Sunday, October 29, 2006

At the Movies

This weekend I saw the Sofia Coppola movie Marie Antoinette. An interesting movie, but all in all a disappointment.

Visually, this is a gorgeous movie--beautiful interior and exterior shots and exquisite costuming. Even the various yippy little dogs that chew the scenery (and the furniture) seem to have been chosen very carefully.

The use of rock music here has been quite controversial, but I didn't find it offputting--it mostly is used as a backdrop for scenes such as raucous parties and therefore seemed quite fitting. Period music, especially opera, is also used to good effect.

There are some very clever scenes here, such as the one where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's brother Joseph discuss the facts of life while a caged elephant intrudes his trunk into their presence, and some rather droll ones, like the one where Marie Antoinette and her girlfriends, dressed in expensively simple frocks and having had some tea out of china that could probably have fed a family of six for a year, solemnly read Rousseau.

Most of the movie is devoted to Marie Antoinette's awkward position at Versailles, where she's ridiculed by courtiers for not producing an heir and lectured by her mother via mail for not doing more to get the reluctant Louis in the mood. After, it's no wonder the poor girl just wants to have fun.

Unfortunately, once the marriage finally produces a child (albeit of the wrong sex) and Marie Antoinette abandons the party scene for the simple life at the Petit Trianon, the film seems to lose its focus. Axel Fersen, an old acquaintance from Marie Antoinette's champagne days, arrives on the scene, and the two have a fling. After this, the years fly by. A son is born, a child dies, rude writings start to appear about Marie Antoinette, the queen sends away her friends for their own safety, the mob comes to Versailles, and the film ends. All of this takes place in the film's last twenty minutes or so, which feel like a coda to the earlier part of the movie. With so much time given to the young Marie Antoinette and so little given to the older woman, the film felt disjointed in the extreme, and the affecting last scene, a shot of the ransacked royal bedroom, couldn't make up for the relative emptiness of the last part of the movie.

All in all, a film like one of the pastries that are consumed in it: pleasant in the eating but in the end leaving the viewer wishing she'd had something more substantial.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

November 7 Can't Come Too Soon

I'm not sure I can remember a sillier election season than this one. (Or maybe I'm just repressing bad memories.) Hot on the heels of Fred Head, blasting his opponent as a pornographer for having written a romance novel years before, now comes George Allen, Republican Senator from Virginia, attacking his Democratic opponent, James Webb. Not for his position on the war in Iraq, or on the economy, or on any issue that the United States Senate might actually concern itself with. No, James Webb is a bad boy for having written novels that contain sex scenes that are supposedly demeaning toward women. Wailed Kay James, Allen's former cabinet secretary, "What type of mind commits these thoughts to paper – in such graphic detail?"

Let's see. Romance novelists, historical novelists, literary novelists, science fiction novelists, fantasy novelists, chick lit novelists, military novelists . . . Have I left anyone out?

I haven't read Webb's books, some of which are set during World War II and Vietnam and which have been critically praised by those on both sides of the political fence, but Allen seems to have lifted some graphic sexual passages out of context in the hope that unsophisticated voters will assume that having a male character watch a stripper do unseemly acts with a banana means that Webb regards all women as potential strippers. Either that, or Allen is so culturally limited that he has no idea that novelists don't necessarily endorse everything their characters do or say. In that respect, it could be a lot worse for James Webb.

He could have written murder mysteries.

Friday, October 27, 2006

A Sad Day at Bristol

Today marks the 680th anniversary of the death of Hugh le Despenser the elder, Earl of Winchester, who was put to death at Bristol on October 27, 1326, by Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer following their invasion of England. It was a sad end for a man who had been a loyal servant to the crown since the days of Edward I and who had been one of the godfathers to Edward III.

Hugh the elder had been sent to Bristol to hold the town against Queen Isabella's troops. Edward II and Hugh le Despenser had fled to Wales, where they were on the day of Hugh the elder's execution. In Bristol, Hugh the elder resisted the queen's besieging troops for eight days, but finally surrendered on October 26 and was promptly arrested.

The next day, Hugh the elder was tried, if it could be called that, by Roger Mortimer, Henry, Earl of Lancaster, and the Earls of Norfolk and Kent (Edward II's half-brothers), among others. He had been among those who presided over the trial and execution of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, in 1322, and his role in this proceeding was prominent in the charges against him, which also included accusations of robbery and treason and of depriving the prelates of the Church of their franchises. Hugh the elder had participated in some of his son's land-grabs and could be justly accused of robbery on those grounds, but the charge of treason surely required some mental gymnastics to justify, given Winchester's unbroken record of loyalty to Edward II and his father. Nonetheless, he was sentenced to be drawn through the town, hung, and beheaded. He was to be hung in a surcoat emblazoned with his coat of arms.

According to one chronicler, Isabella pleaded to spare the life of the elder Despenser, who was sixty-five (not ninety as reported by Froissart). Though several historians have accepted this claim at face value, it seems highly unlikely; as queen, Isabella would have hardly needed to plea to the men who were acting in her name.

Edward II's young daughters, Eleanor and Joan, were at Bristol Castle with Hugh the elder and were reunited with Queen Isabella upon its surrender. The girls had been in the care of Isabel de Hastings, one of Winchester's daughters. Presumably she had accompanied her charges to Bristol and thus too was at the castle at the time of her father's capture. According to Froissart, the young girls watched the execution from the castle window.

The sentence was carried out immediately after the trial. Hugh the elder's head was sent to Winchester, the seat of his earldom, on a spear. One source says that his body was rehung and remained on the gallows for three days, after which it was fed to dogs.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Spicing Up the Texas State Comptroller's Office

Bloggers who are more au courant than I am (that is, most bloggers) have already hit upon this one, but in case you haven't heard, a romance novel has become an issue in the Texas race for State Comptroller. Seems that years ago, the Republican candidate, Susan Combs, wrote a steamy romance novel, A Perfect Match. The Democratic candidate, Fred Head, noting that Combs is an advocate of abstinence education, has seized upon this, deeming the novel "pornography" and declaring on his website that Combs is "a two faced, hypocrite who was obviously more concerned with her literary career and seeing her name in print than the morals of the young People of Texas who are exposed to her 222 page book, A Perfect Match, which has her name at the top of every other page."

(As pointed out here, Mr. Head evidently hasn't heard of his near namesake, running heads. And "Fred Head"? Sounds like a character in a porno film to me.)

Moving on, however, a glance at the State Comptroller's website shows that some mighty dull books are published there. If Ms. Combs does get elected (and if Mr. Head can't think of any better campaign issues, I daresay she probably will), there's an opportunity for her to spice things up by combining her old avocation with her new career.

Take, for instance, this publication, "Auditing Fundamentals":

The entrance conference is a meeting between the auditor and the taxpayer or taxpayer's designated representative, prior to beginning the examination of the taxpayer's books and records. This is generally the first face-to-face meeting between the taxpayer or representative and the auditor.

The entrance conference is the foundation of a good audit and generally sets the tone of the auditor's dealings with the taxpayer. The taxpayer should be left with the impression that the auditor will be honest and fair, flexible and interested in serving the taxpayer, and willing to educate and assist the taxpayer.

Now let's add some spice by naming the auditor "Kirk" and the taxpayer "Fawn":

Kirk strode into the meeting room, his rippling muscles barely showing the effort of carrying the taxpayer books and records he bore under one tanned arm. Then he stopped.

Sitting at the table, her skirt hiked high over her luscious thighs, was the most beautiful taxpayer he had ever seen.

Fawn's silk blouse barely concealed her ample breasts as she gazed down at her itemized deduction form. Kirk followed her sapphire-blue eyes to the line that read "Filing Status." She was single.

Single. Available. And soon she would be his. He knew it in his aching groin. This would be a good audit. Good for them both.

She parted her full, lush, red lips, showing blindingly white teeth.

"Educate and assist me," Fawn purred.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Divorce, Medieval Style

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been reading The Well in the Desert, a historical novel by a Victorian writer, Emily Sarah Holt, available online through Google Books. The unsubtle religious message of the book makes it pretty unreadable today except as a curiosity (even readers of modern inspirational fiction, I suspect, would find its lay-it-on-with-a-trowel style off-putting). Nonetheless, it tells a medieval story that has its echoes in our modern world: that of the unhappy marriage of Richard Fitzalan, son of Edmund Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, to Isabella le Despenser, daughter of Hugh le Despenser the younger.

Though Edmund Fitzalan had sided against Edward II in the past and had been among those who approved the execution of Piers Gaveston, by the 1320’s he had become loyal to the king. As Hugh le Despenser the younger was the king’s closest friend and advisor, it must have seemed an eminently wise step for Arundel to marry his son to Despenser’s daughter. Hugh for his part must have been pleased with the marriage; as Richard Fitzalan was an oldest son (younger sons would not do for Hugh), Hugh could anticipate that his daughter would someday become Countess of Arundel.

The marriage took place on February 9, 1321 at Havering-atte-Bower, a royal manor. Edward II paid for the cloth to be held over the heads of the couple as they knelt at the altar and supplied the money thrown at the door of the king’s chapel. A papal petition brought years later stated that Richard was seven years old at the time; Isabella, eight. This must have been the bright spot in what was otherwise a grim year for the Despenser family, as Hugh the younger’s land-grabbing would bring England near to civil war in the next few months and lead to the temporary exile of Hugh and his father.

Though the Despensers were soon back in England, the wheel of fortune’s next spin, in 1326, was a fatal one. That year, Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer, invaded England with the express intent of destroying the Despensers and their allies. The Earl of Arundel, on extremely vague charges, was the first to go. His main offenses seem to have been his familial connection with Hugh the younger and his continued loyalty to Edward II. Slight as these were, they cost him his head on November 17, 1326. A week later, Hugh the younger was hung, beheaded, and quartered. His widow, Eleanor de Clare, was made a prisoner in the Tower of London, along with some of her children. Arundel’s widow was more fortunate: though Arundel’s estates were seized by the crown, the countess and her sons were given some Despenser lands to live upon; presumably Richard, and probably Isabella, lived with them. In 1327, Richard and Isabella’s son, Edmund Arundel, was born. With his grandfathers both dead, one grandmother in prison, and his other grandmother dependent on the good graces of Queen Isabella and Roger Mortimer, one suspects that the celebrations of the birth were subdued at best.

Toward the end of the Isabella and Mortimer regime, Richard had either fled to France or been put into prison for plotting against Mortimer, depending on which historian one reads. With Mortimer’s downfall, however, he was restored to the family earldom and regained many of the lands forfeited by his father. By the time of his death in 1376 he had become stunningly wealthy, with over 60,000 pounds in cash to his name.

His eldest son would enjoy none of this wealth. In December 1344, Richard Fitzalan succeeded in having his marriage to Isabella annulled on the ground that the couple had expressly renounced their vows at puberty but had been “forced by blows to cohabit, so that a son was born.” If the Pope or his deputy had any doubts as to why Richard had waited seventeen years after the birth of that son before attempting to secure an annulment ("Well, I kept meaning to get around to it, but . . ."), he kept them to himself. Tardy as he had been in getting out of his first marriage, Richard was no slouch in getting into his second marriage, for in February 1345 he married Eleanor, the daughter of Henry, Earl of Lancaster. Eleanor was a widow with whom Richard apparently had been having an affair; the two had gone on pilgrimage together earlier in 1344. Edward III was among the wedding guests. The king had supported the annulment and the remarriage; the Lancasters were far more powerful than the Despensers, and Richard Fitzalan had become a financier to the crown.

Meanwhile, Richard and Isabella’s son, Edmund, had been bastardized by his parents’ annulment. Though Richard had provided six manors for his former wife to live on, and the annulment indicates that some unspecified provision was to be made for Edmund, nothing indicates what it was. Edmund was knighted, however, and by 1347 had married Sibyl, a daughter of the deceased William de Montacute, Earl of Salisbury. Perhaps Richard Fitzalan had a hand in arranging this advantageous marriage, but it is just as likely that Edmund’s uncle Hugh le Despenser, who had been married to Sibyl’s sister Elizabeth since 1341, made the connection.

Edmund, however, was not disposed to take his disinheritance quietly. In 1347, Edmund, then twenty, complained to the Pope that the annulment had been surreptitiously obtained. Edmund was allowed to take an oath despite of his nonage, and the proceedings were commenced, but to no avail.

Little is heard of Isabella and Edmund after this. Isabella is noted as giving fish to her aunt Elizabeth de Burgh in 1351-52. Edmund and Sibyl, who had two daughters, received papal indults in 1364. An “Aymund de Arundellis” was sent by the Pope in 1368 “to communicate to King Edward the present state of the Roman church in Italy.” Probably Edmund was in the retinue of his cousin Edward le Despenser, who had gone to Italy with Edward III’s son Lionel.

Richard Fitzalan died in 1376, having had a number of children by his second wife. His heir to the earldom was Edmund Arundel’s younger half-brother, Richard. In November 1377, the new earl complained that Edmund Arundel and his servants had broken his closes and houses at High Rothyng, Ouesham, Childescanefeld, Yenge Margarets, and Wolfhampton, fished at High Rothyng, taken fish, money, and goods, and assaulted his servants. These manors were the ones that had been granted for life to Edmund’s mother, Isabella, following the annulment; perhaps Isabella had died and Edmund was trying to claim them for himself. The result was a stay in the Tower of London for Edmund Arundel. He was released after three men, including John de Montacute, his brother-in-law, and Guy de Bryan, who had married Elizabeth de Montacute after Hugh le Despenser’s death, stood mainprise for him.

Edmund Arundel disappears from the records after this. He presumably died before 1382, when a lawsuit involving land in Sussex was brought by his heirs against the Earl of Arundel, who prevailed.

Reading the story of the Arundel marriage, it’s hard not to think of the parallel in many modern divorces, where the divorcing spouse in search of a trophy mate casts off not only the other spouse but the children of the marriage. One wishes that Isabella le Despenser and her son had had the benefit of the person who for some twenty-first-century women has become their knight in shining armor: a high-priced divorce lawyer.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Fun with Google Downloads

Someone on a list I belong to mentioned that Agnes Strickland's Lives of the Queens of England was downloadable from Google Books, and sure 'nuf, it is--at least one volume, anyway. Strickland isn't always reliable, but her accounts are a good jumping-off place. One hopes that soon more volumes will follow.

I also was excited to see (OK, I excite easily) to find that I could download a volume of Lives of the Princesses of England by Mary Anne Everett Green. Green is quite useful, even today. For those of you who like really old England, there's Lives of the Queens of England before the Norman Conquest by Matthew Hall; how reliable he is I have no idea.

Some volumes of the Close and Patent Rolls are also downloadable now. There's lots more, depending on your taste.

There's been some controversy about Google Books, as you probably know, but I for one think it's wonderful that these public-domain books are being made available to the public. The downside? You'll spend too much time looking through the things when you should be doing something else. I, for instance, got sidetracked by a Emily Sarah Holt novel called The Well in the Desert, which isn't available for download yet but which can be read in full. I didn't read the whole thing, but it evidently deals with the annulment by Richard Fitzalan of his marriage to Isabel le Despenser in the 1340's. I always thought Fitzalan was a cad, and Holt certainly does, making him a wife-beater to boot.

Off to do some more Googling.

Friday, October 20, 2006

A Good Night's Work at Nottingham Castle

On the evening of October 19, 1330, William de Montacute (also spelled Montagu or Montague) and a couple of dozen men entered Nottingham Castle through an underground passageway. Their quarry: Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, who with Queen Isabella was the effective ruler of England at the time.

The reign of Isabella and Mortimer had been a perfect illustration of the line from the Who song “Won’t Get Fooled Again”: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Isabella and Mortimer had proven to be as greedy for land and power as had been Hugh le Despenser the younger, whom they had executed in 1326. They had quickly alienated their former allies, most notably Henry, Earl of Lancaster, by shutting them out of decision-making during the young king’s minority. They had forced Edward III to agree to the execution of his own uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent, earlier in 1330. Stupidly, instead of growing more deferential to the young king as he matured and gradually ceding power to him, Mortimer had grown more insolent in his behavior toward Edward III, even saying that his own orders were to be obeyed over those of the king. By October 1330, Edward III and his circle of loyal friends had had enough.

After a struggle in which a couple of Mortimer’s men died, Mortimer was seized and arrested. Edward III, as he proclaimed on October 20, 1330, would hereafter rule on his own. Mortimer was taken to the Tower of London, from which he had escaped in 1323. In November 1330, he was dragged to Tyburn, stripped of the black tunic he had worn at Edward II’s funeral, and hung.

William de Montacute remained a close friend of Edward III for the rest of his days (the story that Edward III attempted to seduce, or raped, his friend’s wife is regarded these days as a French slander). He was made Earl of Salisbury by Edward III in 1337. In January 1344, when Edward III formally announced his intention to form a Round Table of 300 knights, William de Montacute played a prominent part in the ceremony. The Round Table project never came to fruition; if it had, Montacute would not have lived to see it, for just days after the announcement, he was fatally injured while jousting at Windsor. He died on January 30, 1344, and was buried at Bisham Priory. He was about forty-three years old.

Medieval families often mended old wounds with Montague-Capulet marriages, and the Montacute/Montague family, appropriately enough, was a fertile source of these. William de Montacute’s eldest son, another William, married Joan of Kent, daughter of the Earl of Kent who had been executed in 1330. (Unfortunately, Joan of Kent had already secretly married Thomas Holland, or so they said, and the marriage with Montacute was dissolved in 1349.) Elizabeth de Montacute married Hugh le Despenser, eldest son of Hugh le Despenser the younger. Sybil de Montacute married Edmund Fitzalan, whose paternal grandfather (Edmund Fitzalan, the Earl of Arundel) and maternal grandfather (Hugh le Despenser the younger) had been executed within days of each other by Isabella and Mortimer. Philippa de Montacute married Roger Mortimer, namesake and grandson of the man her father had seized in 1330. He gained Edward III’s favor and eventually became the second Earl of March.

William de Montacute is a major character in Juliet Dymoke’s historical novel The Lion of Mortimer, and his daughter Elizabeth is the heroine of my own work-in-progress. Ian Mortimer in his biographies of Roger Mortimer and Edward III provides a gripping account of the coup at Nottingham.

So raise a glass (as it’s morning, I’m raising a can of Coca-Cola), to William de Montacute, first Earl of Salisbury, friend of Edward III and nemesis of Roger Mortimer.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

You Bastards!

While inputting my latest acquisition, The Bastard King by Jean Plaidy, into Library Thing, I took a side trip to Amazon and noticed that there are quite a few variations on this theme. Namely:

King's Bastard (Charlotte Denis)
The King's Bastard (Hebe Elsna)
The Bastard King : Book One Scepter of Mercy (Dan Chernenko)
Bastard Prince (Katherine Kurtz)
The Queen's Bastard (Robin Maxwell)
Bastard Princess (Claudia Edwards)
Wife to the Bastard (Hilda Lewis)

So how'd all of these bastards come about? Here's a couple of possibilities:

One Night With a Prince (Sabrina Jeffries)
In the Prince's Bed (Sabrina Jeffries--I sense a theme here)
To Pleasure a Prince (Sabrina Jeffries--yessir, there's a theme)

And for the ladies:

The Princess and Her Pirate (Lois Greiman)

And the always popular standby:

My Devilish Scotsman (Jen Holling)

Sweet dreams, y'all.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Another Author for My Good List: Jane Lane

For a change of pace, I picked up The Severed Crown by Jane Lane (Elaine Dakers), a historical novel about the last months of Charles I. Jane Lane was quite a prolific writer, though I’ve read only one other novel by her, A Secret Chronicle about Edward II (of course). My copy of The Severed Crown is a 1972 American edition; whether there was an earlier UK edition I don’t know.

When I finished The Severed Crown, one of my first thoughts was whether it could get published today. There’s not much action, and there’s no love interest--indeed, there are no major female characters in the novel, unless one counts Queen Henrietta Maria, who writes a couple of letters. The novel is told in the form of letters, extracts from memoirs, and recollections. What action there is consists of Charles I’s moves from place to place and discussions. So if you like action and/or romance, this isn’t the novel for you.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed it thoroughly, perhaps all the more so because some of my recent reads have been so dismal. The story of the king’s last days is told through the eyes of a variety of characters, all with different political and religious beliefs and each with a distinct voice and personality, though most are there more as reporters/observers than as actors. It’s not a neutral look at the action--Lane seems to be very much on the side of the king--but of course novelists are much more free to take sides than are historians or biographers.

One problem, especially for readers in the United States: Lane gives very little background information, so those who don’t know anything about the events leading up to the king’s execution will be at quite a loss, and those like me who knew very little about them will probably miss things in the novel that a more knowledgeable person would pick up.

As with any novel I’ve enjoyed, this one’s got me looking for more novels about the English Civil War, and more by Jane Lane as well.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Not Up to Parr

This just isn't Katherine Parr's month, at least for me. After reading (or skimming) Her Royal Destiny, which did have the courtesy to advertise itself unashamedly as a bodice-ripper, I bought Carolly Erickson's second historical novel, The Last Wife of Henry VIII, this weekend.

The verdict? It's great historical fiction--if you don't know much about Katherine Parr.

Actually, this novel starts out very promisingly by getting the age of Katherine Parr's first husband right. (Erickson correctly depcits him as a young man, not as an old one.) From there, though, it's downhill. First there's the episode where Katherine Parr almost single-handedly quells the revolt in the North. ("'Here is the lady who saved the North for the crown,'" a pleased Henry VIII announces.) Then there's Katherine's sister-in-law, Anne Bourchier, who's tortured for heresy in front of Katherine and who dies of her injuries. I can't tell whether Erickson is confusing her with Anne Askew or is just taking wild poetic license; in any case, Anne Bourchier lived into Elizabeth I's reign and apparently died of old age. Finally, there's the dramatic ending, where poor Katherine gives birth during a siege, complete with cannon fire, while Thomas Seymour runs off.

Nary an author's note in sight.

Oh, and there's even shades of Braveheart: Henry VIII scares young Katherine by threatening to revive the droit de seigneur with her.

The sad thing is, Erickson writes quite well. Her characterizations are strong--I especially liked those of Katherine's wise-cracking brother and of her sweet-natured, bumbling second husband--and the novel's a page-turner. I would have enjoyed it thoroughly if I could have forgotten all I knew about Katherine Parr or if I didn't give a flip about historical accuracy.

Next on the reading list? I dunno, but I do have a copy of Prophecy for the Queen by Dilys Gater, which whatever its merits or demerits at least is in great big type.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

C'mon Guys, Fess Up

Inspired by Sarah, I was looking through my library on Library Thing today to see how many books I share with other folks. The winner? The Catcher in the Rye, which as of today 4,441 members shared. (According to today's stats, Library Thing has 88,185 members who have catalogued 1,258,309 unique works.) Obviously, lots of people on Library Thing, like Holden Caulfield, don't care for phonies; this is number 10 on Library Thing's top 25 books.

Taking a more scientic tack, I looked at the list of shared books on Library Thing's Historical Fiction group, which has 243 members. Today's results for "Most commonly shared books (weighted)":

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke (80), Harry Potter and the sorcerer's stone by J.K. Rowling (95), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (90), Harry Potter and the goblet of fire by J.K. Rowling (86), Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (85), Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling (86), The hobbit, or, There and back again by J.R.R. Tolkien (76), Girl with a pearl earring by Tracy Chevalier (50), Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling (84), The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien (60)

When I looked for historical fiction on my own shelf that I share with other users, the top novel was Gone With the Wind, shared by 1,081 members. After that, the next shared book in my library was The Crimson Petal and the White, shared by 563 members.

It seems that I have some seriously obscure tastes, for I'm the only person who lists Prophecy for a Queen by Dilys Gater. Also owned only by yours truly are certain novels by Juliet Dymoke, Maureen Peters, Margaret Campbell Barnes, and Brenda Honeyman.

Three very intelligent, discerning people on Library Thing (plus me, of course) have a copy of my own novel. You rock, guys!

Bernard Cornwell's The Winter King is shared by 175 people; only six claim his Crackdown. I expected more people to own Sharon Penman's books: 168 listed Here Be Dragons, while only 39 had Prince of Darkness. She did better than the wildly prolific Jean Plaidy, though: only 52 listed The Lady in the Tower, the top Plaidy book on Library Thing. Of course, some of Plaidy's books appear under different titles, but I was still surprised to see how many of her books were owned by fewer than ten people.

What does all of this prove? (1) it's Sunday and I have some free time on my hands and (2) more readers of historical fiction need to get to Library Thing and get their libraries listed. I bet your shelves are just bulging with Penmans, Plaidys, and even Peters. It's time to come clean about it.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Some More Plaidy As I'm Sitting Here

I’m going to chat about one more Plaidy, and then I promise, I’ll stop for a while.

Mind you, I did try for some variety by reading a novel about Katherine Howard, which I’ll leave nameless. It wasn’t badly written at all, but in the fifty pages I managed, Katherine Howard was for the most part either having sex (albeit short of intercourse), talking about sex, or, in her more pensive moments, thinking about having sex. This got tedious after a while, to put it mildly, and a skim through the rest of the book indicated that things weren’t likely to improve. So rather than introduce Mr. Book to Mr. Wall, I switched back to Regent’s Daughter.

Regent’s Daughter, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is a novel about Charlotte, daughter of George IV and his estranged wife, Caroline. Charlotte died when she was only twenty-one, following the birth of a stillborn boy. Because of that, this novel is a bit different from Plaidy’s other historical novels in that most of it takes place during Charlotte’s childhood and teenage years. In following her growth from a rebellious child to a happily married woman, the novel has almost a bildungsroman feel about it, except that the unfortunate Charlotte dies just as she reaches maturity, physically and emotionally.

Unlike some of the other novels in the Georgian series, most of the events are seen from Charlotte’s point of view, though there’s an occasional switch to the Prince Regent’s point of view and that of a few other characters. This concentration on Charlotte helps add depth to the book that tends to be lacking in some of the other books in the series, which flit from character to character and sometimes read like narrative histories with a little dialogue thrown in now and then.

I thought Plaidy did a good job in particular of showing Charlotte’s troubled relationships with her parents, who as portrayed here are different in many ways but alike in being self-centered and self-dramatizing. It was also a nice touch for Plaidy to show Charlotte’s grandmother and namesake, Queen Charlotte, softening toward her granddaughter later in the book, although I would have liked to have seen the relationship between the two women explored in more depth.

Plaidy has her usual tendency to repeat herself, though I didn’t find it as annoying here as I have in some of her other novels. All in all, I’d say this isn’t one of her best novels, but it’s certainly one of her better ones.

As I was writing this last night, a fire broke out at a chemical plant in our town, leading to the evacuation of half the town. My half is still in their homes, but no one here’s really going anywhere today.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Sunday/Monday Musings

I gave into Blogger's wishes and upgraded to Beta Blogger. I'm not sure I like it--I tried leaving a comment on someone else's moderated blog and I'm not sure if it let me.

Reading-wise, I've been in an eighteenth and nineteenth century mood these days. I'm reading Regent's Daughter by Jean Plaidy, a historical novel about George IV's daughter Charlotte, who died shortly after childbirth. It's a little slow-paced, and sometimes it gets repetitious, but I think Plaidy does a good job of depicting Charlotte's loneliness and her frustration of being a pawn of her warring parents.

I'm also reading some nonfiction. If I'm reading solely for my own pleasure, I seldom read biographies and histories straight through; instead, I read here and there and not straight from front to back. Three books I'm working through in this fashion are Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Catherine Weber, Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser, and George IV: Inspiration of the Regency by Steve Parissien (published in the UK as George IV: The Grand Entertainment). Based on reading them in bits and snatches, I'd highly recommend all three. The Fraser book, of course, is a biography of Marie Antoinette and is very well written, while the Weber book is a fascinating look at the queen's reign in the context of fashion and the role it played in the public's perception of her. The George IV book doesn't purport to be an in-depth biography of the king, but examines the image he attempted to create of himself versus the one that the public held of him. Though the American title suggests otherwise, it's an unsparing look at the king's failings, but a fair one, and an absorbing one.

Here in the States, the television series "Monarchy" has been running. Last week's segment was about the English Civil War, a period I know very little about. I've been looking for some good nonfiction or historical fiction (of course) about it, so I'm open to suggestions.