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. ****