Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron

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This, set in Ancona during Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1797-99 is a fascinating book – something really different, about an important but often neglected part of European history.  Ancona was the first of several Italian cities in which Napoleon’s troops took down the ghetto gates, and ceremoniously burnt them; and we see that very powerful scene in the book, with almost all of the major characters present.

There’s an ongoing debate about Napoleon’s views on religious minorities.  Certainly he held prejudices against minority groups, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he gave civil rights to Jewish communities, and also to Protestant communities in Catholic-dominated areas where they’d been denied equality.  It’s quite strange to read a book which shows Napoleon as a hero, because that’s, obviously, really not how he’s usually seen in Britain; but he did bring about many changes for the better – and the effects of his actions are still felt today.

Napoleon does feature prominently in the book, but he’s only one of a rich cast of characters, mostly fictional, some real.  The protagonist, Mirelle, longs for more from life than marriage and motherhood behind the ghetto gates, but is being courted by the wealthy and influential widowed father of her best friend Dolce – a member of the real life Morpurgo family who played an important part in the events of the period.  Mirelle’s family run one of the world’s leading ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) printing businesses, but, after her father and brother are murdered by a Catholic vigilante mob, the business passes to an unpleasant relative.  This is all based on the reality of the times: Ancona was the centre of the ketubah printing industry, and there were attacks on the ghetto by vigilantes.

Meanwhile, amongst the French army are their distant relative David, who takes a shine to Mirelle whilst Dolce takes a shine to him, and his Catholic best friend Christophe, with whom Mirelle embarks on a romance.  And we’ve also got the murderer, Emilio, devout wife Francesca, and their two young children.

Emilio is fictional, but Francesca and their daughter really existed – their significance being that they claimed to have seen the eyes in a painting of the Virgin Mary move. The painting plays a big part in the book.  Napoleon is strangely obsessed with it.  And then it gets stolen – which does get a bit silly, and isn’t based on fact; and the talk about the Stolen Madonna kept making me think about the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies.  The whole plot actually gets a bit chaotic at the end, with everything happening at once and some slightly unconvincing tying up of loose ends, but no book’s perfect and it does keep you guessing about exactly how things are going to work out.

There’s a lot going on throughout the book.  We see life in the ghetto, and we see how different groups of people grow up with prejudices against each other.  And we see – OK, the idea of the spirited young woman who wants a life outside the home pretty cliched, but it works – Mirelle wanting to run the printing business, but facing prejudice, led by the local rabbi, against the idea of a woman in a workplace.  We see how the changes in France have liberated Daniel, but we also see how both he and Mirelle struggle to find their way between their old lives and the new world.

A brief summary from Wikipedia:

 In 1763, some 1290 Jews lived in Ancona. During the reign of Napoleon between 1797 and 1799, the Jews were fully emancipated. The gates of the ghetto were removed and the members of the Morpurgo family became members of the city council. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat and the return of the city to papal dominion, some restrictions were put once again upon the Jewish community by Pope Leo XIII. In 1843, an old decree was revived by Fra Vincenzo Soliva, Inquisitor of Ancona, forbidding Jews to reside or own a business outside the ghetto and imposing other restrictions, but public opinion had already turned in Europe by then and the edict was cancelled shortly after until the revolution of 1848 emancipated the Jews once again.

I think it’s fairly widely-known that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, but it’s still quite strange for a reader from the Anglophone world to be reminded that this was going on in Italy as recently as the end of the 18th century – that the Jewish communities of cities such as Ancona were literally locked into the ghetto at night, and forced to wear yellow insignia when leaving it during the day.  The combination of the Enlightenment and the Code Napoleon brought about change – and that led on to the debates about secularisation and assimilation, especially in Vienna and Budapest.  France continued to be seen as the European leader in terms of rights for religious minorities right up until the Dreyfus Affair, and it was the fact that Theodore Herzl was in Paris at the height of the Dreyfus Affair which really kick-started the Zionist movement, something which has been rather misrepresented in the media in recent months.  That all goes back to the Code Napoleon, and the idea that France should have been somewhere where that wouldn’t happen.

Anyway, that’s getting somewhat off the point, but, despite the mayhem at the end, this is a very good book, and worth a read if the 99p Kindle offer’s still available.

 

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

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This book’s received a lot of attention, because it’s about the Spanish flu pandemic and, although the author began writing it in 2018, to mark the centenary of the pandemic, it ended up being published in early 2020, just as the Covid pandemic hit.  A book about a pandemic will be the last thing that some people want to read: others will find it intriguing.  It also seemed like a good book to review during Pride month, as it includes a same sex romance – rainbow pic instead of my usual pic to show support for Pride.  I’m afraid that I automatically assumed that this was going to be between the doctor and the nurse, but it was actually between the nurse and the orderly.  When I say “romance”, it’s only very brief, because they only know each other for a few days.  There are no happy endings in this book, but, if you can take all the misery, it’s well worth a read.

I don’t care for the style of writing – it annoys me very greatly when people write speech without using speech marks – but the intensity of it’s fascinating: the entire book only covers three days, and almost all of it’s set within one very small room.  The main character is Julia Power, a nurse in charge of a maternity/Spanish flu ward at a Dublin hospital, and the other two prominent characters are Bridie Sweeney, an orderly, and Kathleen Lynn, a doctor who was a real person and was well-known as a republican activist and suffragist as well as for her medical work.

There are a lot of talking points about the book – the Spanish flu and any parallels that readers may draw between that and the Covid pandemic are the obvious ones, but also everything that the book shows about what went on in institutions run by the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time.  It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but it didn’t pull any punches, it portrayed nuns extremely negatively, and I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland.

During the course of the book, we’re told that the Catholic Church mistreats orphans in its care, allowing priests, nuns and lay staff to abuse them, putting them to work at an early age and taking their wages, and even sending young girls to stay with “holiday fathers” (a euphemism for paedophiles).   Disabled and illegitimate children in its institutions are neglected, and unmarried mothers are virtually imprisoned and forced to work to pay for their “care” whilst they were expecting.  And it takes adolescent daughters away from widowed fathers on the grounds that it’s immodest for girls to live with a man with no adult female present.   It’s also blamed for Ireland having a far higher rate of death in childbirth than the rest of the UK, by making the use of contraception taboo and encouraging women to have at least twelve children, and for women suffering a difficult labour being forced to undergo horrific processes such as the sawing in half of their pubic bone, as the priority is to avoid damage to the womb and never mind any other bits.

All of this is based on evidence given by people who were in the institutions concerned, so it’s not been made up, but I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland, because it really is very heavy on all this.

Also, those who participated in the Easter Rising are repeatedly described as terrorists who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, and those who supported it but weren’t arrested as being cruel for tormenting injured Great War veterans.  I’m not saying that this isn’t a valid viewpoint, just that I wouldn’t have expected to “hear” it from Irish characters created by an Irish author.  Kathleen Lynn is presented positively, but her role in the Easter Rising – she was the chief medical officer for the “Irish Citizens’ Army” –  is rather vaguely explained away as being because she thought it might bring about improved conditions for women: she mentions her plans to set up a hospital for women and children, with her friend (and probably her partner), the gloriously named Madeleine ffrench-Mullen – something that did actually happen.  When she’s arrested, the emphasis is on the fact that men are arresting a female doctor: the fact that this is about the Easter Rising is rather skimmed over.  That’s not what I was expecting.

To get back to the Spanish flu, If you’re looking for happy endings, or just any sort of happiness, this is not the book for you!  Of the five expectant mothers admitted to Julia’s ward, three die of the Spanish flu, one survives but her baby is stillborn, and the only one who goes home with her baby has got a violent husband waiting for her.   Julia’s brother has been invalided out of the Army due to shell shock (which doesn’t actually sound right to me – shell shock wasn’t a reason for being discharged during the Great War) and refuses to speak.  Dr Lynn is arrested and imprisoned.  The only person in the book who’s ever cheerful is a hospital porter, and we eventually learn that his singing and joking are just his way of trying to cope with his grief at losing his wife and children in a typhus epidemic.

The only bit of good cheer is that Julia takes the baby of one of the women who died.  This is after the doctor says that he probably won’t survive more than a few months as he’ll be handed over to Evil Nuns, who’ll neglect him as he’s illegitimate and has a hare lip.  An Evil Nun kidnaps him whilst Julia’s briefly out of the room, but Julia manages to rescue him.  The Evil Nun tells her that people will probably assume he’s the result of an incestuous relationship between her and her brother.

Oh, and be prepared for extremely graphic descriptions of difficult childbirth.   The medical information is fascinating, though, as are the general observations about the Spanish flu, including the public notices.  There’s a lot of talk about wearing masks and avoiding close contact, and the book repeatedly makes the point that saying that people should stay at home, and rest in bed if feeling unwell, isn’t very practical when people have got to work.  Some of the blame game stuff going on is very reminiscent of the patronising comments about the “hard work” of people in areas where Covid infection rates are low – mainly rural areas with low population density, and or areas where most people are able to work from home.

Don’t read this if you’re feeling down, because it’ll make you feel a million times worse!  But, if you can cope with all the misery, it’s a very interesting read.

Paris in Ruins by M K Tun

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Hopefully there will be triumph and definitely no ruin in Paris during the French Open, but it was a different story 150 years ago.  The Paris Commune, currently in the French news as the anniversary is marked – it collapsed on 28th May 1871 – has been rather romanticised over the years.  It’s even got an ’80s group named after it, which is rather confusing because my brain kept going “Baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you” whilst I was reading about shootings and arson, which was completely inappropriate 🙂 .  However, this novel, unusually, goes for the view taken by most of the international press at the time, i.e. that it was mainly about violence and anarchy, which is interesting.

We see the events of the Prussian siege of Paris and then the Paris Commune through the eyes of two young women from well-to-do families, who both become involved in war work.  The unfortunately-named Camille Noisette becomes a nurse at a hospital set up (and this hospital did really exist) at the Paris Odeon by the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and her brother’s fiancee Mariele de Crecy looks after young children at a creche set up by another of Camille’s brothers, a priest.  Other members of both families become caught up in events in various different ways, and not all of them survive.

The main message of the book is that atrocities were committed by all sides, that both the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune happened largely because of the egos of powerful men, and that it was innocent civilians who suffered as a result.  And poor Paris, which suffered terrible damage from bombing and arson. The Commune does still sharply divide opinion, but I was surprised that the book was quite so strongly against it.  It’s a bit wooden in parts, and some of the dialogue doesn’t flow very well, but it’s very well-researched and historically accurate, and a good read.

It starts with Camille being a bit of a rebel, and sneaking off to bars with her friend Andre (who she eventually marries).  I think most readers will assume that she’s secretly involved with the radicals, but, in fact, she’s working undercover and spying on them – especially on Louise Michel, one of the most famous figures of the Commune.  Like many other Communards, Michel was deported to New Caledonia.     But the spying story falls by the wayside, as Camille goes to work at the hospital.

I was a rather melodramatic little girl – you’d never have guessed that, would you 😁? – and, when I was really overdoing it, my grandad always used to say that I was being like Sarah Bernhardt.  At the time, I assumed she must have been a famous film star from the inter-war years, so I was rather bemused when I found out that she was a French stage actress whose heyday was long before Grandad was even born.  I know she did play in Northern England, more than once, so I’ve wondered if an older relative or friend – maybe my great-great-grandma, who seems to have been quite into theatricals – saw her on stage and raved about her, and that was why he had this bee in his bonnet about her, but I’ll never know now 😢,  But, because of that, I was quite interested to see her appear in this book, and to learn about the important humanitarian work she did at a very difficult time in Parisian history.

Meanwhile, Mariele and her mother attempt to escape and are captured by Prussian soldiers, in a slightly OTT bit of the book, but they make it safely back to Paris, and we see shy Mariele grow in confidence as she insists on helping out with the children.  There’s definitely a sense that both girls are rebelling against what’s expected of young ladies, but the narrative is vehemently opposed to the more radical approach taken by the Communards.  The emphasis is all on the taking of hostages, the attacks on the Church and the imprisonment of people for very little reason, and not much is said about more positive actions such as attempts to help the poor.

Certainly, the romanticisation of the Communards, like the romanticisation of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is inappropriate, but I thought the book was a bit too biased against them and could have tried to give a more balanced view.   But point taken about unnecessary wars and unnecessary violence, and the same can be said about the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War and the Dano-Prussian War.

It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but, as I said, it was well-researched and accurate, and really got me thinking.  Not bad at all.

 

A Net for Small Fishes by Lucy Jago

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This book about the Overbury Scandal, the alleged murder of Sir Thomas Overbury by the Countess of Essex, Frances Devereux nee Howard, who had her marriage annulled so that she could marry the Earl of Somerset, with whom she’d been having an affair, and who’d also been having an affair with James I/VI (keep up, keep up!), would have been very interesting had the author not infuriatingly referred throughout to Frances as “Frankie”.  “Frankie”?  In the 1610s?  Seriously?   It really did annoy me.  Also, it means that I’m now being earwormed by Sister Sledge.

If Lucy Jago had just stuck to “Frances” (I did wonder if maybe she had some school playground-ish aversion to “Fanny”, but even “Fanny” wasn’t really used until the mid-18th century), the book would have been excellent.  It was written from the point of view of Anne Turner, the impoverished widow of a doctor, who was hanged for being an accessory to the murder; and it really was entertaining.  There was so much going on here, much of it aspects of society which haven’t changed very much.  The title of the book reflects the fact that the aristocratic, influential Carrs – who, as the author points out several times, spent more on fripperies in an average month than most people could hope to earn in many years of hard work – were imprisoned for a few years but then pardoned, whereas the four “ordinary” people implicated went straight to the hangman’s noose.

The book gives a fascinating depiction of life both at Court and in the poorer areas of London, and brings in the effects on the Overbury trial of views of women and how they should behave, the Pendle Witch Trials, prejudice against Catholics – even though, or possibly because, the Howards, despite being Catholic, were able to dominate the Court – , rivalries between English and Scottish courtiers, and the difference in culture between the Whitehall bubble and everyone else.

To cut a long story short, Frances Howard was married off to the Earl of Essex, the marriage was unhappy, and she took up with Robert Carr, later Earl of Somerset, the lover of James I and close friend of Thomas Overbury.  She wanted her marriage annulled, Overbury opposed it, the Howards turned on him, and he was imprisoned, possibly for refusing the position of ambassador to Tsar Michael of Russia.   He then mysteriously died.  The annulment and remarriage went ahead.  It was later claimed that Frances had had Overbury poisoned, and that was what a trial found.

Anne Turner was some sort of companion to Frances. She was the widow of a doctor, and mistress of a politician, became well-known because she was the only supplier of a saffron starch used to make fashionable yellow ruffs, and is often said to have been a madam of “houses of ill repute”.  However, in the book, her husband left her with a lot of debts, she genuinely expected her lover to marry her and was badly let down when he said that his position of court meant that he couldn’t be associated with her, and she made money by working as a general dressmaker.

Incidentally, Anne’s lover’s name was Arthur Mainwaring, but Lucy Jago’s changed it to Arthur Waring because she said that the name made her think of Dad’s Army, and sounded too silly alongside Frankie Howard (even spelt Howard rather than Howerd).  Right.  Let’s all change historical figures’ names because they remind us of TV characters.  OK, OK, I would have kept waiting for him to say “Don’t tell him, Pike”, but even so.  And Captain Mainwaring’s name wasn’t even Arthur!  It was George.  The actor who played him was called Arthur.

Anyway, to get back to the point 🙂 … so, Anne’s quite sympathetically portrayed.  They’re actually both quite sympathetically portrayed – Anne as an impoverished widow let down by a man, Frances as a young woman forced into an unhappy marriage by family politics – and they’re shown as having a very close friendship despite their different positions in life, with Frances, at the end, trying to save Anne but being unable to do so.

Lucy Jago’s take on it is that Robert Carr wasn’t involved, and that Anne and Frances did send poison to the Tower but that it was never used.  No-one’s really sure what’s happened.  Overbury had health problems anyway.  There was talk about poisoned enemas, poisoned cakes … and an interesting point’s made that poison was seen as a foreign, Catholic way of bumping people off!  To this day, it’s associated with Lucrezia Borgia (probably unfairly) and Catherine de Medici (fairly).  There was also some talk of witchcraft, which fitted the atmosphere of the times.

So there was a lot going on, and this book reflects this.  It also brings in the death of Prince Henry and how devastated people were about that, and it’s just generally a very interesting depiction of the lives of different people at an interesting time.  Even though the Gunpowder Plot’s one of the best-known events in British history, and even though the Pendle Witch Trials are so well-known too, James I and VI’s reign – and, of course, it was also crucial in that it was the start of the personal union between England and Scotland – does tend to get a bit overlooked, in between the Glorious Elizabethan Age and the build-up to the Civil War.

All in all, a very good book.  But “Frankie”?  Seriously?!

 

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

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  Last week was Autism Awareness/Acceptance Week, and this is an interesting and unusual historical novel with an autistic protagonist, working on a floating theatre – think Show Boat, but on the Ohio rather than the Mississippi, and in the 1830s rather than the 1880s.  The part of the Ohio which they’re on is effectively an extension of the Mason-Dixon line, with slaveholding Kentucky to the south and the free states of Ohio and Indiana to the north, and our girl May inadvertently becomes involved in helping slaves to escape.  So it’s a fascinating combination of themes – May’s “social awkwardness”, life on a showboat, and the Underground Railroad.  It’s just a shame that it’s so short, just under 350 pages long: I think there was the potential to develop the story much more than the book actually did.

May isn’t an actress or a singer: she makes costumes.  She’s always worked alongside her cousin, but, when roles begin to dry up, the cousin accepts a job giving speeches for a wealthy Abolitionist.  There’s no place for May, but the woman gives her some money – but then, when she gets a job on a showboat, demands that she repay her by smuggling slaves to freedom on the opposite bank.

So, really, it’s all a bit cynical.  Neither cousin becomes involved out of conviction.  Both oppose slavery, but, like a lot of us with a lot of things, they haven’t actually been doing anything active about it, because they’re too busy working and getting on with their daily lives.  The boyfriend of one of the actresses is a doctor who moonlights as a slave-catcher, not because he’s got any strong feelings about slavery but because it’s a good way of making a fast buck.  Most of the other people in the theatre company just want to keep their heads down: expressing any strong views on a controversial subject risks stopping people from coming to see them.

And that’s the way most things go, isn’t it?   People don’t get involved.  But May does, because she can’t pay this woman back any other way.  And, obviously, it’s very dangerous.  This is before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but May is still breaking the law under the terms of the 1793 Act, and putting herself in physical danger as well.  The horrors of slavery are really brought home to her when she meets a young girl who’s recently given birth after being raped by her master’s son, and is desperate to get both herself and her baby to a free state.

It’s really getting interesting at this point … but then the book’s cut short.  The showboat goes up in flames after a curtain catches fire, and one of the men on it, Leo, himself the son of an escaped slave, is tragically killed.  May and the leader of the company, after several earlier hints of romance, get together, and plan to get a new boat and continue helping slaves to escape – this time, out of genuine conviction, rather than to pay off a debt.  So, apart from the death of poor Leo, it’s a positive ending, but I wish that the book had been longer.

May is “high functioning autistic”, for lack of a better expression, and I’ve an idea that she’s based on the author’s sister.  The book isn’t about autism: the protagonist just happens to be autistic, although obviously autism had not been recognised in the 1830s so the term “autism” is not used.  She worked brilliantly as a character.  The portrayal of life on the showboat worked well too.  May and her cousin getting involved in antislavery activities purely for financial reasons wasn’t really what I’d expected, but it wasn’t unconvincing.  This isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s worth a go because of the combination of three interesting themes.

 

One Thousand Porches by Julie Dewey

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This is a well-meaning book centred on the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium set up at Saranac Lake, New York, in the 1880s for the treatment of TB.  Unfortunately, much of the story makes very little sense.  There are “outbreaks” of TB, which see whole families suddenly wiped out, relatives put into quarantine, homes disinfected, the deceased’s possessions burnt, and people trying to avoid going out and about for fear of contagion.  That certainly fits with epidemics of many diseases in Victorian and Edwardian times, but not TB, which was endemic rather than epidemic.  People “test positive” for TB, as if it could be definitively diagnosed by one test.  Most bizarrely of all, a New York City doctor, circa 1905, advises a pregnant patient with a history of spinal TB to have an termination.  There’s no way that a doctor at that time would have given that advice, whatever his personal views.

The author’s clearly done a lot of research into life and treatment at the sanatorium (spelt “sanitarium” because it was more of a resort than a hospital, but that spelling annoys me for some reason, sorry!), but the rest of it is really rather odd.

And it’s told in the first person, but from the viewpoints of several different characters who all do their bits in the first person, which is even more confusing!

On the positive side, the details about life at this enormous sanatorium/sanatarium/resort is fascinating.  The title of the book comes from the porches in which patients would sit whilst resting in the open air.  We hear a lot about examinations and procedures, and a lot of detail about the food, and also about the fundraising efforts which raised money to enable poorer patients to be treated without payment.  The whole area became dominated by the sanatorium, and the site’s still there, a type of museum.

I’ve had this book on my Kindle for ages, and I can only assume that I got it because the blurb made me think about the sanatoria in the Chalet School books and Elsie Oxenham’s Swiss books!   But it’s important to remember just how rife TB was in Victorian times.  Here in Manchester and the surrounding towns, where you had a lot of people living close together, and a lot of people had lung issues anyway because of the cotton fly and the coal dust in the air, and the climate was, ahem, not the world’s driest, it was the number one killer.

There are better books about it than this, though.  It’s very odd that the author seems to have done so much research into some aspects of it, and yet others make no sense at all.

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

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  Hooray, I have finally finished this very long and overrated book!   I don’t know whether there’s something wonderful about it which I just didn’t get, or whether it’s an emperor’s new clothes thing and reviewers just felt obliged to say that it was brilliant because it was supposed to be about environmental issues (deforestation).

It began as the story of two French indentured labourers in 17th century “New France” (i.e. Quebec).  One ran away, married a wealthy Dutchwoman and set up a successful business.  The other one remained a labourer and married a First Nations woman.  Edward Rutherfurd or James Michener could have made an excellent job of telling the history of Quebec through the history of these two families, but this book jumped about all over the place … various different parts of Canada, various different parts of (what became) the United States, Britain, France, the Netherlands, China and New Zealand.  There were a lot of different characters, and it didn’t stick with any of them for more than five minutes, so it was impossible for the reader to get really involved with any of them.

As for being about deforestation … well, it wasn’t, really.  There was some interesting stuff about forests, especially in relation to the culture of some of the different First Nations groups, but it was all just too bitty.

The characters kept losing track of who was related to whom.  I’m not surprised!   And there was very little political history in it: I appreciate that it wasn’t meant to be about political history, but, given that it covered a 300 year time period with lots of gaps, it was difficult to follow where it was up to without any mention of world events.

It’s a shame, because it was a promising start, and it could potentially have been very good, but I just wasn’t impressed.  However, it has had a lot of good reviews, so maybe it’s just me.  When I get chance, I shall try watching the TV adaptation, and see if I get on any better with that!

 

The Lady of the Ravens by Joanna Hickson

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It appears that the vocabulary of the Covid-19 pandemic has now permeated historical fiction.  The reader of this book is informed twice that Henry VII has put the royal palaces into “lockdown” because of outbreaks of disease.  No mention of courtiers having to practise social distancing or WFH, but, even so, a lot of the language in this just doesn’t quite sound right in a Tudor-era novel.  It’s not a brilliant book, but the author deserves credit for sticking to the known facts about events (unlike certain other authors, cough, Philippa Gregory), being nice about Lady Margaret Beaufort, being even-handed about Henry VII, and writing a book about the little-known figure of Joan Vaux, later Joan Guildford, governess to Henry VII’s daughters.  She was praised by Erasmus.  That’s impressive!

Erasmus doesn’t actually feature in this, though, because the book’s set before their meeting.  I assume that there’ll be a sequel, because Joan, although she was a protegee of Lady Margaret Beaufort and a friend and lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth of York, is best-known for accompanying Princess Mary to France for her ill-fated marriage to Louis XII and for testifying that the marriage of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon had been consummated.  This book, however, is set between 1485 and 1501.  We get a lot about court life and the various plots involving Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck (everyone in my history A-level group was bizarrely obsessed with Perkin Warbeck 🙂 ), and it’s made clear that Perkin Warbeck is definitely not Richard of York and that the real princes definitely disappeared in Richard III’s time.  We also see Joan’s personal life: she was married off to a widower with six children, but the book suggests – I don’t think anyone really knows, because not much has been written about them – that she was initially reluctant but that the marriage was very happy.

Her husband’s various roles meant that she spent a lot of time at the Tower of London, and there’s a sub-plot about her loving the ravens and protecting them from a baddie who wants to shoot them all … I’m not quite sure what the point of that storyline was, but, hey, it was different!

It’s not the world’s greatest book, and it finds it necessary to explain the historical background as if the reader knows nothing about it, but there’s always something comforting about Tudor-era novels – although that’s probably just me, because they take me back to A-level days!   Joanna Hickson’s written better books than this, but it’s an easy read and it’s really not bad.

The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

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This is one of the recommendations in the Duchess of Cornwall’s Book Club.  One of the very few good things about this nightmarish situation we’re in is seeing what sort of books famous people have on their bookshelves, seeing as everyone seems to position themselves in front of the said bookshelves when they’re doing interviews from home.  You do wonder if they sneakily shift a few books which don’t suit their image out of the way of the camera, but never mind!   This one’s set in Constantinople/Istanbul during the 16th century, and what a joy to have a book which is set in the Ottoman Empire but isn’t primarily about either harems or invasions of Europe!  It’s about an elephant keeper who’s also an architect’s apprentice.  Now that’s different 🙂 .

OK, what did I know about the Suleiman the Magnificent, in whose reign the book opened?   He had a Ukrainian wife referred to as Roxelana.  He thrashed the Hungarians at Mohacs, conquered Belgrade, besieged Vienna, threw Knights of St John off Rhodes and then tried to throw them off Malta, and there was that naval battle against Charles V where a Jewish pirate defeated that Genoese admiral after whom that ship which sank in the 1950s was named.  Oh, and he allied with the French against the Habsburgs, but England didn’t get involved because Henry VIII was too busy sorting out his family problems.  OK, what about the Suleimaniye Mosque?   Amazing place.  Seen it twice.  Who designed it?   Er, absolutely no idea.  Books about the Ottoman Empire don’t mention architects.  They only mention harems and invasions of Europe.

We did get harems in here, and we did get invasions of Europe, but the book was mainly about the life of people on the fringe of the court.  And it was fascinating.

I was rather confused at the start of the book, because the main character’s name was Jahan and he said that he came from Agra.  Hang on, I thought this was about the Ottoman Empire, not the Taj Mahal?   That bit didn’t become clear until right at the end, when our man Jahan, a 12-year-old orphan escaping his cruel stepfather at the end of the book, ended up helping to design the Taj Mahal whilst in his 90s.  But the book was largely set in Istanbul, although we also saw some of the invasions of Europe, and also a trip to Rome.

It was a complex book, and there was a lot going on.  Just to get back to the sultans, as well as Suleiman, we also saw the reigns of his son and grandson, Selim II and Murad III.  Selim II, I asked myself?  He was the one with the Venetian wife from what’s now Croatia.  Lost the Battle of Lepanto, which Spain is always claiming as a great success but which I credit to Venice.  I went to Lepanto (Naupaktos) once, and I was so excited about being there that I spent ages taking photos on the beach and ended up right at the back of the ice cream queue, which is really not like me.  Murad III?  He was the one who exchanged letters with Elizabeth I.  Oh dear.  We really do learn about the Ottoman Empire from either a Western viewpoint or else from some weird hangover viewpoint left over from the Enlightment interest in harems, don’t we?

Anyway.  Mimar Siman, the architect to whom Jahan was apprenticed, was one of the greatest architects of all time.  He designed over 90 mosques, including the Suleimaniye Mosque in Istanbul and the   Selimiye Mosque in Edirne/Adrianople, as well as vast numbers of palaces, Turkish baths, schools, bridges and mausoleums.  A lot of the book was about the actual building work, and the idea of architecture as some sort of metaphor for life.  There was also a love story, with Jahan being in love with Mihrimah Sultan, Suleiman’s daughter, a woman he could never marry.  And there was a rather confusing thread about plots against Siman and various people conspiring with each other, which all came out near the end even though it’d never been very clear that there was a mystery in the first place!

Lots of different groups of people featured.  Eunuchs.  Labourers.  Court officials, including the Grand Astronomer whose wonderful observatory was destroyed on the sultan’s orders after only three years.  Sephardi Jewish booksellers.  Roma gangs, who helped Jahan out of many predicaments.

And, of course, there was Chota, the elephant with whose birth Jahan assisted, and who became the sultan’s official elephant 🙂 but remained Jahan’s closest friend.

The historical timeline’d been messed about with a bit, to suit various aspects of the plot, but the author did explain in an afterword about what she’d changed and why she’d changed it.  And it was brilliantly written.  You’ll need to concentrate, and it’ll help if you’ve got a bit of idea about the Ottoman Empire to start with, but this is highly recommended, as something different.

 

 

A Most English Princess by Clare McHugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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