No Place for Ladies by Helen Rappaport

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This isn’t fiction either, but, again, I feel like writing about it, especially as Crimea (or “Krim”, as it prefers to be called) has been much in the news of late.

The author’s account of events leading up to the war wasn’t impressive at all – far too simplistic, and completely ignoring the fact that it was the French, not the Russians, who were to blame for the war and for Britain’s involvement in it. She also managed to mix up two of Queen Victoria’s daughters, which wasn’t impressive either. Admittedly, it wasn’t meant to be a book about either politics or the Royal Family, but it was still annoying!

However, the main content of the book was fascinating. The Crimean War made a huge impression on the British people. We still have streets all over the country called Inkerman Street, Balaclava Terrace and so on (incidentally, does anyone know why Coronation Street, named in honour of Edward VII’s coronation, has neighbouring streets named after battles which took place nearly half a century earlier?!), and most people are familiar with the “Charge of the Light Brigade” poem. Also, of course, it was during the Crimean War that the Victoria Cross originated. My great-great-great-grandfather took part in the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, and I was lucky enough to visit Crimea in 2008, so it’s a subject I’ve got quite a personal interest in. It also prompted significant military reforms in Britain, and all sorts of reforms in Russia.

This, as the title, suggests, concentrated on the role of women in the war. The stories of Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole are familiar, but always worth another read. One of the first history books I ever read was about Florence Nightingale – one of those little Ladybird books about famous people, when I was six. My grandfather was being treated in what was then the Florence Nightingale Hospital at the time, and even at the age of six I was a historian and wanted to find out about the lady behind the name . The author made a lot of interesting points about the effects of the very Victorian ideas of the “Lady With The Lamp” and the ministrating female angels whose task in life was to care for the menfolk, and argued that, without wanting to criticise the wonderful work done by the nurses of the Crimean War, it actually damaged the movement to increase respect for women’s abilities and to improve women’s rights.

She also made the point that no official recognition was given to British women who served in the Crimean War, although medals were awarded to Russian nurses and to some of the French female staff. The treatment of women by the British Army generally was poor – officers’ wives, of course, got to live it up, either staying on board ship in the best cabins or else living in luxury tents with servants to run after them, but almost no responsibility was taken for the wives of rank and file soldiers. Only a small number of soldiers were allowed to take their wives with them on campaign and, despite the awful conditions, going along was often seen as better than staying at home, because wives weren’t allowed to remain in army barracks whilst their husbands were away and often found it difficult to find work as they were looked down on by the middle and upper classes. Many of them died in Crimea, but some remained in good health and did important work as cooks and laundrywomen for the troops.

Bizarrely, there were also quite a lot of “battlefield tourists” – women (sorry, “ladies”) with more time and money than sense, who went out to watch the war! This seems to have happened during the American Civil War as well. Apparently they thought it was exciting.

Getting back to the nurses, there doesn’t seem to have been as much of a sense of camaraderie amongst them as you might have expected. There were serious sectarian issues (some of the nurses were Catholic nuns, and some of the Protestants appear to have decided that they’d try to convert Protestant soldiers!), racial issues, and very unpleasant class divisions. On the contrary, at home – the Crimean War seeing a revolution in war reporting – the whole country swung behind the troops, the troops’ dependants and the nurses: there were huge fundraising efforts, as there were during the Lancashire Cotton Famine (just had to mention that because it was my dissertation topic!) in the following decade, and so many hand-knitted socks and mittens were sent out to Crimea that the Army didn’t know what to do with them all!

All in all, an interesting read. Also a timely reminder that getting involved in Crimea is really not a very good idea.

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The Plantagenets – BBC 2

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OK, this isn’t fiction, but I feel like writing about it so I am doing! I am exceedingly chuffed that the BBC have decided to do a series on the Plantagenets: I’m always moaning about the fact that the early Plantagenets, in particular, get so little airtime, whereas we get series after series after series about the Tudors.

The first episode covered the early Plantagenets, from Henry II up to and including John. It was presented as a proper documentary series, rather than a “drama-documentary”, and it showed some interesting shots of Fontevrault Abbey, Wallingford Castle and various other places which played an important role in the history of the period. However, there were a few historical blunders, such as saying that Eleanor of Aquitaine was an only child. She wasn’t: she had a sister, whose “colourful” love life caused all sorts of political problems!

Also, it was very rushed. I appreciate that the presenter only had an hour in which to cover the events of nearly a century, but only skimming the surface meant that nothing was really explained properly. Louis wanted an annulment because Eleanor had only given him two daughters and he needed a son … er, make that Eleanor wanted an annulment because she didn’t get much chance to have sons because of Louis’ reluctance to, ah, play his part. Eleanor betrayed Henry – look, you don’t really expect Fair Rosamond In Her Bower in a documentary series, but Eleanor had considerably more to put up with from Henry than he ever did from her! Richard refused to honour his childhood betrothal to Philip’s sister – well, should the presenter not have pointed out that Alys had been having it off with Richard’s dad for years and years?! Entirely Henry’s fault, but a perfectly understandable reason for Richard breaking off the betrothal.

However, gold star for the BBC for its favourable portrayal of Matilda, who all too often gets a raw deal from male historians … and a gold star generally for turning its attention to an important but all too often neglected period of history, and for concentrating on the central facts rather than telling stories about Robin Hood and his Merry Men. It’s just a shame that they’ve tried to fit so much into too little time.

The Falcons of Montabard by Elizabeth Chadwick

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I’ve always thought of Elizabeth Chadwick’s books as being a bit flowery, but I hold my hands up and admit that I’ve been wrong! This – which I got because I had a voucher for a free book from The Works! – was excellent, very well-researched and full of superb descriptive passages. It was set mainly in “Outremer”, in the early 1120s – i.e. after the First Crusade but before the Second Crusade. I have a very low opinion of crusaders, but none of the characters in this book were at all hypocritical: they were after adventure, money or both, with very little talk of religion.

Our Hero, Sabin (my one criticism of the book would be that “Sabin” is not really a very good name for an Alpha Male!) gets into a lot of bother in England and Normandy, and goes off to Outremer with a former crusader, Edmund, and Our Heroine, Edmund’s brave and beautiful daughter Annais. Needless to say, Sabin and Annais end up together, but there’s a lot more to it than that – a lot of adventure, but also some fascinating pictures of the lives of the “Franks” in Outremer.

What’s rather sad is that, nearly a millennium on from the First Crusade, in the age of relatively easy travel, so few people do visit Jerusalem, which should be one of the world’s biggest tourist destinations. Regardless of your personal religious views, for historical and cultural reasons it’s an amazing place to see, but the political situation puts people off. However, the people of the 12th century can’t really be blamed for that, at this distance. A very well-written book, about a strange and interesting part of medieval history.

Children of the Raj by Vyvyen Brendon

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This isn’t a novel, but I felt like writing about it anyway. The authorial voice is a tiny bit pompous and patronising, but so not much so as to affect the reader’s enjoyment of the book; and it’s really very interesting, especially for those of us used to reading books about boarding schools peopled with the offspring of upper-middle-class Britons who are off “ruling the Empire”.

The point which comes across most strongly from this is that the decision to send children to boarding schools in Britain, rather than to have them educated in India, wasn’t so much about health as about social status and prestige. The overall picture given is an often really rather sad one, of a lot of people trapped by The System. If children were sent back to Britain, their relationship with their parents was often damaged, their emotional well-being generally was often affected, and the parents would suffer too. If children weren’t sent back to Britain, they risked being looked down on and being unable to get the sort of jobs which people of their social class would usually aspire to.

There were widespread variations in experiences, though. Some children enjoyed boarding school life: others didn’t. Some were lucky enough to be able to spend holidays with loving grandparents, aunts or uncles: some were sent to boarding houses where experiences, whilst sometimes positive, sometimes involved abuse. Even those living with relatives lacked a sense of having their own home.

Also, there was a general sense of being torn between two different ways of life. Most of those concerned had wonderful memories of the colour and excitement of India … but then also missed it badly when they were away from it. Many struggled to adapt to life back in Britain, post-war Britain, when the Raj came to an end.

The general feeling I got was that there were no easy answers. Maybe there was a lot to be said for having been at the top of the tree and therefore not having had those sorts of problems! The lower ranks in the British Raj couldn’t afford to send their children to boarding schools in Britain, rather than to the British/European schools in India, so amongst them, children weren’t sent away, no-one was separated from their family and no-one felt guilty about any of it. Much easier all round.

Duchess by Susan Holloway Scott

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The duchess of the title is Sarah Churchill, the 1st Duchess of Marlborough, one of the most fascinating women in British history. This novel, written in the first person, began promisingly: its presentation of Sarah’s early life at court and the development of her relationships with both John Churchill and Princess Anne was very well done. The portrayal of Anne and all the tragedies she suffered – seventeen pregnancies and no surviving children – was sympathetic without being overly sentimental, but also showed Sarah’s irritation with a woman who was considerably less intelligent than she was.

It did indicate that there was a lesbian relationship between the two, at Anne’s instigation, and that’s something which remains uncertain and controversial. I’m inclined to think that the idea was dreamt up by male journalists and male politicians and propagated in later years by male historians because none of them could handle the idea that a woman favourite should have had as much power and influence as Sarah did, but we can’t know for sure and the writer of a novel is free to interpret things however he/she sees. Susan Holloway Scott at least steered well clear of some of the horrendously patronising nonsensical comments about Anne and Sarah which certain male historians have come up with over the years – was it JH Plumb who said that Anne’s court was like something out of an Angela Brazil school story?

My problem with the book was that, of the 363 pages of it, only 63 covered the period after Anne became queen, and only the last few of those covered the period after Anne’s death. Did the author just get fed up and think she’d written enough? Did she think that the politics of Anne’s reign were boring? There were references to them, but only in brief. The word “Junto” was never even mentioned, and the events of the War of the Spanish Succession were rushed through and the end of the war and the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht never referred to at all. Sarah’s brilliant management of her financial affairs when so many people were ruined by the South Sea Bubble only got half a sentence, and there was nothing about her arrangement of the marriages of her daughters or her involvement in the lives of her grandchildren. Then, to add insult to injury, the last couple of paragraphs weren’t even about Sarah herself but about the fact that she was an ancestress of Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales

The start was promising, but the rest of the book was just far too rushed. . Why decide to write a novel about such an interesting personality and then not do it properly? This wasn’t a bad read, but it could and should have been so, so much better.