Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

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This is an extremely silly book.   Julian Fellowes should really stick to writing TV scripts.  Isn’t Dynasty supposed to be being revived?  Maybe he could get a job writing scripts for that, because the storyline in this was about as believable as the plots we used to get in American soaps back in the ’80s!   I’m not knocking them – I loved Dallas and Dynasty! – but you can get away with a lot more on TV than you can in a book.

It starts off quite promisingly, with the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball before the Battle of Waterloo … but it goes wrong before the ball’s even over. The Duke of Wellington, before he’s even left the party, starts going on about how Waterloo is rather a silly name to go down in the annals of history as the site of the great battle which ended twenty-odd years of warfare.  Er, right, because obviously he knew in advance that it was going to be the end of the road for Napoleon (who’d already escaped once, after the war was supposed to be over), and that the term “met his/her Waterloo” would enter the English language.  His crystal ball must have been working overtime!

It got steadily sillier from there on. Various people get involved in a farcical tangle involving someone who has been brought up as the adopted son of a country vicar but is actually the heir to an earldom.  Some of them try to murder each other.  One of them has an affair and conceives a child by her lover, but her husband is OK with it.  There are gambling debts.  And false allegations of dodgy dealings.  And unsuitable romances – which turn out fine when it turns out that the bloke is actually the heir to an earldom.  Every cliché going.  It’s just very, very silly.  It would be fine if it were intended to be a farce – think Oscar Wilde – but it seems to be intended to be taken as a serious historical novel.  Oh dear!

We get some Downton Abbey-esque anachronisms, as well.  It isn’t quite as bad as a housemaid in the 1920s talking about eating all the pies, but we do get names that weren’t really in use at the time, words which probably wouldn’t have been used at the time, and announcements worded in completely the wrong way.  It’s not good.

Dear Julian. Please stick to writing TV scripts.  You’re good at that!!

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

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“The Accidental Empress” of the title is “Sisi”, Elisabeth of Bavaria, who married Emperor Franz Josef and became Empress of Austria, and, later, Queen of Hungary. She’s an interesting figure who, like Diana, Princess of Wales, attracted quite a cult-like following both during her lifetime and after her tragic early death.  However, this book – which goes as far as the Ausgleich of 1867, with a sequel now available – doesn’t really do her story justice.

It starts off quite well, with an account of Sisi’s childhood, and how it was her elder sister who was supposed to marry Franz Josef, until he fell in love with Sisi instead. It’s interesting reading a historical novel about Franz Josef as a young man: he reigned for so long that you tend to forget that he wasn’t always the elderly man that he was by the time of the Great War!   And the clashes between Sisi and her domineering mother-in-law come across quite well.  But the really interesting period of her life, her sad struggles with anxiety and depression, just doesn’t come across well at all.  The time she spent away from Austria is skipped over, and, whilst her eating disorders and obsession with exercise are mentioned, the reader doesn’t really get any sense of how she’s feeling and why she’s having these issues.  I don’t know if maybe the author doesn’t feel comfortable writing about mental health issues, but she doesn’t convey them well at all.

Also, a lot of important characters are missed out. The author does explain that she didn’t want to over-complicate things, but I’ll be interested to see how, in the sequel, she explains how the succession works after Rudolf’s suicide, having given the impression that Franz Josef was an only child! One major character who does figure prominently is Count Andrassy, Hungarian politician and Sisi’s alleged lover, but the book gives the impression that Sisi and Andrassy were responsible for the Ausgleich, whereas it was really Ferenc Deak (the politician, not the footballer of the same name!) who played the most important role in bringing it about.  And I’m not sure that people would have referred to Buda and Pest as “Budapest” in the 1850s.

It’s not a bad book, and it isn’t meant to be a textbook, but it could have been so much better, with a bit of effort.  That’s really frustrating!

Mercy Street – Drama

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It’s pretty much dead on thirty years since I first came across Dorothea Dix and her work as Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union side during the American Civil War. Oh dear, that makes me sound really old, doesn’t it?  I was only a young kid at the time, honestly!  I took Love and War, the second book in the wonderful North and South trilogy by John Jakes, with me on a school trip to Paris during the Whit half term week of 1987.  Dorothea Dix appeared in that when Virgilia Hazard, the sister of one of the main characters, became an Army nurse.  Thirty years.  I wish that thought hadn’t occurred to me!

Dorothea Dix appeared briefly in this too – but only early on. However, several of the main characters were also “real life” nurses during the American Civil War – Mary Phinney von Olnhausen, the New England abolitionist on whose books the series is based, and Emma Green, the Southern belle with mixed loyalties, were both real people (although Mary was rather older and less glamorous than she’s presented in this), and Anne Hastings, the British nurse who served with Florence Nightingale in the Crimea, is based on a real person named Anne Reading.

The hospital in which it’s set was real as well – the Mansion House Hospital in the beautiful town of Alexandria, Virginia, where Robert E Lee grew up (although filming took place in nearby Petersburg, which looks more 19th century than Alexandria). I stayed in Alexandria whilst visiting Washington DC in 2009.  It’s just seven miles from Washington.  Had Maryland seceded – of the eight states classed as the Upper South, four joined the Confederacy and four remained part of the Union – then the Union capital would have been surrounded by Confederate territory.  There were many people in the Upper South with mixed loyalties, and the situation in Alexandria, a Confederate town occupied by Union forces little more than a month after the war broke out and a destination for many escaped slaves, was complex.

I started off by thinking that all the characters were rather one-dimensional and stereotypical. Mary insisted that the war was about emancipation, and was reluctant to treat Confederate soldiers.  Emma went wandering round the hospital in a white crinoline, clutching a parasol.  Many characters obviously both felt that they were on the side of a Glorious Cause, and that everyone on the other side was a baddie.

However, it became apparent that the whole idea was that people started off feeling that way but soon came to realise that life and war are not that simple, and that most people were just caught up in a terrible situation way beyond their control. A Union doctor, from a slaveholding family, pointed out that blood was neither blue nor grey (/gray) but red: it was a bit preachy, but hospital dramas do inevitably tend to be a bit preachy.  One of the black characters had more medical knowledge and ability than most of the white characters, but didn’t always even dare to show it: presumably, in time, the prejudiced white characters will come to respect and admire him.

Many of the all-time great historical novels, films and TV series are set during wartime, and it’s always difficult for them to strike the right balance between showing the horrors of war and having the soap opera/period drama element too.  That’s particularly difficult when the setting is a hospital.  This was sometimes a bit simplistic, sometimes a bit stereotypical and sometimes a bit preachy, but it really wasn’t bad.  And it’s been so long since there’s been an American Civil War (I’m actually not very keen on that term, because I don’t see how Union versus Confederacy can be classed as a “civil war”, but it seems to be the generally accepted term, and the PC brigade go berserk if anyone uses the far more historically accurate “War Between The States”) drama on TV.  Sadly, this was cancelled after the second series, but that still gives us two series to watch.  I shall be keeping on watching 🙂 .

Jamestown – Sky 1

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Well, the first three episodes of this have certainly been eventful. The one who used to be in Holby City‘s been wrongly accused of witchcraft.  Not to mention she and her friend being chased by a pack of wolves.  The one who used to be in Waterloo Road ‘s getting well stuck in there with all the politicking … which largely involves all the blokes plotting against each other, and getting stressed about James I’s disapproval of tobacco plantations.  Max Beesley’s character’s being killed by his own brother – except that he isn’t really dead, and is presumably about to show up again at the most inopportune moment.  And the said brother’s been wrongly accused (there’s a lot of wrongful accusation going on) of stealing arms and selling them to the Native Americans.  The only one who hasn’t really done anything is the Puritan maid, who seems to be channelling Baldrick.  Most of her lines sound as if they were written for him.

It’s a bit daft, and some of the characters are rather too caricatured, but it’s entertaining. It’s also nice to have a series which shows that “America” did not begin with the Pilgrim Fathers.  And indeed that Jamestown was not all about John Rolfe and Pocahontas.  We started off with a group of mail order brides.  There are all sorts of true stories about emigrant men sending home for brides, whether it was by advertising or by asking relatives and friends to find someone suitable and willing, and there are also true stories (this was more of a French thing!) about women just being packed off to help populate colonies.  In this case, the Virginia Company recruited a number of women who wanted to emigrate to the “New World” – the deal being that they married whichever man agreed to pay for their journey.

It was filmed in Hungary, not Virginia, but never mind. And we’ve got the governor, the company recorder, the doctor, the drunken pub owner, the former indentured servants now trying to set up their own plantations … so they’ve tried to include company.  Most of the characters have Lancashire or Yorkshire accents.  Even the posh woman who claims to be from Banbury isn’t kidding us: we know that the actress who plays her comes from Manchester 😉 .  The main characters are the posh woman (who harbours a dark secret) and two of the mail order brides (one feisty, one less feisty but determined to marry the bloke she fancies rather than whoever’s paid for her).  They do a lot of talking about sisterhood and sticking together.

It’s probably not very much of a reflection of what life in early 17th century Jamestown was actually like; but it’s not bad.  And it’s entertaining.  It’s certainly not boring!

From Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure – BBC 2

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At the start of this programme, I was huffing and puffing about the fact that the BBC had chosen to call it “An Arabian Adventure”. The population of Morocco is largely Berber, and the issue of Arabisation there can be quite contentious.  Mali has a mixed population, of sub-Saharan ethnic groups: it can’t be described as “Arabian” by anyone’s standards.  However, a lot of the programme (this first episode was all in Morocco, so Mali hasn’t really come into it yet) did focus specifically on Berber culture, so I forgive the choice of title.  Just about.

I suppose “An Arabian Adventure” sounds glamorous and exotic. Scheherezade of the Arabian Nights (although her name is actually Persian!).  Lawrence of Arabia.  Is North Africa thought of in Britain as being glamorous and exotic?  The area was once referred to as “the Barbary States” and linked to pirates raiding the coast of Cornwall for slaves … er, maybe better not go there!  How about Midnight at the Oasis?  And that stupid film with Rudolph Valentino as a sheikh?  Oh, and Casablanca, of course, although Moroccan culture doesn’t exactly feature very much in that.  Then there’s the French Foreign Legion, although, unfortunately, any mention of that makes me think of Carry on … Follow That Camel.

Well, whatever! Moving on from the choice of title!  I think most people do have some sort of sense of Morocco, but what about Mali?  It’s the eighth biggest country in Africa, but it’s really not at all familiar to most people in the UK.  There’s that bloke who plays for Crystal Palace … er, but what else do we know about Mali?  But everyone’s heard of the Malian city of Timbuktu.  It’s a byword for somewhere exotic and mysterious.  And, unlike Shangri La and El Dorado and other places with those sorts of connotations, it actually exists.  It’s also a byword for somewhere a very long way away.  I think the only other place name we use in that way is Outer Mongolia, but that really is a long way away.  Timbuktu isn’t, really. And the reason we know the name goes back to the days of the great empires of North West Africa, now long gone.  Timbuktu, back then, was a major trading centre.  One of the major commodities traded there was salt from the Sahara Desert, and, in this programme, Alice Morrison’s following the salt routes.

What we got in the first programme, though, was Morocco. Wonderful Morocco, where I spent a memorable holiday in November 2010.  First up, Tangier.  Tangier actually came to Charles II as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry, along with Mumbai/Bombay, but, whilst British involvement in India lasted almost three centuries, we gave up Tangier pretty quickly!  From Tangier, she went on to visit a number of places which showed how fascinating and diverse Morocco is.  Fes/Fez, with its tanneries … and its amazing bazaars, which I’m sorry we didn’t see more of.  Marrakech, with its wonderful Jemaa al Fna Square.  The Atlas Mountains, which look more like Switzerland than how you imagine Morocco to look.  We saw her spend time with Berber nomads.  And cook camel meatballs … er, hmm, I can’t say I was ever tempted to try those!  And then head out across the desert, visiting ruined cities with their impressive casbahs (I had that song by The Clash on the brain all the way through Morocco!).  It was obvious that Alice Morrison was very familiar with the country and very passionate about it, and she did an excellent job of explaining everything she was showing us.

Tragically, some of Mali’s historic buildings were destroyed by Al-Qaeda during clashes in 2012, and I don’t think that really got as much coverage as it might have done: we hear a lot about events in Iraq and Syria, and, to some extent, Libya and Egypt, and of course the horrific attack on tourists in Tunisia, but the problem of Islamic militancy in Mali, is not as well-known as it might be. However, this series will presumably be focusing on the many positive aspects of the history and culture of Mali.  Going back to the subject of Morocco, there are issues there too, and I think the Western image of North Africa in general has been damaged by recent political events, but I found a week and a half in Morocco to be a wonderful experience.  I’ve got very fond memories of it, and am so pleased to see it as the subject of a programme like this.  And I don’t think I’ve come across Alice Morrison before, but she’s great!  More programmes with her in them, please!

Elizabeth I – Channel 5

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This wasn’t bad, by Channel 5’s rather low standards of “docu-dramas”. The only glaring blooper in it was someone addressing Elizabeth as “Your Majesty” before she became queen.   It was also quite nice that they’d devoted an entire episode to Elizabeth’s younger years, before (in the episodes to come) moving on to all the old familiar stuff about the Armada, Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Dudley et al.

It was a very contemporary take on events, with talk about Thomas Seymour “grooming” Elizabeth. That’s exactly what he was trying to do, but it was an interesting juxtaposition of a term that’s only arisen in the last few years and events going back almost half a millennium.  Do we want to put modern interpretations on things, or do we want to see them as they might have been seen at the time?  There are no right or wrong answers to that: it’s a good topic for debate!  Whatever, Thomas Seymour’s intentions at the time were every bit as wrong as those of people who groom young people today, and undoubtedly had a significant effect on young Elizabeth.

Just going off topic a bit, if we’re looking at the events of Elizabeth I’s reign through modern eyes, the issue of the welfare state is much in the news at the moment, with a General Election coming up, and I’d quite like to see a programme about the Elizabethan period mention the Poor Law system. We always get the Armada, Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Dudley, Drake, Shakespeare, and, of course, the Reformation, but the effects of the Reformation – particularly the Dissolution of the Monasteries – on the issue of poor relief, and the reforms made during Elizabeth’s reign as a result, tends to be very neglected.  Sorry, that’s got nothing to do with the Channel 5 series, which looks as if it’s going to be same old, same old from now on!

Elizabeth I is one of my great heroines. She’s one of the most important and fascinating characters in our history, and her reign is one of the most important periods in our history.  But, and I know I’m always saying this, it is same old, same old, because there’ve been so many popular books, TV series and films about the Tudors that everyone’s heard most of it a zillion times before.  This was very watchable, but I would much have preferred to see a programme about, say, Queen Anne, or Edward I, or Edward III, or Stephen and Matilda.  Or, given the worrying figures about how many people don’t bother to vote at elections, the struggle for universal suffrage.  We’ve got so much history to go at: please would one of the TV channels go at a part of it that hasn’t been done a million times before?!  Please?!

The Red Tent – Drama

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I thought this, based on the excellent novel by Anita Diamant, was great.  I believe there was some controversy when it was shown in America, because the Bible Brigade didn’t like the idea of a Bible story being soap-opera-ised, but the Bible lends itself brilliantly to soap-opera-isation.  It’s absolutely full of affairs and family feuds!  They should be glad that someone’s showing that the Bible is actually very entertaining and isn’t full of boring people in black coats preaching that the end of the world is nigh or whatever.  Oh, and apparently some people also take issue with a dramatisation of a Bible story which shows violence.  Excuse me?  The Bible is full of violence.  It’s barely kicked off before a bloke’s been murdered by his own brother!   We’re talking wars, mass slaughter of babies, people being thrown into lions’ dens and fiery furnaces, etc etc.  Even the heroic bits are violent.  I mean, I don’t suppose Goliath’s family and friends were very happy when he got killed by David.  Then there were all those Philistines who got squashed when Samson brought the roof down.  What do people think everyone does in the Bible?  Sits around drinking cups of tea?!

Anyway. So, Bible stories can make for very good TV viewing!   The idea of The Red Tent was for it to seem real, and for it to tell the story of one part of the Bible from a female point of view.  Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden wouldn’t really work in terms of seeming real (unless you’re a creationist, presumably, but let’s not go there).  Nor would Noah’s Ark.  It’d make a great cartoon, but not a TV programme for adults.  So that brings us to the patriarchs – and that’s part of the problem, that people talk about “the patriarchs” rather than “the patriarchs and the matriarchs”.

First up, Abraham. Originally Abram.  Married to Sarah.  Originally Sarai.  Sarah couldn’t have kids, so Abraham had a son by her handmaiden.  Then Sarah eventually did have a kid, Isaac.  And Abraham was going to make a human sacrifice of him.  I want to say that he was going to sacrifice him on the Stone Table, but that’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Was it a wooden altar with Isaac?  Anyway, whatever, the sacrifice didn’t happen, but poor Isaac probably had severe PTSD for the rest of his life.  Isaac then married Rebecca, and they had twins, Esau and Jacob – and this where we get towards the story told in The Red Tent.

Esau, who’d been hard at work all day (whilst Jacob appears to have been doing very little), came in, and joked that he was so hungry that he’d sell his birthright for a mess of pottage – his birthright being the blessing to which he, as the eldest son, was entitled.  It was a joke.  Everyone says “I’m so hungry that …”.  But Jacob, egged on and assisted by Rebecca, literally used it to steal his brother’s birthright.  And, as if conning their brother and son wasn’t bad enough, they did so by taking advantage of the fact that Isaac, by this time an elderly man, had lost his eyesight.  And no-one did anything about it.  It is so out of order!   Isaac was like, soz, can’t do anything about it now, and so Jacob and Rebecca just got away with it.  Poor Esau!  From then on, he faded into the background, and Jacob and his descendants got to play the starring roles in the rest of the Book of Genesis.

Esau was, quite rightly, thoroughly pissed off, so Jacob did a runner because he knew Esau’d make mincemeat of him if it came to a fight. Off he went to stay with his uncle, Rebecca’s brother Laban.  He wanted to marry Laban’s daughter, Rachel, but her elder sister Leah turned up to the wedding instead, and Jacob claimed he didn’t realise he’d got the wrong girl because he couldn’t tell the difference as she was wearing a veil.  Right.  Then he married Rachel as well.  But Rachel couldn’t have kids, so, channelling Abraham and Hagar, he married Rachel’s handmaiden too.  Leah realised that this was a good way of having a break from childbearing, so she got Jacob to marry her handmaiden as well!  Eventually, between them, the four woman produced twelve sons – Rachel eventually having two, Joseph and Benjamin.

You would think that, after all the business with Esau and then marrying sisters, Jacob would have realised that sibling rivalry could cause all sorts of problems, and try to steer his kids clear of it. Oh no.  He had to stir it all up by blatantly favouring Joseph and giving him an amazing technicolour dreamcoat (the Bible words it slightly differently).  So the other sons sold Joseph into slavery.  But he worked his way to the top, becoming a senior minister in Egypt.  Very 20th century.  Then nearly lost his job due to a false allegation of sexual assault.  Very 21st century.  Then his brothers turned up, and he set them up by planting stolen goods on them.  Very soap opera-ish.  And it all got sorted.

Twelve sons. And one daughter.  Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah.  She went to visit the women of Shechem, the place to which they’d all moved, and was abducted and raped by a local prince.  He then fell in love with her and wanted to marry her.  Her brothers Simeon and Levi said that they’d agree if all the men of the prince’s tribe were circumcised.  The prince agreed.  Whilst the men were suffering with their sore bits, Simeon and Levi killed them all.

There’s some confusion over what’s supposed to have happened to Dinah after that. Strangely, her name resurfaced in the antebellum southern states of America as a generic name for female slaves.  But, other than that, she’s largely been ignored by … well, by cultures that involve the Bible.  It’s hard to know what term to use.  The TV series is definitely “set in the past”, but we really have no way of knowing how much, if anything, of what’s in the Bible actually happened, and there’s not really much point worrying about it.  Although pointing out that there’s no way of proving it is a pretty good way of getting rid of Jehovah’s Witnesses when they knock on your door.

 The Red Tent changes quite a few things from the original story.  Crucially, Dinah is not raped.  She falls in love with the prince of Shechem and goes off with him willingly.  We’re also shown Dinah, and her child by the prince, making a new life for themselves in Egypt.  Jacob is well aware that he’s marrying Leah rather than Rachel, and just pretends to be narked so that Laban will agree to a better dowry.  He also asks for the handmaidens right from the start. Rachel does not die in childbirth when Benjamin is born, as she does in the Bible.  There’s also quite a bit about Laban being violent and mistreating his second wife, a character invented by Anita Diamant; and the bit in the Bible in which Laban chases after them all after Rachel steals his household gods is missing.  So quite a bit is changed.  Maybe that’s partly what narked the Bible Brigade?

And then there’s “The Red Tent”. The title of the book refers to the menstrual huts/tents used in some cultures – still used today in some places, apparently.  There’s no mention in the Bible of menstrual tents.  But the tent is the place where the women come together – and there we get the theme of a network of women, all supporting one another.  It’s a very common theme in books, whether we’re talking Girls’ Own books where schoolgirls or groups of female friends and relatives form strong networks, or stories like Bridget Jones’s Diary or Steel Magnolias where women rely on the support of their female friends, or the many books about the relationships between sisters, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and other female relatives and friends.  It’s a very powerful theme, and one which the Bible doesn’t really deal with.

It’s been said about the book (The Red Tent, not the Bible!) that it appeals to women who feel that females are left out of the Bible.  Are females left out of the Bible?  There are some very important female characters in the Bible.  I would say Eve, but that opens up the whole can of worms about women getting the blame for all the troubles of mankind (personkind?).  But … well, Deborah, Ruth, Esther, Miriam (the sister of Moses), Mary, Mary Magdalene.  And, of course, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.  Jezebel!  The Queen of Sheba.  Hmm.  Pretty short list compared to the list of important male character.  Some women, like Noah’s wife and Lot’s wife, don’t even get their own names mentioned.  And there’s virtually nothing about relationships between female friends and relatives, other than Ruth and Naomi.  You can certainly see where Anita Diamant’s coming from.

And it’s a bloody good story! She tells it really well, in the book.  And this TV adaptation tells it really well too. Rebecca Ferguson, who played Elizabeth Woodville in the TV adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s books, does a great job as Dinah, but the real star is Minnie Driver as Leah.  She is superb!  And so is the character of Leah.  She knows that Jacob will never love her as much as he loves Rachel, but she’s the matriarch.  She’s the leader of this network of women.  My one gripe is that the actual red tent itself hasn’t been shown very much: most of the action has taken place outdoors, and a lot of the talk between the women’s been missed.  So has Dinah’s childhood: we pretty much went straight to her being a young woman.  But a four hour TV adaptation can’t show a whole book, so it’s not really fair to moan about that.  And the first part, shown last night, really was very, very good.  Very watchable.  Forget whether you’re into religion or into the Bible: it doesn’t matter when it comes to watching this.  This is a wonderful story.