First of the Tudors by Joanna Hickson

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“First of the Tudors” is a novel about Jasper Tudor. I assume that the title is meant to refer to the early Tudors in general, though.  My history A-level teacher always used to refer to Jasper Tudor as “Uncle Jasper”, in the same way that tennis commentators always refer to Toni Nadal as “Uncle Toni”; and that says a lot about how history sees Jasper.  First and foremost, he’s known as Henry VII’s uncle.  His wider role in the Wars of the Roses, before anyone could have seriously imagined that Henry would one day become king, tends to be overlooked.  So it’s nice to see a book focusing on Jasper from the early 1440s to the early 1470s.

In this book, Jasper has a mistress, by whom he has several children. Jane Hywel, the mistress, was actually a real person – the future Henry VII’s governess and – but there’s never been any suggestion that the real Jane was Jasper’s mistress, although it’s known that Jasper had at least one, and maybe two illegitimate daughters.  So a lot of this book is pure fiction, but, to be fair, the author explains that; and the fictional characters fit in with the real historical characters and the real historical events.  There’s also a sister, brought up in London by adoptive parents – although I’m not quite sure why Joanna Hickson invented her, because she doesn’t really play much part in the story.

Nearly everybody is really good fun in this book! Margaret Beaufort, usually seen as overly-religious and overly-disciplined, appears as a lively young girl who’s genuinely keen on Edmund Tudor.  The future Henry VII, who, however admirable as a king, never comes across as being particularly likeable, comes across as a very nice lad.  Margaret of Anjou, who usually – and unfairly – gets a very bad press, isn’t bad at all, and her horrible son Edouard comes across quite well too.  Henry VI, who’s usually dismissed as being too out of it to do anything, gets plenty to say.  Owen Tudor, who usually gets portrayed as a rather dreamy, romantic figure, is an old rogue with a twinkle in his eye and a fondness for the ladies.  The only person who is shown as being a real baddie is the Earl of Warwick, and he deserves to be shown as a real baddie!

There’s a lot in this book that’s fictitious rather than being historically accurate, but there’s very little in it that’s not historically accurate.  And, whilst the portrayal of the characters might be open to question, personalities, unlike facts, are open to interpretation, and I rather like Joanna Hickson’s.  It all makes for a rather entertaining read about a character whose important role in important events is rarely given the credit that it should be.

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Belgravia by Julian Fellowes

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This is an extremely silly book.   Julian Fellowes should really stick to writing TV scripts.  Isn’t Dynasty supposed to be being revived?  Maybe he could get a job writing scripts for that, because the storyline in this was about as believable as the plots we used to get in American soaps back in the ’80s!   I’m not knocking them – I loved Dallas and Dynasty! – but you can get away with a lot more on TV than you can in a book.

It starts off quite promisingly, with the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball before the Battle of Waterloo … but it goes wrong before the ball’s even over. The Duke of Wellington, before he’s even left the party, starts going on about how Waterloo is rather a silly name to go down in the annals of history as the site of the great battle which ended twenty-odd years of warfare.  Er, right, because obviously he knew in advance that it was going to be the end of the road for Napoleon (who’d already escaped once, after the war was supposed to be over), and that the term “met his/her Waterloo” would enter the English language.  His crystal ball must have been working overtime!

It got steadily sillier from there on. Various people get involved in a farcical tangle involving someone who has been brought up as the adopted son of a country vicar but is actually the heir to an earldom.  Some of them try to murder each other.  One of them has an affair and conceives a child by her lover, but her husband is OK with it.  There are gambling debts.  And false allegations of dodgy dealings.  And unsuitable romances – which turn out fine when it turns out that the bloke is actually the heir to an earldom.  Every cliché going.  It’s just very, very silly.  It would be fine if it were intended to be a farce – think Oscar Wilde – but it seems to be intended to be taken as a serious historical novel.  Oh dear!

We get some Downton Abbey-esque anachronisms, as well.  It isn’t quite as bad as a housemaid in the 1920s talking about eating all the pies, but we do get names that weren’t really in use at the time, words which probably wouldn’t have been used at the time, and announcements worded in completely the wrong way.  It’s not good.

Dear Julian. Please stick to writing TV scripts.  You’re good at that!!

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

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“The Accidental Empress” of the title is “Sisi”, Elisabeth of Bavaria, who married Emperor Franz Josef and became Empress of Austria, and, later, Queen of Hungary. She’s an interesting figure who, like Diana, Princess of Wales, attracted quite a cult-like following both during her lifetime and after her tragic early death.  However, this book – which goes as far as the Ausgleich of 1867, with a sequel now available – doesn’t really do her story justice.

It starts off quite well, with an account of Sisi’s childhood, and how it was her elder sister who was supposed to marry Franz Josef, until he fell in love with Sisi instead. It’s interesting reading a historical novel about Franz Josef as a young man: he reigned for so long that you tend to forget that he wasn’t always the elderly man that he was by the time of the Great War!   And the clashes between Sisi and her domineering mother-in-law come across quite well.  But the really interesting period of her life, her sad struggles with anxiety and depression, just doesn’t come across well at all.  The time she spent away from Austria is skipped over, and, whilst her eating disorders and obsession with exercise are mentioned, the reader doesn’t really get any sense of how she’s feeling and why she’s having these issues.  I don’t know if maybe the author doesn’t feel comfortable writing about mental health issues, but she doesn’t convey them well at all.

Also, a lot of important characters are missed out. The author does explain that she didn’t want to over-complicate things, but I’ll be interested to see how, in the sequel, she explains how the succession works after Rudolf’s suicide, having given the impression that Franz Josef was an only child! One major character who does figure prominently is Count Andrassy, Hungarian politician and Sisi’s alleged lover, but the book gives the impression that Sisi and Andrassy were responsible for the Ausgleich, whereas it was really Ferenc Deak (the politician, not the footballer of the same name!) who played the most important role in bringing it about.  And I’m not sure that people would have referred to Buda and Pest as “Budapest” in the 1850s.

It’s not a bad book, and it isn’t meant to be a textbook, but it could have been so much better, with a bit of effort.  That’s really frustrating!