Tag Archives: Henry VIII

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

9781250024176I’ve been considering reading this book for over a year–since it won the 2012 Man Booker Prize.  I base most reading decisions on the Man Booker prize winners.  I read the first novel in this trilogy, Wolf Hall about a year ago.  I wasn’t overly fond of it, I’ll be honest.  For one thing, the 3rd person narration is abnormal.  Thomas Cromwell narrates the story, but his thoughts and his words are always described with ‘he’ or ‘his’.  It doesn’t say “Thomas Cromwell went to see the King.”  It says “he went to see the king”.  Sometimes, when Cromwell is alone, this is no large problem.  But the majority of the characters, just like the majority of people of note in the 16th century, are men.  So you get a lot of sentences like ‘he said to him’.  Confusing.  Sometimes, you can follow it.  Other times, not so much.  Mantel occasionally clarifies, but she does so in a strange way.  As the New York Times described it, “Where necessary, “Bring Up the Bodies” helpfully deploys the phrase “he, Cromwell,” dispelling a lot of syntactic confusion.” I find this to be rather stupid, to be honest.  If you’re going to say ‘he took the pen; he, Cromwell’, why not just say ‘Cromwell took the pen’?!?!  this ‘he, Cromwell’ rubbish is very tedious.  On the other hand, sticking to the ‘he’ pronoun does create a unique reading experience. This is a subject simultaneously so familiar (who hasn’t heard of Henry VIII and his many wives?) and simultaneously very alien (who can comprehend life in 1536 as readily as they can comprehend in 1936, or even 1836?).  So that unique reading experience achieved through the pronoun use in some ways adds to the feeling of delving into another time, another frame of mind, another way of organizing the world.  In conclusion, I’m on the fence about the whole pronoun issue.  I hated it in the first book, but it was far more easy to follow in the second.

Bring Up The Bodies was, in almost all respects, an easier and breezier book.  Not as demanding, not as tiring, more enjoyable.  Shorter, faster, and (I think), better.  The New York Times said that it’s less surprising, and that Cromwell sinks in our estimation from the first book to the next.  I don’t think I agree.  He was never particularly high in my estimation, nor do I think Cromwell is the type to care. He’s a practical person, a realist, and not in the business of charming anyone.

In the second book, he is the same person, with the same ruthlessness and terrifying, cold pragmatism.  The difference is his mission.

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In Wolf Hall, Cromwell’s mission was to make it possible for the king to marry Anne Boleyn.  He sees Cardinal Wolsey, his mentor and friend, fall from power into disgrace and death–and don’t think he’s ever going to forget those that made this happen–but he also uses the changing tide to his own advantage.  Cromwell assists the king in every possible way to get his marriage to Katherine annulled, and to make way for his marriage with Anne.  This means reformation of the church (which allies with Cromwell’s personal beliefs), and it means being allied with the Boleyn family.  But his mission is to get the king married to Anne, and he succeeds.

In the second book, Cromwell’s mission is to get rid of Anne so that the king can marry Jane Seymour (not the actress from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman).  Though they may seem the same, the situations are different.  Anne will not accept an annulment, she is not the type of woman to go quietly.  She’s more like Cromwell.  Henry is so angered and upset with her, with her inability to give him a son, with her emotional trickery and her lack of proper obsequiousness, he begins to suspect her of witchcraft.  He has been ensnared by her, and has been taken out of favor in God’s eyes.  His thoughts turn to plain, shy, virginal Jane Seymour. She is the antithesis of Anne in nearly every way.  Henry wants Anne to never have happened.  At first, it seems an annulment might be enough this time, as it was before, but no.  He wants her to never have existed. She needs to be dead, if he’s going to be happy and fortunate again.

Cromwell does his best to make the king happy.  That’s the same in book one and book two. It’s the king, and what he wants, that shift to a much darker place. His darker nature is reflected in his body, fat and sweaty, with a recurring wound to his leg.  He is turning into an embarrassment, where he was once an astonishingly bright and energetic figure. Accordingly, this book ends, not with a happy couple and a fortuitous baby bump, but with the public execution of Anne Boleyn, and the 4 men accused of sleeping with her. With a downturn, a hint of things to come.

Ah, but it’s not just Henry that goes darker and meaner.  Cromwell handpicks the four men who will be killed, and, shocking coincidence, they are the four men who publicly mocked Cardinal Wolsey before his death.  His motive, revenge, is incredibly clear.  Another man is rumored to have slept with Anne, but he is Cromwell’s friend, and is spared a conviction.  Free to go. I don’t deny that revenge is his motive, but I do think that the king’s changes have given Cromwell the opportunity to act on both of their worst instincts.  If the king were magnanimous and forgiving, Cromwell would find lesser punishments for his rivals.

We also see an older Cromwell, a more tired and less ruthless version of the man we learned of in Wolf Hall.  A few sections stuck out to me, so much that I dog-eared the pages to reference them later. He ‘falters’ in his course, as he describes it, when feelings overcome him.  He hides it.  But he ‘did falter, but no one knows it’, no one saw him walk away from Weston’s interrogation.  No one saw him when ‘Anne laid her hand on my arm and asked me what I believed in my heart’.  He feels the weight of his own hypocrisy, and his corruption. At one point, he compares his power struggles with a dance.  ‘He has spun his enemies to face him, to join him: as in a dance. He means to spin them away again, so they look down the long cold vista of their years: so they feel the wind, the wind of exposed places, that cuts to the bone: so they bed down in ruins, and wake up cold.’

That is an incredibly detailed thing to wish on your enemies. And only someone who has been forced to do the same, in his own life, would know the pain that would come with those circumstances.  As someone gets older, the value of warmth and comfort are more important, and the unstoppable threat of negative thoughts are less avoidable.  Though Cromwell has sent many a man (and woman) to their deaths, that paragraph is the scariest he’s ever seemed.

But he’s also pensive and emotive, and full of a strange wisdom. This paragraph cut my heart when I read it.  One of the characters claims he will ‘die of grief’.  Cromwell shakes his head and says the man will live.  ‘He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone’

My dog died a few weeks ago, just as I was reading this book.  I’m a wreck.  When I read that paragraph, I recognized the same feelings, the same sighs and same anger and slow bitter resignation that I feel now.  That I know I’ll feel again, the next time I lose something I love.

I connected with this book pretty significantly, and my reading experience was a good one. I’m glad I slogged through Wolf Hall, and I’m even more glad I decided to read the sequel.

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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.

 

 

A Primer on the British Royal Family

coatbritI’ve said it before, but it bares repeating–I am not a ‘royalist’.  My interest in British culture does not really extend to the comings and goings of the Royal family.

But it seems remiss to run a blog about English culture and not mention the birth of a new future-king.  I have no reaction to babies (except slight fear) so I won’t be filling this blog post with cooing over little George’s adorable hands or feet.  I thought I would, in the wake of a lot of misinformation, answer some questions about how the whole monarchy thing works.

Starting with the most basic of information:

What does The Queen do? Is she actually in charge?

Over a long period of time, starting probably with the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, the monarch of England has lost more and more of his/her power.  Anyone who has taken a high school history course knows that the middle classes and the gentry take more and more power away as time goes on.  Today, The Queen’s position is almost entirely ceremonial. Britain is a constitutional monarchy, which means the real power lies in Parliament.  Even in Westminster, there has been a gradual shift of power from the House of Lords to the House of Commons.  Today, most of the work is done and decisions made by the HoC.  Peers with ambition have been known to give up their hereditary seats in the HoL in order to run for a seat in the HoC–anyone who has seen What a Girl Wants with Colin Firth will remember this plot line.

The Queen conducts ceremonies related to Parliament and to the PM, but she rarely has any influence on the laws passed. On the other hand, the PM has regular meetings with The Queen, so she gets to make her opinion known when she wants. Primarily, The Queen acts as Head of State, representing Britain in official capacities.  If you need more info on what she does and why, here is an article on her role.

What is primogeniture?

Male primogeniture is an obnoxious policy that was incredibly popular in Europe for the majority of the last millennium. Basically, it means that the oldest son of a couple will inherit the vast majority of the property or wealth, and in the case of title he will be the only one to inherit a title.  The law was originally used to stabilize the transfer of power from one generation to another.  With monarchy, this is incredibly important.  There have been countless wars (or threatened coups) when the line of succession was not always clear.  A famous example is Henry VIII. His only (legitimate)  son died at 6 years old. Henry was already dead, so suddenly the question of the next monarch was entirely open for dispute.  I repeat, this is a dangerous thing.  Henry had changed England from a Catholic country to a Protestant one, establishing the Church of England. After Henry’s son, Edward, died, his daughter Mary I took over for 5 years, and tried to wipe out all of the Protestants during that time.  After that, Elizabeth I became queen and changed the country back to a Protestant nation, which it has remained since.  Lots of turmoil, just for lack of a son.

So a son is important.  Basically, the most important thing you can do as a monarch is have a son ready.  Not just monarchs; anyone with land to leave behind worried about having a son.  Take another look at the first episode of Downton Abbey for more on this theme.  Ideally, couples should have two sons; one would inherit, the other would be ‘the spare heir’.

Two years ago, the UK decided to abandon male primogeniture and go with ‘absolute primogeniture’. That means that if Kate had given birth to a baby girl, that girl would be Queen one day–regardless of any future brothers that might come along.  Given that three of the UK/England’s longest reigning, most stable, and best monarchs have all been women, I can only say that it’s about fucking time.  Of course, maybe I should shut up. England has had female monarchs and female PMs.  Where’s our female president?

What is the line of succession?

Remember what I said about stability earlier?  The most important thing is having a line of succession, so now we have elaborate lists of who would take over in case of disaster.  (See the much-forgotten 1990s John Goodman film King Ralph for more on this. Bonus appearance by a very young Camille Coduri, aka Jackie Tyler from Doctor Who).

Because the change in primogeniture rules only affect those born after the law was changed, it’s still a big list of dudes for the most part.  Here’s the top 10

1- Prince Charles (oldest son of the current monarch)

2-Prince William (oldest son of Charles)

3-Prince George (only son of William)

After that, you go back a step.  So if The Queen, William, and the baby died, it would be

4-Prince Harry

If all of them died (which would be totally ridiculous nowadays, but not unheard of back in the time of bubonic plagues) then we go back to find more children of The Queen. These people really aren’t well known in America at all.

5-Prince Andrew/Duke of York (the spare heir; second son of The Queen)

6 & 7 – Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie (Andrew’s daughters)

8-Prince Edward/Earl of Essex (The Queen’s third son)

9&10 – Edward’s children James and Louise.

But the list goes on and on and on. Wikipedia has 49 people.  Again, stability is the key here. Better to have the longest list possible.

Could Kate be Queen one day?

The titles are a tricky thing, and a little sexist. When William is King one day, Kate will officially be called ‘Queen Catherine’, but her role would be described as ‘consort’.  When William dies, she will never be the monarch.  You can’t marry into the role. On the other hand, if William died and little George was not yet 18, she could act as a sort of advisor to the young king–that’s been done in the past, but I don’t know how it would be handled in the 21st century.  It will most likely be a moot point, because Charles isn’t even king yet, so William is unlikely to be king for a few decades at least.  Still, you never know.

When a Queen gets married (like this one), then her husband is never called the King. Prince Phillip (a Prince of Greek/Danish patronage) was given the title of Duke of Edinburgh upon their marriage, and was later titled ‘Prince of the United Kingdom’.  He will have no chance to reign if she dies, because you really really can’t marry into it.  Usually the Queen gives out titles to family members.  Will used to be Prince of Wales (as Charles is, as Harry is) but upon his marriage he and Kate became Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  Because, reasons?!  It isn’t always logical.

What’s with the names?

Baby George’s full name is His Royal Highness, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge.  I thought my name was a handful.  So, what’s with all the names?

Royalty generally have 3 or 4 names. I suppose this evolved in a time when showing your lineage was extremely important. Names are almost always family names.

Is his last name ‘of Cambridge’?  Sort of…The royals don’t really have surnames in the way we common plebeians do. Elizabeth and her descendents are all part of the House of Windsor. Phillip (Elizabeth’s husband) took on the name Mountbatten when he was in the British armed forces, so many of the descendents use the name Mountbatten-Windsor.  Harry and Will have often used Wales as a last name (their father is the Prince of Wales, and they were also titled Princes of Wales).  Similarly, George is George of Cambridge, because his parents are the Duke & Duchess of Cambridge.  When he’s older, I’m sure he’ll get his own Duchy/Earldom and his title will change. It’s all very confusing for those of us without an inheritance, but there you are.

Will his name be King George one day?

Monarchs choose the name they want to use, like popes. It’s called a Regnal Name. Queen Victoria’s actual first name was Alexandrina Victoria. Her son Albert Edward took the regnal name of Edward VII. Elizabeth II’s father’s name was Albert, but he chose George VI as his regnal name. We just have to wait and see what Charles, William, and George pick when it comes to their turn.  I may be dead by the time George takes the throne, come to think of it.  If they chose their real names, Charles would be Charles III, William would be V, and George would be VII.

Could William be the next king?

The Queen is not permitted to just skip Charles.  The constitutional law establishing succession would have to be changed, and I really don’t think that’s likely.  William will only be the next king if Charles dies before The Queen.

The monarchy is a tricky subject.  Sometimes it seems so ludicrous, so old-fashioned and out of touch.  Tons of money goes toward these people to just sit and seem stable and have children. On the other hand, they are all very active in charity work and all of the future-monarchs enlist in the armed forces.  And the tourist draw they bring in is pretty incredible.  Is it enough to make up for the money they use to live a pampered lifestyle?  Difficult to say.  Maybe not on your normal day, but think about how many tourists came to see the Diamond Jubilee and the Royal Wedding, and the media frenzy over the new baby, and you start to see how it adds up to a significant amount of money coming in.

Hampton Court Palace and the Pigeon Pie Mystery

I recently finished another book by Julia Stuart. The first I read was heavily centered on the Tower of London and the curious people who live inside its walls.  I reviewed it, and talked about the history of the tower itself, in this post.This time, Julia Stuart chose to set her book at Hampton Court Palace.  I’ve also been to HCP, so I thought I would do the same thing: talk about the book and the setting.

Hampton Court Palace front entranceFirst, I’ll tackle a bit of history.  HCP started out as property of the Church of England. Cardinal Wolsey (a close adviser to Henry VIII during the pre-Reformation period) took over the house and spent lots of money turning it into an incredibly lavish and luxurious private residence. He included some ‘state apartments’ specifically for Henry VIII and his entourage, and they were used almost as soon as work on the palace was completed. Unfortunately for Wolsey, he fell out of favor with the tempestuous king and only enjoyed his palace for a few years before he started a long journey out of power (he died before he could be imprisoned in the Tower of London, but that’s the only thing that ‘saved’ him from that fate). He gifted the palace to Henry, presumably in an attempt to curry some favor, but it did not work.  Henry took ownership of the palace and started further expansion and upgrading of the property. Notably, he added the Great Hall, the tennis court, and the “post-Copernican astronomical clock” as the Wiki calls it.  I found this clock by far the most impressive part of the entire palace.  It tells you the phases of the moon, the current astrological sign, the time (obviously) and the state of the tide on the Thames at London Bridge.  If you’re wondering why you would need that last bit of info–the best way to reach HCP was by boat, but if the water level was too low at London Bridge it made for a perilous journey. It’s a seriously gorgeous clock:

HCP clock

Henry and a great many of his wives spent time at HCP.  Jane Seymour gave birth at HCP to Henry’s only legitimate son (and died a few weeks later). After Henry died, his daughter Mary I lived there for a while, as did Elizabeth I.  I would say the most famous Tudor residents of HCP, however, are the ghosts. More on that in a moment.

After the Tudor period, James I and Charles I (of the house of Stuart) spent time at HCP.  The King James Bible was commissioned from HCP. Charles I was imprisoned there before he was beheaded in London.

During the English Civil War and the Restoration period afterward, the palace was largely ignored.  It wasn’t until William and Mary came to the crown that it experienced renewed interest and new inhabitants.  They hired the architect of the day, Christopher Wren (you may recognize him from such buildings as St. Paul’s Cathedral and Kensington Palace in London) to slowly strip away the Tudor style of the place and remake it to be something to rival Versailles across the channel. If you go to visit the palace now, they’ve done a lot to recreate the Tudor way of life, but much of the interior is clearly from the later period. I found some of the murals to be the most beautiful part of the palace:

HCP murals

After George II (mid-18th century), no monarch has resided at the palace. After the 1760s, the palace was divided into apartments for ‘grace-and-favour residents’. These were people (usually upper-class ladies) who had fallen on hard times, but had a reason to be of interest to the monarch.  Often they were widows of war heroes or noblemen, or daughters of the entitled, or had worked in service to the crown for a long time.  They were granted (by the monarch) a place to live at the palace, free of charge.  Michael Faraday (the scientist) had apartments on the Green. This is something that still happens, though not at HCP.

Queen Victoria opened the palace to all visitors in the first few years of her reign (1830s).

If you want to visit, I definitely recommend it!  The official website, here, has info on visits and tours, etc. Here are some of my top things to see:

The Tudor kitchen–warning to all vegetarians that it’s a bit meat-heavy, as one might expect. Everyone talks about what Henry VIII ate, and my own vision of him does tend to include a turkey leg in hand.  The HCP historians have recreated the Tudor kitchen, from the tradesmen dropping off the ingredients, to cooks preparing the feasts for Henry and his (very large) court. If you’re wondering just how many animals they slaughtered to feed Henry and his entourage, there is a helpful (and slightly nauseating) infographic on the official site:

tudor slaughterAren’t you glad you asked? 8,200 sheep??? PER YEAR?

Anyway, the kitchen is really cool and I imagine if you’re a happy carnivore you’d enjoy it far more than me.

The great hall–another of the aspects of the palace that go straight back to the Tudor period.  Not only is it an immaculate example of a ‘Great Hall’, it was also the biggest theatre in the period.  Shakespeare and his men performed there for James I for one winter season.

Hampton Court Palace Great Hall

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The maze–One of the most famous aspects of HCP is the maze in the garden. Stuart discusses the maze in her book, describing the flocks of tourists who visited it in the 19th century, when its fame was just beginning. I’ve been through the maze and it wasn’t that challenging, but in the book people get lost in it so often that one of the characters is a man employed just to yell instructions to lost people inside.

hampton_court_palace_mazeApparently, mazes were less complicated in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The maze is off the main gardens, which are gorgeous. Unlike the Versailles gardens, which I thought were a bit too cultivated, the HCP gardens are a bit more natural.  They’re still looked after, obviously, but they have more grass and less gravel. Symmetry was a huge part of the aesthetics of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and the gardens reflect that.  I went in early Spring, and everything was impossibly green.

So, what of the ghosts?  Not as active as Tower of London, HCP is still a home to many ghosts, if legend is to be believed. The fifth wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Howard, has been seen many times screaming and running along the Haunted Gallery.  It is said that she escaped her guards and ran down this gallery to beg for her life from Henry.  The guards caught her and dragged her (screaming) back.  She was later executed.

Jane Seymour, another of Henry’s wives, is often seen gliding down some stairs in the palace headed toward her newborn son’s rooms.

There are a few other ghosts, but the one that honestly and truly gives me chills has the nickname Skeletor.  I think it scares me most because it was CAUGHT ON CCTV in 2003. The video is on youtube, if you want to see. The palace offers ghost tours at night, but you have to book in advance.

So, enough about the palace.  What about the book?

pigeon pie mysteryThe book takes place in the 1890s.  Mink (a nickname for an Indian princess) has just lost her father, the Maharaja, and is granted a grace-and-favour residence at HCP because of her status as a foreign royal.

Soon after she takes up residence at HCP and begins to meet the eccentric residents therein, one of them is murdered.  The General, a corpulent and lascivious man disliked by all, is poisoned by arsenic.  Mink’s maid, Pookie (an Indian woman as well) is the prime suspect, because of her suspect Pigeon Pies. If you don’t know (I didn’t), Pigeon Pies are not a euphemism.  They are pies with pigeon meet in them, and usually feature a few pigeon legs sticking out of the top.  Gross.

This doesn’t really function like a mystery. There is no sense of doom or impending disaster; everyone dislikes the General and no one is sorry to see him go.  But because her maid is accused, Mink takes it upon herself to find out who actually did the crime.  On her way, she discovers more and more about her oddball neighbors (the other grace-and-favour residents, a local doctor, a homeopath, and some of the palace staff).

Similar to her last book, Julia Stuart has created a lot of very strange and somewhat goofy characters, but doesn’t seem to be capable of taking any of them seriously.  Everything is lighthearted, except for the insertion of a few paragraphs sprinkled throughout that seem to acknowledge the difficulty of life.  I think she did a better job than with the last novel, but it was still too light. She also has a tendency to add so many characters, with such odd names, that even with the help of a character list in the front matter, I’m unable to keep them straight.

The story has a lot of good aspects: burgeoning love, grief, tragedy, secrets and mysteries. They all could be made into a really moving story, but it doesn’t work out as well as it could.  I hoped I would enjoy this book more because it’s set in the Victorian era, but it still relies more on lightness and comedy than on truth and honesty.  It’s too light for me. I find it unrealistic and therefore lacking in meaning.

The saving grace of both this book and her last one were the setting.  Having the story take place in such an iconic and interesting location, one that many tourists have visited, adds some interest and grounds the story in a lovely world.  I enjoyed spending time thinking about the life of a grace-and-favour resident, and loved the exotic aspects inherent to that sort of life.

Book Review: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train by William Kuhn

Mrs. Queen Takes the TrainFirst, I have to give a tip of my figurative hat to the art director/cover designer for this book. I love it! What sums up QEII more than Buckingham Palace, some guards, and a cup of tea? Horses, a little handbag, and Corgis, obviously. It is a really cute little hardcover.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it was an entirely successful novel.

The book is primarily about Queen Elizabeth II (the current queen, for those of you who really don’t pay attention) and the hazards of getting older and of being a monarch in the 21st century.

The primary plot revolves around The Queen deciding she could really use a day off/a cheer-up. She is feeling her age, and her increasing lack of power and importance in modern UK life. Let’s face it, the monarchy has rarely been less liked and less powerful than it has been lately. I think the dislike reached a peak at the death of Princess Diana, and has been recovering the last year or two with the Olympics, the jubilee, the royal wedding and soon-to-be royal baby.

As I’ve said before, I am not a big fan of the royals. Most people in the US seem more fascinated by them, I suppose because we don’t have anything equivalent here, but I just can’t be bothered to care much about them. I do not believe much in tradition, in ceremony, or in a class system. I picked this book up because, even though I’m not drawn to the monarchy as a subject, it promised a humanizing look at QEII. This is the author’s first novel, having previously written several biographies and light historical books on Brits and Americans (including Jackie O, the closest thing the US has ever had to a Queen). I do think it’s interesting to consider the monarchy from the position of human beings placed into this unique and almost impossible situation. How does one adjust to the fact that they lead the country by supposed divine decree? How would you adjust to the changing times and ideas of politics and political power during a 60+ year reign? When QEII had her coronation, Churchill was the PM and the nation was still recovering from the devastation wrought during WWII. She’s still Queen, but undoubtedly the country is totally different. It is really fascinating to consider the role of a leader when you’re able to also hold it in your mind that this is just a regular person. Despite what Henry VIII might say, I don’t think any of the monarchs have ever been assigned by God or given special gifts or knowledge to allow them to lead. They are, by chance of birth, thrust into a position of leadership. I’ve already talked a little on this blog about Edward VIII and his decision to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson. He couldn’t be King and marry the woman he loved, so he chose. Prince Charles, by all accounts, was asked to marry Princess Di when he loved Camilla from an early age. That obviously didn’t turn out well, but the point is that obedience and sacrifice comes with the pedigree and the real estate. It’s not a free ride. I’ve also already talked about the current climate of paparazzi frenzy over pictures of the royals, and how that will affect both Kate Middleton and her royal baby. It’s a tough time to be a royal, in my opinion. So a look inside all of the pomp and circumstance and at the reality of the situation is always a welcome thing.

Unfortunately, despite his training as a historian, Kuhn doesn’t seem to have captured a believable queen. It’s ironic, because as a historian, it is possible that this is a very accurate picture. Maybe she really does do yoga and feel comfortable talking to strangers on the street. But it doesn’t seem believable, even if it is true. Some aspects were plausible to me–the idea of The Queen not wanting to ask for computer help even though she hasn’t quite got the whole thing down–and others were really not–the queen having a secret twitter account only followed by family and friends. Even if these details are true, they don’t match with the public perception of The Queen, and there is nothing in the text to reconcile these. In scenes where The Queen was practicing yoga, I found myself picturing her in a lavender dress and matching jacket. I wondered how she could do Warrior II in panty hose. I couldn’t imagine her ever doing Downward Dog, because what if someone walked in and saw her backside in the air?

Of course the Queen is a human being, and sometimes she doesn’t wear pantyhose. It’s possible she even has yoga pants. On the other hand, how many octogenarians do you know who do yoga? If she is unusually attuned to what is young and new, then there has to be something in the text to align that with her public persona as being very old-fashioned, traditional, and proper. Otherwise, there is too much cognitive dissonance.

In the book, The Queen decides to take the eponymous train journey from King’s Cross to Edinburgh (a trip I recently made myself) in order to visit the royal yacht (which was decommissioned in the ’80s or ’90s) moored there. She sneaks out of Buckingham Palace on a whim, wearing a borrowed hoodie. She doesn’t tell anyone where she is going.

Several characters are charged with and volunteer to track her down in order to keep her from harm. They include an equerry (old-fashioned term for a sort of personal assistant to the monarch), a lady-in-waiting, a butler, a stable girl, a dress maid/ladies’ maid, and a clerk from a cheese shop. They frantically search for her, forming uneasy alliances across class lines (slightly reminiscent of Downton Abbey), and try to keep her disappearance quiet.

I had two problems with this book. The first was a lack of real suspense in the plot. We view the story from alternating perspectives, but we are never away from The Queen as narrator long enough to worry about her safety. The other characters are stressed about not finding her, but the tension of the situation and its potential dangers are glazed over and presented as secondary to the maze of social propriety involved in dealing with the monarch. There is never a sense of a non-happy ending being remotely possible.

The second problem was the portrayal of The Queen. As I said before, it doesn’t seem realistic even if it is based on real facts. So that’s a problem of writing, not of research. I think it also paints The Queen as less capable and competent than she most definitely is. The Queen in the book seems to regret that everyone went to so much trouble looking for her, and that she caused them stress. But, after being queen for 60+ years I’m fairly certain QEII knows exactly and entirely what would happen if she went AWOL. I would respect the character more if she knowingly decided to escape from her handlers. I also think that The Queen in the book is not as bogged down and restricted by her ideas of propriety and tradition than QEII must be in real life.

But where am I getting this info? What on earth do I know about QEII? Nothing, obviously. But she is a human being, who was raised knowing very early on that she would one day lead her country. She’s seen it through wars, through peace, economic prosperity and depression. She’s seen PMs come and go, political parties rise and fall. She stands alone, is the only one who can know the burden of leadership and the restrictions of monarchy. Her family has inklings, but nothing on the same level. There is no way to portray her in any book or movie that does not acknowledge this ordering of the world according to tradition and to responsibility. And in this book I just don’t think that was acknowledged enough.

I’ve read quite a few novels lately written by historians. I have no idea why they would want to make that jump. There’s an old joke that the profession least likely to get their book published is a writer! Seriously though, it’s not as easy as it looks, guys (the ones I have read were men; I am not implying that all historians are men). There has to be a more human look at the historical figures, not just an ‘accurate’ portrayal. If you described Henry VIII as large, fat, with a beard, who liked to have his wives beheaded, you wouldn’t be wrong. But you wouldn’t catch the essence of him as well as someone who might write about his frustration and anger with himself at not fathering a male child, frustration that he aimed clearly at his wives. Cutting off their heads was an easy way to blame them, and to excise the blame from himself. Is saying that accurate? No way to know. But it makes a better novel, and if you’re going to travel into the realm of fiction you have to take the leap away from concentrating on accuracy and focus instead on creating a character comprehensible and relatable.

The Royal Baby and the paparazzi

Kate's baby bumpMostly, I don’t really want to write this post, if I’m honest.  But it is a huge event in the course of British events, and will be much talked of over the coming year.  And, of course, it has already been surrounded by controversy.  So, it seems like some comment is necessary.

I speak, of course, of the upcoming royal baby.  Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge (her formal title) is pregnant with what will be (boy or girl) the third person in line to the throne.

I searched for ‘baby bump’ photos to put on this post and the above came up, of Kate at Thanksgiving.  Man, look how fat she is! How did we not know?  I’m joking, of course.  I could lose 30 lbs and still look more pregnant than she does.  But no one shows this early, and the tabloids have been speculating since the day of the wedding that she was pregnant, so every shot claims to display a nonexistent baby bump.  Sigh.  Poor Kate.

I am not much of a follower of the royals. I didn’t watch the wedding, though I did watch the Diamond Jubilee, so maybe my hatred of weddings was more of a factor.  At any rate, the monarchy is not a part of British culture that I feel much affection for.  I feel similarly about the House of Lords.  Maybe some girls think about becoming a princess, but this one would rather leave all the responsibility and need to wear ridiculous hats to someone else.  Not to mention the pressure to procreate.

Whenever there has been a new heir expected or needed, Britain has been rather obsessed.  A prime example is Henry VIII and his inability to produce a male heir to rule upon his death. In those days (and for most of British history), the heir was really important.  Wars would easily and quickly break out if there wasn’t a clear next-in-line to the throne.  There were multiple civil wars over the succession, from the War of the Roses to the post-Reformation confusion between Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth. The country is more stable when everyone knows and accepts who will take over when the current monarch dies.

Combine that historical curiosity with the celebrity status of the monarchy.  Ever since Princess Diana, when the stuffy monarchy was injected with something akin to soap opera drama, the press and the people clamor for information on the (attractive) royals.  Will and Harry seem to get the most of the attention, maybe because they are Diana’s sons and the public feels a sense of ownership and a sense of sharing their family tragedy, maybe because they are the most attractive of the royal family?  In the US, those are almost the only royal family members to which we are exposed.  No one knows about Princess Beatrice or Zara Phillips, except for blips here and there.  Zara Phillips and her participation in the Olympics, Beatrice and her hat at the wedding:

6a00d8341c630a53ef0154323ed96c970c-320wiBut I believe as a country we took more notice of Pippa Middleton than the rest of the royals.  Regardless of how things are different in the UK and the US, this royal baby is a big deal as a curiosity and as a potential future ruler.  But the demented need for information driving behavior in this instance is the same that drives paparazzi to lay down next to limos to get shots up the skirt of whatever celebrity happens to have worn a dress. The whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth, and I have pity for Kate, for William, and for this child-to-be.

This intense curiosity and feeling of ownership over these public figures has already turned outrageous and tragic with a prank by two Australian DJs to invade Kate’s legally protected privacy. A prank which contributed to the suicide of a nurse that fell for their prank.  I hope they’re proud of themselves.  If I didn’t already hate DJs of all kinds, I would begin to now.

With the nude pictures that have surfaced this year of Kate and of Harry, and this invasion into Kate’s medical status and associated privacy, there can be no hope that this child or this pregnancy will be lived under any sort of protection or respect.  Even if 99% of journalists and humans were to agree that, as a human being experiencing a terrifying and not-fun 9-month journey of biological horrors culminating in a presumably rewarding, but simultaneously horrifying event, Kate deserves privacy and respect…there would be at least one person with a telephoto lens or the phone number to the hospital, who thinks only about what invasion of privacy will get them and not what it will do to Kate, Will, or the baby. I suggest a new punishment for these jerks: publish a photo up a woman’s skirt, or of someone with their romantic partner in a presumably private environment, or publicly air their medical status…do anything to violate the privacy of someone because you think their life is somehow a public entity, and something of your life should become a public entity.  Lets post these DJs medical records.  I’m sure they’ll be thrilled if everyone knows if they’ve ever had a yeast infection, or needed Viagra. Right?  They’re public figures, so it should be allowed.  Find the paparazzi and publish nude photos of them.

Of course, I don’t actually think that’s a good punishment, but I do think there needs to be some sort of responsibility.  Kate and Will, and anyone else who happens to be known, are not property of all of us. They are human beings who have to live every day in the spotlight.  Unlike Miley Cyrus or Britney Spears, they can’t have a public breakdown, shave their heads, and go into rehab.  They have to maintain composure and a semblance of grace.  Can you imagine how difficult that has to be when magazines are publishing or radio shows are airing your most private and intimate secrets? How would you feel about the people who gobbled up the articles and paid for the pictures?  Or the people who looked at them and claimed it was no harm done? Can you imagine the guilt and the rage that your stay at a hospital would end with a nurse taking her own life because people were desperate to get information about you and your constant vomiting?

I’ve gone off on a rant here, but really, I do feel an incredible amount of pity for Kate and for this baby.  I hope that, if nothing else, the death of that nurse will make a few people think twice about the obsessive need to know the details of this pregnancy.

On that note, here are a few facts about the baby, which do not in any way violate anyone’s privacy:

The rules that previously established the succession of the crown (from 1701) declare that the first-born male child of the monarch will be next in line.  That meant that if 6 girls were born and then a boy, the boy would become king. Sorry, ladies.  The current Queen is queen because she has no brothers.  But, Parliament and the monarchy are working/have worked to change this law to indicate that the first-born (primogeniture) of children will be next in line, regardless of sex.  I have a different suggestion: a man becomes king only if he has no sisters.  Radical, yes, but perhaps a good plan. Let’s look back at the British monarchy over its many year history.  Arguably, the most successful monarchs have been women–Elizabeths I and II, and Victoria.  Victoria, I think was the best monarch the UK ever saw. The men had winners too, of course, but they were very hit and miss. For every Henry V and his valiant Band of Brothers speeches on St. Crispin’s day, there was an AEthelred the Unready.  Just saying.

Experts (who on earth can call themselves an expert on this, I wonder) think that the names Elizabeth and Diana will probably be middle names if the child is a girl.  Royals are typically given 4 or 5 names. Edward VIII was named Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David.  So, there are plenty of names to go around.

As to the baby’s title, it’s complicated. Most Americans still call Kate by her name (Kate Middleton) or they call her a title she doesn’t actually have (princess). Because Prince William is not the son of the monarch but the grandson, when he got married he was given the title of Duke of Cambridge, and therefore Kate (now called Catherine) is the Duchess of Cambridge. Their first child will be called His/Her Royal Highness the Prince/ss of Cambridge.  Later children, if there are any, will be called Lord/Lady. Once the Queen dies, all of the children get the Prince/Princess title.  I’m not sure how this all works, but so says the interwebz.

The royal family doesn’t really have last names, because their titles are sufficient.  If a last name is necessary, the name Mountbatten-Windsor is used.

Assuming The Queen lives to see this child, she will be the first monarch to meet a great-grandchild who was directly in line for the throne.  The last was Queen Victoria, who met the future Edward VIII in 1894.  Edward VIII was the one who later abdicated the throne in order to marry Wallis Simpson.  So let’s hope that isn’t indicative of anything.

Apparently invasion of privacy isn’t all that new.  Historically, the Home Secretary (sort of like our Secretary of Homeland Security in the US) had to attend royal births in order to ensure that the babies weren’t switched at some point. This tradition stopped in 1936, thank god.

Book Review: Wolf Hall

9780312429980I had very high hopes for this book. It was the winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize, which is a list that provides me with incredibly good reading every single year.  It’s the first book in a trilogy, and the second of those books (Bringing Up The Bodies) won the Man Booker prize this year. It’s also historical fiction, which I love.  I was entirely ready to love this book.

Unfortunately, I just didn’t.

Wolf Hall is the first book in the ongoing Thomas Cromwell trilogy by Hilary Mantel.  Thomas Cromwell was a true historical figure, a close adviser to Cardinal Wolsey and then to Henry VIII.  Wolf Hall concentrates on the end of Cromwell’s time with Cardinal Wolsey and the beginning of his close relationship with Henry.

The Tudor period seems very popular in the last decade, from the Jonathan Rhys Meyers series, The Tudors to The Other Boleyn Girl. To me, it’s not nearly as interesting a time in England as the Victorian era, but that’s just personal preference. I think this is the first historical fiction I have read set in the 16th century, and I did learn a lot about the period and the history and about Henry VIII.

I usually start my book reviews with a brief synopsis, but I cannot do so with this book.  And therein lies the problem (one of them) with the book.  Things happen, for certain, but not along a traditional plot line with rising action, a climax, and a resolution.  It seems to be more just a recording of things that happen over nearly a decade in these characters’ lives.  No one event is given more weight, importance, or consequences than any other event.  The book has the pace of real life, with the tragic and epic occurring just alongside the everyday and the insignificant. This makes it very realistic, but I think it does not make for good fiction. I couldn’t tell you a specific reason why Mantel started this story where she did and stopped it where she did.  I can’t tell you what I was supposed to glean from this portion of Cromwell’s life.  Since it is a trilogy, the lack of proper ending is understandable–the very last page leads directly into the next book in the series–but there is just no story arch in this book.  Some of the most devastating events happen sporadically in the middle of the book, such as the deaths of some of Cromwell’s family members due to plague.
I just couldn’t get a handle on this story in terms of a recognizable plot.

The book covers a period in English history of religion and monarchy in extreme tension.

Brief history lesson, if you don’t remember your high school classes/that Simpsons episode: Henry VIII was married to Katherine, the Spanish princess. She gave birth to Princess Mary, but was not successful in producing a male heir.  As she aged, Henry VIII became anxious about having someone to take over as King.  At the same time, Anne Boleyn caught his eye as a possible mistress, but she basically teased him and bribed him until he found a way to annul his marriage to Katherine and marry her instead.

At the same time, the reformation of the Catholic church was spreading from Germany (much of it directly resulting from Martin Luther’s 95 Theses), and there were parties in England interested in reforming the church in their country.  These two interests became united in one solution. The king was convinced to break with the church  after the pope refused to grant him an annulment from Katherine.  So what was kind of a personal thing (marriage) became a huge issue that influenced the religion of everyone in England (and the US if you want to argue causation) for several centuries.  The Anglican church became the official church of England, with the Monarchy at its head. For several hundred years, Catholicism was outlawed (except for brief respites).

Okay, enough history.  So this was a huge, very important thing in England all stemming from/hinging upon Henry’s desire for a male heir.  It’s a really fascinating time in history, and Henry and Anne are a very interesting pair.  It should make for a great book.

Unfortunately, the plot is just non-existent. The action has sort of bookends on either side of the reformation. At the beginning, Cardinal Wolsey is just beginning to fall into disfavor and to have his lands and wealth reclaimed by the crown. The action ends with the death of Sir Thomas More, who was I suppose the last holdout stopping the progress of the English Reformation at the time. Other than that, the action just seems to occur in order and have no significance attached to it.

The writing is not bad, but it is very difficult to follow. Each person has different names/titles, and often they are referred to as one and then the other.  Examples include referring to Stephen Gardner as Stephen Gardner, as Gardner, as Bishop of Winchester, as Winchester, as Master Secretary, etc.  This is all one guy, but she flits between referring to him as one thing, then another, then a third.  Add to that, the lack of dialogue tags in most of the dialogue.  All of Cromwell’s thoughts and quotes are identified by ‘he said’. If you’re lucky, she throws you a ‘he, Cromwell, said’.  It’s very difficult to tell who is speaking and to whom.  I would have to go back and reread paragraphs to decipher what was going on.  What on earth is wrong with just saying ‘Cromwell said’ or ‘Cromwell thought’.  Or ‘I said’/’I thought’. It’s like she didn’t want to commit to first person or third person, and decided instead to confuse the hell out of everyone.  Just pick!

There are also a lot of characters, and the list in the front does include most of them, but not in a very helpful arrangement. Add to that the fact that it doesn’t list all of their titles, despite the fact that people are often referred to by their titles.  There are six or seven dukes running around the novel, but sometimes speech is identified just by ‘the duke said’.  It was really hard to follow.

So there is no plot and it is hard to read.  There were only two redeeming features of this novel, in my opinion.  One was the complexity of the characters. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel with so many complex and varied characters. A particular highlight is the mercurial king and his equally capricious Anne.  Their relationship, their mannerisms, the way they affect everyone around them, it’s all very interesting to read and drawn out realistically.  They were the highlight of the book for me.

The other saving grace of the work was how clear it was that Mantel had done her research. I learned a lot about the period and about London, and the book made the history of the time come alive more completely than any history text I’ve ever read. When you read about these things in history class, it seems so brief, concise, and altered. Binary, really. One minute, they were a Catholic country, and the next minute, they were Protestant. But this book shows just how long, drawn out, and completely hypocritical the whole thing was.  One minute, Sir Thomas More is torturing reformists and people who had the gall to circulate the Bible in English (in England… just let that sink in for a minute, that that was a crime) and by the end of the book, More is being executed for treason/heresy.  There are a lot of executions in the book, and almost all of them are for people following their own beliefs about religion, and not the ones that the government was (that day) shoving down their throats.  All I can say is, in this environment, it’s no wonder the pilgrims were headed to the New World less than 100 years later. Being burned alive for saying the communion wafers/bread is not really the body of Christ is a bit extreme, yes?

So, this book was a disappointment. Add to that, the fact that it was really long (604 pages) and I was glad to be finished with it.  I’m disappointed I didn’t like it more, because I thought perhaps I would read the second one.  I don’t think I have the energy, unfortunately.  If you’re really obsessed with the Tudor era, and have a lot of patience to decipher dialogue with no tags, then you might enjoy this.  But expect it to take a while and feel incomplete at the end.

Also, if you’re curious (as I was), the Thomas Cromwell described in the book is distantly related to the Oliver Cromwell who took over England in the mid-17th century.  Oliver was Thomas’ sister’s grandson.  So he was Oliver’s great-uncle, I think.  It’s kind of amazing to think of a family coming from absolute obscurity (no money or noble pedigree) and having one be chief adviser to the King, and then a relative be ‘Lord Protector’ and de facto dictator of that same country.  And they say there is no upward movement in the British class system.