Paris by Edward Rutherfurd


Word PressThis is another of Edward Rutherfurd’s books telling the history of a particular place through the lives of several generations of families from different orders of its society. I’ve been meaning to read it for ages, and French Open fortnight seemed as good a time as any for it ;-). His first books, starting with Sarum, went in chronological order, but he now seems to’ve decided that he prefers to jump about all over the place; and it just doesn’t work as well. Maybe I’m missing something, but surely it makes more sense to progress chronologically through the centuries than to have a chapter set in 1883 followed by a chapter set in 1261, which is then in turn followed by a chapter set in 1885. The whole book jumps around like this. 1462 to 1897 to 1572. 1991 to 1637 to 1914. 1936 to 1794 and then back to 1936. Why??

The book’s well-written – apart from the use of some very modern expressions which don’t quite work in a historical context – and the characters come across well, but the jumping around just doesn’t work for me!   I found the choice of which parts of the history of Paris to include and which to leave out odd, as well. Obviously you can’t include every single major event/development or the book would go on for ever, but there seem to be some obvious things missing.

He hasn’t gone back further than 1261, so the Gauls, the Romans and the Franks are all completely absent. OK, maybe that was to stop the book from getting too long, but, having started in 1261, surely all the main things after then should have been included. The Hundred Years’ War is mentioned in retrospect, but not actually included as such. Even more bizarrely, the Storming of the Bastille is missing. There is a chapter set in 1794, but I would have expected a lot more about the Revolution. Nothing about 1830 or 1848 either. OK, I could have lived with that, but the entire Napoleonic era’s missing as well! He’s presumably got his reasons for steering clear of the more obvious times/events, but … well, maybe I’m too much of a Victorian Whig historian, but surely you want the big moments in there? Or is it just me?

An awful lot of the book was set during the Belle Epoque – not including the Paris Commune, although that was frequently referred back to, but during the period between the end of the Franco-Prussian War and the outbreak of the First World War. Maybe he really wanted to write a book about that, and not about the history of Paris as a whole. That’s the way it came across, anyway.

I sound as if I’m being super-critical, and I don’t mean to be, because it’s a genuinely interesting and enjoyable book, but it just didn’t really do what it said on the tin, and what his earlier books have done. Too much jumping around! I’ve had a look through the reviews on Amazon and see that quite a few people have complained that they didn’t like the jumping around format, so fingers crossed that he’ll stick to writing chronologically in future!  Maybe I am just too Victorian-Whiggish, or maybe I’m just plain boring, but leaping from just after the end of the Hundred Years’ War to the Belle Epoque and then leaping from the Belle Epoque back to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is a very weird way of going about things!  Order, order …











Versailles – BBC 2


Word PressThis wasn’t quite as OTT – “soft porn in cravats and tights” seems to be the expression doing the rounds – as I expected; but, unfortunately, it just wasn’t very entertaining. The best case scenario would have been that it was like The Borgias, which was the same sort of idea – power, intrigue, over-sexed-up, not too much regard for historical accuracy – but was well-written, well-acted, didn’t take itself too seriously and made for genuinely good watching. Sadly, Versailles wasn’t a patch on that. The Carry On films about Henry VIII, the French Revolution and Cleopatra were utterly ridiculous, but they were also brilliantly entertaining. Versailles just wasn’t. It was silly but it wasn’t meant to be silly, and nothing much happened until the end.

Some of it was just … well, stupid. Louis XIV had a dream in which he, looking rather like Adam Ant, and Athenais de Montespan, wearing some sort of 1970s loose white dress, ran through the (as yet unbuilt) Hall of Mirrors in slow motion. It looked like a 1980s advert for a naff brand of toiletries. Then he went galloping off on his horse, a silly grin on his face, and was confronted by three wolves. It was a scene which would have worked brilliantly in one of the Chronicles of Narnia – I was half-expecting Aslan to turn up with a magic bow and arrow – but didn’t work even remotely well in a programme about the 17th century French court. Also, I know that moaning about the English dialogue is a bit daft as obviously they wouldn’t have been speaking English at all, but could the writers not at least have tried to make it sound like a period drama. “We have to go” and “You’ve got my back” … seriously?!

Then it finished up with the black baby storyline. Well, at least that was a bit of drama! It’s funny how these strange stories about royalty come about. It’d be understandable if they were all from the Middle Ages, when there were all sorts of strange stories about all sorts of things doing the rounds, but so many of them are far more recent. Was George III married to Hannah Lightfoot? Did Alexander I of Russia fake his own death so that he could go off and wander around the countryside as a mystic? No, of course not. Did Louis XIV’s queen, Maria Teresa of Spain, have an affair with her black dwarf and give birth to a mixed-race child who then became an abbess – “The Black Nun of Moret”, so the story goes (and apparently an American playwright has recently written a play about it, totally unconnected to the story being revived in Versailles)? No, of course not.  “The Black Nun of Moret” did exist, and apparently she claimed to have royal connections, and this somehow seems to have got tangled up with reports from Versailles about the queen, who would not have been having any affairs with anyone, giving birth to a baby (who, like five of her six children, sadly died young) who had a dark complexion, this actually being a purplish-red-looking face presumably due to either a difficult birth or some sort of medical condition. Still, even though it’s not true, at least it was more interesting than most of the rest of the programme.

The one character who did manage to come across as being quite interesting, actually, was Monsieur, the king’s brother. Being Terribly English and therefore used to looking at the court of Louis XIV in the 1660s from the point of view of the court of Charles II in the 1660s, I only ever really think of Monsieur as being the rotten husband who made Minette (Henrietta Anne) unhappy. She was a pretty rotten wife as well, but it’s always him, because he was gay/bisexual, who gets the blame. He was seeming quite an attractive character until we saw him attacking Minette towards the end of the programme – but, sadly, that’s probably not inaccurate. He really is quite interesting, though. The gallant soldier who distinguished himself in battle … and spent a fortune on high-heeled shoes!   You couldn’t make him up.

Fabien Marchal, the Nasty Henchman, wasn’t bad either; and the fictional would-be-female-doctor character caught the attention too; but Louis himself was rather insipid, and so was the programme in general. It’ll make headlines because of the “soft porn in cravats and tights” thing, but there wasn’t even all that much of that. These sorts of programmes can be very good, in a so-bad-it’s-good kind of way. This one, so far, just isn’t. However, it was only the first episode, and, hey, maybe it’ll get better!

The Real Versailles – BBC 2


Word PressCardboard dolls, kissy-kissy noises and dressing up.   It’s bad enough that Channel 5 dumbs everything down like that, but now the BBC are doing it as well. Oh well. The much-discussed “Versailles” drama series, which the previews have made us well aware is not intended to be a documentary, starts tonight, and this programme, presented by Lucy Worsley (who seems to be utterly obsessed with dressing up) and Helen Castor was intended to give us the real story ahead of all the bodice-ripping.

I had to keep reminding myself that it was called “The Real Versailles” rather than “The Reign of Louis XIV”, and therefore not to moan about the fact that it didn’t cover the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, the War of the Spanish Succession, Colbert’s financial reforms, etc etc.  As far as covering life at Louis XIV’s Versailles went, it was really rather good – including espionage, financial matters and culture as well as the king’s personal life and the daily life of the courtiers, and how the systems introduced by Louis brought about a unified France, although as a result a very highly-controlled France, and how France became the cultural leader of Europe during his time.

He really is a fascinating figure, and his was a very long and interesting reign. Do we in Britain still see him as the epitome of the Continental, Catholic absolute monarch and warmonger? Probably, but I think we probably admire him as well.   He’s like that saying which is being used a lot since Mourinho was appointed manager of United – “Hated, adored, never ignored” ;-).

He’s one of the monarchs. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in England, Gustavus Adolphus and Charles XII in Sweden, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great in Russia … the monarchs! Louis XIV is one of the most familiar figures in European history, and his actions affected not only France but many other countries too. It’s a shame that this programme was presented in such a dumbed-down way – for crying out loud, cardboard dolls!! – but it was interesting, and this coming series, whilst it’ll probably have those of us who consider historical accuracy to be supremely important weeping into our late evening cups of tea, is going to get a lot of people talking about a very interesting period in history. Bring it on!!


Daughter of Catalonia by Jane MacKenzie


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Most of this book’s set in Northern Catalunya, i.e. the part that’s legally part of France, rather than part of Spain, in the 1950s, and tells the story of a young woman from a well-to-do background in England going to the village in Northern Catalunya where she spent the first few years of her life with her father, a Republican refugee and Resistance fighter from “Spanish” Catalunya, and her half-English, half-French mother, and what she finds out there about events during the Second World War.

The main character does sometimes sound as if she belongs in some sort of Girls’ Own novel – nasty strict grandparents, posh family home – rather than a novel about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and what they did to the people of a small (fictional) fishing village – but, especially if you overlook that, it’s quite a good read. This is a part of the world where the two wars overlapped and intertwined, and that comes across very well in this book, particularly regarding the plight of the refugees who fled into France from Spain. Just wandering slightly off the point for a moment, there was something nagging in the back of my mind about Eric Cantona and Catalan refugees fleeing to France, and Wikipedia has helpfully reminded me that, yes, Cantona’s mother’s family were Republican refugees who left Spanish Catalunya for France. Not that that’s got anything to do with this book, but it’s a point about the plight of those forced to flee Spain after Franco’s victory, and more of them were from Catalunya than from any other part of Spain.

In addition to the political elements, the book involves, inevitably a romance, and also the discovery of dark secrets. There must have been so many secrets after the Second World War ended … personal secrets – an affair, a child whose father wasn’t his mother’s husband – and darker secrets about treachery and betrayal, sometimes amongst friends and neighbours. It’s not the best book ever written, maybe a bit too light for the subject matter, but it’s an interesting read about a region and a time in history not often covered in novels in English.

Agnes Sorel: Mistress of Beauty by Princess Michael of Kent


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Princess Michael of Kent can write very well, but I’ve found that her novels aren’t as good as her non-fiction books; and this particular novel, the second in the “Anjou” trilogy, was weaker than the previous one. Some of it was interesting, but it was written in a rather simplistic style – a bit reminiscent of Jean Plaidy, but Jean Plaidy did it a lot better! – and in the present tense, and I sometimes felt as if I was reading a Peter and Jane book :-).   Also, I was rather bemused when she referred to John of Gaunt as a former King of England! You’d think that a member of the Royal Family, even one by marriage, would manage not to make a mistake like that!

Agnes Sorel, mistress of Charles VII of France, was the first of the “official” royal mistresses at the French court … and also a direct ancestress of Princess Michael, who, as an understandable result, seems to be rather biased towards her, and kept talking about her beauty and elegance and so on. I’m not sure what’s supposed to be elegant about wandering around in a dress with your bust hanging out of it (there’s an interesting picture on Wikipedia!), though! Maybe it was the overly simplistic style of writing or maybe it’s just that not enough is known of Agnes Sorel’s life to make a good story, but I didn’t feel that I got to know the character all that well. I think it probably was the style of writing, because a fair amount does seem to be known about her life, and about her death by alleged poisoning, and a good author of historical fiction will flesh out the facts and explain what they’ve done in an afterword.

On a more positive note, it was interesting to see various other characters at times of their lives which aren’t the best-known times of their lives, if that makes sense. I’m being Terribly English here and looking at French history from an English viewpoint, but I would generally think of Charles VII as the Dauphin in the time of Joan of Arc, of his son, the future Louis XI, as the Universal Spider making the Treaty of Picquigny with Edward IV, and, of course, of Margaret of Anjou (a lady who rather unfairly gets a very bad press in England) as the leader of the Lancastrian cause whilst Henry VI was out of it due to his severe mental health problems. So it made a change to “see” them all at the French court in the 1440s.

I’ve read the first two books in this trilogy, so I shall at some point read the third, which has recently been published, but it’s a shame that Princess Michael’s excellent style of writing non-fiction hasn’t come across into her novels.  Could do better!

The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici by C W Gortner


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Catherine de’ Medici gets a very bad press, especially in English – partly because people have this weird thing about Italian women in positions of power going around poisoning people (Lucrezia Borgia falls foul of the same idea) and, more rationally, because of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Coming just two years after Pope Pius V effectively urged English Catholics to try to overthrow Elizabeth I, and coinciding with the escalation of the war in the Netherlands, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre ended up being the best piece of propaganda that the Protestant authorities could have had, and Catherine’s name is still associated more closely with that than with anything else. I appreciate that I’m being annoyingly Anglocentric here, but I am talking about books written in English!

I’ve actually always felt a bit sorry for Catherine. First she had to put up with her husband’s relationship with Diane de Poitiers – OK, it was the norm at the time for a king to have a mistress, but not for a king to be mixed up with someone who dominated him as much as Diane dominated Henri II – and then almost all her children died. And she lived in very difficult times. So I was glad to see that C W Gortner felt a bit sorry for Catherine as well, and tried to portray her sympathetically. We’ll probably never know to what extent she was involved in the events of 1572, but to lay them all at her door is unfair.

However, his portrayal of events was rather strange, to say the least. He never even mentioned Catherine’s son Henri, the future Henri III of France, being king of Poland-Lithuania. And he portrayed her youngest son, Hercule, as having been so severely affected by smallpox that he was severely physically and mentally disabled. He was certainly affected by smallpox, but I’ve never got the impression that it was that severe. I’m going to be Anglocentric again now, and say that I always think of him as the froggy who came a courting!   Anyway, I didn’t find the portrayal of him very accurate.

I could have lived with that, but there were other things that were even more bizarre, in particular the idea that Catherine was having an affair with Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots! Where on earth did he make that up from? Catherine being mixed up with Nostradamus and other supposed prophets – yes, that’s true enough, although interpretations of it all vary. Margot having it off with the Duke of Guise – OK, we all know about that. Henri III being bisexual – well, we’ll never know for sure, but it’s something that there’ve always been rumours about … although CW Gortner, who seems to have a very over-active imagination, seemed to think that he had weird secret crushes on his enemies, which seems a rather strange idea. But Catherine and Coligny?!   How on earth did he dream that up?!

Much better was his portrayal of Henri de Bourbon, the future Henri IV. I really like Henri IV. He’s your bit of rough turned brilliant politician and leader, and he’s the one with the sense to change his professed religion for the sake of peace. Going off down the Anglocentric path again, I always think that Charles II of England, his grandson, was very like him. If James II, James Edward or Bonnie Prince Charlie had had a grain of his common sense, British history might have been very different – but they didn’t, and it wasn’t, and (with apologies to the Scottish Highlands and most of Ireland) that was very probably for the best.  Sorry, that’s totally beside the point!  Back to this book.

And I’ve got very mixed feelings about this book. It’s an entertaining read, and it covers a very interesting period in history, but why do some novelists feel the need to distort events by dreaming up such totally off-the-planet things? I don’t think even Philippa Gregory would have come up with an affair between Catherine de’ Medici and Gaspard de Coligny!  Very odd.  Stick to what actually happened – it’s interesting enough as it is.


Napoleon – BBC 2


Word PressThis series might have been better entitled “Robert Andrews, fanboy”.  The man so obviously hero-worshipped Napoleon that it was embarrassing, and he didn’t make the slightest attempt at being impartial.  This follows on from a series which had little to say about the Duke of Wellington other than that he was a rotten husband.  Is this some sort of warped political correctness on the part of the BBC?  Whatever it is, it’s really not at all impressive.  Could we not have had two rational series presented by people trying to give a balanced view?

I am not keen on Napoleon: I think he was a megalomaniac.  However, I respect his military prowess, the fact that he rose from being an outsider to being a great military leader and being ruler of France, and the fact that he took on the religious authorities – including granting equal rights to religious minorities.  But Robert Andrews is clearly just fanatical about him.  I bet he used to have a poster of Napoleon on his bedroom wall.  In fact, maybe he still has.  And it spoilt the programme because it made it so one-sided.  Napoleon was a great hero in Italy.  “He won seven victories in a row,” Andrews proudly proclaimed.  What was this, a war or a football league?  Venice, La Serenissima, which Napoleon barged into and then handed over to Austria, never even got a mention!  As for stealing paintings right, left and centre all over Milan and Padua – well, apparently these things happen in wartime.  Yes, OK, they do, but was there any need to sound so defensive about it?  Why not just state that it happened?

The same with the Middle Eastern campaign.  The massacre at Jaffa was appalling, but … well, actually, the same issue may well be discussed if there are programmes later in the year to mark the 600th anniversary of Agincourt.  What do you do when you’ve got too many prisoners to cope with?  But, again, it was all about trying to reject any criticism of Napoleon, not present the facts in a rational way.  Oh, and apparently revolutionary France was totally meritocratic and democratic.  Right.  Words like “Terror”, “guillotine” and “Thermidor” spring to mind.  This admittedly was after Thermidor, but I think “meritocratic” is pushing it more than a bit!  And if there is an attraction about the idea of overthrowing the ancient regime, talking about it when discussing someone who proclaimed himself emperor and was even conceited enough to crown himself just does not work.

Also, apparently Napoleon had self-confidence issues because he’d never had much luck with women and Josephine cheated on him.  Self-confidence issues?  Napoleon?  Well, maybe he did in his marriage.  Not that it stopped him carrying on with Marie Walewska and then throwing Josephine over so he could marry a Habsburg.  However, self-confidence issues notwithstanding, Andrews then proclaimed that all Napoleon’s construction work was nothing to do with egotism but was all about giving France self confidence and proving that hard work could triumph and driving the people of la belle France on to make great advances.  Sorry, but no-one is telling me that the Arc de Triomphe wasn’t a vanity project.  OK, it may have been inspired by ancient Greece and ancient Rome, but the arches of Trajan and Hadrian and all the rest of them were all vanity projects as well!

I understand that Robert Andrews is a big fan of Napoleon.  People don’t generally research the lives of figures whom they dislike.  And he knows his stuff all right.  But why have BBC 2 decided to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo by moaning about the Duke of Wellington being a bad husband and then showing someone trying to rebut every bit of criticism ever levelled at Napoleon?  I’m not saying that we needed flag-waving and a load of silly jokes about frogs’ legs and garlic, but could we not have had either someone trying to be impartial or else two historians having a debate?  Honestly, BBC!  Not impressed.  Interesting stuff, but zero marks for presentation!





Joan of Arc: God’s Warrior – BBC 2


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Burning Joan of Arc at the stake was not one of the finer moments in English history, it has to be admitted. Also, as any religion-based execution tends to do, it had the opposite effect to what was intended: it made her a martyr. And so, as Helen Castor pointed out in this BBC 2 documentary, it’s easy to lose sight of the real person at the heart of what was and still remains an incredible story.

I wish I could say that I’d first developed an interest in the story of Joan of Arc through reading some very scholarly text, but it was actually from reading about the girls in Antonia Forest’s Kingscote books wanting to “do” Shaw’s Saint Joan as their school play. Never mind J. And I was only about 7 at the time!

There are no doubt some very good psychological explanations as to why Joan began hearing voices. There are probably some perfectly logical reasons why she recognised the Dauphin and why she knew where the sword was kept: all sorts of people could have tipped her off. But none of that really matters. What matters is that Joan genuinely believed that she was hearing voices from God, or from the saints, and that she was able to make other people believe that she was some sort of heaven-sent messenger and that, in doing so, she was able to inspire a revival of the struggling Valois cause. Incidentally, it does tend to be forgotten that, by the terms of the Treaty of Troyes, the rightful King of France was Henry VI of England, not the Dauphin/Charles VII!

I don’t think BBC 2 would have dared to mention Islamic State or Boko Haram in the same breath as Saint Joan of Arc, nor would it have been at all fair to do so, but the point was made that there are lessons for all times in what people can be inspired/driven to do if they can be persuaded that they do somehow have God on their side and that their leader/leaders is/are divinely inspired. It’s frightening. And it’s fascinating: how on earth did Joan, a female, a peasant, someone barely out of childhood, convince anyone, let alone the Dauphin and his political and military advisors, to listen to her? It really is one of those cases in which fact is stranger than fiction. She believed so strongly.

Too strongly. Poor Joan. As soon as things started going wrong, the newly-crowned Charles VII and his allies were quick to blame her. I do think that the BBC programme overplayed that, though. They made it sound as if Charles and the Armagnacs dropped Joan like a hot potato, which they didn’t. However, Joan was then captured by the Burgundians and handed over to the English – and then she was put on trial and, ultimately and inevitably, killed, in a very horrible way. And she seems to have kept on and on believing that some sort of divine intervention would come and set her free … but it never did.

The trial is fascinating for many reasons, but I think what’s most fascinating is what it says about male attitudes towards women. Joan could have been tried for stirring up rebellion against English rule, but instead it was decided to make it a religious thing, to try to discredit her as well as just do away with her. That much is understandable, but the emphasis seems to have been not so much on Joan’s claiming to hear voices as in her “unwomanliness”. It wasn’t really mentioned in the TV programme, but inquiries were made into Joan’s past, to try to find some sort of evidence, even just hearsay, of physical relationships with men. She was even given a physical examination. Both the inquiries and the examination found that she was, indeed, a “maid”.

She’s still known as that: the Maid of Orléans. The village from which she came has “The Maid” tacked on to its name, rather than “Joan” or “Joan of Arc”. If Joan had been a man, would anyone have been the remotest bit interested in her virginity? Long before the trial, her enemies were referring to her as “the whore”. Because that’s what men did. Still do, perhaps. If you wanted to discredit a woman, you impugned her sexual morals, even when they had absolutely nothing to do with the matter in question. And that’s gone on and on. Even as recently as 1936, there were these utterly bizarre rumours about Wallis Simpson having learnt “tricks” in a Chinese brothel! What utter nonsense! But that’s how men have gone about trying to discredit women.

And then there was the issue of Joan’s clothes. Yes, all right, it says in the Old Testament that a woman wearing men’s clothes is an abomination, or whatever the exact phrasing is, but it also says an awful lot of other things that no-one takes much notice of. That, thankfully, is something that most societies no longer do take any notice of; but it’s still frightening how people try to use their interpretation of the Bible to tread on and control others – those who oppose same sex marriage being a prime example in modern society.

Joan wore men’s clothing, and had her hair cut short. Trying to fight in battle in a long dress and with long hair was hardly very practical. Once she was in captivity, she continued to wear male clothing for safety reasons: men’s clothing of the time was difficult to remove, and she’d been the victim of several rape attempts and would have been very vulnerable had she been wearing a dress.   But the fact that she did wear male clothing was treated as heresy. She’d been claiming to hear voices from God: anyone could made a valid case that someone claiming to hear voices from God is a heretic. Or a witch. That’s another common theme in medieval and early modern history – if a woman exercises any sort of power, she must be a witch.

Witchcraft was mentioned, but the main emphasis was put on the fact that Joan was a woman in men’s clothing.   She was frightened into recanting, but then she put her male clothing back on, quite possibly because she had nothing else to wear. And, as Helen Castor pointed out, the trial was never going to find her innocent; and she was sentenced to death.

She’s still talked about. Even sung about, in the case of OMD. It’s even said that her short haircut inspired the “bob” in early 20th century Paris. Nearly 500 years on, and she’s still one of the most famous figures in history. It’s one of the most incredible stories in history. But, as Helen Castor said, it’s easy to lose track of the who the real person was, and this documentary tried to remind the viewer that, for everything that people try to make Joan into, she was a real person, and this was her story.



The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe


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This, published in 1784, is probably best-known as the book in which Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe were both engrossed in Northanger Abbey, and from which Catherine got some rather gruesome ideas about General Tilney having bumped off his wife. I decided to read it not because of that but because it features some scenes set at the Carnevale di Venezia; but it turned out that there wasn’t really that much about Venice: most of the book’s set in either South West France or at the fictional castle of Udolpho, in a remote part of rural Northern Italy.

Seeing as this is a historical fiction blog, I wish to start by complaining vociferously, not about anything “Gothic horror” related but about the fact that the book keeps going on about the Italian Wars … which famously began in 1494, the date traditionally given as the end of the Middle Ages in Continental Western and Central Europe, and ended with the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559. The book’s set in 1584. OK, we all make mistakes, but that’s really a pretty big one! I can’t think of any rational explanation for that at all!

Hmm. But so to the “Gothic horror” stuff, which Jane Austen was so sarcastic about. Our English teacher used to get very upset if anyone said that Jane Austen was sarcastic, and insisted that we say “ironic” instead, but “sarcastic” is definitely the more appropriate word. I find it rather annoying, actually: I wish she’d just stuck to writing her own story instead of making fun of someone else’s! Quite honestly, most of the characters in this are just as over-imaginative as Catherine is. The various ghosts all turn out to be real human beings who just like wandering around at night, and Our Heroine Emily turns out not to be the secret love-child of the mysterious marchioness whom she resembles but to be her perfectly respectably-born niece. And the dead body behind the veil turns out to be a waxwork … although admittedly the idea of anyone having a waxwork of a dead body hanging around does rather strain the credulity, LOL.

Having said which, yes, there are plenty of fights to the death, kidnappings, dramatic escapes, romantic misunderstandings, mysterious papers, strange noises, locked doors, etc. And Our Heroine is annoyingly prone to weeping and swooning. And she attracts unwanted suitors at an alarming rate: mind you, most of Jane Austen’s heroines attract unwanted suitors as well. And it does turn out that the aunt she never knew she had was murdered by an elderly nun who was wrongly thought to have been murdered by her other aunt’s baddie second husband … if you follow that. But the storylines weren’t really that much dafter than some of the ones we used to get in American soap operas in the 1980s, and are still getting in the wonderful Spanish Gran Hotel and, apart from the inclusion of a lot of silly poems, the book was really quite entertaining. I expected to be amused: I was actually quite gripped!

The Queen of Four Kingdoms by HRH Princess Michael of Kent


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Princess Michael’s non-fiction historical books are surprisingly good. Unfortunately, her style of fiction-writing (this is her first attempt) is bloody awful, which is a great shame because Yolande of Aragon, the queen of the book’s title, is an absolutely fascinating character.

The book is all written in the present tense. That just about works for the Peter and Jane/Janet and John books which we used to read in the second year infants, but it really doesn’t work for a book aimed at adults! It felt rather Jean Plaidy-ish as well, and I love Jean Plaidy’s books but her style is rather dated now. However, the actual subject matter was fascinating.

Yolande of Aragon (by birth), Duchess of Anjou and titular Queen of Naples and Sicily (by marriage) was the mother of the Dauphin of Joan of Arc fame – and, incidentally, the grandmother of Margaret of Anjou, the wife of Henry VI. She had far more influence behind the scenes, both political and financial, than Joan did, and in a lot of ways she was actually the force behind Joan. Princess Michael explains the famous scene in which the Dauphin disguised himself and Joan recognised him anyway by saying that one of Yolande’s supporters tipped Joan off, which is a far more likely, if rather less romantic, explanation than the idea that Joan was able to identify the real royal just by instinct!

Yolande is a very interesting character who led a very interesting life and deserves more attention than she gets. However, she also deserves a rather better style of writing than Princess Michael provides. Strange, that, because Princess Michael’s non-fiction historical books are written so well.