Massachusetts by Nancy Zaroulis

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This is one of those Edward Rutherfurd/James Michener-type books which tell the history of a country, a city, or, in this case, an American state through the lives of several generations of a small number of families. In this book, it’s just one family – the Revells, one of whom arrives in America on the Mayflower. It’s always tricky to know what to say about books like this, because only so much can be fitted in and we all have our own ideas about what the most important events in history are. It’s very interesting as a history of Massachusetts, but I did find it quite insular – neither world war got more than a passing mention, the Civil War didn’t feature very much because there was no actual fighting in the area, and don’t even get me started on one of the characters claiming that the Industrial Revolution started in Massachusetts – and it might have been better to have included different families from different backgrounds rather than just the one. Gold star, however, for the focus on female characters, which is unusual in these types of sagas.

The Revells do the American Dream thing, and become one of Boston’s leading families. We follow them from the Mayflower, on to the founding of Boston, and its early days under strict Puritaan control – we see the persecution of anyone whose religious views didn’t suit the Puritans, and we see one of them falling victim to the Salem Witch Trials. Massachusetts is such a paradox – in the forefront of the fights for Abolitionism and women’s suffrage, both of which are covered in the books, and yet with such a history of religious persecution and, well into the 20th century, religious and ethnic discrimination.

The book doesn’t shy away from the negatives. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial, which saw two Italian anarchists executed for a murder of which they may well have been innocent, is covered in detail. We also see the struggles of the Shaughnessys, a working-class Irish-American family, against poverty and discrimination – although the focus is always on the Revells.

This was published in 1991, before there was so much emphasis on “diversity”; but books like this do usually include a number of different families. I assume from her surname that the author, like a lot of people in Massachusetts, has Greek heritage: there are no Greek Americans here. Sympathy is shown for Native Americans, but they only feature when they’re kidnapping one of the early Revell women, and there is only one black character, the maid of the woman who’s kidnapped, in the entire book. It’s made clear that the discrimination against Catholics and Jews and, in the early days, Quakers is wrong, but we don’t really hear their voices, except to some extent with the Shaughnessys. There’s also sympathy for the industrial workers and their attempts to form unions and win better working conditions, but, again, we don’t really hear their voices, only those of the wealthy Revell who owns the mills, and another Revell who’s reporting on it all.

On the other hand, this isn’t a textbook, so maybe I’m being unfair. If it’d been called “The Revells of Massachusetts” instead of just “Massachusetts”, I wouldn’t be criticising – it’s only because the title suggests that it’s telling the history of a state, not that of one family. And, as I’ve said, it’s not as if it doesn’t show both negative and positive aspects of the history of Massachusetts. All sorts of things are included. There’s quite a lot about transcendentalism. And it ends with an environmentalist campaign.

It’s pretty much all set in Massachusetts. We don’t follow the characters anywhere else. The Civil War doesn’t really feature very much, because there was no fighting in or around Boston. However, there is loads and loads about the Revolution. The Revells are in there at the Boston Tea Party, and they play major roles during the War of Independence. Let’s just say that that’s very much told from an American point of view. But the War of 1812 isn’t mentioned very much, and the two world wars and Vietnam only feature in passing.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this book. The characters are quite interesting and there’s a lot of information about the history of Massachusetts, especially Boston. I can’t fault the history, and, apart from the part about the War of Independence, it isn’t biased. And it was great to see so many strong female characters. But I’d like to have seen some different families – maybe a poorer family who’d also come over the Mayflower but not succeeded economically, for a start. And, whilst I fully appreciate that the book was about Massachusetts, I think that having all the action in Massachusetts meant that some crucial events, notably the Civil War, didn’t get the attention they deserved.

However, despite the moaning (sorry!), I did enjoy this – it packed a huge amount into 700-ish pages, and it was never boring. Books like this can be a really good way of learning more about a place.

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The Peterloo Affair by Lucinda Elliot

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This can be quite accurately described as a Regency romance, although it couldn’t be further removed from the images that that term conjures up. That made me think about how wide of the mark general perceptions of the Regency era are. Thanks to Georgette Heyer & co, the word “Regency” suggests dashing young men in breeches dancing with elegant young ladies in long frocks, at glamorous balls in spa towns or stately homes. However, the Regency was a time of war, unrest, riots, repression, lack of representation, assassination, unemployment, food shortages and high prices for what food there was.  Today, we mark the 200th anniversary of the killing of eighteen people, with hundreds more injured, as they attended a peaceful parliamentary reform meeting in our city. The response of one of the most authoritarian governments our country has ever known was to introduce even more measures aimed at repressing attempts to improve the rights of ordinary people.  It was a far cry from the world of the Bath Assembly Rooms.

This book traces the romance between two people, from a fictional village somewhere on the north east side of Manchester, who were both at St Peter’s Field that day. It’s not the greatest book ever – although it did amuse me by using words like “dandyprat” and “rumpskuttle”.  And it would have benefited from more careful editing: the piece de resistance was when the name of a character called Jimmy Thribble was mistyped as “Jimmy Riddle” (I am not making this up).  But it’s not bad, and it’s got the additional merit of having a woman as the main character: a disproportionate number of those injured at Peterloo were female. For 99p on Kindle, it’s worth a read.

We can’t know whether or not women were deliberately targeted, but we do know that the proportion of women injured, relative to the number of women attending, was considerably higher than that for men.  Women who became involved in political protest risked particular hostility from the authorities – don’t get me started on religious and political leaders who seemed to think that women speaking at Abolitionist meetings was more shocking than the institution of slavery itself – and also, as this book shows, from elements within their own communities.

The community in this book is that of an unspecified and presumably fictional village, seven miles out of town and, given the references to Middleton, Harpurhey and Oldham, presumably on the north east side of town. Our heroine is a young woman called Joan. Her social background’s a bit confused/confusing. The family are working-class, and, due to the socio-economic problems of the time, they struggle to afford food and clothing.  However, Joan and her friends seem to have, or at least have had, access to lots of romantic novels.  And we never actually see anyone doing any work: they seem to have a lot of free time.  And their parents seem very worried about what the neighbours will think about everything!

However, the author’s got it right in that they’re not factory workers.  Not that many people at Peterloo actually worked in mills: it was a Monday, and, whilst a lot of what would now be called self-employed people took “Saint Mondays” off, it was a working day for people in factories.  It’s estimated that over a third of those there were handloom weavers, and many of the others were artisans – shoemakers, tailors etc. .

The language is also a bit confused: the author’s tried to write some but not all of the dialogue in dialect, so we sometimes get “thee” and “thou”, and sometimes don’t; and she sometimes gets the dialect completely wrong – “fash” is a Scottish or Geordie term, not a Lancastrian one! Whilst I’m moaning, there are some irritating grammatical errors, such as the use of “her” rather than “she” and “who” rather than “whom; and the “Jimmy Riddle” thing is just ridiculous!  And the Six Acts were a response to Peterloo, not a cause of it!

OK, enough moaning.  It’s really not bad at all!  Joan and her pal Marcie – how many people in Lancashire in 1819 would have been called Marcie?! – are unimpressed with women’s lot in life, and have decided that they’re going to steer clear of men and become some sort of doctors, treating people with herbs. A term like “wise women” might have been better, but, OK, credit for emphasising the lack of choices for women at this time. Their intentions don’t last very long, when Joan gets involved with a handsome Irishman called Sean and Marcie gets involved with Joan’s brother. Sean actually does have traits of a typical Regency romance character, having a terrible reputation for loving girls and leaving them. One of his exes even went mad as a result: even Sense and Sensibility didn’t go that far 🙂 . However, the way it’s written isn’t too Mills and Boon-ish to be taken seriously, and we learn how Sean’s wild behaviour was triggered by what would now be recognised as PTSD after his experiences during the Napoleonic Wars. Joan dumps him at one point, but, after he’s badly injured at Peterloo, realises how much he means to her, and it all ends happily.

OK, OK, it’s not the greatest plot ever; but we do see the people of the community, led by Joan’s father and Sean, becoming involved in calls for reform, we see their struggles at a time when the Corn Laws are making the price of food very high, and, in particular, we see the insistence of Joan and Marcie and the other girls in the area that women should join the local contingent going to hear Orator Hunt speak at St Peter’s Field.  The part of the book is the section covering the day of the Peterloo Massacre itself is excellent: the events of the entire day are extremely well-described, and it’s worth reading for that alone.

It’s Joan’s story, rather than the story of Peterloo, but the reform movement and the social and economic conditions of the time are very much a part of it; and, as I’ve said, the sections covering the events of 16th August 1819 are very well done, even if some of the rest of the book isn’t.  For 99p, it’s worth a read.

Councillor Luthfur Rahman, executive member for skills, culture and leisure, Manchester City Council, said: “The Peterloo Massacre was a significant moment in Manchester’s history and in the campaign for democracy in the UK. It’s important we don’t forget and that we remember the sacrifices of all those who went before us in the name of democracy and peace.”

There are a lot of events taking place today and over the weekend to mark the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre.  I hope they get the nationwide coverage that they deserve.  There’s been considerable controversy over the importance and impact of Peterloo.  When there’s controversy over something, it’s usually a pretty sure sign that it’s something important.

 

More about the historical background – Peterloo.

Jews Queers Germans by Martin Duberman

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This book, which can’t decide whether it’s a novel or an academic work, traces prejudices in Germany from the Harden-Eulenburg affair, which brought down the Kaiser’s inner circle and sparked a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash which those involved in the associated trial naively hadn’t seen coming, through the First World War and the “Cabaret era” of the Weimar Republic, and on to the rise of the Nazis.  There’s not as much about the royal family as I was expecting, but all sorts of well-known figures from the arts world of the time – Degas, Nijinsky, Colette, Josephine Baker, Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw and numerous others – make appearances.  It’s not particularly well-written: I can just about live with the lack of commas in the title, because I think it’s the author’s way of showing that many key figures at the time were Jewish and gay and German; but having a 334-page book which isn’t divided into chapters is not ideal, books being written in the present tense can be irritating, the dialogue’s very clunky and it jumps around too much!   However, it’s an interesting take on a pivotal period in world history, and how people manipulate old prejudices in order to further their own political ends.  Also, one of the key figures in it has some sort of Manchester connection, but I can’t get to the bottom of it and it’s really annoying me!

It’s supposed to be a novel, written around three main characters – Graf Harry von Kessler, son of a German banker father and an Anglo-Irish mother, a diplomat and patron of the arts, on whose diaries much of it’s based, Walther Rathenau, businessman and liberal politician, and Magnus Hirschfeld, doctor and gay rights campaigner whose work was mentioned a lot in A Terrible Splendor. However, it would really have worked better as an academic book.  There are pages and pages of information about history, law, politics, scientific theories and philosophy, and much of the dialogue is just the characters repeating factual information to each other.  I never felt that I got to know any of them: there was no plot and no characterisation.

It’s quite bitty, as well – all the more reason why it would have benefited from being broken down into chapters.  It’s split into six parts, to be fair, but couldn’t half do with being split into chapters within those.  Also, whilst I’m moaning, it annoyingly refers to “England” and “Austria” rather than “Britain” and “Austria-Hungary”, doesn’t seem to realise that Disraeli converted to Anglicanism, and spells “principle” as “principal”!

Having said all that, the actual information is quite interesting.  It was the Harden-Eulenberg affair that I was really after, and about a quarter of the book covers that – with the Kaiser, who was portrayed sympathetically in The Summer Queen, coming across here as the very nasty piece of work that he really was.  The book opens with a conversation between the Kaiser and the Grafin von Moltke. To cut a long story short-ish, she claimed that her estranged husband, a general in the German army, was having an affair with the Kaiser’s best friend, Philipp von Eulenburg-Hertefeld, the Kaiser’s best mate and the leader of their so-called “Liebenberg Round Table” group of close male friends. Eulenburg & co came into conflict with another political clique, led by Friedrich von Holstein. There was a lot of tension over foreign policy, and over the Kaiser’s rather absolutist style of rule. At the same time, a number of military officers were tried by courts-martial for being gay, and six of them sadly committed suicide.

Journalist Maximilian Harden, a supporter of the Holstein clique, decided to bring von Eulenburg down by publishing reports about him and von Moltke. Moltke sued him for libel, and various other names were brought into it.  Strangely, the book suggests that Harden actually admired von Eulenburg and thought he was a good influence on the Kaiser, which makes no sense and completely contradicts what everyone else says about the whole affair!  Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent doctor who’d long been campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the German Empire, especially after observing how many of his gay patients had tried to commit suicide, was one of the key witnesses in the trial, naively thinking that proving that senior army officers were gay would do away with negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately, it backfired badly, with the far-right claiming that Hirschfeld, who was gay and Jewish, and Harden, who was a Lutheran convert but had previously been Jewish, were conspiring against straight, “Aryan” German men. There was a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash. Von Eulenburg’s influence was ended, but, however unpleasant he and his cronies may have been – they’re known to have held strong racist and anti-Semitic views – they’re also now seen as having had a moderating influence on the Kaiser.

Did the trial and its aftermath lead to a culture of what would now be called “toxic masculinity” in the upper echelons of Berlin society?  What was its personal and political effect on the Kaiser?   That was what I was hoping the book would discuss, but, instead, it jumped on to Harry Kessler’s travels in Britain, France and Greece!   All sorts of well-known arty figures, and a few obscure ones, get mentioned in this section, and then we jump back to politics with the introduction of Kessler’s friend Walther Rathenau, who would later play an important role at the German War Ministry during the Great War, and then become Foreign Minister. Wikipedia says he had business interests in Manchester, but I can’t find any more information about that and it’s really, really annoying me!!

So we go from arts to politics, and then, just as we’re getting into the build-up to the Great War, Kessler and Rathenau fade into the background and there’s a section about Magnus Hirschfeld, his theories about sexuality and gender identity, and his campaign, backed by many others, for gay rights.   Whilst it’s probably quite well-known that the Code Napoleon gave civil rights to religious minorities, it’s not very well-known that it also decriminalised homosexuality … but that didn’t apply in the German Empire, or, obviously, the British Empire.  Some of Hirschfeld’s theories read rather strangely now, but he really was a pioneer in his field.  Sadly, being gay, Jewish and what would now be called a gay rights activist made him a target for the far right – but he himself was a strong German nationalist, as was Rathenau (who was Jewish but not gay) and Kessler (who was gay but not Jewish), which I think is what the lack of commas in the title’s getting at, and the far right don’t get at all.  There’s also some interesting commentary on the differences between attitudes in Germany, France and Britain.  But this is not historical novel stuff: it’s stuff that belongs in an academic book.  I do not know why the author tried to present it as a novel!

Then Hirschfeld fades back into the background, and Kessler and Rathenau take centre stage again, having long discussions about Martin Buber and anti-Semitism.  Kessler’s presented as quite a liberal figure until this point, but, once the Great War starts, the book shows him developing more right-wing views.  Hirschfeld, by contrast, adopts more radical views.  We also see him defending the rights of gay men to serve in the Armed Forces.  It does feel a bit more like a novel at this point, but we’re still very detached from the characters … which is a shame, because they all seem rather interesting.

We then move on to the political and social chaos after Germany’s defeat.  It’s particularly unfortunate that we don’t really get to know Kessler, because he seems to have known everyone!   He was pals with the leader of the German delegation at the Versailles peace talks, as well as knowing anyone who’s anyone in the arts world.   This bit’s well-known – the war guilt clause, and the attempts to blame Germany’s defeat on Jews.  I honestly hadn’t realised just how much violence there was in Germany at this stage, though.  Over 350 political figures were murdered by right-wing extremist group Organisation Consul.  I’d have expected the book to focus on Rathenau’s role in the Treaty of Rapallo, in which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to renounce all territorial claims and claims to war reparations against each other, but, instead, we get Rathenau talking to Kessler about Zionism.

Maybe this is the author’s way of saying that Rathenau’s assassination, in 1922, was because he was Jewish?  Was it?  Or was it because he was seen as a liberal?  Or accused of having links with communism?  Probably all three.  We do see that trade union leaders call on their members to down tools for a day and stage demos in honour of Rathenau.  He’s seen now as some sort of martyr to democracy … but he’s not very well-known in Anglophone countries, so it’s nice to see him playing a big part here.  Still can’t sort out the Manchester connection.  Apparently it was something to do with an electrical power station.  Could it have been the one at Radcliffe?

Hirschfeld isn’t killed, but he is badly beaten up.  This is the “Cabaret” era, and Hirschfeld does actually get involved in that: he promotes various films, and he’s friendly with figures from the arts world.  Max Harden also reappears at this point, having not been mentioned all through the war.  It’s all just so bitty!

Then, with the rise of the Nazis, another character enters the fray – Ernst Rohm, one of Hitler’s closest friends and allies and leader of the Stormtroopers.  There’s a strange parallel between the Harden-Eulenburg affair and the Night of the Long Knives, and it’s never usually picked up on.  I was going to say that I suppose it’s because what the Nazis did later was so horrific that it seems inappropriate to compare the rise of the Nazis to anything else, but some people seem to throw the word “Nazi” around strangely casually these days.  Anyway.  The views of Rohm and his circle on political and military affairs brought them into conflict with other members of the Nazi party, and, just as had happened with Eulenburg, his homosexuality was used against him by the faction who wanted to bring him down … although the author rather overlooks the fact that this was more of a common or garden power struggle than anything else.

Strangely, the author doesn’t actually draw the parallel.  There’s a lot of talk about about homophobic attitudes within the Nazi party and within German society in general.  We see how the Social Democrats attack the Nazis by associating them with homosexuality.  We see how the Nazi party tries to make a link between being Jewish and being gay.  This happens throughout history – people exploit hatreds and prejudices against different groups by making links.  It can be anything.  Sometimes there’s some sort of logic to it, e.g. linking Catholics and Jacobitism.  Sometimes there’s none at all. e.g. linking Jews and Communism.

But, as I’ve said, the author doesn’t link this back to events at the start of the book – and that says a lot about how bitty it is, and how there’s no real plot.  We see Hirschfeld travelling the world, before eventually settling in France.  We see Kessler also settling in France.  But there’s no real conclusion, and no bringing together of the different aspects of the book.  It was an interesting idea, and the author, himself both gay and Jewish, obviously feels incredibly strongly about both anti-Semitism and homophobia and is trying to raise awareness of where they can lead.  There’s a huge amount of information in this: he’s obviously done a lot of research.  But it does read as if someone’s bursting to tell you something and they just want to get it all out there, without making it particularly clear or easy to take in.  Good idea, not particularly good execution!

As the Poppies Bloomed by Maral Boyadjian

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This is a novel about the Armenian Genocide, but it focuses on the home and community lives of a group of people in an Armenian village. We don’t see the death marches: we do see some of the main characters being murdered in their own homes.  I’ve head people question the popularity of The Diary of Anne Frank, because it doesn’t show the concentration camps or the Einsatzgruppen massacres; but the whole point of that book is that it reminds us that the victims of the genocide to which it relates were just ordinary people, leading ordinary lives, with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else.  This one’s the same.  The author uses the word “dehumanisation”, and, when there’s just been yet another mass hate killing, this time in El Paso, and when a frightening number of people seem to think it’s OK to dehumanise anyone who votes for a different political party to them, holds different views on a particular issue, or has a different ethnicity, religion, gender, socio-economic background, sexuality or sexual identity, it’s critically important to remember where dehumanisation can lead.  The author’s grandparents all survived the Armenian Genocide.  Up to one and a half million people didn’t.  The book also gives a very interesting insight into Ottoman Armenian culture and traditions.

I was quite disturbed by a comment I read on Facebook last week: someone had written that “[supporters of a particular political party] are not people”.  OK, you probably shouldn’t get too wound up over things that ignorant people write on social media, but there’s so much of it around these days.  It’s about anything and everything.  Often it’s the usual “hate crime” areas – race, religion, sexuality, politics.  Sometimes it’s targeting groups of people for the most bizarre reasons, like which football team they support, or even which newspaper they read.  All right, obviously I’m not suggesting that anyone’s about to try to massacre people who read a particular newspaper, but when you spout that sort of hatred, when you label people, when you dismiss them, lump them together, when you dehumanise them … it’s a slippery slope.

Anyway.  This book’s set mainly around the time just before and after the Siege of Van in the spring of 1915, when Ottoman forces attacked the city of Van and were beaten back by the Armenian resistance.  Exactly what was going on, especially whether or not the Armenians had Russian support, is still unclear – but what is clear is that horrific atrocities were carried out against the Armenian civilian population of the area, before, during and after the siege.  The region had already seen massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and 1900s.  The book’s centred on the Sassoun area, closely linked to Armenian nationalism, and the scene of massacres in 1894, 1904 and 1915.

It’s a fascinating portrayal of life in an Ottoman Armenian village. There’s a lot of very interesting detail about the structure of family and community life, and about food, drink, clothing, farming, the treatment of illnesses, and the rituals surrounding births, marriages and deaths. There are romances that work out, and romances that don’t. It’s a book about a group of relatives and friends leading their lives. It’s so important that there are books like this, fictional or non-fictional, about the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, or any other genocide, as well as accounts of death marches and concentration camps and mass shootings, because it’s so important to remember that the victims were just ordinary people They should have just lived their lives out in peace, but they had the bad luck to be part of a demographic group that was the target of other people’s politics and hatred.

This was a long-running thing, though. There’d been some talk internationally back in the 1890s about tackling the issue of the Turks’ treatment of the Armenians, but nothing was done about it. The older generation of characters well remember what happened then. Several characters are involved in political movements. The fear of the Turks hangs over them at all times. And then we see the killings, in several of their guises. We see women, children and old men massacred in their homes. We see other women taken away, their fate unknown: we know that mass rape was a big part of the Armenian Genocide. We see young men conscripted into the army to fight in the Great War, but killed by their supposed comrades. We see other young men killed in clashes between Armenians and Turks.

We also see that a lot of the killings were carried out by Kurds. That’s something that’s rarely spoken about, although it is acknowledged by some Kurdish groups.

Some characters survive. At the end, we see one of them in America, telling his grandchildren what happened. That’s based on the experiences of the author, who was born in Lebanon and now lives in Canada: all four of her grandparents were survivors. She mentions that many of her friends had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish government won’t acknowledge that it happened. Most other governments don’t recognise it either – not because they don’t believe that it happened, but because they won’t risk upsetting modern Turkey, a major player in the complex politics of the Middle East.

Unusually, it was in the news in the U.K. recently, when respected academic surgeon Lord Darzi, whose grandparents fled the Armenian Genocide and lost many relatives and friends during it, resigned from the Labour party. He said “As an Armenian descendant of a survivor of the Armenian genocide I have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other discrimination against religion or race”.  In the U.S., Kim Kardashian West – not someone I thought I’d ever be writing about!! – has drawn attention to the subject, calling on the American government to recognise the Armenian Genocide.  It won’t happen, but at least she’s raising awareness of a subject that isn’t spoken about enough.

This is a very interesting book.  It’s not heavy-going or difficult to read, and it tells the reader a lot about Armenian culture.  There’s a lot of romance and family life in it.  But, essentially, it’s a novel of the Armenian Genocide, and that makes it important as well as interesting – both because the Armenian Genocide isn’t given the recognition that it should be, and because the world seems to be increasingly poisoned by hatred and we need to stop and remember where that can lead to.  This is a book about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.  And most of them end up being murdered.  Everyone who posts some nasty comment on social media, or shouts abuse at someone in the street, should bear that in mind – and, after what’s just happened in Texas, this is a particularly good time to do so.

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

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I feel vaguely guilty for having enjoyed this, because it was mostly just a lot of historical royal gossip. Maybe I’m being a bit of an academic snob here, because I never feel guilty about reading historical royal gossip when it’s in academic book format – Theo Aronson’s written loads of books like that, and so have Carolly Erickson and various other people, and I assume that Margaret Pemberton’s been reading some of them!  Or maybe it’s because I feel vaguely uncomfortable about reading fictionalised accounts of the lives of people who seem so close: the book runs from 1879 to 1918, but some of the main characters were still around as recently as the 1950s. I haven’t got Netflix, so I didn’t watch The Crown!  Anyway, I did enjoy it – and I suppose it wasn’t all fluffy stuff, because it covered the build-up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, focusing mainly on Princess May of Teck, later Queen Mary, Princess Alix of Hesse, later the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

There are an awful lot of cousins, who have relationships with and marry each other. If you’re used to royal family trees, it will make perfect sense. If not, you might get confused! It’s all been said umpteen times before, but it’s still entertaining. I’m not sure what the King of Norway would make of the suggestion that his grandmother, the then Princess Maud, had a full-blown affair with Prince Francis of Teck: it’s known that she was interested in him, but I’m not sure about the rest. And I’m not convinced that Princess May had always been in love with the Duke of Clarence. He comes across as a very romantic figure here, but, whilst the rumours that he was Jack the Ripper are more than a bit OTT, a romantic figure he was not! But I quite like the idea that Ella of Hesse went into her marriage with Grand Duke Sergei knowing full well that it was a lavender marriage, and actively chose that because it was the nearest she could, at that point, get to being a nun … rather than finding out after the ring was on the finger, as her sister-in-law Victoria Melita of Edinburgh did.

I’ve heard it all a million times before, but it’s still quite fascinating how there were all these cousins and second cousins marrying each other. Or not marrying each other, in the cases of Maud and Francis, “Eddy” (the Duke of Clarence) and Alix, Wilhelm and Ella, etc etc.

What about the three main figures? The book revolves around the fictional and possibly rather silly idea that May, Wilhelm and Alix recognised each other as “Kindred Spirits”, all being outsiders for one reason or another, and swore an oath of friendship. The blurb on the front cover says “Her broken oath would cast an empire into turmoil” … and I don’t actually know to what that’s supposed to refer! It makes no sense whatsoever. Does it mean something to do with Alix and Wilhelm’s supposed childhood friendship? And who’s “The Summer Queen”? Queen Victoria? May? That doesn’t make much sense either. Anyway, I think all the “oath” stuff is best ignored: it just seems to be there to try to justify the focus on three different people, and link them together.

Alix’s story has been told in both academic books and fiction umpteen times, and is therefore very well-known, but she seems remote in this book. We don’t really get a sense of her concerns about changing her religion, her fears for her haemophiliac son’s health, or what was going on with Rasputin. The book also suggests that it was Wilhelm who convinced her to marry Nicholas, which doesn’t make much sense either but is presumably to tie in with the “kindred spirit” idea.

Queen Mary’s story, on the other hand, has rarely been told. She’s usually seen as the epitome of dignity, and, because of that, as being a bit cold, so it was nice to see a book reminding us of her difficult childhood, as the descendant of a morganatic marriage, and the time her family spent living in Italy and the freedom she enjoyed there, as well as how difficult it must have been for her when the Duke of Clarence died. She comes across really well here.  I’m glad about that.  She’s an admirable figure who coped well with some very difficult times.

“Willy” comes across well too. He’s such a hate figure in the English-speaking world, because of the First World War, and also the appalling way in which he treated his mother. If Queen Mary is seen as the epitome of dignity, he’s seen as the epitome of Prussian militarism – but the author is quite sympathetic to him, reminding the reader of all the horrific treatments he was subjected to in order to try to cure the damage done to his arm by a difficult birth. He certainly didn’t have it easy, but I’m not sure why the author’s quite so sympathetic towards someone who was undoubtedly very militaristic, and had some very unpleasant attitudes. She shows him as being an Anglophile, when he was anything but, and ignores some of his extremist views. On a more positive note, she touches on the interesting Harden-Eulenberg affair, when his closest friend and advisor fell from power amid a lot of talk about homosexuality, then a taboo subject in the German Empire.  It’s something that’s increasingly attracting attention from historians of the period, many of whom link its effect on the Kaiser to an increase in militarism.

There’s the odd blunder – notably saying that the previous Queen Mary had been Mary Tudor! – and the author annoying refers to “England” rather than “Britain” all the way through, but it’s generally accurate.  In fact, it generally reads as if it most of it was taken from books by Theo Aronson or Justin Vovk, and fictionalised, but maybe I’m doing the author a disservice there.  Even though a lot of the subject matter is pretty “heavy”, especially that relating to Russia, the story’s fairly light, and it’s not a bad choice for holiday reading.  Something about it vaguely annoyed me, but I think that was just because it felt weird that the lives of people who lived so recently, and whose lives, at least in the cases of May and Wilhelm, are well within living memory, had been turned into easy reading.  And, as I’ve said, that’s probably just me being an academic snob!   Given that I knew all the factual royal gossip in this already, I am clearly a total hypocrite … 😉 .  And I did really enjoy it!

 

 

Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien

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I really like Anne O’Brien’s books.  She writes about historical periods which few other novelists cover, doesn’t mess about with the known facts, and gives plenty of historical detail without ever treating the reader as if they’re ignorant.  This particular book’s about Elizabeth Percy, nee Mortimer, wife of Henry “Hotspur”, aunt of the young Earl of March who was widely recognised as Richard II’s heir before Henry Bolingbroke’s coup, and sister of Sir Edmund Mortimer who allied with the Percys and Owen Glendower in the uprising of 1403 (defeated at the Battle of Shrewsbury, on the site of which there’s a very nice farm shop and cafe!).  It’s both very informative and very readable.

This is a period of history which is more familiar from Shakespeare than anywhere else.  It’s not generally taught in schools, and it wasn’t even taught when I was at university.   Yet the names are well-known – if only because Owen Glendower had a terrorist group named after him, and Henry Percy, because the Dukes of Northumberland owned land in Tottenham, has got a Premier League football club named after him!! Seriously, the Percys, Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland, are still going strong.  Often in the gossip columns, because the present duke’s children are pals with Princes William and Harry.  And still at Alnwick Castle – now also known as Hogwarts!  There aren’t all that many great homes and great noble names which go back so far.

The forgotten name’s that of Mortimer.  Well, you do hear it a lot at lovely Chirk Castle, one of my favourite National Trust properties; but the Mortimers could have been Kings of England, and, instead, the Duke of Lancaster deposed Richard II and became King Henry IV – an elusive figure despite the Shakespeare plays, and, like Henry VII, completely overshadowed by his more glamorous son – and the Mortimer line, with no male heirs after the deaths of Elizabeth’s Mortimer nephews, merged into the Yorkist line.

Richard II had no surviving royal brothers, no children by his first wife, and a second wife who was only a child.  So who was his heir?  Edmund Mortimer, descended from the second surviving son of Edward III but through the female line, and only a child, or Henry Bolingbroke, descended from the third surviving son, the Duke of Lancaster, through the male line?  Edward III’s supposed to have ruled out succession through the female line.  But England had never had the Salic Law – and Edward himself had claimed the throne of France through his mother.  And England’s not always that fussy about lines of descent anyway.  It shouldn’t have been relevant, because Richard would have expected to have children with his second wife eventually, but he fell out with Henry, and Henry deposed him, and … did he have him killed?  You’ve got to think so.  As with Peter III of Russia, it was all a bit too convenient that a recently deposed king just happened to die.

Shakespeare’s got Henry Hotspur, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, being a similar age to the future Henry V, the aforementioned glamour boy, but he was actually more of an age with Henry IV.  Henry IV really should have tried to keep the Percys, the so-called Kings of the North, on side, but he didn’t.  Hotspur and his brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer both fought for Henry against Owen Glendower, but Mortimer was captured and Henry refused to let the Percys ransom him.  Because he thought Mortimer was in league with Glendower?  If he wasn’t then, he was soon, and so were the Percys – planning to divide the country between them.  But the rebels were defeated, at Shrewsbury.  Hotspur was killed.  Elizabeth was pushed into a second marriage. Henry IV was duly succeeded by his son Henry V … and, if Henry V hadn’t died young, and his son Henry VI hadn’t suffered from mental health problems, the succession disputes would probably have ended there, but that’s another story.

So it’s quite a messy, complex period of history; and Elizabeth Percy, nee Mortimer, was closely connected to all the major figures involved.  This book suggests that she was always determined that her nephew was Richard II’s rightful successor, and that she.played a crucial role in her husband’s decision to join Mortimer and Glendower.  We can’t know for sure exactly what her role was, but it’s certainly not unlikely that she’d have been heavily involved in the decision-making, and there’s nothing in this book that couldn’t have happened.  The fact that it is about Elizabeth means that we don’t see or hear that much about the motives and actions of Richard II, Henry IV or Owen Glendower, but, to be fair, the book is not about them.  We see Elizabeth at court, though, and talking to her Mortimer nephews, and meeting Owen Glendower.  There’s also quite a bit of personal stuff about her relationship with her husband – we can’t know much about their marriage, but it rings true, and it works well in the context of the book.

It’s told from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, but it’s not really that sympathetic towards her, or towards anyone else involved.  Everyone – apart from the young Earl of March and his brother, who didn’t really seem that interested in the throne – was on their high horses about who was entitled to what and how badly they’d been treated, but no-one really behaved very well.  It must be far easier to write a book in which the protagonist is shown as being in the right, and in which the narrative takes one side or the other, than to write one like this.  And it’s probably also easier to write about a well-known figure like Anne Boleyn or Queen Victoria than to write about someone who was just a real as they were but of whom a lot of readers may never even have heard.

Probably quite tempting, as well.  Books about the Tudors and the Victorians always sell!  But I’m so grateful to the people who write about the more neglected periods of history – especially Jean Plaidy, who was the person who showed me that medieval history was absolutely fascinating and wasn’t all about motte and bailey castles and the daily lives of monks, which was much of what I’d been taught in the very brief time given to it at school!   And I also like the fact that Anne O’Brien focuses on women, who, unless they’re queens, and sometimes even then, are so often overlooked.

This is historical fiction for historians – there’s a lot of politics in it, and it helps to be familiar with the Plantagenet family tree, and it assumes that you know the basics.  I love that!  Not everyone will, but I do.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will certainly be reading Anne O’Brien’s next book, part of which will overlap with this one, when it comes out later this year.

 

Beecham House – ITV

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Finally, a period drama set in India before 1857/58, and indeed even before 1803!   But, so far, it’s not really living up to the hype.  On the plus side, we got all the glorious colour of India – elephants, camels, lush gardens, and the wonderful colourful clothes and amber and pink buildings of beautiful Rajasthan (except that it was supposedly set in Delhi!).  We got mystery, and we got political and romantic intrigue.  On the minus side, I’d had a horrible feeling that Gurinder Chadha and William Dalrymple would badly mishandle the history, and they did – it gave a very misleading impression of what was going on.  Also, the characters’ behaviour didn’t ring true – a respectable young single woman going round to a strange bloke’s house for tea, and touching his arm?!  – and the bare-chested scything scene was such a rip-off of Poldark that I just had to laugh.  Mixed feelings about this – but it was only the first episode, so let’s see how it goes.

The scenery and the sets were stunning.  Was the City Palace in Jaipur used for the scenes with the emperor?  It certainly looked like it.  Such an amazing place!  The French mercenary bloke who used to be in Mr Selfridge was based at the glorious Amber Fort, near Jaipur, and Beecham House and the neighbouring home owned by the bloke who used to be in Ackley Bridge were filmed at two of the beautiful Rajasthani palaces which are how heritage hotels.  And the hills, the lakes, the gardens, the animals, the gorgeous clothes … it was definitely a feast for the eyes.  It was supposed to be in Delhi, though, not Rajasthan!   Well, OK, we did get to see a bit of the Red Fort!

The basic idea is that John Beecham has left the East India Company because he doesn’t approve of it, and has bought himself a palace in India, where he intends to settle down and earn his living by trading (although he presumably has plenty of money already), and be part of the local community.   Now, this sort of idea can work very well – think Dances With Wolves.   Admittedly that was made before the days of snowflakes screeching about “cultural appropriation” and “white saviours” and so on, but, in the 18th century, British attitudes towards India and relationships between the British and the Indians were very different from how they were in the days of the Raj, and I was hoping that this was going to show that, in a positive way.  However, given that Gurinder Chadha ruined Viceroy’s House by bizarrely claiming that Britain partitioned India as some sort of anti-Soviet plot, and William Dalrymple, however detailed his research and in-depth his knowledge may have been, ruined The Last Mughal by claiming that evangelical Christians were responsible for all the evils of the world, I should have known I was being over-optimistic!

Back to John Beecham, first.  One big difference between India in the 1790s and India in the days of A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown etc was that relationships between white British men and Indian women were much more acceptable in earlier times – and John B turned up with his mixed race baby.  What an absolutely gorgeous baby!  Well, twins, playing him.  Big smiles for the camera!  But no sign of the mother.  So this was all meant to be very mysterious.   There’s also a mysterious brother whom we haven’t met yet, but the preview of the second episode showed him smoking opium and surrounded by half-naked girls.  Two brothers who are completely different – nothing like a good cliché!  The cliché of “nabobs” at this time – think Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair – was that they were all complete prats, whereas John is supposed to be all brooding and into Indian culture and generally a big hero.  Who can cut down trees without having his shirt on, like Ross Poldark.

And, by the end of the first episode, two women were after him.  The first one was his neighbour’s daughter’s governess.  He asked her round for tea.  On her own.  She went.  Touched his arm.  Used his first name.  I know these are Georgians rather than Victorians, but even so!   The other one was a childhood friend, who’d travelled out there with his mother, apparently purely in the hope of bagging him because his mother had told her he was a good catch.  I was hoping that Lesley Nicol, as the mother, would have a good part, maybe a bit of battleaxe; but she was a real trope, dressed entirely in black (if she’s in mourning, we weren’t told) and whingeing about the weather. An old pal of John’s had also travelled out with them, reasons unknown.

I was assuming that the household staff’d play a big part in it all – although maybe that was all the “Delhi Downton” talk in the media – but they haven’t had much to do yet.  Nor have the neighbours: we barely saw them.  However, we did see a lot of the aforementioned French mercenary – who looks even better in military uniform than he did dressing Mr Selfridge’s windows.  Now, to be fair, he is a mercenary, but the programme definitely gave the impression that the French were allied with the Mughal emperor against the East India Company.   Rubbish.  The French were barely involved in India after the Seven Years’ War.  And they did have rather a lot else on their minds in 1795!

Furthermore, there wasn’t a single mention of the Marathas, who’d been fighting the Mughals for years.  By this stage, the emperor was only really a client king under their protection.  Nor was there any mention of the recent wars between the Mughals and the Sikhs.  Nor did they raise the fact that Mughal rule meant that an Islamic dynasty was ruling over a mainly Hindu population.  It was quite ironic, really – Chadha and Dalrymple were so busy being anti-British that they ended up demeaning Indian history instead, with this Eurocentric impression of events as being all about the French trying to help the Indians keep the British East India Company out of Delhi, instead of showing the relationships and conflicts between different groups of Indians.

Incidentally, Delhi is full of stunning buildings dating from both the British Raj and the Mughal era.  It does not have snowflakes wanting to show how politically correct they are by campaigning for them to be pulled down.  Just a thought.

I’m not defending the East India Company.   In fact, as the programme mentioned, Governor-General Warren Hastings had just been impeached on a number of charges – although he was acquitted.  I first got into Indian history in the late 1980s, when two of Britain’s best-known sports personalities were Scottish rugby union players Gavin and Scott Hastings, and I still want to call Warren Hastings either “Gavin” or “Scott” because the names got a bit mixed up in my head, but that’s beside the point!   But making out that 18th century Indian history was all about the Mughals versus the British East India Company is nonsense, and rather insulting to India.

Oh well.  There’s more to come.  We haven’t met the brother yet.  And I believe that there’s also an Indian princess, who may be the mother of the cute baby.  It was only the first episode – and it had been so hyped up that it would have been very difficult for it to have lived up to expectations.   I do very much hope it gets better, because this is a period of history that, because there’s so much focus on the Raj era, tends to be overlooked.  It deserves better.    Maybe the series will get better!