A Want of Kindness by Joanne Limburg


Word PressThis is sub-titled “A Novel of Queen Anne”, but it’s actually about Anne as a princess.  It ends when she’s about to become queen. That’s rather a shame, because her reign is such a crucial period in British history – the Act of Union, the implementation of the Act of Settlement making it clear that Parliament actually gets to decide the succession, and Britain coming to challenge and replace France in the superpower stakes – but Anne is so neglected by historical novelists generally that it’s great to see any novel about her.  And this really is about her, whereas most people writing about her, whether they’re writing fact or fiction, tend to concentrate on the Marlboroughs, her relationship with the Marlboroughs, the Marlboroughs’ relationships with everyone else and the events of and fallout from the Glorious Revolution, with poor Anne getting shoved into the background.

It’s not the easiest of books to get into, because it’s a pastiche, written in a very 18th century way – short chapters, long chapter-headings.  Also, it’s written in the present tense, which IMHO always makes novels feel rather infantilised.  And the author’s tried hard to stick to the language of the time, but you often get the feeling that she’s based it on the language of Jane Austen, a century later!   Having said all that, it gives a very interesting picture of Anne’s life.  It’s well-known that she had seventeen pregnancies, at least one of which was with twins, but no surviving children.  She had one son who suffered from hydrocephalus but lived to be 11, two daughters who died of smallpox in infancy and two other children who died soon after birth, and numerous miscarriages, and stillbirths.  It’s now thought that she had “sticky blood”, but of course there was nothing that could be done about it at the time.

I don’t think she ever gets the sympathy that Catherine of Aragon, for example, does, but that’s probably because her era is so neglected compared to the Tudor era. It’s strange, because she was popular at the time – almost certainly the most popular of the Stuart monarchs of England in their own time, although historians tend to prefer Charles II because he’s so much more entertaining!  The book, heartbreakingly, shows her repeatedly asking why God is punishing her.  It’s not hard to imagine that happening.   We also see a not particularly intelligent woman, and one who struggled with poor eyesight and other health problems, trying to deal with life at the glittering Restoration court of Charles II, and then cope with all the political intrigue of the Popish Plot, the Monmouth Rebellion, the Glorious Revolution and the Act of Settlement.  A neglected period, and a neglected princess/queen.

The title, “A Want of Kindness”, refers to the falling out between Anne and her sister Mary. Mary is generally treated more kindly by historians than Anne is, and, quite honestly, I think that a lot of that is due to male chauvinism.  Anne is sneered at because her friendships and fallings-out with Sarah Churchill and Abigail Masham are seen as being schoolgirlish, but male monarchs were always falling in and out with different “favourites” as well, and no-one sneers about that.   And she’s sneered at because she was fat.  George IV is as well, but not to the same extent.

I think everyone struggled with the rights and wrongs of the Glorious Revolution. I struggle with it, and I wasn’t born until nearly 300 years afterwards!   All that social contract stuff that Locke goes on about, and all that de facto and de jure stuff.   We’ll never know how Mary or Anne really felt about it.  Did they feel guilty?  Surely they must have done: the book shows Anne feeling guilt, and sadness at being separated from her father and stepmother.  In the book, she doesn’t really express any doubts that James Edward really is her half-brother, whereas, in public, she seems to’ve been reluctant to admit that he was.  What did Anne really feel about the Hanoverian succession?  Again, we’ll never know.  Anyway, to get back to the “want of kindness”, Mary and Anne fell out, and weren’t reconciled before Mary’s death.  A lot of the bad feeling seems to have been due to Mary’s disapproval of Anne’s closeness to the Marlboroughs.  They do tend to overshadow Anne in most of what’s written about her.  But they don’t in this – this genuinely is about Anne.  I’m not overly keen on the style, but I really do like the content.


The Double Life of Mistress Kit Kavanagh by Marina Fiorato


Word PressThis was quite entertaining, but it would have worked better as a Victorian adventure story for children: it was just way too unrealistic for a historical novel for adults. Having said which, some of it was based on a true story.  There was an Irishwoman called Kit Kavanagh, who disguised herself as a man and joined the English (later British!) Army, originally looking for her husband but becoming a successful soldier.  She fought in the Nine Years’ War and the War of the Spanish Succession, and it was only discovered that she was a woman when she was injured at the Battle of Ramillies.  She was later presented to Queen Anne, became a Chelsea Pensioner, and was buried with full military honours.  Strange but true!

Marina Fiorato’s changed Kit’s story to suit the purposes of her novel: in her version of events, Kit didn’t join the Army until the War of the Spanish Succession, and lived happily ever after with her second husband – which sadly didn’t happen in reality. I could have forgiven that, but I wasn’t very impressed with the liberties she took with the actual events of the war.  She likes to write about Italy so she placed Kit’s military career in the Northern Italian theatre of the war … but the fighting there was between the French and the Austrians.  The English/British weren’t involved.  There’s no way that the Duke of Marlborough, who appeared several times in the book, would have been anywhere near there!   Nor would his troops.  Not impressed!  The real Kit was at Blenheim, the best-known battle of the entire war – why not write about that?!

It then got really bizarre – and this bit was definitely not based on a true story. Kit somehow ended up in Venice, Marina Fiorato’s favourite city, and fell in with the Duke of Ormonde.  Ormonde did, of course, eventually become the commander of the British forces after Marlborough’s dismissal towards the end of the war, and probably was, as in this story, jealous of Marlborough for many years before that. In this book, Ormonde took Kit off to the Borromeo Palace on Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore.  Lovely palace (I was there only last week!), but why on earth would the Duke of Ormonde, who fought in Spain and was then appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, have been there?!  No sign of any of the Borromeos: the only other person there was Ormonde’s castrato lover.

Anyway, Ormonde coached Kit so that she could pretend to be a French countess and spy for the Allies … er, but it turned out that he actually wanted to use the info against the Allies, to get Marlborough sacked. In the middle of all this, Kit heard that her husband’s regiment had been involved in a battle near Modena, rowed over to Stresa, took a horse, rode all the way to Modena – via the Brenner Pass, which is very interesting as the Brenner Pass links Italy and Austria so how you use it to get from Lake Maggiore to Modena is utterly beyond me! – and to the battlefield, found her husband’s body, buried it, then rode back to Stresa and rowed back to Isola Bella, all apparently in the space of one night.

She then found out about Ormonde’s plan and betrayed him to the Allies, but then the Allies thought she was a French spy, and then she said she’d fought in the Army, and then they didn’t believe her, and then the bloke she’d fallen in love with in the Army turned up and realised that she’d been a woman disguised as a man and then she’d disguised herself as a French countess, and then the Duke of Marlborough turned up and sorted it all out. Right.

It was fast-paced and entertaining, and, with a few tweaks, it would have worked very well as an adventure book for children, but it really was way too far-fetched to work that well as a book for adults. And I know that the author likes to write about Italy, but messing about with the events of the war like that … bleurgh! But the real story of Kit Kavanagh’s a very interesting one, and it’s nice that Marina Fiorato’s drawn attention to that.   It just could have been done a lot better!

The Adventures of Alice Laselles by Alexandrina Victoria aged 10 3/4


Word PressI love the idea of the 10-year-old future Queen Victoria writing school stories :-).  It’s something that I should imagine a lot of 10-year-old girls do.  I seem to remember that I was always wildly over-ambitious and used to make long lists of characters, planning a full-length book and preferably a series, but never finish the stories. I remember planning one, on a little pad of paper that my dad had got free from a pharmaceutical rep, during an episode of Coronation Street involving the feud between the Duckworths and the Claytons – why do I remember that?!  Google informs me that that would have been in 1985, so I’d have been 10 at the time, the same age as Victoria was when she wrote this.  Victoria, who evidently had a lot more sense than I did J, stuck to something relatively short and simple!

It is very obviously written by a child – the story is short and simple, and some of the syntax and punctuation are in dire need of correction – so don’t be expecting the sort of school story you’d get from Elinor M Brent-Dyer, Elsie J Oxenham, Dorita Fairlie Bruce or Enid Blyton J, but it’s really pretty good for someone so young.  There are some lovely descriptive passages in it.  And what’s particularly fascinating is how this story, written by a 10-year-old c.1830, would, if expanded, fit right into the classic age of girls’ school stories a century later.

Alice Laselles is packed off to boarding school when her mother dies, her father remarries, and her new stepmother takes a dislike to her. That’s very Brent-Dyer!   She’s then wrongly accused of something she didn’t do, but the truth comes out in the end.  That’s pretty Blyton-esque – although Alice’s response, that she knows she’s innocent and so she’s not going to get upset about it, is more reminiscent of the attitude taken by Susan Coolidge’s Katy Carr.  Two of the eight girls at the school are twins – a trope beloved of both Elinor M Brent-Dyer and Elsie J Oxenham.  There’s also a wild Irish girl – classic Angela Brazil.  And this is in a book written by a young princess in 1830.

Queen Victoria’s own childhood sounds like the start of a school story, really. Her mother and Sir John Conroy kept her practically kept locked away in Kensington Palace for much of the time.  If her life had been a book, and a century later, someone would have made sure that she was sent away to school, where she’d have made lots of jolly friends, as happened to various princesses who appear in school story novels. Maybe it was something she liked the idea of?  We’ll never know.  But this is a sweet little story.  It’s only been published because it was written by the future Queen Victoria – it’s the sort of thing that gets passed round proud grandparents, aunties, uncles and friends at Christmas or birthday gatherings, rather than the sort of thing that you’d usually expect to find in a published book – but it’s interesting because it was written by the future Queen Victoria, and, which I wasn’t really expecting, it’s also interesting to see how all the classic elements of the school story already seem to have been in the mind of a young girl as far back as 1830.  Worth a look!

Just Call Me Martina – BBC 2


Word PressI will watch anything tennis-related, but this was particularly interesting – a documentary about the life of a woman who was not only the greatest female tennis player in the world whilst I was growing up, and indeed is one of the greatest of all time, but who also lived through the Prague Spring and its cruel end, saw Soviet tanks rolling through the streets of her homeland, defected to the West when she was only 18, knowing that she might never see her family and friends again, and had to deal with abuse from “fans” and discrimination from sponsors at a time when the battle for gay rights was a long way behind where it is now.

It was presented by Sue Barker, who was one of Martina Navratilova’s contemporaries on the tour and knows her well, and that was lovely because a lot of it came across as two friends chatting.  We heard about Martina’s childhood in Czechoslovakia in the difficult days of the 1950s and 1960s.  There were things they didn’t mention, notably her natural father committing suicide when she was a child, but you can understand why that would be too difficult for her to talk about.  She spoke movingly about the Dubcek reforms, and about how she and a friend were at a tennis tournament when the Soviet tanks moved in, and the friend’s dad rang to warn them both to stay indoors but they rushed outside to see what was happening.

A generation’s grown up since the end of Cold War – people born just after the Berlin Wall came down will be 26 now, which really makes me feel old! – but it’s still all so recent.  One thing that really struck me was when she said that, when she was first given a visa to go the United States to play in tournaments there, she put on 20lbs in a fortnight.  Even I’ve never managed that!  Junk food seemed to become a symbol of the East-West divide: it sounds ridiculous now, but it did.  I remember seeing pictures on the news on the day that McDonald’s opened their first branch in Russia, with an almost unbelievably long queue outside.  That was (thank you, Google!) in January 1990.  Young Martina, visiting the US from communist Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, was apparently so overwhelmed with there being so much food available, that she absolutely stuffed herself all the time she was there.  20lbs in a fortnight.  A little tale that tells an awful lot about the socio-economic and cultural divide of those times.

Then she defected, when she was 18.  “Defected” – now there’s a word that will always be associated with the Cold War.  I was only 10 when Gorbachev came to power and things started to change, but even after that we still heard about high-profile people defecting, and a lot of them were sportsmen and sportswomen.  Nadia Comaneci in 1989 is one that springs to mind.  Martina was only 18 when she defected.  She left behind her parents and her sister – who were given a hard time because of her defection – and all her other relatives and friends.  It’s so hard to imagine doing that, especially for someone so young.  The Czechoslovak media treated her as a non-person: her matches weren’t televised or even reported on.  Despite all that, when she returned to Czechoslovakia to play Federation Cup tennis for the US, she was welcomed as a heroine by the fans.

Happily, times have changed, she’s now a citizen of the Czech Republic as well as an American citizen, and she’s able to go back to Prague as often as she likes, but, back in 1975, no-one could have foreseen that happening.  Another thing that, thankfully, has changed a lot since then is attitudes towards gay people, and it was lovely to see film of Martina’s wedding to Julia Lemigova – with Chris Evert amongst the guests – although sad that they had to have the ceremony in New York as Florida, where they live, still doesn’t allow same sex marriage.  She talked about how she’d encountered some hostility from tennis-watchers because of her sexuality, and how she felt that she hadn’t got all the sponsorship deals she might have done because of it.  But other people – Elton John and Stephen Fry both featured a lot – spoke about how she’d been a wonderful role model for LGBT people.  It’s not necessarily part of the job of sports people to be spokespeople or role models for any particular section of the community, but many of them do fulfil that role and do it wonderfully well.  (Incidentally, the infamous Twitter conversation between Donald Trump and Serena Williams was a fake!)

Many other aspects of Martina’s life and career were also touched on.  Her amazing rivalry with Chris Evert – they met in 14 Grand Slam finals – , her brush with breast cancer, how she led the way in improving fitness levels within the sport, and that unpleasant court battle when she and Judy Nelson split up.  It was shown during Wimbledon, which was fitting, but it went way beyond tennis.  Well worth watching.


The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen


Word PressThis isn’t a particularly good historical novel – two generations of the Visconti family have been mixed up, and a lot of the story’s more imagination than fact – but it’s quite interesting from a … hmm, what’s the word for historiography of historical novels?!  Whatever the word is, it’s interesting from that viewpoint!

In terms of the book itself, it’s supposed to be about the battle for power between Gian Galeazzo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and Mastino della Scala, Duke of Verona.  Mastina della Scala actually died nearly 40 years before GGM Visconti was even born.  Valentina Visconti (referred to in this book as “Valentine”), who famously married the Duke of Orleans, is shown in this book as having her marriage arranged by her brother, whereas in actual fact the marriage took place whilst her father was still ruler of Milan.  So it’s rather sadly lacking in historical accuracy!  However, the style of writing is interesting.  It’s all thee and thou and melodrama – the sort of things that young female authors (Marjorie Bowen was only 16 when she wrote this) in novels are often laughed at for writing; but this book was a huge bestseller in its day, and its portrayal of treachery and deception is, albeit in a very melodramatic way, quite impressive.

It’s also interesting that several publishers rejected the book because – shades of some of the comments which Emily Bronte got, although Marjorie Bowen was writing this in the early 20th century – they thought it was inappropriate for a 16-year-old girl to have written a book containing so much violence.

Expect theatrics.  Don’t expect historical accuracy.  But this isn’t a bad read, especially as you can get it for free in Project Gutenberg.   And the story of the book, perhaps more so than the story in the book, is really very interesting.