prefer the recent BBC TV series.

#134 of 365 Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

Genre: Comedy/Memoir

Format: Audiobook, 6 hours and 25 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Date Listened: May 27, 2018

Review: I always enjoy David Sedaris’s essays, especially his reflections about his childhood, family, travel and learning languages. This collection is not as funny as the classic Me Talk Pretty One Day but it is more entertaining than the recent Theft by Finding. There is some Canadian content as Sedaris gives a reading at an Indigo bookstore in Toronto then makes a disastrous appearance at Costco, where he is ignored by passing shoppers.

My favourite chapter was about Sedaris’s travels in Hawaii where the holiday exactly matches the brochure in contrast to Normandy, which is not as picturesque as he expects. I could have done without most of the opening chapter at the creepy British taxidermist shop though Sedaris’s observations about gift giving at the beginning of the book are very funny.

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CBC Books Interview: 6 Must Reads for the Royal Obsessed

I discussed my new book Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting and some of my favorite royal books – fiction and non-fiction – with CBC books. The books I recommend include Our Queen by Robert Hardman, Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government, and the Postwar Commonwealth by Philip Murphy, Mrs Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund and The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak.

Click here to read “6 must-reads for the royal obsessed from expert and author Carolyn Harris” at CBC Books

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Globe and Mail and Mashable Interviews about “The Crown” TV series on Netflix

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh kneeling before his wife, the Queen at her coronation in 1953 as portrayed by Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown on Netflix.

Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh kneeling before his wife, the Queen at her coronation in 1953 as portrayed by Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown on Netflix.

In the past few weeks, I have had a couple more interviews published about the portrayal of the young Queen Elizabeth II in season 1 of “The Crown” on Netflix.

I discussed the Queen’s image with Elizabeth Renzetti at the Globe and Mail. In addition to “The Crown,” Queen Elizabeth II has been the subject of numerous works of fiction from novels such as Mrs Queen Takes the Train and The Uncommon Reader to films such as The Queen and Royal Night Out  and plays such as The Audience.

One of the reasons why Elizabeth II appeals to novelists, screenwriters and playwrights is that her appearance and demeanor is known to the world but as an impartial constitutional monarch, she is expected to remain above politics. Fictional portrayals of the Queen are opportunities to speculate about what she is really thinking when performs public engagements or meets with her Prime Ministers.

One of the key themes in “The Crown” is conflict between the young Queen Elizabeth II’s position as sovereign and the prevailing gender roles in Britain in the 1950s. I discussed how “‘The Crown’ is a low-key guide to outfoxing the men in your way” with Rachel Thompson of Masahable.com. Although women over 30 had been able to vote in Britain since 1918 and all adult women received the franchise in 1928, there were few female members of parliament in the 1950s and a female Prime Minister would not be elected anywhere in the world until Sirimavo Bandaranaike became Head of Government in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1960.

In “The Crown,” the Queen has to negotiate a role for her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and insist that her first Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, treat her according to her position as sovereign rather than her age and gender. She also reflects on her education, which included a thorough grounding in the constitution from the Provost of Eton College but paid little attention to subjects considered unimportant for women of her social background at the time such as mathematics or science.

Season 2 of the Crown is expected to be released in November 2017.

Click here to read “Despite attempts to decipher her, Queen Elizabeth II remains a mystery”  in the Globe and Mail.

Click here to read “‘The Crown’ is a low-key guide to outfoxing the men in your way” at Mashable.com

 

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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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Friday Royal Read: The Exchange of Princesses by Chantal Thomas (Historical Fiction)

For centuries, Europe’s rulers sealed political alliances with dynastic marriages between their children. This practice was already criticized in the 16th century. The humanist philosopher Erasmus wrote in his 1516 treatise, Erasmus: The Education of a Christian Prince that these royal marriages did not bring peace. He observed that England and Scotland still went to war with each other after the marriage of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor and James IV of Scotland in 1503. Erasmus also remarked that the princesses themselves were unhappy about being “sent away to remote places” and “would be happier if they could live among their own people, even though with less pompous display.”

The princesses sent to these remote places also complained about their fate. In 1514, Isabella of Austria wrote to one of her sisters, “It is hard enough to marry a man…whom you do not know or love, and worse still to be required to leave home and kindred, and follow a stranger to the ends of the earth, without even being able to speak his language (Retha Warnicke, The Marrying of Anne of Cleves: Royal Protocol in Early Modern England, p. 3-4). Despite the shortcomings of dynastic marriage for both political stability and personal happiness, the practice continued into the nineteenth century and royalty were expected to marry other royalty until the First World War.

In France and Spain, the exchange of princesses was a tradition that lasted from 1559 until 1739. Both Louis XIII and Louis XIV married princesses from the Spanish branch of the House of Habsburg and Louis XV seemed destined to also make a Spanish match. In The Exchange of Princesses, historian and novelist Chantal Thomas, author of the novel, Farewell, My Queen and scholarly study, The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette dramatizes an early eighteenth century exchange of princesses between France and Spain and the unhappiness that followed for the young princes and princesses involved.

Thomas excels at looking behind the glamorous facade of eighteenth century European royal courts. In Farewell, My Queen and the film based on the novel, Farewell My Queen / Les Adieux à la Reine, there were as many scenes set in the flea ridden servants’ quarters of Versailles as in Marie Antoinette’s elegant rooms at Petit Trianon. In The Exchange of Princesses, the princesses experience separation from their families, extreme discomfort traveling between France and Spain on muddy roads, unfamiliar customs when they reach their destinations and grotesque illnesses from measles to smallpox. The atmosphere of both courts and the eccentricities of the individual characters are vividly portrayed as neither match goes according to plan.

The style of the novel is unusual. Thomas focuses closely on the two royal couples brought together by the The Exchange of Princesses: King Louis XV of France and Mariana Victoria of Spain and Luis I of Spain and Louise Élisabeth d’Orléans. Mariana Victoria is between the ages of four and seven over the course of the novel and Louise Élisabeth is  gradually losing her mind and their perspectives therefore reflect extreme youth and mental illness respectively. Amidst the alternating stream of consciousness of these two princesses and the people who surround them are actual letters written by the historical figures involved in the The Exchange of Princesses, newspaper accounts from the period and the author’s own asides from her travels. While all this additional material provides interesting context and detail, it sometimes slows down the narrative and creates distance between the reader and the characters.

In The Exchange of Princesses, Thomas brings alive a little known episode in the history of France and Spain that was one of the last of a series of exchanges of its kind. Both Mariana Victoria and Louise Élisabeth were sent to remote places and may well have been happier if they had been permitted to remain among their own people with less pompous display.

Next Week: The Queen at the Council Fire: The Treaty of Niagara, Reconciliation, and the Dignified Crown in Canada by Nathan Tidridge

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Royal Travelogue 4: The Queens Who Shaped Edinburgh’s Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse

The Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh is Queen Elizabeth II’s official residence in Scotland. Every year, the Queen resides at the Castle for “Royal Week,” hosting garden parties on the Holyroodhouse grounds and inducting new members into the ancient Order of the Thistle. If Scotland votes to secede from the United Kingdom in September, the Queen’s successor may have a separate Scottish coronation at Edinburgh’s St. Giles Cathedral.

The Queen has a close affinity for Scotland. She spent her childhood summers visiting both sets of grandparents there: King George V and Queen Mary at Balmoral and the Earl and Countess of Strathmore at Glamis Castle. Elizabeth II is not the only Queen who has made her mark on the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Here are 5 Scottish and English queens who contributed to the development of the modern palace:

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey

The ruins of Holyrood Abbey

1) St. Margaret (1045-1093) Malcolm III’s queen, Margaret, chose Edinburgh as Scotland’s capital, persuading her husband to move his court there from Dunfermline. Margaret was renowned for her piety and education and transformed the Scottish court into a centre of learning. One of the holy relics in her possession was a fragment of the “holy rood” or true cross. In 1128, Margaret’s son, David I, founded Holyrood Abbey to house the relic.

2) Margaret Tudor (1489-1541) When James IV negotiated his marriage to Henry VII’s elder daughter, Margaret, he decided to transform to royal apartments at Holyrood Abbey into a Renaissance Palace between 1501 and 1505. James IV was well versed in history and spoke multiple languages. The construction of  the Palace of Holyroodhouse was intended to impress the King’s English bride and proclaim to the world the Scottish court was the equal of other European royal establishments.

1833 artist's depiction of the murder of David Rizzio in 1566

1833 artist’s depiction of the murder of David Rizzio in 1566

3) Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-1587) When Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Scotland from France in 1561 at the age of eighteen, she introduced French style decorations to her apartments in Holyroodhouse. Mary spent her youth in France as the future wife of King Francois II and found Holyroodhouse shabby in comparison to the Louvre and the Chateaux of the Loire Valley. In 1566, a heavily pregnant Mary, Queen of Scots witnessed the murder of her secretary, David Rizzio, in her private apartments at Holyroodhouse by a faction of Scottish nobles led by her second husband, Lord Darnley. After the murder, Mary left Holyroodhouse and gave birth to the future King James VI of Scotland/James I of England at Edinburgh Castle.

Holyroodhouse Gardens, where the Queen hosts Scottish garden parties today.

Holyroodhouse Gardens, where the Queen hosts Scottish garden parties today.

4) Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705) Charles II’s Portuguese queen, Catherine of Braganza, never visited the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Following the restoration of the English and Scottish monarchies in 1660, however, Charles II ordered extensive improvements to the palace for himself and his bride including new apartments for the queen. The King appointed architect Sir William Bruce to oversee additions to the palace including the modern quadrangle. Catherine also had a strong cultural impact on Britain – she popularized tea drinking at a time when coffee was the preferred beverage of the aristocracy.

5) Queen Victoria (1819-1901) Queen Victoria discovered Scottish culture through the novels of Sir Walter Scott and developed a strong affinity for Scotland. While her predecessors largely neglected Holyroodhouse, Victoria spent part of her year in Scotland, attending official engagements in Edinburgh and holidaying at her private residence, Balmoral. While in Scotland, Victoria immersed herself in Scottish culture, dressing her children in tartans, listening to readings of Robert Burns poems and even assuming a Scottish accent. The relationship between the monarchy and Scotland has remained close since Victoria’s reign.

Further Reading on the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Scotland’s Palaces and Scottish Monarchs

History:

Elizabeth Patricia Dennison, Holyrood and Canongate: A Thousand Years of History
John Dunbar, Scottish Royal Palaces: The Architecture of the Royal Residences During the Late Medieval and Early Renaissance Periods

John Guy, Queen of Scots: Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart

Historical Fiction:

Sir Walter Scott, Waverley

Nigel Tranter, Robert the Bruce Trilogy

Jean Plaidy, The Thistle And The Rose

ReayTannahil, Fatal Majesty: A Novel of Mary Queen of Scots

Next: The Investiture of Prince Charles at Caernarfon Castle in Wales

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A King’s Ransom by Sharon Kay Penman (Historical Fiction Review)

King Richard I “the Lionhearted” is rarely the main character in the story of his capture during his return from the Third Crusade, ransom and fight to maintain his Anglo-French empire during his last years. In the Robin Hood tales, Richard is significant because of his absence. While he languished in the Holy Roman Emperor’s custody, his brother John and King Philippe II of France schemed to divide up his domains, allowing the legendary Robin to distinguish himself through his loyalty to the King. In any historical fiction set in England during Richard’s reign, the King is an absentee monarch because he only spent six months on England soil during his reign. In A King’s Ransom, the sequel to Lionheart, bestselling historical novelist Sharon Kay Penman places Richard at the centre of events, imagining how his imprisonment and ransom changed him as a monarch and a man, affecting his family, household and the history of medieval Europe.

In her author’s note, Penman describes Lionheart, her novel of the Third Crusade, as Richard’s Iliad while A King’s Ransom is Richard’s Odyssey, consumed by his struggle to return home. The novel opens with Richard on the run across Europe and the Mediterranean, hunted by Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich and his vassals in Germany and Austria in addition to Philippe and his allies. All of these rulers emerge as distinct villains. There is Heinrich, a cold and merciless ruler determined to extract the greatest profit from Richard’s capture, Philippe, who nurses a personal grudge against the English King and opportunistic and ineffectual Prince John. The novel maintains a dramatic pace as Richard is forced to contend with all these powerful figures who have few common goals beyond a desire to keep him from his lands and wealth by any means necessary.

Richard’s larger than life historical reputation as  a crusading King often means that he appears in fiction as one dimensional figure. Penman’s Richard is a multifaceted person with a sarcastic sense of humour, a keen sense of honour and the ability to inspire loyalty in followers of all backgrounds. In A King’s Ransom, his imprisonment has a profound impact on his character, ensuring that he returns from crusade as a very different man and King than when he left.

In his travels across Europe, Richard encounters a diverse array of rulers and their interconnected families. Penman does an excellent job of making all these princes, princesses, duke and duchesses, counts and countesses distinct individuals, even in the scenes at the Holy Roman Emperor’s court, which feature numerous German Princes named variations of Heinrich. (There is a cast of characters at the front of the book). As in Penman’s previous novels, little known historical figures emerge as compelling personalities. The portrayal of the friendship between Richard’s sister, Joanna and his neglected queen consort, Berengeria, is particularly compelling. Most of the medieval women who inspire historical novels are larger than life figures such as Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Penman’s Berengeria is a pious, conventional medieval woman but she emerges  in both A King’s Ransom and Lionheart as a complex personality with “steel in her spine.”

I have enjoyed Penman’s novels since reading The Sunne In Splendour: A Novel of Richard III when I was seventeen. Penman’s Welsh Princes trilogy, Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning is some of the best historical fiction ever written. Perhaps because Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine have already been the subject of countless novels and films, I found the early volumes of Penman’s Plantagenet series to be less compelling. With Lionheart and A King’s Ransom, Penman is once again writing some the best historical fiction published today. A King’s Ransom is the best historical novel I have read all year and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak (Historical Fiction Review)

Since the publication of Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl in 2001, the Tudors have dominated English language popular historical fiction. In addition to novels about Henry VIII and his wives, children and parents, obscure figures from the Tudor court have captured the imagination of novelists. Even Henry VIII’s confectioner is a main character in a historical novel, Suzannah Dunn’s The Queen Of Subtleties: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. The publication of Eva Stachniak’s first novel of Catherine the Great, The Winter Palace, reminded historical fiction readers that the Tudors do not have a monopoly on court intrigue and spectacle. In the The Winter Palace, Stachniak told the story of German Princess Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst’s unlikely path to the Russian throne as Catherine the Great through the eyes of her watchful servant, Varvara. Empress of the Night imagines Catherine as a mature ruler.

Readers expecting a conventional sequel to The Winter Palace will be disappointed by Empress of the Night. Stachniak does not resume Catherine’s story in the aftermath of the military coup that made her Empress but in her dying hours. Following a stroke, Catherine looks back on her life and reign. The last third of the novel covers the drama of the last year of Catherine’s life, including her desire to disinherit her unstable son, Paul, her attempts to secure a prestigious royal marriage for her eldest granddaughter, Alexandrine, and her relationship with her final lover, the young Platon Zubov. Stachniak’s  evocative writing shows the tensions within Catherine’s family and court.

While Catherine’s last months and hours unfold in rich detail, earlier periods of her life and reign pass by too quickly in the novel. While swift progress through Catherine’s life before becoming Empress makes sense because this material is covered in The Winter Palace, Catherine’s early reign does not receive enough attention. The creation of her law code takes place over a few pages and the aquisition of her famous art collection is alluded to in short scenes. Stachniak’s talents as a writer ensure that each of Catherine’s favourites emerges as a distinct personality but they seem to come and go at a dizzying pace before her last year.

Stachniak’s Catherine is steeped in Russian folk proverbs from her time learning the language and constantly struggles with conflicts between passion and power.  This interpretation of Catherine’s character evokes the complexities of eighteenth century Russia but does not do the historical Empress justice. In the novel, Catherine refers to her love of reading but does not mention, much less quote, her favourite French Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire and Montesquieu. There is little sense of Catherine’s place among eighteenth century Europe’s Enlightened despots beyond Austrian Emperor Joseph II’s visit to Russia.

Empress of the Night provides an engaging portrait of Catherine’s Russia and her last year. Stachniak’s first novel, The Winter Palace, however, provided a stronger imagining of Catherine’s character. Her early reign passes by too fast in Empress of the Night to reveal her evolution from enlightened despot to determined reactionary in her final years. Both Stachniak’s novels reveal that Catherine’s Russia is an ideal setting for historical fiction. Hopefully, there will be many more Imperial Russian historical novels to come.

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Historical Fiction Roundup 6: Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick by Gillian Bagwell

Elizabeth Talbot, Countess of Shrewsbury – Bess of Hardwick – was one of the most prominent noblewomen of the Tudor era. She is best known for her role in Elizabeth I’s reign as a Lady of the Privy Chamber, wife to the jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots, and champion of the succession rights belonging to her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart. Bess’s early life, first three marriages, and rise to prominence at court have received much less attention. In Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick, Gillian Bagwell, author of The Darling Strumpet: A Novel of Nell Gwynn, Who Captured the Heart of England and King Charles II and The September Queenrecreates the rise of Bess of Hardwick from obscure country gentlewoman to Elizabethan courtier.

There have been numerous novels published in recent years about the court of Henry VIII but most of these books focus on the King’s six wives and their immediate attendants. Bagwell’s novel stands out from the rest because it shows how a sixteenth century English gentlewoman could rise in society through service in noble households rather than the King’s pleasure. Bagwell portrays Bess’s childhood in terms that will be familiar to readers of Jane Austen. The Hardwicks live in genteel poverty and the best chance of improving their fortunes is for Bess to make a good marriage. Joining the household of her distant relation, Lady Zouche then that of Frances Grey (mother of the nine days queen, Lady Jane Grey) enables Bess to make the connections necessary to marry into the elite of Tudor society.

Bess’s position at the margins of the court during the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I provide a unique window into Tudor era politics. While the most prominent courtiers such as Edward VI’s uncles, the Seymours or his advisor, the Duke of Northumberland aspired to control the succession, the majority of noble families sought royal favour regardless of who emerged as King or Queen. Throughout the novel, Bess’s household leaves London whenever there is an succession crisis as her patrons and husbands fear being forced to pledge allegiance to a particular candidiate before their succession is ensured. The most disastrous outcome for a Tudor nobleman or woman was to be associated with the cause of an unsuccessful claimant to the throne. Bess’s friendship with the Grey family, Lady Frances and her daughters Jane, Catherine and Mary, proves dangerous as allegiances shift at court.

While most historical novelists write in contemporary parlance, adding the occasional “mayhap” to indicate the time period, Bagwell has a keen eye for Tudor turns of phrase. Henry VIII welcomes Lady Zouche to court as the “beauteous” wife of his friend, Sir George and the young Bess is reminded that “there is still work for idle hands.” Bagwell even separates court from country gentry by their speech. After years serving in noble households, Bess finds that she speaks very differently from her brother James, who remained at Hardwick with her mother. The dialogue shows how the Tudor elite might have expressed themselves while still remaining accessible for the general reader.

The first two thirds of the novel are the strongest as Bess learns how to behave at court, marries her first two successive husbands and struggles for her rights as a widow. Bagwell portrays Bess’s third marriage as a passionate romance, which puts more focus on her feelings for her husband than her keen observations of Tudor court.By the end of the novel, however, Bess is once again facing an uncertain future in the midst of Tudor court politics. I hope that Bagwell will write a sequel to Venus in Winter: A Novel of Bess of Hardwick that will cover the second half of Bess’s life as she became one of Tudor England’s most influential noblewomen.

 

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The Tudor Book Reviews 11: The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look At England’s Most Notorious Queen by Susan Bordo

Anne Boleyn is the most famous of King Henry VIII’s six wives because every era creates their own version of her that best suits the times. Changing attitudes toward women over the centuries also changed Anne’s reputation. In The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen, feminist scholar Susan Bordo reveals just how little we know of Anne’s actual relationship with Henry VIII then provides as fascinating cultural history of the famous queen over the centuries.

In the reign of Mary I, the stepdaughter who blamed Anne for the collapse of her parents’ marriage, the queen was a scheming temptress, leading Henry VIII away from the papacy with her feminine wiles. In the reign of Anne’s daughter, Elizabeth I, Anne was reborn as the Protestant champion who brought much needed religious reform to England. This religious reputation persisted into the seventeenth century.

In the 19th century, much of the English public viewed Anne Boleyn as the innocent victim of Tudor tyranny similar to Lady Jane Grey. Jane Austen believed that Anne was indeed an innocent victim while Charles Dickens broke with prevailing wisdom to suggest that she might have been the author of her own demise. The historical novels of the 20th century introduced a new Anne Boleyn, the plucky, vivacious young woman who was destroyed by her ambition and her marriage to Henry VIII. In the 1969 film, Anne Of The Thousand Days, Anne openly challenges the King until the end of her life, suffering a marriage that ends disastrously because their passions only briefly overlap.

For the twenty-first century, historical novelist Philippa Gregory revived the old sixteenth century image of Anne the scheming temptress, stopping at nothing to achieve her ambitions in The Other Boleyn Girl. Meanwhile, actress Natalie Dormer portrayed an Anne who was intelligent as well as alluring in the Showtime series, The Tudors, an interpretation that has made Anne an inspiration to countless young women.

After Anne was executed in 1536, Henry VIII appears to have destroyed her letters to him as well as her portraits painted from life. As a result, much of what historians know about the relationship between Henry and Anne comes the dispatches of Eustace Chapuys, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s Ambassador to England. Chapuys was a strong supporter of Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, his master’s Aunt, and inevitably described Anne in extremely negative terms. Despite the clear bias of Chapuys’ writings, Bordo reveals that they had a profound impact on future scholars and novelists alike, creating a received wisdom about Anne’s ambition, character and sexuality. Balanced and critical biographies, such as The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: ‘The Most Happy’ by Eric Ives are comparatively few.

Bordo’s work stands out from all other scholarship about Anne Boleyn because she takes the popular influence of historical fiction seriously. Historians rarely engage with fictional portrayals of historical figures beyond the most famous works such as William Shakespeare’s plays.  Bordo’s research shows that so many aspects of Anne Boleyn’s life that the public believes it “knows” actually emerged from fictional accounts that became received wisdom.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Bordo’s work is her interviews with the various actresses who played Anne Boleyn over the decades including Geneviève Bujold from Anne Of The Thousand Days and Natalie Dormer from The Tudors. Both Bujold and Dormer did their own research about Anne Boleyn’s life and brought new insights to their portrayals of the famous queen. In contrast the cast of the 2008 film version of The Other Boleyn Girl appear to have been almost entirely ignorant of both the actual historical figures they portrayed and the nature of historical scholarship.

I highly recommend The Creation of Anne Boleyn: A New Look at England’s Most Notorious Queen to anyone interested in either the historical Anne Boleyn or the broader impact of popular culture and changing attitudes toward women on historical figures. I hope that additional books of this kind are written about other women in history with a significant modern pop culture presence including Empress Alexandra Feodorovna of Russia and her daughters and Anne Boleyn’s own daughter Elizabeth I.

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