The Night Raid by Clare Harvey – Wartime Art, Weapons and Love

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This novel by a Nottingham author thankfully avoids much of the overly sentimental themes which can spoil some books set in the Second World War. The “Blitz Spirit” is often seen as a bit of an illusion, almost manufactured to suit the propaganda needs of an embattled nation. This historical novel depicts three women whose involvement with an Ordinance factory changes their lives in profound ways, and there is far more than a surface endurance despite the strains of the Home Front. The atmosphere of personal relationships threatened means that decisions are made with far reaching circumstances. A well-known artist becomes involved in the lives of young women whose prospects seem bleak; it is an imaginary episode yet is written in a believable way. Sometimes coincidences seem too much, but overall much that is positive emerges from this novel of realistic drama which goes beyond the “Night Raid” of the title.

Laura Knight was an artist who had always pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Her husband, Harold, was a noted portrait painter in a very traditional style, while Laura chose unusual subjects and depicted them in colourful and challenging ways. In this novel Harold is an elderly man, and Laura is a war artist who has had some success with painting “Ruby Loftus”, a girl working on heavy machinery to produce vital weapons. Financial necessity dictates her arrival in Nottingham to paint war workers. One of the girls she decides to paint, Violet Smith, is already in trouble. Unmarried mothers are shown as having little choice about their babies, and Violet’s own sister has placed further strain on her large family. She knows about life on the poverty line, and her work in munitions is not only vital to the war effort. Zelah Fitzlord is concerned for the welfare of the young women who work at the factory; it is her unusual qualities and determination to help that first interests George Hanford, supervisor of the night shift. What happens is partly under the control of these people, but fate continues to take a hand and occasionally tips into situations which can be a little too foreseeable to the reader, but Harvey manages to rescue the narrative before it becomes too awful. There is a tragic element of the story, but ultimately hope emerges in several ways.

I enjoyed this novel for several reasons. The writing is clear and the characters well defined. A balance is maintained between the problems that the characters face and the outcomes that left hope rather than misery. Laura’s unhappiness is seen from the inside, but also she is depicted as a strong and determined character as well as a sensitive, almost compulsive artist. While this is a fictional episode in her life, I think that it is well grounded in what is known about her, and no slander is committed. Zelah is a great character, determined yet vulnerable, and it is the little details about her that catch the attention and make her believable. Violet’s behaviour makes her a victim in some ways, but she is consistent in her spiky, realistic way. The small details of light, weather and behaviour are telling in a book which is perhaps not great literature, but a readable picture of women’s lives in a particularly difficult time, with some engaging writing and a clear story.

Laura Knight the artist featured in our visit to Nottingham Castle and Museum today. It was an accessible place to visit, once we had worked out that the gate would open to allow us to get to the Disabled parking space!  There were three of her paintings on display, not the best known (most of which we saw in an exhibition a few years ago in Newcastle), but including “Motherhood”, which is a thoughtful study of a mother and child. I bought the postcards, needless to say!

 

Snowdrift and other Stories by Georgette Heyer

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Georgette Heyer is one of the few authors who has created and sustained a whole new genre of fiction writing. Regency romances are not everyone’s first choice of reading; they can be formulaic, they are light and not asking too many deep questions, and they can be incredibly predictable. As to the formula, it is often the case that a couple meet or reunite after many years, there are barriers of society or temperament between them, there is a crisis which often involves a journey at breakneck speed, before the happy couple are united in marriage and live happily ever after. At least that is the basic plan of many regency romances that appear regularly today. The difference is that Heyer wrote them first, and wrote them better than anyone else. She was not worried by political correctness; her women can be startling for their beauty in a disguised way rather than their brains, her main characters are at least of good birth and end up with enough money to be considered rich, and men always have some redeeming quality. I am being negative about the Regency romance patterns but Heyer always added so much to her novels and in this case her short stories. The women always have courage and intelligence, even if temporarily misapplied, the settings are definitely correct in the smallest detail. Only fastidious research can guarantee the correct clothing, language and social behaviour, and Heyer has never been bettered in her incredible writing of the facts.  Her books have been held up as almost teaching resources for not only social history, but also military details of Napoleonic battles.

As you can imagine, I was delighted to get my hands on a copy of this book. Yes, I probably had read some of the stories in old and battered editions, but this book promised recently discovered stories and an altogether concentrated collection of short stories. I found it enormously good fun to read; Heyer has always been my comfort reading but this would be even more ideal for short waits in tricky circumstances. Each story here ticks all the boxes of an unpromising start between a small number of people, a journey and at least one misunderstanding. Often an elopement is proposed, but Heyer is far more sophisticated than depicting a straight dash to Gretna Green as something is always resolved without deceit and enormous hurt to at least the happy couple and the ‘good’ characters. To be honest these stories do get a bit much if read altogether, as in their rich plots and characters can tend to merge. Sometimes Heyer packs an enormous amount into a short story in terms of character development and change, but she was such a skilful writer that implication and characters will work out for the reader without being spelled out.

These stories, and Heyer’s novels, can be an acquired taste. Only one or two stories in this volume involve snow as implied in the title, so while it is an ideal read for winter evenings, it can be read at anytime you need a light read, confident that every setting, costume, language and gesture will be historically accurate, and anything except boring!

As you can imagine, I am a big Heyer fan but have not got round to rereading her books for ages, let along her mystery novels. This book does persuade me to go and see how many Heyer classics I own…

The Shadow Queen by Anne O’Brien

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This is a fictional account of the life and loves of Joan of Kent, one of history’s lesser known influential women, whose matrimonial and political experiences had a significant effect on the history of England, Wales and parts of France. Her royal birth and her life choices involved more than one Pope as her husbands and sons gained and lost power in the medieval world of marriages and diplomacy. There are times when it is difficult to remember where the action of the novel fits in with the overall history of the time, so it is fortunate that there are some genealogy tables in the front of the book. This is not a period of history that has been extensively tackled in fiction, in my experience, which gives O’Brien a lot of space to produce her own perspective of the “Fair Joan”.

The first sight of Joan is of a self centred girl who has a high sense of her worth as a beautiful royal woman, whose birth places her near to the royal family in the person of the King, Edward, and his loving wife Philippa. As the story of her life is recounted in the first person, we know that she has grown up with the royal princes and the upper aristocracy, but that her first love is a man of more ability than position. Her early choice means that she must stand against many adults who wish to steer her marriage prospects, and it is perhaps difficult to believe that such a young woman could stand against those who were determined to dictate her fate. Joan comes over as a tough soul, calculating her chances of success, less romantic perhaps than ruthless. Her preservation of legal paperwork is unusual, but proves significant in later days. She does not always gauge the mood of those around her correctly, but later love does come into her life and determines her actions. Her stubborn determination to see her son come to the throne dominates the latter part of the book, and the close of the novel is a little curious as there is more to describe, more left to experience.

I enjoyed the way this book was written, as many of the characters do live on the page and in some ways Joan is not always the most sympathetic.  The book seems well researched, and the settings, which are listed in the back, convincingly described. The book held my attention, as there was much to learn from it, though at no point was it didactic. Rather it swept along, a little gloomy, but realistic. I admired the way that most of the women were strong, especially Joan, fighting for those that they loved with every skill at their disposal. Joan’s hatred of Alice Perrers becomes a strong element of the book, which seems reasonable given her affection and respect for Philippa; an interesting element given this author’s previous book “The King’s Concubine” which tells Alice’s story.  Altogether this is a well written, involving historical novel which looks at a less well known period of British history and the characters which dominated it. I would recommend it especially to anyone who enjoys this genre but perhaps feels that certain periods have been a little overdone.

We have just returned from Derby Theatre where we have just seen a production of “Great Expectations”. An excellent evening, it was brilliantly staged with minimal staging. If it tours, which I imagine it will, do try and see it, even if Dickens is not your favourite author…

The King’s Curse – Philippa Gregory

Just to prove I’m not obsessed with historical crime – well, only a little- here is prove that I do still read historical fiction. Eventually.

As a book obsessed child, I would read anything, or at least most things. I especially loved the Jean Plaidy books. The young Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Henry’s wives; I read and re read. When I got to A level history, I read my way through her version of the Norman conquest and firmly fixed the events in my head. I still have a large number of her books on my shelves, as she wrote prodigious amounts under each name she chose there is plenty of scope (ninety odd books ?!?).

So when I discovered Philippa Gregory I realised that this was a contemporary author also tackling the Tudors in a very personal way, after her books of other periods (Restoration, 18th century slave trade etc). I loved books like The Constant Princess about Katherine of Aragon, and The Queen’s Fool. The White Queen saga had some books that were better than others, but was overall an interesting look at the Cousin’s War.

So The King’ Curse looked interesting. Back to the Tudors. albeit at the slightly less well known viewpoint of Margaret Pole, near to the throne but never a serious contender in her own lifetime. There was to be a lot about Henry VIII, and seemed to link in with that interesting character, Elizabeth of York. History nerds seemed well catered for!

This is a sad, grumpy, discontented book. Margaret Pole saw her brother executed, lost at least one son to the executioner’s axe, and was consistently challenged by the outcome of Henry’s whim regarding his first wife and daughter, later Mary I. On the other hand, she did have four children who survived into adulthood and prospered for most of their lives. She was close to the court, was incredibly wealthy in her own right, and survived until she met her death on the block at sixty seven. While at times in danger because of her Plantagenet name. and widowed relatively young, spending sometime in a convent when thoroughly out of favour, overall there must have been times of joy, positive pride in her possessions, satisfaction that she was surviving and her children were not starving. Times when she looked around her lands, savoured her influence with the highest families, and enjoyed herself. Not according to this book.

One of the criticisms of Hilary Mantel’s book is that she has Cromwell lamenting his lost family throughout. Not surprising given the suddenness of their deaths, perhaps. I found the first two books of that trilogy fascinating for so much else, however. His kindness to others. His shrewd operations, his disposal of Anne Boleyn, or at least his involvement in his downfall. I have no doubt that Margaret, as a woman subject to the whims of Henry, had some extremely bad times. She had been on the side of a Queen who lost everything, including many babies, but had also had been the friend of royalty, had amazing wealth in her own right, and seen her sons rise to power and influence.  Gregory never gives the woman a break. Gloom, sadness, grief, constant fear and expectation of downfall. No great evenings of feasting, contentment in her extended family, appreciation that for some time at least, she was alive and enjoying life.

Opening the book at random, there are sentences such as “And you are right. What you fear is a terrible curse.” This is a well written book. It seems correct in historical detail, and there is every reason to suspect that Henry was a quixotic individual who was easy to displease. There is no positive in this book. No golden court of his early reign. No day to day enjoyment on Katherine’s part of his early devotion to her. Just gloom, fear and grief. I know that we are dealing with women who had sad ends, and we can easily discover how and when they died. One of the problems of historical fiction is that they all die in the end. This novel gives little sense of the good times they enjoyed before they did. Medieval life may have been nasty, brutish and short, but there must have been some good times, some enjoyment of what was going on. Some satisfaction in faith, wealth or love. Gregory gives little sense of this in this novel, yet I have read her books where there is optimism, affection and even joy, perhaps short lived. So, this is a worthwhile book. It gives a female perspective on life in the Tudor court, or at least on the edge of it. It is not an enjoyable read, but a worthy one.

Devil’s Consort – Anne O’Brien

This book has the subtitle “England’s Most Ruthless Queen” and, yes, it’s about Eleanor of Aquitaine. There are quite a few novels about this character from writers such as Alison Weir, and very good they are too. They unusually concentrate on her marriage to Henry II, who followed the troubled reign of Stephen. This is not surprising , as they did have eight children together, and during the good times reigned over a vast territory including England and much of what is today France.There are lots of tales about rebellion, mistresses and Eleanor actually being imprisoned by her husband following her support of her sons. This novel takes a different view, of Eleanor’s earlier life, when she was married to Louis, King of France.

This is a novel about how a young woman of fifteen marries a king, mainly because she has inherited a vast duchy from her father.  O’Brien paints such a realistic picture of disappointment as it soon becomes obvious that Louis is a very religious man, but a bad king in many ways. Most importantly for this novel, he is a very poor husband. This is a book about how Eleanor establishes herself as queen, ruler of Aquitaine and a woman. She is admittedly selfish, unfaithful and the most unconcerned mother of two daughters, but she is very intelligent, aware of her power, and intends to live on her own terms. She lives in Paris unwillingly, and seizes the chance to escape on Crusade with Louis, which opens up a new world of experience for her. This period of her life is often brushed over in other novels, but this book reveals much about the danger and hardship that she faced, as well as the temptation. There are several theories about what really happened on this Crusade, especially Eleanor’s relationship with her uncle Raymond, ruler of Antioch. This is just one version which shows what may have taken place, but it is probably true that Eleanor was unwilling to leave Antioch. The whole picture of Louis as a fearfully religious man helps explain why she was so keen to leave the marriage, and why she was seen more in terms of a huge opportunity to rule rather than a wife. There is lot about women at this time being seen as merely producers of male heirs, and not rulers in their own right, even if they have inherited vast tracts of land.

O’Brien like many historical novelists has written a variety of books about the great characters of history, as well as semi fictional supporting characters. There is some debate about what readers want; women that they may have heard of, or ‘real’ people who are easier to identify with. I often read books about women (and some men) who were significant in British history, and I must admit this novel went to the bottom of the pile as I have read several about Eleanor (including a very successful series by Elizabeth Chadwick, unfinished a the moment).

(I ought to write a review of these two novels, which I enjoyed reading very much. I must try to get round to it before the third and final volume comes out!)

But I am very glad that I picked this one out to read, as it presents a vivid picture of the young Eleanor, which goes a long way to explain why Eleanor acted as she did, even though Henry apparently was a lot more satisfactory as a husband.  O’Brien has written several novels which I have enjoyed as easy to read. Perhaps they are not as densely researched as some books, but are good at the atmosphere and humanity of the women she depicts. A good summer read, well, if we ever get any summer weather…