University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Lecture: Royalty and Popular Culture: Fact, Fiction and the Crown

I will be delivering a lecture on Royalty and Popular Culture: Fact, Fiction and the Crown, examining portrayals of the monarchy in historical films, plays and novels as part of the University Lecture series at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. I will be speaking in Oakville on October 2, Markham on October 5 and Toronto on November 3.

Click here for more information about the University Lecture Series in Oakville, Markham and Toronto in Fall 2023

Smithsonian Magazine Interview: Why 1992 Was Such a ‚ÄėHorrible Year‚Äô for Elizabeth II and the Royal Family

I discussed Queen Elizabeth II’s annus horribilis in 1992 with Meilan Solly at Smithsonian Magazine including the breakdowns of the marriages of three of the Queen’s four children, the fire at Windsor Castle and how these events are being dramatized in Season 5 of The Crown on Netflix.

Click here to read Why 1992 Was Such a ‚ÄėHorrible Year‚Äô for Elizabeth II and the Royal Family in Smithsonian Magazine

CBC News Interview: Mixing royal fact and fiction: Why the next season of The Crown is facing more controversy

I discussed Season 5 of The Crown on Netflix, which will be released on November 9, including why this season is more controversial than previous seasons, and how the priorities of historical fiction are different from those of historical scholarship.

Click here to read “Mixing royal fact and fiction: Why the next season of The Crown is facing more controversy” in The Royal Fascinator newsletter at CBC News

I also recently discussed the accession of King Charles III and The Monarchy in Canada with CBC Kids

My interview with CBC Airplay: What Is Queen Elizabeth II’s Legacy to Canada?

CBC News Interview: Contradictions, charisma and a well-known story: Why it’s so hard to become Diana on screen

I discussed the challenges faced by filmmakers and actresses portraying Diana in films dramatizing her life and legacy in an interview with Janet Davison for the CBC Royal Fascinator newsletter.

Click here to read “Contradictions, charisma and a well-known story: Why it’s so hard to become Diana on screen” at CBC News

New BBC History Magazine Article: The upstairs/ downstairs world of Downton Abbey: how true to life is it?

My new article in the BBC History Magazine examines the history of domestic service in the early 20th century, comparing the experiences of historical domestic servants to the fictionalized portrayal of domestic service in the television series Downton Abbey.

Click here to read “The upstairs/downstairs world of¬†Downton Abbey: how true to life is it?” in the BBC History Magazine

New Canadian Encyclopedia Article: King Edward VIII

My new article in the Historica Canada Canadian Encyclopedia is a short biography of King Edward VIII.

Edward toured Canada on several occasions and purchased a ranch in Alberta. He is best known for abdicating the crown and marrying American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward is mentioned in novels by several Canadian authors, including Robertson Davies, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Timothy Findley.

Click here to read my article about King Edward VIII in the Canadian Encyclopedia

Books I’ve Read This Week: The 19th and 20th Centuries in 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 44:¬†The 19th and 20th Centuries in Historical Fiction:¬†In recent weeks, I have been reading historical fiction (reviewed today) and histories of Southeast Asia (to be reviewed tomorrow) as well as a few biographies and memoirs (to be reviewed at a later date). The historical novels are all set in the 19th and 20th centuries and there is a strong wartime focus, especially the First World War. I read books by authors whose work I have enjoyed before, such as Jacqueline Winspear and C. W. Gortner and discovered some new authors as well. Here are this week’s reviews:

#302 of 365 The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 28-November 2, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 14 hours and 44 minutes

Review: I enjoyed listening to the prose of this novel, which is filled with evocative descriptions of the Essex landscape and insightful turns of phrase. Perry captures the atmosphere of Victorian science and culture including the fossils catalogued by Mary Anning and the medical discoveries of the time. I did not find the story itself to be a page turner though and it was easy to step away from this audiobook and start listening again later in the day. The characters were also not especially memorable. Beautiful writing and interesting historical context but the events of the novel made little impression. The audiobook is well read by Juanita McMahon.

#303 of 365 The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 2-3, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 7 hours and 39 minutes

Review: An engaging coming of age novel set in the early 20th century that includes the social issues of the times such as the obstacles faced by women and immigrants, child labour and orphan trains. The novel is structured as a grandmother telling her life story to her granddaughter and therefore works especially well in the audiobook format. The main character, Addy Baum, tells interesting stories of her life and highlights the social change that has taken place over the course of the 20th century but she seems to overcome obstacles relatively easily and I was surprised that she was able to achieve her personal and professional goals in such a straightforward manner. The novel would have been more interesting if the narrator had faced more complicated challenges during her youth. If one of her sisters had been the central character, the tone of the novel would have been very different. A good read but the novel would have been more compelling with a less predictable storyline.

#304 of 365 Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 39 minutes

Dates Listened: November 3-8, 2018

Review:¬†The first installment in Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey&Maturin series set during the Napoleonic Wars. The novel is rich in historical detail and includes brief appearances by historical figures. Aubrey describes the Duke of Clarence (the future King William IV), who was a sea captain by the age of 21 as “that singularly unattractive, hot-headed, cold-hearted, bullying Hanoverian.” Hester Maria Elphinstone, Viscountess Keith, nicknamed “Queeney” is presented as a childhood friend of Aubrey whom he remembers with admiration. The nautical setting is beautifully rendered and gives a real sense of what it was like to be on a British naval vessel in the early 19th century. The story sometimes gets lost in all the nautical detail, however, and the novel is more difficult to follow than, for example, the first installment in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series. The audiobook is well read by Patrick Tull.

#305 of 365 The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: November 8-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 18 hours and 4 minutes

Review:¬†The fascinating early life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria is reduced to a generic romance in this historical novel. There are a few details that suggest the setting such as the beer and bratwurst in Bavaria and references to the Alps and schnitzel in Austria but the famous palaces of the Hofburg and the Schonnbrunn in Vienna are not described in any detail. Only the final chapters engage in depth with the events of the time such as the Austro-Prussian War or Hungarian demands for autonomy. Most of the book is focused on Elisabeth’s feelings for Emperor Franz Joseph and her conflict with her mother-in-law with the occasional pause for a diplomat to explain the eastern question or Archduchess Sophie to discuss Habsburg geneology.

The book would have been more interesting if the historical context was integrated into all aspects of the story and informed the personal decisions of the characters to a greater degree. There is also little evidence of Elisabeth’s unique personality and interests until the final quarter of the book. Instead, she spends her courtship blushing and her marriage grinding her teeth. Only after an extended separation during her marriage does she take control over own image and devote more time to her interests including poetry and fashion. A passable novel that could have been much better considering the interesting historical figures and political turmoil of the 19th century Habsburg Empire.

#306 of 365 Goodnight From London by Jennifer Robson

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: November 12-15, 2018

Acquired: Complimentary Copy from the Author

Format: Paperback, 365 pages

Review:¬†A heartwarming novel about an American journalist in London during the Second World War, inspired by the author’s grandmother. Robson holds a PhD in British economic and social history from Oxford and her in depth research, including interviews with British women who lived through the war, informs the novel. Goodnight From London is filled with fascinating historical details about London in the 1940s including fashions, food, office culture and the Blitz with an emphasis on the cultural differences between the United Kingdom and United States at the time. The characters are likable and there are some interesting developments in the plot as their backstories are slowly revealed. While most of the characters are fictional, there are a some memorable scenes featuring Eleanor Roosevelt, and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth make a cameo appearance toward the end of the novel. Recommended for readers of history and historical fiction.

#307 of 365 Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: November 16-18, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 10 hours and 19 minutes

Review:¬†The second book in the Maisie Dobbs mystery series focuses on a missing woman and a series of mysterious deaths. The mystery is set in 1930 but like the first book in the series, the focus is the lingering trauma caused by the First World War on British society. As Maisie’s former employer Lady Rowan observes, “That’s one more thing that I detest about war. It’s not over when it ends. Of course, it seems like everyone’s pally again, what with the agreements, the international accords and contracts and so on. But it still lives inside the living, doesn’t it?” Winspear’s novels are filled with historical detail and Birds of a Feather devotes particular attention to women’s roles both during wartime and afterward. I look forward to reading more of the series.

#308 of 365 Marlene: A Novel of Marlene Dietrich by C. W. Gortner 

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: November 18-19, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Indigo Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 403 pages

Review:¬†An enjoyable novel about the actress Marlene Dietrich from her childhood to the end of the Second World War. The opening and closing chapters are especially well done. The novel begins with the young “Lena” living in genteel poverty. Her mother was from a distinguished family but obliged to become a housekeeper during her widowhood, remarrying a lieutenant in Kaiser Wilhelm II’s grenadiers during the First World War. Dietrich is determined to transcend the social conventions enforced by her mother and forge her own career as an actress. The final chapters focus on Dietrich’s work for the USO during the Second World War and her estrangement from her sister, who made very different choices in war time. In between the world wars, there is a strong focus on Dietrich’s personal life, which becomes repetitive at times, but Gortner’s depiction of the cultural life of Weimar Germany then Hollywood is interesting throughout the book. An engaging read.

Books I’ve Read This Week: The Ancient World in 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 41: The Ancient World in Historical Fiction¬†In between books about history and royalty this past month, I have read some historical fiction set in the classical world. The novels include an epic saga of Israel’s history from the stone age to the 1960s, the fictional autobiography of a Roman Emperor, the perspectives of Cleopatra VII’s little known sisters and three novels inspired by characters in the The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Here are this week’s reviews:

#281 of 365 The Source by James Michener

Genre: Historical Fiction

Format: Audiobook, 54 hours and 32 minutes

Dates Listened: September 24-October 4, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review:¬† An epic historical novel that follows the history of Israel from prehistoric times until the 1960s. The structure of the novel follows the fourteen layers of an archeological dig and the stories behind the artifacts found there. The role of Judaism in structuring society over the centuries and the successive waves of military conflict and displacement in the region are dramatized in detail. While the setting comes alive in the novel, the characterization is sometimes repetitive. The novel contains many examples of men who do not feel that they fit into their society and their long suffering but loyal wives. Since the book was published in 1965, some material and perspectives are rather dated. The audiobook narrator reads very slowly and clearly and it’s therefore possible to listen at 1.25 times the usual audiobook speed and still enjoy the story at a reasonable pace.

#282 of 365 The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 8-10, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: 11 hours and 15 minutes

Review:¬† A beautiful and moving Iliad inspired novel from the perspective of Patroclus, Achilles’s closest companion. The love story in the midst of the Trojan war is well developed. The characters are engaging including the clever Odysseus and the resourceful Briseis, who develops a close friendship with Patroclus. There is a good balance between myth and magical realism with goddesses and centaurs woven into the fabric of everyday life in Greece and Troy. The audiobook is well read, especially the rasping voice of Achilles’s mother. Highly recommended!

#283 of 365 I, Claudius by Robert Graves

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Listened: October 9-13, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 16 hours and 47 minutes

Review:¬†Classic historical fiction written in the form of Emperor Claudius’s memoirs of his path to the throne. Claudius is a charming, engaging narrator, conscious that he is writing for posterity. His childhood health problems, including a limp and speech impediment, result in him being underestimated by his family, especially his formidable grandmother Livia. Claudius receives advice that the perception that he is not a viable potential Emperor might keep him safe during periods of palace intrigue and he carefully navigates the conflicts within his extended family.

In contrast to his ambitious relatives, Claudius is more interested in scholarly pursuits such researching and writing history even in face of scepticism about his abilities and doubts that his work will ever be read. This historical perspective allows more background information about Claudius’s extended family that would be expected in a straightforward fictional memoir.¬†I, Claudius is best enjoyed with Claudius’s family tree close at hand as there is an enormous cast of characters connected to one another through complicated geneologies and marriages.

#284 of 365 The Penelopiad: The Myth of Penelope and Odysseus by Margaret Atwood

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: October 18, 2018

Acquired: Found at Home

Format: Hardcover, 199 pages

Review:¬†The first page or two of this novel were underwhelming for me. I could not imagine Penelope using the word “factoids” or explaining her life story after her death, thousands of years after the events of The Odyssey. Once I finished the first chapter, however, I found the book difficult to put down. Atwood’s retelling of the life of Penelope and her twelve doomed maids is original, tragic and darkly funny. The characters come to life including Helen of Troy (“Why is it that really beautiful people think everyone else in the world exists merely for their amusement?”) and Telemachus (“I’m sorry to say he was quite spoiled.”) I also liked the blend of different writing styles that brought the maids to life before their untimely deaths. Highly recommended.

#285 of 365¬†Cleopatra’s Shadows by Emily Holleman

Genre: Historical Fiction

Dates Read: October 17-22, 2018

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Hardcover, 342 pages

Review:¬† An absorbing novel about Queen Cleopatra VII’s little known sisters Berenice and Arsinoe and the decline of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. The perspective alternates between Berenice, who supplants her father as ruler and is determined to maintain Egypt’s independence from Rome, and her half sister Arsinoe who is the overlooked middle child, ignored during the struggles for power within her family. There is a strong focus on the challenges faced by women of all social backgrounds at the time, including queens. The novel ends fairly abruptly and I look forward to reading the next book in the Fall of Egypt series, The Drowning King.

#286 of 365 Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Read: October 24, 2018

Acquired: Borrowed from Toronto Public Library

Format: Hardcover, 279 pages

Review:¬†A historical novel inspired by Virgil’s Aeneid told from the perspective of Lavinia, the last wife of Aeneas and ancestor of the Romans. In the Aeneid, Lavinia is barely mentioned and is certainly overshadowed by other female characters such as Queen Dido of Carthage. In Le Guin’s novel, Lavinia is depicted as both a fully realized figure of great political significance in the prehistoric world of “the Latins” and a literary creation who speaks with the spectre of the future poet Virgil. Lavinia believes that the Aeneid ended too abruptly and that if Virgil had lived longer and continued the epic, her true deeds and character would have become well known. Lavinia is an engaging narrator and the writing is richly detailed but the plot sometimes moves slowly. Well written but not necessarily a page turner.

Books I’ve Read This Week: Vacation Reading

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 25: Vacation Reading¬†¬†I was on vacation this past week and beach days naturally require beach reads! I like to read (or listen to) vintage historical fiction on vacation and find books at local book sales to add to my collection. Here are this week’s reviews:

#169 of 365 Cruel as the Grave by Sharon Kay Penman

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Acquired: Purchased from BMV Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 272 pages

Date Read: June 30, 2018

Review:¬†The second novel in Sharon Kay Penman’s medieval mystery series. I prefer Penman’s longer novels based on historical figures, especially the Welsh trilogy, but her medieval mysteries are enjoyable to read and make good use of the 12th century English setting. In the first novel, The Queen’s Man, written documents emerged as clues, creating complications in a society with widespread illiteracy. In Cruel as the Grave, switching language back and forth from Norman French (the language of the court) to English (the language of ordinary people) becomes a means of preventing conversations from being understood and overheard.

Justin de Quincy’s role as Eleanor of Aquitaine’s secret agent is overshadowed in Cruel as the Grave (except when he is sneaking into Windsor Castle to deliver clandestine messages) by his involvement in a tragic murder mystery involving prosperous merchant families and a Welsh peddler’s daughter. The mystery unfolds step by step until the final pages but the conclusion is not entirely surprising. Just the same, I look forward to reading the rest of the series.

#170 of 365 My Enemy the Queen by Victoria Holt

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at a second hand book sale

Dates Read: July 1-2, 2018

Format: Paperback, 352 pages

Review:¬†The historical novels of Jean Plaidy (another one of her pen names was Victoria Holt) are always enjoyable vacation reads, informed by primary sources and filled with period details, engaging dialogue and memorable characters. My Enemy the Queen¬†examines the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth I and her Boleyn cousin Lettice Knollys as they were both attracted to Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. None of the major characters are especially likable – Robert Dudley is portrayed as charismatic but dangerous, Elizabeth I is vain and self centered and Lettice is impulsive and governed by her passions. The novel is nevertheless a page turner and especially enjoyable for readers who have also read Margaret George’s recent novel about Elizabeth and Lettice.

#171 of 365¬†La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Re-Reading Books, Toronto

Format: Paperback, 256 pages

Date Read: July 3, 2018

Review:¬†I love Alexander McCall Smith’s Number 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and enjoy his Scottish novels but I did not find his foray into historical fiction, La’s Orchestra Saves the World, to be as compelling as his other books. There are some interesting philosophical passages about the Second World War and a nice message about daily life and small pleasures continuing to take place in difficult times but there was little of the subtle humor that appears in other McCall Smith novels.

The characters also failed to come to life and seemed similar to those in other McCall Smith novels. La contemplates the meaning of education and her career prospects as a woman, similar to the heroine of The Forever Girl, and her husband is a wine merchant, one of the short lived career ambitions of Bruce from the 44 Scotland Street series. A breezy read but not as good as McCall Smith’s other novels.

#172 of 365 Poland by James A. Michener

Genre: Historical Novel

Acquired: Borrowed from my parents

Format: Hardcover, 556 pages

Dates Read: July 4-7, 2018

Review:¬†An epic historical novel that encompasses Poland as the battleground of Europe from the Mongol Invasions of the 13th century to the Soviet backed Polish People’s Republic in the 20th century. Michener includes aspects of Polish culture including pierogies and the mazurka as well as the horsemanship of the landed elites. Michener places three fictional families at the centre of historical events: the aristocratic Lubonskis, the petty gentry Bukowskis and the peasant Buks.

In the early chapters, the different generations of each family remain relatively unchanged but the characters come into focus as distinct individuals in the late 19th century as the Buks discover an opportunity to become small landowners themselves then all of the families experience the horrors of the Second World War. I disagreed with a few of the narrator’s statements, including an exceptionally negative assessment of Empress Elizabeth of Austria, but otherwise enjoyed the novel.

#173 of 365 The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, read by Meryl Streep

Genre: Historical Fiction

Date Listened: July 5, 2018

Format: Audiobook, 3 hours and 7 minutes

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Review:¬†A beautiful short historical novel from the perspective of Mary during the early years of Christianity.¬†Toibin imagines Mary as an elderly woman reminiscing about her son and frustrating the writers of the Gospels with her complicated perspective on her son’s miracles and crucifixion. The audiobook is a stellar performance by Meryl Streep, which presents the novel as an extended monologue by a revered elder who is eager to unravel her own story from the emerging New Testament. Highly recommended.

#174 of 365 The Iliad: The Fitzgerald Translation by Dan Stevens

Genre: Classic Fiction

Acquired: Purchased from Audible.com

Format: Audiobook, 13 hours and 59 minutes

Date Listened: July 6-7, 2018

Review: I have read The Odyssey on a few occasions but this is the first time I have experienced The Iliad from start to finish. The Iliad is filled with impressive speeches and vivid battle scenes. The conversations between Hector and his wife Andromache are quite touching. Of the two works attributed to the Homer, however, I prefer The Odyssey as Odysseus has a wide variety of adventures on his journey home while the battle scenes at the Siege of Troy, and the cycle of feasting and fighting, grow repetitive over the course of The Iliad.

As epic poetry, The Iliad suits the audiobook format. Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey) reads with enthusiasm but a little too quickly as the connections between the characters are important to the story and it is important that listeners do not miss them. The Robert Fitzgerald translation is excellent and brings the story to life.

#175 of 365 Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Genre: Historical Fiction

Acquired: Purchased at the Port Elgin Flea Market

Date Read: July 7, 2018

Format: Paperback, 645 pages

Review:¬†An absorbing beach read. Beatrice Lacey, an eighteenth century gentlewoman who resembles Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind and Ashton from John Jakes’ North and South, is obsessed with controlling her family’s Wideacre estate and ruins the lives of everyone in the novel, including herself, in order to do so. The plot is completely over the top but Gregory has written the novel as a page turner, with a looming threat just beyond the boundaries of the estate that maintains the momentum of the story to the very end. There are some plotlines specific to the 18th century, such as the enclosure of common lands on landed estates, but otherwise, this is a historical novel that could have been set in a variety of time periods as the focus is on the scandalous behaviour at Wideacre rather than the wider world.