Wednesday 1 November 2017

Adrienne Dillard reviews a new biography of Charles I

Leanda de Lisle's first book, After Elizabeth, was a fascinating account of the dying days of the Tudor dynasty and the subsequent transfer of power to the Scottish ruling house. Now, after best-selling accounts of the Grey and Tudor families, de Lisle has returned to the Stuarts, with a biography of King Charles I, the autocratic monarch whose reign ended in civil war, his execution, and the temporary abolition of the British monarchy. With new research from previously unused private documents and a focus on Charles's marriage to the unpopular French princess, Henrietta Maria, this biography is already garnering interest and applause amongst fans of royal and political biographies. 

The White King is released today in the United States and it is available through Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Its British release date is on 11th January. I am delighted to host this review of The White King by American novelist Adrienne Dillard, who is the author of two novels set at the Tudor court - Cor Rotto, inspired by the life of Elizabeth I's cousin, Katherine Carey, and The Raven's Widow, based on the life of Catherine Howard's confidante Jane, Lady Rochford. 

The Martyr King: Adrienne Dillard's review of Leanda de Lisle's "The White King"

As a Tudor historian, it is nearly impossible to review works set during the time period without seeing the content through the jaundiced lens of your own biases.  More often than not, there is room for multiple interpretations of the documented evidence, but it can be hard to overcome the instinctual gut-reaction humans experience when faced with an opinion that differs from one they wholeheartedly embrace about historical figures they have come to cherish.  That uncomfortableness is invaluable when we seek academic growth, but it makes reading for pleasure a challenge.  Thankfully, I had few preconceived notions about England’s first Caroline king, and when I was offered the opportunity to review the latest take on his life, I leapt at the chance.  Few things can compare to the joy I feel when introduced to a new historical subject and this beautifully crafted biography did not disappoint.

The subtitle of Leanda De Lisle’s The White King calls the monarch a traitor, murderer, and martyr, but upon completion of the book, I have come away with the impression that the only fitting descriptor used is martyr.  The other titles seem far too subjective for this oft-misunderstood king.

Though Charles’ reign came many years after the death of the ginger-haired tyrant at the head of the Tudor court, the spectre of Henry VIII looms large throughout this biography.  His reign and personality are held against those of Charles I to show how vastly different they were and just how much the world had changed in the intervening years.  The charges of tyranny lodged against the latter monarch pale in comparison to the actual tyranny perpetrated by Henry VIII and his children, yet none of their reigns ended with the humiliation of the scaffold, as Charles’ did.  Even more striking are the parallels De Lisle makes with our current political climate – where “populism meets religious justifications for violence” and “the rise of demagogues, who whip up mobs by feeding off ethnic and religious hatreds.”

De Lisle brings the figures surrounding Charles I to life with the strident confidence that accompanies the historian who fully understand their subject.  All of their graces and foibles are fully explored; their ever-changing allegiances reported without a hint of sentimentality.  If their motivations are not revealed in the primary sources, they are left unexplained here, preserving the jarring atmosphere Charles must have felt during his reign.  Even the most historically savvy reader is never quite certain where loyalties lie or how often the tides will turn.  In the hands of a less experienced historian these twists would be rendered into a confusing mess, but De Lisle deftly navigates the murky waters with expert precision.

My favorite part of The White King was the focus on Robert and Henry Rich and their cousin, Lady Lucy Carlisle. Having spent the better part of the last decade researching Catherine Carey, Lady Knollys, it was refreshing to see the role her descendants played during this tumultuous time in English history. The fealty they showed their monarch was far from the devotional loyalty Lady Knollys was known for in her lifetime, but the Puritan proclivities of their great-grandfather, Francis, remained un-diluted. I often found myself wondering what their grandmother, Lettice, would have thought of their intrigues. Lady Carlisle appears the most like her ancestor. Like Lettice, she even bore an uncanny resemblance to the queen she served.

I thoroughly enjoyed De Lisle’s inclusion of the correspondence between the king and his wife, Henrietta Maria, recently unearthed from the Belvoir archives.  Through their words, the unjust depictions of the queen fall apart at the seams, and Henrietta Maria is finally given the recognition she deserves.  The emphasis on Charles family life is most touching here.  The love and devotion they showed to him speaks volumes about his character.

A well-written and impeccably researched biography, The White King seeks not to revise the history of England’s Civil Wars, but uncover the truth hidden beneath the grime of centuries of propaganda and myth.

Friday 22 September 2017

"Something Like Summer": Movie review

In 2011, American author Jay Bell released the first novel in what subsequently became a self-published phenomenon, winning fans across the world. Something Like Summer, covering twelve years in the life of Texan high school student Benjamin Bentley, has to date spawned seven sequels and two collections of short stories. (An eighth and final instalment is due later this year.) The latter five novels cover other characters who emerged in the course of Bell’s narrative, while the first three books in the Something Like series focus on Benjamin and the two men in his life – his high school sweetheart, Tim Wyman, and his adult boyfriend, Jace Holden – with Benjamin dodging making a decision like it’s his national sport.

This love triangle resulted in a Twilight-esque division of Team Jace versus Team Tim among book readers, with the notable exception of Jay Bell himself, who has maintained an admirable neutrality in the ensuing Twitter fracas. At this point, for full disclosure, it is incumbent upon me to confess that I chose a team faster than anyone since Marie-Antoinette was asked which side she was rooting for during the French Revolution. Picking Jace is, for me, the kind of spiritual seppuku comparable to saying you’d actually want to be sorted into Hufflepuff. Even as Tim (Ravenclaw, with the occasional errant Slytherin oopsy) merrily tobogganed down the morality slopes in his pursuit to win Benjamin, I continued to cheer him on.

Page-bound civil wars aside, Something Like Summer has now been turned into a movie, adapted by one of its producers, Carlos Pedraza, and currently gathering momentum and garnering applause on the festival circuit in the US. Last week, I had the joy of attending its New England premier at the gorgeous Hanover Theatre in Worcester, Massachusetts. 

One of the great strengths of Bell’s writing is his ability to convey both what we intend through the minutiae of our mannerisms and how that can be misinterpreted. This is particularly obvious in a game of comparisons between Something Like Summer and Something Like Winter, which respectively cover some of the same events from Benjamin’s point of view and Tim’s. Capturing those nuances and the twists within turns of a decade-long love affair were always going to be easier on page than screen. So, it says much for Pedraza’s acumen that he uses musical bridges to convey some of the long-term developments, while also retaining the most memorable moments from the book. (One scene, in which Tim watches Benjamin perform on stage, was like being hit in the gut by the pain all-but bleeding out of Tim’s eyes.) To slim-line the narrative, Pedraza also merges several characters and alters others. In the books, Tim’s girlfriend Krista (played here by Madisyn Lane) is a bob-cut-sporting blonde with the charisma of a cactus. Simpering and irredeemably stupid, Krista is firmly under the thumb of the school’s queen bee and resident fascist with a flip-phone, Stacey Shelley. (Who I thoroughly enjoyed, but that's probably something to bring up with a therapist.) In the movie, Stacey is missing and some of her cutting cruelty is given to Krista. It works, as does the rolling of three characters into the form of the broken yet cruel Bryce (Tristan Decker).

Tim (Davi Santos), Krista (Madisyn Lane) and Bryce (Tristan Decker)

Something also has to be said, in general, for this movie’s casting. Bell’s stories, and his fans, pay a great deal of attention to the physical appearance of the characters. And, here, the three principals are eerily similar to their descriptions in the book. Newcomer Grant Davis as Benjamin nailed the aesthetic, presence, and mannerisms of the lead, particularly in the first half of the movie and it was admirably clear that he had made full use of Bell’s canon in his research. For me personally, some of the later scenes – particularly one in the hospital – perhaps lacked the full emotional punch they had in the books, but you would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the sleeve-grabbing of a magnificent Ben Baur as Jace. I know, I know. I’m aware Team Jace will land on me for implying elsewhere that their hero is the personality equivalent of an Advil PM, but even I have to bend the knee to Baur’s superb performance. For one brief and all-too-horrible moment, I wobbled in my entrenched views on Jace the Sky High Snoozefest - and that is a tribute to Baur’s thoughtful, elegant presence.

The supporting cast are generally a treat – Will Shepherd has a great cameo as a student teacher, and Jana Lee Hamblin, Riley Stewart, and Ron Boyd are great as Benjamin’s on-screen family. Pride of place has to go to Ajiona Alexus (right) as his best friend, Allison. Alexus, who has appeared in Empire and as Sheri Holland in the Netflix hit 13 Reasons Why, captures all of Allison’s ferocious intelligence and tenacious loyalty. Allison’s Khaleesi-is-coming-to-Westeros approach to solving Benjamin’s problems was a personal favourite trait of any character in the book and Alexus captures them exquisitely.

At the premier, I met producer Carlos Pedraza and actor Davi Santos, who plays Tim. I felt the need to point this out as a pre-emptive mea culpa because I am so inherently British that even if Santos had displayed the acting ability of a petri dish and Pedraza went rogue at the Q&A by setting fire to the screen and head-butting an audience member, I would have been so shackled to compulsive manners that at the after-party I would simply have smiled politely and thanked them for a wonderful evening. Mercifully, no such subterfuge was required. As you may have deduced from the subtle hints I have peppered throughout this article like a mine-laying U-boat, I prefer Tim to Jace. As Tim, Santos delivers a truly knock-out performance. It looks effortless and that's no small task, given that many of Tim’s actions are, to put it mildly, questionable. At the Q&A afterwards, Santos explained his character as someone who is “a person totally and completely in love” and that’s what drives him. There’s a moment where Tim’s hand reaches up to Benjamin’s shoulder; between them, it is worth more than a monologue.

With its bright, pop dream-coloured cinematography, tight script, beautiful performances and lovely music, Something Like Summer is a wonderful love story and a joyful movie that I will return to again and again. It also drew tears from my friend Ashley, the Lady Stoneheart or Allison Cross of the circle.

Friday 21 April 2017

My new book: a biography of Queen Catherine Howard

As readers of this blog will know, for the last few years I have been working on a biography of Henry VIII's fifth wife, Queen Catherine Howard. I am so very happy that 2017 is the year of its publication, with Simon & Schuster publishing Young and Damned and Fair in its US and Canadian edition, and HarperCollins publishing it for the UK and most of the Commonwealth. Young and Damned and Fair is also available in audio book, narrated by the wonderful Jenny Funnell.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank any readers of Confessions of a Ci-Devant who took the time to encourage me to write a full-length biography of a Tudor queen. It was a thrillingly exhausting process and I left Catherine's company with reluctance, after so long spent studying the story of her life.

More information is below, with links to the different editions.

Young and Damned and Fair by Gareth Russell

About the book
Written with an exciting combination of narrative flair and historical authority, this interpretation of the tragic life of Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII, breaks new ground in our understanding of the very young woman who became queen at a time of unprecedented social and political tension and whose terrible errors in judgment quickly led her to the executioner’s block. 
Including a forgotten text of Catherine’s confession in her own words, color illustrations, family tree, map, and extensive notes, Young and Damned and Fair changes our understanding of one of history’s most famous women while telling the compelling and very human story of complex individuals attempting to survive in a dangerous age.

Praise for Young and Damned and Fair

“If you’re going to take these sorts of risks, you need some serious historical heft. This Russell has, and in abundance. To the vivid phrasing of a novelist, he adds a forensic eye for fact and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the personalities of the late Henrician court … Russell is a formidable new talent from whom big things can be expected”. – Sarah Gristwood, author of Game of Queens: The Women who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe, in BBC HISTORY MAGAZINE

“Scholarly yet highly readable...fresh and compelling...a stunning achievement...Catherine is given a makeover so complete that she is virtually unrecognizeable from the hopelessly naive girl of traditional history books.” – Tracy Borman, author of Thomas Cromwell: The untold story of Henry VIII's most faithful servant, in THE SUNDAY TIMES

“Bold...assured...A novelist turned historian, he veers with laudable theatricality between the claustrophobic and the panoramic, from intimate, febrile exchanges in noble and royal households to the public spectacle of courtly high diplomacy...Let us hope he fixes his sharp eye on the further, more opaque past--here is a historian unafraid of the dark, whether of depravity or documentation.” – Minoo Dinshaw, author of Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman, in THE DAILY TELEGRAPH

“Russell expertly tells a tale of jewels and dancing and thrilling trysts that sees Catherine move dizzily towards the block.” – Jessie Childs, author of Henry VIII's Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, in LITERARY REVIEW 

“Russell's is an excellent account, putting the oft-ignored Catherine in her proper historical context....he is a scrupulous historian.” – THE DAILY MAIL

“Russell's portrait effectively underscores the machinations of this volatile court, the treachery of sycophants, and the importance of the all-seeing servants. Dense with material and flavor of the epoch.” – KIRKUS REVIEWS

“The tragic story of Henry VIII’s fifth queen has been covered before but never quite like this. Young and Damned and Fair digs deep into dark and twisted underworld of Tudor nobility” - HISTORY OF ROYALS magazine

“Highly readable and peppered with engrossing stories, this book is also fascinating for its details about what was considered sexually moral in 16-century England. Biography lovers and those intrigued by the lives of the royals will welcome this tragic story of Henry VIII’s fifth wife.” – LIBRARY JOURNAL

"Best Historical Biography Ever ... 
I can't recall loving a non-fictional book so much. The attention to detail, combined with Gareth Russell's exquisite writing, make this biography the dream for history buffs, and an excellent start for people who don't usually give a chance to this genre. Absolutely loved it!" - Waterstones Bookseller Review

"This fascinating and ultimately heartbreaking account of Henry VIII's doomed fifth wife brings to life the cruel, gossip-fueled, backstabbing world of the court in which Catherine Howard rose and fell. The uncommonly talented Gareth Russell has produced a masterly work of Tudor history that is engrossing, sympathetic, suspenseful, and illuminating." - Charlotte Gordon, author of Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography

“Young and Damned and Fair is a gripping account of a young woman’s future destroyed by forces beyond her control. Gareth Russell moves effortlessly between Catherine Howard's private, inner world and the public life of the Henrician court, providing an unparalleled view into this tragic chapter of Tudor history. This is an important and timely book.” - Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire: An Epic History of Two Nations Divided
“Securely rooted in the sources and mercifully devoid of sentiment, this is the most fully rounded, best written biography of Catherine Howard we have so far.” – Julia Fox, author of Jane Boleyn: The True Story of the Infamous Lady Rochford

“In Young and Damned and Fair Gareth Russell marries slick storytelling with a great wealth of learning about sixteenth-century personalities and politics. The result is a book that leads us deep into the nightmarish final years of Henry VIII’s reign, wrenching open the intrigues of a poisonous court in a realm seething with discontent. At the heart of it all is the fragile, tragic figure of Catherine Howard, whose awful fate is almost unbearable to watch as it unfolds. This is authoritative Tudor history written with a novelist’s lightness of touch. A terrific achievement.” – Dan Jones, author of The Plantagenets and The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors

“This is a timely and powerful re-examination of Henry's fifth queen … The author has done some beautiful new research to indicate that Catherine was not as foolish as some historians have suggested, and that her death was managed and manipulated by her offended husband, purely for his own revenge. It's particularly strong on the detail of Catherine’s short reign and the reaction of those who tried to defend her. I love it when historians take the women who have been neglected by history seriously and study their lives rather than accepting stereotypes.” – Philippa Gregory, #1 New York Times bestselling author

“A magnificent account of the rise and fall of Henry VIII's tragic fifth queen - compelling, thought-provoking and above all real. In Russell’s meticulously researched narrative Catherine Howard and her household are brought to life as never before.” – Adrian Tinniswood, author of The Long Weekend: Life in the English Country House Between the Wars

“This is now my go-to book on Catherine Howard.” – Claire Ridgway, author of The Fall of Anne Boleyn

“Russell breathes new life into the Tudor world as we know it and I found myself eagerly devouring every delectable morsel, only becoming aware at the end of the page that I had just learned at least five new things without even realizing it. Russell's take on Henry VIII's fifth queen is nothing short of brilliant.” – Adrienne Dillard, author of The Raven’s Widow: A Novel of Jane Boleyn

“Like Eric Ives with Anne Boleyn, Anne Somerset with Elizabeth I and Antonia Fraser on Marie Antoinette, Gareth Russell has written the definitive book on Catherine Howard and deserves to be seen as the authority on this subject.” – James Peacock, President of The Anne Boleyn Society

“A tremendous read … This book is also about human judgement, about fecklessness, about cruelty, about luck, and about a destructive love affair. Gareth Russell's elegant prose has an effortless touch.” - Dominic Pearce, author of Henrietta Maria

"This book deserves to be seen as the bible on Catherine Howard and her life. It is superbly well researched and excellently written." - Samantha Morris, author of Cesare Borgia

Young and Damned and Fair is everything a historical biography should be. Highly recommended.” – Kathryn Warner, author of Edward II: The Unconventional King


Young and Damned and Fair is available through most independent bookstores. It is also stocked in the US by Barnes & Noble and Amazon. And in the UK, by chain bookstores, like Waterstones, and online, by Amazon UK.

You can also find the audio book version here (for UK listeners) and here (for US).
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