Thursday, December 28, 2006
The Boleyn Inheritance by Philippa Gregory (Jane Rochford, Anne of Cleves, Katherine Howard)
Mary by Janis Cooke Newman (Mary Todd Lincoln)
Abundance by Sena Jeter Naslund (Marie Antoinette)
Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir (Lady Jane Grey)
Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles by Margaret George (Mary, Queen of Scots)
Fatal Majesty by Reay Tannahill (Mary, Queen of Scots)
The Seventh Son by Reay Tannahill (Richard III)
The Ivy Crown by Mary Luke (Katherine Parr)
The Severed Crown by Jane Lane (Charles I)
The Young and Lonely King by Jane Lane (Charles I)
Other favorites: A Lady Raised High by Laurien Gardner (Anne Boleyn), The Last Queen by C. W. Gortner (Juana the Mad), The Lord of Misrule by Eve Trevaskis (Edward II and Piers Gaveston), The Pleasures of Love by Jean Plaidy (Catherine of Braganza, reviewed on my Jean Plaidy blog), Loving Will Shakespeare by Carolyn Meyer (Anne Hathaway), Gatsby's Girl by Caroline Preston (F. Scott Fitzgerald's girlfriend Ginevra King), The Sceptre and the Rose by Doris Leslie (Catherine of Braganza), and My Lady of Cleves by Margaret Campbell Barnes (Anne of Cleves). I could add some more, but it's getting late.
Aside from reflecting my weakness for books about British royalty, what do these books have in common? Overwhelmingly, it's their depiction of character; all feature likable, yet flawed heroes and heroines. Add to that vivid, realistic dialogue and a distinct narrative voice in most cases, and I was hooked.
I may not be blogging again until after the New Year, so Happy New Year!
Tuesday, December 26, 2006
Anyway, since many bloggers have been posting their Top 10 books for 2006, I will be following suit before the end of the year. (I'm still pondering the matter.)
On the nonfiction front, I got Eamon Duffy's Marking the Hours: English People and Their Prayers 1240-1570 for a Christmas present. For those interested in medieval history and/or religious history, I recommend it highly. Fascinating text, beautiful four-color illustrations throughout.
Monday, December 25, 2006
Saturday, December 23, 2006
Our dog Boswell has a brother named Merritt, who is quite a bit smaller. Merritt, who lives with my parents, was kind enough to lend Boswell his red sweater for Christmas pictures, but it turned out to be way too small for him. It did, however, fit Onslow purr-fectly. (You know I couldn't resist that.)
Speaking of pictures, a high school student in Rhode Island posed for his senior yearbook photo wearing chain mail and carrying a sword. (He's a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism.) The principal, however, claimed that the sword violated the school's "zero tolerance" weapons policy, despite the fact that the school's own mascot, a patriot, totes a weapon. The matter is now in court.
Personally, I say let the kid have his sword. Trust me, it's a lot less scary than the pastel, checked, or plaid polyester suits the senior boys are wearing in my high school yearbook.
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
In the mood for a movie this Christmas? Let me recommend Kenneth Branagh's In the Bleak Midwinter (also known as A Midwinter's Tale), about a group of actors putting on a Christmastime production of Hamlet. It's a funny, sweet story. (It is rated "R," but the rating seems way overcautious to me--there's no violence or sex, and the language isn't saltier than some of what gets on television these days.)
Read "A Christmas Carol" for the umpteenth time? Try "The Haunted Man," one of Charles Dickens's lesser known Christmas stories, this year instead.
And for our feature presentation, "Christmas 1484 With Richard III," see the post below.
Anne: Isn’t it beautiful? (Coughs) I beg your pardon. And look, I’ve left a couple of places vacant just in case your nephews Edward and Richard return for Christmas from their grand tour of the Continent.
Richard: How thoughtful, my dear. (Aside) What am I going to tell her next? I can't keep them on the damn Grand Tour forever.
Scene 2: Some time later. The king and queen are mingling with their guests.
Anne: Here comes your brother’s daughter Elizabeth. I do think she's bearing up pretty well after being in sanctuary all that time, don't you? And look, Richard! Just in case the poor girl was feeling sad this Christmas I had her dress made from the same material as mine. Isn’t it beautiful?
Richard: (Eyes popping) Yes. She—er—it is.
(Elizabeth, heading toward the royal couple, passes courtiers)
Elizabeth: (Aside) And I thought it was going to be no fun being a bastard. (Curtsies to Richard) I wish you good tidings of the season, your grace. Oh, and your grace too. (Turns to Anne) How are you feeling, your grace?
Anne: Perfectly well, thank you. (Coughs for five minutes or so) Excuse me for a few minutes.
Elizabeth: (Taking out a slip of paper from a pouch she wears at her side) I thought she’d never stop coughing. Do you know when the doctors say she’ll die? This is what I want engraved on our plate once we’re married, Dickon.
Richard: Sweetheart, I told you to keep calling me “uncle” in public.
Elizabeth: (Pouting) All right, Uncle. But what do you think about the engraving?
Richard: Beautiful. Er— Anne?
Anne: What are you showing your uncle, dear?
Elizabeth: Oh, that would spoil your surprise, your grace. (Scampers off)
Anne: What a sweet girl. We really need to find a husband for her, dear.
Richard: Oh, I’m working on it.
Anne: You think of everything.
Richard: Welcome, Lord Stanley! How goes it with your wife?
Stanley: My wife?
Richard: Yes, your wife, Margaret Beaufort. The woman you have under house arrest on my orders.
Stanley: Oh, yes, my wife. She is very well.
Richard: She doesn’t find her confinement disagreeable?
Stanley: Oh, she finds ways to pass the time.
Richard: And how is that son of hers? John, no, Edward, no, Henry. That’s it. Henry Tudor.
Stanley: Him. I have no idea. I don’t hear from him. She never hears from him. We never hear from him. Frankly, I think sometimes my wife forgets he’s even alive, he’s been abroad so long.
Richard: Indeed. Well, a merry Christmas to you, Lord Stanley. (Aside) Lying bastard.
Stanley: And a merry Christmas to you, your grace. (Aside) Not “your grace” for long if Maggie has her way. (Exits)
Richard: Oh, hello, Mother.
Cecily: Hello, dear.
Richard: Are you enjoying your Christmas?
Cecily: As much as I can since you spread that nasty rumor that I had been unfaithful to your father and that your brothers weren't his children.
Richard: Not that again. It was nothing personal, Mum. We went through this last Christmas.
Cecily: Yes, and we’ll go through it this Christmas too, and the Christmas after that, and the Christmas after that. And you know why? Because I’m your mother and I can say to you whatever I please. Even if you are the king. And don't get me started on how you got to be the king. Your dear little nephews—
Richard: Mother, how about going on pilgrimage next Christmas? I’ll pay for everything.
Scene 3: The royal bedchamber. Richard is lying alone in the royal bed. Suddenly a spirit appears, shrouded in a deep black garment that conceals all of it except for one outstretched hand. Richard stirs and wakes.
Richard: What—? (Aside) I knew that last cup of wine was a big mistake.
Spirit: I am the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.
Richard: The what?
Spirit: You’d understand better if you were living about 400 years later. By then, a chap named Charles Dickens— But I’ve got other visits to pay tonight. Let’s discuss Christmas Yet to Come.
Richard: Tell me, O Spirit.
Spirit: Well, to begin with, your wife is going to die. I know you’ve been expecting that, but it’s not going to work out as you planned. You’re going to have to give up your plans to marry that nubile little niece of yours.
Richard: No nubile niece!
Spirit: It goes downhill from there. She’s going to marry Henry Tudor.
Richard: Not Tudor, no! Not Tudor!
Spirit: They’re going to have sons, and one of the sons is going to have six wives.
Richard: Six wives! I can’t even marry two! Or can I? Do I get to marry anyone else? Do I get to have living children?
Spirit: Sorry, no. Now, how can I put this? Well, in your case there’s not going to be a Christmas Yet to Come. This is your last one. Hope the food was good tonight.
Spirit: You’re going to die in battle before the end of the coming year, and Tudor is going to take the crown. Then he gets your niece, and the son with the six wives becomes king after him. You’ll be the end of the Plantagenet dynasty.
Richard: (After a long silence) I killed the little brats for this?
Spirit: I'm afraid so. But you will fight pretty well in that last battle, aside from getting killed. That's something.
Richard: Spirit, what I can do to change this dire future?
Spirit: Not a blessed thing. Too many people are going to be making a living writing books about you and the king with the six wives. But there is an upside to all of this.
Richard: Tell me, O Spirit.
Spirit: Your reputation will be bad, and a glover’s son named William Shakespeare will make it even worse. You’ll even be depicted with a hump on your back. But after 500 years or so, it will start to get better. There will be a society devoted entirely to improving your reputation. There will be publications devoted to you. Your enemies will be slandered. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a novel about you where you aren’t the good guy. Women in particular will love you. Everyone will blame someone else for the Princes in the Tower, and people won’t even care that you executed Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan, and Haute on trumped-up charges. You’ll be everybody’s favorite dead king.
Richard: So. Tudor gets the girl and the crown, and I get the Richard III Society and the adoring women?
Richard: (Sighing) Well, there are tradeoffs in life, aren’t there? Merry Christmas, Spirit.
Spirit: Merry Christmas. And to all a good night.
Monday, December 18, 2006
No doubt about it, these houses do have lots of space. If you were mad at your relatives, you could pretty much avoid them for days at a time. In fact, your cars wouldn't even have to talk to each other, because several of these places had two garages--just in case, I suppose, your Hummer gave your Mercedes-Benz bad vibes.
Unfortunately, there was one glaring design flaw. When I entered the first house, I was transfixed by the built-in bookshelves surrounding the fireplace and indulged in some fairly serious Bookcase Lust. As I was preparing to leave the house, however, I took a last lingering look at the shelves and realized what I hadn't seen before: you couldn't fit hardbacks on these shelves. Not even trade paperbacks. The only thing that would fit on them was small knickknacks and mass-market paperbacks.
Well, that was a deal-killer for me. Where would I put my Dickens? Where would I put my Plaidys? Where would I put my hard-to-find Robert Hale titles? And where would I put The Traitor's Wife? What's the point of spending $750,000 on a house if you can't stretch out on the couch and stare admiringly at one's own book on one's own built-in bookshelves? Does that mean I'd have to take up reading Danielle Steele?
So, no McMansion for me, thank you very much, until I see one that caters to the wishes of the discerning reader. (And, of course, until I address the small matter of affording one.)
Anyway, yesterday I finished reading Jane Lane's Bridge of Sighs (which wouldn't fit on the McMansion's bookshelves either). It's about Mary Beatrice, second wife of James II. I was rather disappointed in it, especially when compared to the other Jane Lane novels I've read, the best of which have a dry wit and a deep sympathy for the main characters. There are a few good moments here, but I never felt that I knew Mary Beatrice or believed in the emotions that we were told she was feeling. I kept reading it because I knew little about the history of the time and was curious to find out what happened, but otherwise I doubt it would have held my interest.
Finally, I've signed up to do a posting for Marg and Kailana’s 2006 Advent Blog Tour. There's been a lot of nice posts so far, and I'm looking forward to reading what comes next. Mine is scheduled for December 21, and will feature Christmas of 1484 with Richard III. (If you're a diehard Ricardian without a sense of humor--not that you probably read this blog if you are--pass this one by.)
Thursday, December 14, 2006
In the end, I suppose it's like chocolate ice cream. I don't like it. I know lots of people love it. I know there are excellent varieties of it. I'll buy it for my family. I'll even make an effort to eat it now and again to be polite. I'll never attempt to dissuade someone else from eating and enjoying it. But I just plain don't like it. Give me vanilla any day.
That being said, I'm not immune entirely to fantasy, it turns out, at least not at the level of wanting to see what happens next. I volunteer at my daughter's school library shelving books once a week. I come in at the same time a second-grade class comes in for its library hour, and part of the hour, of course, is story time. So for the past few weeks, I've been listening, with the second graders, to one of the librarians read a volume in "The Magic Tree House" series. The series, from what I can tell, involves a couple of modern-day kids who go to, well, a magic tree house, and get transported back into the past. Once the kids reach the past, there's always some crisis that only they can solve.
Anyway, in this volume--I haven't caught the name--the kids have been taken back to Camelot, only to find that the denizens of the Round Table are having a perfectly miserable Christmas, evidently because the leading knights have gone missing and none of the people left have the courage to go looking for them. Our modern-day kids, being a plucky pair, immediately volunteer, and just yesterday, they located the missing knights, who have all been put under some sort of a spell that makes them dance endlessly until they dance themselves to death. When the bell rang yesterday, the kids had hit on a solution: join the dancing circle, keep from falling under the spell themselves, and pull the dancers out of the circle, thereby breaking the spell and return everyone to Camelot. Things were looking dire, though, because it appeared that the kids might not be able to resist the spell themselves . . .
I hope this is all wrapped up next week, because I really don't think I can wait until after Christmas break to find out how this all ends up.
Thursday, December 07, 2006
And I'm pleased to report that I enjoyed it immensely.
The Boleyn Inheritance is told by Jane, Lady Rochford, widow of the executed George Boleyn; Anne of Cleves; and Katherine "Kitty" Howard. Jane, self-justifying and self-deceiving, is obsessed with her past yet determined to do whatever she has to do in order to restore her life to its former glamour. Anne, no stupid Flanders mare but a sensible, honorable young woman who longs for freedom and respect, finds that she has exchanged the petty humiliations of her brother's court for the reign of terror of Henry's. Kitty is an airheaded teenager, with an endless capacity to push aside unpleasant realities in favor of her more satisfying preoccupations: young men, jewels, and pretty clothes. Manipulating Jane and Kitty is the sinister Duke of Norfolk, and stalking through all three women's lives is the unpredictable, increasingly tyrannical Henry VIII.
Gregory juggles the heroines' stories masterfully. Even when Anne of Cleves is relegated to the background and the machinations of the Duke of Norfolk and Jane take center stage, Anne remains to comment on what she sees around her. She, the outsider, becomes both the moral center of the novel and the narrator on which the reader can most rely for an accurate perception of events. Kitty's adolescent preoccupations and mercurial character are captured wonderfully, while Jane, morally repulsive as she is, has a normalcy about her that keeps us reading her story and wondering at her motivations.
There's a certain humor here, often quite dark, that was missing altogether in the very earnest Constant Princess. Much of this comes from Kitty's youthful blatherings ("France would be wonderful, except I cannot speak French, or at any rate only "voila!" but surely they must mostly all speak English? And if not, then they can learn?"), but the more cynical Jane Rochford contributes some memorable lines: "If she declares herself Dereham's wife, then she has not then cuckolded the king but only Dereham; and since his head is on London Bridge, he is in no position to complain."
And neither am I. Read this one.
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
“It’s terribly off-putting,” said James Wood, the literary critic for The New Republic. “It would be very odd if Thomas Hardy had put at the end of all his books, ‘I’m thankful to the Dorset County Chronicle for dialect books from the 18th century.’ We expect authors to do that work, and I don’t see why we should praise them for that work. And I don’t see why they should praise themselves for it.”
Traditionally confined to works of nonfiction, the bibliography has lately been creeping into novels, rankling critics who call it a pretentious extension of the acknowledgments page, which began appearing more than a decade ago and was roundly derided as the tacky literary equivalent of the Oscar speech. Purists contend that novelists have always done research, particularly in books like “Madame Bovary” that were inspired by real-life events, yet never felt a bibliography was necessary.
And many present-day writers like Thomas Pynchon, most recently in “Against the Day,” put extensive historical research into their novels without citing sources or explaining methods.
But some novelists defend the bibliography, pointing out that for writers who spend months or years doing research for historical novels, a list of sources is proof of labor and expertise. . . .
Of course some fiction writers have always tacked on bibliographies, as William T. Vollmann has done since his first book, “You Bright and Risen Angels,” published in 1987. Mr. Vollmann initially did it because the book was first published in Britain, and he wasn’t sure how many sources he was expected to cite according to British laws, he said.
But now, Mr. Vollmann says, he does it as a service to readers. “I think it’s nice for a reader to have the information available,” he said. “Let’s say somebody gets interested in a character, or is disbelieving of something I had a character do. He can look in the back of the book.” . . .
I'm with Mr. Vollmann. Personally, I regard a bibliography in a historical novel not as a bid for praise or as proof of labor and expertise, but simply as a tool for the reader who might be interested in reading more about the subject. I don't hold the absence of one against an author (there's none in my own book, although I do include an author's note in the book and a list of further reading on my website), but I do appreciate its inclusion. I certainly don't see its being there as pretentious or as a form of bragging. It's an aid to the reader, which the reader can either make use of or ignore.
Maybe Mr. Wood just doesn't read much commercial historical fiction, because bibliographies seem to have been quite common in it for some time. Jean Plaidy often included them in her novels (The Battle of the Queens, the one closest to hand on my bookshelf, lists 21 titles that Plaidy consulted), and King's Minions, a 1974 Brenda Honeyman novel about Edward II that I finally acquired yesterday after months of forlorn Googling, has a "Works Consulted" page. Even these now-dated bibliographies can be useful in leading readers to long-out-of-print books that may contain relevant information.
So I say, ignore Mr. Wood. Bring on the bibs (and keep the author's notes coming too, please).
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Mary: A Novel
Janis Cooke Newman
Committed to the Bellevue Place Sanitarium by her eldest son in 1875, Mary Todd Lincoln begins to write the story of her life in order to pass her sleepless nights and to keep herself sane—and also to gain the love of her cold-natured son. As Mary reflects upon her past, she also makes new acquaintances in the present, notably that of Minnie Judd, a fellow sanitarium inmate.
Minnie is starving herself in order to win the love of her indifferent husband, and Mary soon recognizes a kindred spirit in the young woman, for Mary’s life has also been an elusive quest for love, thwarted sometimes by death, sometimes by the frigidity of those whose affections she seeks to gain. Minnie’s quest, however, is doomed to defeat, while Mary’s ultimately ends in self-discovery.
Mary, however, is far more than just an account of a woman’s search for love. The novel is also a story of the Lincoln marriage, a mutually loving one marked in turn by defeat and triumph, by shared happiness and shared tragedy. Both Lincoln and Mary are vividly drawn characters, but Mary, as the center of the novel, is inevitably the more so. Her charm and wit are present throughout this book, but her faults—her temper, her extravagance, even on one occasion her infidelity—are amply on display. The novel is also, of course, one of a nation divided by civil war, and this gives rise to some memorable scenes, particularly a postwar visit to Richmond where the Lincolns get very different receptions from black Southerners and from white Southerners.
Moving and with an almost palpable compassion for its subject, yet clear-eyed and even humorous at times, this is a book I will be re-reading.
Gatsby’s Girl: A Novel
In 1915, F. Scott Fitzgerald met a society girl, Ginevra King, with whom he had a brief romance before she lost interest in him. Gatsby’s Girl, with a Ginevra Perry as the heroine, is loosely based on this episode in Fitzgerald’s life; the author, as she explains in a detailed, informative historical note, has purposely altered characters and events.
Dazzled by a handsome aviator-in-training at a party, fickle Ginevra wastes no time in ridding herself of Fitzgerald, a “silly college boy” with a pronounced taste for highballs who “’writes,’ plays dress-up, and is flunking geometry.” Five years later, Ginevra, married and a mother, realizes that her spurned suitor has become famous and that a female character in his new novel bears a distinct resemblance to herself. From that point on, Ginevra’s and Fitzgerald’s lives will occasionally intersect and parallel each other, with sometimes surprising results.
With Fitzgerald and Ginevra’s romance over, I wondered at first whether Ginevra, the narrator, was going to be able to carry the rest of Gatsby’s Girl by herself. I needn’t have worried, however, for Ginevra turns out to be more than simply a shallow debutante. As she faces an unhappy marriage, a mentally ill child, and the consequences of her own recklessness with increasing maturity, sensitivity, and self-awareness, she gains the reader’s respect. Gatsby’s Girl is an engaging and absorbing novel in which the heroine proves wrong her old boyfriend’s declaration, “There are no second acts in American lives.”
Loving Will Shakespeare
Just before the plague returns to England, seven-year-old Agnes (Anne) Hathaway and her family are invited to a christening by friends: John and Mary Shakespeare, who have just had a son, William. From that point on, Anne’s and Will’s lives will constantly intersect, even when the pair are miles apart.
Despite the title, this appealing novel is not so much the story of Anne and Will’s courtship and marriage as it is of Anne’s coming of age, though the budding playwright is never very far offstage and the love story does assume prominence in the latter part of the book. Growing up as a yeoman farmer’s daughter, Anne, the narrator, is an ordinary girl but by no means a dull one. She must cope with her difficult stepmother and half-sister, the temptations posed by men, the deaths of loved ones, worries over friends who choose to practice Catholicism, and her increasing fear of spinsterhood, and she does so with resourcefulness and good humor. All of this plays out against the vividly rendered backdrop of life in Elizabethan England: the once-in-a-lifetime excitement of a royal progress, the annual May Day and Yuletide feasts, the periodic visitations of plague and sweating sickness, the daily business of running a farm. These elements make this an engrossing story, one that should appeal to adults as well as to the teens for whom it is intended. Ages 12 and up.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
One of the more unlikely romances in the late thirteenth century was that between Joan of Acre, daughter of King Edward I, and Ralph de Monthermer, son of the Lord Knows Who. For Ralph, a squire in Joan's household, was of such obscure origins that his parentage is unknown.
Joan of Acre was born in 1272 in Acre, or Akko, in what is now Israel. Her parents, Eleanor of Castile and the future Edward I, had gone there on crusade. Joan was soon sent to her maternal grandmother in Castile, where she remained until 1278. Her father, now King of England, had plans to marry her to Hartman, son of the King of the Romans, but the young man died in a shipwreck in 1282 before the couple could marry. Undaunted, Edward I soon began searching around for another suitable husband. Soon he lit on one: Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester. Gilbert de Clare, probably the most powerful baron in England at the time and one whose relations with the king had long been stormy. Gilbert had the disadvantage of already having a wife, Alice de Lusignan, but the couple had long been estranged, and in 1285, the marriage was annulled. In 1290, after drawn-out negotiations and the obtaining of a papal dispensation, eighteen-year-old Joan was finally married to forty-six-year-old Gilbert. Before Gilbert's death in December 1295, the couple efficiently produced four children: Gilbert, Eleanor, Margaret, and Elizabeth.
Joan has taken hard knocks at the hands of both historians and novelists. Mary Anne Everett Green in her Lives of the Princesses of England characterizes her as a neglectful mother and a "giddy princess," and other Victorian-era historians, along with many novelists, have acquiesced in this judgment. There seems to be little evidence to support this with regard to her motherhood; though Edward I did arrange for Joan's son Gilbert to live at court when he was seven, this was hardly an atypical arrangement for a noble boy who was also the king's grandson. As for Joan's giddiness, Michael Altschul has commented on the "marked ability" with which Joan controlled the Clare lands after Gilbert's death. There is certainly no evidence that supports the picture of Joan that is painted by romance novelist Virginia Henley, who depicts her as a promiscuous young woman ready to jump into bed with any willing knight.
What can be said about Joan, however, was that she had spirit and willfulness. During her parents' absence in Gascony, when Joan was in her early teens, she became involved in a dispute with the treasurer of her household and refused to accept money from him; her father had to pay her debts when he returned to England. After her marriage, she left court to be alone with her new husband at his manors, to the displeasure of her father, who in reprisal seized seven robes that had been made for her. When her younger brother, the future Edward II, became estranged from Edward I, Joan offered to lend him her seal.
Among the squires in Gilbert de Clare's vast household was one Ralph de Monthermer. Nothing is known of his background, but he soon caught the eye of his widowed mistress, who sent him to her father to be knighted. Sometime at the beginning of 1297, the couple were secretly married.
Edward I, cheerfully ignorant of this match, had meanwhile been searching around for another husband for his daughter, and it is safe to say that Monthermer was not one of the candidates. His words when he heard the rumors about his daughter's attraction to her squire are unrecorded, and in any case are probably best left to the imagination. He seized Joan's estates and formally announced his daughter's betrothal to the Count of Savoy in March 1297. Joan, however, had become "conscious that she was in a situation which would render the disclosure of her marriage inevitable," as Green delicately puts it, and she apparently broke the news of the marriage to her father, who promptly clapped Monthermer into prison at Bristol Castle.
Either before informing her father of her marriage, or after Monthermer had been put into prison--the accounts vary--Joan sent her little daughters to visit their grandfather the king in hopes that they would soften his mood. Evidently, though, more was needed than just the youthful antics of the three Clare sisters. After a great deal of discussion at court about the matter, Joan, as the chronicles report, was at last allowed to plead for herself before her father, at which time she is said to have told the king that as it was no disgrace for an earl to marry a poor woman, it was not blameworthy for a countess to advance a capable young man. This defense is said to have pleased Edward I, though it is probable that Joan's pregnancy, which would have been visible at the time of this exchange in July 1297, also convinced the king to accept the situation. He restored most of Joan's lands to her and pardoned Monthermer, who from November 1297 onward was referred to as the Earl of Gloucester. In the meantime, the couple's first child, named Mary, had been born. She was followed by three others: Thomas, Edward, and Joan.
Ralph soon found himself busy fighting Scots for his new father-in-law, which brought him quickly into favor with the king. In 1301, Edward I restored Tonbridge and Portland to Ralph and Joan in consideration of Ralph's good services in Scotland. Ralph also was on cordial terms with young Prince Edward, who frequently wrote to him. Joan too was friendly with her much younger brother Edward, even offering him her seal when Edward was estranged from his father.
On April 23, 1307, Joan of Acre died. Some Internet sources claim that she died in childbirth--unfortunately, hardly an implausible scenario--but none that I have seen mention a source for this information. Neither Green, Altschul, nor Frances Underwood specify a cause for her death. She was only thirty-five. Ralph was probably not present, being engaged in Scotland at the time. Joan was buried at the priory of Clare in Suffolk. According to Underwood, Osbern Bokenham, a friar there, relayed the odd story that in 1359, Elizabeth de Burgh, Joan's last surviving Clare daughter, inspected her mother's body and found the corpse to be intact. Bokenham also reported that miracles were said to occur at Joan's tomb, including the healing of toothache, back pain, and fever.
Edward I, who ordered that masses be said for his daughter, was himself in poor health; he died in July 1307. Having been styled an earl in right of his wife, Ralph lost his title shortly after her death; Joan and Gilbert de Clare's son, another Gilbert, became the next Earl of Gloucester. The new king, Edward II, granted Ralph five thousand marks for his surrender of the Clare lands to Gilbert, then still a minor. Though his importance had been much diminished, he remained active in Edward II's reign, holding positions such as keeper of the forest south of Trent, and seems to have been neutral or on the king's side during the latter's disputes with his barons. In 1314, he was taken prisoner at Bannockburn but was treated as an honored guest by Robert Bruce, who allowed him to return to England without having to pay a ransom. A story goes that years before, Monthermer, having gotten wind of a plan of Edward I to capture Bruce while he was in London, had sent him coins bearing the king's head and a pair of spurs as a hint that he should slip away. Bruce, having profited from the hint, later remembered this good deed when Monthermer became his prisoner.
Around November 1318, Monthermer made another runaway match, this time to Isabel de Hastings, a widow. Whatever motivated the match, it was an opportune one for Ralph, for Isabel was a member of the Despenser family. Her father, Hugh le Despenser the elder, had long been loyal to Edward II; her brother, Hugh le Despenser the younger, was rapidly becoming Edward II's most trusted advisor (and possibly, his lover). Monthermer, a contemporary of the elder Despenser, was probably at least twenty years older than his new bride. Because the couple had married without the king's license, Isabel's dower lands were seized, but the couple were pardoned the next year in exchange for paying a fine of a thousand marks, which was remitted in 1321.
In 1324, Edward II showed his displeasure with his queen, Isabella, by reducing her household. Among the changes made were that the royal daughters, Eleanor and Joan, were put into Ralph and Isabel's care. Although the timing suggests that Edward II was motivated in part by hostility toward Queen Isabella, it was also typical to give royal children households of their own. The girls and their new guardians stayed at Marlborough Castle.
Ralph died on April 5, 1325, aged sixty-three, and was buried in the Grey Friars' church at Salisbury. The timing of his death was also opportune: it spared him from having to choose whether to remain loyal to Edward II or to support Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, who overthrew the king in 1326. Ralph's connection with the Despenser family might have been a fatal one had he elected to side with the king. The king and queen's daughters remained with the widowed Isabel until October 1326, when Queen Isabella was reunited with them at Bristol Castle, where they and Hugh le Despenser the elder were staying. Isabel was presumably at the castle with her charges and may have had the misfortune of seeing her father's surrender to Isabella and Mortimer and his execution the following day. Her brother was executed less than a month later.
Isabel herself does not seem to have been punished by the new rulers, although in June 1328, she acknowledged a debt of nearly three hundred pounds to Queen Isabella. Whether this was a real debt stemming out of her care of the queen's children or whether she was forced to make the acknowledgment to avoid the wrath of the queen's regime is unknown.
Ralph and Isabel had apparently had no surviving children. Ralph's two sons by Joan of Acre, Thomas and Edward, were on good enough terms with the new regime to be knighted in 1327, but Thomas later joined Henry, Earl of Lancaster's rebellion against Queen Isabella and Mortimer, while Edward became entangled with the Earl of Kent, Edward II's half-brother, who had plotted to release Edward II, whom he believed to be still alive, from captivity. The earl, who had likely been entrapped into the plot by Queen Isabella and Mortimer, was beheaded in 1330 for his fraternal loyalty, but Edward de Monthermer got off more lightly, being imprisoned in Winchester Castle at the crown's expense. Fortunately for Edward, Mortimer's days were numbered; he was seized by Edward III in October 1330 and hanged the following month. Edward de Monthermer's lands were restored to him in December 1330. Thomas, who had been fined for his role in Lancaster's rebellion, had his fine remitted in January 1331.
Edward de Monthermer, who had taken part in Edward III's wars but who had fallen ill, came to live with his half-sister Elizabeth de Burgh in 1339 and died before February 1340. He was buried near Joan of Acre; Elizabeth de Burgh, who took charge of his funeral, had his tomb made. Ralph and Joan's younger daughter, Joan, became a nun at Amesbury; their older daughter, Mary, wed the Earl of Fife. Thomas de Monthermer married Margaret, the widow of Henry Teyes, and died in 1340 at the sea battle of Sluys. His daughter, Margaret, married John de Montacute, the younger son of William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. John and Margaret's son, John, later succeeded to the earldom of Salisbury. From him would descend Warwick the Kingmaker and his daughter Anne, queen to Richard III. It was an impressive lineage for Ralph de Monthermer, the obscure squire who had married a princess.
Friday, November 24, 2006
Leybourne and Stanegrave and their men had made Hugh’s journey to Hereford as miserable as Isabella and Mortimer could have wished. Lest any dozing village miss the fine sight of Hugh le Despenser chained to a mangy horse, a drummer and a trumpeter had been put at the head of the procession to announce his arrival well in advance. This was the cue for villagers to throw anything they could find at Hugh, and at Simon de Reading as well. Hardly anyone knew who the latter was, of course, but as he too was in chains, everyone realized that he had to be associated with Hugh, and his presence made the proceedings twice as fun and provided some consolation for those whose aim was too unsure to hit Hugh himself.
But the true festivities started when the troops, trailed by an ever-increasing crowd of citizens eager to see Hugh hang, reached the outskirts of Hereford, where they were met by a contingent of the queen’s men coming from the city, led by Jean de Hainault and Thomas Wake. There, to the delight of the crowd, Hugh and Simon were dragged off their horses and stripped naked, then redressed in tunics bearing their coats of arms reversed. With the help of a clerk, whose Latin was needed for the purpose, the words from the Magnificat “He has put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble” were etched into Hugh’s bare shoulders. His chest bore psalm verses beginning, “Why dost thou glory in malice, thou that art mighty in iniquity?” Thus decorated, and wearing a crown of nettles, he was put back on his horse. Then, to the blare of trumpets and drums, accompanied by the howling of the spectators, he was led into the city with Simon de Reading forced to march in front of him bearing his standard reversed. As there were only so many horse droppings that could be found to throw at the captives, the enterprising were selling eggs for that purpose.
Zouche had hoped to miss these proceedings. He had retrieved the records, and the little treasure that could be found, from Swansea, and had delivered his load to the queen two days before. But having made good time to Hereford, he could not leave once the execution had been scheduled. Thus, he was standing in the market square, near the queen, Mortimer, and the Duke of Aquitaine [the future Edward III], when Hugh and Simon, so covered in filth that they resembled scarecrows more than men, were brought there for trial.
Isabella, still clad in widow’s weeds, wore a look of resignation as William Trussell stepped forth to read the charges against Hugh. Only Mortimer, making no attempt to hide his own satisfaction, saw the sparkle in her eyes.
At what passed for his trial, Hugh’s mind wandered from the past to the present, sometimes lucidly, sometimes not. There were many charges against him, some true enough, some with a bit of truth to them, some so patently absurd that it was a wonder Trussell could keep a straight face. Piracy. Returning to England after his banishment. Procuring the death of the saintly Lancaster after imprisoning him on false charges. Executing other men who had fought against the king at Boroughbridge on false charges. Forcing the king to fight the Scots. Abandoning the queen at Tynemouth. (That again, Hugh thought.) Making war on the Christian Church. Disinheriting the king by inducing him to grant the earldom of Winchester to his father and the earldom of Carlisle to Harclay. Bribing persons in France to murder the queen and her son… He drifted off into a world where his death was not imminent, and when he was shaken back to the here and now once more, Trussell was still going on, perhaps beginning to bore those assembled a little. Trussell himself must have sensed this, for he sped through the last few charges (leading the king out of his realm to his dishonor and taking with him the treasure of the kingdom and the Great Seal) before he slowed his voice dramatically for what all were anticipating: his sentence. Though no one could have possibly been surprised by it, least of all Hugh himself, there were nonetheless appreciative gasps as Trussell, all but smacking his lips, informed Hugh what was to be done with him.
“Hugh, you have been judged a traitor since you have threatened all the good people of the realm, great and small, rich and poor, and by common assent you are also a thief. As a thief you will hang, and as a traitor you will be drawn and quartered, and your quarters will be sent throughout the realm. And because you prevailed upon our lord the king, and by common assent you returned to the court without warrant, you will be beheaded. And because you were always disloyal and procured discord between our lord the king and our very honorable lady the queen, and between other people of the realm, you will be disemboweled, and then your entrails will be burnt. Go to meet your fate, traitor, tyrant, renegade. Go to receive your own justice, traitor, evil man, criminal!”
At Hereford Castle, to which Hugh was dragged by four horses, a gallows fifty feet high had been erected. “Just for you!” said one of the men who untied him from his hurdle and hauled him toward the gallows. “Ain’t we the special one, now?”
Simon de Reading, having been drawn behind the usual two horses, was hung on a smaller gallows. Hugh, propped up between his guards because one of his ankles would not allow him to bear any weight on it, shakily crossed himself and whispered a prayer for Simon’s soul.
When he was twelve he had had to have a tooth drawn. His father, always anxious for him, had told him as he lay miserably in the barber’s chair, “Get a pleasant picture in your mind, son, and fix it there. It’ll take your mind off it as it happens.” He’d obeyed, fixing first on his new horse, then, more satisfyingly, on a buxom village maiden he’d long admired, and it had worked, at least to the extent that it’d taken his mind off his tooth until the barber actually yanked it. Eleanor, after the birth of their first son, had told him that her midwife had given her similar advice when her labor pains became intense. “She said, ‘Think of something you enjoy doing, and imagine yourself doing it,’ so I thought of making love to you. Isn’t that terrible? But it helped.”
He thought of his wedding night. He was nineteen years old and pulling the sheets off his skittish little bride, chosen for him by the great King Edward himself, and he had been the happiest creature in the world. She was lovely and sweet and all his, and it had not yet occurred to him to want anything more.
He’d been guilty of no greater sin back then than poaching the occasional deer, and if he had died at that time, there would have been no cheering. Perhaps someone might have even wept for him. If he’d just taken life as it came to him his old father would be nodding off in a comfortable chair by a roaring fire now and his wife would be welcoming some pretty heiress as their son Hugh’s new bride. His son Edward would be mooning over some wench and the rest of his children would be playing some absurd game. The king would be on his throne, taking the purely disinterested advice that Hugh could have offered him but never did.
He’d truly loved them all, and he’d brought them all to ruin. It was by far his worst sin. Why had not Trussell included that in his thunderings?
He prayed for forgiveness, perhaps audibly enough to be overheard by those surrounding him, for there was scornful laughter. Then a man in black appeared beside him. Of the faces that surrounded him, his was the only one that showed no hatred on it. It showed nothing, in fact; the man was simply following his trade. Hugh hoped he was reasonably good at it; Arundel’s executioner, as the queen’s men had delighted in informing him, had been a rank amateur who had taken twenty strokes to sever the earl’s head. He slid his rings off his fingers and handed them to his executioner. “Go to it,” he said tonelessly.
To separate them from the increasingly boisterous crowd, a little stand had been erected near the gallows for the queen and her son and the higher nobility. Still wearing a look of patient, slightly pained endurance, Isabella watched as Despenser, wearing nothing but his crown of nettles, was lifted aloft. Zouche, standing a few feet off with the queen’s other leaders, glanced at young Edward’s face but could read nothing in it.
After dangling in the air a short time, Hugh was lowered to a platform below the gallows, next to which a good-sized fire had been lit. For a moment, he lay still, much to the crowd’s dismay; then, after a few slaps from the executioner, he started to cough and gasp and opened his eyes. The executioner, satisfied that his charge was as awake as he was going to get, nodded to a boy who like a surgeon’s apprentice was standing nearby with several knives and an ax. The boy handed over the smallest of the knives, and the executioner bent to his work.
Despenser let out a strangled cry, and the executioner held up Hugh’s genitals. Amid the cheers and jests, Isabella’s smile was too slight to be detected as they quivered in the air. After dropping them in the fire (“Listen to ’em sizzle!” a spectator shouted happily. “Like bacon!”), the executioner took a larger knife and opened Hugh’s abdomen. Hugh moaned and turned his head back and forth, then grew quiet. He was motionless when his heart was plucked out and thrown into the fire.
The boy handed over the ax. “Behold the head of a traitor!”
The crowd shrieked with sheer joy, and men clapped each other on the backs and shoulders as if they had personally caught the king’s chamberlain and brought him to justice. As the head, which was to be sent to London, was carefully put aside, Zouche found that he could not watch Hugh’s blood-covered body being cut into four pieces. Instead, he stared at the ring on his right hand as he twirled it round and round.
Thursday, November 23, 2006
Actually, before you start dissing Stove Top Stuffing (which I'm afraid I prefer to most homemade stuffing--I'm so perverse), bear in mind that one of its chief inventors was a woman, Ruth Siems, who died just last year. So every forkful of Stove Top you have this Thanksgiving is, in a sense, your tribute to the strides women have made over the years.
Besides, it's damn tasty. Really.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
First to arrive was a 1962 historical novel, The Reluctant Queen by Molly Costain Haycraft, about Henry VIII's sister Mary (not to be confused with The Reluctant Queen by Jean Plaidy, about Richard III's queen, Anne Neville). Haycraft, as you might know or have guessed, was the daughter of popular historian and novelist Thomas Costain.
Unfortunately, this book didn't give me much bang for my birthday buck. About two-thirds of the novel, which ends with Mary's marriage to Charles Brandon, is concerned with Mary's life before she marries the French king, and although there are a few nice scenes between Mary and her brother, the main focus--the developing love affair between Mary and Charles Brandon--just isn't that interesting. It's the usual story--the lovers get jealous of each other's admirers, have a tiff or two, realize their love, declare their love, and then are separated by mean Harry. Once Mary becomes Queen of France, the book doesn't improve much, though I had a glimpse of hope when little Anne Boleyn appeared on the scene. Unfortunately, her appearance was only a cameo one, as was Jane Seymour's. Even the lecherous Francis doesn't liven up the novel as much as he should. Charles Brandon must have been quite the charmer, but it doesn't come through here, I'm afraid. He and Mary are personable and attractive, but not much more than that, and as a result the book just never lit up for me.
I've read two other books by Haycraft, King's Daughters, about the daughters of Edward I and especially his daughter Elizabeth, and The Lady Royal, about Isabella, daughter of Edward III, and found them to be more entertaining than this one. Perhaps the difference lies in that these books dealt with relatively obscure people, and thus weren't retreading familiar ground, whereas Mary and Brandon's story has been told many times, requiring anyone who writes about them yet again to display more pizazz than was exhibited here.
All in all, a pleasant enough love story, but not something I'd recommend tracking down except for lovers of all things Tudor.
Speaking of which, I'm debating whether to buy the forthcoming Philippa Gregory novel or just to wait my turn at the library. Those who have read it seem to prefer it over her earlier novels, which I didn't really care for, so perhaps I'll take the plunge.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
Harlot Queen was written in the third person, and I wish this novel had been also. Catherine is the narrator, and unfortunately, she never really came to life for me. She showed some promise in the early part of the novel, dealing with her youth, and she became almost interesting in the last chapter of the novel, dealing with her second marriage, but in the long stretch in between she was little more than a reporter of other people's doings. This could have worked, I suppose, in some circumstances, but I don't think it did here.
A big problem for me was that although Catherine often professes her love for Buckingham (and in real life, I believe she was quite fond of him, and he of her), we see very little of the two as a couple, and on the few occasions when we do, we see little of their affection in evidence. On the few occasions when the two hold a conversation, it might as well be one between business associates as one between a married couple.
Historically, this novel seems rather eccentric. As Lewis would have it, the main cause of Buckingham's undoing was his hopeless love for the Queen of France, which drives him into an unpopular war and Lewis's prose into the realm of the purple: "'His passion burns him like a fire. He starves for the sight of her. I tell you he cries out her name in his sleep.'"
Add to this a tedious subplot involving Catherine's adulterous sister-in-law and her persecution by the Villiers family, and I admit I was doing some heavy-duty skimming toward the end.
Sadly, I don't know much about the real-life Catherine Manners, but the online Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article about her by Jane Ohlmeyer indicates that she was an interesting woman, one in need of a better novel than this.
On a happier note, this is one of my finds at the book sale on Monday. Check out the nicely contrasting queens--brunette Blanche of Castile in pink, blond Isabella of Angouleme in blue. Not to mention Isabella's bangs (fringe, I think, to some of you) and the big pointy hennins that these thirteenth-century trendsetters have acquired a couple of centuries beforehand.
Monday, November 13, 2006
I volunteered at my county library's annual book sale today and helped unbox books and arrange them on tables. Before you commend me for my civic-mindedness, remember the Big Perk here: first dibs on the books (500,000 under one roof, according to the newspaper) before they go on sale to the public.
I've been to this sale before, but always as a customer and always on the weekend, after the best books had been grabbed by the early birds. By contrast, the scene today was almost pornographic: a former discount department store lined front to back, side to side, with tables of books, many of them very lightly read. Volunteers got to grab paperbacks for 50 cents (including trade paperbacks) and hardbacks for two bucks.
I get the shivers just remembering it.
I didn't find anything truly obscure (no $700 Hale books here, I'm afraid), but I did find a lot of things on my wish list. Among others, I brought home several of Alison Weir's biographies, five Jean Plaidys, a copy of Stella Tillyard's Aristocrats that appeared never to have been read, a copy of Jane Dunn's Elizabeth and Mary that also looked pristine, and a copy of Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter that will probably take me years before I get around to reading it but nonetheless is adding a certain respectability to my shelf tonight.
I'm due to go back Friday, but I'm seriously tempted to go back tomorrow. (Did I mention I get to wear a sexy orange T-shirt with VOLUNTEER on it?)
It was rather funny to see what tables people gravitated to. General Fiction (including historical fiction, which, alas, does not have its own table) attracted a great many unpackers, as did the Juvenile, History, and Biography tables. When I left in the early afternoon, the Horror tables hadn't been touched yet (evidently too scary an experience). Strangely, the Romance tables also had yet to be unpacked. Maybe the romance readers showed up in the afternoon, after a morning of luxuriating in their king-size beds.
Some more thoughts:
I personally unpacked six copies of Bill Clinton's autobiography, and there were another dozen or so on the Presidents table the last time I looked. Most of them were pristine ex-library copies, suggesting that whoever decided that each branch needed multiple copies needs to reconsider the next time a President writes a book.
The books were sorted before they were sent over for unpacking. The sorters were evidently of two minds about James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Of the dozen or so copies I noticed, half were in fiction, the other half in biography. (There wasn't a special table for Rip-Offs.) You can get a copy for 50 cents if you really want one, but this is one I'd save for Bag or Box day (Sunday), where you can get it even cheaper.
Speaking of memoirs, there were a lot of them (presumably genuine) on the Biography table. In fact, it seems that everyone in whom I'm not the least bit interested has written one.
Finally, almost every fifth book I unpacked for the Biography table had something to do with Princess Diana. This made me think either (1) there cannot possibly be anything left to say about Princess Diana or (2) I should get cracking and try to find something to say about Princess Diana.
Friday, November 10, 2006
An Amazon search revealed no book by Bidden of this name. I knew, of course, that Jean Plaidy's recently reissued historical novel by that name (about Mary Tudor) would turn up. What I wasn't expecting, however, was how many others did:
Shadow of the Crown by Craig Mills
Shadow of the Crown by Susan Bowden
Crown of Shadows (Coldfire Trilogy, Final Volume) by C. S. Friedman
The Crown and the Shadow: The Story of Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon by Pamela Hill
Shadow of the Crown: A Story of Malta by Ivy May Bolton
Crown of Shadows: An Anti-historical Play by Rodolfo Usigli
(Sadly, there's no description for this last entry, so I'm--appropriately enough--in the dark as to what an anti-historical play is.)
To make matters even shadier, Nicholas Carter also wrote a series called Shadow on the Crown. Not to be outdone, Ulverscroft reprinted a number of historical novels about royal figures. It called this large-print series Shadows of the Crown
So, plenty of shady characters here. But where's Bidden?
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Moving on to a totally unrelated topic, this quiz answered one of those questions that has always puzzled me:
You're the London Underground!
Once the benchmark for the industry you work in, now you've
been through a very difficult experience. This has made people less likely
to spend time with you and even afraid of you in some cases. In future, it
might be best to not respond to your own fear with threats of shootings.
Regardless, you remain a staple in your community and even a new symbol of
hope. You may soon be as popular as the Fire Department of New
Take the Trains and Railroads Quiz
at RMI Miniature Railroads.
As I'm a subway aficionado, I was quite pleased with these results. The New York subway would have suited me fine also.
Monday, November 06, 2006
I don't buy many Barbies these days, but before I eased up I had succeeded in replacing many of my childhood dolls, all of which had been stolen from my parents' house years ago. (Barbie thieves, there's a little pink circle in hell meant especially for you.) I bought new Barbies too, including this Barbie and Midge, who feature on my website redressed in other Barbie clothes as two of my characters, Queen Isabella and Eleanor de Clare. (Isabella's the blond Barbie, Eleanor the redheaded Midge.)
So what does this have to do with historical fiction, you might ask? Only this: I credit Barbie with my development as a writer, for long before I could write stories on paper, I was enacting them using Barbie and her friends, who became characters in an ongoing drama that lasted well into my 11th year. As my female dolls greatly outnumbered my male dolls, this occasionally affected my storylines--but just as with historical fiction you have to work within the known facts, with the Barbie world, you have to work within there being only so many Kens to go around.
Thursday, November 02, 2006
I was fortunate enough to see William Styron speak at my college many years ago. He spoke a little bit about himself, saying that he was "not glib," and he read a very funny chapter from Sophie's Choice, where the callow hero Stingo, going to date a Jewish girl for the first time, is much taken aback to find that her father is a worldly art collector instead of the pious, insular Old World figure Stingo had expected. Indeed, perhaps one of the best achievements of Sophie's Choice is the ease with which the tragedy of Sophie is blended with Stingo's often comic misadventures. (The earliest pages, where Stingo describes his job as a slush-pile reader for a publisher, are among the funniest I've ever read.)
So, a morning toast to the memory of William Styron.
On another note, I finished reading The Young and Lonely King, a 1969 historical novel by Jane Lane, last week. Just a word in case anyone decides to reissue this novel; it may have one of the worst titles I've ever seen. Not only does it lack shelf appeal ("Wow! A novel about a young king! And he's lonely!"), it also is the sort of title that likely will lead anyone seeing it in a reader's hand to conclude that the reader isn't a barrel of fun either. (Passenger on airplane seeing fellow passenger holding The Young and Lonely King: "Well, at least she probably won't talk throughout the whole flight.")
Title aside, I enjoyed this novel about Charles I. Unlike The Severed Crown, which was told by multiple narrators, this is a third-person narration that begins with Charles I's childhood and ends at a high point in his life; the birth of a son to Henrietta Maria. Not action-packed, it's essentially a story of Charles's developing character and centers around his relationships: with his parents, his siblings, his friend Buckingham, and finally with his temperamental wife. Lane has a sardonic, yet compassionate narrative voice and a sharp eye for character; James I is especially memorable. There's even a rather sweet love story here: that between Charles I and Henrietta Maria, who start their marriage as an ill-matched pair and eventually fall deeply in love with each other. The scene where Henrietta Maria goes to comfort her husband after the death of Buckingham and says her first English words to him is especially good--moving, but not mawkish.
All in all, a book that whet my appetite for more Jane Lane.
By the way, you'll notice a new poll in the sidebar. Did Richard III kill the little princes, or did someone else do the deed? Or were they not killed at all? You decide.
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Visually, this is a gorgeous movie--beautiful interior and exterior shots and exquisite costuming. Even the various yippy little dogs that chew the scenery (and the furniture) seem to have been chosen very carefully.
The use of rock music here has been quite controversial, but I didn't find it offputting--it mostly is used as a backdrop for scenes such as raucous parties and therefore seemed quite fitting. Period music, especially opera, is also used to good effect.
There are some very clever scenes here, such as the one where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's brother Joseph discuss the facts of life while a caged elephant intrudes his trunk into their presence, and some rather droll ones, like the one where Marie Antoinette and her girlfriends, dressed in expensively simple frocks and having had some tea out of china that could probably have fed a family of six for a year, solemnly read Rousseau.
Most of the movie is devoted to Marie Antoinette's awkward position at Versailles, where she's ridiculed by courtiers for not producing an heir and lectured by her mother via mail for not doing more to get the reluctant Louis in the mood. After, it's no wonder the poor girl just wants to have fun.
Unfortunately, once the marriage finally produces a child (albeit of the wrong sex) and Marie Antoinette abandons the party scene for the simple life at the Petit Trianon, the film seems to lose its focus. Axel Fersen, an old acquaintance from Marie Antoinette's champagne days, arrives on the scene, and the two have a fling. After this, the years fly by. A son is born, a child dies, rude writings start to appear about Marie Antoinette, the queen sends away her friends for their own safety, the mob comes to Versailles, and the film ends. All of this takes place in the film's last twenty minutes or so, which feel like a coda to the earlier part of the movie. With so much time given to the young Marie Antoinette and so little given to the older woman, the film felt disjointed in the extreme, and the affecting last scene, a shot of the ransacked royal bedroom, couldn't make up for the relative emptiness of the last part of the movie.
All in all, a film like one of the pastries that are consumed in it: pleasant in the eating but in the end leaving the viewer wishing she'd had something more substantial.
Saturday, October 28, 2006
Let's see. Romance novelists, historical novelists, literary novelists, science fiction novelists, fantasy novelists, chick lit novelists, military novelists . . . Have I left anyone out?
I haven't read Webb's books, some of which are set during World War II and Vietnam and which have been critically praised by those on both sides of the political fence, but Allen seems to have lifted some graphic sexual passages out of context in the hope that unsophisticated voters will assume that having a male character watch a stripper do unseemly acts with a banana means that Webb regards all women as potential strippers. Either that, or Allen is so culturally limited that he has no idea that novelists don't necessarily endorse everything their characters do or say. In that respect, it could be a lot worse for James Webb.
He could have written murder mysteries.
Friday, October 27, 2006
Hugh the elder had been sent to Bristol to hold the town against Queen Isabella's troops. Edward II and Hugh le Despenser had fled to Wales, where they were on the day of Hugh the elder's execution. In Bristol, Hugh the elder resisted the queen's besieging troops for eight days, but finally surrendered on October 26 and was promptly arrested.
The next day, Hugh the elder was tried, if it could be called that, by Roger Mortimer, Henry, Earl of Lancaster, and the Earls of Norfolk and Kent (Edward II's half-brothers), among others. He had been among those who presided over the trial and execution of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, in 1322, and his role in this proceeding was prominent in the charges against him, which also included accusations of robbery and treason and of depriving the prelates of the Church of their franchises. Hugh the elder had participated in some of his son's land-grabs and could be justly accused of robbery on those grounds, but the charge of treason surely required some mental gymnastics to justify, given Winchester's unbroken record of loyalty to Edward II and his father. Nonetheless, he was sentenced to be drawn through the town, hung, and beheaded. He was to be hung in a surcoat emblazoned with his coat of arms.
According to one chronicler, Isabella pleaded to spare the life of the elder Despenser, who was sixty-five (not ninety as reported by Froissart). Though several historians have accepted this claim at face value, it seems highly unlikely; as queen, Isabella would have hardly needed to plea to the men who were acting in her name.
Edward II's young daughters, Eleanor and Joan, were at Bristol Castle with Hugh the elder and were reunited with Queen Isabella upon its surrender. The girls had been in the care of Isabel de Hastings, one of Winchester's daughters. Presumably she had accompanied her charges to Bristol and thus too was at the castle at the time of her father's capture. According to Froissart, the young girls watched the execution from the castle window.
The sentence was carried out immediately after the trial. Hugh the elder's head was sent to Winchester, the seat of his earldom, on a spear. One source says that his body was rehung and remained on the gallows for three days, after which it was fed to dogs.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
(As pointed out here, Mr. Head evidently hasn't heard of his near namesake, running heads. And "Fred Head"? Sounds like a character in a porno film to me.)
Moving on, however, a glance at the State Comptroller's website shows that some mighty dull books are published there. If Ms. Combs does get elected (and if Mr. Head can't think of any better campaign issues, I daresay she probably will), there's an opportunity for her to spice things up by combining her old avocation with her new career.
Take, for instance, this publication, "Auditing Fundamentals":
The entrance conference is a meeting between the auditor and the taxpayer or taxpayer's designated representative, prior to beginning the examination of the taxpayer's books and records. This is generally the first face-to-face meeting between the taxpayer or representative and the auditor.
The entrance conference is the foundation of a good audit and generally sets the tone of the auditor's dealings with the taxpayer. The taxpayer should be left with the impression that the auditor will be honest and fair, flexible and interested in serving the taxpayer, and willing to educate and assist the taxpayer.
Now let's add some spice by naming the auditor "Kirk" and the taxpayer "Fawn":
Kirk strode into the meeting room, his rippling muscles barely showing the effort of carrying the taxpayer books and records he bore under one tanned arm. Then he stopped.
Sitting at the table, her skirt hiked high over her luscious thighs, was the most beautiful taxpayer he had ever seen.
Fawn's silk blouse barely concealed her ample breasts as she gazed down at her itemized deduction form. Kirk followed her sapphire-blue eyes to the line that read "Filing Status." She was single.
Single. Available. And soon she would be his. He knew it in his aching groin. This would be a good audit. Good for them both.
She parted her full, lush, red lips, showing blindingly white teeth.
"Educate and assist me," Fawn purred.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Though Edmund Fitzalan had sided against Edward II in the past and had been among those who approved the execution of Piers Gaveston, by the 1320’s he had become loyal to the king. As Hugh le Despenser the younger was the king’s closest friend and advisor, it must have seemed an eminently wise step for Arundel to marry his son to Despenser’s daughter. Hugh for his part must have been pleased with the marriage; as Richard Fitzalan was an oldest son (younger sons would not do for Hugh), Hugh could anticipate that his daughter would someday become Countess of Arundel.
The marriage took place on February 9, 1321 at Havering-atte-Bower, a royal manor. Edward II paid for the cloth to be held over the heads of the couple as they knelt at the altar and supplied the money thrown at the door of the king’s chapel. A papal petition brought years later stated that Richard was seven years old at the time; Isabella, eight. This must have been the bright spot in what was otherwise a grim year for the Despenser family, as Hugh the younger’s land-grabbing would bring England near to civil war in the next few months and lead to the temporary exile of Hugh and his father.
Though the Despensers were soon back in England, the wheel of fortune’s next spin, in 1326, was a fatal one. That year, Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded England with the express intent of destroying the Despensers and their allies. The Earl of Arundel, on extremely vague charges, was the first to go. His main offenses seem to have been his familial connection with Hugh the younger and his continued loyalty to Edward II. Slight as these were, they cost him his head on November 17, 1326. A week later, Hugh the younger was hung, beheaded, and quartered. His widow, Eleanor de Clare, was made a prisoner in the Tower of London, along with some of her children. Arundel’s widow was more fortunate: though Arundel’s estates were seized by the crown, the countess and her sons were given some Despenser lands to live upon; presumably Richard, and probably Isabella, lived with them. In 1327, Richard and Isabella’s son, Edmund Arundel, was born. With his grandfathers both dead, one grandmother in prison, and his other grandmother dependent on the good graces of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, one suspects that the celebrations of the birth were subdued at best.
Toward the end of the Isabella and Mortimer regime, Richard had either fled to France or been put into prison for plotting against Mortimer, depending on which historian one reads. With Mortimer’s downfall, however, he was restored to the family earldom and regained many of the lands forfeited by his father. By the time of his death in 1376 he had become stunningly wealthy, with over 60,000 pounds in cash to his name.
His eldest son would enjoy none of this wealth. In December 1344, Richard Fitzalan succeeded in having his marriage to Isabella annulled on the ground that the couple had expressly renounced their vows at puberty but had been “forced by blows to cohabit, so that a son was born.” If the Pope or his deputy had any doubts as to why Richard had waited seventeen years after the birth of that son before attempting to secure an annulment ("Well, I kept meaning to get around to it, but . . ."), he kept them to himself. Tardy as he had been in getting out of his first marriage, Richard was no slouch in getting into his second marriage, for in February 1345 he married Eleanor, the daughter of Henry, Earl of Lancaster. Eleanor was a widow with whom Richard apparently had been having an affair; the two had gone on pilgrimage together earlier in 1344. Edward III was among the wedding guests. The king had supported the annulment and the remarriage; the Lancasters were far more powerful than the Despensers, and Richard Fitzalan had become a financier to the crown.
Meanwhile, Richard and Isabella’s son, Edmund, had been bastardized by his parents’ annulment. Though Richard had provided six manors for his former wife to live on, and the annulment indicates that some unspecified provision was to be made for Edmund, nothing indicates what it was. Edmund was knighted, however, and by 1347 had married Sibyl, a daughter of the deceased William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. Perhaps Richard Fitzalan had a hand in arranging this advantageous marriage, but it is just as likely that Edmund’s uncle Hugh le Despenser, who had been married to Sibyl’s sister Elizabeth since 1341, made the connection.
Edmund, however, was not disposed to take his disinheritance quietly. In 1347, Edmund, then twenty, complained to the Pope that the annulment had been surreptitiously obtained. Edmund was allowed to take an oath despite of his nonage, and the proceedings were commenced, but to no avail.
Little is heard of Isabella and Edmund after this. Isabella is noted as giving fish to her aunt Elizabeth de Burgh in 1351-52. Edmund and Sibyl, who had two daughters, received papal indults in 1364. An “Aymund de Arundellis” was sent by the Pope in 1368 “to communicate to King Edward the present state of the Roman church in Italy.” Probably Edmund was in the retinue of his cousin Edward le Despenser, who had gone to Italy with Edward III’s son Lionel.
Richard Fitzalan died in 1376, having had a number of children by his second wife. His heir to the earldom was Edmund Arundel’s younger half-brother, Richard. In November 1377, the new earl complained that Edmund Arundel and his servants had broken his closes and houses at High Rothyng, Ouesham, Childescanefeld, Yenge Margarets, and Wolfhampton, fished at High Rothyng, taken fish, money, and goods, and assaulted his servants. These manors were the ones that had been granted for life to Edmund’s mother, Isabella, following the annulment; perhaps Isabella had died and Edmund was trying to claim them for himself. The result was a stay in the Tower of London for Edmund Arundel. He was released after three men, including John de Montacute, his brother-in-law, and Guy de Bryan, who had married Elizabeth de Montacute after Hugh le Despenser’s death, stood mainprise for him.
Edmund Arundel disappears from the records after this. He presumably died before 1382, when a lawsuit involving land in Sussex was brought by his heirs against the Earl of Arundel, who prevailed.
Reading the story of the Arundel marriage, it’s hard not to think of the parallel in many modern divorces, where the divorcing spouse in search of a trophy mate casts off not only the other spouse but the children of the marriage. One wishes that Isabella le Despenser and her son had had the benefit of the person who for some twenty-first-century women has become their knight in shining armor: a high-priced divorce lawyer.
Monday, October 23, 2006
I also was excited to see (OK, I excite easily) to find that I could download a volume of Lives of the Princesses of England by Mary Anne Everett Green. Green is quite useful, even today. For those of you who like really old England, there's Lives of the Queens of England before the Norman Conquest by Matthew Hall; how reliable he is I have no idea.
Some volumes of the Close and Patent Rolls are also downloadable now. There's lots more, depending on your taste.
There's been some controversy about Google Books, as you probably know, but I for one think it's wonderful that these public-domain books are being made available to the public. The downside? You'll spend too much time looking through the things when you should be doing something else. I, for instance, got sidetracked by a Emily Sarah Holt novel called The Well in the Desert, which isn't available for download yet but which can be read in full. I didn't read the whole thing, but it evidently deals with the annulment by Richard Fitzalan of his marriage to Isabel le Despenser in the 1340's. I always thought Fitzalan was a cad, and Holt certainly does, making him a wife-beater to boot.
Off to do some more Googling.
Friday, October 20, 2006
The reign of Isabella and Mortimer had been a perfect illustration of the line from the Who song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Isabella and Mortimer had proven to be as greedy for land and power as had been Hugh le Despenser the younger, whom they had executed in 1326. They had quickly alienated their former allies, most notably Henry, Earl of Lancaster, by shutting them out of decision-making during the young king’s minority. They had forced Edward III to agree to the execution of his own uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent, earlier in 1330. Stupidly, instead of growing more deferential to the young king as he matured and gradually ceding power to him, Mortimer had grown more insolent in his behavior toward Edward III, even saying that his own orders were to be obeyed over those of the king. By October 1330, Edward III and his circle of loyal friends had had enough.
After a struggle in which a couple of Mortimer’s men died, Mortimer was seized and arrested. Edward III, as he proclaimed on October 20, 1330, would hereafter rule on his own. Mortimer was taken to the Tower of London, from which he had escaped in 1323. In November 1330, he was dragged to Tyburn, stripped of the black tunic he had worn at Edward II’s funeral, and hung.
William de Montacute remained a close friend of Edward III for the rest of his days (the story that Edward III attempted to seduce, or raped, his friend’s wife is regarded these days as a French slander). He was made Earl of Salisbury by Edward III in 1337. In January 1344, when Edward III formally announced his intention to form a Round Table of 300 knights, William de Montacute played a prominent part in the ceremony. The Round Table project never came to fruition; if it had, Montacute would not have lived to see it, for just days after the announcement, he was fatally injured while jousting at Windsor. He died on January 30, 1344, and was buried at Bisham Priory. He was about forty-three years old.
Medieval families often mended old wounds with Montague-Capulet marriages, and the Montacute/Montague family, appropriately enough, was a fertile source of these. William de Montacute’s eldest son, another William, married Joan of Kent, daughter of the Earl of Kent who had been executed in 1330. (Unfortunately, Joan of Kent had already secretly married Thomas Holland, or so they said, and the marriage with Montacute was dissolved in 1349.) Elizabeth de Montacute married Hugh le Despenser, eldest son of Hugh le Despenser the younger. Sybil de Montacute married Edmund Fitzalan, whose paternal grandfather (Edmund Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel) and maternal grandfather (Hugh le Despenser the younger) had been executed within days of each other by Isabella and Mortimer. Philippa de Montacute married Roger Mortimer, namesake and grandson of the man her father had seized in 1330. He gained Edward III’s favor and eventually became the second Earl of March.
William de Montacute is a major character in Juliet Dymoke’s historical novel The Lion of Mortimer, and his daughter Elizabeth is the heroine of my own work-in-progress. Ian Mortimer in his biographies of Roger Mortimer and Edward III provides a gripping account of the coup at Nottingham.
So raise a glass (as it’s morning, I’m raising a can of Coca-Cola), to William de Montacute, first Earl of Salisbury, friend of Edward III and nemesis of Roger Mortimer.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
King's Bastard (Charlotte Denis)
The King's Bastard (Hebe Elsna)
The Bastard King : Book One Scepter of Mercy (Dan Chernenko)
Bastard Prince (Katherine Kurtz)
The Queen's Bastard (Robin Maxwell)
Bastard Princess (Claudia Edwards)
Wife to the Bastard (Hilda Lewis)
So how'd all of these bastards come about? Here's a couple of possibilities:
One Night With a Prince (Sabrina Jeffries)
In the Prince's Bed (Sabrina Jeffries--I sense a theme here)
To Pleasure a Prince (Sabrina Jeffries--yessir, there's a theme)
And for the ladies:
The Princess and Her Pirate (Lois Greiman)
And the always popular standby:
My Devilish Scotsman (Jen Holling)
Sweet dreams, y'all.
Sunday, October 15, 2006
When I finished The Severed Crown, one of my first thoughts was whether it could get published today. There’s not much action, and there’s no love interest--indeed, there are no major female characters in the novel, unless one counts Queen Henrietta Maria, who writes a couple of letters. The novel is told in the form of letters, extracts from memoirs, and recollections. What action there is consists of Charles I’s moves from place to place and discussions. So if you like action and/or romance, this isn’t the novel for you.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed it thoroughly, perhaps all the more so because some of my recent reads have been so dismal. The story of the king’s last days is told through the eyes of a variety of characters, all with different political and religious beliefs and each with a distinct voice and personality, though most are there more as reporters/observers than as actors. It’s not a neutral look at the action--Lane seems to be very much on the side of the king--but of course novelists are much more free to take sides than are historians or biographers.
One problem, especially for readers in the United States: Lane gives very little background information, so those who don’t know anything about the events leading up to the king’s execution will be at quite a loss, and those like me who knew very little about them will probably miss things in the novel that a more knowledgeable person would pick up.
As with any novel I’ve enjoyed, this one’s got me looking for more novels about the English Civil War, and more by Jane Lane as well.