The Mapmaker by Frank G Slaughter

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This month’s Facebook group reading challenge was to read a book set in Portugal, which was a bit problematic, as there isn’t a lot of English language historical fiction set in Portugal and I’ve read pretty much all of it!  However, I did find this.  It turned out that only part of it was set in Portugal, and, in this disastrous tennis season, I kept getting distracted into reading up on medieval Mallorcan mapmakers, but never mind.

This book’s an interesting mixture of the work of real life cartographers under the auspices of the Portuguese prince now known as Henry the Navigator, some quite detailed information about navigational techniques of the time; things probably believed to be true when the novel was written (in the 1950s) but now doubted, notably the existence of a school of navigation at Sagres; stories and theories about the Americas being discovered by the Venetians long before Columbus; legends which the characters believe but the reader isn’t meant to (all the Prester John stuff); and Boys’ Own adventure stuff.   That sounds rather strange, but I did really enjoy it!

Our hero is the Venetian cartographer and navigator Andrea Bianco, who was a real person and is best known for his 1436 atlas showing “the island of Antillia”, which some people believe to be mythical but others believe to be the coast of Florida – although, in this book, the native inhabitants refer to it as “Acuba”, so possibly the reader’s meant to think that it’s Cuba.  There are various theories about Venetian sailors having reached the Americas in the early 15th century, and we just don’t know whether or not they’re true.

In this book, Andrea’s working for Henry the Navigator, alongside various Mallorcan Jews or conversos who were amongst the leading cartographers of the time, and he holds the secret of measuring latitude.  He’d been captured by Turks and held as a slave, during which time he not only learnt how to measure latitude but travelled to China and Japan.  However, at the start of the book, he escapes during a storm and is fortuitously rescued by a wealthy Portuguese man and his beautiful daughter, Leonor.  It transpires that his dastardly half-brother was plotting against him and was the reason he was captured.  The said dastardly half-brother then makes it impossible for him to stay in Venice, so off he goes to Portugal, where he soon gets in with Henry, and joins a voyage to the coast of Africa.  We get some distressing scenes of slaves being bought from African slave traders and brought to Portugal, with the Church preaching that this is all to the good and it’ll save their souls: however, Andrea stands out against this, and any slaves assigned to him are immediately set free.  He also makes it clear that the Turks and Arabs are far more advanced in their knowledge of navigation than any Europeans are, and that the ancient Phoenicians were too.

Off they go on another voyage, to the Canary Islands, but things go wrong and they end up in the Sargasso Sea.   We do know that Portuguese ships at this time did reach the Sargasso Sea, but, here, our ship ends up in “Antillia”.   There are various adventures, in which our hero saves the life of the beautiful Leonor, who for some inexplicable reason has come along on the voyage, and eventually, thanks largely, of course, to Andrea, they make it back to Portugal.  At this point, the dastardly half-brother reappears and tries to kill him, but Andrea manages to escape – of course.  The dastardly one gets his come-uppance, and Andrea walks off into the sunset with the beautiful Leonor.

So it’s a bit daft in parts, but the information about navigational techniques is genuinely interesting.  The idea that the Portuguese reached the Americas before Columbus but Henry hushed it up to avoid distracting attention from his plans in Africa, which is how things are explained here, is highly unlikely; but could the Venetians have got there first?  Well, you never know!  And this is a Boys’ Own book for adults, rather than books by, say, G A Henty, which are clearly aimed at children, so it was something different!

 

Dark Tides by Philippa Gregory

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  I always swear blind that I’ll never read another book by Philippa Gregory … and then I do.  This one, despite being the sequel to the dreadful “Tidelands”, is really quite interesting, until the end where it becomes utterly farcical.  All the main characters in it are fictional, so she can’t do too much distorting of the facts – although there are a few really amateurish blunders, surprising from someone who’s actually got a degree in history – and it covers quite a range of locations and themes.  We jump about a lot between London and New England, and also spend quite a bit of time in Venice.  The last few chapters are just silly beyond words, but most of it really isn’t bad.

Also, it raises the interesting question of what happened to old Roundheads.  The Yorkists hung around like a bad smell for years, plotting comebacks.  The Jacobites were still trying to make a comeback over 50 years after the Glorious Revolution.  Then they somehow got turned into a romantic Lost Cause, as did the Confederates, and as to some extent did the Spanish Republicans.  But what about the Roundheads, who won the war but lost the peace?   I suppose it’s a difficult question, because … well, who *were* the Roundheads?   Very few people set out in 1642 to execute the king, set up a republic, and try to force religious extremism on an unwilling country: most of them would have had aims similar to those which were actually achieved by the Whigs in 1688.  However, in this book, we see a former Roundhead soldier living in New England, only to become disillusioned there by the treatment of the Native Americans.

A lot of loose ends aren’t tied up, so I assume that a further sequel’s planned.  I’ll say I won’t read it, but then I will.

Amateurish blunders.  The wife of a knight or baronet is Lady Surname.  The daughter of, say, an earl is Lady First Name.  Mixing them up is a common mistake, but a poor one.  Illegitimate children cannot just be legitimised by their parents marrying years after their birth: it’s not that easy.  No-one has ruined their life if they discover immediately after the marriage ceremony that their new spouse is a bad ‘un: they just need to get the marriage annulled.  And Italians would not have been going on in 1670 about how the English were all obsessed with drinking tea!   Tea only started to become popular in England in the 1660s.

The story.  In the previous books, our “heroine” Alinor, a widow with two children, was tried as a witch after having an affair with a Catholic priest in disguise, by whom she’d become pregnant.  As you do.  This book, set 21 years later, finds Alinor and her daughter living and working in London, whilst her son has been working as a doctor in Venice.  But then a Venetian noblewoman turns up with a baby, and says that the son’s drowned and she’s his widow and this is their child.  And then the former priest turns up, having given up the priesthood, and says that he wants to marry Alinor so that their child can be his heir.  But where is the child?   There are two children, who’ve been brought up as the twin offspring of Alinor’s daughter Alys (who’s been abandoned by her husband).  Is one of them actually the child of Alinor and the priest?  Er, we don’t know.  Alys claims that her mother miscarried, but it all seems a bit dubious, and the mystery’s never really cleared up.  Presumably that’s been left for a future sequel?

Meanwhile … actually, the more I think about it all, the sillier it seems, not just the last few chapters but most of it!   But it didn’t actually seem that bad at first.  The Venetian noblewoman tries to seduce both the ex-priest and Alys.  Then she says that she’s got a load of valuable antiques left to her by her first husband, and needs help to bring them to England and to flog them to rich courtiers.  So the ex-priest helps her.  Then agrees to marry her.

Meanwhile, Alinor, unconvinced that her son is dead, dispatches her granddaughter Sarah to Venice, to look for him.  There are some genuinely interesting bits about life in Venice – the position of the Jews in the ghetto, and the denunciation process – but it all gets rather farcical as it turns out that he’s not dead after all, but is in prison, having been denounced by his wife and the bloke who was helping her with the antiques, with whom she was having an affair … but who then falls in love with Sarah.  Furthermore, most of the antiques are forgeries. Then it turns out that the son is now working on the leper island, from which no-one ever escapes.  But Sarah miraculously rescues him, and he, she and the antiques bloke all roll up at the church in London just as the bisexual widow is marrying the ex-priest.  All is exposed.  Oh, and the antiques bloke is the baby’s dad.

Hurrah!  The ex-priest is saved (not that he really deserves to be).  Er, no.  It is declared that the bisexual widow’s marriage to Alinor’s son was unlawful because she’s a Catholic and he’s a Protestant.  She and the ex-priest are both Catholics, but are both pretending to be Protestants.  So that’s OK.  So this marriage stands.  And the ex-priest declares that he’s ruined.  Er, even though the marriage hasn’t been consummated, so he could soon get it annulled. I did say that it got farcical, OK?!

In between all of this, we hear about Alinor’s brother, the aforementioned former Roundhead now living in America.  Those sections are much better, and considerably less farcical.

It’s actually not as bad as it sounds!  It does turn into a farce towards the end, but, for a while, it isn’t bad.

 

Love Letter to Italy

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Dear Italy.  Cara Italia. Thank you for beautiful Venice – photo taken during my, ahem, “significant” birthday visit to the Venice Carnival in 2015, my fourth visit to my favourite Continental city. Thank you for Assisi, a holy place which really does seem holy, for your beautiful lakes, for your magnificent historical cities, for your pretty little towns, for your stunning mountains, and for your orange and lemon groves and your fields of olives, vines and sunflowers. Thank you for your lovely cafes on the shores of the lakes, and overlooking the Bay of Capri, and in beautiful little town squares, where you can spend an evening with ice-cream and cappuccino. Thank you for your gloriously complicated history, especially during the 16th and 17th centuries. Thank you for veal Milanese and limoncello and Asti Spumante. And for the fact that every town in Tuscany has its own special cake or pastry, so that you feel obliged to try all of them! And for those little marzipan things that they make in Sicily, and for arancini, and for Murano glass and Burano lace and gondolas. Thank you for the processions that you hold to honour saints I’ve never heard of: they make for fascinating watching!

Thank you for ‘Italia 90, for Serie A which we all got into during the ban years, and for your lovely southern music which we murder into football chants and Cornetto adverts! Thank you for being the setting for so many books and plays, and for being the place that anyone lucky enough to be able to go on a Grand Tour made their priority. Thank you for the lovely old man in Sicily who stopped me in the street and told me that he’d seen me at a hotel (and he had, because he named it!) and thought I was lovely, and for the lovely old man in Pisa who told me that all English girls were beautiful – Italian men can be terrible flatterers, and it’s a wonderful confidence boost when you haven’t got any confidence!

Thank you for the man who, whilst dressed up as a gladiator in Verona, chatted away merrily with me about United beating Roma 7-1 – Italians, like Mancunians, love to talk about football, in any circumstances! Thank you for the Italian tour guide who sat with me on an island in the Venetian lagoon and listened to my tale of woe about not being able to get a job after leaving university, and told me that it would all be OK. Thank you for all the staff in the Sicilian restaurant who, because I was the annoying fussy idiot who didn’t want the stuff on the set menu which had been put on the table for everyone to share, kept bringing me plateful after plateful of alternative food to make sure I didn’t starve, even though I’d said I’d be fine with bread and salad.

So many special places … I’ve hardly got started!!

Venice is the star of the north, but there are also those beautiful lakes. I always say that I’ll buy a villa at Lake Como if I ever win the lottery. We’ll draw a veil over the time I trekked up a steep hill in 90 degree heat to find the site where Mussolini was captured, but, hey, it probably burned off some of the gelato calories! Lake Maggiore and its beautiful islands, and its hydrofoils which carry you off to Switzerland. Elegant Milan, a capital of football and a capital of fashion, and Genoa with its lovely port and its lovely buildings. And the little seaside resorts where I spent my first visit to Italy, when I was 3.

Moving a little further southwards, beautiful Assisi. There are a lot of places which are supposed to be holy, and sometimes you feel it and sometimes you don’t. In Assisi, I do. I was so sad when it was badly damaged by an earthquake, and so glad to see that much of the damage had been repaired. Glamorous Portofino, and the little trains running between the Cinque Terre towns. The castles outside Parma. And, of course, stunning Tuscany – the Leaning Tower of Pisa, Florence with its fascinating history and Renaissance buildings, San Gimignano with its towers, Lucca with its little stalls in the streets, Siena with its lovely Palio and for the sandwich shop where they actually understood my manifold instructions about what I did and didn’t want … in fact, thank you to anyone in Italy who’s ever understood my Manchester-accented Italian!

And, of course, Rome – the magnificent Eternal City, with its incredible Roman remains, its grand buildings, its squares and its fountains. And the Vatican, although technically that’s not part of Italy. We’ll also draw a veil over the time I got chocolate ice-cream all down my T-shirt in St Peter’s Square: you can’t take me anywhere! Thank you for lovely Sorrento, and for the Neapolitan cafe that provided us with breakfast when our overnight ferry from Palermo docked late and we were horrendously hungry! For Capri, and for Pompeii – when you’ve had to do the Cambridge Latin Course at school, seeing Pompeii really is a thrill! And for Sicily – for Mount Etna, and for all those lovely little seaside resorts, Greek-built towns and steep villages.

I could go on for ever! And there are so many places in Italy which I haven’t been to and want to, and so many places that I’ve been to and want to go back to.  Thank you, Italy, for so much.  It is heartbreaking to see what you’re going through at the moment – it’s like some nightmare out of the Middle Ages, or even out of the Bible.  I know that good wishes from abroad aren’t going to help, but I find myself wishing that heads of state would send messages of support to Italy at this difficult time, and also to China, South Korea and anywhere else particularly badly affected.  Italy is a very special place to me, and I’m thinking of it and hoping that this horrible situation doesn’t get much worse and doesn’t go on much longer.

Lots of love – con amore,

Me xxx

 

 

Lists – ten historical places in time I’d like to visit

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This was a blog challenge idea, and it sounded so easy … but it wasn’t. I was originally going to try to tie it into particular books, but I didn’t get very far with that.  Would I really want to be caught up in the Siege of Atlanta, with or without Rhett Butler to help me escape?  Or in Russia in 1812, with everything being burned to stop the Grande Armee in its tracks?   Or negotiating the politics of the Tudor courts?   One of the balls in Jane Austen books would be a lot more peaceful, but I would very definitely be classed as “not handsome enough to tempt me“. Back to the drawing board.   Try just general places, without specific books.  And the first one has to be Victorian Manchester.  I’m so predictable, aren’t I?

1 – Victorian Manchester. Yes, I know all about the condition of the working-classes: I have read Engels’ book several times.  But this was a time of confidence, and belief, and hope.  This was a time when people believed they could change the world.  Peterloo (OK, that’s Georgian, not Victorian) – it was a tragedy, but it began with the genuine belief that people could win their rights.  The Chartists carried that on, and so did the Suffragettes.  The Anti Corn Law League, the whole campaign for free trade – we even named the Free Trade Hall after it!   The glorious buildings – to have the confidence to do that, even after the Cotton Famine.  The ideas of self-improvement and self-help, and the growth of the trade union movement.  That’s what the world’s missing now – the confidence that we can change things for the better, and getting out there and fighting for it.

And 9 more, in no particular order.

2 – Elizabethan England, again for that feeling of hope and confidence, moving on from the internal turmoil of the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation. Well, until it all went pear-shaped in Charles I’s time, but no-one would have seen that coming back in the Gloriana days.  The flourishing of culture, as well.  I can’t be doing with Shakespeare, but he does symbolise the English Renaissance.  Yes, I know that the Elizabethan Age gets rather mythologised, but you can’t have myths unless you’ve got something to start with.

3 – Venice in the 18th century. I was going to say the Renaissance, but I’m not an arty person, for one thing, and Renaissance Italy involved too much fighting and political chaos and religious intolerance.  Venice in the 18th century, all that grandeur and glamour and elegance, would be a much better bet.  I’ve even got Carnevale masks: I wore them when I went to the Venice Carnival for my, ahem, “significant” birthday in 2015.

4 – Vienna in the late 19th century.  Music and waltzing, literature and philosophy.  I quite fancy the idea of sitting in a Viennese coffee house, exchanging ideas with great minds … who would probably think I was talking a load of utter rubbish and be totally unimpressed with my support for Slavic nationalists. But still.

5 – The Caliphate of Cordoba. OK, this is another one that’s probably been mythologised into a lot more of a Golden Age than it actually was, but there is certainly something in the idea of La Convivencia, the flourishing of Christian and Jewish and Islamic culture together.  We’ve come so far from that, and sometimes it seems as if we’re getting further away from it rather than getting closer towards it again.

6 – I’ve got to have Russia in here somewhere!   I want to be a romantic Slavophile.  I want to walk around wearing a red sarafan (I have actually worn one once) and go on about mysticism and melancholy and the “going to the people” and peasant communes.  Er, except that most of that is romantic rubbish.  I could be a noble in St Petersburg, but that really doesn’t work at all with being a romantic Slavophile.  Oh dear.  I’m going to have to be a revolutionary instead, aren’t I?

7 – The Lake District in the time of the Romantic poets. Hooray – I can get away with Romanticism in this one!   Maybe I could stay with Wordsworth in Grasmere?

8 – I’ve got to have America in here somewhere, as well, but it’s a bit difficult to say that I actually want to be there during “my” period of American history, the 1840s to the 1870s. The Twelve Oaks barbecue does sound like good fun, until war gets declared in the middle of it, but, quite apart from the fact that, as with a Jane Austen ball, I’d be the person no-one wanted to sit with or dance with, it’s a slaveholding society and I just couldn’t be there.  No – it’s going to have to be the American Dream, the immigrants sailing into New York and hoping that they’re going to find that the streets are paved with gold.  OK, it’d probably mean ending up doing backbreaking work in horrible conditions, but, again, it’s that feeling of hope, that belief, that you can make the world a better place and be part of it.

9 – India with Gandhi. I normally refuse to class anything later than the First World War as “history”, but I watched the Gandhi film again recently, and I’ve been reading up on Indian history, and … that incredible idea that you can bring about change by non-violent civil resistance, and the hope – even if it did turn out to be futile – of religious tolerance and co-operation.  There are a lot of groups of people now who have little hope – the Rohingyas spring to mind – but what an inspiration that time was.

10 – Do you know what, I actually do want to go to a Jane Austen era ball? I’d get over no-one wanting to dance with me!   At least the clothes of the time were fairly loose, so I wouldn’t look as fat in them as I would in clothes from some other time periods.  I like that idea of the county society in Jane Austen books, that you did get invited to parties and balls as a matter of course, and weren’t sat at home wondering how you’d get to meet new people.  I am absolutely useless at social occasions and would probably have hated it all in practice, but I do like the idea in theory.  I mean, Mary Bennet does seem to enjoy the balls, doesn’t she, even though everyone thinks she’s weird?  I like the idea of visiting spa towns and “taking the waters” as well.

I just wish I could match all these times and places up to books! But most of the best historical fiction’s set against a background of war and turmoil.  Is that because it appeals to authors, it appeals to readers, or it appeals to me?  And, if anyone’s reading this, please tell me when and where you’d like to go, and if any of our ideas match.  If they do, maybe we can build a time machine and go there together 🙂 .