David Starkey’s Magna Carta – BBC 2

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Word Press This year will see the 800th anniversary of the sealing (sealing, not signing!) of Magna Carta, and it was therefore very appropriate that the BBC should have chosen to show a documentary about it. It was, however, not at all appropriate that David Starkey (and who made it “his” Magna Carta, incidentally?!), should have used the programme for a polemic against the British and American governments over their handling of terrorism suspects.

It started off OK – the background to Magna Carta, the fact that it was revised and reissued, etc. Then it wandered off into the realms of Charles I and the Civil War. Then on to the American Revolution. OK, that was reasonable enough: there are very important links between Magna Carta and the Constitution of the United States. However, David Starkey then started going on about Guantanamo Bay and the detention of terror suspects in the UK, and ranting on about how freedom and ancient rights and so on were now all under attack in the name of security! The torture at Guantanamo Bay is something that is difficult to justify, but the detention of terror suspects for 60 days without charge is … well, it’s a complex situation. No, of course we don’t want to be living in an authoritarian state which can detain people without due process of law, but nor do we want a situation where soldiers can be decapitated on the street and civilians can be murdered in supermarkets or taken hostage in coffee shops. It’s a very difficult and challenging situation, and I think most people can see both sides of the argument.

David Starkey is obviously entitled to his opinion, which is evidently that fear of terrorism mustn’t be allowed to lead to the compromising of rights and liberties, and that’s not an unreasonable opinion, but this was not the time or the place for him to be putting it forward. This was meant to be a programme about one of the most significant documents in our history. It should not have been used as an occasion for one individual to put forward their personal opinion about the problems of today. Not impressed, BBC.

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The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

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This, published in 1784, is probably best-known as the book in which Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe were both engrossed in Northanger Abbey, and from which Catherine got some rather gruesome ideas about General Tilney having bumped off his wife. I decided to read it not because of that but because it features some scenes set at the Carnevale di Venezia; but it turned out that there wasn’t really that much about Venice: most of the book’s set in either South West France or at the fictional castle of Udolpho, in a remote part of rural Northern Italy.

Seeing as this is a historical fiction blog, I wish to start by complaining vociferously, not about anything “Gothic horror” related but about the fact that the book keeps going on about the Italian Wars … which famously began in 1494, the date traditionally given as the end of the Middle Ages in Continental Western and Central Europe, and ended with the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. The book’s set in 1584. OK, we all make mistakes, but that’s really a pretty big one! I can’t think of any rational explanation for that at all!

Hmm. But so to the “Gothic horror” stuff, which Jane Austen was so sarcastic about. Our English teacher used to get very upset if anyone said that Jane Austen was sarcastic, and insisted that we say “ironic” instead, but “sarcastic” is definitely the more appropriate word. I find it rather annoying, actually: I wish she’d just stuck to writing her own story instead of making fun of someone else’s! Quite honestly, most of the characters in this are just as over-imaginative as Catherine is. The various ghosts all turn out to be real human beings who just like wandering around at night, and Our Heroine Emily turns out not to be the secret love-child of the mysterious marchioness whom she resembles but to be her perfectly respectably-born niece. And the dead body behind the veil turns out to be a waxwork … although admittedly the idea of anyone having a waxwork of a dead body hanging around does rather strain the credulity, LOL.

Having said which, yes, there are plenty of fights to the death, kidnappings, dramatic escapes, romantic misunderstandings, mysterious papers, strange noises, locked doors, etc. And Our Heroine is annoyingly prone to weeping and swooning. And she attracts unwanted suitors at an alarming rate: mind you, most of Jane Austen’s heroines attract unwanted suitors as well. And it does turn out that the aunt she never knew she had was murdered by an elderly nun who was wrongly thought to have been murdered by her other aunt’s baddie second husband … if you follow that. But the storylines weren’t really that much dafter than some of the ones we used to get in American soap operas in the 1980s, and are still getting in the wonderful Spanish Gran Hotel and, apart from the inclusion of a lot of silly poems, the book was really quite entertaining. I expected to be amused: I was actually quite gripped!

Testament of Youth

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This film’s based on Vera Brittain’s First World War memoirs, and by all accounts sticks very closely to what she actually wrote. In parts it almost seems too … I don’t quite know how to put it, maybe too full of tropes, but it is really is a true story, and the fact that it’s a true story, that a true story really was this heartbreaking, makes it all the more poignant. Girl from well-to-do family battles her parents to be allowed to go to Oxford, rather than hunting for a husband. They eventually agree, but then the Great War breaks out, and she leaves Oxford to become a nurse. As a posh girl, she’s to some extent picked on by some of the senior nurses. The boys – and they are just that, boys – can’t wait to get to the front. Duty, patriotism, excitement … and then all that greets them is mud and death and horror. And it’s the same for the Germans. Vera gets engaged, but her fiancé is killed, and she hears about his death on the day of their wedding. Her brother is also killed, and so are two close friends. Eventually, she returns to Oxford, and tries to get on with her life.

It’s well-written and well-acted, but I think I was expecting a bit too much of it. In one scene, the camera gradually pans away to show rows and rows of wounded soldiers lying on stretchers outside a hospital, like in the famous scene in Gone With The Wind … but this isn’t Gone With The Wind: it isn’t that big. The First World War always breaks my heart, and if this isn’t the most powerful war film ever made then maybe it doesn’t try to be. Maybe it tries to be restrained, to tell its story quietly, elegantly, sombrely, respectfully. But, although it is an excellent film, I still can’t help feeling that something isn’t quite there, that maybe it’s a bit too restrained. If anyone reading this has seen it, please let me know what you thought: I’d be very interested to know. I feel like I should be saying that it’s a film that everyone ought to see, but I just wasn’t 100% convinced.

Wolf Hall – BBC 2

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Word PressNot having particularly enjoyed the books – I don’t think that Hilary Mantel’s style of writing works for historical novels – I didn’t have great expectations of the TV series; but I was pleasantly surprised, and thoroughly enjoyed the first episode.

Thomas Cromwell is usually presented as either a bad guy, Henry VIII’s stooge or both. I’ve never really liked him myself, mainly because I feel that the dissolution of the monasteries was very badly handled, although I do feel rather sorry for him over the way he was blamed for the failure of Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. In Wolf Hall, however, he’s presented much more favourably, and I thought that Mark Rylance did a superb job of presenting him both as a sympathetic human being and as a bit of a man of mystery. Both he and Jonathan Pryce, who played Cardinal Wolsey, also did an excellent job of drawing on the pleasure that we, the general public, take in seeing self-made people getting one over (or several over!) on the aristocracy, LOL.

Cardinal Wolsey was portrayed sympathetically as well. I once got 100% for an essay on Cardinal Wolsey, and I’ve had a soft spot for him ever since – out of vanity, I’m afraid! Also nice to see Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who played cute little Sam in Love Actually, playing Cromwell’s ward Rafe. The only person I found annoying was Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn but, to be fair, that’s how Anne comes across in the books.

Apart from Henry being addressed as “Your Majesty” rather than “Your Grace”, and I’m not 100% sure exactly when he changed his title so that may even have been correct, there was almost nothing to criticise in the historical detail. No bottles of water lurking about on mantelpieces, LOL. And it didn’t feel the need to explain every little thing: Bishop Gardiner was just addressed as “Stephen” and Mark Smeaton as “Mark”, without any detailed explanation as to who they were. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? In my book it’s a good thing, but I tend to assume that everyone knows the history of England so would have known exactly who they were without needing to be told.

Anyway! Whilst I could wish that the BBC had chosen a different period for such a lavish drama, rather than the reign of Henry VIII which really has been “done to death”, this was an excellent start and I’m eagerly looking forward to the five episodes to come.

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

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Apparently this was a best-seller in its time. It was published in 1924. However, I only read it because it was supposed to be set at the Achensee, but it turned out that the Achensee wasn’t mentioned at all: the Austrian scenes were just in AN unspecified part of the North Tyrol. Really, it’s one of those emperor’s new clothes type books: I feel as if I should say how deep and meaningful and impressive I found it, because it’s supposed to be a modern classic, but, whilst it was OK, I didn’t really find much about it to shout about.

It starts off with an unconventional British family living an undisciplined life in the said unspecified part of the Austrian Tyrol. The dad, a composer, then dies, and his children, by two late wives and a couple of other women, have to be provided for. Two of them, Tessa and Sebastian Sanger, are taken in by Florence, their late mother’s niece, an upper-middle-class, fairly conventional woman who, when she comes out to Tyrol to collect them, becomes involved with and marries another British composer, Lewis Dodd, a friend of the family.

However, 14-year-old Tessa, “the constant nymph”, is in love with Lewis. Apparently this was considered all terribly shocking as it shows adolescent sexual awakening and what-have-you, but, TBH, it didn’t really come across as anything more than a typical teenage-girl-crush-on-older-man. They all go back to England, Tessa doesn’t like the school they send her to, Florence and Lewis don’t get on because she wants to be conventional and he doesn’t and, eventually, Lewis goes off with Tessa … but, before anything’s happened, she drops dead. Er, and that’s it.

OK, the idea’s quite interesting, but I wouldn’t class the book as a “modern classic”. Also, there are some very unpleasant anti-Jewish remarks (Tessa’s sister’s husband is Jewish) in it, and some silly stereotyping of Russians and Italians. And apparently we’re supposed to regard the Sangers’ lives in Austria as “noble savagery”. I don’t like that expression anyway, but I don’t really see what is noble-savage-ish about the Sangers. That some of the kids a) don’t wear shoes and b) use a lot of bad language?! What’s “noble” about that?!

About the most interesting thing is the idea that although in Britain – in South East England, in particular – one has to behave Very Properly, whereas Abroad one can do whatever one likes, which, to get back to the Achensee thing, rather contrasts with the Chalet School books where the North Tyroleans are generally more prim and proper than the British. Otherwise … read worse, but read considerably better too.

The Midwife of Venice by Roberta Rich

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OK. This is not a classic. It’s not particularly well-written, and I’m not sure how well-researched it all is. Also, the glossary really ought to include a lot more words than it does: I’m having amusing visions of some confused readers having to Google particular words to find out that they are, in fact, Yiddish terms for, ahem, certain parts of the anatomy. However, there are some very interesting aspects to it – not so much, actually, what it says about the famous Venetian Ghetto as what it says about the much lesser-known subject of Jewish slaves in Malta.

The plot is a bit on the bizarre side. A Jewish midwife is summoned from the Venetian ghetto, in 1575, to assist in the delivery of the child of a Catholic countess. This would be illegal: however, she agrees on condition that she be paid enough to ransom her husband, who has been kidnapped as a slave by the Knights of St John in Malta. A baby boy is duly born, but the count’s jealous brother, now no longer his heir, plans to murder the baby and pretend that the murder was a Jewish sacrifice. The midwife murders the brother, rescues the baby, and hides in the house of her sister Jessica, who left the ghetto to run off with a Catholic (this bit presumably copied from Shakespeare, Jessica being the name of Shylock’s daughter who did likewise). Jessica has now become a courtesan. The two sisters pretend to have the plague, but the count’s other brother finds them and murders Jessica. Meanwhile, the count and countess really have both got the plague, and both died. Keeping up? Over in Malta, the midwife’s husband has been sold to a nun, then sold back by the nun, then escaped, boarded a ship, been caught whilst heroically rescuing someone who’d fallen down the rigging, and ended up back in Malta … where, luckily, he is down by the docks when the midwife and the baby, having taken ship for Malta (oh, and there was a bit on the ship involving the contraceptive practices of Bedouin camel-riders), arrive … and she buys his freedom and they go off to Constantinople. Like I said, a bit bizarre.

However, there are some genuinely very interesting aspects to the book. The most poignant one, given recent events, was at the end, when it was pointed out that, at that time, relations between Jews and Muslims were good. It’s something that’s struck me in a lot of places – Istanbul, Alexandria, Fez, Meknes, Marrakech – and how tragic it is that things are … well, as they are now. Also, whilst the Knights of St John are well-known to have fought against the Barbary pirates who took so many slaves, the fact that they themselves took the passengers of merchant ships hostage, as a way of raising money, is little-known. Many of those taken were, like Hannah the midwife’s husband Isaac, Jewish, and there were indeed Jewish societies, the main one being in Venice, for redeeming these captives, as shown in this book. I’ve been trawling the internet for more information about all this, and it seems that the last Jewish slaves in Malta were only freed when the island was taken by Napoleon.

(Isaac is told that the society has run out of money because it’s just ransomed 70 Jewish slaves from Salonika, now Thessaloniki. The story of these slaves is apparently true, and covered in a book written at the time … although the book was written in 1558, so the dates don’t quite work. I’ve had a look on Amazon to see if I can get a copy of it in English, but unfortunately it’d cost £57, for a 164 page book, and my budget doesn’t really extend to that!)

Also, some of what the author writes about Jewish religious practices and about the rules of the Venetian Ghetto would be interesting to people unfamiliar with them, and she also refers to the fact that the Ghetto was partly Ashkenazi and partly Sephardi, something that is often overlooked. And the plot may be bonkers but it is quite exciting. So don’t read this if you’re looking for a classic, but it’s worth a look.

Carnevale by M R Lovric

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The author’s main idea in writing this book seemed to be to create and tell the story a character who had affairs with both Casanova and Byron, the first affair set against the glorious background of 18th century Venice and the second against the exotic background of Ali Pasha’s Albania, the character being a middle-class Venetian girl who rebelled against convention and became an artist.

Casanova was depicted far more favourably than “mad, bad and dangerous to know” Byron, but I could have wished that the author had made Cecilia, her heroine, a bit older when she and Casanova met. The affair started when Cecilia was thirteen and hadn’t even hit puberty, and I found that to be in rather poor taste. Byron was depicted rather negatively … mind you, he did rather ask for that.

The other main character – other than a cat – was Venice herself. Venice is Venice and always a joy to read about, but I don’t know why people are so obsessed with writing about Venice as the republic drew to its close, and in this case during the early years of Austrian rule, rather than in La Serenissima’s glory days. Why do so many authors seem to feel that they have to make a link between Venice and decadence, or decadence and Venice? It happens with Paris as well, to some extent. Show Venice a bit more respect, please. She deserves it. Read her history. Walk through her streets. Admire her buildings. Admire her canals. And give her the respect she deserves. However, to get back to this book, the idea of someone having been the lover of both Casanova and Byron is a bit bonkers, but in fiction you can do as you please, and the book’s worth reading if only for some of the wonderful imagery it contains.

My big moan, other than the pre-pubescent seduction bit, is that it contains so little about Carnevale! Misleading title!!