Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers



Word PressThis was an interesting book, but strange because it was so negative. However, the author said that she didn’t want to make everything seem heroic or romantic, so I suppose she achieved exactly what she set out to do.

The “Bride of New France” was one of the young women sent from France to what’s now Quebec province during the 1670s, to marry one of the settlers there. There are all sorts of stories across the years about women going out to colonies which have far more men than potential brides. In some cases it’s been women who can’t find husbands at home hoping for better luck abroad, most famously the annual “Fishing Fleet” going out to British-ruled India, and in some cases it’s been lonely men sending messages home for what would now be called mail order brides (or would that now be on-line order brides?), but, in this case, neither side seemed to be very keen. It was the state, Louis XIV’s France, and the Catholic church, which wanted to bring about these marriages, partly in an attempt to stop the men from chasing after the women of the First Nations bands and partly to populate their not-so-shiny new colony.

Louis XIV’s France gets an extremely bad press in English writings (and the author of this book is actually half French-Canadian), but that’s usually because of the invasions of neighbouring countries and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In this book, we see another very unpleasant element to it – social engineering. Laure, the main character in this book, is taken away from her street entertainer parents and sent to an institution by authorities charged with cleaning up the streets. Then she’s forced to go to Canada. And, in Canada itself, rewards were even given to couples who produced more than ten children, which I can see would have made sense at the time but which now, in the post-Nazi era, smacks of something very unpleasant. We tend to associate social engineering with the twentieth century, but this book shows that there was plenty of it about in the seventeenth century as well.

Interesting themes, then, and the accounts of the hardship on the ships and the hardship faced by the women struggling to get through the harsh winter alone whilst their husbands went off to engage in illegal offshoots of the fur trade were interesting as well (although I do wish people wouldn’t write in the present tense!). But the main character was so annoying! All right, we can’t all be Ma Ingalls, but could she not at least have tried to keep her cabin clean and tidy, instead of just sulking about how hard her life was? And she wasted the material which was meant to last her for years on making a few fancy frocks which she was never going to have occasion to wear, and then just shrugged her shoulders and said that she was used to living in Paris. And, yes, it was very broad-minded and liberated of her to have an affair with a First Nations man, but did it not occur to her that it was inevitably going to end in tears? All rather gloomy and frustrating.

However, as I said, I think that was what the author wanted. The founding of the colonies wasn’t all heroic and rewarding: for most people, especially those without money and those who hadn’t even wanted to go there in the first place, it was pretty grim. That message came across loudly and clearly!


Black Robe by Brian Moore


Word PressThis sounded promising, but it was very short and I was left feeling that it could have been a lot more.  It tells the story of a mid-17th century French Jesuit missionary and his assistant, travelling amongst bands of Algonquins in what’s now the province of Québec.  Leaving aside the irritating arrogance of people who thought that their religion was better than anyone else’s and that they should go around trying to convert men, women and children who had no interest in converting, even hassling them on their deathbeds, it’s an interesting setting for a book, and the author had obviously done a lot of research.  Some of the language shocks, and some of what goes on, including cannibalism, shocks even more, but the author never tells the story in a way that comes across as condemnatory or judgemental.

However, the book’s just too brief.  I never felt that I got to know any of the characters properly.  One of the main themes was the relationship between, and eventual marriage of, the Jesuit’s assistant and an Algonquin girl, but we never even got to see how they met.  Maybe I was missing something, but I didn’t feel very satisfied at the end of the book.   It felt as if it could have been so much more, but it wasn’t.

The Saboteurs – More 4


Word PressThis, the first episode in a series of six required a fair bit of concentration for a Friday night, being partly in English, partly in Norwegian and partly in German (it’s OK, there were subtitles!), but it was worth the “effort”!  It tells the story of the sabotage by a heroic group of Norwegians, trained in Britain, of Nazi German attempts to use the “heavy water” produced by a chemical plant at Vemork, outside Rjukan in the Telemark region of Norway, to help them to produce an atomic bomb.

The chemical plant, the largest in the world when it was built, produced the fertiliser which was of crucial importance in an area with harsh terrain and a harsh climate.  The “heavy water” was a by-product.  The plant itself is now a museum, and I was fortunate enough to be able to visit it last year.  What a beautiful part of the world – but the challenges of waging that sort of mission there, especially in winter, are almost unimaginable.  The series hasn’t got that far yet, but it will be doing.  The existing stock of heavy water was taken away to Britain and France before the Nazis invaded Norway, but, once the Nazis were in control of the country, production started up again.  It’s now known that their atomic bomb programme wasn’t all that advanced, but at the time there were genuine fears that they were well on the way to producing a bomb of the sort which was eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki … and would probably drop it on Britain.

The actions of the Norwegian Resistance during the Nazi occupation, of which the operations against the heavy water programme are the best known, are incredibly important in the culture of Norway, a country which had been independent for barely 35 years when German warships came sailing up the Oslofjord, and I gather that the series attracted very high ratings in Norway.  It won’t have the same impact here, but I hope that it attracts some attention, given the potential importance of the events and Britain’s role in them.

There were several different attacks on the heavy water operations.  Some ended in tragedy and some achieved little, but some succeeded.  The bravery of those involved, in horrendous conditions, will hopefully come across in the later episodes.  And presumably, although things have been glammed up a bit for the sake of TV, it’ll be rather more accurate than the Kirk Douglas/Michael Redgrave film on the subject was!  The first episode was certainly promising, apart from it being slightly annoying that all the British characters spoke in cut-glass accents.  It’s a shame that it’s been shoved on More 4 and not one of the main channels, but there’s some good stuff on More 4 these days, and this is a prime example of it.


The BBC At War – BBC 2


Word PressOh, how gloriously British was this?!  It was also pretty unbiased, particularly impressive given that it was a BBC documentary about the BBC and was presented by the son of one of the BBC’s leading Second World War correspondents.

So, at the start of the Second World War, there were Goebbels & co churning out propaganda like … well, a well-oiled propaganda machine, whilst, here in Blighty, the BBC was determined to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  In some ways it sounded bizarrely like some sort of Boys’ Own book in which Johnny Foreigner sneaked on his classmates and cheated at cricket whilst the upstanding British boys refused to do anything which even smacked of dishonour, but obviously this was very serious stuff and the BBC’s determination to maintain its integrity even in such terrible times has to be applauded and greatly respected.

Less so does the BBC’s decision that popular music and light entertainment was inappropriate in wartime.  Whilst German radio was keeping people’s spirits up, the BBC churned out a load of horrendous organ music which made everyone feel worse.  Luckily, that idea soon got scrapped.  The weather forecasts were scrapped as well, although, given how accurate anything the Met Office says tends to be, I doubt that the Luftwaffe would have taken much notice of them anyway.

On a more serious note (no pun intended), the BBC found its attempts to do its job being thwarted all over the show, not by the enemy but the British establishment.  Churchill wasn’t very keen on radio, preferring the old days of stirring speeches made “live”.  The powerful press barons didn’t want the BBC stealing their thunder, and so initially the BBC was only allowed to broadcast one news bulletin a day!  And even that was supposed to come from what was reported by Reuters.  At a time when the country was in mortal peril and people were absolutely desperate for absolutely every scrap of news they could get, the press barons were only bothered about safeguarding their own interests!   Furthermore, the War Office was worried about things being reported because of reports inadvertently aiding the Nazis and the potential danger to morale – understandable, but very difficult for the BBC.

However, as the war went on, it dawned on Whitehall that BBC radio could and would unite the country at this horrendous time.  Yet even then there were problems.  Correspondents abroad were treated with suspicion.  When the BBC took on J B Priestley, needing someone who could compete with Lord Haw Haw in terms of entertainment and charisma, there were frowns and complaints because he was becoming a celebrity.  Terribly bad form.  The BBC was not supposed to promote any sort of cult of celebrity (oh, for certain TV programmes to adopt that idea nowadays!).  Talk about couldn’t do right for doing wrong!  Then there was a terrible to-do over the playing of the Soviet anthem.  The BBC had been busily playing the anthems of Britain’s allies but, once the Soviet Union entered the war, the powers that were got all stressed out over whether or not playing the Internationale might cause the Great Unwashed to start thinking shocking Bolshevik thoughts.  Bloody hell, did these people have any idea what the people of the Soviet Union were going through, on our side, with a common enemy?  It was eventually conceded that the Internationale could be played, and that positive images of the Soviets could be presented, but it took a while.

It also eventually dawned on the powers that were that the BBC could have an important role to play abroad.  Churchill used the BBC World Service to address the people of France (although they might not have been very flattered had he turned up at the studio demanding to know where his “Frog speech” was), and Ed Murrow broadcast via the BBC to the United States.

The programme didn’t say as much, but it can certainly be argued that the institution which we refer to as “Auntie Beeb”, but which is currently coming in for a lot of criticism, helped to win the war.  It undoubtedly did a great deal to bring the country together, and yet it had to fight the British establishment in order to do so.  Fascinating stuff, and very well-presented (although seeing Jonathan Dimbleby with white hair makes me feel incredibly old!).  Looking forward to the second part of the series.




Word PressI really wanted to see this when it was on at the pictures, but I ran out of time and had to wait for it to be shown on Sky!

Dido Elizabeth Belle was a real person, the daughter of a British aristocrat and an African slave, brought up in the household of her great uncle, the Earl of Mansfield, alongside her cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray.  There’s a painting of the two young women together, very unusual by the standards of the 18th century in that it shows a white woman and a black woman as near-equals.  However, not that much is known about Dido’s life, giving the scriptwriters considerable freedom to explore various themes – within the framework of such facts as are known.

One significant theme of the film is the famous “Zong” case, in which a slave-trading syndicate made an insurance claim for the loss of slaves whom they’d thrown overboard: the syndicate claimed that they’d had to kill some of the slaves in order to save others, due to shortages of supplies, but other evidence showed that, in addition to the crew having made significant navigational errors, the terrible conditions on board the ship meant that many of the slaves had become ill and were likely to die anyway, and that they’d been killed in order to facilitate a claim for damages.  The case was heard by the Earl of Mansfield, then the Lord Chief Justice.  He found against the syndicate owners.  The film suggests that Dido and her future husband may have influenced his feelings on the subject.  We can’t know whether or not that was true, but I thought that the way in which it was presented was very well done, and without ever making the mistake of showing 18th century characters looking at things through 21st century eyes.

There was so much else to the film, as well.  The behaviour of a father who might well have abandoned his illegitimate mixed-race child (her mother had died), or hidden her away somewhere, but who wanted her brought up within his aristocratic family, and who left her his money.  The lives of upper-class women in general, born to great privilege but with very few options in life.  And the difficulties faced by anyone, in any time, who doesn’t fit into one of society’s neat little boxes.

Some of the dialogue was stilted: it sounded as if someone’d frantically re-read all Jane Austen’s books and tried to make their character sound like hers, and it didn’t really work because it didn’t sound natural.  However, nothing’s perfect!   A very creditable attempt to explore some very interesting themes.

The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan


Word Press“The day the falls stood still” was in 1848.  This book’s set during and just after the First World War, but it contains messages that are valid for any time, about the power of nature, and about what those powers can do for us but how dangerous harnessing them can be.

“The falls” in question are Niagara Falls, and the book’s set at a time at which debates were raging over using the water there to generate hydro-electric power.  It was a valuable source of power which could bring great benefit to the people of Ontario, as well as providing local employment; but diverting the water meant vastly reducing the flow of the falls, damaging from both an aesthetic effect and from the point of view of the tourist industry and, dangerously, risking there not being enough water to carry through the ice floes which formed in winter, blocking up the river and causing dangerous surges of water when the floes melted.  Cathy Marie Buchanan presents both points of view, through different characters.  And, at the same time, “daredevils” were trying to “shoot” the rapids in wooden barrels, or to swim across them: I’d half-forgotten that that was how Matthew Webb died (in 1883).

The story’s told through the lives of a young couple, the daughter of a wealthy family who’d lost their money and position and a “riverman” who opposed interfering with the natural flow of the Falls and became known for rescuing people from them.  Sadly, there isn’t a happy ending.  Nor is there a happy beginning, really – we’re reminded via another character that nature’s great waterfalls, with all their beauty, (and you could equally say great canyons) tend to be suicide spots.

My copy’s got “A wonderful love story” emblazoned across the front, which I think’s a shame because it makes it sound a bit Mills and Boon-ish, whereas it’s so much more than that.  It’s about a relationship, but it’s also about the relationship between humans and nature, how fragile that can be and how careful we need to be with it.  Those of us who grew up in the 1980s will know all about greenhouse gases and the hole in the ozone layer and acid rain and so on, but that sort of thing isn’t talked about much now.  And how often do we hear about someone having to be rescued from a mountain in bad weather, or a lake that was too dangerous to swim in, because there isn’t enough respect for nature?  We even get stories about people ignoring warning signs so that they can take a daring-looking selfie!  Places like Niagara Falls give us so much, and we need to remember that they aren’t to be messed with.  A very thought-provoking book – and it does that in a way that’s never preachy and always entertaining.  Recommended.

Napoleon – BBC 2


Word PressThis series might have been better entitled “Robert Andrews, fanboy”.  The man so obviously hero-worshipped Napoleon that it was embarrassing, and he didn’t make the slightest attempt at being impartial.  This follows on from a series which had little to say about the Duke of Wellington other than that he was a rotten husband.  Is this some sort of warped political correctness on the part of the BBC?  Whatever it is, it’s really not at all impressive.  Could we not have had two rational series presented by people trying to give a balanced view?

I am not keen on Napoleon: I think he was a megalomaniac.  However, I respect his military prowess, the fact that he rose from being an outsider to being a great military leader and being ruler of France, and the fact that he took on the religious authorities – including granting equal rights to religious minorities.  But Robert Andrews is clearly just fanatical about him.  I bet he used to have a poster of Napoleon on his bedroom wall.  In fact, maybe he still has.  And it spoilt the programme because it made it so one-sided.  Napoleon was a great hero in Italy.  “He won seven victories in a row,” Andrews proudly proclaimed.  What was this, a war or a football league?  Venice, La Serenissima, which Napoleon barged into and then handed over to Austria, never even got a mention!  As for stealing paintings right, left and centre all over Milan and Padua – well, apparently these things happen in wartime.  Yes, OK, they do, but was there any need to sound so defensive about it?  Why not just state that it happened?

The same with the Middle Eastern campaign.  The massacre at Jaffa was appalling, but … well, actually, the same issue may well be discussed if there are programmes later in the year to mark the 600th anniversary of Agincourt.  What do you do when you’ve got too many prisoners to cope with?  But, again, it was all about trying to reject any criticism of Napoleon, not present the facts in a rational way.  Oh, and apparently revolutionary France was totally meritocratic and democratic.  Right.  Words like “Terror”, “guillotine” and “Thermidor” spring to mind.  This admittedly was after Thermidor, but I think “meritocratic” is pushing it more than a bit!  And if there is an attraction about the idea of overthrowing the ancient regime, talking about it when discussing someone who proclaimed himself emperor and was even conceited enough to crown himself just does not work.

Also, apparently Napoleon had self-confidence issues because he’d never had much luck with women and Josephine cheated on him.  Self-confidence issues?  Napoleon?  Well, maybe he did in his marriage.  Not that it stopped him carrying on with Marie Walewska and then throwing Josephine over so he could marry a Habsburg.  However, self-confidence issues notwithstanding, Andrews then proclaimed that all Napoleon’s construction work was nothing to do with egotism but was all about giving France self confidence and proving that hard work could triumph and driving the people of la belle France on to make great advances.  Sorry, but no-one is telling me that the Arc de Triomphe wasn’t a vanity project.  OK, it may have been inspired by ancient Greece and ancient Rome, but the arches of Trajan and Hadrian and all the rest of them were all vanity projects as well!

I understand that Robert Andrews is a big fan of Napoleon.  People don’t generally research the lives of figures whom they dislike.  And he knows his stuff all right.  But why have BBC 2 decided to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo by moaning about the Duke of Wellington being a bad husband and then showing someone trying to rebut every bit of criticism ever levelled at Napoleon?  I’m not saying that we needed flag-waving and a load of silly jokes about frogs’ legs and garlic, but could we not have had either someone trying to be impartial or else two historians having a debate?  Honestly, BBC!  Not impressed.  Interesting stuff, but zero marks for presentation!





The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart


Word PressWe see war memorials everywhere, from the vast elaborate ones in capital cities to the small ones in tiny villages.  We also see them at the sites of great battles.  But, until I read this book, I’d never really thought much about the people who created them.  This is a fascinating novel, my one gripe being that it tries to graft together two stories which share themes but which aren’t really connected, and which I think might have been better dealt with in different books, or at least in different sections of a book.

The first, based on a true story is the story of a Catholic priest from Bavaria (although Google informs me that the real life priest actually came from Tyrol) who went out to a “backwoods” area of Ontario in the 1860s and was determined to build a grand, impressive church for his parishioners.  I can never understand why people think it’s appropriate to spend a fortune on places of worship instead of using the money to help those in need, but that’s beside the point!  He managed to get the money from some sort of foundation supported by Mad King Ludwig, and duly had the church built. Amazing true story.  And, apart from John Jakes’ excellent Homeland and American Dreams, there are very few books about the experiences of German immigrants in North America.

The author’s created a character, a wonderful carver, who carved statues and so on for the church.  The second story is that of the carver’s grandchildren – his granddaughter, who loses her fiancée in the First World War, and his grandson, who loses a leg in the First World War.  it’s a strange sort of war story, because the rest of the village isn’t involved: all the other young men claim exemption because they’re agricultural workers, and many of them feel ambiguous about it because of their German heritage.  The grandchildren both struggle to move on with their lives until, years later, they both go over to France to work on the Canadian National Vimy Memorial.  These two characters aren’t real, but the building of the memorial obviously is.  It took years and years, far longer than the construction of any of the other Great War memorials did: it wasn’t officially unveiled until 1936.  After the completion of the memorial, both the man and the woman, who both find partners whilst involved in the work, are able to move on and find happiness.

Two fascinating stories, and the title itself, “The Stone Carvers”, links the two; but I can’t help feeling that they’d have been better off told in two different books, or at least as part 1 and part 2 rather than the flicking backwards and forwards that goes on for much of the book.  However, that’s just me – obviously other people don’t agree, because the book was long-listed for the Booker Prize.  There’s some wonderful writing in it, anyway, and I’ve got another book by the same author and am looking forward to reading it.

Joan of Arc: God’s Warrior – BBC 2


Word Press

Burning Joan of Arc at the stake was not one of the finer moments in English history, it has to be admitted. Also, as any religion-based execution tends to do, it had the opposite effect to what was intended: it made her a martyr. And so, as Helen Castor pointed out in this BBC 2 documentary, it’s easy to lose sight of the real person at the heart of what was and still remains an incredible story.

I wish I could say that I’d first developed an interest in the story of Joan of Arc through reading some very scholarly text, but it was actually from reading about the girls in Antonia Forest’s Kingscote books wanting to “do” Shaw’s Saint Joan as their school play. Never mind J. And I was only about 7 at the time!

There are no doubt some very good psychological explanations as to why Joan began hearing voices. There are probably some perfectly logical reasons why she recognised the Dauphin and why she knew where the sword was kept: all sorts of people could have tipped her off. But none of that really matters. What matters is that Joan genuinely believed that she was hearing voices from God, or from the saints, and that she was able to make other people believe that she was some sort of heaven-sent messenger and that, in doing so, she was able to inspire a revival of the struggling Valois cause. Incidentally, it does tend to be forgotten that, by the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, the rightful King of France was Henry VI of England, not the Dauphin/Charles VII!

I don’t think BBC 2 would have dared to mention Islamic State or Boko Haram in the same breath as Saint Joan of Arc, nor would it have been at all fair to do so, but the point was made that there are lessons for all times in what people can be inspired/driven to do if they can be persuaded that they do somehow have God on their side and that their leader/leaders is/are divinely inspired. It’s frightening. And it’s fascinating: how on earth did Joan, a female, a peasant, someone barely out of childhood, convince anyone, let alone the Dauphin and his political and military advisors, to listen to her? It really is one of those cases in which fact is stranger than fiction. She believed so strongly.

Too strongly. Poor Joan. As soon as things started going wrong, the newly-crowned Charles VII and his allies were quick to blame her. I do think that the BBC programme overplayed that, though. They made it sound as if Charles and the Armagnacs dropped Joan like a hot potato, which they didn’t. However, Joan was then captured by the Burgundians and handed over to the English – and then she was put on trial and, ultimately and inevitably, killed, in a very horrible way. And she seems to have kept on and on believing that some sort of divine intervention would come and set her free … but it never did.

The trial is fascinating for many reasons, but I think what’s most fascinating is what it says about male attitudes towards women. Joan could have been tried for stirring up rebellion against English rule, but instead it was decided to make it a religious thing, to try to discredit her as well as just do away with her. That much is understandable, but the emphasis seems to have been not so much on Joan’s claiming to hear voices as in her “unwomanliness”. It wasn’t really mentioned in the TV programme, but inquiries were made into Joan’s past, to try to find some sort of evidence, even just hearsay, of physical relationships with men. She was even given a physical examination. Both the inquiries and the examination found that she was, indeed, a “maid”.

She’s still known as that: the Maid of Orléans. The village from which she came has “The Maid” tacked on to its name, rather than “Joan” or “Joan of Arc”. If Joan had been a man, would anyone have been the remotest bit interested in her virginity? Long before the trial, her enemies were referring to her as “the whore”. Because that’s what men did. Still do, perhaps. If you wanted to discredit a woman, you impugned her sexual morals, even when they had absolutely nothing to do with the matter in question. And that’s gone on and on. Even as recently as 1936, there were these utterly bizarre rumours about Wallis Simpson having learnt “tricks” in a Chinese brothel! What utter nonsense! But that’s how men have gone about trying to discredit women.

And then there was the issue of Joan’s clothes. Yes, all right, it says in the Old Testament that a woman wearing men’s clothes is an abomination, or whatever the exact phrasing is, but it also says an awful lot of other things that no-one takes much notice of. That, thankfully, is something that most societies no longer do take any notice of; but it’s still frightening how people try to use their interpretation of the Bible to tread on and control others – those who oppose same sex marriage being a prime example in modern society.

Joan wore men’s clothing, and had her hair cut short. Trying to fight in battle in a long dress and with long hair was hardly very practical. Once she was in captivity, she continued to wear male clothing for safety reasons: men’s clothing of the time was difficult to remove, and she’d been the victim of several rape attempts and would have been very vulnerable had she been wearing a dress.   But the fact that she did wear male clothing was treated as heresy. She’d been claiming to hear voices from God: anyone could made a valid case that someone claiming to hear voices from God is a heretic. Or a witch. That’s another common theme in medieval and early modern history – if a woman exercises any sort of power, she must be a witch.

Witchcraft was mentioned, but the main emphasis was put on the fact that Joan was a woman in men’s clothing.   She was frightened into recanting, but then she put her male clothing back on, quite possibly because she had nothing else to wear. And, as Helen Castor pointed out, the trial was never going to find her innocent; and she was sentenced to death.

She’s still talked about. Even sung about, in the case of OMD. It’s even said that her short haircut inspired the “bob” in early 20th century Paris. Nearly 500 years on, and she’s still one of the most famous figures in history. It’s one of the most incredible stories in history. But, as Helen Castor said, it’s easy to lose track of the who the real person was, and this documentary tried to remind the viewer that, for everything that people try to make Joan into, she was a real person, and this was her story.