The Scandalous Lady W – BBC 2


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I’m not entirely sure what the BBC were trying to achieve with this. Was it supposed to be a moralistic story of how upper-class women in the late 18th century were considered to be the property of their husbands? Or was it supposed to be a load of prurient, salacious stuff about a husband who enjoyed peeping through the keyhole at his wife in bed with other men? Either way, it wasn’t really very good.

For a start, the grammar was appalling. “She belongs to George and I!” – that sort of thing. You would really expect better from the BBC. Also, it came jumping backwards and forwards in time, which was confusing. On top of that, the attempts (shoved in every so often, in between all the bits about lovers, venereal disease, and who was doing what in the bath or outside the bedroom) to make a point about the very shoddy way in which women like Seymour, Lady Worsley were treated in English law at that time didn’t really come across very well in the context of the story. Lady Worsley would no more give up her quest for independence than would the American colonies (the real-life events on which the programme was based having taken place in 1781)!  Quest for independence? She wanted to leave her horrible husband and marry her lover: she was hardly burning her corset and demanding equal rights for women. It all sounded far too 20th/21st century, and it didn’t work.

Then there were all the bedroom, and indeed bathroom, scenes. OK, a big part of the story was that Lord Worsley had “debauched” his wife and she’d had all these lovers, but it went a bit OTT even so … rather like the horrendous “The Tudors” series, which also starred Natalie Dormer, or that programme a few years back set in Ancient Rome.

Overall, not very impressed. It was supposed to be a programme about a real-life Georgian scandal. It came across more like a rather poor Restoration comedy crossed with an equally poor late 20th century tale of a sister trying to do it for herself. Come on BBC – you can do far better than this. Try harder!


The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop


Word PressThis interesting novel deals with arguably the most significant of the all-too-many unresolved issues of European geo-politics – the division of Cyprus.  It does via the lives of a number of characters, some Greek Cypriot and some Turkish Cypriot, living in Famagusta, an important port city with a rich history which by the early 1970s was one of Europe’s most prestigious tourist centres.  “The Sunrise” is a luxury hotel, which two of the characters own and most of the others work in or are otherwise associated with.

We hear about the history of the families involved, and learn of the deaths of several of their relatives in the conflicts of the 1960s.  Then we see the Turkish invasion of 1974, during which Famagusta was bombed and then occupied, and pretty much the entire population fled.  To this day, Varosha, the tourist area where the posh hotels were, remains a ghost town: after more than forty years, and despite attempts by the UN to intervene, it’s still fenced off.  No-one’s allowed to go there, and the hotels are sitting there, empty, falling apart.

One of the main storylines is the gang rape of a major character by Turkish soldiers.  Mass sexual violence against women was perpetrated by both sides, as it was in the wars in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s – to such an extent that the Cypriot Orthodox Church agreed to the legalisation of abortion.  Several other characters are killed.  Most of those who survive end up in London.  And, again as happened in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s, there was “ethnic cleansing” – the expulsion of people who were in the “wrong” area for their ethnic group.  And there was also considerable destruction of important cultural treasures.

A lot of the book involves a Greek Cypriot family and a Turkish Cypriot family hiding out together in The Sunrise after everyone else has fled: I’m not sure how realistic that is, but the horror of the events does really come across even so.  I think the author might have done more to show the concerns of Turkish Cypriots before the invasion, because Turkey did have some valid reasons for its decision; but nothing can excuse the war crimes perpetrated by both sides.

I understand that there are reunification talks going on at the moment.  The requirement for a visa to enter Turkish Northern Cyprus has recently been abolished, and it seems that both sides now have leaders who are willing to do business.  I don’t know that it’ll ever happen, or even that it would be for the best of it did.  It’s a very difficult and sensitive situation, and we’re now forty years on and most people in Cyprus now have grown up in one of two separate states.  But maybe something can be done to try to heal the divisions.  There are hundreds of people on both sides whose fates remain unknown: their families and friends must have to assume that they were killed in the fighting, but they don’t know for sure.  But, whatever happens, it can’t put right what people suffered in the 1970s.  Time moves on, and stories slip out of the headlines, and it’s easy to forget that this happened so relatively recently, in an island with which Britain has close historic ties and which is still a popular holiday destination for British tourists.  This isn’t the best book ever written, but it’s worth reading as a reminder of something of which there isn’t nearly as much awareness as there should be.


With Wolfe in Canada by G A Henty


Word PressMore tales of derring-do from the wonderful G A Henty!  In this one, our hero lives on the south coast of England, where he rescues a little girl, who turns out to be the long-lost granddaughter of the local squire, from drowning.  He later accidentally gets mixed up with some smugglers, but his name is cleared and the squire pays for him to go into the Army.  He goes to the colonies in North America, fights alongside George Washington, then of course a British officer, in the French and Indian War, and then becomes one of the heroes of the British victory over the French in Québec.

G A Henty likes to have his British lads behaving very honourably and never doing anything which is Not Cricket but, in this book, the baddie who attempts to thwart James, Our Hero, at various stages is a fellow Brit, the squire’s nephew.  The said baddie is eventually caught out, and is about to do the honourable thing by shooting himself when Our Hero sets him free.   The French, on the other hand, generally behave quite honourably – even though this book was written in 1894, four years before the Fashoda Crisis but still in the middle of the Scramble for Africa, when thoughts of Entente Cordiale were a long way away.  Gold star for not being overly jingoistic, LOL.  And the Native Americans were presented very favourably indeed: Henty clearly had great admiration for their skills.

Of course, James duly married Agnes, the squire’s granddaughter and heiress, whom he’d rescued all those years before.  I would have been very surprised and disappointed had he not, LOL, but I was a bit disappointed that he then just settled down to living in his home town and being a pillar of the local community/general good egg.  Nothing wrong with that, but it wasn’t very exciting.  Oh well, he had plenty of excitement in his soldiering days, eh?

I do like G A Henty!  You have to bear in mind that these books were written for young lads at the height of the British Empire, not for kids in the 21st century, but they are very good reads as what they are.  And there are so many of them, some of them covering periods which it’s virtually impossible to find English language historical novels on!  I look forward to reading many more of them :-).




The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici by C W Gortner


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Catherine de’ Medici gets a very bad press, especially in English – partly because people have this weird thing about Italian women in positions of power going around poisoning people (Lucrezia Borgia falls foul of the same idea) and, more rationally, because of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Coming just two years after Pope Pius V effectively urged English Catholics to try to overthrow Elizabeth I, and coinciding with the escalation of the war in the Netherlands, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre ended up being the best piece of propaganda that the Protestant authorities could have had, and Catherine’s name is still associated more closely with that than with anything else. I appreciate that I’m being annoyingly Anglocentric here, but I am talking about books written in English!

I’ve actually always felt a bit sorry for Catherine. First she had to put up with her husband’s relationship with Diane de Poitiers – OK, it was the norm at the time for a king to have a mistress, but not for a king to be mixed up with someone who dominated him as much as Diane dominated Henri II – and then almost all her children died. And she lived in very difficult times. So I was glad to see that C W Gortner felt a bit sorry for Catherine as well, and tried to portray her sympathetically. We’ll probably never know to what extent she was involved in the events of 1572, but to lay them all at her door is unfair.

However, his portrayal of events was rather strange, to say the least. He never even mentioned Catherine’s son Henri, the future Henri III of France, being king of Poland-Lithuania. And he portrayed her youngest son, Hercule, as having been so severely affected by smallpox that he was severely physically and mentally disabled. He was certainly affected by smallpox, but I’ve never got the impression that it was that severe. I’m going to be Anglocentric again now, and say that I always think of him as the froggy who came a courting!   Anyway, I didn’t find the portrayal of him very accurate.

I could have lived with that, but there were other things that were even more bizarre, in particular the idea that Catherine was having an affair with Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots! Where on earth did he make that up from? Catherine being mixed up with Nostradamus and other supposed prophets – yes, that’s true enough, although interpretations of it all vary. Margot having it off with the Duke of Guise – OK, we all know about that. Henri III being bisexual – well, we’ll never know for sure, but it’s something that there’ve always been rumours about … although CW Gortner, who seems to have a very over-active imagination, seemed to think that he had weird secret crushes on his enemies, which seems a rather strange idea. But Catherine and Coligny?!   How on earth did he dream that up?!

Much better was his portrayal of Henri de Bourbon, the future Henri IV. I really like Henri IV. He’s your bit of rough turned brilliant politician and leader, and he’s the one with the sense to change his professed religion for the sake of peace. Going off down the Anglocentric path again, I always think that Charles II of England, his grandson, was very like him. If James II, James Edward or Bonnie Prince Charlie had had a grain of his common sense, British history might have been very different – but they didn’t, and it wasn’t, and (with apologies to the Scottish Highlands and most of Ireland) that was very probably for the best.  Sorry, that’s totally beside the point!  Back to this book.

And I’ve got very mixed feelings about this book. It’s an entertaining read, and it covers a very interesting period in history, but why do some novelists feel the need to distort events by dreaming up such totally off-the-planet things? I don’t think even Philippa Gregory would have come up with an affair between Catherine de’ Medici and Gaspard de Coligny!  Very odd.  Stick to what actually happened – it’s interesting enough as it is.


The Walls of Troy by Cherry Gregory


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This is the sequel to The Girl from Ithaca and, rather appropriately, I read it just before visiting Mycenae and Sparta.   It continues the tale of Neomene, the fictitious (fictitious as in not appearing in the legends) sister of Odysseus, amongst the Greeks outside Troy, and takes the story up to the fall of Troy. Incidentally, one thing I have never understood is why the horse is always referred to as “a Trojan horse”. It was a Greek horse!   Anyway, that’s beside the point, LOL.

Towards the end of the book, Neomene is taken prisoner by the Trojans, but, as the sister of Odysseus, she isn’t mistreated, and instead is handed over to Helen as a lady-in-waiting, until the Greeks come and she’s rescued. So we get several conversations between Neomene and Helen, in which Helen says that everything is the fault of the gods, who made her fall in love with Paris.

That’s the whole thing about ancient Greek legends – the idea that everything is predestined. It’s quite hard to get your head round. Come what may, Troy is going to fall, Hector is going to be killed and Achilles is going to be killed. And no-one will believe poor Cassandra … I keep being earwormed by the Abba song every time I think about her!   There are some interesting comments about it in The Thorn Birds – it’s not a book which people probably associate with ancient Greece, but Colleen McCullough wrote brilliantly about the ideas of Greek legends, in which everything’s predestined, and, by contrast, the idea of free will. I suppose the 17th century Puritans went back to the idea of predestination – and that’s something else I don’t really get … what’s the point of making a huge fuss over people playing football on a Sunday or eating mince pies at Christmas if everyone’s fate is predestined anyway?

I’ve now gone completely off the point!   There isn’t actually that much talk in this book about the gods and predestination: we see the Greeks making decisions and that just comes across as … well, making decisions.   It does all work very well: the legends and the story of this invented character are all woven together, and we see snippets of normal life in the Greek camp, particularly the lives of women and children, which Homer and those who write academic studies of the Iliad certainly don’t show us. I was lucky enough to get this book, as I was with the first book in the series, for free, and I’m now looking forward to reading the next one … which I assume will move from the Iliad to the Odyssey and show us the Ithacans’ journey home.

What amazing stories the ancient Greek legends are! Still going strong after all these centuries. In the age of technology, what term is used to describe a nasty computer virus which tricks you into installing it? Trojan horse – the term from the legends of a war thought to’ve taken place in 12th or 13th century BC.   How incredible is it that those legends are still such a big part of the culture of the Western world and beyond after all that time?   OK, that’s rather more to do with Homer, and for that matter Virgil, than Cherry Gregory, LOL, but this is a very readable book, and highly recommended.

The King’s Diamond by Will Whitaker


Word PressEveryone knows that the Middle Ages ended on August 22nd 1485, the day of the Battle of Bosworth Field :-).  Come on, everyone knows that, right?  Well, in a lot of Continental countries they don’t actually realise this ;-), because they think that the Middle Ages ended in 1494, when France invaded the Italian peninsula and kicked off the Italian Wars, which dragged on until 1559.  The point of this is that English books during this period tend to focus on domestic issues, and in particular the Tudors’ issues with producing heirs.  Particularly, of course, the story of Henry VIII’s decision to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and to marry Anne Boleyn: it’s the best known period in English history and one about which there are a million and one books and have been an awful lot of TV series.

So this book made quite a refreshing change.  The idea of the book, and its title, was to show a young English merchant trying to make his fortune by travelling to Venice and other parts of Italy to find some wonderful jewels which he could then sell on to Henry to be given to Anne as presents.  In the process of so doing, however, he got caught up in the Italian Wars, and in particular in the sack of Rome by Imperial troops and their allies in 1527.  It’s not the best-written book ever, but the author deserves a lot of credit for taking a different approach to the period, showing what was going on on the Continent, and not just regurgitating the tale of Henry, Catherine and Anne which, fascinating though it is, we’ve all heard ad nauseam.  Not bad at all, and certainly worth a read.


Under a Blood Red Sky by Kate Furnivall


Word PressI’m afraid that I wasn’t impressed with this.  The best thing about it was the title … and that was nicked from U2!  In the Soviet Union in the 1930s, two women, Sofia and Anna, are amongst the prisoners at a Siberian gulag.  Anna is seriously ill with TB, so Sofia decides that she’s going to escape from the gulag and find Anna’s childhood sweetheart Vasily, who will then rescue Anna, whereupon they will all live happily ever after.  As you do.  So Sofia escapes from the gulag, avoids being recaptured, treks across Siberia alone with no food and nothing but the clothes on her back, without encountering any major problems, and finds Vasily living in a small village under an assumed name.  Also living there is Mikhail, the man who shot dead Anna’s father and saw Vasily shoot dead a communist officer immediately afterwards.  Because obviously two men who’d been involved in the same shooting incident St Petersburg would both have ended up living in the same small remote village. Sofia gets Mikhail confused with Vasily. And gets involved with him.

In the middle of all this, there’s some weird stuff involving pentangles and mysticism.  What on earth have pentagles got to do with the Stalinist Soviet Union?!  Maybe the author had been reading The Da Vinci Code.  And there are some jewels hidden in a church.  And none of the local or regional officials seem bothered about Sofia’s lack of ID papers.

Then Sofia and Mikhail take off in a small aircraft, which is handily lying around, and go off to the gulag and rescue Anna, because it’s all just that easy, and she makes a miraculous recovery from TB, marries Vasily and presumably lives happily ever after.

What a load of utter tripe!!  OK, some of it’s quite entertaining, but it’s just utter rubbish.  There is no way all this could have happened!   How can anyone write such drivel and present it as a serious historical novel?  Not impressed.  Don’t bother reading this: there are much better books to read.