The Private Lives of the Tudors by Tracy Borman; Kings, Queens and their daily lives

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This immense non fiction book on a subject many people feel they know something about has one great advantage over many History books; it reads like a novel. Anyone with the sketchiest knowledge of British history has some insight into the remarkably short- lived ruling dynasty of the Tudors. Featuring only five actual monarchs, their diverse personalities and ruling styles meant changes to virtually everyone in the country, as religious practices changed, religious houses dissolved, and for the first time a woman ruled in her own name. This book goes beyond the big events and politics to reveal the tiny, intimate details of the lives of the rulers as they variously fought the forces of time, disappointment in male heirs, servants and attendants who knew so much of their often fragile bodies. This is an ideal book for everyone who has ever been curious as to how long it took to dress a queen with the “Mask of Youth” as well as those vaguely amused by such titles as “The Master of the Stool”. The clothes, the cures, the paintings and the pets are all forensically examined, but in such a flowing and natural way that a vast amount of information is absorbed without apparent effort on the part of the reader.

As with all the most comprehensive books on the Tudor dynasty, this book opens in 1485 with the confirmation of Henry VI as undeniable ruler following thirty years of instability and worse in the wars of the Houses of York and Lancaster. While there was relief at this advent of a king who quickly married the surviving heir of the House of York to confirm the end of dispute, there were still unanswered questions about pretenders to the throne which threatened the very life of Henry and his wife Elizabeth. Borman gives us details of not only royal beds, pregnancies and clothes as status symbols, but also expands into contrasting with that of the other people in the country, who remade clothes and left them in wills. The section on Henry VIII reveals his obsession with his clothes and how few survive as he handed them on as generous and sometimes political gifts. His obsession with his health and the concoctions he depended on showed his real fear that he would die without a solid succession; his sole male heir was highly prized and guarded from the moment of his birth. Edward’s own reign was dominated by the politics of those around him, as his minority rule meant that his contact with even his half sisters was closely monitored. The many theories as to his health and early death are dealt with here, as even the best medical advice of the time was unsuccessfully applied. Mary’s brief reign was dominated by her marriage and her unsuccessful attempts to bear a child, her likely long term health problems are also aired. It is when she writes of Elizabeth that Borman really expresses her knowledge to the extent of how long it would take her to dress, her taste for gorgeous and expensive fabrics, how the make up she favoured all contributed to her image as the goddess queen, above mere human aging. The long section on her death is fascinating, as her will to live and her refusal to accept her frailty persisted. Her successor, the Stuart James, is quickly dealt with as the contrast with the glory of her person and her carefully constructed reign.

This well illustrated book is surprisingly easy to read, yet with over seventy pages of notes and index this is a thoroughly researched academic book in its own right. For general readers, for those with an academic interest, for all those fascinated with the Tudor monarchs and those around them, this is a fascinating book and an undoubted treat.

I have actually got a signed copy of this book as Northernvicar and I travelled to Hampton Court and heard Tracy Borman speak on this book with excellent illustrations. She is an excellent speaker and generous with her vast knowledge of the Tudors. I have been lucky enough to get a copy of her first novel “The King’s Witch” to read and review, and already I have enjoyed several hours of this brilliantly written book. Highly recommended thus far!

The Division Bell Mystery by Ellen Wilkinson – A British Library Crime Classic with extra information

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This is a British Library Crime Classic with rare distinction; its author, Ellen Wilkinson, was one of the earliest women MPs in the House of Commons, and its original publication in 1932 was a contribution to the rise of the Golden Age of Detection. Sadly, it was the only mystery novel which Wilkinson wrote, in which she demonstrated a sure grasp of characters, plot and most impressively, setting. More than a seemingly impossible murder, this book has resonances of a political nature as despite her assurance that all characters are “entirely fictitious”, it is possible to see portraits of contemporary politicians. Solidly placed in an environment that could be verified, this is an ambitious yet controlled book in which many points are made about the status of politicians away from the public eye, and the few women MPs who appear in the novel. I was happy to receive a review copy of this novel, which includes a Preface concerning Wilkinson’s life and times by Rachel Reeves MP as well as Martin Edwards’ valuable Introduction which puts this book in its literary context.

Robert West is a young, solid and ambitious parliamentary private secretary who has invited an old friend to visit him in the Houses of Parliament. He has also facilitated a meeting between his boss, the Home Secretary and an international financier, Georges Oissel, in a private dining room, to discuss a loan that the Government needs. All seems to be going well until the Division Bell rings to summon all the MPs to vote, and just then a shot rings out. As West and his friend Shaw burst into the room, the body of Oissel is discovered alone with a gun. West decides to discover whether this apparent suicide was in fact murder, especially when a burglary of the financier’s home results in the death of a popular bodyguard. In addition, Annette, Oissel’s granddaughter and heir, insists that he did not commit suicide. Mixed motives and a political scandal all propel a lacklustre police investigation as many people try to find out what really happened. Two women MPs aid and abet the search for truth, as Labour MP Grace Richards uses her wit and intelligence to deflect attention from West and the rather overbearing society hostess Lady Bell – Clinton gets involved.

This is an impressive debut as Wilkinson keeps the action moving despite imparting a lot of political themes, of old established politicians and bright younger people emerge. Deep financial problems mirror the truths of a Depression which would motivate Wilkinson’s own political actions. While the reader needs no special knowledge of Parliamentary procedure to enjoy this book greatly, all those with an interest in the actual roles and lives of MPs will find it fascinating. The geography of the House is important, as is the procedures, customs and politics of an MP’s daily life in the early 1930s. Wilkinson was a more than competent writer of what she knew, politics and people, and although her characters are rather straightforward and simple she develops an interesting plot well, using her amateur and easily influenced leading character. I was a little disappointed that she did not examine the impact of women in Parliament in more detail, but the mystery element is reasonably well worked out. Read this book for the mystery, and pick up a lot of knowledge about Parliament and politics of the interwar period.

This is an excellent volume in the British Library series, which has done so much to increase appreciation of the popular detection novel of the mid twentieth century. I find the character of “Red Ellen”” fascinating, and I will enjoy looking out her only other novel, “Clash” which I picked up a while ago.

The Bomb Girls by Daisy Styles – Women together fighting on the Home Front

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In a way, this is an easy to read romantic saga. It has it all; a group of young women up against a new and frightening situation, a wartime setting, challenges that will have an impact on their lives and not always in a positive way. Looked at in another way of course this is a book which poses the view that women, when acting together, are so much stronger than any other force. They can give each other the respect, self – belief and strength that they need to succeed, or at least survive. In some ways this book, though written recently, attempts to capture something of the spirit of life on the Home Front in the Second World War, when the absence of many men put women into a new sort of battle front.

It is perhaps easy not to know, or appreciate, that young women were not only called up to do war work, but that it often meant relocating to new and perhaps very different places. While Emily and Alice are to stay local to the village they grew up in, they have to give their dreams and ambitions. Emily is a talented and innovative cook who dreams of becoming a chef, and she has already discovered love with Bill Redmond, a local man. Alice has a great talent for study and especially languages. Despite these skills, they are both called up to work on the munitions line in a factory. Lillian must relocate from Bradford, losing her hairdressing business, and she tries to take any measures to avoid conscription. Agnes has her tragic reasons to want to move into the area, making the best of her problems. Little Elsie sees a new hope when she sees the order to move as freeing her from the abuses of her family. The young women are put into a converted accommodation block, and together work to make life more bearable on the assembly line where one mistake could have disastrous consequences.  Together they fall in love, discover new skills, and sometimes make mistakes. Situations arise which test each one to the limits, and yet they have to forge new friendships and relationships as people come and go with the fortunes of war. No day seems to pass without dramatic incident, and this book is anything but boring. Hope overcomes in so many cases, but there are still tragedies and concerns for each woman. Sometimes the melodrama seems overwhelming, but there still seems to be love and hope in so many circumstances.

So much of human life is represented by this book, and it is an entertaining read. There is satisfaction in many of the developments and some shocks in this book; in the manner of a good drama many characters and situations are kept going as each is given its full weight. Some of the events strain credibility in some respects, but this is fiction and needs to keep moving and achieve satisfactory consequences. Each girl comes to show extraordinary gifts or courage in their way. It is a book which keeps moving, keeps changing, and is always interesting. Perhaps not to every taste, this is a largely affirming book of women making a contribution to the war effort and living their lives in the best way they can together.

I think you will agree that this was  another different type of book for review. Coming up in the next week or so I hope to post on a non fiction Tudor book, the latest British Library Crime Classic and some other books that have appeared on my radar. Meanwhile, a book group on Middlemarch – but who will have finished Eliot’s wonderful book?

Writers as Readers – A Celebration of Virago Modern Classics

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This unique book, beautifully produced by Virago Modern Classics in celebration of forty years of Virago Classics publishing, is a real treat. It may also involve you in further expense, book collecting and generally reading more. It is at once a super idea, having well known authors write introductions to the books that have been rediscovered and republished, as well as a collection of writing by those authors who reflection on the significance of another author’s work on their own lives, reading and or writing. These are women authors, some of whom have never slipped out of print, others relatively unknown, and as the introduction states “If women’s stories aren’t published in all their variety, their voices are silenced, and only part of human experience – in both historical and the imaginative landscapes  – is represented.” Thus mainly women, and a few men, reflect on an author’s writing generally in forty short, pithy pieces, sometimes introducing, sometimes producing an essay on a series of books.

The greatest strength of this book probably lies in the fact that it covers well known authors which most people would recognise, as well as those yet to be discovered. Thus we have Austen, two Brontes, and du Maurier. These are covered by such as Margaret Drabble, Angela Carter and a favourite of mine, Sarah Dunant. This is the joy of this book; if you do not read it for the authors introduced, though the range is huge, you can read it for those writing the introduction. Thus Hilary Mantel writes about Elizabeth Taylor, Penelope Fitzgerald introduces Rose Macaulay, and Alexander McCall Smith writes a lively piece on my favourite, Angela Thirkell. Thus there are pieces you will have already discovered in actual books, whereas there are new treats of brilliant pairing such as Sarah Waters on Sylvia Townshend Warner, and Sophie Dahl on Stella Gibbons. Thus the racy comic writer Jilly Cooper gives her thoughts on the extremely funny E.M. Delafield’s “Diary of a Provincial Lady”, an insightful piece on the life and works of an accomplished writer. These pieces also vary in terms of length and content; some are brief introductions with one book in mind, others are longer pieces of writing which bring in the whole context of the author’s life and times, highlighting particular works. Most memorable for me was the essay by Mark Bostridge on Vera Brittain, as he has written much on the life of the writer and speaker. Thus he quotes her own diary entry after the publication of “Testament of Youth” “Never did I imagine that the Testament would inspire such praise at such length, or provoke – in smaller doses- so much abuse”. This is a writer who really knows his subject, and who gives such extensive footnotes that no assertion is unsubstantiated. Each writer is genuinely enthusiastic about their subject, and it has the effect of sending this reader off to seek out so many books.

It is difficult to write a detailed review of a book which contains so many gems of reviews of itself. I will admit some pieces were less interesting to me, but I have no doubt that they would appeal greatly to others. Not a book to read at one sitting, but an undoubted celebration of many writers in many ways.

This book is available in hardback at the moment, so correspondingly rather expensive. This is a book to posses if you can – if you borrow it you will possibly want to keep it for future reference!

So the end of series four of Poldark has been and gone. Those of us who have read the “Angry Tide” have been waiting for the tragic events of the last episode to happen, and indeed have perhaps been avoiding letting too much slip .Here is a very interesting article on the relative lack of attention that the four series have attracted compared to less watched series perhaps deemed more fashionable. Certainly it is interesting that The Poldark novels are shelved with “Romance” by WH Smiths; there is so much more to them as anyone who has read the books will know!

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome – a classically funny book

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This is a classic in all senses. It is the classic English, gently comic, novel. It is a classic piece of late Victorian writing, originally published in 1889. It is descriptive of a way of life and the countryside around the river, but also the misadventures of three young men and some of their reflections on life. Even the dog, Montmorency, has his standards and indeed experiences of meeting other dogs, fine fights and meals. Life is simple, but inanimate objects, the scenery and the whole process of getting the boat along the river can be difficult, and our hero, George and Harris, have to take on many difficulties and indeed each other on occasions. Legend have just reissued this classic in a most readable and enjoyable format, and I was pleased to receive a review copy to enjoy reading again.

The unnamed narrator of the book, being a convinced hypochondriac, has been working his way through a medical dictionary and is therefore convinced he needs a holiday. Being a victim of advertising, he, George and Harris decide that their combined seediness means they ought to have a holiday, and the river is agreed on as preferable to a sea trip, with all its attendant dangers of sea sickness which the narrator expounds on at length. Packing all the food, clothes, basic cooking equipment and other items judged to be essential is quite a performance, amidst much reflection and high jinks. Taking the boat up the river until they meet with George who has had to visit his place of employment has its challenges. There are many well known incidents which he describes in this short but discursive book; the dangers of towing a boat, the attractions or otherwise of churches alongside the river, the problems of finding a way of Hampton Court maze. This is an all male book, but there are passages which reflect on girls on the river getting distracted by chatting or being profoundly upset at the experience of getting their clothes dirty. Cooking, rowing, finding accommodation in villages, trying to sleep on the boat all have their humourous side, and taken in the right way this is a very funny book.

Many Victorian novels are known to be socially or morally based, and can often be quite dour if not depressing. This, like “Diary of a Nobody”, features an unreliable narrator, no big dramas, and is a relaxing read. Full of funny incidents, passages of exaggeration and local colour, there is only one incident which is seen as a familiar story of a desperate unmarried mother. Otherwise, there are self-consciously purple passages of history and natural lore, dogs winning fights and a stupendous irish stew. This is a lovely clear edition of a novel which can genuinely be enjoyed by most people, well set out and good to handle. The author states, ironically, “The chief beauty of this book lies not so much in its literary style…as its simple truthfulness”.

So another type of book reviewed, and a refreshingly cheerful one at that. Sometimes it is good to find a book that is funny and cheerful in the midst of many that are far from happy. It does not take long to read, but it is a definitely different sort of book, and quite possibly an acquired taste!

An Armful of Babies and a Cup of Tea by Molly Corbally: The beginning of the British Welfare State made Human

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This “Memoirs of a 1950s Health Visitor” is not usually the sort of book I would read if I’m honest, but having been offered a copy to review I picked it up and soon found myself hooked on this gentle recollection of life. Written as a memory of a life rich in possibilities as the new NHS tried to change the life of people in a largely rural area, the characters are as rich as any fictional account of life at the time. The arrangement of the recollections are well balanced and frequently hopeful; this is not an account of misery and suffering, but a largely positive collection of real life situations. Though largely about parents and children, this book also reminds us of how Health Visitors were also concerned with older people for whom life had become challenging, and for whom an emerging Welfare State was a new concept.

Molly Corbally had served as a nurse in the Second World War, and was keen to start a new way of life after the sharing of quarters and the responding to orders were over. She became one of the New District Health Visitors, who after a fairly brief training was sent out into a community with all its mixture of classes, income, rural, town and village all had its needs and challenges. Setting up home with a friend, Eileen, a Nursing Officer, they discovered the virtues of their own home and importantly a garden. In a new uniform, Molly discovers that she not only has to find the courage to approach new mothers in their homes, but also deal with those who had been running the clinics and voluntary charities for many years in their own way. Thus doctors, midwives, and local officials had to be approached with tact and strategy, so that they did not feel that a relatively young and new woman was bulldozing into their established practices. Women at the most vulnerable time of their lives had to be persuaded and convinced to adopt skills which may have challenged the assumed wisdom of their families; the interests of babies and young children had to be paramount over pride and practice. This was in the time when children had to be vaccinated against such things as polio for the first time, and early symptoms of such diseases had to be acted on in time of epidemic. Some familiar issues are recalled as families fight against elderly parents going into care so that their inheritance is threatened, and Molly has to act to arrange basic meals and care for those on their own. Domestic neglect and abuse has to be assessed and sorted out, especially where post war housing shortages and lack of protection for tenants meant that even the pregnant and small children were threatened with homelessness. Sometimes common sense prevails, at other times the difficulties are too profound. There is a chapter which deals with the death of two adults in a very tender way, though mercifully virtually all the children are shown sufficient and well advised care.

This is a gentle yet powerful book which deals on a human scale with the beginnings of the welfare state, as people come to recognise that there is genuine help and advice available if it can be accepted. As a piece of writing there are some little problems as the narrative jumps from one family or patient quickly without much warning, and sometimes the following of a theme means that there is not much indication of a time setting as the entire book presumably stretches over more than one decade. It is honest, as Molly shares her apprehension at advising the wife of a new doctor who has some differing ideas and her frustration with those who question newer ideas. Sometimes her accounts of her home life though fascinating does not blend so well with her recollections of work. Also, she has obviously chosen those stories which are positive, rather than perhaps recalling the daily frustrations of a huge task. Overall this is a satisfying book, steady and rewarding, and a fascinating account of everyday life in a time of change.

So, a very different book review today, but as you may appreciate from reading this blog, I do enjoy a wide variety of reading matter! Having been approached by “Two Roads” to review this book, it turned out to be a really good read. I do welcome approaches to review books, and while I do have regular dates and some blog tours to come, I will tackle most things! The only stipulation is that I review “Real” books ie hard copies, rather than ebooks in any format. There is still room in the house (just!)

The Arsenal Stadium Mystery by Leonard Gribble – A British Library Crime Classic with sporting suspense!

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A murder mystery based on a football match is rare, and perhaps not generally appealing those not interested in sport. Fortunately for those not massively knowledgeable about the football teams of the 1930s, most of the facts about the game are either given or not vital to understanding the plot. It is in fact an intriguing murder mystery irrespective of its setting, but its football theme gives another closed community from which the police must discover their suspect and find the supporting evidence.  In its time this was very much a fashionable book, tied to a film version of the mystery and featuring a facsimile of the autographs of the actual Arsenal team of the time. It came very close to being a celebrity book, with the prolific writer Leonard Gribble providing the mystery which featured at least one real person. I was very pleased to receive a review copy of this book, well produced in its new British Library Crime Classic cover.

The action of this book begins with a football match between Arsenal and a fictional amateur team, the Trojans. Although the Gunners are playing well, the Trojans are worthy opponents and their new player Doyce is making a notable contribution. A dramatic fall leads to an investigation which draws in the police in the persons of Inspector Slade and his sergeant Clinton. A wide ranging discovery of motives and clues takes in the women associated with the teams, as well as memories of past tragedies. Certain technical details of poisoning feature, as in many respects this is a traditional whodunnit with the police trying to work out the how, who and why, if only because one rather leads into another. The geography of the (real) Arsenal stadium of the day means that  only a certain number of people had access to the relevant room at the vital time, so the range of suspects is limited as in any good murder mystery, but there are plenty of surprises to come in this twisting novel. Slade makes one imaginative leap but essentially it is a logically worked out novel, with suspense until the last few pages.

I must admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm for this novel before I started, as my football knowledge was only extensive in the 1970s. Having started to read, and using the listing of the teams, however, I soon began to be drawn into this well written novel, featuring well written characters in what became realistic settings. Gribble was obviously a writer who appreciated the value of minor characters, as even the caretaker of some flats is well drawn. The women in the novel are not always terrifically active, but that is partly because of the largely male /football setting. The two or three who do feature are so opposite to each other that they manage to be significant. A well paced novel with an helpful and informative Introduction from Martin Edwards, this is to be recommended to even the most football resistant mystery fan, and there is much to be enjoyed as even Slade’s sidekick wonders if he has  successfully solved the crime.

Two murder mystery reviews in one week does not mean that I have not been reading other sorts of books! Other reviews are and will be available.

I am waiting for a delivery of delicious ice cream from a charity ice cream maker in Derby “Just Ice” if you want to look up their mouth watering flavours. It’s not all for me and Northernvicar though, as we are hoping that some people will join us for the Vicarage Tea Party tomorrow….!