Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas book round-up

First of all, a happy Christmas to everyone and a very safe new year's, too. Thank you all for continuing to read this blog throughout 2012; I wish you and yours a prosperous Yuletide season!

I've said that I'd try to keep up with posts about what I'm reading, so here's a brief set of reviews of books I've read this autumn and winter. (With my own second novel coming out and rehearsals going on for a play in January, I actually find it's always a good idea to read somebody else's book in bed at night. To clear my head.)

The Sisters Who Would Be Queen: The tragedy of Mary, Katherine and Lady Jane Grey - (By Leanda de Lisle, 2010). One of the best historical biographies I've read, Leanda de Lisle's take on the lives of the troubled Grey sisters is clever, witty and moving. Unlike many biographies which boast endlessly about their "new" discoveries, de Lisle's book actually does offer a genuinely different (and convincing) portrait of the Grey girls - particularly Jane, the most famous member of the family. The book is not biased, being fair to all of the major players, most of whom hated each other in real life. Compulsively readable and fantastically written, The Sisters Who Would Be Queen is my favourite historical book that I've read in 2012.

Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder - (By Evelyn Waugh, 1945). Nothing ever quite prepares you for Evelyn Waugh's lushly magnificent prose, even if you've read it many, many times before. Brideshead Revisited is, at heart, a love story between two men (what nature that love takes and how it expressed itself is still a subject of debate), but the label is not important here. It's also a story about choices, memory, the class system and the mysteries of the Catholic faith, played out across the life of a young middle-class boy called Charles Ryder who goes to study History at Oxford in 1922, where he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte, the gorgeous and flamboyant son of a Catholic marquess. In many ways, Brideshead Revisited reads like a paean of love to the aristocratic heyday of the inter-war years - a fact which Evelyn Waugh later regretted, claiming he'd written in such a hyperbolic way because the Second World War had made him hungry for "the days of plenty." It says something for Waugh's literary brilliance that the novel is simultaneously cited as being one of the great same-sex love stories of the twentieth century and the finest celebration of the Catholic religion ever written by an English author. Every time I return to Brideshead Revisited, I'm struck again by how beautiful it is, how clever it is and, often, by how incredibly funny Waugh made it. With a cast of unforgettable characters, Brideshead Revisited deserves its reputation as one of the finest novels of the last century.

Ungrateful Daughters: The Stuart Princesses Who Stole Their Father's Crown - (By Maureen Waller, 2003). This is the ugly side of the Glorious Revolution, the event still celebrated to the skies today by Ireland's Orange Order. By examining the events from the point-of-view of each major member of the Royal Family in 1688-1690, Maureen Waller delivers a devastatingly unpleasant story of filial betrayal and deceit. The one truly likable character to emerge from the entire sordid narrative is Maria-Beatrice of Modena, the Italian princess who was destined to become the last Catholic queen of Britain, when she married the future James II. In 1688, she was horribly traduced by her two stepdaughters, when they unfairly accused her of smuggling an impostor-baby into her rooms, to pass it off as the long-awaited Catholic heir. Armed with this smear campaign, Maria-Beatrice's son-in-law, William of Orange, invaded England, whipped up into anti-Catholic terror, and seized the throne, completing his victorious transformation into William III two years later at the Battle of the Boyne. Passionate, well-argued and moving, Ungrateful Daughters was a very good read.

A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria - (By Katie Whitaker, 2011). This is a book I have been meaning to read for a while now, so I was pleased I got the opportunity. It is a dual biography of Charles I, the king who famously lost his head at the end of the English civil war, and his French wife, Henrietta-Maria, Louis XIII's youngest sister. Whitaker manages to be sympathetic to both, although the book probably deals with the Queen's life more than the King's. A Royal Passion is unashamedly a return to the "kings and queens" style approach to history; it's history from above, not below. But, as Dr. Whitaker shows, top-down history should have more of a place in today's studies, because the case of Charles I and Henrietta-Maria shows how important monarchy was, particularly in an age when it wielded such power. The biography manages to neatly balance the emergence of the couple's love for one another and it's very touching, alongside the mounting political problems that eventually led to the downfall of the monarchy and the civil war. Henrietta-Maria is treated sympathetically here, which I enjoyed, but her mistakes and occasionally erratic advice are not glossed over. A few minor elements of the story are not dealt with - such as recent evidence that suggests the possibility of the King having had an affair later on in the marriage, when he was in prison - but, overall, A Royal Passion is a fantastic portrait of a marriage that began in difficulty (Henrietta-Maria punched her fist through a palace window in rage when Charles dismissed her tribe of French-Catholic servants), evolved into a great love story and then ended in such a tragic way.

A Brief Life of the Queen - (By Robert Lacey, 2012). A short but succinct life of the current Sovereign, Robert Lacey's book is beautifully illustrated and a sympathetic approach to the life of Elizabeth II. A few members of the Royal Family, namely the current Prince of Wales, do not emerge too well from Lacey's narrative and he doesn't gloss over the Queen's rage at her courtiers' advice during the weeks after Princess Diana's death in 1997, but overall this is a fast-moving and convincing biography of one of the most successful leaders of the modern age.

The Pursuit of the Heiress: Aristocratic Marriage in Ireland, 1740 - 1840 - (By A.P.W. Malcomson, 2006). A.P.W. Malcomson's account of marriage between, and in to, the Irish aristocracy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is a beautiful book to look at. Full of illustrations, Malcomson discusses the extent to which class, money, land and love influenced how the aristocrats of the Ascendancy picked their mates. He's particularly interesting on those who married "in" to the Ascendancy, although at times his attempts to be utterly thorough can make the book a little dry for the casual reader. For anyone interested in Ireland's (in)famous Protestant Ascendancy, and probably for someone who has already done a bit of reading on them, The Pursuit of the Heiress is a good recommendation and I enjoyed it.

Evita: First Lady - (By John Barnes, 1996). This is not a sympathetic biography of Argentina's notorious first lady, although it's nowhere near as harsh as Mary Main's book Evita: The Woman with the Whip, which proved the inspiration for the famous musical based on Evita's life and death. Barnes presents Evita as shallow, materialistic and addicted to fame. There are times when one questions how much of this book is original research, but it's written well enough and it's easy to follow.

Bring Up the Bodies - (By Hilary Mantel, 2012). I wasn't a huge fan of the first installment in this series, Wolf Hall, and Bring Up the Bodies made me remember why. The historian in me could obviously query why on earth absolutely none of Thomas Cromwell's negative qualities are in any way acknowledged in this hagiographic fictional adaptation of his life, but Hilary Mantel has clearly done her research and she clearly believes that Cromwell was nothing like the unpleasant henchman of popular legend. The main problem with Bring Up the Bodies was one which bedeviled Wolf Hall, too; it insists upon itself. I don't like novels that tell me what to think - that tell me which character to like and what view to take. That's one of the reasons why I like books like Brideshead Revisited. No-one knows if you're supposed to like or loathe Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain; pity or despise the glamorous Celia, etc. In this series, Cromwell is presented as irredeemably commendable and his opponents as equally awful. In order to excuse Cromwell's worst actions, Mantel made Thomas More an unrelentingly unlikable character in Wolf Hall; in Bring Up the Bodies, it's the turn of Anne Boleyn and Henry Norris. Bring Up the Bodies is written by a very, very gifted writer, but at times it felt like a lecture and I'd rather have been left to make my own mind up about the astonishing figure who stands at the heart of the story.

Farewell, My Queen - (By Chantal Thomas, 2004). First published in French and recently adapted into a movie, starring Diane Kruger (below) and Lea Seydoux, Farewell, My Queen tells the story of the last three days in the palace of  Versailles from the point-of-view of a fictional servant, whose job it is to read aloud to the Queen while she takes her morning coffee. The novel, narrated in the first person, gives free rein to the servant-girl's obsessive devotion to Marie-Antoinette and it brilliantly captures the rising tide of panic as the full impact of the storming of the Bastille reaches the court. This is my second time reading Farewell, My Queen; at times, it feels like the translation into English may have diminished some of the text's drama, but it remains a very good book.

Katherine the Queen: The Remarkable Life of Katherine Parr - (By Linda Porter, 2011.) I preferred Linda Porter's first biography, of Mary Tudor, but this biography was still a fine one. It helped remind me of why the life of Henry VIII's sixth wife is so interesting, despite the fact that she's often looked upon as "the boring one." Katherine the Queen is sympathetic, well-written and enjoyable.

Lost Liners - (By Robert Ballard, 1997). You could certainly say this book about the most famous shipwrecks of the twentieth century is written by an expert; Robert Ballard is the man who discovered the remains of the Titanic in 1985. The illustrations are by the ludicrously talented marine artist, Ken Marschall, and they are incredible. It's a short but beautiful book.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix - (By J.K. Rowling, 2003.) For some reason, people seem to generally agree that this is the "worst" book in the Harry Potter franchise. It's also the longest, which may have something to do with it. I love the Harry Potter books and I have to say that I really rather like Order of the Phoenix. In the first place, Dolores Umbridge is such a good villain that I had to punch my pillow in rage at several moments; secondly, it takes a gutsy author to take the risk of making her eponymous hero as irritating as Rowling does with moody Harry in this book. Too much Hogwarts is never a bad thing.

Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century - (By John Boswell, 1980.) This is an award-winning but hard-going book by the late, great, gender historian John Boswell, an academic at Yale. At times, Boswell's insistence that homophobia only arose in the Christian church well into the Middle Ages sounds a little too forced; as if he is so determined to believe the best of Christianity that he cannot quite bring himself to admit how that darkness actually arose. All that being said, however, Boswell's book is still utterly fascinating. He finds ample evidence to suggest that prior to the twelfth century, the Church in the West evinced very little hostility towards, or interest in, homosexuality and he does find several instances of it actually celebrating male-male relationships and ceremonies performed to do so. (There is next-to-nothing, I should point out, on same-sex female relationships in this book.) Brilliant, ground-breaking and flawlessly researched, Boswell's book deserved the awards it received and the uncomfortable questions it asks (but doesn't always fully answer) remind us all of how incredibly complex religious, cultural and sexual history can be. Reading books like this reminds me not just why I love history so much, but why it's so important and why it should always be written by men and women who take it as seriously as John Boswell did.


  1. Ten years before this book was written in 2003, I made a dill of myself at a history tutorial in Cambridge by talking about the certainties of the Glorious Revolution. The lecturer answered that it was neither glorious nor revolutionary. Rather it was a tricky plot by James’ Protestant daughters to ensure the throne for themselves, by accusing the Catholic Queen of smuggling someone’s baby in via a roasting pan, to pass it off as the long-awaited Catholic heir. I didn’t believe the lecturer for a moment, but it showed more clearly than ever that history is written by the victors.

    I do however agree that only a handful of lords wrote the letter to Mary, inviting her to come home and take the throne. So it will be interesting to read Ungrateful Daughters to see how Waller thinks “William of Orange took the invitation, invaded England, whipped up into anti-Catholic terror and seized the throne”.

  2. Absolutely agree about Hogwarts! Personally, I think Harry gains some character in the Order of the Pheonix. I also agree with you about Mantel. The first book was such a yawn that I didn't even attempt the second. Nice list!

  3. Absolutely agree about Hogwarts! Personally, I think Harry gains some character in the Order of the Pheonix. I also agree with you about Mantel. The first book was such a yawn that I didn't even attempt the second. Nice list!


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