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!

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. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/tv-radio/2018/08/poldark-one-biggest-shows-britain-so-why-does-it-get-so-little-attention 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!

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 Time Machine by H.G.Wells – The Oxford University Press Edition

This book has been said to be one of the earliest novels of science fiction. While it is not a genre I know well, I believe that this book does set down some of the rules and standards that have become part of the definition of science fiction. A realistic setting, almost domestic, a real attempt to produce evidence that would satisfy a discriminating audience, and events just beyond expectation and credibility. In this novel the protagonist is not overly dramatic, his audience chosen for their professional scepticism, and the setting is so Victorian domestic that a reader can learn something of that period. In the light of the current fashion for dystopian vision, this is a chilling report of a world where evolution has defined humanity so as to be vaguely recognisable rather than the same, but developed. Written in 1895, this is a book that would shock today in its bleak view of life many thousands of years hence.

The Time Traveller is in his sitting room, expanding on his thoughts about humanity to his guests, known mainly by their profession (a Medical Man, a Psychologist, an Editor and others) in an after dinner discussion. No women appear in this setting; this is a gathering of scientific gentleman presumed to be sceptical about such dubious assertions that time travel is possible and indeed experienced by one of their number. He produces a model, beautifully made, of a prototype time travel machine, and explains when it disappears that he proposes to make a larger version in which he will travel to the future. His friends are unconvinced, but soon he invites them to believe such an attempt has been made.

The future is at once a paradise and a frightening place. Those he encounters are difficult to categorise, but the Time Traveller recalls an experience that is incredibly detailed. Proof of events is not utterly compelling, but there is every reason to believe that what occurred in this otherwise remarkable house cannot be easily understood.

This is an extremely short, readable classic which is stylistically of a time when the forces of industrialisation and invention were resulting in whole new world views, often painful, sometimes exhilarating. Its late nineteenth century setting is solid, its view of a possible future almost lyrical. Wells was a scientific journalist; a new profession which meant that he was presumably on the edge of discoveries that to the eyes of his contemporary readers would have seemed incredible. Thus time travel would have almost seemed credible by contrast, and it is long before the rules of causing upset in travelling backwards and forwards in time were set down.

This edition of which I received a review copy from Oxford University Press sets out an informative introduction and includes a substantial amount of additional text. The notes explain some of the more obscure references and greatly adds to the understanding of the book. If your tastes run to classic science fiction this novel is a defining introduction, and this edition explains much of the background and achievement of H.G.Wells as one of the most innovative writers of his time.

 

The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard: the immersive Cazalet Chronicles begins….

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This novel is the first of the Cazalet Chronicles, so called because it revolves around the Cazalet family of three generations. It is a terrifically involving family saga, set in 1937 and 1938, when its looks like war is imminent. Calling it “The Situation”, the danger seems real as preparations are made to gather everyone. This is a book where many members of the family each gets a focus, so what is happening on the surface can sometimes see at variance with what various individuals are actually thinking. The most successful thing about this book is the way that each character is looked at from outside but with such understanding that their point of view is justified.

The family is ruled on one level by the Brig, or William, who is also the head of the family timber business. His wife, the Duchy, maintains a firm hand on the domestic front, but sometimes ignores what is happening in front of her, especially when regarding her daughter Rachel. Hugh and his wife Sybil misunderstand each other all the time, but love each other deeply. Edward, the second son, has married Villy who has given up much, but tries to find new distractions. The children have their various problems as they deal with growing up. No one in the family is in grievous need, but this novel reveals the perceptions and problems that beset every young person. The narrative is made of many small but interconnected events; like real life there are challenges and opportunities at every point, mainly from what feels like real people’s actions and reactions regarding other people.

It is difficult to describe the immersive nature of this book and how it brings the reader in. The knowledge that it is the first in the series of five books means that all things are to be worked out gradually, on an individual level, the family arrangements, and the real start of the war in September 1939. The skill that Howard shows in this book is being able to move the action forward while giving each character adequate time to develop and change, within the framework of their own reality. This sounds pretentious, but the simple truth is that it is a really good read, not always cheerful, but sometimes funny. I enjoyed rereading this book immensely and would recommend others to get involved in the Cazalet family and their reactions to a war that involved so many civilians.

One of the facebook groups I have joined is “Mrs Hurtle Reads a Book”, a curious title for a group that specializes in Reading challenges such as  A Century Of Books. While the idea of reading a hundred books may be a bit overwhelming, I also like to set myself smaller challenges. Last year I managed to read five Dorothy L Sayers books in the Folio set, as well as all twelve Poldark books (I know, I know, I need to get out more). This year my first challenge apart from two centuries in two years (not as bad as it sounds) is all five of the Cazalet novels. So the first one is down, only four to go…

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell – A place of Women?

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This book is one of the best social history documents concerning a small English town in the middle of the nineteenth century. In the reign of “Our Queen” – Victoria of course, the small town of Cranford (actually Knutsford in Cheshire) is dominated by women. The book actually points out that every household above a certain value is run by a woman, single or widowed, and there is a notable shortage of men beyond those strictly necessary in a Victorian town. The centre of the settlement is the household of the Misses Jenkyns, the two unmarried daughters of a previous Rector. Now in their fifties, and therefore seen as old (ouch!), Miss Deborah is seen as the arbiter of taste, custom and behaviour, the clever daughter with decided views on literature, dress and every kind of ritual which can occur throughout the year. The younger sister, Matilda or “Matty”, is a far gentler character; some might say, too gentle and undecided for her own good.  Various other women form their social circle, notably Miss Pole, incurable gossip and agitator of much activity, and Mrs Jamieson, slightly higher up the social scale and devoted to her dog, Carlo.

The women are not the poorest financially, but apart from the complicated social arrangements, they must all practise “elegant economy” as their income is strictly limited. This takes the form of balancing the use of candles, and entertainments using their finest crockery but tiny amounts of food. Calling or visiting friends is to be done at certain times, and length of each visit is strictly determined. All this life is described by Mary Smith, unnamed to begin with, but developing in time to become an actual character who takes a thoughtful hand in the fortunes of the Jenkyns household and participating in several situations. The community is fascinated by the arrival of Captain Brown and his two daughters, as some conventions are compromised and tragedy befalls some characters.

This is a well- loved novel written by a woman with skill and compassion. It is essentially an entertaining read, first serialised in Dickens’ publications, and only latterly collected into a book. In many ways it is not fictional, as Gaskell describes scenes from her own childhood and almost lists the small anecdotes of behaviour. As the novel develops, a plot of a kind emerges, as tragedy makes people behave slightly differently and entertain new possibilities. It remains an uplifting book despite losses to the community, as Gaskell shows the best in her characters. There is delightful fear as a long dark lane must be travelled, and a shortage of money addressed, yet there is still the cow who must wear memorable wraps, and a cat with a taste for fine lace. In many ways this is not an exciting read, and most interesting for those who like their humour subtle and their plots undramatic. It is not a long book, but it is strong on characterisation as Gaskell controls her cast of characters in a peaceful setting. It has much to say on the position of women with little or no education, the fear of outsiders and the myriad little disturbances of what some now call a multi thread drama. It is perhaps the antidote to the strong stories of Gaskell’s contemporaries and differs from her own other novels; it is really a loving tribute to her own upbringing in a small town, a successful evocation of times already past.

We looked at this book in our book group today, and some members mentioned how they had been asked to read it at school, and got incredibly bored with it as a result. Some of us had watched the BBC version of 2007, and got a little confused because of the inclusion of two other stories by  Gaskell. There was actually a fascinating discussion on the changes in life since the books setting, but also how social differences and economics still led to unfairness today. While some began by not really appreciating the book, it was agreed that it was an interesting read and was enjoyed by most of us.

Murder in Advent by David Williams

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This edition of a 1985 book was brought out in time for Christmas in 2016, but despite the title it is not really a Christmas book. It is, however, a well written mystery set in a Cathedral town, with plenty of understanding of not only the Cathedral staff and families, but also local families who are often living strange lives. It is midwinter, the weather of necessity to the plot is freezing, and dark deeds are definitely afoot.

The senior Cathedral clergy and one or two external people are divided over the important decision whether to sell a copy of the Magna Carta. This is a fictional cathedral in a fictional town of Litchester, but having special knowledge of Cathedral politics, I can say there is definitely some familiar elements here. The novel opens with a collector of artefacts in America, then swings to a service of evensong in the Cathedral. This is not a general description of heavenly singing and clergy confidence; each clergyman (no women priests yet!) has his idiosyncrasies in part revealed by their contribution to the service. Despite the largely benign leadership of the Dean, blind but more than able to contribute to the sorting out of the situation, petty jealousies and ambitions abound.  Mark Treasure is a banker in London, but apparently is one of Williams’ characters who gets involved in solving mysteries through several novels. For arcane reasons he is drawn into the dispute, which soon becomes a murder mystery as an aged verger is found dead in a damaged library. Local history is consulted, a remarkable family is discovered, and no one is quite safe as shots are heard and further death happens.

The main strength of this book, in addition to its strong mystery, is its characters and their relationships. The clergy wives comment and decide what is really going on; the archivist has her eye on a certain clergyman, and they swop alibis and drop dark hints about what is happening around them. Mark Treasure investigates with the help of a farm agent, and discovers near gothic goings on at a family farm. There are confusing elements to this book, and it certainly is not a smoothly defined mystery, but it evokes cleverly the sense of an enclosed community whose day to day life is discussed and dissected by its members.  For a relatively recent novel it has some of the hallmarks of a golden age mystery, including a limited number of suspects and motives which are not just personal gain. The role of the police is limited, but a little help is given to prompt significant course of action.

This is a good book to read at virtually any time of the year, and I would recommend it to those who enjoy non-violent, character led mysteries in a solidly British setting.

There are some good Christmas books out there, including collections of short stories with a festive theme. Some stories appear in more than one book! I am enjoying “Murder on Christmas Eve” from Profile books, but have recognised one story so far. “An English Murder” by Cyril Hare is so good so far, with a well drawn series of characters in a snowy house. Oh, and just to mention of “Murder on Sea”  by Julie Wassmer, being a lot more modern in every respect!