Review 1327: Brief Lives

Cover for Brief LivesAlthough John Aubrey has been criticized as a historian, he was actually a collector, of documents, stories, and little bits of information. For a project in the late 17th century undertaken by Anthony Wood, he began collecting short biographies of Oxford scholars of his time but then expanded his collection to include other notables of the 16th and 17th centuries. From 426 lives, this book has collected the most significant 134, some as short as a few sentences while others are several pages long.

These lives do not necessarily list their subjects’ accomplishments, although most of them begin with a short biography included by the editors. Aubrey’s talent was for telling something about each person that defines him or her, makes the person seem more knowable, whether it be a physical description or a story about the person.

Aubrey was apparently a rather disorganized person, so sometimes we are amused by a story or comment that seems to have nothing to do with the subject. Although well written and entertaining, his lives sometimes use pronouns confusingly, so that you’re not always sure who he’s talking about.

Just as entertaining as the original subject matter is the 100-page introduction about Aubrey’s life and milieu. I have to say that he seldom says anything really negative about anyone, even if you can tell he didn’t like that person. He was plainly a good-natured man who also sometimes likes to tell bawdy stories. Centuries after his lives were written, they make a living document, bringing exceptional people back to life. I was interested to see that one of them was Venetia Digby, the main character of Hermione Eyre’s Viper Wine.

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Day 1280: The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors

Cover for The Last White RoseI’ve read a couple of histories by Desmond Seward now, one of which, The Wars of the Roses, did a much better job of explaining the complications of those wars than any other book I’ve read. In The Last White Rose, Seward details the attempts by the first two Tudor kings, Henry VII and Henry VIII, to wipe out the Plantagenet line.

Real or imagined conspiracies against the Tudors haunted the reigns of both these kings. At first, those conspiracies that actually existed had their roots in Henry VII’s very tenuous claim on the throne. There were still plenty of Yorkists around, and some of them had much better claims. It was Henry VII’s knowledge of these plots that led him to construct a complex web of spies for the state. Later, his growing paranoia led him to execute young Warwick, whose only crime was his birth.

Although Henry VIII continued his father’s policy of stamping out conspiracies, as he grew older and more erratic, he conducted a reign of terror. Courtiers were charged for slight errors or none at all. Henry succeeded in killing off almost every person with Plantagenet blood. His paranoia was manipulated by Thomas Cromwell, who invented conspiracies to rid himself or Henry of enemies.

Seward could be writing novels, his style is so easy to read and interesting. Although he introduces many players, he is somehow able to interest readers in all their fates. I found this another fascinating book about this period.

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Day 1196: Lamentation

Cover for LamentationAlthough at the end of the last Matthew Shardlake novel, Matthew vowed to change his life, it is not substantially different in 1546, the beginning of the last novel in the series. He has vowed not to become involved in any more political cases, yet he takes one more for Queen Catherine, formerly Catherine Parr.

The religious situation in England is more fraught than it has been. As King Henry is the head of the church, he believes that all must follow his beliefs. Yet he vacillates between a more conservative view of the church and the reformist view, with resultant trials for heresy on both sides. Right now, the conservatives, headed by Bishop Gardiner, seem to be in ascendance, and having a reformist queen would be very inconvenient for them. Queen Catherine’s followers are fairly sure that if the conservatives prevail, she’ll be brutally discarded.

Unfortunately, Catherine has written a document, Lamentation of a Sinner, and not destroyed it as she was advised. Although it is not heretical, it distinctly shows her reformist views. More seriously, Henry would view her having written it secretly as disloyalty. Unfortunately, the document has been stolen from a locked coffer for which only the Queen has the key. Matthew agrees to try to recover the manuscript.

At the beginning of his investigation, Matthew encounters the murder of a printer, Greening. This man belongs to a group of religious radicals, and he is found clutching a page of the Queen’s manuscript in his hand. The investigation is further confused when Matthew learns that Greening was printing another book, an account by Anne Askew of her treatment before she was burned for heresy.

I think that this last novel is the best of the series. Despite its bulk, it is fast moving and atmospherically charged, reflecting everyone’s fears at the time. No one in Sansom’s books, it is true, seems to have any sense of humor, and perhaps that is partially what has bothered me about the series. In any case, by the end of the novel, Matthew has certainly set foot on a different path.

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Day 1117: Heartstone

Cover for HeartstoneI’ve been slowly making my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series just to read Heartstone, which is on my Walter Scott prize list. Although I enjoy the period and Sansom’s thorough research, I will have to consider whether I want to follow the depressive Shardlake’s adventures further.

In Heartstone, Shardlake is summoned by the queen, who by now is Catherine Parr. She asks Matthew to investigate an allegation related to the Court of Wards and Augmentations, which is notoriously corrupt.

Michael Calfhill was employed as tutor to Hugh and Emma Curteys until their parents died. Their wardship was sold to Nicholas Hobbey, their neighbor, even as Michael and the vicar were trying to track down an aunt to take charge of them. Emma died from smallpox and Michael was dismissed, but he worried about Hugh. So, a few weeks ago, he went to visit him unannounced. He returned distraught, claiming he had found out something frightful and wanting a lawyer to sue to remove the wardship from Hobbey. But a few weeks later, he was dead of an apparent suicide. Bess Calfhill, his mother, was once servant to the queen and has gone to her for help.

Matthew is also interested in looking into another mystery. In the last book, he befriended Ellen Fettiplace, a resident of Bedlam. When he examines the records to see who is paying for her support, he learns that she was never committed there. Matthew has heard stories about Ellen that involve a rape and a fire. Since his business with Hobbey takes him near to her village, he decides to find out how she came to Bedlam.

This novel is set with the background of Henry VIII’s war with the French. Throughout the novel, the main characters encounter preparations for a French invasion, and Matthew’s investigations take him to Portsmouth just before the Battle of Solent.

I was easily able to guess the big secret in one case (although I’m not sure it was obvious), but I was mistaken about the other. Certainly, the mysteries are not the most important aspect of Sansom’s novels—they are just the force that drives it forward. Sansom has a talent for immersing readers in the period. Still, Matthew is lonely and sad, and his life seems to consist of one loss after another. In this novel, he decides to change his life, and I may read the next one just to see if he does. (I believe there is only one more.)

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Day 1082: Revelation

Cover for RevelationIn C. J. Sansom’s fourth Matthew Shardlake novel it is 1543. Matthew’s experiences working for Thomas Cromwell have driven him away from his former Reformist religious views, and he has been avoiding becoming involved in political cases. He has never been happier working for ordinary people in the Court of Requests.

But soon his friend Roger Elliard is murdered in a most peculiar way, and Matthew vows to Roger’s widow Dorothy that he will find the killer. This purpose forces him to work for Archbishop Cranmer, along with the Earl of Hertford and Thomas Seymour, who are all worried that Roger’s death has something to do with Lady Latimer, Catherine Parr, whom the king is courting. Their fears are because of a similar murder of Dr. Gurney, who attended Lord Latimer during his final illness. They appoint Matthew to work with Coroner Hartsnet to find the murderer.

Of course, their fears are political. Henry VIII has been turning more and more back to conservative religious views, away from the Reformists. The Seymours and Cranmer see a marriage to Catherine Parr as the only hope for Reform. The English are more and more polarized by religion, with fanatical Reformists ranting in the street on the one hand while Bishop Bonner cracks down on them on the other.

Soon Matthew is convinced that there have actually been three murders. Further, they are modeled after passages in Revelation that detail seven ghastly visitations.

Although Sansom’s Shardlake mystery novels create a fully realized world with highly developed, convincing characters, there is something about them that holds me back from complete attention. I am always mildly interested but not absorbed. In this case, the novel took me an unheard of twelve days to read. That makes me happy that I have only one more to read, the one for my Walter Scott Prize project, although since I understand there is only one more after that in the series, I may choose to finish the series.

Don’t misunderstand me. These novels have complex mysteries that are difficult to guess and are well researched and interesting. I think lots of people would and do love them. I have personally not been able to decide why I’m not that involved. Perhaps Matthew Shardlake is too depressive for me.

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Day 1059: In the Name of the Family

Cover for In the Name of the FamilyJust a short note about my Walter Scott Prize project. The committee has announced its short list for 2017, and I have updated my page accordingly, along with the links to Helen’s reviews at She Reads Novels. (I have read one of them but haven’t yet posted my review.) Do check it out if you are interested in historical fiction. So far, I have found most of the books on the short list to be excellent reading.

* * *

In the Name of the Family is the follow-up to Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty, about the Borgia family. It picks up in 1502, with Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, the son of the Duke of Urbino. This marriage is political. Her beloved second husband was murdered by her brother Cesare, because an alliance with his family was no longer expedient.

Like the previous novel, In the Name of the Family is mainly concerned with Lucrezia and Cesare. This novel also brings in Niccolò Machiavelli as a secondary character in his role as envoy from Florence. This role for Machiavelli is familiar to me from Michael Ennis’s The Malice of Fortune, although that novel was a mystery. Machiavelli was famously inspired to write The Prince by his fascination with Cesare Borgia.

One of Dunant’s aims in writing these novels was to redeem the characters of the Borgias, particularly Lucrezia. Of course, the Borgia men were ruthless and greedy, but it seems that all the other powerful families in Italy at the time were the same. Lucrezia apparently was an intelligent and charming young woman who won over most of the people she met, even the hostile court of Urbino.

Cesare begins as a brilliant strategist but begins to deteriorate mentally from syphilis.

link to NetgalleyI gave high marks to Blood & Beauty, but In the Name of the Family seemed to drag a little for me. I am not sure why. It could be because I read it in ebook form, and I have a much more difficult time concentrating on electronic books. However, that has not stopped me enjoying other novels in ebook form. Certainly, Lucrezia’s part of the story was not as important, and that was what I was most interested in. Also, I’m not sure how effective it was to occasionally introduce Machiavelli’s viewpoint.

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Day 1045: Sovereign

Cover for SovereignI am working my way through C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series so that I can cross his fifth novel off my Walter Scott prize list. Sovereign is Sansom’s third, set in 1541.

Henry VIII is now married to Catherine Howard, and he is already engaged in a progress through the north when the novel begins. Archbishop Cranmer asks Matthew to meet the progress in York and help handle and judge the legal petitions that will be presented to the king. In addition, he asks Shardlake to see to the welfare of the state prisoner and make sure he stays alive until he gets to the Tower of London.

Once Matthew and his assistant Jack Barak arrive, things get complicated. His fellow lawyer in charge of petitions, Wrenne, seems like a nice man, but Matthew does not like Fulke Radwinter, the jailer for the prisoner Broderick. And there are complications. Shortly after arriving, Matthew finds the body of a glazier, Oldroyd, who has fallen into a cart of glass. The man in charge of the investigation, Sir William Maleverer, is up to his ears in corrupt land deals with Matthew’s great enemy, Sir Richard Rich.

When Matthew and Barak search Oldroyd’s house, they find a locked box in a hidden compartment. They take the box to a safe place in their lodgings, where Barak opens it, but as he is glancing through the papers inside, someone knocks him out and steals them.

After that incident, someone begins trying to kill Matthew. But are the murder attempts connected with the prisoner and his treason, the stolen papers, or Matthew’s law case against Richard Rich?

As usual, I found this novel full of period detail and knowledge of Tudor history. In the background of the novel is the story of Catherine Howard’s downfall. Shardlake, who became disillusioned with Thomas Cromwell and the Reformation in the first novels, now begins to view his monarch with distaste. The series is an interesting one, and I’m happy to continue reading it.

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