Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory

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  I always swear blind that I’ll never read another book by Philippa Gregory … and then I do.  This one, despite being the sequel to the dreadful “Tidelands”, is really quite interesting, until the end where it becomes utterly farcical.  All the main characters in it are fictional, so she can’t do too much distorting of the facts – although there are a few really amateurish blunders, surprising from someone who’s actually got a degree in history – and it covers quite a range of locations and themes.  We jump about a lot between London and New England, and also spend quite a bit of time in Venice.  The last few chapters are just silly beyond words, but most of it really isn’t bad.

Also, it raises the interesting question of what happened to old Roundheads.  The Yorkists hung around like a bad smell for years, plotting comebacks.  The Jacobites were still trying to make a comeback over 50 years after the Glorious Revolution.  Then they somehow got turned into a romantic Lost Cause, as did the Confederates, and as to some extent did the Spanish Republicans.  But what about the Roundheads, who won the war but lost the peace?   I suppose it’s a difficult question, because … well, who *were* the Roundheads?   Very few people set out in 1642 to execute the king, set up a republic, and try to force religious extremism on an unwilling country: most of them would have had aims similar to those which were actually achieved by the Whigs in 1688.  However, in this book, we see a former Roundhead soldier living in New England, only to become disillusioned there by the treatment of the Native Americans.

A lot of loose ends aren’t tied up, so I assume that a further sequel’s planned.  I’ll say I won’t read it, but then I will.

Amateurish blunders.  The wife of a knight or baronet is Lady Surname.  The daughter of, say, an earl is Lady First Name.  Mixing them up is a common mistake, but a poor one.  Illegitimate children cannot just be legitimised by their parents marrying years after their birth: it’s not that easy.  No-one has ruined their life if they discover immediately after the marriage ceremony that their new spouse is a bad ‘un: they just need to get the marriage annulled.  And Italians would not have been going on in 1670 about how the English were all obsessed with drinking tea!   Tea only started to become popular in England in the 1660s.

The story.  In the previous books, our “heroine” Alinor, a widow with two children, was tried as a witch after having an affair with a Catholic priest in disguise, by whom she’d become pregnant.  As you do.  This book, set 21 years later, finds Alinor and her daughter living and working in London, whilst her son has been working as a doctor in Venice.  But then a Venetian noblewoman turns up with a baby, and says that the son’s drowned and she’s his widow and this is their child.  And then the former priest turns up, having given up the priesthood, and says that he wants to marry Alinor so that their child can be his heir.  But where is the child?   There are two children, who’ve been brought up as the twin offspring of Alinor’s daughter Alys (who’s been abandoned by her husband).  Is one of them actually the child of Alinor and the priest?  Er, we don’t know.  Alys claims that her mother miscarried, but it all seems a bit dubious, and the mystery’s never really cleared up.  Presumably that’s been left for a future sequel?

Meanwhile … actually, the more I think about it all, the sillier it seems, not just the last few chapters but most of it!   But it didn’t actually seem that bad at first.  The Venetian noblewoman tries to seduce both the ex-priest and Alys.  Then she says that she’s got a load of valuable antiques left to her by her first husband, and needs help to bring them to England and to flog them to rich courtiers.  So the ex-priest helps her.  Then agrees to marry her.

Meanwhile, Alinor, unconvinced that her son is dead, dispatches her granddaughter Sarah to Venice, to look for him.  There are some genuinely interesting bits about life in Venice – the position of the Jews in the ghetto, and the denunciation process – but it all gets rather farcical as it turns out that he’s not dead after all, but is in prison, having been denounced by his wife and the bloke who was helping her with the antiques, with whom she was having an affair … but who then falls in love with Sarah.  Furthermore, most of the antiques are forgeries. Then it turns out that the son is now working on the leper island, from which no-one ever escapes.  But Sarah miraculously rescues him, and he, she and the antiques bloke all roll up at the church in London just as the bisexual widow is marrying the ex-priest.  All is exposed.  Oh, and the antiques bloke is the baby’s dad.

Hurrah!  The ex-priest is saved (not that he really deserves to be).  Er, no.  It is declared that the bisexual widow’s marriage to Alinor’s son was unlawful because she’s a Catholic and he’s a Protestant.  She and the ex-priest are both Catholics, but are both pretending to be Protestants.  So that’s OK.  So this marriage stands.  And the ex-priest declares that he’s ruined.  Er, even though the marriage hasn’t been consummated, so he could soon get it annulled. I did say that it got farcical, OK?!

In between all of this, we hear about Alinor’s brother, the aforementioned former Roundhead now living in America.  Those sections are much better, and considerably less farcical.

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds!  It does turn into a farce towards the end, but, for a while, it isn’t bad.

 

The Maid of Buttermere by Melvyn Bragg

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  I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel by Melvyn Bragg before, but I really enjoyed this.  It’s a fascinating depiction of a true story – how Mary Robinson, the daughter of Lake District innkeepers, was so beautiful that she was mentioned in guidebooks and people came to Buttermere to see her, and how she married a tourist who was, or said that he was, a colonel, an MP, and the younger brother of an earl … only for it to turn out that he was an impostor and a bigamist.

The story went viral, to use the modern parlance.  It was all over the newspapers, such a big story that people were practically fighting to get seats in court for his trials.  Songs were being written about it, and being used by kids for street games.  This was in 1802 – even then, an ordinary person’s wrongdoings and another ordinary person’s misfortune could somehow catch the mood of the nation, with everyone and their dog having an opinion about them, and those opinions being influenced by their positions in what we’d now call culture wars, in the febrile atmosphere following the French Revolution.  And, in the middle of this very sorry tale, there are a lot of glorious descriptions of the Lake District, not only the landscape but the lifestyle and customs.

It really is a beautifully written book.  We get these lovely descriptions of the Lake District and of life there, and of how Mary and her family have been affected by her unsought after fame, and how she’s still unmarried despite her great beauty and her genuinely nice personality.   And, if you don’t know the story, you will at first believe everything that her admirer, the supposed Colonel August Alexander Hope says: we aren’t told that he’s an impostor.  We see him courting a wealthy young woman – from Manchester 🙂 – whose guardians are delighted at the idea of her bagging an aristocrat, only for him to decide instead to make a love match with Mary.

And then we see it all come crashing down, as it turns out that he’s really John Hatfield, a man of relatively humble origins – from Mottram-in-Longdendale, as it so happens.  He owes money all over the show, he’s impersonated an MP, and, horror of horrors, he’s been sending out letters without paying postage (which MPs were allowed to do).  He also abandoned his first wife, who later died, and their children, remarried, and abandoned his second wife, who’s very much still alive, and their children.

Coleridge has already written an article about how romantic it is that The Buttermere Beauty has married an earl’s brother.  He now writes several more articles, about how poor Mary has been cruelly taken in by this cad.  Wordsworth also gets involved.  And it’s all over the papers.  In this era of the early Romantics, and also the Rousseau-esque Enlightenment ideas about the nobility of nature, Mary is cast as a symbol of unspoilt nature, living a simple life in the Lake District, until Hatfield came along.

And, in the tense political atmosphere – this is 1802, so we’re in the gap between the Treaty of Amiens and the start of the Napoleonic Wars, and we’ve also got the repressive Pittite legislation in force on the home front, as well as tensions over parliamentary reform, Abolitionism, Catholic emancipation and trade unions -, the upper classes are horrified that someone has dared to impersonate an MP, and an earl’s brother at that, but some members of the lower and middle classes, whilst sympathetic to Mary, quite admire him for cocking a snook at the Establishment.  (The narrative does explain the historical background, for non-historians).  The book was written long before the term “culture wars” was in use, but that’s what was  going on.

He’s hauled up in court in London, with hordes of people turning out to watch him going in, and scrapping over seats in the courtroom.  You really couldn’t make up some of the things that went on in Georgian Britain!   Meanwhile, poor, poor Mary, as if she hasn’t been through enough, has a baby, who dies three weeks after birth.  Then he’s brought before the Assizes in Carlisle, and by this point he’s become quite a celebrity.  People go to see him in jail.  Hotels fill up with people wanting a piece of the action.  Again, people are scrapping over seats in court.  It’s not Team John versus Team Mary: it’s whether you’re for John or against John: even some of those who are desperately sorry for Mary see him as a romantic figure who acted out of love for her.  And, again, there’s this support for a man who’s known hard times and hasn’t been frightened to impersonate one of the ruling class.  The one person who doesn’t seem to feature anywhere is the real Colonel Augustus Alexander Hope, who is abroad and doesn’t seem very interested in any of it!

John was hanged, for forgery.  Mary did get a happy ending, marrying a nice man and having four children.  Maybe if this had happened in mid-Victorian times, she’d have been expected to hide away somewhere and feel ashamed, even though she was a completely innocent party, but the Georgians were more understanding.

You do get these strange stories from time to time.  Remember the man who faked his own death in a canoe in 2002, 200 years after Hatfield married Mary?   And they do fascinate people.  And this one’s particularly interesting because of the way it interacts with the “culture wars” of the time.  Melvyn Bragg’s does an excellent job of writing about it, and it really is a very good book.

 

Mistress of the Maze by J P Reedman

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This is a different take on the time of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the “revolt of the Eaglets” and the murder of Thomas a Becket.  As the title suggests, it’s a fictionalised account of the life of Rosamund Clifford, “Fair Rosamund” of the Bower.   The story, whilst well-known, dates from well after the 12th century and is really pretty bonkers – the idea that Henry would hide his mistress in a tower in the middle of a labyrinth, for fear of Eleanor’s vengeance, and that Eleanor would then murder her, is very hard to believe.  Henry had loads of mistresses and I can’t imagine that Eleanor wasted her time and energy in worrying about any or all of them; and the labyrinth story sounds like someone’s borrowed it from a Greek myth.

However, this is a well-written and entertaining book.  I did wonder if the author would go for a more realistic take on it – Rosamund did certainly exist, and Henry may well have had a home built for her at Woodstock – but she’s gone for the idea of the labyrinth.  The legend goes that Eleanor, even though she wasn’t even in England at the time of Rosamund’s death, and even though Rosamund died in a convent, got into the tower in the labyrinth and murdered her.  The author’s got round that by saying that Eleanor sent a former lady in waiting to kill Rosamund, but that Rosamund survived the attempted poisoning and died in the convent a couple of years later!

The book does do a very good job of making an unlikely story seem plausible, and it covers a period of English history which really deserves more attention.  The domestic details are interesting too.  Not bad at all!

They Wanted To Live by Cecil Roberts

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This is the sequel to Victoria Four Thirty, and it contains a really strange admixture of themes.  And, as Hungary is much in the news today, due to the row over UEFA refusing to let Bayern Munich’s stadium be lit up in rainbow colours as a protest against the new Hungarian anti-LGBT laws, it seemed like a good time to be writing about it.

It’s 1938, and our porter friend Jim has a win on the pools, enabling him and his Hyacinth Bucket-esque girlfriend Lizzie to get married and set off on a Continental honeymoon tour.  However, when they reach Vienna, expecting to find glamour and culture, they find a Nazi-dominated hell.  Horrified by what they see, they agree to smuggle a Jewish refugee’s baby to Budapest … to what, in a book published in 1939, both the author and the characters sadly assumed would be safety.

However, in Hungary, we move away from the harshness of political reality and into a load of folksy peasant stuff, national costumes and dancing and galloping across the steppe, along with caddish counts, which all seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 1930s.  We also see Jim and Lizzie, who’s renamed herself Betty, taken up by a crowd of aristocrats, who either believe or pretend to believe that waitress Betty is a former debutante and porter Jim is an Old Etonian.  After several glamorous nights partying in Budapest, we head off to the country pile of a count … where we hear a lot about the multinational nature of the grand families of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and numerous references to the Treaty of Trianon – which was a mess, and is still causing issues today.  The author wasn’t to know what lay ahead, but it will be hard for the reader not to reflect on the fact that Hungary will soon be throwing its lot in with the Nazis.

A twist in the tale then takes us to Prague, just as the Munich Agreement is being signed, so we get to see that from a Czechoslovak (as it was at the time) viewpoint.  And then Jim returns to his mundane but very real life in London.  The book was published in 1939, so presumably it was written before war was declared, but most people, even early readers, will have read it knowing that war lay ahead.

It really is a strange mixture of very unpleasant realities, with this young, naive couple, abroad for the first time, seeing just what is going on in Austria, and other characters even being driven to suicide by Nazi persecution, and a fairytale in which they get mixed up with the glamorous life of the Hungarian nobility.

Several characters from the first book reappear, but most of them don’t.  The descriptions of Hungary, and also of Vienna, are superb.  I’m not sure how realistic the whole storyline with the Hungarian nobles is, but, OK, I suppose it could have happened.  And the contrast between down-to-earth Jim and aspirational Lizzie is rather funny, until it all ends in tears.

It’s a very readable book, but I can’t remember the last time I read anything with such a complete mixture of different themes.   One minute you’re witnessing Nazi thugs beating up innocent people in a Viennese cafe, the next you’re being taken off to swim in Lake Balaton by a rakish count.  This is certainly different.  And, oh, what a contrast to the first book.  In that book, we saw characters thinking that they could escape their mundane lives and start anew somewhere else.  In this book, we feel all along that danger is lurking, and that Jim is very wise to want to return home, even if working at Victoria Station isn’t very exciting.

Not that I’m comparing the pandemic to the war, obviously, but I went to Vienna in December 2019.  I’ve got photos of myself in the Cafe Sacher, with a piece of Sachertorte, a Viennese coffee and a big grin on my face, and at the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn and the Prater.  When I came home, I thought I’d be back on my travels very soon.  Little do we ever know what lies around the corner, eh?

 

A Lakeland Saga by Jeremy Collingwood

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The title of this book’s a bit of a misnomer – it’s the story of the Collingwood/Altounyan family, best known for the fact that the children of Dora, nee Collingwood, and Ernest Altounyan, were the inspiration for the Walker children in the Swallows and Amazons books.  Other members of the family were historians, philosophers, artists and archaeologists.  It isn’t really a “Lakeland Saga” – they were only at Coniston for part of the time.  But it’s still quite interesting.

It’s essentially a family history, and there are pages and pages about how X married Y, their children were A,B and C, this one had a sweet voice, that one had a moustache, etc,  which probably isn’t that interesting unless you’ve got a personal connection with the people concerned.  However, some of the stuff in it is genuinely fascinating – as well as Arthur Ransome, John Ruskin, Lawrence of Arabia and King Faisal of Iraq all feature, and the most interesting section shows the Altounyans, with their Armenian heritage, running a hospital in Aleppo and helping Armenian refugees fleeing the genocide.  Ernest Altounyan’s own uncle was a victim of the genocide.  It also gives a wonderful picture of historical, multicultural Aleppo, which has sadly suffered so much killing and destruction in the past decade.

There’s quite a bit about the Lakes too, especially Coniston, but “a Lakeland saga” it isn’t.  It’s quite interesting, though – I wouldn’t spend a fortune on it, but, if you can get a cheap copy or borrow a copy from a library, it’s worth a look through.

 

Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron

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This, set in Ancona during Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1797-99 is a fascinating book – something really different, about an important but often neglected part of European history.  Ancona was the first of several Italian cities in which Napoleon’s troops took down the ghetto gates, and ceremoniously burnt them; and we see that very powerful scene in the book, with almost all of the major characters present.

There’s an ongoing debate about Napoleon’s views on religious minorities.  Certainly he held prejudices against minority groups, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he gave civil rights to Jewish communities, and also to Protestant communities in Catholic-dominated areas where they’d been denied equality.  It’s quite strange to read a book which shows Napoleon as a hero, because that’s, obviously, really not how he’s usually seen in Britain; but he did bring about many changes for the better – and the effects of his actions are still felt today.

Napoleon does feature prominently in the book, but he’s only one of a rich cast of characters, mostly fictional, some real.  The protagonist, Mirelle, longs for more from life than marriage and motherhood behind the ghetto gates, but is being courted by the wealthy and influential widowed father of her best friend Dolce – a member of the real life Morpurgo family who played an important part in the events of the period.  Mirelle’s family run one of the world’s leading ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) printing businesses, but, after her father and brother are murdered by a Catholic vigilante mob, the business passes to an unpleasant relative.  This is all based on the reality of the times: Ancona was the centre of the ketubah printing industry, and there were attacks on the ghetto by vigilantes.

Meanwhile, amongst the French army are their distant relative David, who takes a shine to Mirelle whilst Dolce takes a shine to him, and his Catholic best friend Christophe, with whom Mirelle embarks on a romance.  And we’ve also got the murderer, Emilio, devout wife Francesca, and their two young children.

Emilio is fictional, but Francesca and their daughter really existed – their significance being that they claimed to have seen the eyes in a painting of the Virgin Mary move. The painting plays a big part in the book.  Napoleon is strangely obsessed with it.  And then it gets stolen – which does get a bit silly, and isn’t based on fact; and the talk about the Stolen Madonna kept making me think about the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies.  The whole plot actually gets a bit chaotic at the end, with everything happening at once and some slightly unconvincing tying up of loose ends, but no book’s perfect and it does keep you guessing about exactly how things are going to work out.

There’s a lot going on throughout the book.  We see life in the ghetto, and we see how different groups of people grow up with prejudices against each other.  And we see – OK, the idea of the spirited young woman who wants a life outside the home pretty cliched, but it works – Mirelle wanting to run the printing business, but facing prejudice, led by the local rabbi, against the idea of a woman in a workplace.  We see how the changes in France have liberated Daniel, but we also see how both he and Mirelle struggle to find their way between their old lives and the new world.

A brief summary from Wikipedia:

 In 1763, some 1290 Jews lived in Ancona. During the reign of Napoleon between 1797 and 1799, the Jews were fully emancipated. The gates of the ghetto were removed and the members of the Morpurgo family became members of the city council. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat and the return of the city to papal dominion, some restrictions were put once again upon the Jewish community by Pope Leo XIII. In 1843, an old decree was revived by Fra Vincenzo Soliva, Inquisitor of Ancona, forbidding Jews to reside or own a business outside the ghetto and imposing other restrictions, but public opinion had already turned in Europe by then and the edict was cancelled shortly after until the revolution of 1848 emancipated the Jews once again.

I think it’s fairly widely-known that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, but it’s still quite strange for a reader from the Anglophone world to be reminded that this was going on in Italy as recently as the end of the 18th century – that the Jewish communities of cities such as Ancona were literally locked into the ghetto at night, and forced to wear yellow insignia when leaving it during the day.  The combination of the Enlightenment and the Code Napoleon brought about change – and that led on to the debates about secularisation and assimilation, especially in Vienna and Budapest.  France continued to be seen as the European leader in terms of rights for religious minorities right up until the Dreyfus Affair, and it was the fact that Theodore Herzl was in Paris at the height of the Dreyfus Affair which really kick-started the Zionist movement, something which has been rather misrepresented in the media in recent months.  That all goes back to the Code Napoleon, and the idea that France should have been somewhere where that wouldn’t happen.

Anyway, that’s getting somewhat off the point, but, despite the mayhem at the end, this is a very good book, and worth a read if the 99p Kindle offer’s still available.

 

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the second in Carol McGrath’s “She-Wolves” series, with the main character being Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I.  As in her previous book, we also see events through the eyes of another character, and this time that’s a herbalist, Olwen … who sounds as if she should be Welsh but is actually English.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a negative opinion of Eleanor of Castile, probably because I’ve always found the story about her sucking poison out of Edward’s wound (yes, all right, I know that it probably isn’t true) very romantic, and I’ve always found the story of the Eleanor Crosses very romantic as well.  However, she’s seen by many as greedy/acquisitive and as a neglectful mother, and her reputation also seems to have suffered from the “Black Legend” view of Spain which developed 300 years after her time.

Carol McGrath’s tried very hard to present her positively and provide explanations for some of her less attractive traits, in what’s a very readable and enjoyable book.  She’s also shown worked in the late 13th century obsession with Arthurian legends, which is interesting (I visited Glastonbury Abbey last year, and heard all about Edward and Eleanor attending the reburial of Arthur and Guinevere’s supposed remains!).  And readers in North West England will be interested to “see” the construction of Vale Royal Abbey, which, had Edward not spent the money intended for it on invading Wales, might have been one of the biggest abbeys in the country.

The only problem is that the book’s too short to cover such an eventful life, and it does sometimes feel a bit superficial, as we skim over major events in a few pages and don’t really get into how the characters are feeling about them.  But there are far worse criticisms of a book than wishing it’d been twice the length.

This is Eleanor’s book, not Edward’s.  Having said which, we don’t see anything of Eleanor’s life before the Second Barons’ War, by which time she was in her 20s.  But the point is that we don’t see the war with William Wallace, the expulsion of the Jews, the calling of the Model Parliament or the proclaiming of the future Edward II as Prince of Wales, all of which happened after Eleanor’s death.  Nor do we get the story about the “prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English”, which (obviously) would have happened in Eleanor’s lifetime; but, OK, it probably never happened at all!

We start with the Second Barons’ War, and Carol McGrath’s suggestion is that Eleanor’s later concern for acquiring estates dates from her being imprisoned by Simon de Montfort’s forces and wanting to ensure that she never faced poverty as well … which makes it sound as if she was kneeling in the dirt at Twelve Oaks, crying “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”!  I’m not entirely convinced by that, but it’s a possibility.

Then on to the Ninth Crusade – where we get what’s probably the accurate version of the poison story, i.e. that it was a surgeon who saved Edward’s life and that Eleanor just stood around getting upset.  I like the poison-sucking version better, but never mind!

It’s certainly interesting to see Eleanor and Olwen’s time in the Middle East, and we also see them in Gascony.  And quite a lot of the book covers the wars in Wales.  We also get to see Eleanor and Edward’s close personal relationship, and court life.  And, of course, we see all the tragedies they suffered with their family.  Eleanor’s often criticised for leaving her children behind whilst she was travelling with Edward, and for leaving one of her daughters with her mother in Ponthieu, but Carol McGrath suggests that maybe she was frightened of becoming attached to her children because of all the losses she suffered.

Out of a probable sixteen pregnancies, only six children survived to adulthood.  The future Edward II was born when Eleanor, married at only 12, was 42.  They had a son called Alphonso who died when he was 10, and another son called Henry who died when he was 6, amid a tragically long list of stillbirths, miscarriages and early deaths.  Very sad.  Olwen, meanwhile, is unable to conceive at all with her first husband, but remarries, to an old sweetheart, after being widowed during the Welsh wars, and has a daughter with her second husband.

Damask roses don’t really feature, which is rather a shame because I love damask rose oil!  It smells so nice.  Oh well.

All in all, this is a very good and very well-researched book.  I just wish it’d been longer.

 

 

 

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

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This book’s received a lot of attention, because it’s about the Spanish flu pandemic and, although the author began writing it in 2018, to mark the centenary of the pandemic, it ended up being published in early 2020, just as the Covid pandemic hit.  A book about a pandemic will be the last thing that some people want to read: others will find it intriguing.  It also seemed like a good book to review during Pride month, as it includes a same sex romance – rainbow pic instead of my usual pic to show support for Pride.  I’m afraid that I automatically assumed that this was going to be between the doctor and the nurse, but it was actually between the nurse and the orderly.  When I say “romance”, it’s only very brief, because they only know each other for a few days.  There are no happy endings in this book, but, if you can take all the misery, it’s well worth a read.

I don’t care for the style of writing – it annoys me very greatly when people write speech without using speech marks – but the intensity of it’s fascinating: the entire book only covers three days, and almost all of it’s set within one very small room.  The main character is Julia Power, a nurse in charge of a maternity/Spanish flu ward at a Dublin hospital, and the other two prominent characters are Bridie Sweeney, an orderly, and Kathleen Lynn, a doctor who was a real person and was well-known as a republican activist and suffragist as well as for her medical work.

There are a lot of talking points about the book – the Spanish flu and any parallels that readers may draw between that and the Covid pandemic are the obvious ones, but also everything that the book shows about what went on in institutions run by the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time.  It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but it didn’t pull any punches, it portrayed nuns extremely negatively, and I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland.

During the course of the book, we’re told that the Catholic Church mistreats orphans in its care, allowing priests, nuns and lay staff to abuse them, putting them to work at an early age and taking their wages, and even sending young girls to stay with “holiday fathers” (a euphemism for paedophiles).   Disabled and illegitimate children in its institutions are neglected, and unmarried mothers are virtually imprisoned and forced to work to pay for their “care” whilst they were expecting.  And it takes adolescent daughters away from widowed fathers on the grounds that it’s immodest for girls to live with a man with no adult female present.   It’s also blamed for Ireland having a far higher rate of death in childbirth than the rest of the UK, by making the use of contraception taboo and encouraging women to have at least twelve children, and for women suffering a difficult labour being forced to undergo horrific processes such as the sawing in half of their pubic bone, as the priority is to avoid damage to the womb and never mind any other bits.

All of this is based on evidence given by people who were in the institutions concerned, so it’s not been made up, but I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland, because it really is very heavy on all this.

Also, those who participated in the Easter Rising are repeatedly described as terrorists who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, and those who supported it but weren’t arrested as being cruel for tormenting injured Great War veterans.  I’m not saying that this isn’t a valid viewpoint, just that I wouldn’t have expected to “hear” it from Irish characters created by an Irish author.  Kathleen Lynn is presented positively, but her role in the Easter Rising – she was the chief medical officer for the “Irish Citizens’ Army” –  is rather vaguely explained away as being because she thought it might bring about improved conditions for women: she mentions her plans to set up a hospital for women and children, with her friend (and probably her partner), the gloriously named Madeleine ffrench-Mullen – something that did actually happen.  When she’s arrested, the emphasis is on the fact that men are arresting a female doctor: the fact that this is about the Easter Rising is rather skimmed over.  That’s not what I was expecting.

To get back to the Spanish flu, If you’re looking for happy endings, or just any sort of happiness, this is not the book for you!  Of the five expectant mothers admitted to Julia’s ward, three die of the Spanish flu, one survives but her baby is stillborn, and the only one who goes home with her baby has got a violent husband waiting for her.   Julia’s brother has been invalided out of the Army due to shell shock (which doesn’t actually sound right to me – shell shock wasn’t a reason for being discharged during the Great War) and refuses to speak.  Dr Lynn is arrested and imprisoned.  The only person in the book who’s ever cheerful is a hospital porter, and we eventually learn that his singing and joking are just his way of trying to cope with his grief at losing his wife and children in a typhus epidemic.

The only bit of good cheer is that Julia takes the baby of one of the women who died.  This is after the doctor says that he probably won’t survive more than a few months as he’ll be handed over to Evil Nuns, who’ll neglect him as he’s illegitimate and has a hare lip.  An Evil Nun kidnaps him whilst Julia’s briefly out of the room, but Julia manages to rescue him.  The Evil Nun tells her that people will probably assume he’s the result of an incestuous relationship between her and her brother.

Oh, and be prepared for extremely graphic descriptions of difficult childbirth.   The medical information is fascinating, though, as are the general observations about the Spanish flu, including the public notices.  There’s a lot of talk about wearing masks and avoiding close contact, and the book repeatedly makes the point that saying that people should stay at home, and rest in bed if feeling unwell, isn’t very practical when people have got to work.  Some of the blame game stuff going on is very reminiscent of the patronising comments about the “hard work” of people in areas where Covid infection rates are low – mainly rural areas with low population density, and or areas where most people are able to work from home.

Don’t read this if you’re feeling down, because it’ll make you feel a million times worse!  But, if you can cope with all the misery, it’s a very interesting read.

Anne Boleyn – Channel 5

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I’m not sure that we really needed yet another TV series about Anne Boleyn.  Her story’s been done to death (pun intended), and, consequently, most of the reaction to this has been either moaning that it’s old hat or else trying desperately to find a new angle on the story by talking about “othering”.  Obviously that’s not the fault of either the actors or the scriptwriters, but it’s hard to make a big impression when you’re covering a story than everyone’s heard a zillion times before.  There are so many neglected areas of history which Channel 5 could have chosen to cover instead.

On the plus side, this is a proper historical drama.  It’s no Versailles or The Tudors: it does actually stick to the real people and the real series of events.  Well, main events, anyway.  It’s also positive that it’s looking at things from Anne’s point of view, and that it’s showing her as a deeply intelligent woman who championed the Reformation, rather than just as a scheming tart who stole another woman’s fella.

However, the dialogue’s really rather naff.  It tries to be clever, but doesn’t always manage it.   Some of it’s overloaded with metaphors (there are a lot of metaphors, symbols and omens) – ” Ooh, Jane, if you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t play the game” – and some of it sounds like someone trying to be Jane Austen but not succeeding.  Jodie Turner-Smith’s really doing her best with it – her delivery of some of Anne’s bitchier lines reminded me of Joan Collins in Dynasty – but it’s just not that well-written.  The Boleyns all get some good lines – George and Jane Boleyn both come across very well, George as his sister’s chief supporter and Jane as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and Cromwell does too, but Henry’s character didn’t come across at all.  And what on earth was that scene with Anne kissing Jane Seymour supposed to be about?  Jane, incidentally, is presented as a simpering little ninny.  Oh dear.  I thought we’d got past that idea.

The costumes are great.  It’s nice to see Bolton Castle being used for most of the indoor shots: I’ve been there a couple of times.  And the series is all right: I’ve seen far worse.  But this subject’s been covered so many times before that any new series would need to be absolutely outstanding to make a really big impression, and it isn’t.

There’s been a lot of talk about the casting of a black actress to play a white historical figure.  There’s actually been a lot of talk about casting lately, and it’s getting a bit silly.  A non-Latina actress was pressurised into giving up the role of Maria in West Side Story; Russell T Davies said that straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles; the casting of British actress Cynthia Eriwo, rather than an American actress, as Harriet Tubman was criticised; people have questioned the casting of a Catholic actress as the Jewish heroine of Ridley Road; and, to cap it all, people moaned that Will Smith shouldn’t have been cast as Richard Williams because their skin isn’t exactly the same shade of black.  What next?  No-one should play a member of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey unless they’ve got a title?

Having said all that, I didn’t think it was appropriate to cast Helen Mirren, in her 70s, as Catherine the Great in her 30s, and that thing BBC 2 did with women playing male Shakespearean roles was daft.  So I suppose there are limits.  But let’s not get too hung up about “representative” casting, or we’re going to end up with roles being cast based on box-ticking rather on acting ability.  Just as long as there’s a level playing field.   If it’s OK for a black actress to play a white character or a gay actor to play a straight character, it’s OK for a white actress to play a black character or a straight actor to play a gay character, unless it’s a role where ethnicity or something else is a big part of the storyline.

What I’m not really getting is this waffle in some areas of the media about how choosing Jodie Turner-Smith because she’s a black actress, rather than just because she’s a good actress, is “identity casting” which is showing how Anne Boleyn was “othered”.  Er, what?   How long has “other” being a verb?  And no-one was “othered”.  Favourites and factions came and went at court, and, in Henry VIII’s time, that was complicated by the religious turmoil and the desire for a male heir.   When Anne lost favour, she didn’t have a party of supporters strong enough and loyal enough to stand up for her.  Nor did numerous other people who fell foul of Henry.  Joan of Navarre was accused of witchcraft, and Mary Beatrice of Modena was accused of bringing Jesuit priests to court to subvert James II.  No-one talks about them being, er, “othered”.

The problem is that so much has been said about Anne Boleyn that people end up scratching around trying to think of any new angle on her story.  It’s like some of the bizarre suggestions made in recent years about who killed the Princes in the Tower – everything there is to be said about the likely candidates has been said, so people come up with outlandish ideas just for the sake of saying something different.

Anyway, to get back to the actual programme, which has been rather overshadowed by the debate over the casting, it was, as I said, OK …  but this period in history’s been covered so many times, both in dramas and in documentaries, that it needed to be absolutely amazing to be memorable.  And it’s not bad, but amazing it isn’t.

Paris in Ruins by M K Tun

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Hopefully there will be triumph and definitely no ruin in Paris during the French Open, but it was a different story 150 years ago.  The Paris Commune, currently in the French news as the anniversary is marked – it collapsed on 28th May 1871 – has been rather romanticised over the years.  It’s even got an ’80s group named after it, which is rather confusing because my brain kept going “Baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you” whilst I was reading about shootings and arson, which was completely inappropriate 🙂 .  However, this novel, unusually, goes for the view taken by most of the international press at the time, i.e. that it was mainly about violence and anarchy, which is interesting.

We see the events of the Prussian siege of Paris and then the Paris Commune through the eyes of two young women from well-to-do families, who both become involved in war work.  The unfortunately-named Camille Noisette becomes a nurse at a hospital set up (and this hospital did really exist) at the Paris Odeon by the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and her brother’s fiancee Mariele de Crecy looks after young children at a creche set up by another of Camille’s brothers, a priest.  Other members of both families become caught up in events in various different ways, and not all of them survive.

The main message of the book is that atrocities were committed by all sides, that both the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune happened largely because of the egos of powerful men, and that it was innocent civilians who suffered as a result.  And poor Paris, which suffered terrible damage from bombing and arson. The Commune does still sharply divide opinion, but I was surprised that the book was quite so strongly against it.  It’s a bit wooden in parts, and some of the dialogue doesn’t flow very well, but it’s very well-researched and historically accurate, and a good read.

It starts with Camille being a bit of a rebel, and sneaking off to bars with her friend Andre (who she eventually marries).  I think most readers will assume that she’s secretly involved with the radicals, but, in fact, she’s working undercover and spying on them – especially on Louise Michel, one of the most famous figures of the Commune.  Like many other Communards, Michel was deported to New Caledonia.     But the spying story falls by the wayside, as Camille goes to work at the hospital.

I was a rather melodramatic little girl – you’d never have guessed that, would you 😁? – and, when I was really overdoing it, my grandad always used to say that I was being like Sarah Bernhardt.  At the time, I assumed she must have been a famous film star from the inter-war years, so I was rather bemused when I found out that she was a French stage actress whose heyday was long before Grandad was even born.  I know she did play in Northern England, more than once, so I’ve wondered if an older relative or friend – maybe my great-great-grandma, who seems to have been quite into theatricals – saw her on stage and raved about her, and that was why he had this bee in his bonnet about her, but I’ll never know now 😢,  But, because of that, I was quite interested to see her appear in this book, and to learn about the important humanitarian work she did at a very difficult time in Parisian history.

Meanwhile, Mariele and her mother attempt to escape and are captured by Prussian soldiers, in a slightly OTT bit of the book, but they make it safely back to Paris, and we see shy Mariele grow in confidence as she insists on helping out with the children.  There’s definitely a sense that both girls are rebelling against what’s expected of young ladies, but the narrative is vehemently opposed to the more radical approach taken by the Communards.  The emphasis is all on the taking of hostages, the attacks on the Church and the imprisonment of people for very little reason, and not much is said about more positive actions such as attempts to help the poor.

Certainly, the romanticisation of the Communards, like the romanticisation of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is inappropriate, but I thought the book was a bit too biased against them and could have tried to give a more balanced view.   But point taken about unnecessary wars and unnecessary violence, and the same can be said about the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War and the Dano-Prussian War.

It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but, as I said, it was well-researched and accurate, and really got me thinking.  Not bad at all.