Thursday, July 31, 2008

Reading Round-Up

Last week I finished The Flaunting, Extravagant Queen by Jean Plaidy, a novel about Marie Antoinette. Unlike The Queen's Confession (written under the name of Victoria Holt), The Flaunting, Extravagant Queen is told in the third person. It and the Holt novel cover much of the same ground, so I wouldn't recommend reading both close together. That being said, I thought Flaunting was one of Plaidy's better novels. She takes a balanced view of her subject, and the final pages of the book, dealing with the last days of the queen, are quite moving. Plaidy's workmanlike prose does its job well here, since it allows the horrors of the time to speak for themselves without any editorializing on the part of the author.

Since finishing up the Plaidy, I've been reading Mary Renault's The Persian Boy, a tale of Alexander the Great told by his eunuch lover. I've never read Renault before, and this is a time period I normally don't delve into, so I'm pleased to say that I'm really enjoying this novel. She has an excellent reputation as a historical novelist, and I can see why. I'll probably be reading more of Renault in months to come.

On a less happy note, I gave into my irresistible impulse and bought Annette Carson's Richard the Third: The Maligned King, a nonfiction book. On skimming it, I can report that it's pretty much what I expected, which is not a Good Thing. First on the plate, of course, is the usual Woodville-bashing. Not only does Carson suggest that Elizabeth Woodville and/or Anthony Woodville poisoned Edward IV, she then goes on to insinuate that the Woodvilles might have had something to do with the 1483 deaths of the elderly Earl of Essex and George Neville, John Neville's son. (Carson is evidently unaware that at the time of the latter's death in May 1483, he was living at Middleham Castle in the care of Richard, Duke of Gloucester, which begs the question of why if the Woodvilles were able to jaunt over to Middleham to murder George Neville, they didn't also murder Gloucester's son, who was also living at Middleham at the time.)

Just on skimming, I spotted a number of irritating factual errors. Carson states, erroneously, that Katherine Woodville was 20 when she married the 11-year-old Buckingham (she was about 7, and he was 9 at the time of the marriage, which took place before Elizabeth Woodville's coronation). She also has Buckingham receiving the "solitary ceremonial honour of Knight of the Bath," though he was made a Knight of the Garter in 1474. Later, we're told that we owe the right "to be judged fairly by our peers" and "to enjoy bail" to Richard III's Parliament (p.232). Richard III's parliament did indeed enact bail and jury reforms, but Richard III hardly invented the concept of bail or jury trial. We're told that following her marriage to Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville managed "three dukedoms" for her relations, although only one of her sisters married a duke and none of her male relations was raised to that status.

As is often the case, Carson follows Mancini and Croyland when it's convenient for her argument and derides them when it's not. For instance, Mancini's claim that Buckingham scorned his wife's humble origins is taken at face value, despite the fact that Mancini in 1483 was not particularly well placed to know what was in young Buckingham's mind in the 1460's, but Mancini's eyewitness report that he saw men crying about the mention of the Princes is dismissed as the exaggeration of an overemotional Italian.

Language is often tortured to bring about the meaning that Carson wants. Just as Richard III's vague reference to the fact that he has experienced the deaths of "nigh kinsmen and great friends" is used to support Carson's claim that the Woodvilles poisoned Edward IV and that Elizabeth procured the execution of the Earl of Desmond, Croyland's imprecise statement that "In the meantime and while these things were happening, the two sons of King Edward remained in the Tower of London" is taken as a "clear indication" that the boys were still alive in the Tower in September 1483. In fact, the reference comes after two paragraphs that describe events from Richard's coronation in July onward, so it's hardly safe to say that the "in the meantime" language can be read to refer only to events in September.

Some of the writing here is plain sloppy. Carson states on p. 242 that Richard "made no move to find a safe husband for Elizabeth of York." On p. 259, however, she notes that Richard was negotiating a Portugese marriage for Elizabeth.

These comments are based just on a skim of the book, but so far I can recommend it only to those who require in their reading material that Richard III do no wrong.

6 comments:

Gabriele C. said...

It's strange how some historical characters undergo such extreme shifts. Arminius was the Braveheart hero until WW2 and now he's the ambitious, power greedy bad guy who prevented Germany from getting civilised a few hundred years earlier. Seems dear Richard went the other way round and, from bad to good. As if there were no shades of grey. ;)

Margaret Donsbach said...

I love Mary Renault and envy you that you are just now starting to read her novels for the first time. A King Must Die is fabulous. There's a review of it on my Historical Novels website at www.HistoricalNovels.info.

Lady D. said...

Sloppy writers = a waste of good trees!

On a positive note, i too, would really recommend mary Renault. I absolutely loved 'The King Must Die' and 'The Bull From the Sea' (both about the Greek hero Theseus). I read them ages ago when I was really into Greek mythology but the story still stays with me!

Carla said...

I second all the comments in praise of Mary Renault. Her novels are superb.

Lady D - the Theseus novels are my favourites too!

Surely it's possible for Richard III to have been maligned (all that about being two years in his mother's womb, for a start) without having to make him a saint and to malign his opponents in turn? Absolute bad vs absolute good only exists in fantasy novels, and is a rare beast in politics.

Gabriele C. said...

And even in Fantasy novels it gets old. Look at the 'new' writers like GRR Martin, Steven Erikson, Joe Abercrombie, Brian Ruckley, Greg Keyes, Paul Kearney etc - they all have grey characters.

Alianore said...

The Carson book sounds...ummm...*tries to be diplomatic*...avoidable.

I must try The Persian Boy sometime. I read her two about Theseus ages ago, and loved them.