The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses – Indu Sundaresun

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Everyone’s heard of the Taj Mahal. Most people will know the term Mughal/Moghul/Mogul, but probably in connection with either a local takeaway or as a term for a successful businessperson.  Not many people, even in the Indian subcontinent, will have heard of the Empress Nur Jahan.  And I’m not sure how familiar most people in the UK are with the history of the Moghul Empire, because no-one teaches us much about pre-colonial Asian history.  Novels about royal families are a brilliant place to start learning about an unfamiliar period in history – especially when they involve such an interesting character as the Empress Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa.  If you want something to learn about Northern India, or even if you just want a good read about something different, give Indu Sundaresun’s books a go.

The main character in these two books is, as I said, Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa (1577-1645), the twentieth and favourite wife of the Emperor Jahangir. Her niece Arjumand, known as Mumtaz Mahal, married Jahangir’s son, the future Emperor Shah Jahan, who famously had the Taj Mahal built as Mumtaz’s mausoleum after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  It’s ironic that the publishers are marketing these books, along with Shadow Princess, which is about Jahan and Mumtaz’s eldest daughter, as “the Taj Mahal trilogy”, because Indu Sundaresun is keen to make the extremely good point that Mehrunnissa, who exercised political power and was a patron of the arts, at a time when it was very rare for a woman to do so, is all but forgotten, whereas Mumtaz, who didn’t actually do very much other than repeatedly conceive and give birth, has achieved immortality because of a beautiful building.

Shadow Princess is well worth a read as well.  It shows, amongst other things, the battles between several brothers, resulting in one brother having the others murdered, and also makes the point that, romantic as the Taj Mahal seems now, people at the time weren’t actually all that thrilled about vast amounts of taxpayers’ money being spent on an elaborate royal tomb.  It also shows the shift in attitudes from Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s keenness to incorporate elements of different religions into the life of an Islamic court to Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s successor’s, destruction of Hindu temples and fiscal discrimination against his Hindu subjects.

Just to go off the point slightly, on a recent trip to Northern India I found it interesting that most of the major buildings in older parts of Delhi, and of course the Taj Mahal in Agra, were built by the Islamic rulers of a predominantly Hindu state, and that most of the newer buildings in Delhi were built under the British Raj, but that there’s absolutely no thought of pulling them down or complaining that they’re symbols of oppression or discrimination.

Anyway, to get back to the point, Mehrunnissa is the star of the first two books. They’re written in a way that makes them very easy to get into but at the same time conveys a huge amount of information about the Mughal court and the Mughal Empire, everything from life in the harem/zenana, including the rivalries between the various different wives, to political machinations within the court, to wars with rival powers.  And the romance between Mehrunnissa and Salim/Jahangir, of course!

In brief, Mehrunnissa is born, on the road in what’s now Afghanistan, to a Persian noble family fleeing to Hindustan. They’ve got so little at the time that she’s almost abandoned at birth, but her father rises to become one of Emperor Akbar’s Grand Viziers, and Mehrunnissa goes to live at court.  The romantic version of events, which is the one shown in these books, is that she and Jahangir took a shine to each other from early on.  Spoilsports now say that this never actually happened.  Oh well.  Whatever, she was married off, unhappily, to a Persian soldier, by whom she had one daughter – whom she later married off to one of Jahangir’s sons, hoping (in vain, as it turned out) that her daughter would become Empress in turn.  After he died, she married Jahangir.

By that point, she was in her thirties. Women at the Mughal court were generally considered past their sell-by date by then, but she was the one who had the Emperor’s affection when there were plenty of younger models he could have gone for instead.  Go Mehrunnissa!   And, at a time when women were not expected to exercise power, and bearing in mind that she was only part of the royal family by marriage, she was pretty much the power behind the throne.  Jahangir was a little too fond of booze and opium.  She sat with him when he held court, issued coinage in her own name, dealt with the various Western powers looking to establish or increase their influence in what’s now India, was involved in consultations with ministers, and raised an army to fight a rebellion – even riding into the thick of things on a war elephant.

She is brilliant!   Rags to riches.  Well, OK, not quite, but her family were in dire straits when she was born.  Bagging the emperor when everyone would have expected him to be more interested in some silly young thing.  Wielding political power at a time when women weren’t supposed to.  And commissioning a tomb for her father which is generally agreed to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  Not to mention taking care of hundreds of orphans, mostly girls.  She should be right up there amongst the female icons of history.

But she isn’t. Her story ended rather sadly – confined to effective house arrest by her stepson.  As many other strong women have been, she’s been painted by those historians who have written about her as – well, a conniving bitch, not to put too fine a point on it.  And her name isn’t really known much now, even in India and Pakistan.  Whereas the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world, arguably the symbol of India.  I loved the Taj Mahal, and I’m so glad I’ve seen it, and I agree that it’s quite romantic that Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz Mahal so much that he wanted to build such a splendid tomb for her, but … well, it’s a bit strange that the Mughal Empire has been immortalised by the symbol of a marriage and a death.  I suppose it makes a change from triumphal arches and grand palaces, eh?  Anyway, these books shouldn’t be being marketed as “the Taj Mahal trilogy” at all, and it’s rather insulting to Mehrunnissa that they are!

I wasn’t actually looking for a “strong women of history” novel. I just wanted to find out more about the Mughal Empire.  And this book really is a good starting point for that.  But I really did like the character.  And I liked the author’s writing, and will be looking for more of her books if I ever get through my existing book mountain.  We aren’t generally taught much Asian history in British schools and universities, and these books make the Mughal court in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century seem very accessible.  Read and enjoy!

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Against the Inquisition by Marcos Aguinis

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You don’t necessarily expect a book about the Spanish (well, Peruvian) Inquisition, culminating in the main character being burnt at the stake, to be described as a “stirring song of freedom”; but this book really is quite inspiring. And it’s a true story – the story of Argentinian crypto-Jewish doctor Francisco Maldonado da Silva, born in 1592, who spent 12 years out-arguing the Inquisition before eventually being condemned to death.  It holds a lot of lessons for both the present and the past, and was written by an Argentinian author who lost many family members in the Holocaust and played an important role in promoting democracy in Argentinian culture after the fall of Galtieri.  The original Spanish edition was published in 1991, but it’s only recently been made available in English.

Obviously, Peru was under Spanish (maybe I should say “Castilian” … but maybe not, by this point) rule at this point. The book actually covered quite a wide part of Spanish South America: Francisco is born in Argentina, studies medicine in Chile and is imprisoned in Lima, and part of the story is also set in the Cusco area.  The fact that part of it was set in Cusco is significant, as that’s the area most closely associated with the pre-conquistadorian history of Peru.  The indigenous people of Peru were later deemed to be outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, which operated from Peru from 1570 unto 1820, but not in the early years.  The reader sees indigenous people, black slaves and people of mixed race being targeted, and also meets minor characters accused of, amongst other things, witchcraft and homosexuality.

It’s also relevant that Francisco’s family are of Portuguese descent. Portugal was under Spanish Habsburg rule at this time – I’ll refrain from writing an essay on royal genealogy, much as I’d love to.  Therefore, so was Brazil – at a time when it was under attack from the Dutch (and there are plenty of references to the Eighty Years’ War).  “New Christians” of Portuguese descent seem to have come under particular suspicion.

There are various minor characters who fall under suspicion for a number of reasons, but the book’s original Spanish title was “La Gesta del Marrano” and the story is about the persecution of crypto-Jews. It jumps backwards and forwards quite a lot, but, basically, we see Francisco as a young child, see his family torn apart when the Inquisitors take his father away – and help themselves to all the family’s possessions  – and his mother dies shortly afterwards, and see him grow up a devout Catholic, taught by monks.  We then see him train as a doctor, be reunited with his father, and turn to Judaism.  Initially, he does as his father did, lives outwardly as a Catholic, and tells his Catholic wife nothing about his background and beliefs, whilst secretly meeting up with other crypto-Jews to celebrate festivals and rituals.  But, eventually, he has enough: he wants to live openly as what he is, to be what he identifies as. “I am what I am.”

It’s possibly a bit confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with the background of the expulsion of Jews from Castile, Aragon and Portugal but I think the religious practices, and the specific culture of the crypto-Jews – things like keeping the key to a lost family home back in the Iberian Peninsula – are explained fairly well.  As recently as 2014, the Spanish government granted dual nationality to people like the da Silvas, should they choose to seek it: this is something that has remained relevant for over half a millennium.  That’s quite unusual: I’m struggling to think of comparable examples.

One thing I did find unusual about this book, in terms of books about crypto-Jews, was that it was nearly all about men. There is a lot about Francisco’s father, also a doctor.  We meet him again years later, a broken man forced to wear the “sanbenito”, the penitential garment forced on people by the Inquisition.  Francisco’s father explains crypto-Judaism to his elder son, Francisco’s brother, and he’s taken away by the Inquisition as well.  Francisco grows up a devout Catholic, and only turns to Judaism when it’s all explained to him by his father.  Women barely feature.  Francisco’s mother and wife are both from “Old Christian” families, with no Jewish heritage.  His sisters are devout Catholics, and it’s one of them, a nun, who denounces him.  Often, with a book about South American crypto-Jews, you realise what’s going on when you see mothers and daughters, in a supposedly Catholic household, lighting candles on a Friday night.  Not with this one. We do meet some women who are practising crypto-Jews, but it’s very much a male-dominated book – fathers and sons, groups of male friends.  Male priests running the Inquisition, of course.

There’s also a minor point about clashes between the Inquisition and the Jesuits. It is only a minor point, but it’s interesting because, from an English viewpoint, we probably tend to lump them all together.  All part of the Black Legend.  I love Spain, OK.  I was in tears when the Spanish flag went up during the medal ceremony for the 2008 Olympic tennis men’s singles event!   I am not getting Black Legend-ish.  All countries and cultures have shameful things in their past – and sometimes in their present.  But … well, we do say “Spanish Inquisition” rather than just “Inquisition”.  And this is a true story.

It’s not meant to be anti-Spanish, though. And it’s not meant to be anti-Catholic.  The point is made over and over again that Francisco thinks Jesus was a good man, and that the basic ideas of Catholicism are about being good people, leading good lives.  It’s the institutions of the institution that have gone wrong – it’s elements of the Catholic Church, not Catholicism.  That is very relevant at the moment, when hardly a month seems to go by without yet another horrific tale of child abuse by members of the clergy coming to light, and also when Islamic fundamentalists are carrying out such atrocities.

He spends years in prison, debating with the representatives of the Inquisition. They can’t break him. They can’t out-argue him.  They come to admire his incredible knowledge of religious texts, and his way of interpreting them.  At one point, he goes on hunger strike and nearly dies, but then he decides that it’s his duty to fight on, partly for the sake of a number of other alleged crypto-Jews who’ve also been arrested.  Ultimately, he’s burnt at the stake.

There isn’t really official recognition of martyrdom in Judaism in the way that there is in Christianity. (Masada??). If there was, he’d certainly be recognised as one.  And it’s not just that he died for his particular faith.  It’s, and this must really have called out to an author who lived through the Dirty War in Argentina, that he stood up, not only for what he believed in but for the right to believe what he believed in, and to live openly as what he chose to be.  Human rights.  So many people over the years have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their political beliefs or their sexuality or just because they were different in some way.  It’s still going on, in so many places.

Most people choose to go with the flow, to bend with the wind … er, that’s enough clichés for one sentence!   Change your religion, profess loyalty to the regime in power, keep your head down and get on with it.  Most of us wouldn’t have the strength to do otherwise.  There are plenty of arguments in favour of going with the flow and bending with the wind: Francisco’s wife is left destitute, their two young children are left to grow up without a father, his patients are left without a skilled and well-respected doctor.  And it takes some strength to live a lie as well – but no-one should have do that, to bear that pain every day.

It feels wrong, in some ways, to talk about finding inspiration in a book about such a horrific topic. The “stirring song of freedom” line’s Mario Vargas Llosa’s description of the book, by the way.  This is a book about evil, masquerading as some sort of attempt to bring about religious “purity” in society.  It’s a book about persecution.  But persecution can bring about inspirational individuals.  Frederick Douglass springs to mind.  Nelson Mandela, maybe.  People like that can change the world.  This book isn’t going to change the world, but it’ll certainly make you think.  And admire.  I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this to be made available in English, but, now that it has been (sorry, my Spanish isn’t up to reading a whole book in it!), it’s well worth reading.  It’s relevant to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vanity Fair – ITV

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Given what some of the previews were saying, I was half-expecting us to be getting “Material Girl” booming out all the way through this. I’m pleased to say that we didn’t – not that I don’t appreciate the works of the great Ms Ciccone, but period drama is period drama and doesn’t need to be “modernised”.  There was the odd classic ITV anachronism – did people in the Regency really say “Room for a little one”?! – but generally it was true to the period and true to the book.  And Olivia Clarke, from Oldham, was great as Becky – although I thought the portrayal of Amelia was more of a talking point.

This isn’t an easy book to adapt for TV on film. I absolutely loved the 1987 adaptation, with Eve Matheson as Becky, and I’m having to try very hard not to keep comparing the two!   But it’s a satire – the fact that the spa they visit is called Bad Pumpernickel says it all! – and satires aren’t always easy to get across on TV or film.  Especially when it’s the iconic Sunday 9pm spot, when people expect love and romance and heaving bosoms!   It is, of course, “a novel without a hero”, so there aren’t going to be any wet shirt scenes or topless scything scenes.  And those are what tend to grab the headlines.  We’re all so shallow, aren’t we 🙂 ?  And I’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t like the book because they don’t like the heroine.

But do you really have to like the heroine? You’re not meant to like Becky.  But you can admire her.  As someone who spends half her life worrying that she’s upset/offended someone – I have been known to edit a comment on a friend’s Facebook post four times – I actually wish I had a bit of her nerve.  She doesn’t see why she should settle for what life’s given her, and she sets out to climb the greasy pole.  In the early 19th century, the obvious way for a young, attractive woman to do that was by trying to bag a rich bloke, and that’s exactly what she does.  It’s hardly unusual, either in books or in real life.  There’ve been a lot of comments about how, if Becky were around today, she’d be on reality TV.  Maybe she would.  Or maybe she’d be hanging around the sort of clubs and bars that Premier League footballers go to.  It doesn’t really matter, because she’s not around today.  But there are always people who are out to use what they’ve got to get what they can get.

I suppose the difference with Becky, in terms of book heroines whom you don’t really like – Gone With The Wind is the greatest novel ever written, but I wouldn’t say that I “like” Scarlett O’Hara – is that, unlike Scarlett, she really doesn’t seem to care about anyone other than herself.  The one time she redeems herself is when she persuades Amelia to marry Dobbin, and that’s partly why the friendship between the two of them is so important to the book.  The sweet sister or best friend who can’t see the bad in anyone isn’t an unusual character, but Amelia is pretty sappy and colourless in a way that people like Jane Bennet and Melanie Hamilton Wilkes aren’t, They have changed that in this adaptation, to give Amelia, played by Claudia Jessie, a much stronger personality.  I like this version of Amelia … but I’m always quite dubious about TV adaptations changing the characters too much.

Something similar was done with Fanny Price, who isn’t sappy but is distinctly over-prim and boring, in the adaptation of Mansfield Park a few years ago.  So – do TV producers feel that sappy/colourless female characters (apologies for excessive use of the word “sappy”!) aren’t acceptable in the 21st century?  Going slightly off the point, I recently went to see the musical version of An Officer and a Gentleman.  It was great – all that ’80s music! – and no-one could ever compare Paula to Amelia Sedley, but the great iconic moment at the end, when Zack carries her off in his arms, did feel slightly awkward.  The production team obviously felt that too, because she swept him up in her arms when the cast came on to take a bow at the end!  And, whilst I can’t wait to see the Pretty Woman musical – music by Bryan Adams!! – I do take the point in some of the reviews that the idea of the rich businesswoman picking up the girl off a street corner and giving her money to buy expensive clothes with seems rather cringeworthy.  Or am I making too much of this, and were the producers of Vanity Fair just trying to make Amelia a bit more interesting?

They haven’t changed any of the other characters. And, so far, they haven’t really changed the storyline.  I thought George Osbourne could have been a bit more caddish, rather than just generally annoying, but I suppose he was generally annoying.  And I prefer to think of Dobbin being more the strong and silent type and a bit less nervous and self-effacing, but, again, that’s probably just me!   Jos Sedley was spot on, though, as the caricature of the rather idiotic nabob in the era of East India Company administration of India.  The Crawley house seemed rather more Gothic horror novel-esque than I remembered, but Martin Clunes as Sir Pitt was great.

It’s all about the girls, though. And we’ve still got Miss Matilda Crawley to come.  It is, after all, a novel without a hero!

In terms of the actual production, it was all really bright and colourful. I’m not good with technical stuff, but I gather that this is due to computer generated imagery.  When they showed some of the shots of London, I was half-expecting a group of bystanders to burst into “Who will buy this wonderful morning?” – it had that kind of feel to it!   But Vanity Fair *is* colourful.  The Georgian era *is* colourful.  It’s not the Restoration – Restoration era London would definitely lend itself to CGI (TV adaptation of Forever Amber, anyone?)! – but it’s certainly not the era of covering up piano legs because it’s rude for even furniture to show its bare legs.  The Museum of London website describes the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, where Jos nearly proposed but didn’t, as “Part art gallery, part fashion show and part brothel”! (It didn’t last too long into the Victorian era.)  I’m rather looking forward to seeing what they do with the Duchess of Richmond’s ball.

I don’t think this is going to become part of our culture in the way that the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice did, or that Downton Abbey did. Of everything I’ve ever written, the post about “Downton Abbey and the Odessa pogroms” has had more views than anything else!   But it filled that Sunday 9pm slot nicely, and I enjoyed it.  And I see that it’s made a lot of today’s front pages, even without wet shirts or topless scything!

 

The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

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According to William Dalrymple, all the problems of the world are due to Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists. And no, he wasn’t talking about today – he was talking about the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58.  Let’s say that this isn’t the most balanced and unbiased view of events that I’ve ever read!  He makes some good points, though, and a lot of the writing is quite gripping – not always easy to achieve when writing about military events.  And he’s used some previously unpublished information which he came across whilst doing his research.

Dalrymple is also the author of White Mughals, about a relationship (a true story) between a British man and an Indian noblewoman, and he clearly feels very strongly about the changes in British attitudes towards Indian people as the 19th century went on, and links that closely to changes in religious culture.  This was something I also mentioned when I was waffling about the Who Do You Think You Are? Episode about Olivia Colman’s mixed race ancestor – welcomed into the family and British society, in the early 19th century, in a way which she sadly wouldn’t have been a few decades later.   There was definitely a change in attitudes, and it certainly wasn’t for the better.

The book’s actually supposed to be about Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor – as the title suggests. Also an Urdu poet and a Sufi mystic.  You associate the Mughal Empire with the 16th and 17th centuries, and tend almost to forget that there was still a Mughal Emperor, even if his rule was confined just to parts of Delhi, until the Mutiny.  Popular amongst both Hindus and Muslims, he was, at the age of 81, proclaimed Emperor of Hindustan by the mutineers … and he dithered whilst 52 Westerners were murdered at his palace, and then pretty much took the blame.  A British major then executed two of his sons and one of his grandsons.  Many other male members of his family were also executed by the British – it reads a bit like the Bolsheviks wiping out the Romanovs – and, according to Dalrymple, many of the women ended up working as prostitutes.  Zafar was exiled to Burma.  And Delhi was wrecked.

It was not the British Empire’s finest hour – although an amnesty was proclaimed for all mutineers not actually involved in murder.  It should also be noted that the press didn’t help, by exaggerating what had gone on, particularly with false claims about mutineers sexually assaulting British women.  The press in the second half of the 19th century seem to have been very good at whipping up hysteria: they did the same in the 1870s, during the Russo-Turkish War.

And, as we all know, the rule of the East India Company was then replaced by the British Raj – although it should be pointed out that large areas of India remained under the control of local rulers, and also that a royal proclamation was issued, promising Indians under British rule the rights of British subjects.

The Mutiny’s covered in two of my all-time favourite books, God is an Englishman (retrospectively) by R F Delderfield and A Dark and Distant Shore by Reay Tannahill.   Both make it clear that there was horrific violence on both sides – and that’s where I think Dalrymple could do with seeing both sides a little more clearly.  He does follow the experiences of a number of British people, men and women, in Delhi during the Mutiny, and he does make it clear that some of them were murdered, but he doesn’t seem to express the same horror about that as he does about the atrocities committed by the British forces.  Two wrongs, especially two such horrific wrongs, do not in any way make a right; but it is important to recognise that there was wrong on both sides.  His view doesn’t seem particularly balanced, and a lot of that seems due to his conviction that relations between the British and the Indians went wrong because of Evangelical Christianity.

He does also deal with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, so maybe he has it in for religious extremism in general. It’s hard to argue with anyone on that score!   But his argument seems to be everything that was going wrong revolved around cultural changes in British attitudes towards India, associated with the rise of Evangelical Christianity, whereas there were all sorts of different reasons for the Mutiny.  And, yes, I know that not everyone uses the term “Mutiny”, but it’s the one I’m used to.

Going back to God is an Englishman and A Dark and Distant Shore, neither of them – and obviously they’re novels, not academic books – focus on Delhi.  Books by British authors do usually focus on Cawnpore (Kanpur) and Lucknow and the sufferings of British civilians there, but this one does very much focus on Delhi, and the Indian viewpoint.  I’m saying “Indian”, but obviously we’re talking about a subcontinent of three major religions and many different ethnic groups, and that needs to be borne in mind.

The cause I first remember reading about was the use of beef and pork fat on cartridges used to grease guns. Soldiers had to bite the cartridges open.  What a stupid, insensitive thing to do – upsetting both Hindus and Muslims, and it could so easily have been avoided by using goat or mutton fat.  But that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back.  There was so much else going on.  Interference in religion and culture, yes.  Fears that attempts would be made to make mass conversions to Christianity, yes.  Economic policy – free trade is a wonderful thing, but not when it interferes with local traditional ways of doing things.  The Doctrine of Lapse, by which the British authorities helped themselves to princely states with no direct heir, refusing to recognise the traditional practice of adopting an heir in such circumstances.  And it wasn’t called the Mutiny for nothing – there was widespread discontent in the Army, over pay, lack of opportunities for promotion, and, as British holdings in India expanded, men being sent further and further afield.

So it was hardly all about religious/cultural ideas.  And it’s pushing it to suggest, as Dalrymple does, that Evangelical Christians were making all the decisions about British policy in India, and I also think it’s pushing it to say that Evangelical Christians were to blame for all the negative aspects of imperialism … even if it does make a change from the often-made suggestion that British attitudes towards Indians changed for the worse when more British women began going to India, which is very objectionable!  A lot of the trouble in China was caused by Catholic missionaries, rather than Evangelicals, incidentally.  And the people who did look at expansion and imperialism as some sort of religious thing were part of a wider culture of Western-centrism, which was about race and industrialisation as much as it was about religion.  It’s the whole “White Man’s Burden” thing.  And the American term “Manifest Destiny” goes right back to just before the Mexican War.  It’s horrible, and it’s frightening, but it went way beyond religious activism.

These people did actually mean well, I suppose. And, as much as it’s easy to criticise their ideas of cultural superiority, you can see why they thought that, for example, trying to end the practice of widows committing suicide was a good thing.   This still goes on today.  Should people be criticised for trying to end Female Genital Mutilation, which is a traditional practice in some areas? And David Cameron was accused of cultural imperialism when he quite rightly criticised the very poor record of some Commonwealth countries on LGBT rights – ironically, a subject on which Evangelical Christians would probably oppose change in the countries concerned.   All cultures can learn from other cultures. Look how many English words have come from Urdu and Hindi. We use some of them every day. Shampoo. Pyjamas. But that has to come in the right way, and that wasn’t what was happening in 19th century India.

I can’t abide preachy people who think they have the right to tell other people what to do, and who think that they’re morally and culturally superior to others. Thinking about missionaries in India always makes me think about St John Rivers, Jane Eyre’s cousin, one of the most annoying characters in classic literature – and that says a lot!  And some of the stuff coming out of the US at the moment is genuinely frightening.  But I do think Dalrymple’s a bit hard on them.  It’s worth remembering that Evangelicals played an important role in Abolitionism … although don’t get me started on the subject of William Wilberforce opposing holding of an inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.  And the negative side of colonialism and imperialism was scarcely all their fault.  There were a lot of other factors at play.  Power politics.  The Mutiny broke out the year after the end of the Crimean War: the two things weren’t linked, but there was always “the Great Game” to be thought about.  Money – let’s never forget money!    Well, trade.  If only everyone had stuck to thinking about trade!

We do all need to try harder to see different sides of everything.  That’s becoming more and more of a rarity: increasingly, people will shout down anyone whose views differ from theirs, and hurl insults at them.  I recently read an obituary of Senator John McCain which referred to the respect that he and Barack Obama showed for each other.  Fewer and fewer politicians show that respect towards opponents now, and it’s the same with the press, and, in many cases, with people in general.

Back to the Mutiny. Was it Niall Ferguson who said that Britain somehow ended up with “the wrong empire”?  We were supposed to be after trade, not colonies and certainly not all this “white man’s burden” stuff.  There’d been criticism in Britain for years of Spanish behaviour in Latin America, all the “Black Legend” stuff.  Was the Mutiny the point at which it changed?

There’s a lot to think about, in this book, beyond the actual events of 1857-58. Poor old Zafar himself.  The final end of the Mughal period – that great Empire, the Empire of the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort and, for so many years, religious harmony.  What happens to emperors after their empires have gone?  Zafar only lived a few years afterwards, and the senior Romanovs were wiped out, but spare a thought for the various Habsburgs and Hohenzollerns and others still dotted around the world.  And, finally, back to the question of Evangelical Christians and Islamic fundamentalists – and add the religious right-wing elements of Judaism, Hinduism and other religions into that as well.   One of the few good things that Oliver Cromwell did for this country was to show people that religious extremism is best kept out of politics.  It usually is, here.  It’s a great shame that that isn’t the case everywhere.

Nobody can agree on the Indian Mutiny.  Mutiny?  War of independence?  Either way, you can’t argue that it wasn’t a big deal.  However, that’s usually seen in terms of the change from the rule of the East India Company to the rule of the British Crown – and, yes, that was the main effect, but the fact that it did finally end the Mughal Empire, even if the “Mughal Empire” was by then only one part of one city, deserves recognition too, and that’s what this book was about.  Even if it did go on rather too much about religious attitudes.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Camping and Tramping, Swallows and Amazons by Hazel Sheeky

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“Camping and Tramping, Swallows and Amazons: Interwar Children’s Fiction and the Search for England” – to give it its full title.

I felt like playing The Manchester Rambler on loop after reading this!  In fact, if I wasn’t so unfit and lazy, I’d have felt like coming the Cheetham Hill communist and re-enacting the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass 🙂 .  All right, we all know that, as the author discusses at length, most pre-1960s 20th century children’s fiction is horrendously snobbish; but, whilst I can take a lot of it, on the grounds of the past being a foreign country etc, all that Campers and Trampers versus Holidaymakers and Day Trippers stuff always makes my blood boil.  I nearly exploded when the author quoted a bunch of upper-middle-class Southerners in one book talking about “ghastly places in Lancashire”.  Ooh!!

This was a PhD thesis, and the author spent quite a lot of time bemoaning the fact that she didn’t have room within the word limit to say everything that she wanted to.  I believe she has now written a book on the subject, but it probably costs a fortune, so reading this’ll have to do!  Being a thesis, it was inevitably full of methodology and explanation about what she was trying to get at, which wasn’t very interesting – but, OK, it wasn’t meant for a general audience.  It was also a bit confused: it wasn’t particularly clear exactly what it was that she was trying to get at.  And the concluding section referred to children’s literature between “1930 and 1960”.  Excuse me for thinking that the inter-war period was from 1918 to 1939!

The general idea seemed to be to argue against people who’ve said that children’s fiction from the first half or so of the 20th century was a load of rubbish – do not get me started on the primary school teacher who tried to get me to stop reading Enid Blyton books (I took no notice) – and also to argue that it wasn’t overly romantic or fantastical but was in fact realistic and part of the wider culture of the time.  It also seemed to be to discuss whether it was trying to create a myth of nationhood.  The author’s views and arguments didn’t really come across that clearly, but the arguments and debates themselves, the issues involved, were very interesting.

Unfortunately, I haven’t read most of the books mentioned, apart from some of the Arthur Ransomes and a few of the Malcolm Savilles.  Enid Blyton’s Famous Five novels were dismissed as not being “properly” Camping and Tramping, and Lorna Hill’s Patience and Marjorie books (which, like Enid Blyton’s, would count if going up to 1960) didn’t get mentioned at all.  But hopefully I’ve got the general idea!

These books are, as the author says, generally about the middle-classes – but I prefer the term “upper-middle-class”.  Being middle-class in the inter-war period to me means a suburban semi and, if your family could afford it before paid holidays came in, a fortnight in Blackpool every summer.  It does not mean going to boarding school, owning a boat and or a pony and having a dad who’s an officer in the Royal Navy : there’s nothing very “middle” about that!

People do like to read a lot into children’s fiction, and there are various theories about “camping and tramping” novels of the inter-war period, and indeed the interest in nature and the countryside in general, being something to do with trying to colonise the countryside now that Britain’s imperial power was on the wane.  No, me neither!   The author neither.  Britain’s imperial power actually wasn’t really on the wane in the 1920s and 1930s, for one thing.   Other theories involve in being about building a myth of nationhood, stressing rural and maritime traditions.

Well, they do work better, but it was a combination of things, and it went back well before the Great War.  It wasn’t just a British/English thing, either.  It’s probably best not to dwell too much on it, but the Nazi youth movements in Germany were very into the countryside.  The idea of access to the countryside being available to all was also important elsewhere – notably in Norway.

Various things, then.  Well, for a kick-off, the Romantic poets and artists.  Merrie England, rural idylls, folk dancing, maypoles, etc, but mainly the romantic ideas of the countryside, the green and pleasant land.  Whilst I will not have anyone criticising mills as being dark and satanic 🙂 , I buy into the romantic countryside thing completely.  Every April, you will find me going to Grasmere to see the hosts of golden daffodils!   Yes, I have all sorts of romantic notions of the countryside – and I’m talking lakes and mountains, not farms.  I can’t be doing with animals.  Too noisy and too smelly.  Does that come across in “camping and tramping” books?  No: I don’t think it does.  It comes across far better in something like the Chalet School books.  Camping and tramping books are too active!   Too much doing and not enough looking and dreaming!

The Victorian Romantics sadly don’t get much of a mention in this book, although Whitman and Thoreau do.   I can’t really be doing with all that wilderness stuff.  Lakes and mountains and daffodils are much better.

Then there was the Victorian fresh air and exercise thing.  “Muscular Christianity” to build an Empire.  Combined with that, the wake-up call given by the poor health of many of the working-class men who volunteered to fight in the Boer War – not only did it help to bring about Lloyd George’s welfare reforms, but it also led to an increased emphasis on fresh air and exercise for all.  Think the famous images of the Duke of York, the future George VI, singing “Underneath the Spreading Chestnut Tree” at boys’ camps.  And people in inter-war children’s books seem to be able to walk miles and miles without ever getting tired.  Not to mention eat vast amounts without putting on weight!

Then, and this was specifically inter-war, there was the idea of the countryside as a peaceful place, an antidote to the horrors of the Great War.  I recently read a review of the new Christopher Robin film, written by someone who said that AA Milne would have been horrified at the thought of taking Winnie The Pooh & co to London, because the whole point was that they were supposed to be in the countryside.   And, as the author says, there’s an argument that the set-up found in most of the books is a reaction against the imperialism/militarism of organisations like the Scouts and the Guides and the Boys’ Brigades.  No-one’s marching or wearing uniforms; and there are no formal organisations, just groups of siblings, cousins and friends.

So, are the books about imperialism or national mythology or upper-middle-class values, or whatever?  Well, the argument in this thesis really isn’t clear.  There’s a lot of information in it, but most of it isn’t clearly linked to either the introduction or the conclusion.  I don’t particularly think it is.  I think everyone’s got rather obsessed with trying to find imperialism in everything.  The author does come back to this in a later section, about maps, and argues that, when the Swallows and Amazons crew rename all the places around Coniston with the names of far-flung places around the world, and talk about discovering them, they are displaying an imperialistic attitude and trying to impose their power and control on the countryside.

And here was me thinking it was just a bunch of kids using their imaginations to try to make their summer holidays seem a bit more exciting!   Someone – I think it was Dan Brown – once said that you can invent a conspiracy theory by looking at the pattern of letters in the phone directory, if you try.  People read into things what they will, but I’m really not convinced that giving places exotic-sounding nicknames indicates a desire to take over the world.

Another of the big issues was whether or not the books are realistic.  The author seemed keen to argue that they were, but a lot of the subject matter was contradictory.  Arthur Ransome’s books do not belong to the same category as, say, AA Milne’s or Kenneth Grahame’s.  Well, seeing as that they don’t involve talking animals, that’s probably a given.  But a more relevant point was that, unlike in Enid Blyton’s books, no-one ends up chasing spies or rescuing kidnap victims – and I think a lot of people were very annoyed that a spy story was shoved into the recent film adaptation of Swallows and Amazons.  But she then said that you do get wild adventures in Malcolm Saville’s books, which contradicted the arguments that the whole genre’s realistic.

To some extent, it’s a pointless argument.  None of the books are realistic, with young kids being allowed to go off on their own.  It’s like the arguments about the lives of characters in soap operas being unrealistic.  The reality of daily life is not very exciting.  No-one wants to read a book or watch a TV programme about it!    But, no, the books aren’t set in … well, this image we have of the Long Golden Edwardian Summer, this time of innocence before the Great War, “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910” and all that kind of thing.

The reality argument was then contradicted again, in a section about how the books treat the countryside as a playground, with rural people only appearing as, say, rosy-cheeked farmers’ wives who produce enormous amounts of home-made food every five minutes, with very little about the harsh reality of rural life and how hard farming people had, and still have, to work.  There was also quite a bit about the idea of both boats and caravans as symbolising freedom.  They always sound so great in books, don’t they?  Both Enid Blyton and Noel Streatfeild had me longing to go off in a houseboat or a caravan.  Ugh!   I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes!   Again, romance trumps reality – and possibly defeated the argument that everything in the books was realistic!   However, the author did argue again for realism by pointing out that the characters in The Wind in the Willows soon find out that life on the open road isn’t very exciting at all – although I’m not sure how valid it is to argue that a storyline involving a talking toad in a flat cap driving round the countryside shows that a book reflects reality!

It was also, rather amusingly, pointed out that no-one in these books ever roughed it!   The Swallows, in particular, take vast amounts of stuff with them, and always eat rather fancy meals.  There were pages and pages in the thesis about the symbolism of Susan Walker’s campfire as showing her establishing her control over the countryside and defining The Great Outdoors as a domesticated space.  Again, I think that might be reading too much into it all!   There was also a section about Geoffrey Trease showing the Lake District as being devoid of people and buildings, which apparently also showed people wanting to establish their power and control over the countryside.  I’m not sure how any of this was meant to fit with the arguments that the books all reflected reality, but never mind!   They were good points about the genre in general.

Then we got to the part that wound me up!   To me, the importance of the countryside in the inter-war years, linked in with the increased affordability of public transport and bicycles, is everything that The Manchester Rambler says: it’s about people from urban, industrial areas being able to get out into The Great Outdoors and enjoy the freedom and the beauty of it.  And, no, that isn’t realistic at all, because it isn’t about rural people and rural life!   But, as the author says, most of the characters in the books aren’t rural people, living rural lives: they’re on holiday.

No, sorry, they aren’t “on holiday”.  Nothing so common.  They’re Campers and Trampers, and the books are full of snotty remarks about “day trippers” and “holiday makers”.  I hate that.  It really, really does my head in.  It’s Them and Us.  The author does try to argue that it’s not about snobbery, and that it’s more about people who appreciate the countryside versus those who don’t.  It’s pointed out that some of the Not The Right Sort characters in some of Arthur Ransome’s books are clearly well-off, whilst some of the Author Approved characters are the offspring of boat-builders, and that being The Right Sort is sometimes indicated by clothing, or general appearance, or traits like the volume at which you speak, rather than by social class.

Hmm.  I’m not convinced!   The characters in the books always have weeks and weeks to spend on holidays.  The “day trippers” and “holiday makers” don’t.  And that’s the point.  “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.”  The thesis does quote a historian acknowledging that “it was the northern working-class groups that escalated the power for access reform” – but, bizarrely, the said historian apparently said that this was because the Northern working-classes had so much time on their hands due to the high levels of unemployment during the Depression!  That is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard!   How exactly were people who were struggling to put food on the table supposed to pay for train tickets to the Lakes, the Peaks or the Dales?  No, no, no!   “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man on Sunday.”  There was a rather more sensible quote, from a different historian, about the links between socialism and the importance of the countryside and access to it being available to all.

There are some examples in the books of characters acknowledging that access to the countryside should be available to all.  A Geoffrey Trease character said that “The hills, the rivers, they must be free to all”.  But, ugh, the snobbery!   As the author pointed out, characters often seem to think that working-class characters in the books, especially those on farms where they’re staying, are just there to serve their needs.  Characters in Explorers on the Wall by Garry Hogg – a book I shall not, ever, be reading! – apparently apparently whinge about going through “ghastly places in Lancashire”, and even specifically refer to Manchester as “a grim place” – never, ever, shall I read this book!!  And characters in The Compass Points North by ME Atkinson apparently make similar comments about the mining areas around Newcastle, as they pass through it on the train.

Is this snobbery, or is it just the dark satanic mills versus green and pleasant land thing?   Is it about the idea of a creating an adult idea of a pastoral elegy, as the author suggests?  Well, those of us who live in the land of the dark satanic mills are as keen on the green and pleasant idea as anyone.  Maybe more so – you can’t really be a Manchester Rambler if you live in the sort of area that the characters in these books do.  But to dismiss places as “grim” and “ghastly” like that – ugh!!

Again, the thread of whatever argument there was didn’t really follow, but I’m so glad that that section was included, even if there was no direct reference to the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass.  There was then a related section about whether or not Arthur Ransome meant to show that sailing was affordable for all.  As the author said, that was partly more about location than class or financial situation – but the “cruising” boats featured in most of the books would certainly not have been affordable for most people.  There were also some comments about the snotty pre Second World War attitudes towards the Merchant Navy as opposed to the Royal Navy.  Two members of my family (on the Liverpool side) were amongst the Merchant Navy men killed in the Great War, and I find that snotty attitude extremely offensive!

Then came a section about how John Walker is meant to symbolise the sense of duty and responsibility associated with the Royal Navy, and how the storylines in the books are part of his character training.  Fair enough.  That arguments works with school stories as well – not particularly in terms of the Navy, but in terms of character building and leadership skills and so on.  It’s a big feature of children’s literature in the period in question.  But I was less impressed by the argument that the Swallows and Amazons books are intrinsically sexist, and that Nancy Blackett is undermined by John and forced to submit to female gender stereotypes and roles.  A lot of children’s books of the inter-war and post-war era do feature bossy boys, and girls being left out of adventures entirely or else forced to accept a lesser role; but I’d never said that the Arthur Ransome books fitted that category.

It did end with sailing, and an argument that the books were meant to promote a Britannia Rules The Waves type national mythology.  I’m not convinced.  The author had said earlier that ships were a symbol of freedom.  And that’s what I think these books are about – freedom.  Freedom from the ordinary routine of daily life.  Freedom from adult control.  And the whole idea of the countryside as freedom.  That’s what The Manchester Rambler’s about.  And that’s why all those comments in the books about the evils of “day trippers” annoy me so much, because they’re about people wanting that freedom for themselves, because they think they’re the Right Sort of People, but not for others.

As I’ve said, this wasn’t meant to be a mass market read, or even a general academic read, and it’s not particularly coherent and it’s not particularly clear what it’s getting at – but it does contain some very interesting and thought-provoking stuff.  Thank you so much to Janice for recommending it!

 

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

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This book is set partly in Madrid, partly in and around Lisbon, partly in Tangier, then a multicultural international zone associated with everything from artists to espionage, and mostly in Tetouan, which served as the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco from 1913 to 1956. Four fascinating cities, and an interesting story set mainly during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, with a mixture of real people and fictional characters.

It’s not a spy story – I don’t really do spy stories, apart from James Bond! – but a lot of it does involve the Special Operations Executive. I generally associate Special Operations Executive with Occupied France – and I’m afraid that that’s just made me think of ‘Allo ‘Allo, but never mind – and the Norwegian heavy water sabotage, and don’t think very much about Spain and all the other countries where operations were taking place; and I think there’s also a tendency to think of Spain and Portugal as being outside mainstream European history during the period of the fascist dictatorships there, despite the well-known links between Franco and Hitler.

Also, despite the Rif War and its effect on Spanish politics in the 1920s, and for all the ongoing rows over Western Sahara (why does no-one make a fuss over the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara?), and the fact that Spain holds Ceuta and Melilla, it’s easy to forget that Spain was, and still is, involved in North Africa – it wasn’t all about France, Italy and (in Egypt) Britain. As the book points out, Spain didn’t really get involved in the Scramble for Africa, but it did, after losing control of Cuba and the Philippines, make an agreement with France which gave it control of a couple of bits of Morocco.  Tetouan, a city with a complicated history (involving a lot of pirates, back in the day!), and a mixed population of Arab Muslims, Berber Muslims and Sephardi Jews, was the administrative centre of the southern bit.

I’m not sure that we really got the distinction between Arabs and Berbers, though: there were just a lot of references to “Moors”. I was slightly bemused in Sicily recently to see a sign warning people to beware of “Saracens” in cafes.  I assume that it was in the sense of the old-fashioned English term “street Arabs”, but you just wouldn’t dream of using that term in English now, and you wouldn’t really say “Moors” when talking about the 20th or 21st centuries.  Anyway, things are presumably different in Spanish and Italian … and I have now got off the point.  I just have a lot of sympathy with the way that the Berbers have been treated in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere.  And, having said all of this, there were quite a few references to “Riffians”, and Riffians are Berbers.

OK, OK, back to the point!   Amongst the Spanish officials there in the 1930s were the pro-British Juan Luis Beigbeder y Atienza, later Franco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Franco’s pro-German brother-in-law, who would eventually replace Beigbeder as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramon Serrano Suner.

So some pretty influential people. Both of them, especially Beigbeder, feature in the book, as do Alan Hillgarth, the British adventure novelist who was an intelligence agent in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, and Rosalinda Powell Fox, Beigbeder’s lover and a British spy.  Churchill’s supposed to have said that “the war might have taken a very different course were it not for Rosalinda”.

None of them are very familiar figures. It’s not a part of twentieth century history that gets a lot of attention.  Too much else going on at the time, to be fair!

The main characters, though, are the fictional ones. The first person protagonist, the seamstress of the title, is Sira Quiroga.  The early part of her life’s a bit like a cross between Evita and a Georgian melodrama – she’s the illegitimate daughter of a Madrid seamstress and her married former lover, grows up in poverty, and dumps her nice boyfriend for someone who is clearly bad news.  Her long-lost dad reappears on the scene, gives her a load of money and jewellery, and suggests that she get out of Spain because trouble (the civil war)’s coming.  She and the new boyfriend go off to Morocco, and, whaddaya know, he runs off with her money and jewellery and leaves her with a huge pile of debts.  She gets involved with various shady characters, and sets herself up as a high-class dressmaker in Tetouan, where most of her customers are the wives of Nazis hanging around there, but where she also meets and becomes friendly with the aforementioned Rosalinda Powell Fox, and is recruited by the British Special Operations Executive.

She goes back to Madrid, and is sent on a mission to Lisbon, and there’s a lot of chasing around and jumping off trains … it is all a bit James Bond, but it’s largely a historical novel, full of information about what was going on in the Spanish protectorate and in Spain itself at the time. What would have happened if Spain had joined forces with the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy?  It could well have happened.  Maybe it’s best not to think too much about it.  It sounds a bit weird that a book should start off as a tale of poverty and dodgy boyfriends and then turn into a wartime thriller, but it does work really well.  I love the idea of writing notes in Morse code, made to look like the stitches for a sewing pattern!

And it’s been made into a TV series, under its original title – El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time Between Seams) – in Spain, but unfortunately it’s never been shown in the UK. Sky Arts used to show some good Spanish drama series – I really enjoyed Grand Hotel and Isabella – but they don’t any more, which is a shame.

The ending is really annoying, though. We see Sira reunitedwith Marcus Logan, a British spy with whom she’d become involved in Tetouan and then (as you do) just happened to bump into whilst she was on her secret mission to Lisbon.  After they’d dramatically got off the train together to escape the agents of the Spanish double agent who’s working for both the British and the Nazis (I did say it was all a bit James Bond), and it’d turned out that he knew her long-lost dad (yes, OK, it did get a bit far-fetched), but we don’t actually find out what happens to them after the war – we’re told that it’s all a mystery.  Sorry, but that’s a rather silly way to end a book!

But, apart from the ending, and the fact that some of the spy adventure stuff is a bit bonkers for a book that isn’t actually a spy story, it’s very entertaining, and very interesting. It really is easy to think of Spain and Portugal as having been outside the mainstream of European history for much of the twentieth century, and maybe even the second half of the nineteenth century too.  They weren’t.  And Tetouan – I love Morocco, but I knew nothing about Tetouan before reading this book, but what a fascinating place it sounds!  And, come on, Sky Arts, give us some more Spanish drama!

In the Name of the Family by Sarah Dunant

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I love the idea of Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella d’Este, arguably two of the three most fascinating women (Caterina Sforza probably trumps both of them) of the Italian Wars/Renaissance period, having a really bitchy Krystle-Alexis type rivalry.  Unfortunately, Sarah Dunant’s books, much as I enjoy them – I’ll read anything set in 15th/16th century Italy! – never quite seem to go deep enough, and always leave you with a slightly frustrated feeling of only having skimmed the surface.  They’re good, but, given the subject matter, they could be so much better!

This is the sequel to Blood and Beauty, and follows the Borgias – Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), Cesare and Lucrezia – from the time of Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, brother of Isabella and Beatrice, in early 1502, to Rodrigo’s death in 1503.  It doesn’t cover the relationship between Lucrezia and Francesco Gonzaga, Isabella’s husband … I don’t think that really got going until later on, which explains it, but it seems a bit odd that the author wrote the book in a way that meant that such a juicy storyline was missing.  Maybe she’s planning another sequel.  The Lucrezia-Isabella rivalry, which could have made for such fascinating reading, is, disappointingly, largely shown as bitching about who’s got the best clothes. We do get to see the poet Bembo, and Lucrezia becoming his muse, though.

It’s Lucrezia who dominates the book, but Rodrigo and Cesare feature too.  We only really see Rodrigo as someone in poor health who knows that he hasn’t got long to live, but that’s the stage of his life at which the book’s set.  Ever since that Sky Atlantic series about the Borgias, I keep imagining Rodrigo Borgia as looking like Jeremy Irons, and of course he looked absolutely nothing like him – he weighed about 10 stone more, for a kick off!    As far as Cesare goes, this book is set after the really interesting bits, i.e. the conquests of Imola and Forli, not to mention bumping off his brother-in-law, but we do see him taking control of Urbino and Camerino, and then falling out with his own men.  It’s not the most interesting part of his life/career, either, though.

Machiavelli also features – interesting idea to involve him.  He always turns up in books about the Medici, but not so much in books about the Borgias.  His wife, whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen mentioned in a book before, also has a role as a supporting character.  I think the Borgias probably had as much influence on the writing of The Prince (a book which I read over 25 years ago and do not particularly intend to read again) as the Medicis did, so I think that including him worked, although it made the story quite bitty – and, because it was jumping between the three main Borgia characters, it was quite bitty anyway.

But, as I said, the main focus is on Lucrezia – on her marriage to Alfonso d’Este, her grief for her previous husband, Alfonso of Aragon, how much she’s missing her young child, and her grief after she suffers a stillbirth which was probably a result of Alfonso d’Este contracting syphilis and passing it on to her.  Not the pleasantest of topics, syphilis, but you can’t really write about this period of Italian history without it.

The other week, I was waiting to get off the Palermo to Naples overnight ferry (I’d been to Sicily on holiday, but was flying back to Rome), and I was thinking about Neapolitan history to try to distract myself from the fact that everything was running late and I really needed my breakfast, and “See Naples and die” kept going through my head.  Yes, I know, it’s supposed to be because the city’s so beautiful (which it is), but it also has all these connotations of the spread of syphilis during the Italian Wars!   It’s not actually clear whether or not Lucrezia contracted it, but it would explain her sad history of miscarriages and stillbirths and general health problems during her marriage to Alfonso d’Este.  The book does go on about this quite a lot.  Er, and, as it’s not the pleasantest of topics, as I said, on to other things now.

All the rubbish that’s been written about the Borgias over the years, the incest and the poisonings and all the rest of it, is thankfully missing.  I don’t think anyone still buys that, but old stories die hard. The book shows Lucrezia as being quite a sweet person, and Rodrigo Borgia as being devoted to his family.  I quite admire Rodrigo – plenty of the senior churchmen in those days had mistresses and illegitimate children, but he was really the only one who had the nerve to act as if his children were equivalent to members of royal/noble dynasties, make grand marriages for them and encourage his surviving son to create a state for himself.  OK, he’s like a walking argument in favour of the Reformation, but you’ve got to admire that nerve!   The presentation of Cesare isn’t so favourable, but I don’t see how anyone can find much good to say about Cesare Borgia.  I cannot stand the man.

But I do like Lucrezia.  She, and Catherine de Medici’s another one, haven’t half been libelled over the years.  It’s good to see her being represented more as she actually was – and interesting to see her, like so many princesses and noblewomen over the centuries, having to cope with being packed off to a strange court and put under huge pressure to produce an heir.  There’s also an interesting interlude involving her staying at a convent, seeking physical and spiritual respite.

Machiavelli comes across as a decent bloke, as well.  I’m not sure what he’d have thought if he’d known that his name would be turned into an adjective meaning deceitful/unscrupulous!  It was a great idea to include him and the Borgias, and Isabella d’Este as well, in the same book.  It just doesn’t seem to be as good as it could have been.  It doesn’t help that this really isn’t the most interesting period of the lives of the Borgias, but, even so, with such a fascinating cast of characters, it had huge potential which it didn’t quite fulfil.  Or maybe it’s just me!

Incidentally, what is the obsession with Hilary Mantel?  I read the reviews of both this book and Nicola Griffith’s Hild on Amazon before buying them, and both were full of comparisons, evidently meant to be highly complimentary, with Hilary Mantel.  I’m obviously missing something here, because I didn’t get Wolf Hall at all, and it is not like me not to “get” a book about the Tudors.  I thought it was silly, quite honestly.  Oh well, never mind.  This is much better than Wolf Hall!  I just think it could have been … more.