The Matriarch by G B Stern


Gladys B Stern, born in London in 1890, changed her middle name from Bertha to Bronwyn because it sounded more romantic, converted from Judaism to Catholicism, studied in Switzerland, was introduced to her future husband by Noel Coward, frightened off umpteen different secretaries, and liked to be addressed as Peter. I’m not entirely sure how you get “Peter” from “Gladys”, but, hey, in the inter-war years, Anything Went.  As for the actual book, it’s supposed to be a feminist novel written before its time (although that’s actually mainly because the men are all presented as being useless), and it’s also a Jewish novel in a way that I really don’t think you could write now.  So … yes, something a bit different.

It’s essentially a family saga, set mainly in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, and mainly in London.  The main theme is fairly universal – an older generation who want to control things, and younger generations who are either desperate for their elders’ approval, want to rebel and go their own way, or feel bound by guilt and duty to do as their elders want.  The matriarch of the title is Anastasia Rakonitz, who’s born in the Austrian Empire (the Hungarian part, but pre Ausgleich!) but spends most of her life in London, and the other main character is her granddaughter Toni.  There are absolute hordes of other characters, though.  It’s rather confusing trying to remember who’s who, and it’s quite frustrating that there are a lot of bit part characters whose stories are never fully developed, but the author explains that she created a huge array of characters because she wanted to give the sense of an extensive family network, stretching across many countries.

There isn’t actually that much history in it. It starts off in Anastasia’s grandmother’s girlhood, during the Napoleonic Wars, when we’re reminded of the crucial role, often overlooked, that Napoleon played in the granting of civil rights to religious minorities and the reduction of the power of the religious authorities.  The man might have done a lot of damage in other ways, but he deserves a lot of credit for that.  It soon leaps forward in time, but the events of 1848 don’t really get a look-in, the Ausgleich isn’t mentioned, and the Franco-Prussian War, although it’s the reason that Anastasia (having previously moved to Paris) ends up in London, is only mentioned in passing.  The Great War does play more of a part, but only in terms of who is and isn’t involved in the fighting: it seems to have strangely little impact on the Home Front.  So it doesn’t actually say that much about the period during which it’s set, but it says a lot about the 1920s, when it was written.

It’s been described as a feminist novel written before its time. Now, having grown up in the age of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jackie Collins et al (don’t you just love an ’80s blockbuster?!), a family saga in which the female characters dominate seems quite normal to me 🙂 , but this book was published in 1924, when a lot of women in Britain still didn’t even have the vote.  Anastasia is the one pulling the strings.  Then, when the family loses its money following a bad investment in a fraudulent ruby mine, it’s her granddaughters who pick up the pieces.  However, the women only really dominate because the men are so utterly useless in times of trouble.  And, whilst Anastasia might be a strong female lead, it’s made clear that she’s only really interested in her sons and grandsons, not in the young women of the family.

Is that feminism?   It’s not equality.  I suppose it depends on what you class as feminism. Anastasia really isn’t very appealing: she’s controlling, demanding, self-obsessed and doesn’t treat other people well.  Is the idea that women have to be bossy and controlling in order to impose their authority?  She walks all over her daughters and daughters-in-law.  I don’t know that I’d call this a feminist novel, but then we are talking about nearly a century ago … ugh, how on earth can the 1920s be nearly a century ago?!

“Rags to riches” is another common theme in novels – riches to rags rather less so. Jewish novels set in Britain (or America) usually start with rags.  This one starts with riches.  By the time Anastasia and her family arrive in London, the family has a well-established diamond business stretching across Europe – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, Italy … and I feel as if I should be saying Belgium or the Netherlands, seeing as diamonds are involved, but they don’t really come into it!   They live a life of luxury in London.  Then the money goes, and Anastasia cannot adopt: it’s her granddaughters who take charge.  This was published five years before the Wall Street Crash, so it’s quite prescient in a way, but the author’s own family had lost their money thanks to an investment in jewels going wrong.

Nobody actually struggles that much. It’s hardly Helen Forrester: no-one’s living hand to mouth.  But there’s this idea of lost luxury, of faded grandeur.  We don’t sympathise with that, do we?  We sympathise with the middle income people reduced to poverty, but we don’t sympathise with the wealthy family reduced to circumstances that for most people class as normal.  Or even with middle income people who are struggling, but not that much.  That’s quite an interesting thought.  It’s very mean-spirited, really, especially as people can be quite sneery about it.   It can be quite problematic, as well – look at all the huffing and puffing over well-dressed Syrian refugees carrying fancy mobile phones, as if you can’t be a proper refugee unless you’ve got nothing but the clothes you stand up in.  But we clearly are meant to sympathise with the Rakonitzes, just as we’re meant to sympathise with all those characters in children’s books in the period who lose their private incomes because of dodgy solicitors or guardians.  And we should do, really.  I just don’t think we do.  Is that some sort of really nasty Schadenfreude?!

There are also struggles over health. Anastasia suffers from some sort of mental health problem – it’s not clear what, but it comes and goes – in later life.  And Toni is “delicate” – and it’s made clear that this is because her grandparents, Anastasia and her husband Paul, were first cousins.  Now there’s a subject you don’t hear mentioned much.  I’m feeling quite uncomfortable just writing about it – even though it’s something that comes up over and over again in history books, because of royal marriages, and because marriage between first cousins is/has been banned by civil or religious law in many places.  Is this a post-Nazi thing?  Does it come too close to sounding like eugenics, and is that why I’m feeling uncomfortable mentioning it? Would someone include a storyline like that in a book written now?   And how much of a divider is the Second World War, or, more specifically, how much of a divider are the Nazi atrocities, in terms of what authors might or might not include in books?

That’s particularly relevant because this is the saga of a Jewish family. I said “a Jewish novel”, but maybe it isn’t a Jewish novel.  Like Csardas, which I read a few months ago, religious practice doesn’t really come into it – there’s very little about religious festivals, or religious services, and no-one seems very bothered about things like eating kosher food – and many of the Jewish characters marry people who aren’t Jewish.  The idea of the multinational clan … the best-known example is the Rothschild family, but there are others too.  The Rakonitzes certainly aren’t in their league, but apparently they are based on the author’s own family, i.e. a real family.  Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, featuring a similar clan, is also based on his own family.   The Sassoons also spring to mind (I went to China last year and did a lot of reading up on Shanghai beforehand).  The Oppenheims.  The Goldsmiths.

I’m just feeling incredibly uncomfortable writing this, especially in the current climate, I got this book because it was going free on Kindle, and because I actually had the impression that it was set in Austria-Hungary and I always struggle to find books set there: I wasn’t expecting to be writing all this multinational financial dynasty stuff.  As I said, the Rakonitzes are hardly the Rothschilds, but still.

There shouldn’t be anything to feel uncomfortable about. Religious minorities do tend to dominate finance and business, having traditionally been excluded from the professions.  Look at some of the big name British banks.  Lloyds, founded by Quakers.  Barclays, founded by Quakers.  Look at the big High Street names: Methodist and Jewish founders abound.   But you get all these vicious conspiracy theories.  There are some very odd and clearly preposterous stories about the Rothschilds, and have been for a good 200 years.

Obviously it happens with other groups as well. It doesn’t happen so much now, but it certainly used to happen with Catholics, at least in Britain and America.  Freemasons.  Muslims, at the moment.  And the Rakonitzes, as I’ve said, don’t have that much financial influence: the multinational aspect of their family is more of a cultural thing than anything else, with children who don’t toe the line being packed off to stay with relatives abroad, and a lot of talk about everyone eating Central European food.  But still … it’s not the easiest of topics to write about.

Maybe it’s the idea of “The Other”. That expression’s come up a lot recently, following some of the ill-judged comments made by certain prominent politicians. And yet it’s all meant to be so positive in this book.  London is described as “Cosmopolis”.  OK, it was the name of a crap film with Robert Pattinson, but, other than that, I’ve never heard the term used before.  The author clearly means it as a compliment.  And she wants us to see the Rakonitzes as being glamorous and colourful and exciting, and she clearly means that in a very positive way … but it all kind of comes across as being “The Other”.

Two of the grandsons, Richard and Daniel, and especially Richard, can’t handle that. They don’t want to be colourful or different.  In 2018, I don’t think most people do.  There are always going to be some people who do, but I think most people are way past wanting to be seen as exotic or flamboyant or whatever because of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity or anything else: people just want to be seen as themselves.

But the 1920s were all about flamboyance. This book doesn’t tell us that much about the 1880s, 1890s or 1910s, when most of it’s set, but it tells us a hell of a lot about the 1920s!   It probably couldn’t have been written at any other time.  I really don’t think anyone would write anything like this now.  Not a criticism, just an observation 🙂 .





























The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple


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.























The Seamstress by Maria Duenas


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


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.

Hild by Nicola Griffith


I was expecting this to be about nuns at Whitby Abbey. Instead, it involved the future St Hild having a passionate affair with her maidservant and then making an incestuous marriage to her illegitimate half-brother.  So it would be fair to say that it was a lot more exciting than I was anticipating!   Apparently it’s intended to be the first of a trilogy, though, so the nuns at Whitby Abbey will presumably materialise in the second and third books.

Novels about the Dark Ages are hugely problematic, because we just don’t know very much about what went on. They often become more fantasy than history, which is understandable, but, from a historian’s viewpoint, very frustrating.  They often involve Vikings, presumably because most readers are going to be familiar with the Vikings, even if that entails a totally inaccurate image involving horned helmets et al 😉 .  And they usually focus on male warriors.

This book doesn’t do any of those things. There is a sense of fantasy, but I think that’s inevitable when writing about people about whom so little is known.  There is an element of the supernatural, with the idea of Hild as the king’s “seer”, but that was part and parcel of the culture – and, when you think about it, it’s no more fantasy than the beliefs of today’s organised religions, just less familiar.  And a lot of what people imagine to be the product of Hild’s imaginary powers is actually information that she’s cleverly found out by keeping her ear to the ground and sending people out to find out what’s going on.  There are no Vikings – the raid on Lindisfarne wasn’t until 793AD, and this was set in the 610s, 620s and 630s.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Vikings, but I was looking for Anglo-Saxons and Celts!   And much of the focus is on women – Hild herself, her mother, her sister, various other royal women, and their female friends and servants.

Nicola Griffith is very keen on the concept of the “gemaecce” or “gemaecca” – a formal friendship between two women who are not blood relatives or romantic partners but who live and work together. It sounds fascinating, and it would be great to write a long essay on the role of female friendships in literature, but, although the word is real, she made the concept up.  She says that she “repurposed” the term.  “Repurposed” sounds like something that an American politician would say, but never mind!   Most of what’s in the book is invented, but it has to be, because we just don’t know very much about Hild’s life, and we don’t know nearly as much about the events and lifestyles of the time as we do about, say, the Tudor period.  “I made it up,” she says in the afterword.  Well, our Yorkshire neighbours are supposed to be blunt!

It’s a period that most people know very little about, and, whilst that gives the author a lot of scope for invention, it also means that there’s no real framework, and very little to work with – so it’s really very brave to tackle something like this by way of a historical novel, rather than fantasy. She’s stuck to the facts where they are known – although she’s got Hild as the niece of Edwin of Northumbria, whereas she was actually his great-niece.  It’s such an incredibly crucial period of English history, the overlap of Anglo-Saxon – and Jutish, although the poor old Jutes tend to be forgotten! – and Celtic cultures, and the Conversion.  Some of the characters are Anglo-Saxons, some are Celts, and some are of mixed heritage.

The known figures are there – King Edwin of Northumbria (Deira and Bernicia), Hild’s mother Breguswith and sister Hereswith, and Hereswith’s husband, Ethelric of East Anglia. The events that are known about – or known insofar as we can know them, mainly from the writings of Bede – are there, the alleged poisoning of Hild’s father whilst he was in exile in the Celtic kingdom of Elmet.  That isn’t in Wales or Scotland or Ireland, but in part of what’s now the West and North Ridings of Yorkshire.  Everything’s so … blended, for lack of a better way of putting it!   We see the characters switching from Anglo-Saxon English to Brythonic Celtic dialects.  We even get a lot of Anglo-Saxon words in both the narrative and the dialect. Because that’s how it went – it wasn’t just a case of one population being moved along as another one came in.  It rarely is.

The other crucial overlap, of course, was between Christianity and … ugh, I don’t like the word “paganism”, because it always sounds so condescending and negative. Between Christianity and traditional polytheistic religions, let’s say.  I love the way Nicola Griffith tackles this.  A lot of … OK, this isn’t a fantasy novel, but there is so much overlap in writing generally between the Dark Ages and fantasy novels and mythical worlds, and C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien in particular have to have Christian undertones to everything.  Not that I ever picked up on the religious undertones in the Narnia books when I was a kid: they passed me by completely!

Anyway, to get back to the point, some authors would have made a big spiritual deal of the actual conversion scenes, whereas others would just have been completely cynical about it all. The way Nicola Griffith deals with it is just works really well for me – Edwin has decided that he and other members of the court should be baptised (this is what actually happened, on Easter Day 627), and it’s for political rather than religious reasons, and none of them really know very much about Christianity – it’s just case of going through a ceremony.  Hild wonders if she’ll feel, or even be, different afterwards; but she doesn’t, and she isn’t.  “I’m still me.”   I really liked that.  I’m not in any way knocking anyone who has found a religious ceremony to be a very profound process and has felt different afterwards, but we are who we are, whatever we think or do about religion.  And history shows that most people do just go with the flow, whether it’s the Conversion or the Reformation.  There are always going to be some people who do feel very deeply about it all, but I really liked Hild’s reaction as shown in this.

In between the political events (and I’m including the Conversion in that), there’s just so much in this, about the lives of the people – their work, their food, their socialising, their entertainments, their travelling around, and their relationships. The maidservant with whom Hild becomes romantically and sexually involved is originally a slave – I think most people are well aware that slavery was practised in England in Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, but it’s not written about very much, and maybe it’s a subject that should be covered more.  There’s a lot about weaving, which took up so much of women’s time during the period – but not in a boring, technical way.  We meet people of all social classes.  We also see the importance of literacy, at a time when most people were not literate (and before the Church took control of education) – Hild is able to read and write, and her sister learns to do so in order for them to be able to keep in touch.  There’s an awful lot in it.

Much of that will be historically accurate, insofar as the amount of information available allows it to be, but we sadly know very little about Hild’s life. We know about her parents and her sister, and that she was Edwin’s great-niece, and we know that she became Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey in her early 30s and then, famously, Abbess of Whitby Abbey – making it so prestigious that it was chosen as the venue for the first ever Synod within the Kingdom of Northumbria.  From what Bede says, she was an intelligent and widely-admired woman, who gave advice to kings and princes and was the patroness of the poet Cadmon.  But we have very little idea what went on in her life before she became an abbess.  For all we know, she might have had an illegitimate half-brother, and been married off to him!  OK, it’s highly unlikely, and I’m not sure why Nicola Griffith came up with that storyline, but we just haven’t got much clue.

And, for all we know, Hild may have had a relationship with her maidservant. Nicola Griffith points out that there’s nothing anywhere to tell us about views on sexuality in the Dark Ages.  Her view is that it was Christianity which made sexuality an issue.  There are certainly arguments for that: we know that it wasn’t a big deal in Ancient Greece, for example, for people to have relationships with partners of both sexes.  Maybe in some ways, it wasn’t until Victorian times that same sex relationships really became seen as a social, and legal, no-no.  If you look as late as the Stuart period in England, it was widely known that James I was bisexual, and there were also rumours – although they probably weren’t true – that so were both William III and Anne; and no-one seems to’ve had a problem with that.

It’s not a big deal in the book, because the idea is that being bisexual wasn’t a big deal in the 7th century, but the book has won a bisexual fiction award.  There is unfortunately still a big problem in the attitude of most religious towards LGBT issues, so including LGBT themes in a book about a saint could be seen as controversial, but I don’t think that’s what the author intended – as she says, we don’t know much about attitudes towards sexuality in the Dark Ages, and it’s quite possible that it just wasn’t an issue, and people just formed relationships with partners without being too bothered about whether they were men or women.  Although, if she did mean to be controversial, who could blame her?  I’ve read several comments on social media about the distress caused to friends by the negative attitudes of their respective religions towards LGBT issues.  And there’s also the issue of many religions towards women – the point’s made in this book that Hild doesn’t find Christianity particularly positive about females.

But we don’t know. A lot of work has been done on Anglo-Saxon history.  Do first year undergraduates at Oxford still have to study it, or has that changed now?  But we still know very little about it, compared to most of the other historical periods generally covered in historical novels, and that is very frustrating!  But as much as possible of what is known is woven (pun intended – there is a lot of weaving in this book!) into the fabric (again, pun intended) of this novel, alongside what’s a product of the author’s imagination.  And it’s a good read, and I’m quite disappointed that the rest of the trilogy hasn’t been written yet.  Just don’t be expecting to read about the lives of nuns, because there are no nuns here!

Poldark … and Reform – BBC 1


The slave trade, rotten boroughs, pocket boroughs, bans on trade unions, the birth of health and safety legislation – in Radcliffe – , the “Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice” (seriously!), religious discrimination … it was all going on in the 1780s and 1790s.  And that’s before you start with the French Revolution.  Or, indeed, Ross Poldark wandering along the beach with no shirt on.  Did you see how the BBC teased us last night?  He started unbuttoning his shirt, but then got interrupted and kept it on!  Huh!!

Well, we’re now in the late 1790s, and Ross (with his shirt on) has been elected as an MP for a rotten borough – i.e. one with very few voters, in this case fewer than twenty.  Of the 57 rotten boroughs eventually abolished by the Great Reform Act of 1832, which also extended the franchise (to some middle class males), and ended the so-called Long Eighteenth Century (1688-1832), almost a quarter were in Cornwall, and most of the others were also in the south west.   Nice to see Debbie Horsfield from Eccles, who’s adapting the books for the TV series, getting Demelza Poldark to make the point that Manchester didn’t have any MPs at all at this point.  Nor did many other population centres, mainly in the north of England.   And, whilst it was also nice to see a female character expressing an opinion on politics, the idea of women actually being able to vote, let alone become MPs, wasn’t really on anyone’s agenda at this point 😦 … although Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, had played quite a prominent part in Whig party campaigning in the late 1770s and early 1780s.

At least there was some genuine competition in Ross’s election: there were also plenty of “pocket boroughs” where some aristocrat could effectively choose the MP by bullying a majority of voters into doing what he wanted.  George Warleggan, having been defeated by Ross, was determined to get back into Parliament.  It was pointed out that this shouldn’t be a problem as there were plenty of seats for sale, but George decided that he’d do better actually buying his own borough – and preferably one with two MPs rather than one.  He was soon negotiating to this end with the dastardly Monk Adderley, who told Ross that he rarely bothered turning up to the House of Commons and told George that he’d never even been to the constituency he represented and never intended to.  OK, hopefully most MPs of the time weren’t quite as bad as Adderley and Warleggan, but there’s no denying the fact that some were.


No secret ballot until 1872, which was why the “owners” of pocket boroughs were able to control the voting there.  In Ross’s constituency, we saw the (fewer than twenty) voters each declaring whether they were voting for nice Ross or nasty George.  George claimed that he’d lost out because, although he had money, he wasn’t from an old gentry family as Ross was.  Obviously, we all know that that was just sour grapes, and that he’d lost out because he was a baddie (boo, hiss) and Ross was a goodie; but neither of them would have been able to stand had they not met the property qualification for doing so – not abolished until 1858.  And, much as we may moan about MPs’ salaries and expenses these days, until 1911 they weren’t paid at all, so anyone who couldn’t afford to pack in any other job they had and pay for accommodation in London was out of the reckoning.

Just thinking about it all makes me want to march to Kersal Moor (well, it’s only about a mile away), scene of a huge Chartist meeting in 1838, and read out the six points of the People’s Charter!

Ross had insisted, when agreeing to stand as a candidate, that it was on the understanding that he would support measures to “help the poor”, and also that he would support the abolition of the slave trade.  Abolitionism had really got going in the 1780s: the slave trade would be abolished in the British Empire in 1807 (but the practice of slavery not until 1833 in the British Empire, and later than that in many other places).   Wilberforce wasn’t quite the hero he’s always made out to be.  Obviously his contribution to the Abolitionist movement was huge, and he is rightfully lauded for that, and also for his contributions to setting up (what became) the RSPCA and the RNLI, but he supported the Combination Acts (more of which later) and opposed the holding of an inquiry into the Peterloo Massacre.  Keep the working classes in their place 😦 .

Interestingly, Ross’s first speech in connection with Abolitionism was to the effect that that, abhorrent as the slave trade was, the debate about it was drawing attention away from the issue of conditions in “the mills of the North”.   He was obviously very sincere, but something always puts my back up about members of the Southern upper classes, who’d never been near a textile mill in their lives, talking about the subject.

I know that that’s really stupid, because I’m always getting worked up about things in places I’ve never been to, but … I think it’s because of the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury – who hadn’t actually even been born at this point, but was very involved in campaigns to improve conditions for child labourers in mills and mines, and conditions in asylums, and the banning of the practice of using children as chimney sweeps, in the 1830s and 1840s.  I’m sure he meant very well, and the legislation was much needed and very important, but the way he put things was just so patronising.  All that “When I die, you will find “Lancashire” engraved on my heart” stuff.  I know that times were different then, but that patronising, paternalistic attitude just annoys me!   And do not get me started on the subject of Charles Dickes and Hard Times.

To get back to the 1790s, which is what I’m actually supposed to be writing about, the calls for legislation about health and safety in factories, especially for children, were being led by Robert Peel – father of the future Prime Minister of the same name.  Born in Blackburn and later based in Bury.  Robert Owen, owner of the mills at New Lanark, also later got involved.  Robert Peel owned a cotton mill in Radcliffe – now three Metrolink stops up the Manchester to Bury line from chez yours truly.  After an outbreak of putrid fever there in 1784, he became concerned about the treatment of the apprentices there by his managers, and it was he who introduced what became the Factory Act of 1802, and the later and more effective Cottons Mills and Factories Act of 1819.  So, British health and safety legislation originated in Radcliffe!  And Ross did have a point about the need to tackle problems at home as well as those, however important, abroad.

However … the 1802 Factory Act was officially called the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act, and, whilst it did address the working and living conditions of apprentices in the mills, it also included a load of brainwashing provisions involving making apprentices attend Church of England services and preparing them for Church of England communion.  I know.  Different times and all that.  But it says a lot that the parliamentary powers that were, and the Church of the Establishment, had to get that in there.  See what I mean about patronising, paternalistic, attitudes?!

Ross owns a mine in Cornwall.  He didn’t mention working conditions in mines – although conditions in mines, especially coal mines, were also horrendous.  The issue of conditions of mines wasn’t addressed until long after conditions in mills first became an issue.  It was 1842 before the Mines and Collieries Act was passed.  A commission investigating conditions in mines was set up in 1838, after 26 children, some of them as young as 8, were killed in an accident at a mine near Barnsley.  Our pal Shaftesbury, Lord Ashley as he was then, got it through Parliament by going on about how women were working topless (because of the extreme heat in the mines) and were wearing trousers (to protect their legs as they crawled along, dragging cartloads of coal behind them).  26 kids from the Northern labouring classes being killed –whatever.  Women working topless and wearing trousers, disgusting!  Get that legislation passed!  OOH 😦 .  It’s the attitude …

But at least the legislation got through.  And I was glad to see that Ross wasn’t mithering about forcing kids to attend church, or worrying about what female workers were or weren’t wearing.

Going back to the Combination Acts, they, passed in 1799 and 1800, largely a response to the events of the French Revolution, and also due to fear of a strike being called in wartime, banned the formation of trade unions and bargaining by British workers.  They were repealed in 1824, but the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported in 1833 on the excuse of the Unlawful Oaths Act of 1797 – which aimed to stop mutinies in the Navy.  Again … keep the working classes in their place 😦 .

And stop them from enjoying themselves!  In 1787, the “Proclamation for the Discouragement of Vice” was issued.  Great name, that, isn’t it?  Even Oliver Cromwell never came up with that one.   This was another of Wilberforce’s great ideas, incidentally.  The man should really have stuck to Abolitionism!  The “Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue, and for the Preventing and Punishing of Vice, Profaneness and Immorality”, to give it its full name.  No enjoying yourself on a Sunday, even though it’s the only time you’ve got off work.  No swearing.  No excessive boozing.  No dirty books – and that might sound amusing, but the Powers That Were’s ideas on suppressing dirty books included wanting to prevent the lower classes from reading anything about contraception, which wasn’t very funny at all.  Nobody took much notice.  So the Society for the Suppression of Vice was founded (in London) in 1802.  Nobody took much notice of that either.

We’re actually getting the other, better, side of the piety/Sabbatarian thing in Poldark, and that’s the growth of Methodism.  Obviously Cornwall is somewhere particularly associated with that, and it’s even been suggested that Sam and Drake Carne, Demelza’s brothers, were partly based on John and Charles Wesley.  They do come across really well, never too preachy, never patronising, never trying to force anyone into anything.  There was still significant discrimination against Nonconformists at this time, and even more so against Catholics, and, because the oaths required to be taken on assuming public office were specifically Christian, against Jews; and it would be well into the 19th century before there was religious equality in the UK.  It could be argued that there still isn’t, given that some forms of religious marriage are not legally binding and couples being married under those rites have to have a civil ceremony as well.  The big Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 was still thirty years away at this point – and under twenty years had passed since the Gordon Riots of 1780, when there were major protests in London against plans for Catholic emancipation.  George Warleggan had it in for the Carnes mainly because they were Ross’s brothers-in-law, but I don’t think the fact that they were Methodists helped either.

Compared to most Continental countries, Britain in the 1790s was a model of liberty, equality and fraternity.  And even newly independent America only really offered life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to well-to-do white men.  But there was a hell (just had to put that in to cock a snook at the Discouragement of Vice brigade) of a long way to go in terms of social and political change.

Ross Poldark (yes, I do know that he wasn’t actually real) was one of the good guys.  And/but he could only work within the system he was in.  The storyline about his election to Parliament, and his work there, is fascinating.  Yes, we all enjoy the shirtless stuff, and the romantic stuff, but there’s a lot of very important history in there as well.  Please, please don’t let this be the last series!   Let it run and run!