Thursday, May 31, 2007

Review: The Yorkists by Anne Crawford

The Yorkists: The History of a Dynasty by Anne Crawford
Hambledon Continuum, 2007
ISBN: 978 1 85285 351 8

I was excited when Anne Crawford's The Yorkists: The History of a Dynasty appeared on my Amazon screen. Among other works, Crawford, an archivist at Wells Cathedral, has edited Letters of the Queens of England, 1100-1547 and Letters of Medieval Women, both of which are extremely useful for the researcher and novelist.

The Yorkists did not disappoint. This is a concise (less than 200 pages) but information-packed history of the York dynasty, beginning with Richard, Duke of York, and concluding with Elizabeth of York, with a brief look at the fates of those who survived into the reign of Henry VIII.

Naturally, most of the book is devoted to the male members of the dynasty, as they were chiefly the ones who wielded power. Crawford, however, includes a chapter on Edward IV's sisters, including Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy, and the lesser-known Anne, Duchess of Exeter. Anne married Henry Holand, but the marriage broke down, probably in no small part because of Holand's fervent Lancastrian sympathies. Left for dead on the field of Barnet, he took sanctuary at Westminster but was forced into the Tower, where he remained until he was allowed to join Edward IV's French expedition. He drowned mysteriously on the trip home. Anne's lover and eventual second husband, Thomas St. Leger, was loyal to Edward IV but not to Richard III, who beheaded him for his participation in the rebellion of 1483. (Anne wasn't around to intervene, having predeceased her husband.) Episodes like this make The Yorkists fascinating reading.

Crawford takes an unsparing, though fair, approach to Richard III and his actions. She notes his piety and his abilities as a ruler, but also his ruthlessness and his ultimate betrayal of the brother he had served so loyally in life. Though Crawford acknowledges that the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is likely to remain unsolved, she reminds us of the damning fact that it was shortly after Richard seized the throne that they were never seen again.

In appendices, Crawford discusses the pre-contract story and the story of Edward IV's illegitimacy. Crawford is highly skeptical of both stories, though she spends more time on the latter and makes a number of salient points, including the fact that Cecily Neville in her will unequivocally described Edward IV as being the son of the Duke of York.

Balanced and written in a scholarly but accessible, readable style, The Yorkists will be a most useful addition to one's Wars of the Roses library.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Drive Your Volvo to My Website and Please Your Wife, In 105 Ways

Much as I hate to say it, here are some people who used the following search terms to reach my website and probably came away very disappointed:

lovemaking live


how to arouse my wife


spirit goings on


Well, probably one of the best ways for a man to please his wife is to buy her a historical novel, so perhaps that searcher found my site of some use. And the pictures of Boswell and the cats can be quite soothing, so maybe it was an adequate substitute for Wellbutrin. But "105"? There were four searchers who used this term, so maybe there's more to this 105 business than I think.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

In Which I Swear to Indiscriminately Report on Books No More

Having spent a dark night of the soul dwelling on my unworthiness as a blogger to review books, I've decided I should raise the tone of this blog, in the hopes of someday being deemed worthy to feast at the table designated for Serious Reviewers of Literary Fiction. Hence, I've laid down some rules I will follow in the future:

1. Only literary historical novels (1) written in the present tense; (2) concerning the oppression of some indigenous people; or (3) featuring the empowerment of a female character will be reviewed.

2. The word "trope" will be used at some point in every review.

3. All works, except for those mentioned in #4, will be compared unfavorably to those of Virginia Woolf or Alain Robbe-Grillet.

4. Novels written by M.F.A.'s, or their friends and lovers, will be reviewed glowingly. The reviews will contain language such as "breathtakingly original" and "hauntingly luminous."

5. Sex scenes in novels written by M.F.A.'s will be described as "startlingly erotic" and "arrestingly vivid." Novels written by anyone else that feature sex scenes will be denounced as "bodice rippers."

6. Comments will be disabled on the blog so as not to result in an unseemly dialogue between Reviewer and Audience. The Audience will be expected to receive my pronouncements on Literature with respectful and obedient silence.

7. This blog will be devoid of humor. Humor has no place in High Art.

8. Novels that end happily, or at least satisfactorily, or even conclusively, will be greeted with the utmost scorn.

9. Each review will contain a quotation from Jacques Derrida, such as, "The epoch of logocentrism is the moment of the global effacement of the signifier." (No, I can't wait either.)

10. No more cute pictures of Bozzer. Ever. But hey, at least you're going to get Derrida.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I'm Not Worthy

I'm not sure what is the funniest thing I've heard today: Monica Goodling's statements in front of the Judiciary Commitee or this comment by Sheila Kohler, who's just published a historical novel:

Q. Does your work get reviewed/discussed much on literary blogs? If so, how do those reviews compare with print reviews of your books?

A.Occasionally someone may mention my books in a blog. I believe the dangers of this indiscriminate reporting on books is that people who have no knowledge of literature can air their views as though they were of value and may influence readers. Critics may not always be right, of course, but at least they have read and studied literature, the great books, and have some outside knowledge to refer to when critiquing our work.

Well, I'm suitably humbled. In fact, as a mere blogger, I'm not worthy of even peeking inside this novel, much less reading it. And I would certainly hate to soil this author's pristine royalty check with my filthy blogger money. So I'll keep my grubby mitts off it.

But Kohler has a point. The problem is, however, that indiscriminate reporting on books often starts with indiscriminate reading of books. So to nip this problem in the bud, I suggest that booksellers band together to form a rating system under which only customers with certain academic credentials would be allowed to buy certain books. Books rated "P," for instance, could be sold only to people with M.F.A's in creative writing from Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges and universities. Books rated "O" could be sold only to people with M.F.A.'s in creative writing from other colleges. And so forth, down to the unwashed masses of people who buy books because they like a good story, who could read books rated "G."

This method isn't foolproof (credentials could be falsified, and some booksellers might not participate), but it's a step toward making sure Real Literature gets only in the right hands.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Historical Fiction Downsized

There's a piece in yesterday's New York Times where various well-known authors were asked what novels they would like to see trimmed a bit. I was rather baffled at Joyce Carol Oates' response that she would trim Jane Austen's books because they contain "too many descriptions of furniture and balls and ballroom gowns." Er? Frankly, I can think of very few occasions where Austen describes furniture or ballroom gowns, and the ballroom and other social gathering scenes always further the action of the novel or show something important about the characters involved.

On the other hand, I enjoyed Jonathan Franzen's suggestions for new titles for shortened works (e.g., Shortmarch and The Pretty Good Gatsby). That got me to suggesting a few titles for shortened historical fiction:

Kathleen Winsor, For Now Amber
Sharon Penman, When Christ and His Saints Napped
Anya Seton, Kate
Margaret Mitchell, Displaced by the Breeze
Dorothy Dunnett, The Harmonious Knights
Philippa Gregory, The Boleyn Life Estate
Bernard Cornwell, The Archer's Comment
Jean Plaidy, Just a Couple of Loves of Charles II
Tracy Chevalier, Girl With a Toe Ring
Me, The Traitor's Bit on the Side

Saturday, May 19, 2007

When the Going Gets Rough, the Rough Get Meming

Being a bit at a loss for blog fodder this week, I decided to join this book meme:

A book that made you cry: Elizabeth Gaskell's Ruth.

A book that scared you: Night by Elie Wiesel.

A book that made you laugh: Quite a few, really. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is just one—the scene where Mr. Wopsle plays Hamlet has got to be one of the funniest passages in the English language. Jean Kerr's collections of humorous pieces from the 1960's are hilarious.

A book that disgusted you: The Last Resort by Alison Lurie. Not for the nature of its content but for how immensely disappointing I found it—an intriguing plot utterly wasted on characters who were no more than politically correct stereotypes. Sexually repressed heterosexual woman who is transformed by a lesbian romp. Check. Earthy, life-affirming lesbian. Check. Sexually repressed conservative female. Check. Sensitive, wise gay guy. Check. Clueless, insensitive heterosexual males. Check. One of my last forays into literary fiction.

A book you loved in elementary school: The Saturdays by Elizabeth Enright. About New York City siblings who pool their allowances so each can do something interesting on a Saturday.

A book you loved in middle school. Who Wants Music on Monday? by Mary Stolz. A book about three siblings: plain Cassie, beautiful Lotta, and their college-student brother, Vincent, all of whose lives undergo subtle but far-reaching changes in a few months.

A book you loved in high school: M. E. Kerr's Dinky Hocker Shoots Smack! A funny, affecting novel about young Tucker's involvement with two cousins: pretty but troubled Natalie and grossly obese Dinky, whose mother is too wrapped up with helping drug addicts to concern herself with her daughter's very large problem.

A book you hated in high school: My algebra textbook.

A book you loved in college: Sophie's Choice, by William Styron.

A book that challenged your identity: My identity's intact, so I must not have read one.

A series that you love: Difficult to come up with one that I've loved as an adult. As a child I loved The Bobbsey Twins series, courtesy of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. (Even as a child, I found it entertaining to compare the earliest novels in the series to the reworked versions in the 1960's.) Edit: How could I have forgotten Sandra Gulland's Josephine Bonaparte series?

Your favorite horror book: I don't do horror. Proofreading the occasional horror book when I was a freelancer was sheer misery.

Your favorite science fiction book: I've only read a couple, and they're just not me.

Your favorite fantasy book: Can I count "A Christmas Carol" because of the ghost? Otherwise, I'm not a fantasy fan.

Your favorite mystery book: A Mind to Murder by P. D. James is just one of hers of which I'm fond.

Your favorite historical novel: The words "traitor's" and "wife" somehow come to mind. Otherwise, it's difficult to come up with a single favorite. I've really enjoyed novels by Sharon Penman, Jean Plaidy, Margaret George, Reay Tannahill, Brenda Honeyman, and Margaret Campbell Barnes, to name a few.

Your favorite biography: Again, difficult to pin one down. Ian Mortimer's biographies of Roger Mortimer and Edward III, Antonia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette, and Elizabeth Gaskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë are among my favorites. I was also very impressed by A. J. Pollard's Richard III and the Princes in the Tower, and recently by Nancy Goldstone's Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe.

Your favorite “coming-of-age” book: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

Your favorite classic: Tie between Charles Dickens's Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.

Your favorite romance book: In the sense that there's a man, a woman, and a happily-ever-after ending, Persuasion by Jane Austen.

Your favorite book not on this list: Anne Tyler's Saint Maybe.

Anyone's welcome to join in!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Lacey Baldwin Smith Looks at English History: A Review

Lacey Baldwin Smith, English History Made Brief, Irreverent, and Pleasurable. Academy Chicago, 2006.

(This review is way overdue, I'm afraid. Its tardiness is due solely to my own slothfulness, not to any lack of readability on the author's part.)

The title pretty much says it all about this book by Smith, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University who's written a number of books dealing with English history.

Aimed at an American audience, English History consists of six parts: an introduction ("Words of Encouragement and Commiseration"), "Matters of Geography, Demography, and Terminology," "History Worth Remembering (to 1485"), "More Memorable History (1485 to 1964"), "Less and Less Memorable History (1964 to the Present)", and "The Royal Soap Opera." "Matters of Geography" helpfully reminds American readers that a "quick shag" has entirely different meanings in the UK and in the US (here in the US, and especially in the Southeast, we shag on the dance floor).

The heart of English History, of course, is the three "History" sections and the "Royal" section, profusely illustrated with illustrations and cartoons that are suitably captioned ("Henry VIII inspecting the Princess Elizabeth, another worthless daughter" is one of my favorites, along with "Blackening up the Black Prince. One of the most important and responsible duties at the court of Edward III").

Smith's recounting of British history is irreverent, as promised, but fairly straightforward and surprisingly detailed for its short length, which obliges me to grumble that Edward III did not incarcerate Isabella "in a comfortable prison for the rest of her life," as Smith has it (after a brief period of house arrest, she traveled around quite freely), nor was the unfortunate Piers Gaveston "hanged and his body left to be eaten by starving dogs." (He was beheaded, and his body was preserved and eventually given a magnificent burial by Edward II. It was poor Hugh le Despenser the elder who was fed to the dogs.) Such mistakes, while they made me grind my teeth, are perhaps inevitable in a 243-page account that covers the period from 33 B.C. to the present, bringing in everything from the Magna Carta to Harry Potter, so one shouldn't be churlish. They're more than made up for by Smith's lively prose, especially his pungent and apt comments about the various monarchs, such as Charles I ("the adaptability of a dinosaur") and George IV ("not simply a stuffed shirt but a stuffed man"). Smith doesn't spare the current royals: "[E]xcept for the late Princess Di and (if you discount her hats), the Queen Mother, the Royal Family has been without a spark of charisma."

All in all, English History is a fun, information-packed book that's good to take to the beach or, better yet, on a plane going to the UK.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Happy Mother's Day, Some Nattering, and Some Poetry

It's Mother's Day, which to me is sort of like Memorial Day in that it signals the start of summer. You see, most of the local colleges here hold their graduations this weekend, which means that for the next three months, their libraries will be bereft of everyone except for the usual band of hardy summer school students and the stray researcher or two like myself. That means I'm free to my heart's content to sit at a table and pore over the Close Rolls without having four undergraduates at the next table chattering about their social lives and stealing glances at me from time to time, evidently in the belief that a book so old and so big must be some sort of occult material. Bliss!

There's a new poll on the sidebar. Vote for your favorite Wars of the Roses Mum!

Over at Alianore's blog, she has a great post about a couple of recent novels and their historical accuracy (or lack thereof). Check it out.

I've been derelict in the blogging department this week, I'm afraid, so other than the new seasonally themed poll, you'll have to be content with this offering: some of my very own poetry, circa 1968. (Bear in mind that I was in the single digits at the time.)

Mother's Day

Give shouts!
Give cheers!
For this is the day,
For all mother dears!
Yay! Yay! Yay!
Mother's day!
Mother's day!

Monday, May 07, 2007

Westminster's Despenser: Abbot Nicholas de Litlyngton

Nicholas de Litlyngton, abbot of Westminster from 1362 until his death in 1386, has been misidentified by Dugdale and many since as an out-of-wedlock son of Edward III. As E. H. Pearce pointed out in The Monks of Westminster, however, this would have required considerable precocity on Edward III's part, since Nicholas was probably only a couple of years younger than the king.

In fact, Nicholas has been identified by Barbara Harvey, a historian who has written extensively about the abbey, as most likely being a member of the Despenser family. Nicholas, who identified his parents as "Hugh and Joan," used the Despenser arms, differenced with three fleurs-de-lis on the bend. In 1373, he served as attorney for Edward le Despenser, who left him a gilt hanaper in his will. Nicholas also dined with Henry le Despenser, who was Edward's younger brother and the Bishop of Norwich. He founded an anniversary of September 26 for himself and his parents at Greater Malvern Priory, an abbey manor; tiles there show that the Despenser family, who held Malvern Chase, had a connection with the priory as well.

In his book Royal Bastards of Medieval England, Chris Given-Wilson posits that Nicholas was the out-of-wedlock son of Hugh le Despenser the younger. Perhaps Hugh the elder as his father shouldn't be ruled out, though: the elder Hugh was widowed in 1306, when he was in his forties, and never remarried. He might well have kept a mistress during this time, and would have been in a good position to ensure that any offspring were well provided for.

Litlyngton had the tastes of his class. He kept hounds, and once made a wax offering for a sick falcon. After becoming abbot, he had his preferred manors fitted with cellars.

Nicholas was professed as a monk sometime before September 11, 1333; in 1334-35, he was listed in the abbey's infirmary rolls as being at Hendon for a change of air. The air evidently did him good, since he lived for over fifty years thereafter.

During the 1340's, while he was still a mere monk, Nicholas obtained some important royal benefits for the abbey, which may have given rise to the notion that he was the king's natural son. Having escaped the ravages of the plague, which killed the abbot and a number of monks in 1349, he was made Westminster's prior in 1350 and was elected its abbot in 1362. His abbacy was marked by a massive building effort. Using a bequest by his predecessor, Simon Langham, for the purpose, Nicholas resumed work on the nave of the abbey, which had been stopped during the reign of Henry III and had been dormant ever since. Among other projects, Nicholas added a dining hall and the famous Jerusalem Chamber to the abbey. The Jerusalem Chamber was the scene for the death of Henry IV and the meeting place for the translators of the King James Bible. Litlyngton's Despenser shield can be seen today on the fireplace; his initials appear on the timbers of the room.

In 1383 to 1384, Litlyngton had scribes and illuminators produce what is known today as the Litlyngton Missal, a stunning manuscript that he gave to the abbey's high altar. It cost £34 4s. 7d. Litlyngton's initials, under a coronet, frequently appear in the margins of the manuscript, as does his shield, which can also be seen on the page edges when the missal is closed. (Nigel Saul's The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England has a color illustration of a page from the missal showing both the shield and the initials.) Before that Litlyngton had given the abbey refectory 48 trenchers, 2 chargers, and 24 salt cellars, weighing 104 pounds, and the misericord 24 trenchers, 12 salt cellars, and 2 charges, all marked with his initials and a coronet.

Nicholas came into conflict with the crown—now that of the young Richard II—in 1377 when two esquires, Robert Hawley and John Shakell, took sanctuary in the abbey. The two men had been in a dispute with the crown over the ransom for a prisoner they had taken at the Battle of Najera and for their recalcitrance had ended up being imprisoned in the Tower. Having escaped the Tower, the two men fled to the abbey, where overzealous Tower officials pursued Hawley into the choir and killed him during mass. As part of the resulting furor, the Bishop of London excommunicated those involved. When Parliament met that November in Gloucester, a venue evidently chosen because of the recent events at Westminster, the killing of Hawley was still a hot issue. The king's councilors put forth the argument that no right of sanctuary existed for debtors, an argument that Litlyngton traveled the hundred miles from London to Gloucester to contest. Appearing before the commons, the abbot made an eloquent defense of the right of sanctuary, which the council countered by having John Wycliffe speak against it. (Ultimately, a compromise seems to have been reached, in 1379, the right of sanctuary was withdrawn only as to fraudulent debtors.)

Litlyngton died on November 29, 1386, at his manor at La Neyte, in what now is Pimlico, and was buried in Westminster's Chapel of St. Blaise; his monument seems no longer to be visible. He left the abbey a miter and a crozier, two chalices, and a quantity of plate. In his last months, he remained an active man: the August before Nicholas's death, England was panicked with fear of a French invasion. The abbot, who was well into his seventies, and two monks equipped themselves with armor, some of which was found among the abbot's personal effects at his death, and prepared to hasten to the coast to help in the defense effort. Fortunately for the French, the invasion never materialized.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A New Website and a Really Pretty Bozzer

I'm working on a meaty post, but in the meantime, those of you who are interested in medieval history or British royalty should check out Alianore's new website, King Edward II.

As it's getting warm here (or was, now it's cool again), Boswell the cairn terrier went in for his spring haircut a couple of days ago. Here he is, looking mighty handsome.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Short 'n' Sweet

I visited my Amazon page today and was pleased to find that my Amazon Short, a short piece of historical fiction called The Justiciar's Wife, is available for download now, for the princely price of 49 cents. (Yup, that's my mug on the cover.) It's set during the Barons' Wars of thirteenth-century England and features Aline le Despenser, mother of the Hugh le Despenser the elder who appears in The Traitor's Wife.