The Mistresses of Cliveden – Natalie Livingstone- Scandal to Scandal??

When not ploughing through novels, collecting books or generally sorting out Northernvicar, I like to read history books. Indeed, our dining room benefits from no less than five bookshelves full of them…Some periods of history are better represented than others, especially British 20th century, so those shelves are a bit double banked (whoops). As we have not long moved into this house, that means that either I organised it badly, or that I have lots of books in that section anyway. Either way, there’s a lot to read.

One book that is really difficult to shelve is The Mistresses of  Cliveden.  I spotted this book when it came out in hardback, and rejected buying it as I was not sure that I would ever actually read it,and it was expensive. When I realised that it was out in paperback, I read the review by dovegreyreader, and was taken with the idea of the book as being written from the point of view of the women who had lived there. I have a vague memory of an aunt working in the hotel in the 1980s…

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This is a book which ranges from the first building on the site in the 1660s to the troubles of the 1960s, but it is not necessary to have knowledge of the house or the gardens to really enjoy this book. It is, as it says in one synopsis, “the ways in which exceptional women defy the expectations of their time”.

Thee book is divided into five sections, each named for the woman who was “in charge” over the years. They were all significant in society at the time, obviously as it was such a large establishment and near enough to London to allow political activities, including the first woman to take her seat in the Commons, and to be in constant touch with the royal family, as Harriet was a close friend of Queen Victoria. The first lady of the house, Anna Maria, shared the house with her notorious lover’s, Buckingham, wife, Mary Villiers, which must have been difficult, even though they became friends. Her successor, Elizabeth, also obtained the house as a result of illicit romance, but became a star of the royal court and the friend of writers. Augusta, Princess of Wales, was the mother of many as well as a shrewd political operator. My favourite was Harriet, who was such a great friend of the Queen that she was one of the few allowed to visit in the aftermath of  Prince Albert’s death. Nancy Astor comes over as an infuriating and often troubled woman, but who did much to raise the profile of women in politics. She was much criticised for some of her actions and alliances, but like all the women in this book, must have been impossible to ignore.

If the above makes this book sound as if it requires a detailed knowledge of British history over three centuries, well, I did not find it a problem at all. It is so readable because it follows the women in their lives, even if much of the time they were not  present at Cliveden, and highlights just how difficult life was even for the rich. Multiple pregnancies and the death of children and husbands were only some of the challenges faced; the political and social pressures on these women made their lives tough. This is women’s history, but also social history and a demonstration of the sheer will power and tenacity of the individuals involved. It is not a quick read, but a fascinating one that kept me picking up the book and enjoying it.

My Family and Other Animals – Gerald Durrell

This is a book which most people would enjoy hugely. I read it in a Slightly Foxed Edition, but I am sure that it is easily available in many versions. It provided the basis for the recent tv version, which I haven’t seen yet, but will definitely try to now.

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There are three elements of this book; the Greek island of Corfu, the animals (and other creatures) which the narrator collects, and a singular family. I’m not always fond of books set in “the Abroad” as my TEFL tutor called it, but this sounds a beautiful place in which to explore, capsize boats, and discover some very wild wildlife. The creatures which Durrell describes so well have great personality, and acquire some great names, whether they be pregnant scorpions which deposit babies over brother’s beds, or a huge sea gull (not an albatross…) who gets loose under a table at an animal ridden party. The party is also enlivened by snakes in a bath; an obvious solution to a problem at the time, and the “Magenpies” who rearrange the tables. The Family are strange beasts themselves. I was not convinced by Margo, but the brothers who variously write mysterious manuscripts and shoot things are marvelously eccentric as young men. I will now go and track down some of Laurence’s actual books, which I do not believe are comedies…My favourite character is Mother. Delightfully vague, she is easily persuaded to buy smaller or bigger villas depending on whether they wish to encourage particular visitors or not, and accepts the somewhat challenging behaviour of her offspring calmly, even if it extends to burning down part of the house. Even she acquires  an animal, whose devotion to her upsets even more the already upset domestic arrangements. I was so glad to read the later, but no less funny, story about her in “Marrrying Off Mother ” which I wrote about recently.

I realise of course that everyone else has read an enjoyed this book years ago, but if you want a cheerful book set in a beautiful place that is genuinely funny, this is a great read. Oh, and there are many, many, animals.

The Chosen Queen – Joanna Courtney

After the big, well known authors, comes a novel I really enjoyed much more…The Chosen Queen, by an author now local to me, Joanna Courtney. Ignore the sulky blonde on the cover, ignore the absence of hype on the cover. Just buy it and read it.

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It was on our recent Scottish/Northern jaunt that despite the lure of bags of books I had acquired (thanks, Barter Books) I picked up this book. I had just finished Philippa’s magnum opus and was feeling a little dizzy from mentally dashing around Scotland and remembering which Scottish lord was which. I had picked this book up in Derby’s Waterstones partly because I noticed that the author lived in Derbyshire, and that it mentioned Godiva. Being born in Coventry, homeland of the legend, I thought that it was worth a look. I vaguely remembered Edith being Harold’s mistress, who hunted for his body at Hastings. So I was a little confused by the book’s main character being called Edyth, and not Harold’s mistress.

This novel tells the story of Edyth, who was the only Queen of a united Wales, and had to make arrangements afterwards. It opens with her as a curious girl, fascinated by adult relationships, but also with a sophisticated understanding of the political realities of pre-conquest England and soon, Wales. There is concern for ripped dresses, and mention of the fabrics and fittings of the world, but not so that I felt if I heard one more thing about the intricate nature of costume I would scream. This novel keeps moving, describing the feelings of Edyth at her wedding, but also drawing a stunning picture of the battles and grim realities of life and childbirth at a dangerous time.  There are lyrical patches, there is longing for a different life, a different love, but a sense of real experience.

I think what I really enjoyed about this book was the picture of women as the realists, the activists in a world of politics and warfare. The men are strong and brave overall, yet prey to the temper and misguided decisions that reminded me of Elizabeth Chadwick’s heroes ( apart from William Marshal, of course…). Women are seen in this novel as more than just child bearers, more than just symbols, but positive agents for peace or strategy. The best aspect of this novel is the relationship between Edyth and Lady Svana, maintained through letters, forgiveness and a facing of reality which seems rare in some historical novels. Obviously, any novel that has you believing in the main character enough to be mentally shouting advice to her or him is a success, but in this novel the women seem to see the situations that they find themselves in clearly and act.

Another sign of a good book for me is that I abandon other books, even those I am enjoying, in order to read a particular novel. This one had me reading while trying to negotiate breakfast with the other hand…

I notice that the next novel in the trilogy comes out on the 22nd September. I am looking forward to it!!

Three Sisters, Three Queens – Philippa Gregory

A book that covers some of the ground of our holiday and where we used to live, Phillippa Gregory’s latest features Margaret, older sister of Henry VIII. It covers her life growing up in the English court, her marriage to James IV of Scotland, his defeat and death at Flodden (which we visited a few weeks ago, on the day of the Brexit vote!) and her subsequent marriages, battles and involvement with the life of her son, James V. The other two sisters of the title are Katherine of Aragon, Henry’s first Queen, and Mary, Margaret’s younger sister briefly married to the King of France before marrying Charles Brandon in St. Mary’s church, which is opposite our old house in Bury St. Edmunds. It is far more impressive inside.

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It is on the whole, a good book, presenting a view of Katherine through Margaret’s eyes, which is not as sympathetic as often found in books where the rejected wife is the subject (Alison Weir being one of the latest to construct a sympathetic portrait).Mary does not leap off the page, except as a fashion obsessed younger woman, deeply in love with her second husband.

It is quite a confusing tale of love and lust as the Scottish lords fight over the person of the young king, as seen by Margaret who often has to flee as England and France seek to influence the power in Scotland. Margaret visits Berwick (a bit of a bleak place today too!) where she is sent on to Morpeth. Having worked and visited there often I cannot remember even the remains of a castle. Apparently it does exist, looking far more civilised than in this novel…

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This book is written in the first person, which means all the action is seen through the maturing eyes of a surprising young woman, who alternates between frustrating decisions and brave action. It allows her challenges, jealousy and fear to emerge, particularly in letters from her “sisters”, who seek to manipulate her actions to suit their own agendas. The attitudes of Katherine really affect Margaret’s situation, even if mediated through Mary. There are lost babies and desperation, culminating in Katherine’s downfall contrasting with Margaret’s hopes.

It is a book which requires perseverance as the many battles and fights can be confusing, but it probably reflects the border lands of the sixteenth century and the monarchy of Scotland well. It is not just another “Tudor Wives” book but presents a picture of the young Henry among the women that surrounded him, as being to a certain extent manipulated and easily impressed. Margaret emerges as a strong woman whose first impulses are not always the best, but nevertheless manages to survive loss and challenge in a time when women could just be seen as weak symbols of royalty important only when they married and when, if, they produced male heirs. This is a less depressing novel than many historical books, as it tries to show Margaret’s actions as affecting three kingdoms. It is worth pressing on with to the end!

Belgravia – Julian Fellowes….and a Book Town

We have just returned from a lovely week in Scotland – the cottage was great, with a lovely reading conservatory ( not its original function…) and lots of lovely bookshops! Northernvicar chose the area partly for its proximity to Wigtown, the Scottish book town. An excellent choice! I could get into five bookshops with Esme (the wheelchair) which is a very good average. I particularly enjoyed Readinglasses, with its shelves of women’s writing. As it has an excellent cafe as well, I would recommend it strongly. See  http://www.wigtown-booktown.co.uk/ for details.  http://www.northernvicar.co.uk/  has lots of stuff about what else we got up to, or at least it will when he writes everything up .Meanwhile, a picture I found of the entrance to the town, not taken by northernvicar this time….

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A book I actually read before I departed for holiday would actually have suited a restful read rather well. Not a great literary effort, and it probably will not be troubling any prize lists, but it’s an enjoyable read nonetheless. Predictably sold on the success of Downton Abbey, as it is by Julian Fellowes, it is an enjoyable fake Victorian tale of family tensions, social class, reputation and inheritance. Obviously set pre Downton era, it deals largely with the Trenchard family, who have made their money (gasp!) in trade, and the aristocratic Bellasis family. Opening on the eve of Waterloo, there are illicit romances, social climbing and  quiet comment on the tragic waste of war. The story then jumps forward a couple of decades when the Trenchards have made money and developed the expensive houses of Belgravia. The scene is set for Anne, a grieving but determined mother, to try and find out the truth about her daughter Sophia and Edmund. The whole situation rapidly becomes more complicated with a devious daughter in law, a lot of debts, and an exciting conclusion.

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I believe this book started life as an app, but not being that organised I think that the book is easier! I had enjoyed Fellowes’ other books, so thought that this may well be worth a read. My advice is, keep going, even when it seems that it is another saga when everyone is going to end up unhappily/dead/destitute or all three. I was also fooled into thinking that it was  going to be a simple story of a rich family with one big secret. Gradually other characters emerge, including some servants who reminded me of the Downton conniving downstairs. In the end I was intrigued to know how this was all going to end, and rushed through the last few chapters. It does not quite come off as a grand Victorian novel, but is probably a lot easier to read. If you enjoy historical novels, this is a good read and much less taxing than more pretentious efforts. (Though with two historical researchers credited at the beginning, I suspect that all the descriptions of dress and social conventions are correct, and form a worthy background for the action). This is a reasonably paced, interesting book that I would recommend tracking down for a cosy afternoon ( or two) read, especially if you are not interested in the contemporary offerings abounding in romance and family issues. Not for the literary purist, but if you enjoyed Downton for the story you will find this a satisfying read.