Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett

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A lot of historical novels have been written about the Russian Revolution, and a lot of historical novels have been written about Jews fleeing pogroms in the Russian Empire … so it’s rather nice to find one that’s a bit different. It isn’t the best-written book I’ve ever read – too many split infinitives, too many sentences beginning with conjunctions and far too much use of the second person instead of the third person! – but it certainly makes interesting reading.

The fictional characters freely intermingle with real people – Rasputin (presented, unusually, in a very positive light), Maxim Gorky, Anna Akhmatova, Felix Yussupov, Carl Fabergé – and, strangely, one of the main characters is the author’s great-great-uncle, although she gives him a different life from the one he really had. Also, the author makes the point which so, so few people do or get – that the pogroms didn’t take place in Russian proper. Everyone thinks that Fiddler on the Roof is set in Russia proper. It isn’t. It’s set in Ukraine. Maisie Mosco talks away about persecution in Russia, when the city she’s referring to is actually in Latvia. The “famous” pogroms, the worst of them, were in Kiev/Kyiv (Ukraine), Odes(s)a (Ukraine), Bialystok (Poland) and Chisinau (Moldova). Not Russia – and not Lithuania either. I thought at first that St Petersburg was an odd choice of location for a book about a member of the Bund, that Odes(s)a or Vilnius would have been more logical, but it worked well precisely because things were so much calmer in Russia proper.

Our heroine, instead of fleeing to New York or Manchester or Leeds or wherever, ends up in St Petersburg, staying with her distant cousin, and he’s the one who’s a member of the Bund. The brave, politically aware members of the Bund and, ironically given how much they were talked about in Russia. the Jewish Bolsheviks are usually overlooked in English language novels, because they don’t fit the image of the persecuted “Russian” Jew being reborn amid the American Dream. She becomes involved both with him and with an Englishman, the character who was actually the author’s great-great-uncle, and with a rather bohemian circle in St Petersburg. Revolution breaks out … and then she does do the standard thing and leave, but it takes her a long time to get there.

A lot of different threads run though the book, and I’m not sure that all of them were as developed as fully as they could have been: maybe the author tried to do too much. However, it’s well worth reading, and it’s good to see a slightly different take on some very familiar themes.

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By Pike and Dyke: a Tale of the Rise of the Dutch Republic by G A Henty

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G A Henty was a Victorian author who wrote a large number of historical adventure novels – tales of derring-do set in a wide range of historical situations. They’re gloriously biased and gloriously politically incorrect but, as long as they’re not taken too seriously, they’re very entertaining. Furthermore, a lot of them are available free of charge in Kindle format.

This one, as the title suggests, is set in the Netherlands (and partly in England) during the 1560s and 1570s. I really didn’t intend to read any more Black Legend stuff during the Australian Open, but I’ve got a book mountain the size of Everest and am trying to prioritise the ones on the Netherlands ahead of going to Amsterdam for Easter weekend. Our Hero, Ned Martin, is the teenage son of an English sailor and his Dutch wife. He joins the Dutch rebels, engages in all sorts of derring-do, and rises high in the favour of both William of Orange and Queen Elizabeth. The book ends at a low point (boo, hiss) for the Dutch rebels, but, hurrah, there is a sequel, in which the brave and gallant English ensure that the Dutch defeat the Spaniards (or something like that).

Verdict – G A Henty’s books aren’t for the sort of people who like their books to be politically correct – they were written in Victorian times, after all – but they’re good reads. In fact, they have been described as “ripping reads” :-).

Twelve Years A Slave

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This film is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was a comfortably-off carpenter and musician in New York state, married with two children, and was tricked into going to Washington DC where he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He was held as a slave there for twelve years, initially by a relatively kind owner but later by a very brutal owner, Edwin Epps, before being helped by a Canadian itinerant worker, Samuel Bass to prove his identity and regain his freedom. He brought legal action against his kidnappers, but they were never punished.

We see how Edwin Epps uses the Bible to convince himself that slavery is justified. Epps doesn’t use the “positive good” arguments about slaves being better off as slaves than as factory workers, unable to look after themselves, etc, nor does he accept slavery as a necessary evil – he just speaks about property rights, and quotes from the Bible about servants obeying their master. We see how Samuel Bass feels that it’s his duty to help, even at a risk to his own safety. We see how Solomon Northup never loses hope, and how, at the same time, other slaves despair and talk of suicide. Then we see his joy at being reunited with his family. Finally, we’re told how his kidnappers evaded justice, how a black man could not testify against white men in the capital of the United States.

Attention on slavery does seem to focus on the eastern seaboard states of the South, and on the period from the Compromise of 1850 onwards, when slavery was dominating the political agenda. Solomon Northup was kidnapped in 1841, and held in Louisiana – the “down river”/”sold south” region where it’s generally acknowledged that conditions for slaves were harshest and the treatment of slaves often particularly cruel. It also generally focuses on those born into slavery. That, and the fact that it’s a true story, makes this film unusual, but what really draws the attention is the showing of scenes of extreme brutality. It’s a very powerful film, and I hope that it wins the Oscars which it deserves, and draws attention to a subject which has not adequately been come to terms with.

The Sea Beggars by Cecelia Holland

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I meant to finish this last week so that I wouldn’t be reading any Black Legend stuff during the Australian Open :-), but I got distracted by other things! This book, as the title suggests, is about the early years of the Eighty Years’ War, when the Netherlands rebelled against Spanish rule. It covers the Duke of Alba’s invasion and the establishment of the Council of Troubles/the Council of Blood, and then the Sea Beggars’ victory at Den Briel/Brielle, told primarily through the eyes of a brother and sister from Antwerp. Antwerp, ironically as it ended up remaining part of the Spanish Netherlands rather than becoming part of the United Provinces, was the early centre of the revolt.

I’m afraid that I tend to take a rather Anglocentric view of the Dutch revolt – it fascinates me that Elizabeth I was able to persuade the French to back the Dutch rebels on her behalf, by repeatedly hinting that she’d marry a French prince if they did so, and that the French kept falling for it! That didn’t happen until later on, but Elizabeth featured quite strongly in this book even so.

The author did a good job of showing all the different points of view, whilst making it clear just how horrific the Spanish atrocities – and this was even before the Spanish Fury – were. She also covered the issue of extreme Dutch Calvinism and its association with ideas about a new kingdom of the elect, something I was thinking about after the death of Nelson Mandela … it unfortunately got way out of hand in South Africa.

It’s a fascinating, and horrible, period in history. The capture of Brill, as it’s known in English, took place in April 1572. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place in August 1572. In England, we tend to see the 1570s as the start of a Golden Age. Anyway, the point of reading this book was to encourage me to think more about the Eighty Years’ War from a Dutch (or indeed Belgian) viewpoint, and my general verdict on this book is that it did quite a good job of that.

I’m now off back to the Australian Open …

The Railway Man

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The Railway Man, based on a true story, stars Colin Firth as a railway enthusiast who, in 1980, is still haunted by the horrific memories of his time as a Second World War prisoner of war forced by the Japanese to work on the Burma railroad. He finds out that Takashi Nagase, the Japanese officer who tortured him because he had a map and built a radio, which the Japanese wrongly took to mean that he was helping the Chinese and the Thai resistance, is still alive and is working as a tour guide at a war museum on the railroad. He travels out there, confronts Nagase, and the two become friends.

Verdict – whilst this isn’t the greatest film ever made – it’s rather disjointed and the meetings between the two former soldiers use too many clichés – it tells an important story, and is worth seeing for that reason. There’s so much emphasis on the events of the Second World War in Europe that the events in the Far East don’t receive the attention they deserve.

I was expecting there to be some films about the First World War this year, but it doesn’t look as if there are going to be any. Hmm.

Four Sisters, All Queens by Sherry Jones

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This book was about the four daughters of a thirteenth century Count of Provence, all of whom became queens. Eléonore (usually referred to in British textbooks as Eleanor, the English spelling of her name), married Henry III of England. His reign, despite having been the fourth longest in English history and seen the rebellion of Simon de Montfort, doesn’t generally get a lot of attention, probably because he lacked the glamour factor that most of the other Plantagenets had! I’ve never liked Eleanor of Provence, but I must say that this book did a rather good job of persuading the reader that maybe she doesn’t deserve the bad press that she usually gets. Her elder sister, Marguerite, married St Louis of France.

Their younger sisters aren’t as well known. Sanchia, the third sister, married Henry III’s brother Richard of Cornwall, who became King of the Romans/Germans. Beatrice, the youngest sister, married St Louis’ younger brother Charles of Anjou, who became King of Sicily. I generally associate Charles with the Sicilian Vespers of 1282, but this book finished in 1271.

The book concentrated on the “emotional lives” of the four sisters, and their relationships with each other. The difficulty of that was that not enough’s known about their personal lives, and the author made up some rather strange tales – Marguerite having an affair with the chronicler Joinville, Eléonore secretly fancying Simon de Montfort, and Beatrice arranging for Richard’s mistress to be murdered and then Sanchia blaming herself for it! I’d rather have seen more about the political events of the time but, to be fair, that wasn’t what the book set out to cover.

Overall verdict – it was a decent read, and covered an important period in history which really doesn’t get enough attention. My main criticism would be that it was all written in the present tense, which made it read rather strangely, but I’d recommend it all the same.

Matrona’s Four Children, by F Bailey Norwood

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This book was based around the idea that the illegitimate son of (the future) Catherine the Great by Grigory Orlov was, in order to protect him, swapped with another child, and that Alexis Bobrinsky therefore wasn’t their son and a fictional character called Rolan Pechenkin was. Pechenkin is the name of the man suspected of blowing up the bus in Volgograd last week, but that’s rather beside the point. Rolan was placed in an orphanage for noble children, where a clandestine Old Believer priest converted him to the Old Belief with the idea of eventually placing him on the throne in a rebellion which would overthrow both the Romanov dynasty and the Orthodox church. It sounds mad, and obviously it’s completely fictitious but, given the frequency with which pretenders turned up in seventeenth and eighteenth century Russia, and the support given to both Stenka Razin and Pugachev by Old Believers, it could actually have happened.

However, most of the book was actually about economics – the author is a professor of economics – and showed Rolan Pechenkin making a great success of running an estate, on which all the serfs were Old Believers, by introducing a capitalist system. He even planned to open a linen mill there. I love to bore people by telling them about the connections between Old Believers and the Lancashire textile industry … but that wasn’t until the 19th century, so I forgive the author for not mentioning them in a book set in the time of Catherine the Great! It then rather bizarrely ended with the priest inciting a rebellion, Rolan killing the priest and then killing himself, and Rolan’s widow giving birth to triplets.

It was an interesting book, but it was marred by some poor grammar and punctuation and, fundamentally, the fact that the author didn’t seem to know some very basic facts about Russian culture. He apparently wasn’t familiar with either the use of the patronymic or the fact that feminine Russian surnames are different from masculine Russian surnames (Sharapov/Sharapova, Safin/Safina, etc); he seemed to think that Russian nobles used Yiddish slang words; and, most strangely of all, he insisted on referring to the Tsarina as “the Tsaress”, a word which doesn’t exist in either Russian or English (or indeed, as far as I know, in any other language)! It seems a shame that someone should have written a book without researching such basics of the culture in which it’s set, and that his editors presumably didn’t know any better than he did.

He described it as an “economic fiction”. It worked reasonably well as historical fiction too, but it could have been so much better had he made a little more effort to learn about Russia, and written a lot more about the “rebellion” and a lot less about economic theory and the effects of bat manure on grain production!

Overall verdict – not bad, but could have been far better.