Category Archives: The Best of Royal Historical Fiction

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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The Royal History of Canada’s Maritime Provinces Round 4: Royalty in the Novels of Lucy Maud Montgomery

Green Gables in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island, the home of Lucy Maud Montgomery's MacNeill cousins and the inspiration for the Cuthbert home in Anne of Green Gables. The house and grounds are now a National Historic Site.

“All the time I was ironing, I was trying to think of a name for a new island Diana and I have discovered up the brook. It’s the most ravishing spot, Marilla. There are two maple trees on it and the brook flows right around it. At last it struck me that it would be splendid to name it Victoria Island because we found it on the Queen’s birthday. Both Diana and I are very loyal.” — Anne Of Green Gables(1908), Lucy Maud Montgomery.

In nineteenth century Prince Edward Island, where the author Lucy Maud Montgomery (1874-1947) spent her childhood, loyalty to the crown was one of the qualities that united the descendants of the Scottish immigrants who settled along the North Shore. Like membership in the Presbyterian church, devotion to the monarchy was seen as one of the hallmarks of respectability. The Montgomery family had an additional connection to the crown as Lucy Maud’s grandfather, Donald Montgomery was appointed by the Governor General as one of the first senators representing the Province of Prince Edward Island in the Dominion of Canada. In this setting, Montgomery developed a lifelong interest in Europe’s royal families and included elements of the popular royalism that shaped her community in her novels.

Visiting the grounds of the MacNeill homestead in Cavendish where Montgomery spent her childhood in the care of her maternal grandparents. The original house is no longer standing but the gardens have been restored by descendants of the author's cousins.

In the fictional Avonlea, which Montgomery modelled closely on the actual village of Cavendish where she grew up, the education Anne and her bosom friend Diana received in the one room schoolhouse, the holiday marking the Queen’s birthday and the coverage of royal news in the Island papers would all have encouraged the girls to see themselves as loyal subjects of the crown. With her vivid imagination, enthusiasm for Tennyson poetry, and love of beautiful dresses, an interest in the monarchy would have come easily to Anne.

The significance of the 1860 royal tour of British North America by Queen Victoria’s son and heir, Prince Albert Edward, to Canadian society is also part of the fabric of the eight Anne novels. The tour included a visit to Charlottetown and was long remembered by the inhabitants of Prince Edward Island. In the fifth novel, Anne’s House Of Dreams (1917), the adult Anne hears gossip about one of her unmarried neighbours who danced with the Prince at a ball. “Elizabeth was always very proud of that dance. Mean folks said that was why she never married-she couldn’t put up with an ordinary man after dancing with a prince.” In the intensely monarchist society of nineteenth century British North America, Elizabeth Russell’s pride in having met royalty may be seen as one of the defining moments of her life.

Lucy Maud Montgomery's birthplace in New London, PEI. The author spent the first few years of her life here before moving to Cavendish to life with her grandparents after her mother's death.

In 1923 as the wife of the Reverend Ewan MacDonald in Uxbridge, Ontario, Montgomery reminisced in her journals about the place of Queen Victoria in her island childhood, writing, “When I was a child and young girl the Victoria myth was in full flower. We were brought up to believe that ‘the queen’…was a model for all girls, brides, wives, mothers and queens to follow. In those days every home boasted a framed picture of the queen-a luridly coloured photo sent out as a ‘supplement’ by a popular weekly. There was a crown and lace veil on her head, a broad blue ribbon over her breast and jewels plastered on thickly everywhere… Poor Victoria hadn’t any chance to be bad even if she wanted to be.” Montgomery, and her characters, were fascinated by the actual personality of the symbolic figure that shaped Prince Edward Island society.

The Anne of Green Gables Museum at Silver Bush. The house was originally the home of Montgomery's aunt and uncle and her wedding took place in the parlour. Montgomery's Order of the British Empire, signed by King Edward VIII is on display here.

As perceptions of royalty changed during the first half of the twentieth century, and the number of royal visits to Canada increased, Montgomery’s characters encountered more varied examples of popular royalism. In Magic For Marigold (1929), Marigold encounters a young woman who claims to be an exiled Russian princess. Marigold is shocked that Varvara speaks of Queen Victoria irreverently, on the grounds that “she’s mother’s aunt.” The fact that the Russian people has “got rid of the Tsar” during the Revolution is mentioned in Rilla Of Ingleside (1921), and the character of Princess Varvara was undoubtedly inspired by the myth of Grand Duchess Anastasia’s survival of her family’s murder that developed during the 1920s.

Cavendish Beach, Prince Edward Island

In common with many other authors writing about Canadian society between the First and Second World Wars, Montgomery created a character who imagined he had a close connection with the future King Edward VIII. In Mistress Pat (1935), the newly hired handyman Mr. Tillytuck urges Patricia Gardiner’s housekeeper Judy Plum to call him by his first name because, “the Prince of Wales called me Josiah the whole time I worked on his ranch in Alberta. A very democratic young man.” Subsequent events reveal that Tillytuck’s stories are largely untrue but he could haveconcocted his story about the Prince of Wales from the extensive coverage of his tours and property in Alberta in the Canadian popular press during the 1920s and 1930s.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s upbringing on the stauchly rmonarchist Prince Edward Island inspired a lifelong interest in Europe’s royal families that shaped her work as a novelist. From Anne Of Green Gables to Pat Of Silverbush, Montgomery’s heroines engaged with Canada’s rich history of popular royalism, viewing themselves and their communities as part of a worldwide British Empire.

Next Week: Following in the Footsteps of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Dalvay by the Sea

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Historical Fiction Roundup 5: Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up The Bodies is an appropriate title for the second book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith’s son from Putney who rose to become King Henry VIII’s chief minister and one of the principal architects of the Church of England. The people who Cromwell lost over the course of the first novel, Wolf Hall, continue to shape his worldview as he negotiates the rise and fall of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. Cromwell’s falcons are named for the wife and daughters he lost to the sweating sickness, and the late sisters who cared for him as a child.

Thomas More has been executed for refusing to sign the Act of Supremacy but Cromwell still finds himself imagining debates with his old adversary. Even the political events surrounding the King’s first marriage are informed by the dead. The question of whether Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, consummated her first marriage with the King’s late brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales informs the debates regarding the validity of her queenship. Catherine’s own death will change the fortunes of her successor Anne Boleyn so dramatically that the more superstitious characters in the novel wonder if she reached out from beyond the grave to smite her rival.

While Wolf Hall covered Thomas Cromwell’s rise from blacksmith’s son, to soldier to fortune, to prodigy of the powerful Cardinal Wolsey, to successful lawyer, to royal chancellor, Bring Up The Bodies is the tightly focused story of Anne Boleyn’s fall from grace and the rise in fortune of the Seymour family of Wolf Hall. Mantel draws heavily on the research of scholars Eric Ives and G.W. Bernard in the crafting of her narrative, recreating a political conspiracy to remove the Boleyn faction from the court and replace them with the seemingly more tractable Seymours.

Cromwell recognizes the conflicts emerging in the King’s second marriage and fears he will experience the same disgrace as Cardinal Wolsey, another deceased figure who shapes the action in the novel, if he doesn’t ensure his master’s happiness with a new wife. The question of whether Anne Boleyn was actually guilty of adultery, the chief accusation leveled at her trial is left open, particularly her relationship with Henry Norris. The charge of witchcraft receives less attention, and historian Retha Warnicke’s theory that Anne might have sealed her fate by miscarrying a deformed male child does not influence the events of the novel.

In all her novels, Mantel has a gift choosing the perfect turn of phrase to summarize the essence of a character. Cromwell percieves Anne Boleyn as a woman so stylish and elegant that beauty is beside the point while Jane Seymour “looks upon men as though they are an unpleasant surprise” Both Henry VIII’s second and third wives are presented as calculating figures responsible for advancing the fortunes of their families. Anne may appear confident and Jane may appear meek but they are both persuing the same goal as Anne’s success has emboldened other English families to imagine their own daughters as potential wives for the King. The reminisenses of Catherine of Aragon in her last months form a touching counterpoint to the scheming at court as she remembers the first years of their marriage when he brought her silk roses to celebrate the birth of her son. Cromwell finds himself wondering how English history might have been different if that baby had survived.

Bring Up The Bodies is a compelling dramatization of the fall of Anne Boleyn. The use of Thomas Cromwell as the narrator and Mantel’s gift for bringing her characters to life with wit and telling details makes this novel stand out from all the other retellings of the famous collapse of Henry VII’s second marriage. It will be interesting to see how Mantel handles Cromwell’s own fall from grace in the final novel of her fascinating trilogy.

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“You Will Not Be Received at Court!” Royal References in Downton Abbey

Warning: This article contains plot spoilers from both Season 1 and Season 2

In the ITV/PBS series Downton Abbey, about the aristocratic Crawley family, their middle class relations, and their servants, royal personages have not yet made an appearance at the stately home in Seasons 1 (1912-1914) and 2 (1916-1920). It remains to be seen in the upcoming Season 3 (1920-1922) whether the Earl of Grantham’s daughters will be personally invited to any fashionable parties by the future King Edward VIII or entertain a mysterious foreign dinner guest who suddenly claims to be the lost Grand Duchess Anastasia. Although royalty remains off screen, the perceived values of King George V and Queen Mary have a profound influence on characters from all social backgrounds. When nobility and servants alike discuss European politics surrounding the First World War, the view the conflict through the activities of the continent’s royal families.

Downton Abbey is set in Highclere Castle, home of the Earls of Carnarvon since 1679. In the series, it is implied that the Earls of Grantham have held the estate even longer as the name “Downton Abbey” suggests that the lands belonged to the church before King Henry VIII  dissolved the monasteries and convents and granted their properties to the nobility in the sixteenth century. When the Earl describes himself as a custodian of the estate instead of his owner, he is alluding to five centuries of his ancestors building up the family patrimony.

Prior to the First World War, the Earl and Countess of Grantham schedule their year according to the timing of the London season, which includes the presentation of debutantes to the King and Queen. The couple’s youngest daughter, Lady Sybil is eligible to be presented during the 1914 season, a circumstance complicated by her political activism. When Sybil expresses an interest in canvassing for politicians who share her enthusiasm for women’s suffrage, her grandmother, the Dowager Countess, is quick to note that she will soon be presented at court.

Queen Mary’s well known disapproval of the more militant tactics employed by suffragists undoubtedly informs the Dowager Countess’s incisive obervation that one cannot be arrested in riot in May then presented in June. When Emily Davison threw herself in front of King George V’s horse at the 1913 Epsom Derby, the Queen commisserated with the jockey, describing Davison’s death as a ““sad accident caused through the abominable conduct of a brutal lunatic woman.” Sybil’s political activism not only jeopardizes her safety but has the potential to invite royal disapproval.

The influence of the royal example on the Dowager Countess’s conceptions of appropriate behaviour are confirmed in the second season when Sybil expresses an interest in becoming a wartime nurse. The aristocratic Dowager Countess and the middle class Mrs. Crawley experience a rare moment of agreement when they support Sybil’s decision to join the war effort. While Mrs. Crawley’s support is inspired by broader ideals of public service, the Dowager Countess observes, “You cannot pretend it is not respectable. Every day we are treated to pictures of Queens and Princesses in Red Cross uniform.” The leadership roles played by royal women in the First World War created opportunities for women of the aristocracy to adopt new roles and the Dowager Countess’s support for Sybil’s nursing reflects this changing worldview.

As World War One draws to a close with the collapse of the Russian, German and Austrian monarchies, Downton Abbey, presents a broader range of opinion about the significance of royalty. The continued traditional outlook of the Earl of Grantham and his butler, Carson, is expressed through their unquestioning support for the influence of royalty. When Lady Sybil announces that she intends to marry Branson the Irish socialist chauffeur, her father attempts to dissuade her by reminding her that “you will not be received at court!” mirroring the concerns her grandmother expressed prior to the war.

In the servants’ quarters, Carson challenges Branson’s argument that monarchy has had its day in Europe, telling him that “monarchy is the lifeblood of Europe.” Branson’s acceptance of the 1918 murder of the Russian Imperial family as a necessary sacrifice for the greater revolution, despite his earlier belief that they would not harmed, demonstrates that he not only belongs to a difference social class than Sybil’s family but holds an entirely different set of political views than the Earl of Grantham.

Royal personages never call at Downton Abbey but their attitudes and activities offscreen profoundly influence the Crawley family and their servants. Although the presentation of debutantes at court continued until 1958, the Earl of Grantham’s attempt to influence Sybil’s choices by reminding her that she will not be received at court as the chauffeur’s wife sounds old fashioned in the context of the series by 1918 while Branson’s acceptance of the Romanov murders appears to foreshadow his direct involvement in militant Irish republicanism during the 1920s.

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Historical Fiction Roundup 4: The Monarchy in Canadian Literature

The monarchy is a recurring theme in Canadian literature, encompassing both popular perceptions of individual members of the royal family and policies enacted in the name of the crown. Here are a few examples that capture the diversity of monarchy as a literary theme in novels by Canadian authors.

In Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers, the fictional heroine, Laure, becomes one of the approximately eight hundred marriageable young women who emigrated to New France (modern day Quebec) between 1663 to 1673 with dowries provided by King Louis XIV. While previous novels inspired by the experiences of “The King’s Daughters,” such as The King’s Daughter by Suzanne Martel, romanticized these journeys as opportunities for poor young women to seek independence and adventure, Desrochers emphasizes the heavy hand of royal policy in the emigration of brides for the colony’s overwhelmingly male population.

Louis XIV and his Minister of Finance, Jean Baptiste-Colbert wished for New France’s population to expand, and Paris’s orphanages and homes for poor women were expected to supply wives for the colonists. In Bride of New France, Emigration to New France is not portrayed as an enticing future for even the most adventurous young woman. When one potential “King’s Daughter” dies before embarking on the voyage, the nurse remarks, “Canada? Well, it’s just as well she died, then . . .Terrible. Just because we don’t know what do with them here doesn’t mean they deserve to be sent over there to freeze in the forest.” Desrochers illuminates the full extent of Louis XIV’s influence over his North American empire through the experiences of her characters.

In  Book Of Negroes by Lawrence Hill, the rumoured African heritage of Queen Charlotte, consort of King George III reinforces the affinity of the Black Loyalist community of British North America with the crown.

Portrait of Queen Charlotte with her two eldest children by Allan Ramsay, 1765.

When Hill’s fictional heroine, Aminata, is received by King and Queen as part of William Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, she is curious to know if the rumours about Charlotte’s background are accurate. Aminata states in the novel, “We moved first to Queen Charlotte Sophia. . . She was the one I most wished to meet, for I wanted to see for myself if she appeared to be a daughter of Africa. The portraits I had seen had drawn her delicately, giving her face a porcelain composure. But seated before me was a woman with a broad nose and full lips, and skin much richer than any painter`s rendition.”  Charlotte’s ancestry continues to be debated by historians to the present day but Aminata’s impressions give a sense of how she might have been perceived in the Black Loyalist community of late eighteenth century Nova Scotia.

In the nineteenth century, Susanna Moodie sought to raise the profile of her memoir of life as a Canadian pioneer, Roughing It in the Bush, by dedicating it to her sister, Agnes Strickland, who was the more famous author at the time of the book’s publication. Strickland was the celebrated writer of Lives of the Queens of England from the Norman Conquest, a series of short biographies of England’s Queens that combined apocryphal romantic anecdotes with archival research and cultural history. While Moodie’s Roughing It in the Bush, and The Backwoods of Canada, which was written by another Strickland sister, the regally named Catherine Parr Traill, are now classics of Canadian literature, Agnes Strickland’s biographies are now read primarily by royal historians.

No account of the influence of the monarchy on Canadian literature would be complete without a discussion of the novels of Robertson Davies. The author was a lifelong monarchist who encompassed elements of popular perceptions of 19th and 20th century Canadian monarchs into his works. Fifth Business, the first novel in the Deptford Trilogy contains a vivid example of a character’s personal identification with a well known member of the royal family. The narrator, Dunstan Ramsay, describes his “lifelong friend and enemy” Percy Boyd Staunton as initially in search of an ideal person to emulate.

Ramsay observes, “This ideal, this mould for his outward man, was no one less than Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, the Prince of Wales. The papers were full of the Prince at that time. He was the great ambassador of the Commonwealth but he also had the common touch. . .” The future Edward VIII was extremely popular amongst Canadians. during the 1920s and 1930s, and Staunton’s all consuming obsession is an exaggerated depiction of the genuine admiration that the Prince received during his royal tours of Canada. Ramsay and Staunton ultimately debate the Abdication Crisis of 1936 during the novel, representing the two different sides of Canadian popular opinion on this historic event.

For more information about the crown in Canadian literature, I recommend the essays by Mary Condé and L.C. Knowles in Majesty in Canada: Essays on the Role of Royalty.

Next weekend: The Royal Frame of Reference in Downton Abbey

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Historical Fiction Roundup 3: Novels set at the Court of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia

Danish painter Laurits Tuxen's depiction of the wedding of Emperor Nicholas II and Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt in 1894, two weeks after the death of Alexander III. Guests shown include the groom's grandfather, King Christian IX of Denmark, the bride's uncle, the future King Edward VII of England, and the groom's Aunt, Queen Olga of Greece.

The full sweep of Imperial Russian history is comparatively neglected in historical fiction. There are few contemporary novels set at the court of Ivan the Terrible or Peter the Great and Catherine the Great’s rise to power has only recently been the context for a bestselling novel, Eva Stachniak’s The Winter Palace. The exception to this trend is the court of Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917), the last Emperor of Russia, which has inspired countless fictional narratives.

The last years of Imperial Russia have all the elements of a page turning novel: the clash between a three hundred year old autocracy and popular demands for a representative government, a close knit Imperial family facing the adversity of abdication, imprisonment and murder, and the backdrop of the First World War and the larger extended family of Europe’s royal houses. The legend that one of the Imperial children might have survived the massacre in 1918, which was finally disproved by the discovery of the last two sets of remains in 2007 has also inspired countless novelists to create alternate histories for the last Imperial family of Russia.

For novels that illuminate the role of the Romanovs in the First World War, the classics of Russian historical fiction are the best place to begin. August 1914and the subsequent novels of Alexander Solznhenitsyn’s Red Wheel Cycle show the broad sweep of popular opinion toward the Romanovs in the last years of Nicholas II’s reign. In this series, Nicholas II’s popularity is initially boosted by the burst of patriotism that accompanies the outbreak of war before the weaknesses of the chain of command and military infrastructure undermine his rule.

The role of the Romanov women in the war effort is also expressed through the experiences of Solzhenitsyn’s characters. A wounded soldier expresses relief when he sees the Grand Duchess Victoria Feodorovna motorized ambulance division approaching, for it was the only collection of motorized ambulances that operated on the Eastern front in 1914. In Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, the story is also influenced by the war work of the Romanov women as Lara travels to the front to search for her husband as part of the Tatiana hospital train. Different translators dispute whether Pasternak referred to the patronage of Nicholas II’s daughter Tatiana or her second cousin, Princess Tatiana Konstantinovna but the close involvement of the Emperor’s family in the war effort is indisputable in this classic novel.

While the classic novels focus on the broad sweep of Russian history during the reign of Nicholas II, life within his palaces has inspired more recent historical fiction. There have been numerous books written from the perspective of Nicholas II’s daughters, Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, and the best is The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller. Although this novel is marketed toward a young adult audience, it provides a compelling portrayal of the last years of the Imperial family for readers of all ages. Through her extensive research, Miller avoids both the hagiographic interpretation of the Romanovs’ imprisonment provided in the memoir literature of those who knew them and the overly critical accounts that have been published by recent historians, providing a balanced account of their relationships and decisions. The four distinct personalities of Nicholas II’s daughters come alive in Miller’s work, revealing how they may have responded to the adversity that they faced in 1917 and 1918.

Another skilled historical novelist of Imperial Russia is Robert Alexander, whose three novels, The Kitchen Boy: A Novel of the Last Tsar, Rasputin’s Daughter, The Romanov Bride are original portrayals of Nicholas II’s reign and imprisonment through voices that have received little attention in historical fiction, the kitchen boy Leonid Sednev, Rasputin’s elder daughter Maria, and Empress Alexandra’s sister, Grand Duchess Elizabeth. Like Miller, Alexander incorporates Russian language and culture into the text, evoking the culture of late Imperial Russia and the Emperor’s court. Although the plot twist at the conclusion of The Kitchen Boy has been proved impossible by recent discoveries and scholarship, this knowledge does not detract from the masterful writing and skilled characterization within the novel.

The court of Emperor Nicholas II is a popular setting for historical novelists seeking to capture the drama and tragedy of the last years of Imperial Russia. Alexander Solznhenitsyn, Boris Pasternak, Sarah Miller and Robert Alexander portray different aspects of this complex and compelling period in history.

Next weekend: Royalty in Canadian Literature

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Royal Historical Fiction Roundup 2: The French Court in the 18th and 19th centuries

Malmaison, Empress Josephine's favourite residence and a prominent setting in Sandra Gulland's Josephine B. trilogy. Despite the ominous sounding name, it remains a pleasant place to visit with extensive rose gardens and exhibitions about First Empire France.

The overthrow of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette during the French Revolution, and the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine during the First Empire are pivotal events in numerous historical novels. Marie Antoinette, in particular, has been the subject of historical fiction for two centuries because she captured the popular imagination as a tragic figure. As with the Tudor themed historical novels that I discussed last week, fictional approaches to the French court vary from rigorously researched novels that contain material from primary sources of the period to stories loosely inspired by actual events. Here are my favourites, chosen for their attention to historical detail, literary merit, engaging characters and page turning plot.

Of all the historical novels centering on the life of Queen Marie Antoinette, my favourite is Sena Jeter Naslund’s Abundance: A Novel Of Marie Antoinette, which was first published in 2006. Naslund has a gift for writing evocative, literary, historical fiction as demonstrated by her previous work, Ahab’s Wife: Or, The Star-gazer, which expands on the brief reference to Captain Ahab’s wife in Moby-Dick. Despite Marie Antoinette’s reputation for flightiness, Naslund convincingly crafts an introspective voice for the Queen, focusing on her struggle to assimilate into the French court following her upbringing in the Hapsburg Empire, France’s traditional enemy. The novel encompasses the full sweep of Marie Antoinette’s experiences from her marriage to her execution, incorporating actual excerpts from her correspondence including her last letter, which entrusted her children to her loyal sister-in-law, Madame Elizabeth.

Another excellent work of historical fiction focusing on Marie Antoinette is Farewell, My Queen: A Novel by Chantal Thomas, an acclaimed scholar of Marie Antoinette’s significance to the French Revolution. Thomas is the author of The Wicked Queen: The Origins of the Myth of Marie-Antoinette, which analyzes Marie Antoinette’s reputation in French Revolution pamphlet literature, and she applies her extensive knowledge of the late eighteenth century political climate to her novel. In contrast to Naslund, Thomas focuses closely on the last years of Marie Antoinette’s life and tells the story through the voice of a comparatively insignificant member of her household. Through the eyes of assistant court reader, Madame Agathe-Sidonie Laborde, Thomas provides a compelling portrait of court intrigue at Versailles and Marie Antoinette’s desperate attempts to influence the royal family’s fate during the French Revolution.

For novels that encompass both the French Revolution and the First Empire through the fictional diaries of one extraordinary woman, I recommend the Josephine B Trilogy by acclaimed historical novelist Sandra Gulland. The three novels, Many Lives & Secret Sorrows Josephine B, Tales Of Passion Tales Of Woe and The Last Great Dance on Earth take the reader from Josephine’s youth on a tumbledown sugar plantation in Martinique through her marriage to a callous French aristocrat, her imprisonment in the Conciergerie during the French Revolution, the establishment of her social circle and her time as Napoleon’s partner and consort before the collapse of their marriage.

Gulland takes a sympathetic approach to Josephine’s adventures, avoiding the sensationalism that appears in certain other fictionalized accounts of the First Empire. The trilogy format allows the numerous interesting figures whom Josephine encountered during the Ancien Regime, French Revolution, Directory period and First Empire to become fully realized characters in the novels. For readers who finish Gulland’s books and are interested following up with a fascinating novel about Josephine’s daughter Hortense de Beauharnais, who became the mother of Napoleon III, I recommend A Rose for Virtue by Norah Lofts, which brings this little known historical figure to life.

No summary of historical fiction set in eighteenth and nineteenth century France would be complete without a mention of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece, Les Miserables. Although the action does not unfold in a court setting, the characters personify the full political spectrum in nineteenth century France from ultraroyalism to republicanism demonstrating the complex attitudes that existed toward the French monarchy and Empire in both Hugo’s time and the decades encompassed by his work. Fans of the musical will find the full depth and historical context for the story in this engrossing novel.

Next weekend: Historical fiction set at the court of Emperor Nicholas II of Russia

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