My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira


I was very sorry that both The Crimson Field and Mercy Street were cancelled – having been interested in the history of nursing in wartime since I read the Ladybird book about Florence Nightingale when I was in the third year infants 🙂 – and I’m always up for an American Civil War book. So this book, about a young woman working in a Union army hospital in Washington DC, definitely appealed. I didn’t find it nearly as good as it was hyped up to be; but it was quite interesting, and it certainly depicted the horrific conditions in wartime hospitals very well.

The basic storyline was that Mary Sutter, a 20-year-old woman from a well-to-do middle-class family in upstate New York, was a skilled midwife who wanted to become a surgeon. I’m not convinced that, in the 1850s and 1860s, a young single woman from a wealthy family in the eastern US would have been working as a midwife, but never mind!  She was repeatedly turned down for apprenticeships (the idea of applying to medical college doesn’t seem to have come into it), but, when war broke out, ran away from home to apply to become a nurse.

Being very young and quite attractive, she was turned down by Dorothea Dix, the Union Army’s Superintendent of Nurses. I first came across Dorothea Dix when I was 12, in John Jakes’s wonderful Love and War, in which Virgilia Hazard became an army nurse. Virgilia was plain-looking and over 35, so she met Miss Dix’s requirements!  Mary didn’t, but she eventually persuaded a doctor to let her work in his hospital, by agreeing to see to the cleaning and supplies and so on as well … and, of course, she did a great job, and assisted in some surgery.

What the book did well was to make a point about the lack of opportunities for women, and also about the appalling conditions within the wartime hospitals. Just going off the point slightly, one thing that never comes up in discussions about Gone With The Wind is that Scarlett and Melanie both worked in a hospital in Atlanta almost throughout the war. And, looking at real life people, Louisa M Alcott worked as a nurse during the war, and she was actually at the front. Er, where was I? Conditions in wartime hospitals. As the author pointed out, it didn’t seem to occur to the authorities – and you can say the same about both the Union and Confederate sides – to try to learn from Florence Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War. The book really did get that across very well.

However, some of the plot was more than a bit daft. Everyone kept falling in love with everyone else. Mary and a new neighbour fell in love after about two minutes, then two minutes later he fell in love with and married her twin sister. There was this whole cliched twin thing going on – Jenny got the looks, Mary got the brains. Two surgeons also fell in love with Mary, and she seemed to be in love with both of them as well. And one of her midwifery patients left her husband two minutes after meeting Mary’s brother.

There was also a rather melodramatic plot in which Jenny died in childbirth and everyone blamed Mary for not having been there – and Mary felt particularly guilty as part of the reason she’d run away was that she was in love with Jenny’s husband. Not to mention a bizarre back story about how all Mary’s matrilineal ancestors had been midwives and one of them had delivered a dauphin of France. And, although the actual military campaigns were mentioned, no-one seemed very interested in the actual causes of the war, or what they were fighting for.

So it’s not the greatest book you’ll ever read, but it’s not bad, and it does tackle the important subject of medical treatment during wartime. I’m rather confused by some of the reviews which seem to put it in the same league as Gone With The Wind and North and South, which it most certainly is not, but I’ve read worse … and it’s only the author’s first published novel.   And I do wish the TV companies would bring back The Crimson Field and Mercy Street



The Real Vikings – History


Socks.  You do not really expect a documentary about Vikings to talk about … er, socks.  However, we did also get shield maidens, sorceresses, sagas and the sacrifice of slave girls.  And ship burials and sailcloth.  Maybe they just put the socks in for the sake of keeping up the alliteration?   Not a horned helmet (yes, all right, we all know that Vikings didn’t really wear horned helmets!) in sight, and no mention of Valhalla: this first episode was all about women in Viking society.  Technically, Vikings were the only the people who actually went off raiding ‘n’ trading, but the word’s generally used in English to mean the general society of Scandinavia during the Viking Age.

The Vikings drama series with which this documentary series has been made to tie in is largely set at “home” in Norway, and features a number of strong female characters, notably Lagertha, the shield maiden and later queen, and Aslaug, the princess and volva (sorceress).  The characters are not meant to be historically accurate, OK, but this episode of The Real Vikings focused on the role of women, and took Lagertha and Aslaug as its starting point.

First up, Lagertha.  People think of Viking warriors as all being male, right?  Wrong!  Shield maidens are not only mentioned in sagas: they really existed.  Remains from a grave in Birka in Sweden, buried alongside various accoutrements of a warrior, proved to be those of a woman, much to the delight of Kateryn Winnick, the actress who plays Lagertha.  I was quite chuffed myself 🙂 .  So, yes, there were female Viking warriors!

Then on to volvas (sorceresses), such as Aslaug, played by Alyssa Sutherland – who got to visit another Viking site, Fyrkat in Denmark, where the grave of a “magic woman” in a wagon had been found.  That wasn’t quite as exciting as the shield maiden, because magic women/wise women exist in many cultures, in many eras, but it was still interesting.  Without wishing to write an essay on The Da Vinci Code, Britannia, Troy: Fall of a City or anything else not relevant to Vikings, women played such an important role in religion in the past, and that was destroyed by most of the recognised religions of today.  But, hey, maybe the tide’s starting to turn again, with women now able to act as priests/ministers in some denominations of Christianity and Judaism.  We can live in hope!

Next, more prosaically, came the important role of the lady of the hall, who, with the men often away, would have played a crucial role in local administration and justice.  This was illustrated by … well, mainly scenes from the programme, actually, but also by a burial ship found near Tonsberg in Norway, containing the remains of two women.

This then took us on to the rather less inspiring subject of human sacrifice, which really isn’t something usually associated with the Vikings, but which was shown in one episode of the programme after the scriptwriters came across an account of it written by an Arab traveller who’d visited Scandinavia.  Around 40% of the population were slaves – a surprisingly high figure.  For every few shield maidens, sorceresses or ladies of the hall, there would have been an awful lot of slave women.  And some of them would have suffered the horrible fate of being sacrificed so that they could “accompany” their master or mistress to the afterlife.  This again was illustrated by scenes from the drama series, which didn’t do much for the gravitas of the documentary – but, to be fair, the documentary series has been made to accompany the drama series, and the drama series has worked wonders in getting people interested in the Vikings.

Lagertha and Aslaug, in the series, are both wives of Ragnar Lothbrok, and the programme then moved on to the subject of concubinage and polygamy.  This was going on in England, too: Harold Godwinsson, of Battle of Hastings fame, had a “handfast wife” – another term for handfasting being “married in the Danish tradition” – as well as the “official” wife he married later.  That was more a case of having one Christian marriage and one non-Christian marriage, though: some of the Viking men had several concubines, a practice generally associated more with Asia than Europe.  This led to the promulgating of the theory that the reason for going off a-viking in the first place was that a few blokes had so many female partners each that there weren’t enough ladies left for the others, so they were all hoping to make themselves rich and therefore more eligible!   Hmm.  I’m not entirely convinced about that as an explanation for the Viking Age, but the idea that centuries of raiding, trading and conquest were all down to lonely men trying to give themselves a boost in the marriage stakes is certainly quite … quite something, anyway.

Furthermore, not only were they apparently only going off a-viking to impress the girls, but they wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere without the girls … because it was women who made the sailcloths for the longboats.  So there!   It’s all about women.  The programme was getting slightly silly by this stage, but it is a fair point – none of the Vikings would have gone anywhere without their boats, and the boats wouldn’t have gone anywhere without their sails.

And this talk of the textile industry was where the socks came in.  Apparently, it took all the wool from one sheep to make one Viking sock.  Who on earth worked that out?  And how?  And, more to the point, why?  Incidentally, if you Google “Viking socks”, you get all sorts of answers about some sort of knitting technique called “nalebinding”, and you also find out that a famous Viking sock (yes, there is such a thing as a famous Viking sock) was found in York in 1972.  Google “Coppergate sock” and you get all sorts of answers.  Who would have thought that Viking socks attracted so much interest 🙂 ?

Anyway.  That’s enough about socks.  This is not going to be the most deep and meaningful series ever, because it’s meant to tie in with a fictional series that, entertaining as it is, doesn’t even pretend to be historically accurate, but it’s still worth watching.  And it’s great that Vikings has attracted so much interest that a documentary series to go with it has been commissioned.  And, hey, we all need socks!










The Long, Long Trail by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles


This is the fourth book in the “war at home” series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and I think it’s the most interesting one yet: it seems to be a bit less soapy and a bit more about showing the effect of war on the nation via a particular group of characters.   It’s still not as good as her Kirov trilogy, and I still don’t understand why the publishers pulled the plug on the Morland saga; but it’s a good read.  It’s slow-moving, but there’s a lot going on, as the characters move through 1917.  The war’s raging on, in the Belgian and French mud.  The Americans come in.  The French mutiny.  Russia’s engulfed in revolution.   And, back in Blighty, food shortages are biting (there’s a lot about food in this book!).  And the south coast is bombed.

Some of it’s quite a comedy of manners.  The bossy neighbour who likes it to seem as if she’s doing more for the war effort than anyone else.  The horror at the idea of digging up flower beds, lawns and tennis courts to turn them over to fruit and vegetable production.  The horror at the idea of eating wholegrain bread rather than Proper white bread.  That always works really well in a war book.  It shouldn’t, but it does!

And a lot’s going on with our friends the Hunters, as I said.  The eldest son is struggling to recover from his physical injuries and severe shell-shock.  The elder daughter – this bit is more soapy! – is trying to cope with being a middle-class woman married to an aristocrat.  And she still doesn’t realise that her husband’s gay and has only married her because he needs a countess and an heir.   He wasn’t originally a very sympathetic character, but he becomes far more so as you see how society makes him feel guilty just for being the way he is naturally, and forces him into a life which is all wrong for him.  The younger daughter, who would normally have been leading a very boring and constricted life but, because of the war, is out there doing a job she likes … and being pursued by two different men, neither of whom are the one she really loves.  And the two younger sons, one of whom decides to leave school at 16 so that he can go straight into doing something to help the war effort.

The father’s very involved with the Ministry of Food.  The mother’s also busy with war work … but having an affair as well.  Then there’s the auntie, driving an ambulance over in Belgium, one of the many women who did go out to the Front.  And a female cousin, coping with male colleagues who don’t think that a woman should be in a managerial job.    The cook, who – another soapy bit! – has long since assumed that she’ll always be single, but meets a man because of the war.  The housemaids who leave to work in a munitions factory – although,  in the First World War, many female domestic staff did remain in their jobs.

There are really three main themes that permeate the book.  One is that, after three years of war, the war now is everyone’s life.  That’s total war.  Everything in everyone’s life is about the war.  And there’s no end in sight.  There isn’t even an inspirational leader to talk about the end of the beginning and never surrendering.  It’s just on and on and on.

One is, of course, the losses.  There’s a brilliant scene in Gone With The Wind, in which the casualty lists from Gettysburg have just reached Atlanta, which really gets that across; but I don’t think that anything has ever been quite as bad as the devastation of the Great War, especially at a time when most people lived in the same community all the lives.  Relatives, friends, sweethearts, colleagues, the boys you’d grown up with and gone to school with … all gone.

And the third is the organisation.  The idea of laissez-faire was on the way out well before the Great War, with the Factory Acts, compulsory education, and then the introduction of old age pensions and national insurance, but the state was still not really that involved in people’s lives until 1914.  The war effort at home was a combination of public and private enterprise, but the state increasingly became involved in national life.  And things got organised.  When push comes to shove, things get organised.  Why can’t we do that in peacetime?   Why can’t we pull together, and why can’t the authorities get their act together?   And why can’t the authorities do it in wartime any more?  I’m thinking particularly of the food shortages in Yemen.  Probably because most of today’s wars are civil wars.  Very different.

Random thought.  The Long, Long Trail is, of course, the name of one of the many songs from the First World War. Do kids today know the First World War songs?  Everyone my age, although we weren’t born until most of the Great War generation were gone, knows It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles, Keep The Home Fires Burning, K-K-K-Katy, Mademoiselle from Armentieres, etc.    And Roses of Picardy, which my grandma always liked.  Are they still going?  #oldandoutoftouch 🙂 .

It does end on a hopeful note, with a happy family Christmas and two babies expected in the new year.  But, whilst we know that the war will end in 1918, the characters don’t.   Presumably the fifth book in the series will be the last, then – and presumably that will be out later this year, the year in which we’ll mark the centenary of the Armistice.


Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler


Word PressThis was a rather strange combination of topics: all of them were interesting individually, but I’m not sure how well they worked as a combination. The book kicked off in Porto, during the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, with, as its main character, John Zarco Stewart, the young son of a Scottish father – there having long been a British presence in Porto, especially since the 1703 Methuen Treaty – and a Portuguese mother.

John made friends with two people a bit older than himself – Daniel, who ended up drowning, and Violeta, who was abused by her uncle and then disappeared. Not very cheerful, and poor John struggled to cope with it all. In the middle of all this, there was a lot of talk about Marranos – the “crypto-Jews” of Spain and Portugal, who were officially Catholic but practised Judaism in secret. Daniel’s family were Marranos, and there were hints that John’s mother was a Marrana as well … but it wasn’t particularly convincing because she didn’t do any Marrana stuff.   If you’re going to write about Marranos, you need someone to be lighting candles on a Friday night. It’s the Marrano thing. You can put chicken sausages in as well, if you like, but it’s very weird to do Marranos without the Friday night candles. I don’t know why the author, who is apparently an expert on the subject of Marranos, didn’t include them, but it was rather annoying.

Then John’s father went off to South Africa to look for vineyards, and came back accompanied by a Bushman called Midnight. Yes, yes, I know that we’re now supposed to use the term “San” rather than the term “Bushman”; but the book used “Bushman” throughout. There was quite a lot about San culture and beliefs, which was very interesting – sadly, the Khoi-San people tend to be the forgotten people of South African history – but the idea that a Scotsman would go off from Porto to the South African winelands and that a Bushman would move from South Africa to Porto, especially in wartime, just seemed rather far-fetched. Midnight was a healer, and had come to Europe to search for a cure for smallpox … which rather made you wonder why he hadn’t gone to somewhere with a well-known medical school, but never mind! He began working with Senhor Benjamin, a local apothecary, and was able to treat John for depression.

Next up, a hate preacher who wanted the Inquisition brought back started whipping up hatred against the Marranos, and it all came out that John’s mother was a Marrana. She suggested that John go to Senhor Benjamin – who was also a Marrano – for Torah lessons, as the only thing she knew about Jewish doctrine or practice was lighting candles on a Friday night. Hooray!! Finally, the candle thing!   But why had we never seen her lighting the candles? Oh well, never mind.

John’s dad and Midnight then went off to Britain, to meet Edward Jenner. See, I knew Midnight should have gone somewhere where there was a medical expert!   However, John’s dad came back alone, and said that Midnight had been killed in an accident.

There was an awful lot of travelling going on, considering that it was wartime!   Then the French invaded and sacked Porto. This was probably the worst moment in Porto’s history. Many of its inhabitants were murdered, raped, or died when a bridge collapsed. But it was all rather skipped over in the book. John’s father died, and two close friends, one of whom died as a result of her injuries, were raped, but somehow the horror of it all didn’t really come across … the focus was more on why John’s dad had stayed in Porto rather than fleeing as his wife and son did.

Fast forward. John’s mum moved to London, to live with her sister-in-law. Britain got an extremely good press in this book, as a nation which both took a lead in the abolition of the slave trade and which was very tolerant towards religious minorities. The “metropolitan elite”, who seem determined on insisting that everything in British history is bad, might want to read this. Although they probably wouldn’t want to read it. John got married and had two kids, but then his wife died. And then Senhor Benjamin told him that Midnight hadn’t died in an accident in Gloucestershire at all, but that John’s dad had found out that he (Midnight) and John’s mum had been having an affair, and had sold him into slavery in Virginia!

OK,that apparently explained why John’s dad had seemed so unconcerned about his own safety: he couldn’t live with the guilt. And so Midnight was, presumably, still alive. And then, re-enter Violeta, now living in New York. It transpired that poor Violeta had been people-trafficked into prostitution in London, in a story which seemed to belong more to the early 21st century than the early 19th century. This was very sad and shocking, but it was all skipped over in a few pages, when surely Violeta’s story deserved its own book. Then, it what was presumably an attempt to try to keep some sort of thread running through the book, we were told that Violeta had become a nanny to the children of a Portuguese Jewish woman living in Newcastle. What?? Were there any Portuguese Jewish women living in Newcastle in the 1820s?! Er, and then she’d ended up in New York.

John then betook himself to America. Despite the fact that Midnight was now known by a different name, and had been sold on from Virginia to South Carolina, and there must have been millions of slaves in the southern states of America at the time, he somehow managed to find the plantation where Midnight was supposed to be. At this point, we went back to the Portuguese Jewish theme, when we were told that lots of Portuguese Marranos had moved to Charleston.

Now that isn’t quite accurate. However, it was an interesting subject to bring into the book, because an often overlooked aspect of the history of the Deep South, and especially of Charleston – the ultimate Southern Rights city, the place where South Carolina declared that it was seceding from the Union, the place where the first shots of the War Between The States were fired, etc etc – is that the prejudice against Jews which, along with prejudice against Catholics, was rife in the upper echelons of Northern society, didn’t apply in the South. Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, was from a Charleston Jewish family. There were many prominent Jewish people in various aspects of Charleston life even before the Revolution. Charleston, in the 1820s, had the highest Jewish population of any city in the United States. And, yes, at that point they were almost all Sephardi … but from/descended from families who’d moved there from London, or London via Amsterdam, rather than actually from Portugal. But, OK, there was that link there.

The narrative then switched from being first person John to being first person Morri – Morri being Midnight’s daughter. Midnight was missing, presumed dead. It later turned out that he’d gone off with a group of Indians (the book said Indians, not Native Americans!). The family and overseer of the plantation on which Morri was living seemed to spend all their time abusing their slaves, and the master and his heir were both murdered in mysterious circumstances but no-one ever found out who’d murdered them. Things were getting rather bonkers by this stage. Morri and some of the others were planning to escape. Then John turned up at the plantation, pretending he wanted to sketch birds, and found out that the owner knew about the plan. Then most of them did manage to escape, assisted by a) John and b) a ship’s captain from Liverpool.

So John and Morri went back to join Violeta in New York, and John’s mum and daughters joined them there too. Then Midnight turned up there too, safe and well, and everyone presumably lived happily ever after.

Too many different themes, and some very tenuous links and distinctly far-fetched storylines. But I suppose you could say that there was a general theme running through it about oppression and trying to overcome it. Really, I think it would have worked better as two separate books, one about Marranos and one about slavery. Or maybe three, because there are very few novels about the Khoi-San people. There was too much going on, and it didn’t really link together that well.  But the individual themes and characters were fascinating.  And I suppose putting them all into one book was pretty ambitious.  Just maybe a bit too ambitious.




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 Dark Ages: An Age of Light – BBC 4


Word PressThe Dark Ages get a bad press.  The word “Dark” says it all.  And the names of a lot of the groups associated with the Dark Ages, such as the Goths, the Huns and the Vandals, get misused in all sorts of ways … and they’re grouped together as “the barbarians”, which rather sums it up.  I think the problem is that our society now is so based on the written word (or, these days, the typed-into-cyberspace word), and the Dark Ages wasn’t much of a time for writing.  However, this excellent series, presented by the very entertaining Waldemar Januszczak, aims to show that the Dark Ages weren’t “dark” at all.  Art, jewellery, buildings … there was plenty of absolutely exquisite stuff produced in those days.

In the first episode, we got Christian religious art, including some interesting points about how set ideas of what the major Biblical figures looked like developed, even though the Bible doesn’t actually tell us!  Then the second episode covered the works of the so-called Barbarians, and the third episode the wonderful buildings of early Islam.  In the final episode, we’re getting the Vikings.  We’ve  all seen examples of this wonderful artwork and these glorious buildings, and yet we still use the term “the Dark Ages”. Some people do talk about the “Early Middle Ages”, but “the Dark Ages” is still the more familiar term.  We even use it as a jokey expression for something in our own lives that happened a long time ago.  Yet it’s a misnomer.  As the series title says, in many ways “the Dark Ages” were indeed “An Age of Light”!