Day 1151: Henry VI, Part III

Cover of Henry VI Part IIIHenry VI, Part III must have been a difficult play to write, because it telescopes the major events of years into five acts. Its action is a little tiresome, as one side of the conflict is in the ascendent, then another. However, the longer speeches in this early play are beginning to show Shakespeare’s stuff. And certainly, for audiences of the day, who didn’t know their history, it was probably exciting.

The play opens where Part II left off. Henry has just been defeated by the Yorkists at the first battle of St. Albans. Shortly thereafter, he makes a deal with York that allows him to rule during his lifetime but makes York his heir. But both York and Queen Margaret soon break the vow. York is preparing to resume conflict so that he can be king when Queen Margaret attacks in an effort to protect her son’s rights.

What was most interesting to me in this play is the depiction of several of the main characters. Queen Margaret is a real viper and is reviled by several characters, even though she is just trying to protect her son. In fact, I believe it was this play in part that was responsible for her reputation in history.

Although Henry is depicted as saintly and all for peace, he is not shown as mentally incapacitated, as he was for much of his life. Warwick, despite changing sides and being ultimately on the wrong one (as far as the Tudors are concerned), is rather heroic. And Gloucester, later Richard III, is set up beautifully for the subsequent play, Richard III.

All in all, I thought that the second play moved along better. I was glad to contrast this trilogy with the other reading I have done on the Wars of the Roses.

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Day 1142: Bloodline

Cover for BloodlineI have to admit that my attention span wavered during parts of Bloodline, Conn Iggulden’s third Wars of the Roses novel. I found the emphasis on war in the first half of the book less interesting than the political maneuvering that occupied most of the first two novels. And a good portion of the middle of the novel is just about one battle, which, even though some interesting and important things happened during it, was still a battle, related in too much detail. It was only the last section, after the crowning of Edward IV, that somewhat reignited my interest.

The novel begins with Margaret of Anjou, King Henry VI’s wife, in ascendance, even though Henry is a captive of the Yorkists. She has gathered together a huge army, even bringing in Scots from up north. But she has made a mistake in letting her army loot every town and village they’ve passed on the way to London. For, when she gets to London, the city won’t let her in.

The Yorkists, now led by Richard of Warwick, are gathering their forces to fight her. Meanwhile, Edward of York, the young man whose father was made the heir to the throne by Parliament, is both goofing off and grieving for his father. But Edward finally decides to pull himself together, and when he does, he declares himself king.

Towton is a decisive battle in this segment of the Wars of the Roses. After it, Margaret has to flee, and Edward begins his reign. Ironically, his choice of bride in the rapacious Elizabeth Woodville creates the same problems for him as Margaret of Anjou’s favoring of the Percys did for Henry VI.

Like the other novels, this one shifts its viewpoint from one character to another, but it is mostly from the point of view of Richard of Warwick. I had some sympathy for Richard, but I missed Derry Brewer, who fades out of the novel in the middle after being a major character in the other two books.

All in all, I think this novel could have been much shorter. It flagged in several places. Despite the roving narration, you don’t really get to know any characters well. If there is going to be a fourth book in the series (the wars aren’t over, after all), I think I’ll skip it.

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Henry VI, Part II

Day 1118: Henry VI, Part II

Cover for Henry VI, Part IIJust by coincidence, I began reading Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series right around the same time as I started reading these three plays about Henry VI. I found it interesting that Iggulden’s first book, Stormbird, begins almost exactly in the same place as does Henry VI, Part II. Suffolk has brokered Henry’s marriage to Margaret of Anjou, but Henry’s nobles are shocked to learn that the price is to return the provinces of Maine and Anjou to France. Further, the French are not even paying a dowry.

As with Part I, Henry isn’t much of a character in this play, the intent of which is to tell the events of his reign. But whereas he was a child in the first play, this absence in Part II helps to signify his ineffectuality as a ruler. When we see him, he is kindly, but he is unable even to keep his nobles from fighting in his presence.

Besides the struggle for power among the nobles, we are witness to some of the important events in the King’s reign. These include the disgrace of the Duchess of Gloucester and the murder of her husband, the disgrace and murders of Suffolk and Somerset, and Jack Cade’s rebellion.

This play is supposed to be the best of the three Henry VI plays, and apparently Shakespeare’s contemporaries found it exciting because they were unaware of their history. Especially at the beginning, it certainly provides a cogent explanation of the problems of Henry’s realm. Unfortunately, he was not the man to handle them.

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Day 1110: Margaret of Anjou

Cover for Margaret of AnjouMargaret of Anjou, the second book of Conn Iggulden’s Wars of the Roses series, begins in 1454 with an ambush. Angry at the lands that have been going to the Nevilles, York’s allies, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, attacks a Neville wedding party on its way home from the wedding. York has been acting as Protector and Defender of the Realm while King Henry VI is suffering from mental illness. Although York has ruled well, he has favored his own allies over the friends of the King, even to murdering or imprisoning some, and has earned the enmity of the Queen, Margaret of Anjou.

But the tide is about to turn. Henry awakes from his stupor, amazed to find that Margaret has borne him an heir. He immediately dismisses York and Salisbury, Richard Neville, from his court. Soon after, he and his allies ride out to bring them to heel, starting the battles of the Wars of the Roses.

While the Yorkists reluctantly turn to treason, this book seems a little more balanced than the first between the two sides. Salisbury and York clearly have their reasons for resentment of the king’s favorites, and it is true that Henry is not an effective ruler. Still, no one hesitates in plunging the country into years of uproar and instability.

Margaret of Anjou

Like the first novel, this one switches point of view between the main characters, including Derry Brewer, the king’s spymaster, who is one of the few fictional characters. This technique allows us to understand the various positions, for some are self-righteously explaining away their own treachery. York is presented as a tragic character, while Margaret, who has often been reviled in history, is treated sympathetically. After her husband sinks back into his stupor, she does everything she can to protect her son.

I am continuing to enjoy this series, which, although it simplifies the many conflicts of this time, brings clarity to the main figures and events.

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Day 1087: Stormbird

Cover for StormbirdBased on the recommendation of Helen of She Reads Novels, I decided to try Conn Iggulden’s series Wars of the Roses. This period of British history has always been fascinating to me, yet confusing, and I have read several nonfiction books about it, as well as a few stand-alone novels about major players in the wars.

When I picked up what I thought was the first book in the series, Margaret of Anjou, I realized it was the second. So, I had to hurriedly get a copy of Stormbird. This accident assures that I will be reading at least the first two of the series.

The novel begins in 1437. King Henry VI, who is clearly not the warrior his father was, has been ceaselessly praying for an end to the Hundred Years War with France. He commands his spymaster, Derry Brewer, to find a way to a truce.

The agreement made with France is that Henry will marry Margaret of Anjou in exchange for the lands of Anjou and Maine, which Henry’s father won back from the French. At no time does Henry give thought to the countless English families who will be displaced in these two provinces.

The point of view moves from person to person throughout the novel, but no one character is central to the story. Some of these characters are the young Margaret of Anjou; Derry Brewer; the loyal William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk; Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York; Thomas Woodchurch, a former longbowman who is displaced from his farm by the truce and decides to fight; and Jack Cade, a resentful renegade who leads a band of Kentish men against London. Most of these characters were actual historical people, with the exception of Derry Brewer.  At first, I thought this constant shift in point of view would become annoying, but I finally realized it allowed me to get to know those characters better.

Iggulden admits to compressing time, making a period of almost 20 years seem like months. I think he could have just as easily indicated some passing of time, because it is occasionally jarring to think only a few months have passed, only to be brought up short by remarks, for example, that the king and queen have been married for years without issue.

Although most of the books I’ve read agree that toward the end of the wars, anyway, the Yorkists had the better claim to the throne, in this preamble to the wars, the Duke of York is definitely the villain. Although he is in charge of Normandy at the time of the truce, he does nothing to protect the fleeing English from the French armies and actively works to blame his inaction on Suffolk, who does the best he can when he takes over York’s position. I notice that the novel is dedicated to a descendant of John of Gaunt, whose immediate descendants made up the Lancastrian side of the conflict.

Overall, I found the novel quick moving and suspenseful, with interesting characters. I’ll be happy to read the second book in this series.

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Day 787: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Cover for The Hunchback of Notre DameWhen I was making my list for Classics Club, I thought I should finally read something by Victor Hugo. The obvious choices were Les Miserables or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, but I had tried Les Mis some years ago only to put it down in disgust when Jean Valjean hits the priest who has tried to help him over the head with the candlesticks he wants to steal. So, it was Hunchback for me.

I was interested to read in the Introduction that the French title of this novel was Notre-Dame de Paris and that Hugo hated the English title. And truly, the focus of the novel is more on Notre Dame and 15th century Paris than it is on the story we’re familiar with. In fact, one entire chapter just describes Paris as it looks from the tower of the cathedral in 1482, street by street. I have to say, though, that the chapter was almost meaningless to me, since I found myself unable to visualize what he describes, at least not in that detail.

The novel has many characters, not just the three emphasized in all the movies. It begins with Pierre Gringoire, a hapless poet who is attempting to put on a play he wrote in celebration of Epiphany and the Festival of Fools. This great (and long) production is supposed to pay tribute to the betrothal of the Dauphin with Margaret of Flanders. The problem is that the people have been waiting since dawn to see it. It is past noon, when the play is supposed to have started, but the Cardinal and the Flemish ambassadors haven’t arrived yet. The crowd, egged on by the student Jehan Frollo du Moilin and his buddies, is getting disruptive.

Gringoire decides to start the play, and the crowd settles down, but the actors are still reciting the prologue when the Cardinal and the Flemish arrive, making a lot of noise. The students turn their attention to making rude remarks. Soon the crowd begins trying to select the Pope of Fools instead of watching the play. They choose the hideously deformed hunchback Quasimodo, the bellringer at Notre Dame, and everyone leaves. Poor Gringoire will not be paid, so will not be able to pay his lodging, and he goes off homeless to wander the street.

So, we meet Quasimodo, who was taken in as a child by Claude Frollo, the severe Archdeacon of Josas and older brother of Jehan Frollo. Claude Frollo is obsessed by his studies of alchemy until his eye lights on Esmeralda, a young gypsy dancer and street performer. He becomes infatuated and lustful and so (with the typical logic of zealotry) decides she must be a witch who has enchanted him. On the other hand, when Quasimodo is sentenced to the stocks simply because he is too deaf to hear the judge, the only person who is kind to him is the gypsy dancer. So are sewn the seeds of tragedy.

And make no mistake, there is tragedy in store for most of the characters in this novel. Justice is solely dependent upon the whims of powerful men, and the more powerful they are, the more scathingly Hugo treats them. We even spend some time with the king, Louis XI, who is depicted as grasping, arbitrary, and vicious. Hugo pretty much skewers everyone except Quasimodo and the gypsy girl, who are basically cardboard figures.

Hugo is interested in many things in this novel—the cathedral itself, its own architecture, and the architecture of Paris are strong presences. The transmission of culture from century to century is a preoccupation, as are the themes of the nature of love, loyalty, and not judging by appearances. As a son of the revolution, he also has an axe to grind about the aristocracy and the corruption in the church.

I have to confess, though, that I only mildly enjoyed this gothic novel. The only highly developed character is Claude Frollo, and he is a sickening person.

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Day 753: Blood & Beauty

Cover for Blood & BeautyBest Book of the Week!
Blood & Beauty is a historical novel about the Borgia family that shows meticulous research, examining in light of modern findings the legends that have surrounded the family for centuries. It also powerfully evokes the period.

The novel begins with the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI. He is clever and ruthless but sentimental about his four illegitimate children. Although historically there is some debate about the birth order of the oldest two sons, Dunant firmly places Cesare as the oldest, followed by Juan, Lucrezia, and Jofrè.

Although the pope loves his children, especially Juan and Lucrezia, their value is largely in the alliances he can make through their marriages. Cesare’s value, on the other hand, is to back up his father on the religious front. He begins as a cardinal, although he is unsuited to his religious profession and eventually throws it off to become a commander of armies.

Juan’s marriage is first, but the novel is mostly concerned with the relationship among Pope Alexander, Cesare, and Lucrezia. It is much more complex than and different from what you may have heard. It is Lucrezia’s misfortune to be married into families that become enemies of the Borgias because of shifting alliances. This is particularly true of her second marriage to Alfonso of Aragon, whom she loves.

Dunant remarks in the afterward that the Borgias have not deserved their evil reputation. Certainly they were rapacious and ruthless—and more interested in the good of the Borgias than anything else—but so too were most of the great families of Italy at that time. In this novel, alliances are made and discarded at will by most of the great families.

This novel is historical fiction at its best. None of the characters are invented or romanticized, and we become immersed in the world of Renaissance Italy.

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