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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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

 

Playing catch-up. Again…

Oh dear. I’ve gotten behind again with reviews and I don’t even have the excuse of a big work event to blame. I think I just got distracted and lost my mojo a little – so here is a round-up of some of the books I’ve been reading in the past few weeks. It looks like quite a varied mix of adult and YA fiction with a little history thrown in. Story of my reading life really (although I do usually read a better mix of male/female authors).

The Cows – Dawn O’Porter

the-cows-by-dawn-o-porterThis is the story of three modern women: Tara, a single mother, Stella, a PA who is haunted by thoughts of her dead twin and Cammie, a take-no-prisoners lifestyle blogger. It would be wrong to say they represent a full range of women today – they are all much of an age, all based in London, all white, all working in the arts in some way – but they do show different ways of being a youngish woman in their world. Women are often judged by their appearance, their sexuality and their ability to produce children – very much like the cows of the title – and these three are no exception. Their lives start to entwine when Tara becomes an internet sensation (after being filmed in an extremely compromising, and solo, position on the Tube) and we explore all three women’s attitudes to sex, motherhood, life and, possibly, death.

The book is very funny, fairly rude and, at some points, pretty sad. O’Porter doesn’t pull too many punches about the way women are expected to live their lives: her characters, rather wonderfully, end up refusing to conform to these expectations. Not because feminism told them to but because they realise that they need to live a more honest life – to be themselves rather than the women they are expected to be.

The Walworth Beauty – Michèle Roberts

walworthThis is the story of Walworth, a district of South-East London which I’ll admit I wasn’t familiar with (turns out it’s the bit with the Elephant & Castle and Old Kent Road). The story is told through two timelines: in modern-day Walworth Madeleine moves into a small garden flat after losing her job as a lecturer and in the 1850s Joseph Benson is working for Henry Mayhew on the articles which later became London Labour and the London Poor. Benson’s job is to interview the less virtuous poor – thieves, rogues and prostitutes – and, in the course of his work, he becomes fascinated with a Mrs Dulcimer, who runs a boarding house on the street where Madeleine will live 160 years later.

This book is an insight into the lives of various underclasses in the mid-Victorian era – Benson has a weakness for strong drink and working girls, Mrs Dulcimer is a black woman in a world which treats both her sex and her race as inferior, the girls who live with her struggle to survive without turning to prostitution. In the parts of the book set in the present day some of the characters are generally better off financially but they still have struggles – young women still have to fight hard to make their way in the world, older ones find themselves neglected and the pace of modern life leaves many struggling to make sense of the world. There is an air of slight menace as the two timelines wash up against each other – each era haunts the other as if the layers of history were two decks of cards being shuffled together. It is both a contemporary and a historical novel and we find that the two have as many similarities as differences.

What Regency Women Did For Us – Rachel Knowles

I recently reviewed a wonderful book of biographies of women aimed at primary-age children. This book is a little more specific, focussing on women who lived between the 1730s and 1850s, and is aimed more at an adult market but I feel it would still be useful for older children who were interested in women’s history. I love history and will happily (if I can make the time) read lovely big, thick, detailed histories of medieval queens or scientific movements. This book seems to be more along the lines of popular history so if you just want a quick overview of the lives of women in the Regency period this could be the way to go.

WRWDFU cover for blogThe book covered an interesting selection of women including those I’m sure most people will have heard of, like Jane Austen or Madame Tussaud, some known to those with a little knowledge of the era, like Maria Edgeworth (for those who know more on the literature side) or Caroline Herschel (for those who lean to the scientific). There are short biographies, a summary of their work and achievements and also of their legacy, and they should serve as a great starting point for any more detailed reading. I think I may now be led on to investigating further into the life and works of some of the women here who I was either unaware of or only knew by name. Harriot Mellon sounds like a place to start, or maybe Mary Parminter….Ah well, all the best reading just leads onto more books!

Best of Adam Sharp – Graeme Simsion

The whole ‘difficult second album’ thing seems to be an accepted thing and it can also apply to novelists. I, like an awful lot of people, absolutely loved Simsion’s first novel, The Rosie Project. I read the follow-up and, while I enjoyed it, it didn’t have quite the same impact. The first book, however, was wonderful enough that I will leap on anything new which the author produces so I was glad to find that this book is at least as good as the previous one.

41Ui3mMfFfL._AC_UL320_SR200,320_Adam Sharp is an IT consultant approaching his 50th birthday. He earns decent money, has a house, as much work as he needs and is a fixture on the local pub-quiz scene (specialist subject probably pre-eighties music). But he has worries, he’s not as fit as once was, his mother is getting frail in her old age and his marriage could be described as amicable at best. This situation could have been enough for Adam if, out of the blue, an email from an old flame hadn’t reminded him of the heady days of his youth when he fell in love with an Australian actress, played piano in a bar for tips but turned his back on that life when his IT job demanded he move on.

The novel shows us how that relationship played out twenty odd years ago, and how it ended. We also see Adam’s rather staid relationship with his wife, Claire, and the rather more unusual one, in the present day, between the actress, Angelina, and her husband Charlie. Although these relationships are at the heart of the story for me the main point of the book was Adam’s gradual acceptance of the fact that he was a real adult. As a young man of 26 he was torn between what appeared to be the love of his life and the need to establish himself in his chosen career. At 50 his decisions will affect more people than just himself – he has to be the grown-up he thought he already was twenty years ago.

There is a lot of music in the book – like all ‘best of…’ albums it highlights moments of the characters lives with songs – mostly from the 60s and 70s. I was good with most of the pop and rock songs although I’ll admit to not knowing quite a few of the more jazzy tracks. So as well as giving me a story I enjoyed Simsion is adding to my ongoing musical education…

Running on the Cracks – Julia Donaldson

If the previous book was a departure from the author’s previous books (less obviously humorous, change of main character) then so is this one. Julia Donaldson is known and loved by virtually every child and parent I have ever met and she is, quite possibly, the queen of storytellers in the 0-5 and 5-8 age groups. Lets face it, I probably don’t need to even tell you this, you probably (like most of us) know most of the words to The Gruffalo without needing to look at the book….This book, however, is a bit different since it is aimed at a much older readership and is being marketed at the younger end of the teen market.

978140522233415-year-old Leonora (Leo to her friends) has run away. Her parents have died in an accident and she is living with her aunt, her bitchy cousins and her slightly creepy uncle. She runs to Glasgow in the hope of finding her chinese father’s family but ends up sleeping on a bench until she is taken in by an odd but kind woman named Mary. She makes friends with would-be Goth Finlay and sets about searching for her family, avoiding her uncle (who gets even creepier) and working out how best to help Mary, who is obviously struggling with her mental health. I would say this is a book firmly aimed at the younger teen – it is generally restrained in its language (hovering at the ‘bloody’ level of swearing), the slightly predatory uncle is creepy but never gets as far as being overtly sexual and there is no romance angle to the relationship between the youngsters. There are serious issues covered, the plight of runaway children, the problems inherent in mental health care, immigrant communities and the difficulties youngsters have in feeling like they ‘fit in’. I liked the main characters, particularly Finlay and Mary, and thought the plot was good. This isn’t a new book, it came out in 2009, but I hope that Donaldson makes some time to write more for older children.

Jane

 

 

Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen – Alison Weir

I’ve read a fair amount of Alison Weir’s history books – she tends to write about women, mostly in the medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan period and these are all things which interest me, history-wise. I read a couple of her first forays into fiction, Innocent Traitor which was about Lady Jane Grey, and a novel covering the early years of a future queen, The Lady Elizabeth and I enjoyed them both (even though, let’s be honest, I knew how they would end…). I particularly liked the fact that I can read Weir’s non-fiction works on the same period and/or characters. That seems to be like a window on to what has inspired her as an author – always a fascinating prospect.

alison weirOf course with the story of Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife and the one who, arguably, caused many of the future problems for the Tudors, is well-known so it is interesting to see what can be done with it. And, to be fair, I think Alison Weir has crafted a fairly compelling story around the accepted facts. Probably because, as a historian she can explore more than just the obvious parts of the tale – I was especially struck by the way that she used extracts from actual letters written by Katherine and others. In fact it took me a little while to realise that real correspondence was being quoted as it was slotted into the action so well.

Because the events of this story are a matter of historical record – and I’d assume that, like me, those who read historical fiction are also interested in the history itself – I’m not really going to talk about them. But what I was really struck by was how difficult life was for women. They are property, to be married off for political reasons and, if their husband dies, they will be passed on to the next candidate or sent back to parents who will probably be looking to the nearest nunnery. The need for kings to father the next generation, to continue the line, is so paramount that they will marry young girls to old men and even consider marrying relations so near that they have to get Papal permission to break biblical law. This, of course, is a well-worn trope but in this book we also get to consider the importance of Queenship – Katherine is an anointed queen and is the daughter of both a king and, more importantly, a queen regnant: she feels, I think, that to be a queen is (to quote the Blues Brothers rather incongruously) a mission from God. The tragedy is that she cannot accept that a King, even the husband she loves so much, has the right to deflect her from that mission. This is, essentially, the story of two rights. It seems to me that both sides probably sincerely believed in their own position and feared that they would probably suffer eternally if they gave way to the other.

Jane