Songs of Love and War by Santa Montefiore


Word PressThis isn’t brilliant.  It sounded promising – the lives of three young women and how they were affected by Irish independence and the events leading up to and following it – but it was rather confused and full of rather unlikely events, non-sequiturs and storylines that weren’t fully developed.  The twist in the tale at the end wasn’t even remotely convincing.  Also, fancy referring to the marriage of Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon and “Prince George”!  I thought the Palmer-Tomkinsons and the Montefiores were as thick as thieves with Prince Charles, but evidently Santa doesn’t even know what his grandfather’s name was!

I gather from things people have written on Amazon that most of the author’s books are a lot better than this one.  Good!  It was an interesting idea, and some of what was written about the events in Ireland wasn’t bad, but there were too many characters and too many storylines and none of them were properly developed.  Could have done a lot better!



Paris by Edward Rutherfurd


Word PressThis is another of Edward Rutherfurd’s books telling the history of a particular place through the lives of several generations of families from different orders of its society. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, and French Open fortnight seemed as good a time as any for it ;-). His first books, starting with Sarum, went in chronological order, but he now seems to’ve decided that he prefers to jump about all over the place; and it just doesn’t work as well. Maybe I’m missing something, but surely it makes more sense to progress chronologically through the centuries than to have a chapter set in 1883 followed by a chapter set in 1261, which is then in turn followed by a chapter set in 1885. The whole book jumps around like this. 1462 to 1897 to 1572. 1991 to 1637 to 1914. 1936 to 1794 and then back to 1936. Why??

The book’s well-written – apart from the use of some very modern expressions which don’t quite work in a historical context – and the characters come across well, but the jumping around just doesn’t work for me!   I found the choice of which parts of the history of Paris to include and which to leave out odd, as well. Obviously you can’t include every single major event/development or the book would go on for ever, but there seem to be some obvious things missing.

He hasn’t gone back further than 1261, so the Gauls, the Romans and the Franks are all completely absent. OK, maybe that was to stop the book from getting too long, but, having started in 1261, surely all the main things after then should have been included. The Hundred Years’ War is mentioned in retrospect, but not actually included as such. Even more bizarrely, the Storming of the Bastille is missing. There is a chapter set in 1794, but I would have expected a lot more about the Revolution. Nothing about 1830 or 1848 either. OK, I could have lived with that, but the entire Napoleonic era’s missing as well! He’s presumably got his reasons for steering clear of the more obvious times/events, but … well, maybe I’m too much of a Victorian Whig historian, but surely you want the big moments in there? Or is it just me?

An awful lot of the book was set during the Belle Epoque – not including the Paris Commune, although that was frequently referred back to, but during the period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the outbreak of the First World War. Maybe he really wanted to write a book about that, and not about the history of Paris as a whole. That’s the way it came across, anyway.

I sound as if I’m being super-critical, and I don’t mean to be, because it’s a genuinely interesting and enjoyable book, but it just didn’t really do what it said on the tin, and what his earlier books have done. Too much jumping around! I’ve had a look through the reviews on Amazon and see that quite a few people have complained that they didn’t like the jumping around format, so fingers crossed that he’ll stick to writing chronologically in future!  Maybe I am just too Victorian-Whiggish, or maybe I’m just plain boring, but leaping from just after the end of the Hundred Years’ War to the Belle Epoque and then leaping from the Belle Epoque back to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is a very weird way of going about things!  Order, order …










Versailles – BBC 2


Word PressThis wasn’t quite as OTT – “soft porn in cravats and tights” seems to be the expression doing the rounds – as I expected; but, unfortunately, it just wasn’t very entertaining. The best case scenario would have been that it was like The Borgias, which was the same sort of idea – power, intrigue, over-sexed-up, not too much regard for historical accuracy – but was well-written, well-acted, didn’t take itself too seriously and made for genuinely good watching. Sadly, Versailles wasn’t a patch on that. The Carry On films about Henry VIII, the French Revolution and Cleopatra were utterly ridiculous, but they were also brilliantly entertaining. Versailles just wasn’t. It was silly but it wasn’t meant to be silly, and nothing much happened until the end.

Some of it was just … well, stupid. Louis XIV had a dream in which he, looking rather like Adam Ant, and Athenais de Montespan, wearing some sort of 1970s loose white dress, ran through the (as yet unbuilt) Hall of Mirrors in slow motion. It looked like a 1980s advert for a naff brand of toiletries. Then he went galloping off on his horse, a silly grin on his face, and was confronted by three wolves. It was a scene which would have worked brilliantly in one of the Chronicles of Narnia – I was half-expecting Aslan to turn up with a magic bow and arrow – but didn’t work even remotely well in a programme about the 17th century French court. Also, I know that moaning about the English dialogue is a bit daft as obviously they wouldn’t have been speaking English at all, but could the writers not at least have tried to make it sound like a period drama. “We have to go” and “You’ve got my back” … seriously?!

Then it finished up with the black baby storyline. Well, at least that was a bit of drama! It’s funny how these strange stories about royalty come about. It’d be understandable if they were all from the Middle Ages, when there were all sorts of strange stories about all sorts of things doing the rounds, but so many of them are far more recent. Was George III married to Hannah Lightfoot? Did Alexander I of Russia fake his own death so that he could go off and wander around the countryside as a mystic? No, of course not. Did Louis XIV’s queen, Maria Teresa of Spain, have an affair with her black dwarf and give birth to a mixed-race child who then became an abbess – “The Black Nun of Moret”, so the story goes (and apparently an American playwright has recently written a play about it, totally unconnected to the story being revived in Versailles)? No, of course not.  “The Black Nun of Moret” did exist, and apparently she claimed to have royal connections, and this somehow seems to have got tangled up with reports from Versailles about the queen, who would not have been having any affairs with anyone, giving birth to a baby (who, like five of her six children, sadly died young) who had a dark complexion, this actually being a purplish-red-looking face presumably due to either a difficult birth or some sort of medical condition. Still, even though it’s not true, at least it was more interesting than most of the rest of the programme.

The one character who did manage to come across as being quite interesting, actually, was Monsieur, the king’s brother. Being Terribly English and therefore used to looking at the court of Louis XIV in the 1660s from the point of view of the court of Charles II in the 1660s, I only ever really think of Monsieur as being the rotten husband who made Minette (Henrietta Anne) unhappy. She was a pretty rotten wife as well, but it’s always him, because he was gay/bisexual, who gets the blame. He was seeming quite an attractive character until we saw him attacking Minette towards the end of the programme – but, sadly, that’s probably not inaccurate. He really is quite interesting, though. The gallant soldier who distinguished himself in battle … and spent a fortune on high-heeled shoes!   You couldn’t make him up.

Fabien Marchal, the Nasty Henchman, wasn’t bad either; and the fictional would-be-female-doctor character caught the attention too; but Louis himself was rather insipid, and so was the programme in general. It’ll make headlines because of the “soft porn in cravats and tights” thing, but there wasn’t even all that much of that. These sorts of programmes can be very good, in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. This one, so far, just isn’t. However, it was only the first episode, and, hey, maybe it’ll get better!

The Real Versailles – BBC 2


Word PressCardboard dolls, kissy-kissy noises and dressing up.   It’s bad enough that Channel 5 dumbs everything down like that, but now the BBC are doing it as well. Oh well. The much-discussed “Versailles” drama series, which the previews have made us well aware is not intended to be a documentary, starts tonight, and this programme, presented by Lucy Worsley (who seems to be utterly obsessed with dressing up) and Helen Castor was intended to give us the real story ahead of all the bodice-ripping.

I had to keep reminding myself that it was called “The Real Versailles” rather than “The Reign of Louis XIV”, and therefore not to moan about the fact that it didn’t cover the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the War of the Spanish Succession, Colbert’s financial reforms, etc etc.  As far as covering life at Louis XIV’s Versailles went, it was really rather good – including espionage, financial matters and culture as well as the king’s personal life and the daily life of the courtiers, and how the systems introduced by Louis brought about a unified France, although as a result a very highly-controlled France, and how France became the cultural leader of Europe during his time.

He really is a fascinating figure, and his was a very long and interesting reign. Do we in Britain still see him as the epitome of the Continental, Catholic absolute monarch and warmonger? Probably, but I think we probably admire him as well.   He’s like that saying which is being used a lot since Mourinho was appointed manager of United – “Hated, adored, never ignored” ;-).

He’s one of the monarchs. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England, Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII in Sweden, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in Russia … the monarchs! Louis XIV is one of the most familiar figures in European history, and his actions affected not only France but many other countries too. It’s a shame that this programme was presented in such a dumbed-down way – for crying out loud, cardboard dolls!! – but it was interesting, and this coming series, whilst it’ll probably have those of us who consider historical accuracy to be supremely important weeping into our late evening cups of tea, is going to get a lot of people talking about a very interesting period in history. Bring it on!!