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.

Star by Star by Sheena Wilkinson (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I read this book because the blurb said that it was “a bold tale of suffragettes”; but it was actually more about the Spanish flu.  Strangely few books cover the Spanish flu, and, under the present circumstances, it was particularly interesting to read one that did.  The women’s suffrage movement did come into it, though, as did the granting of universal male suffrage, the mental health impact of the First World War, and the complex political situation in Northern Ireland.  As one of the characters said, it was an awful lot for everyone to try to process at once – the war, the Spanish flu, the general election so soon after the Armistice, it being the first time that all men and any women could vote, and the issue of Irish independence.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a character in a book say that before, and it was a very, very good point.

This is 180 page book for children, so obviously it didn’t go into the depths than an adult book on the same subjects would, but it packed a lot in, and all in quite a quirky way, with Our Heroine keeping imagining that she was at the centre of big dramas and playing out scenarios in her head.  She was about 16.  I still do that now!

This was late 1918 – the Armistice was announced towards the end of the book – and our heroine Stella was moving from Manchester to live at her auntie’s boarding house in a seaside resort in Ulster, following the death of her mother from the Spanish flu.  Very impressed that the book had a Manchester connection 🙂 .  Suffragette City!   I do love reminding people, for the millionth time, that I went to the same school as the Pankhurst sisters.  Who apparently didn’t like the place very much, but the school doesn’t tell pupils that!

Anyway, back to the book.  She’d lived in “Eupatoria Street”.  I wonder if that’s near Inkerman Street and Balaclava Terrace 🙂 . We learnt that she was illegitimate and that that was why her mother had left home, and that her mother had been very involved with the suffragette movement.  She was very keen on the idea of women’s rights, but, although we saw her accompanying her late mother’s best friend to the polling station on the day of the 1918 election, there wasn’t much active politics going on …. but then there wasn’t anyway, because campaigning had been suspended due to the war.

Another of the people staying at the boarding house was a soldier who’d been invalided out of the Army and was struggling to cope psychologically – and that again was something which so many books about the First World War don’t cover, and it was good to see that as a major theme here.  The complex political situation in the north of Ireland was also a central theme, with opposing views expressed by different characters.  If it hadn’t been for the House of Lords, the whole of Ireland would have had Home Rule in Gladstone’s time and a lot of bloodshed would probably have been avoided, but you can’t rewrite history.

However, it was really the Spanish flu pandemic that dominated events. Or maybe that’s just how it seemed to me, and I’d have felt differently had I been reading the book a year ago.  I usually get annoyed when people talk about historical events in the context of current events, but it’s impossible to read about the Spanish flu pandemic at the moment and not look at it in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.  We think things are bad now, but at least we haven’t got healthy people suddenly taking ill in the street and dying within hours, funeral parlours struggling to cope, homes of infected people being viewed by frightened neighbours as houses of contagion, and little in the way of effective treatment for those worst affected.  The death toll was just horrendous, and this in a world already reeling from all the deaths and long-term injuries resulting from the war.

Despite all the serious subjects, there was quite a light touch to it, told in the first person by a teenage girl who, as you do at that age, took herself very seriously!   As I said, it’s a children’s book, not an adult book, but, as a children’s book, it was very good, and I would have loved to have had something like this to read when I was in the intended reading age group.

 

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

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Another superb book from Elizabeth Chadwick.  She’s written several books about William Marshal, but this one’s about his mother-in-law, Aoife MacMurchada – who, in 1171, married William de Clare, (former) Earl of Pembroke, now usually known as Strongbow (and, yes, the cider is named after him!), when he came to Ireland with a military force at the invitation of her father Diarmait, the dispossessed King of Leinster.  Not that much is known about Aoife, and there’s some confusion regarding what is known, but Elizabeth Chadwick’s done a lot of research and written a wonderful book which really brings her to life for the modern reader.

The Middle Ages can be difficult to get into, because most people don’t know them as well as they know the Tudor and Stuart periods, or more modern times.  When I was at school and university, the medieval history teaching wasn’t exactly designed to hold the attention of young girls.  Motte and bailey castles and the lives of medieval monks, anyone?!  It was through Jean Plaidy’s wonderful books about the lives of medieval kings and queens that I first came to appreciate the period, and I’m a great advocate of novels centred on people as a way of teaching and learning about particular times and places in history.

I’m wondering, and hoping, that a sequel to this might be forthcoming, because the book ended shortly after Richard’s death, when Aoife was only in her mid-20s.  Having said which, no-one knows when Aoife died – it may have been in her early 40s, or she may have lived into her late 50s.  What is known is that her father was dispossessed by the High King of Ireland, after abducting another regional king’s wife (albeit possibly at her own request!), and appealed for help from England.  Richard de Clare had had some of his lands confiscated by Henry II due to his support for King Stephen, and, looking for a way to reverse his downturn in fortunes, decided to throw his lot on with Diarmait.  Disappointingly, the nickname “Strongbow” probably wasn’t due to his brilliant archery, but a later corruption of “Striguil”, the then name for Chepstow, where he was based!

Henry didn’t make things easy for Richard, and then, when Richard won a number of victories in Ireland, imposed his own rule there … as a result of which, Diarmait MacMurchada is often seen as the man who brought about English control of Ireland, even though it only really extended to a small area at this point.  I’m saying “English” and “Irish”, but “Anglo-Norman” would probably be more accurate than “English”, Richard was actually based just inside Wales, and Dublin and other Irish cities were at this point Norse-Gaelic.  There was a lot of cultural intermingling going on.

Richard died only five years after marrying Aoife, but Henry II granted Aoife her dower lands, and the earldom of Pembroke passed to Aoife and Richard’s daughter Isabel, who later married William Marshal.   Elizabeth Chadwick’s therefore assumed that Aoife and Henry knew each other well, and were friends (but no more than friends).  Whilst I admire Henry, I don’t usually like him, but he came across very well here.  He could easily have seized all the de Clare lands, or let Richard’s ambitious sister and brother-in-law keep them in return for pledges of loyalty.   I’d like to have seen Eleanor of Aquitaine featured too, but, of course, she and Henry were estranged at this point.

Henry and Eleanor are very familiar figures.  Aoife and Richard aren’t, which is quite strange given that their marriage had such important consequences for the history of the British Isles; and it was wonderful to feel that I was getting to know them.  We don’t know that much about their personalities, and almost nothing about their personal relationship, but Elizabeth Chadwick’s written it as an arranged marriage which became a love match, between two strong and attractive characters.  A host of minor characters – Richard’s sister Basilia, her husband Raymond, and Aoife’s brothers – have also been very well-written, as well as Aoife’s father Diarmait and mother Mor, and her uncle Lorcan, now known as St Laurence O’Toole.

As I’ve said, novels about people can be crucial in teaching and learning about particular times and places in history.  And, as Elizabeth Chadwick and Anne O’Brien and others have shown, that doesn’t necessarily have to be household names like Anne Boleyn or Marie Antoinette, but I think it does work best when it’s someone at the centre of the action.  Yes, of course it’s important to appreciate the role of ordinary people, the vast majority of the population, but I like to see the big events and the big personalities.  This is exactly the sort of book which exemplifies that, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  Highly recommended!