Tag Archives: cavaliers

Edward Rutherfurd’s London: a novel

be00b51a11d5543c09f732bc009e87f6The most important thing to note about this book is that it is really long. It was over 1200 pages on my iPad version.  It’s a long book.

And wouldn’t it have to be? To begin to encapsulate the several millenia of history centered in and around the 1 square mile that is ‘the City’.

Neither a historical nonfiction, nor a straight novel, this book is something of a hybrid.  Rutherfurd has used this same format to tackle the histories of New York, Paris, Russia, Salisbury/Stonehenge, and Ireland.  This particular book came out in 1997, so I’m coming to the party a little late on this one.  What can I say? I was still in high school in 1997.

Starting with the earliest Celtic civilizations in the area now known as London, Rutherfurd takes the reader through the important epochs of the city, all the way up through the late 20th century. Each chapter follows the lives of a few families, traceable by their distinctive qualities–red hair or webbed fingers–as they adapt to the changing shape of London society. All of the families are fictional, but real people are intermingled with their stories.  Kings and conquerors, as you’d expect, but also Chaucer, Dick Whittington, Shakespeare, Marlowe, etc.

This book is described as a novel, but I think it’s really more of a hybrid between nonfiction and fiction.  Though it is structured as a novel, there are many instances where the narrator breaks ‘the fourth wall’ and describes things in a way that you don’t find in a novel.  Narrators in novels don’t say ‘like most families of the era, the Bulls wore xxx and lived in yyy.’  Or ‘John would have been quite shocked to learn his family brewery was managed by a woman, 3 generations back’. At first, I found these moments very jarring.  I couldn’t get too settled in with the characters, because I was always being pulled back to look at these overarching truths about the historical period I’ve been dropped in.

And though the families are occasionally discernible by their webbed fingers or long noses, I found it very difficult to keep track of who was related to whom.  Even if they shared the same name, there were a lot of marriages between the families he was mentioning, so I found it quite confusing to discern who was who.

That being said, I think it’s a good way to learn about the everyday lives of historical populations.  A nonfiction book about the history of London would probably tell me about Londinium, about Boudica’s siege, William’s Conquest, the Great fire, etc.  All important.  It wouldn’t tell me about the clothing or habits of everyday citizens from different classes.  It wouldn’t tell me where they lived or how they might have felt about the Puritan Roundheads or the Royalist Cavaliers.  It helps humanize an era when you see how people truly lived, not just the major battles and royals.

But things are sort of uneven in this book.  No historian is equally well-versed in every era, and even if (s)he was, (s)he would still have favorites.  I’m not sure if it’s lack of expertise or lack of interest, but Rutherfurd didn’t give much attention (in the form of pages) to the era before the Romans, or the late 1200s, or the era of the Great Fire (only 26 pages!), or the mid 19th century.  That last one disappointed me, because I’m most interested in the 19th century.  Other eras got very long chapters.  The chapter dealing with the English Civil War was almost 100 pages.  So you don’t get a fully rounded view of the entire city’s history, but you get snippets in every so often.  Some notable events are omitted completely–no mention of Boudica, though she razed the city to the ground.  Henry VIII gets his share, but there’s almost nothing of the previous Henry’s–quite important in their own right.

I learned a lot of fun tidbits from this book.  The word sheriff comes from the word shire (county) + reeve (tax collectors). The Domesday Book, revolutionary and historical as it was, would often be inaccurate because those monks taking down the count of Englishmen did not generally speak English.  William the Conqueror, upon his death, was too ‘corpulent’ to be squeezed into his coffin.  Richard the Lionhearted was a pretty terrible king.  Blackfriars got its name because the Dominican monks living there wore black robes. Charing Cross’s name is a really interesting story.  King Edward’s wife had died in the north. He wanted her body brought to Westminster to be laid in the Abbey. It took 12 days and nights to make the journey, and at every night’s stop, the king had a cross erected.  Charing Cross was the very last stop, from the old English word for that street.

I really enjoyed learning these tidbits, but I don’t know that I’ll remember most of them in another week.  It added to my enjoyment of the book, but the constant ebb and flow between fiction and expository narration was off-putting. I would probably recommend the book only if you are very interested in London history.

The whole book is centered around the River.  And there’s good reason.  The Thames is why London exists. This particular spot on the Thames has been picked for a civilization many times, by different groups of people, because it is an ideal location. The first place from the channel that you could cross the river easily at high or low tide.

Before the Romans, the Celts used the river as part of their worship.  The Romans recognized the spot (now known as London Bridge), as the perfect area to cross the Thames.  It became a shipping hub and, accordingly, people moved there. There was just the one bridge for many years, sometimes destroyed and rebuilt. It was just the perfect place in all of SE England, to build a town. Henry II commissioned a new stone bridge during his reign. It held homes and shops, and a chapel dedicated to Thomas Beckett. It probably looked like the Ponte Vecchio in Italy (though with a more medieval British feel)

Ponte_Vecchio_Firenze

There used to be heads on pikes, and around 200 buildings on the bridge by the Tudor era. Famous heads on pikes included William Wallace and Sir Thomas More. On the north side, there was the respectable City area, with Westminster still being built further upriver. On the South side was Southwark, where men went to visit prostitutes, watch bear-baiting and dog fighting and boxing, and to see Shakespeare’s plays performed.  Southwark wasn’t held to the same laws as the City, so all sorts of rabble-rousing went on there. Later, there were many bridges across the Thames, and the real London Bridge made its way to Arizona for a strange tourist attraction.  All of the English civilization is centered in London, and all of London exists because of the River and the spot easiest to cross.  I like the idea that this city was absolutely always meant to be there, and independent societies repeatedly came to the conclusion that this spot was the only spot for them.  Even as it grows ever larger, in all directions, London’s heart is on two hills–one at Westminster, one in the City–with the river alongside them all the way.

 

 

The Devil’s Mistress or the Devil’s Whore

The_Devil's_WhoreI happened to catch this miniseries on TV this weekend and I found it really engrossing.  It was called The Devil’s Whore in most of the world, but we puritanical Americans needed the modified title of the Devil’s Mistress. Because if you pay her in the street she’s a dirty whore, but if you get her an apartment and buy her some gifts, she’s a classy mistress.  Apparently.

The miniseries is from 2008, and features a lot of well-known actors who have gone on to be quite famous. For the Doctor Who fans, we have John Simm (the Master) as Edward Sexby, and Peter Capaldi (the new Doctor) as the ill-fated Charles I.

Dominic West (the Wire) plays Oliver Cromwell, Andrea Riseborough (W./E., Oblivion) plays fictional Angelica Fanshawe, and Michael Fassbender (every movie ever) plays Thomas Rainsborough. Tom Goodman-Hill (Mr. Grove in Mr. Selfridge) plays Honest John Lilburne.

As you’ll have guessed (if you know even basic British history), this miniseries takes place just before and during the English Civil War.  If you haven’t learned basic British history, here’s the 2 cent tour of the era.  Charles I was a dictator of Scottish descent with a French wife.  That meant people thought he was too close to ‘Papists’, and that his policies would benefit Catholics at the expense of Protestants.  After all the bloodshed and confusion of the 16th century battle between Catholicism and Protestantism in England, the majority of the English were vehemently opposed to ‘Papists’. Charles I and Parliament engaged in a very long struggle for power, which ended with Charles I being beheaded in London.  Oliver Cromwell became the leader of the Long Parliament, and appointed himself ‘Lord Protector’.  Though he’d argued against monarchy, he very quickly established himself as a king in all but name.  This lasted until the Restoration of the monarchy with Charles’ son returning to England after Cromwell’s death.  The monarchy has existed without any real interruption since that time.

This miniseries starts with Angelica Fanshawe preparing to marry her childhood sweetheart, Harry. She’s wealthy and connected; King Charles himself attends and blesses her wedding.

Angelica Fanshawe3 (Andrea Riseborough)

We see brief flashbacks. Angelica was raised by a Catholic mother, during the very violent time just after Protestantism was established in England. Her mother abandoned her for God, and Angelica was (understandably) angry.  She proclaims that there is no god, and that is the first time she gets a vision of a demon.  She sees them all her life.

A lot is going on during the day of her wedding.  John Lilburne is whipped for distributing pamphlets arguing against the tyrannical rule of King Charles. Sexby sees Angelica and immediately falls in love with her, though he is quickly reminded that his social standing (lowly soldier for pay) prevents him from even thinking about her in an untoward way.  The ribbing of his friends causes her groom Harry to have a really pathetic problem with insecurity. He spends the rest of their marriage being jealous and angry, trying to make her give up her independence and her ability to make decisions.  To say I hate him would be an understatement.

Thankfully for me, Harry meets a sticky end at the hands of the ever-more tyrannical Charles I.  We see Angelica’s situation change overnight. She’s no longer wealthy or desired, she’s out on the streets. At the same time, Sexby, Cromwell, and Rainsborough are leading the charge against Charles; they are allied with Honest John Lilburne, but not for long.

article-1086202-027D020F000005DC-344_468x328Episodes 2 and 3 see Angelica change a lot.  She is forced to become independent and to examine the world she’s living in–rather than just accepting it as good based on her own privileged experiences.  *Cue Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘*  As a woman, this is a lot more difficult than for a man. She has no property, no money, no skills.  Starving, she accepts some soup offered to her by a wealthy man.  As soon as she is done eating, he tries to claim his ‘payment’.  After a bit of a tussle, she stabs him to keep him from raping her. Sexby turns up as Angelica is on the run, and helps to protect her from justice.

Angelica finally sees the bitter truth of life for those who aren’t as privileged as she has been.  Her loyalties change and she abandons the royalist cause and takes up with the Roundheads (aka those allied with Parliament in their conflict with the king.  The royalists were called Cavaliers).  She is drawn to Fassbender’s Rainsborough. He is a good mix between the too-earnest and impractical Lilburne and the severely pragmatic Cromwell. The two take up a love affair, but alas.  It’s not to be. Joliffe, the best friend of the man Angelica killed, is after her.  He wants to hang her as a murderess and a whore, and seems to take extreme pleasure in the idea of punishing a woman who wouldn’t give a man what he thought he deserved.

Things turn uglier as the miniseries continues.  Rainsborough and Angelica get married, but he is killed soon after–by his supposed friend Cromwell.  Angelica is pregnant and mourning a second husband, and is soon after arrested and sentenced to hang. She is due to be executed the same day as the king, newly convicted by a brutal Parliament and Cromwell, its leader.

As he can generally be expected to do, Sexby turns up to save Angelica. I won’t spoil what happens in the 4th episode, but it doesn’t turn out particularly well for anyone. I will say that at least one person dies, Sexby has at least one more chance to save Angelica from a terrible fate, and a baby is born at the end.

Here are a few things that struck me about this miniseries:

1-The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Under Charles I, John Lilburne is imprisoned for causing trouble, there is corruption and tyranny from a despotic ruler, and women are under the proverbial boots of incredibly awful men. After Charles I is killed and Cromwell takes over…it’s all the same.  It was a time of great revolution in England, but the changes seemed to be superficial and ineffectual.  Certainly nothing seemed to change for the better. John Lilburne rots in prison for criticizing Charles I, but he dies in prison under the governance of his supposed friends.

2-I have mixed feelings about Sexby.  I think he’s quite heroic and certainly a friend a girl wants to have if she’s going to constantly be in danger of being raped/murdered/executed.  His long slow burn of pining love for her is romantic, when it’s happening on screen.  But if it were real life, I don’t know that I’d feel the same way.  If the miniseries was set in modern times, I feel too much that he would be wearing a fedora and complaining that the girl he liked kept him in the ‘friendzone’. Side note, if you’re unfamiliar with the trope I am discussing, look at a few pages of this tumbr (or this one) and you’ll learn a new breed of  men to avoid. Sexby is a loyal and good friend to Angelica, but it’s quite clear he spends each moment hoping for more, and-once-gets unjustifiably angry and almost violent with her for not feeling what he feels.

While I find Sexby quite engaging and interesting, Angelica tells him she can never love him, and then ‘realizes’ her feelings for him almost the very next time she sees him.  Who wrote that? I have never once had that sort of reversal of feeling. Any women reading this: has this ever happened to you?  Did a man write this? Because I find it really hard to believe.

3-Note to self: do not attempt to lead a happy life during Civil War or revolution.  Both Angelica and Sexby get fucked around by the royalists and the roundheads, and the system in general.  There’s no hope for a happy ending.

4-Why on earth did they make her see the devil?  A lot of the miniseries paints Angelica as a liberated, almost modern, woman, which was very dangerous and could be considered demonic during that (literally) puritanical period.  She’s seen by several of her opponent’s as the Devil’s Whore, because she’s living a life outside social norms.  That’s all pretty powerful and makes me feel so grateful I don’t live in the 17th century. I would have been burned or drowned long ago.  The whole hallucinating a demon thing just seems like a strange distraction. It lessens the lunacy of their claims that she is the Devil’s Whore, and almost gives their accusations some weight.  I don’t understand the purpose of it at all.

Despite my reservations, I think it was a good miniseries.  I found it engrossing and easy to watch, and I did learn some things I never knew about that period of English history.  I take it all with a grain of salt, but a little bit of history and some entertainment are (in my book) a good way to spend an evening.