Queens of the Conquest – Alison Weir

As a small child I was often told that I had eyes bigger than my belly. You know, I’d see a great big slice of cake or an adult-sized portion of fish and chips and would think I could eat it all. Which would end up with a poorly looking Jane and a plate still half full of whatever it was I had been sure I could eat all of? Well, to be honest, I don’t have that problem any more. Not much is bigger than my belly any more! Although I have sort of transferred that over-enthusiastic optimism to books so maybe now my eyes are bigger than my, um, (frantically tries to think of a body part I read with which isn’t my eyes – fails) free time. At the start of the year I set my Goodreads Reading Challenge target and, since I was expecting to blog about twice a week, I decided that I’d set it for two books a week. That’s 126 books in the year. Not a problem when I do include quite a lot of children’s’ titles (picture books are brilliant for keeping your target in sight) but I have had a couple of blips. At the end of August I was way ahead of schedule and had even had a chance to finish a history of the Spanish Flu (although that took a month of slotting a few chapters here and there amongst the fiction) so I settled down to read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for our book group meeting in mid-September. I read in the introduction that Pullman considers it to be one book, in three parts, so listed it on Goodreads as one. By the time I finished it, two weeks later, I realised my mistake. I had lost my lead over my target (even after I changed the listing to show that I had read three books rather than one…) and was concerned that I’d not be able to allow myself to read any of the things I enjoy but which take more time – usually non-fiction like popular science or history. Boo.*

33638252Well, of course, there’s history and there’s history. And for me any history written by Alison Weir is pretty much irresistible. Like me she has an abiding interest in medieval history (although we’ll both dabble in Tudors if pressed…) and wants to think about how women shaped that world. In Queens of the Conquest Weir is looking at the very earliest queens of England – the wives of the Norman kings, William the Conqueror, Henry I and Stephen – and the Empress Maud, daughter of Henry I and rival to her cousin Stephen during a bitter civil war known as the Anarchy. Which took me back to reading my Mum’s Jean Plaidy books as a child and my realisation that the best way to be a Norman queen was to be called Matilda…

The problem with books written about this period is that primary evidence is fairly thin on the ground and that which does exist is not necessarily easy to work with. Charters issued by queens on both their own and their husband’s behalf, a few letters and, in the case of Maud, some fairly scathing comments from the Gesta Stephani (a contemporary history written very much on Stephen’s side of things). The book works with this material well – it can seem a little dry at points but it certainly made me realise that the phenomenon of women being judged on their looks, compliant personalities and ability to bear children is not the invention of modern celebrity magazines. All of the queens in this book seem to be strong women, acting as regent for their husbands and making decisions both political and financial on their behalf. Maud was the queen best known to me – the daughter of a king, wife of a king and mother to a king but, sadly for her, never crowned as queen in her own right.  I was intrigued to read about the possibilities of her relationship with her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and I’m quite excited to read that this is the first book in a projected series of four books. I have really been enjoying Weir’s fiction about the wives of Henry VIII but reading about the unvarnished facts (or as many as are available to historians) of the wives of earlier kings is a different kind of pleasure. More like a medieval ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ than a 12th Century Hello magazine – both popular generally but the former is far more my cup of tea.

Jane

 

 

*Yes. I know the Goodreads target is just a bit of fun. I can read whatever I like and take as long as I like but, heck, I just enjoy setting a goal and going for it. Whether it’s a two book a week reading schedule or eating every single slice of the pizza I ordered – I should be able to put this on my cv…

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The Long Road from Jarrow – Stuart Maconie

We seem to be living in an era of anniversaries. As well as the whole period from 2014 to 2018 being a commemoration of the Great War (with honour given to major individual battles like Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele) 2017 has also seen the Centenary of the Russian Revolution, the Balfour Declaration and the birth of Arthur C. Clarke, the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the film The Graduate and the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Closer to home it is the 150th birthday of the beautiful building my workplace is housed in (an excuse for a party of some sort? I do hope so…) I’m not sure I remember quite so many major anniversaries in my childhood and youth (the only ones that stand out are the Queen’s various Jubilees – mostly because of time off school/my own wedding….) but perhaps I just didn’t care enough to remember them. One event which has recently (October 2016) marked what I tend to refer to as a ‘tombola’ anniversary – one ending in a 5 or a 0 – is the Jarrow March. You know, the Jarrow March? The march from Jarrow to, um, London? Because of jobs? Or something? The one which so many people have forgotten about, never heard of or have dismissed as some kind of bolshie nonsense? Well, that’s the one which Stuart Maconie has made the subject of his latest piece of travel writing.

9781785030536Maconie’s travel writing is always worth a read. He is a keen observer of the places he visits and is never afraid to give you his own views. In this book he decides to follow in the footsteps of the Jarrow Marchers, to find out why they marched, how they were received and whether they are remembered: also, he fancies a nice long walk. Along the way he compares 1936 – with its rise in right-wing politics, wide-spread unemployment and reliance on food handouts and other benefits, and frequent protest marches – with the present day. Some of the comparisons are quite chilling, if I’m honest – at some points the only improvement we seem to have is the NHS – but he is also happy to point out that his nightly accommodation, at least, was a great improvement on the drill halls, schools and churches the marchers were offered. He never downplays the physical effort the march represented but, in order to keep appointments with certain people he meets via social media, he does occasionally jump on a bus. These meetings are often with people who are able to fill in background information on the marchers but he also takes in choral music, a classical piano recital, a pub covers band and a wake. He speaks fondly of many of the marchers themselves (and their dog) and of the Jarrow MP, Ellen Wilkinson, but is scathing of most of the Labour party of the time (who made every effort to distance themselves from the marchers). He’s not fond of Corbyn either but does end his march by meeting Tracy Brabin, the MP for Batley & Spen (elected after the murder of Jo Cox) in the House of Commons.

This book is a fascinating history of the Jarrow March of 1936 but also of the country as it was at the end of last year. In many ways it feels as if very little has changed but maybe books like this can help us – through gentle humour and a little anger – to make sure that the history of the late 1930s is not allowed to repeat itself.

Jane

 

Rotherweird – Andrew Caldecott

It always seemed unlikely that anyone would write a book which combined two of my specific reading interests – fiction set in the early modern history period (think Tudors to Regency) and steampunk. Those pre-industrial eras just don’t lend themselves to the genre as well as the Victorian and Edwardian periods but they are an age which lends itself to the magical and mysterious. Which is why, I suspect, that Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird reads, for me, like a steampunk novel with Elizabethan overtones – specifically like one featuring John Dee. Let me clarify….

9781784297619Rotherweird is a very unusual town. Back towards the end of the reign of Queen Mary a group of children came to light – brilliant but somehow potentially dangerous – and they are sent into isolation in the small town of Rotherweird. There they are placed in the care of Sir Henry Grassal who educates them, against the wishes of the Queen, so that they develop their prodigious abilities in maths, philosophy and sciences. Scroll forward to the modern day and Rotherweird is still cut off in many ways from the modern world. No cars (bar one), no computers, no connection to the politics or government of the real world – governed by their own laws: the comprehensive regulations. There are some familiar things – pilates for example – and the community funds itself by selling the products of its brilliant scientific minds. For Jonah Oblong the new history teacher at the town’s school, however,modern history is the only permitted subject. In fact the laws of the town mean that no-one can study its history or anything at all from before 1800. This is a town which history is meant to have forgotten but history has a habit of asserting itself.

This book has a huge cast of characters – mostly with strange names which I would find far too Dickensian in a Dickens novel – and a fascinating plot involving an isolated community, an unsettling parallel world and strange and powerful forces. It has humour, action, adventure and just a hint of romance. Some of the mysteries are resolved but many more remain. There are still more of Rotherweird’s secrets to be revealed in future so I’m pleased to hear a sequel is in the pipeline.

Jane

 

Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession – Alison Weir

There are some times in life when you suddenly find yourself doing something that, not so long ago, you would never have believed possible. For example, I recently joined a running club. Yes. An actual running club – I even actually go out most weeks and run with them. The me from a few years ago who used to get out of breath running for a bus is absolutely gobsmacked so it is perfectly okay for you to express astonishment. To be fair, I’m mostly surprised that I’ve given up a couple of hours of reading time each week (not to mention a lie-in on any Saturday I’m off work) but, so far, it has been worth it. Slightly achy legs, the occasional soaking and only one major set of bruises is a fair return for all the fresh air, country views and second breakfasts eaten after a parkrun. It is probably not immediately obvious how this preamble about running fits in with Alison Weir’s second volume in the series of six historical novels about the wives of Henry VIII but bear with me…

30231546The first volume – on Katherine of Aragon – looked at the role of women in general and Queens in particular. Henry’s first queen is sure that she must live up to those roles but Anne Boleyn, his second, is, we have always been told, a rebel who wants to overthrow this system. This novel gives us Anne’s view of the world: her childhood, her family relationships and her girlhood in the courts of Renaissance Europe. Here she is enthralled by female monarchs who think in a new way, who feel that women have greater roles to play than just wives and mothers, who value women’s independence, intelligence and opinions. Most importantly she is told, by the women she respects at court that, above all, a woman’s most important quality is her virginity.

This is not the story of Anne Boleyn which I expected. Cleverly, Weir doesn’t give us the obvious – Anne as seductress or Anne as pawn in parental plan – but a highly original view of a much written-about woman. Once again, her knowledge of her subject and meticulous research has led her to a highly original, if fictional, version of events. There is overlap with Katherine’s story, of course, and what has been particularly interesting for me has been the  fluctuating character of Henry himself. The courtly lover, the tyrannical husband, the statesman and the would-be head of a dynasty are all there but, at the heart of it all is a man afraid that he will never have a son to inherit the kingdom he rules. Like me with running Anne, according to Weir, didn’t set out to become a queen – but when she did accept this as her role (had queen-ness thrust upon her as it were) she tried to do the best she could. I feel the same way about running (but hope that it all ends better in my case). I am also now looking forward to the Jane Seymour novel – I think Weir may even make her interesting for me…

Jane

 

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain – Ian Mortimer

Sometimes I’m a total fool to myself. Case in point: I love reading history books but I have painted myself into a metaphorical corner which means I hardly ever read any actual history any more. Here is my problem – see what you think.  I like to post reviews of as many books as I can – I’ve often been given access to books for free by publishers and authors, the least I can do is feedback what I think. I aim to post reviews here once or twice a week and if I don’t post here I do review on Netgalley, Waterstones.com or Goodreads. I didn’t used to interact with Goodreads much but, at the beginning of this year my eye was caught by their ‘reading challenge’ where contributors were saying how many books they planned to read in a year. Many were pledging to read 30 or 40 books and, if you work, have children or other responsibilities, this is an impressive target: but I don’t have any kids and I work 4 days a week in a bookshop so I thought I’d go a bit higher. And because I’m daft I decided that one book a week wasn’t enough – my target is 126 books in 2017. Two books a week. And, because a really good history book can take me a week or so to fully appreciate, I thought I’d have to miss out on all the fabulous publishing on the subject coming out this year. Sad face. However, I managed to get myself two or three books ahead of schedule, so I decided to treat myself to an author whose history books I have previously enjoyed (and found very easily readable). My 2017 history duck has been broken!

17thThe first Ian Mortimer book I read was his Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England and I loved the way that it covered all the aspects of history which are often overlooked. I used to enjoy a bit of light Live Role Playing – which mostly involved being a medieval-style peasant for a weekend – so it was great to be able to read about the food, clothes and toilet facilities I was role-playing. I have never dressed up and pretended to be a Restoration lady (apart from the odd bit of corsetry, but that’s another story) but I think this book would give me some excellent pointers on how to do it. This is a history of all the people – the Kings (and their many hangers-on, wives, and mistresses), the rich and the poor – and it is the history of their whole lives – what they eat, wear, do for fun and where they…well…poo. Mortimer is convincing about why the late 17th century is a period of revolution: not just in terms of Royal succession or religious tolerance but also in the realms of science, literature, the belief in reason as a higher priority than religion in many areas, and also just in attitudes to life. Women are still very much second-class citizens, the property of some man or other, but some of them become the earliest female actors, authors, painters, and travel writers.

The world Mortimer describes is often ( as 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes said) ‘nasty, brutish and short’. It is full of things we find unfair, ridiculous or even barbaric; it is very smelly, unhealthy and downright dangerous but it is also exciting, full of change and development and contains some brilliant writing (note to self: read some Pepys). It is also starting to become more and more like the world we know today.

Jane

13 Journeys Through Space And Time – Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution

13_journeys

The first recollection I have of one of my all time heroes – the astronomer Carl Sagan – was when he undertook, for the Royal Institution, the Christmas lecture series at the end of 1977. As a fascinated 11-year-old I absorbed it all and I still remember his demonstrations of lunar cratering with the aid of marbles “except you don’t find marbles down craters”, as well as his talk around the still-new Viking Mars missions and the just-launched Voyager mission with the interstellar record of music and messages to be a present for any future aliens who might find it.

A precis of Sagan’s lecture is just one of the thirteen summarised in this lovely little book – a great present for Christmas – which brings back historic lectures, aimed at young audiences, on the subject of space and time, ranging from  1881 to 2015. The book is a fascinating mixture of lecture history, science, RI archive content such as handwritten letters, and photographs and transcripts. The book explores what we thought we knew then and what has been discovered since. The emphasis of the lecture series has always been ‘don’t just tell – show’ – which is brought out well in the book with drawings and photographs of how children from the audience, from decade to decade, have been invited down to get involved in experiments in the Faraday Lecture Theatre.

The earlier ones – Robert Stalwell Ball of 1881, Herbert Hall Turner of 1913 are lovely period pieces, indeed Ball’s own full lecture notes – available in his book “Star-land” – are full of the more poetic language of the age.  Compiler Colin Stuart compares what was believed then, with what is known now – for example the common belief in 1881 that the lunar craters were volcanic in origin, and the Martian Canals controversy – active from the late 19th to the early 20th century – was a common theme returned to in the earlier lectures.

Classic lectures by the giants of the mid-20th-century follow by James Jeans, Harold Spencer-Jones and a team led by Bernard Lovell, and as we move into the space age proper the latest lectures by Monica Grady and Kevin Fong continue to find ways of showing cutting-edge science to a young audience. In the final lecture Kevin Fong introduces British astronaut Tim Peake via video screen to talk to the audience – live- from orbit in the International Space Station, a sight that Robert Ball would no doubt have loved to have witnessed.

This is a great and unusual little book for all ages to enjoy.

Rob

13 Journeys Through Space and Time: Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution by Colin Stuart, with a foreword from British ESA astronaut Tim Peake. 224pp, Michael O’Mara publishing

http://www.mombooks.com/books/13-journeys-through-space-and-time-9781782436874/

http://www.rigb.org/

The Interconnectedness of historical things

When I was young – pre-teen I think – I was introduced to historical fiction by my Mum in the form of the works of Jean Plaidy. I read stories about the Empress Matilda, Mary Queen of Scots, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Elizabeth I and Victoria and Mum still reckons one her proudest moments was when I came to her with my discovery that they all came in a particular order. That Matilda (and Steven) came before Eleanor and that Elizabeth I reigned before Victoria was something I worked out for myself from the stories. It is something which seems so obvious now after seven years of dedicated history lessons at school – not to mention nearly forty years of historical fiction reading and numerous tv series from David Starkey, Helen Castor, Neil Oliver and others – but at that age working out that there is a chronology and an order to events in history seemed an achievement. The subject has often in the past been taught in a piecemeal manner – Vikings followed by Tudors followed by the Victorians and then back to Romans – although recent curriculum changes mean that a chronological approach is now used. I don’t often say Gove was right but in this case he may have had a point…

Recently I have been following an online course on Richard III and that has given me another revelation on the complete interconnectedness of events in history. The Black Death was a contributing factor to the Peasant’s Revolt. Which meant, in turn, that the armies which followed Henry V to Agincourt were largely free men being paid for their service rather than vassals of the Lords they served under. And then, of course, Henry V’s early death eventually led into the Wars of the Roses and the rise of the Tudors….It almost seems, at times, as if Dirk Gently was right – it’s a wonder historians aren’t a lot richer (but they could be if Dirk was in charge of the billing!)

agincourt england ariseWhich leads me on to the actual history books I have been reading. Both are by Juliet Barker, a historian born in Yorkshire and still living here, and both shed new light on historical events which we tend to think we know about. And yet, it turns out that many of these ‘facts’ are the kind of thing that could lead to klaxons and minus points if they came up on QI. Luckily, Barker provides lots of background and explanation for why what we thought we knew we were wrong about and fleshes out her history with plenty of personal details for many of the people involved. Her style is really readable but there are lots and lots of lovely footnotes if you really want to lose yourself in the period.

Let us take Agincourt as an example. We all know that the British won at Agincourt because our archers were so deadly they killed the French men-at-arms with their hails of arrows – and we are all wrong. apparently, although the archers were instrumental in ensuring that the French army was not as effective as the English and the French casualties were much, much higher than the English the majority of them occurred during vicious hand to hand combat. However, to compensate for the loss of that ‘fact’ we learn a huge amount about how and why Henry V fought the campaign. It certainly seems an added tragedy that Henry V died relatively young – he was, it seems, a fine king who combined being a soldier and a diplomat with a strong grasp of what was necessary in terms of politics and finance. He took the responsibilities of Kingship very seriously and seemed to make sure that this attitude was passed down the hierarchical line. He appears to have tried to ensure that he had the support of everyone – the nobility, the people and the church – before he went to war and this seems to be a lesson which many in the modern age are still to learn.

England, Arise, on the other hand, is Barker’s look at the so-called Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Which was the work of men and women from all walks of life – merchants, gentlemen and even MPs – rather than a ‘working-class’ uprising, which shed very little blood (but destroyed a large amount of documents and property), and which was probably not necessarily led by Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Balle. We do end up with some really interesting speculation about Richard II – he was very young but seemed to be willing to compromise on many of the people’s demands and was only deterred by the older men around him. It is fascinating to think that if he had been just a little older and more in charge of his own rule, if the revolt had taken place just a few years later, the social structure of English society could have been radically altered.

daughter of timeFinally this took me back to my reading of Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. This was a book which many of the people on  the online Richard III course I took recommended everyone to read – particularly the Ricardians who saw it as correcting the lies told by the Tudors about the king they defeated at Bosworth – so I thought I should give it a go. In many ways they were right to recommend it as it is an interestingly written crime novel with a typically maverick detective and a mystery which needs solving. In terms of the historical mystery – why is there such a contrast between what we know of Richard’s evil reputation and our instinctive reaction to his face? – the solution given is a little too easy and seems to involve some slightly dubious facts but I still enjoyed reading the book. Mostly because it made me think about history itself and how we read and write about it. It seems to me that we need to be constantly reminding ourselves that history is almost always dealing with assumptions and that facts can be open to interpretation.

Jane