A Most English Princess by Clare McHugh

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The idea for this was brilliant, the execution rather less so.  It’s the author’s first novel, so maybe allowances should be made, but do editors just not proof-read the books?  Using “England” and “Britain” interchangeably is a common problem in books by American authors, admittedly, but I’m pretty sure that no-one in the 1860s would have used the expression “golden ticket”!   However, the subject matter, the life of Vicky, the Princess Royal, later the Empress Frederick, is fascinating: there’s an excellent biography of her, but she’s been overlooked by novelists.

The style of writing is more suited to a young adult novel than adult historical fiction – don’t be expecting anything of the calibre of Elizabeth Chadwick or Sharon Penman – but the characterisation is accurate and the factual information’s all in there … Vicky’s childhood, her early marriage, her rather unhappy life in Berlin, and the tragic story of how the unification of Germany, which Prince Albert mistakenly thought would be a force for good, turned into a triumph for Prussian militarism.

The book rather strangely stops short in 1871, as the Franco-Prussian war ends and Vicky’s father-in-law is proclaimed Emperor of Germany, with Bismarck as Chancellor.  Maybe the author’s planning a sequel?  At that point, things could still have turned differently, if Vicky and her husband Fritz had had their chance … but they never did.  It’s one of the great “What ifs?” of modern history.

The rather childlike style of writing works quite well in the early chapters, when Vicky’s a young girl. However, it does become rather irritating later on, once she’s married.  The actual content is so interesting, though – the hostility she faced in Berlin, the conflict within the Prussian royal family, her son Willy’s disability and the weird and rather horrific treatments he was subjected to (would he have turned out differently if he’d not been put through all that?), the wars against Denmark, Austria and Prussia, and the triumph of reaction and militarism.

It’s historically accurate, which is always a huge plus point, and the characters do come across well.  It’s very biased towards Vicky, and against the Prussian court, but I’d have found it strange if it hadn’t been.  The name “Prussia” was wiped off the map after the Second World War, and survives only, in is Latinised version, in the names of football teams: that’s how negative the view of Prussia was, especially in Anglophone countries, and I think that that feeling still lingers, one way and another.  When you look at what went on, especially the attitude towards Catholics and Jews, it’s hard to find too much to praise in the regime of Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm I.  The causes of the Great War are more debatable, but that was after Vicky’s time.

We also see a lot of her family life – and it does give quite a positive portrayal of her relationship with Willy, which became so difficult later on.  Her sister Alice features quite a lot too, although it’s very odd that their brother Leopold’s haemophilia isn’t mentioned.  Again, it’s all very accurate, but the style of writing really doesn’t work that well in what’s meant to be a historical novel for adults, and includes so much about political history.

All in all, not a bad first effort, and a brilliant choice of subject, but the style of writing really could have been a lot better.

 

Les Miserables – BBC 1

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This looks like it’s going to be a brilliant adaptation of a complex and fascinating story, as you would expect from Andrew Davies.  Great performances all round.  No historical bloopers with the scenery.   I kept waiting for the characters to burst into song, though!  Sorry, I know we’re not supposed to say that, and I know very well that Les Miserables was originally a book (and I know the publication date, because I know that it was published during the American Civil War, which is totally irrelevant!), but I know the musical so well that it was impossible not to compare the two.  The musical is incredible.  This was pretty good too!

Consequently, what I picked up on were the bits that aren’t in the musical!  Obviously that’s not a criticism of the musical: you can only fit so much of a very long book into a stage show.

For a kick off, we started with the Battle of Waterloo.  Hooray!  My one and only real gripe with the musical is that it doesn’t make it clear at the beginning exactly where in history we are, and I think that’s caused a lot of confusion, with people who are perhaps not overly familiar with 19th century French history getting the impression that the rising is in 1789, not in 1832.  So hooray for the historical scene being clearly set!  And the character fighting at Waterloo was Marius’s dad.  I’m afraid I’ve never read the book, despite having owned a copy for about fifteen years.  Oops.  I am not proud of this fact, but it’s such a huge book and I’ve got so many other books waiting to be read!   So I didn’t know anything about Marius’s background, other than that he was from a well-to-do family, and was fascinated to learn about the pro-Napoleon dad and the pro-ancien-regime grandad.  Now we were really getting into Bourbon Restoration era France!

The Thenardiers haven’t really come into it yet, but we’re going to see that Marius’s dad believed that Monsieur Thenardier saved his life.  It’s confusing in the musical, because we don’t really understand how Marius and Thenardier know each other.

Then there’s Fantine.  In the musical, we only get to know her as a struggling single mother.  Everyone knows I Dreamed A Dream, but we don’t actually see the doomed romance, or get to know the girl that Fantine was before she got into trouble.  The scene with Fantine and her mates in a bar, on the pull, could have been set today, and yet it didn’t seem anachronistic because it worked just as well two centuries ago.  It seemed very Andrew Davies: I don’t know how it’s put in the book, but it was really good.

I haven’t mentioned Jean Valjean or Javert yet, which is weird because they’re surely the two central characters.  They didn’t seem as central here as they do in the musical, though.  The musical is very much about Javert’s ongoing pursuit of Valjean and the various clashes between the two.  I hadn’t realised that the other characters feature so much more in the original story.  Both characters were played very well and very convincingly, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.

Er, so what I’ve done is compare the TV series to the musical.  This would really annoy Andrew Davies, who’s claimed that he’s rescuing the book “from the clutches of that awful musical with its doggerel lyrics”. But I hope all the newspaper reviewers compare the two, because Andrew Davies deserves to be annoyed in return for making that remark.  It’s a brilliant musical which a lot of people love.  There’s no need for him to make nasty remarks like that!  The book doesn’t need “rescuing”.  But it did need adapting into a mini-series, because the musical, due to time limits, can’t show everything, and I’m really enjoying seeing the bits I didn’t know were there!  It was an excellent first episode: there wasn’t one poor performance, and there wasn’t really anything to criticise.  Good stuff!