Abigail of Venice by Leigh Russell


This is a rather unlikely story, but it’s quite an interesting read.  It starts, in the 1560s, in a ghetto which seems to be somewhere around the current border between Lithuania or Belarus, recently conquered by Ivan the Terrible, but most of it’s set in the Ghetto of Venice, during the time of the mass burning of Jewish books and the Battle of Lepanto.  I once went to Lepanto, or Naupaktos as it’s now called.   I was so excited about being there that I ended up being last in the ice cream queue (for non-historians, the place is just a nice seaside resort), which is really *not* like me.  Anyway.

Abigail is the eldest of several sisters in a poor family with no money for dowries.  A marriage is arranged for her with a rich man who turns out to be cruel and violent.  Then Ivan’s soldiers attack the ghetto, and only Abigail and her uncle escape. I was more than a bit confused by this, because the Livonian War wasn’t really about conquering parts of what became Poland-Lithuania,  there were no formal ghettoes there, and Ivan’s reign is not associated with pogroms.  Maybe the author knows something I don’t, but I didn’t quite get it.

The two survivors then travel around Europe, spreading word of the massacre, which seems very unlikely.  Surely they’d have settled somewhere safe?   But it *could* have happened.  Abigail eventually tires of the travelling, and stays in Venice, where she finds love with a good man, Daniel.  They get engaged.  But then her husband turns up and forces her to get back with him … until he’s sentenced to spend 15 years as a galley slave for brawling in a pub.   As I said, it’s a bit far-fetched!   Oh, and then, in a random chapter, Abigail and Daniel meet Shakespeare’s dad.

Then, in, hooray, a historically accurate episode, the Venetian authorities seize and burn all the Jews’ holy books.  Abigail saves one of the scrolls.  Next up, Joseph Nasi, the famous Ottoman Court Jew, visits the ghetto.   And then Abigail decides to return to her home town.  It’s all a bit disjointed and doesn’t really flow, and Abigail’s decision seems highly unlikely.  But the inclusion of real events and people is interesting.  And it then turns out that one of her sisters is alive and living in Buda, so she goes there.  Talk about clocking up some miles!

She then returns to the Venetian Ghetto.  The violent husband then reappears, but obligingly drowns, leaving Abigail all his money and free to marry Daniel.  She and Daniel live happily ever after.

The series of events wasn’t very likely, and didn’t flow very well.  But it was quite entertaining, and the settings were interesting.  I’ve read far worse!


Marie Antoinette – BBC 2


Well, it was better than The Tudors, Versailles and The Great: it did bear a reasonably close resemblance to actual historical fact.   And Marie Antoinette’s been given a raw deal by history, blamed for the failings of her husband and the failings of the ancien regime itself: she deserves a series telling events from her point of view.   This is genuinely trying to do that

It wasn’t bad at all. The first episode showed the difficulties she faced as a young outsider at etiquette-bound Versailles, under tremendous pressure to produce an heir but with a husband who wasn’t up to the task; and it did a reasonably good job of it.

Some bits were a bit daft, though.  Marie Antoinette was dispatched to the French border without a single chaperone/lady in waiting, only a dog.   The dog was sent back to Austria.   And she (Marie Antoinette, not the dog) hugged the sole French representative who’d arrived to meet her.   I know there must be budgetary constraints, but surely they could have managed a few more hangers-on.  Instead of a dog.  And the huggy bit was a bit silly too.   As was a load of courtiers singing “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?”.   And a manservant dressing up as a maidservant.

It was generally OK, though.   Not brilliant, but it’s having a decent go at showing events from Marie Antoinette’s viewpoint, and a sympathetic one.   I’ll definitely keep watching!

Matrix by Lauren Groff


Marking Manchester Pride, in a month which has also seen the first ever local Prestwich Pride event, this is a review of a book about a lesbian woman in medieval England.   It’s an extremely odd book, actually: there’s a long section about the main character at 17, and then she jumps from being 17 to being 47 within the space of a few pages.   Also, it’s written in the present tense, which is very annoying, and uses some bits of American slang with which British readers may be unfamiliar.  It’s an interesting story, though, about an abbess who makes her abbey into a self-contained, self-sufficient, all-female world.

Marie de France was the first woman to write French poetry, some of it quite controversial in that it was often about adultery and or female power.   However, very little’s known about her.  She was born in France, spent much of her life in England, was known at the court of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and must have been of noble birth as lower-class women wouldn’t have had the education shown by her work.  That’s about all that’s known, so the story is effectively Lauren Groff’s invention.

She casts Marie as an illegitimate half-sister of Henry II, dispatched to an English convent as a prioress, where she later becomes abbess.  So far, it’s as likely a story as any.

But it becomes a story about an all-female world.  Marie bans men from the convent: the sons of female servants are not even allowed into the grounds, and male beggars seeking alms have to go to a separate building nearby.   Meanwhile, she changes the idea of work being a means of bringing humility to an idea of work being a positive thing: the nuns are assigned tasks to which they’re well-suited, and the convent becomes largely self-sufficient thanks to its successful farming and gardening.  They even have female blacksmiths and carpenters.  That much is OK, but she won’t let priests or monks in, and administers the sacraments herself.  Surely there’s no way that she’d have got away with that?

Marie has quite a negative view of men, possibly because her birth related from Geoffrey Plantagenet raping her mother.  She’s always aware of the danger from violent men.  And she was then forced off her mother’s family’s lands by male relatives who wanted them for themselves.  She behaves in quite a domineering way herself, collecting rents from tenants who can’t really afford to pay, but we learn that she admires powerful women –  the Empress Matilda, the first person to show her kindness after her mother’s death, and then Eleanor of Aquitaine with whom she’s secretly in love.  She dedicates her poems to Eleanor, as a male troubadour would do.

Even the women of the Bible are brought into it: Marie has visions of Eve and of the Virgin Mary, and they tell her to build a labyrinth to keep the abbey safe from the outside world.  The women build it themselves, but the outside world is angry, thinking that they must have some sort of treasure which they want to keep hidden away.   Is there meant to be some sort of parallel with Rosamund’s Bower, built to keep a woman safe for a man?   And are we meant to be thinking that this is, by now, the troubled world of Richard I’s reign, the world of Robin Hood?   I don’t know, because neither Rosamund nor Robin get mentioned, but I’m just putting the ideas out there!   By this point, Marie is all-powerful at the abbey: the other nuns do her bidding, and she’s in regular correspondence with Eleanor.  Later, outside events – Richard I’s capture, and the Interdict in John’s time – do get more of a mention.  That does make the book more believable and more a part of the real world, as the abbey has to pay over part of its wealth to help meet Richard’s ransom.

It’s an unusual and sometimes fascinating  story about a world of medieval women, but I don’t know that it could actually have happened.  I don’t actually think it’s intended to be 100% realistic, but I’m a historian so I look for realism!

It wasn’t really my thing, because I like historical fiction to be “real”; but it kept my attention, and it’s worth a try if you’re looking for something a bit different.

Long Lost Family Special: Shipped to Australia – ITV


  Political or religious authorities effectively taking ownership of children, for their own ends, is something which happened in a number of countries during the 20th century.  And we’re not talking Nazi Germany or the Stalinist Soviet Union here: we’re talking about countries such as the UK and Australia.  Examples include Native American children being removed to state boarding schools, the “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginal children removed from their families in Australia, Inuit children in Greenland being taken away to Danish-language orphanages or Denmark itself, the Magdalene Laundries in the Republic of Ireland, babies being taken away from parents deemed politically suspect in Franco’s Spain and Videla’s Argentina, and, the subject of this programme, the Child Migrant Scheme in which children were sent from British orphanages to Australia.  The idea of the programme was to prevent the children from being a drain on the British authorities, and to boost the “White Australia” policy which aimed to bring in white migrants.   So it worked for both countries – just not necessarily for the children and their families.

I’m never entirely sure about “Long Lost Family”.  There may be many painful reasons why a child was given up for adoption, and that’s not something which should necessarily be used as entertainment – although I suppose that, unless both parties agreed, the programme would never be shown.  In this case we did see children who’d been sent from Britain to Australia joyfully reunited with their families, but we also heard the harrowing tales of the abuse which some of them had suffered in religious orphanages once they’d arrived Down Under.

One man learnt that his parents had been unable to marry as his father had already had a wife, from whom he’d been separated from many years but whom he was presumably unable to divorce under the system at the time, and that his mother had been forced to give him up and his father, when seeking custody of him, had been told that he’d already compromised a young woman and that he should leave both her and their child alone.  Another man, who’d tried desperately to contact his brothers, learnt that his letters to them and them to him had been intercepted, leaving him thinking that they no longer wanted contact with him.

It was just very sad all round.  It was lovely to see those involved meeting up with relatives, but, after so many years, some of those involved had died before they could be reunited, and the abuse inflicted on children in orphanages is hardly something which can ever be undone.   Adults are supposed to take care of children, and indeed of vulnerable adults, and using children to further political or economic ends is just horrific, and physical and sexual abuse of children by those trusted to care for them is even worse.  As I’ve said, I’m not sure that people’s family issues should necessarily be used for entertainment purposes on TV, but, in this case, the programme drew attention to a very unpleasant episode in the history of the UK, Australia and other Commonwealth countries.   Interesting and sometimes heartwarming, but also deeply distressing.




The Russlander by Sandra Birdsell


This book covers a little-known aspect of Ukrainian history – the lives of the Mennonites in what’s now Zaporizhzhia Oblast, and the destruction of their communities during the time of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic at the end of the First World War.  I have to admit that I knew very little about this.  I associate the Zaporizhzhia area with Cossacks, because of the Zaporizhzhian Sich and I associate German/Dutch immigration into Catherine the Great’s Empire with Volga Germans, because of Gabriel Heinze.  That’s Gabriel Ivan Heinze, formerly of United, who is descended from some of the many Volga Germans who emigrated to Argentina.

Anyway, in 1789, a group of Mennonites, of Dutch heritage, living in Danzig in the Kingdom of Prussia, which is now Gdansk in Poland (keep up), moved to the Chortitza area.  The Chortitiza area is near Ekaterinoslav, in the Russian Empire … which is now Dnipro, formerly Dnipropretovsk in Ukraine.   Again, keep up.   And I’m well aware of the pogroms carried out against Jews during the Ukrainian People’s Republic, but I have to say that I didn’t really know how bad the attacks on Mennonites were.

That makes the book sound really miserable.  The first part of it is really quite uplifting.  If anything, it’s too idealised – although the Mennonites have been in Ukraine for over a century, there’s a sense of being pioneers, being settlers, but with none of the struggles and setbacks that you might expect in a book about pioneering.  Even when the Great War breaks out, we don’t hear that much about it.  The men volunteer, not as soldiers but to offer medical assistance – like some Quakers did in Britain – but we don’t see anything of life at the front, because our focus is on the women at home.  But then everything changes.

I’m a little bit confused with the timeline, because the book shows the attack on the community in question as being in 1917, under the auspices of Simeon Pravda.  Pravda was a real person, an anarcho-communist who was one of Nestor Makhno’s lieutenants.  Makhno, who was based in the Ekaterinoslav area, and led an anarchist army in Ukraine during the time of the People’s Republic.  There was utter chaos – the Red Army and the White Army were fighting each other, there were German and Austrian troops who hadn’t yet retreated, there was the Ukrainian People’s Army, and there were gangs of bandits.  Everyone’s accused everyone else of banditry.  And the people who came off worst in all of it were the Jews and the Mennonites.   Views of both Makhno and Pravda differ, but that the Mennonite settlements came under these horrific attacks is a fact.  However, the attacks mostly seem to have taken place in 1918 and 1919, so I’m not quite sure why the author’s got this one as being in 1917.  But anyway.

The Mennonite colony in the book, like those in the Chortitza area in real life, is attacked by bandits, who, all too similarly to Putin’s army today, murder many of the men still at home and rape many of the women.  They also, although the book doesn’t really show this, stole most of the grain stores, and manage to spread typhus all round the area.  A lot of the survivors subsequently emigrated to Canada, which is what Katya Vogt, the protagonist of this book, does.  We see her and other survivors trying to carry on, but finding life very difficult under the new communist regime.  And then, at the end, we see her as an elderly lady in Manitoba, having married another survivor and with many children and grandchildren.  We hear that a friend who remained was deported to Siberia during the Second World War: Stalin deported almost all the Chortitza Mennonites.   A few returned later, but most who survived either moved to cities or emigrated to Germany.  The old colonies, like the old Jewish shtetls, are either empty or else inhabited by other people who’ve moved there.

It’s not the most cheerful of books.  If you want a bit of light reading, this is not the book for you!  But it’s an interesting tale of a small group of people who were just trying to live in peace and fell victim to other people’s hatreds and conflicts.


The Dogs and the Wolves by Irene Nemirovsky


I thought that this was set in Kyiv, and I got horribly confused about why so little time appeared to have elapsed between the pogrom of 1905 and the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.  However, apparently it’s a fictional city which is very like Kyiv, so presumably that allowed the author to change the date of the pogrom.

I did see one blurb which said that the city was Odesa, where around a third of the population was Jewish at that time.  It isn’t: it’s clearly meant to be Kyiv.  Odesa had pogroms too, some of the early ones unusually carried out by Greeks rather than Russians or Ukrainians, but it was also the city of freedom, the Wild West of the Russian Empire, the city into which Jews who’d fled the Pale of Settlement were able to disappear, the city from which people came from Poland, Byelorussia (as it was then), Greece, Moldova and Armenia, as well as Mother Russia and Ukraine, and of course there were Crimean Tatars there too.  It’s a fascinating city, and it’s devastating to think that it may soon face what Kyiv’s facing already.  Which isn’t relevant, but it’s hard not to think about it whilst writing this.

It’s one of those books which are supposed to be great tours de force … meaning that, when you don’t really get them, you end up feeling very guilty and feeling that you must be really thick.  Or wondering if other people are doing an emperor’s new clothes thing and just pretending to have found them absolutely wonderful.  And I *didn’t* really get it.  It’s very short, which doesn’t help.  I’m not keen on short books, other than children’s books.  You don’t have time to get to know the characters.

Anyway.  We’ve got two branches of the Sinner family.  I thought Sinner was mainly a Tyrolean name, as in Jannik Sinner, but apparently it’s assumed that the author chose that name as a sort of pun, as in sins are being committed … even though she was writing in French.  The rich Jewish family and the poor Jewish family.  Our heroine is Ada, from the poor branch.  During the pogrom, she and her cousin Ben seek refuge with the rich branch, where they meet Harry.  They all then end up in Paris, having not met since.  Ada and Ben marry, and Harry marries a rich French Catholic girl.  Neither marriage works out very well, and Ada and Harry meet again and begin an affair.

Irene Nemirovsky, despite originally being Jewish (she later converted to Catholicism herself), and dying in Auschwitz as a consequence, has been accused of perpetuating anti-Semitic stereotypes in this book.  The rich Sinners are bankers.  With the poor Sinners, Ben’s mother’s a terrible social climber.  And there are a lot of very stereotypical comments about appearances – you can imagine the sort of thing.

I’m not sure that she deserves that criticism.  It’s always awkward when people write about minority groups, but … well, think of all the British Asian comedians who joke about British Asians, and America Jewish comedians like Jackie Mason who joke about American Jews.  OK, this book isn’t a comedy, but think about Maisie Mosco’s books and all the social climbers in those.  A lot of people who start at the botton *are* social climbers. Why wouldn’t they be?  And, yes, a lot of wealthy Jews made their money in finance, purely because they were banned from other professions.  If you look at Quakers, or French Huguenots in the 18th or 19th centuries, you’ll also see a lot of people making money in finance or business because they’re banned from professions.

Just going off the point slightly, I was thinking about the reference which Maisie Mosco makes in Almonds and Raisins to the Board of Guardians, as it then was – set up by well-to-do Jews in Manchester because they were nervous that the presence of large numbers of poor Jews might create a bad image.  Set up in 1867, and I really want to write an essay on my pet subject of Manchester in the 1860s, but it would be completely irrelevant!   Nick Gage, in his books about Greek immigrants in Massachusetts, makes similar comments – wealthy Greeks offered poor Greeks jobs, because they were worried that the presence of large numbers of poor Greeks might create a bad image.  The impression which some of the characters clearly have in this book, and the impression which I think a lot of readers have taken from the book, is that the wealthy Sinners are worried about being dragged down to the level of the poor Sinners.  None of us can know what Irene Nemirovsky intended, but maybe it was more a case of the wealthy group being worried about the impression given to wider society by the presence of the poorer group?

It was probably a combination of both.  Anyway, the idea is that Harry’s very respectable, and bourgeois in every sense of the word , whereas Ben, who would probably have done better in Odesa than in Paris, is a bit of a bad lot, mixed up in dodgy dealings.  But everyone’s lives come crashing down when news of the affair breaks, and when Ben involves Harry’s bank in his illicit schemes.

It ends with Ada giving birth to Harry’s child in an unnamed Eastern European country, away from both men, having managed to escape from France in the face of threats from an unnamed force – is this the Nazis, or is it internal forces within France?  It’s all meant to be very symbolic and we’re meant to find the book absolutely wonderful, but it just wasn’t really for me.  And I only got it because I thought the first bit was set in Kyiv, and then it wasn’t!  Oh well!

The Bell Family by Noel Streatfeild


I read most of Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books when I was the right age for them, and I was very keen on the Gemma books and quite keen on most of the others, but I somehow missed this one.  It isn’t bad, but I have to say that I don’t think it’s one of her best.  Not very much actually happens: there’s no excitement over concerts or skating galas or film shoots, and you don’t even get to see the ballet auditions for which two of the four children go.

It’s also rather annoying.  It’s very hard to sympathise with characters who bleat about how they’re so terribly, terribly poor that they’ve got no chance of going to one of the most exclusive ballet schools in the world unless their parents cash in a life insurance policy.  I know that everything’s relative, and that pointing out to the kids that they weren’t poor at all would probably have had about as much effect as our primary school dinner ladies telling us to stop moaning about the vile school dinners and remember that there was a famine in Ethiopia did, but it’s still annoying!   To be fair, the author did acknowledge this, showing parishioners being shocked that the vicar’s children were busking to raise money for a holiday for themselves, but even so.

And was it really necessary to say that the nouveaux riche grandad from Bradford pronounced ballet as “ball-ett”, because obviously someone who worked in a wool mill in northern England wouldn’t know even the most basic of basics about highbrow culture?  Gah!!

There’s also a Streatfeild bingo feeling.  Someone says “sweetly pretty”.  Someone refers to herself as “Miss First Name Surname”.  Someone is obsessed with ballet.  There’s a rich auntie/uncle.  But, to be fair to Streatfeild, you can say that about most authors!

Having said all that, it was OK, as a story about children with different personalities growing up in post-war London, and maybe I’d have enjoyed it a lot more if I’d read it 40 years ago.  But, compared with Ballet Shoes or the Gemma books, it’s not one of Streatfeild’s better efforts.