Review 1627: Hamnet

Hamnet explores the impulses that went into the writing of Hamlet as well as important moments in the marriage of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare. It focuses on grief from the death of a beloved son.

The similarity in the name of Shakespeare’s son to that of his most famous protagonist is obvious, but I wasn’t aware until this book came out that they were essentially the same name. O’Farrell’s newest book parallels scenes from the beginning of Shakespeare’s relationship with Anne (called Agnes in the book) with the hours leading up to Hamnet’s death from bubonic plague. Then she deals with the aftermath.

At first, I wasn’t sure how much I liked all the invention going on, as O’Farrell depicts Agnes as a sort of wild child/wise woman. Then I reflected that little is known of the couple and that I was reading fiction, after all. I don’t like it when a fiction writer knowingly distorts the truth, but O’Farrell stuck fairly closely to the few known facts. The result I found extremely touching. I admit that my initial reluctance to buy in changed to my being completely rapt. This is a deft, sensitive story that concentrates mostly on Agnes’s feelings and reactions.

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Review 1618: The Prince

I put The Prince on my Classics Club list mostly out of curiosity. Now that my curiosity has been satisfied, I can well understand some of the controversy surrounding it.

Machiavelli wrote the book for the newly arisen Medici family, and the last chapter is basically a plea for Lorenzo di Medici to rise up and conquer Italy. The Prince is a treatise on power: how to get it, how to keep it, what to do with it. It is utilitarian rather than moral. For example, it advises princes that they need not honor their promises once they are in a position of power if the promises are not in their best interests.

Although Cesare Borgia was considered ruthless and cruel even in his own time, Machiavelli several times holds him up as a model and clearly venerates him. But then, his ideas are not ours, for he tells a story of a principality being won. The principality needed good government, so the prince put in charge a man known for his ruthlessness and rapacity. Once the area was settled, the prince “wiped out” his lieutenant. Good work!

The book is regarded as a realistic analysis of the pursuit of power. This is why it is still widely studied. It is written in a straightforward style, assertion followed by example.

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Review 1582: The Mirror and the Light

Best of Ten!
At last, Hilary Mantel has produced this long-awaited third volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, begun with Wolf Hall. One of the remarkable traits of this trilogy is that it lives fully within the thoughts of its main character, and never has a character been so thoroughly drawn.

The Mirror and the Light begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which Cromwell has largely brought about at the urging of Henry VIII. Indeed, he has been avenged against most of the people who ruined his first and beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn was one of them.

However, his service is now devoted to that of his current master, Henry VIII. He sees that service to bring down Henry’s enemies but also to save Henry from the worst of his excesses. One of his first acts is to save Mary Tudor’s life by bringing her to obedience to her father. He also works to keep the realm within the Protestant religion. So, after the death of Henry’s third queen, Jane, following childbirth, he tries to find Henry a wife who will bring him allies from the Protestant German states. For England is alone and open to attacks from all Catholic countries.

I know my Tudor history, so I knew all along how this would end. The novels show a man who can be ruthless but who is also charitable, kind, and loyal. Not all of his cheerful, unruly household of semi-adopted sons turn out to be as loyal to him.

The last thirty pages or so of this novel had me in tears. For me, there can be no better compliment to a book.

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Review 1558: Classics Club Spin Result! Kennilworth

Here’s another book for RIPXV!

Reading Kenilworth for the Classics Club Spin made me contemplate the question of how important it is in a historical novel to stick to the historical facts. Of course, historical novels are fiction, so by definition something is invented. And there have been really interesting historical novels where the author purposefully changed some facts to speculate on other outcomes. But do historical novels have the license, just for a more dramatic story, to change what actually happened?

Kenilworth is the novel that famously reawakened interest in the story of Amy Robsart’s death. Amy Robsart was the wife of Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, during the reign of Elizabeth I. Amy’s death is the classic mystery of did she fall or was she pushed? At the time of her death, the rumor in court was that Leicester colluded in her death because he believed he could then marry Elizabeth.

In the novel, Amy is a young bride who has run away from home for a marriage with Leicester that is secret because he is afraid for his position in court, having married without royal permission. Amy’s jilted fiancé, Tressalian, comes looking for her on behalf of her father, believing that Amy was seduced away from her home by Varney, Leicester’s master of horse.

Varney is the villain of this piece. He has Amy kept as a virtual prisoner, and eventually Amy has reason to fear for her life. So, she flees to Kenilworth, Leicester’s estate, where he is preparing to entertain Elizabeth and the court.

I fear that Scott has woven a romance with very little basis in fact, as he did with a Crusader-based novel I’ll be reviewing in a few months. First, in Kenilworth, Amy and Leicester are newly married when in fact they were married about 10 years. Next, their marriage was no secret; in fact, she was allowed to visit him in the Tower of London when he was imprisoned by Queen Mary as a relative of Lady Jane Grey. Did Leicester have a hand in her death? I read a novel a while back that posited that (it may have been Alison Weir’s The Marriage Game, but I’m not sure), but we’ll never know. More recently, historians are inclined to believe that she simply fell down the stairs. By the way, she was not being kept captive in a moldy old house but visiting friends.

So, that is a strongish negative for me, at least. I could accept a premise that Leicester ordered his wife’s death because we don’t know, but playing with the chronology of the marriage for drama’s sake (and to have a younger, dewier heroine) and making it a secret (as it was also in a movie I saw several years ago) is throwing in a bit too much fiction.

On the positive side, Scott’s descriptions of the Elizabethan court are vibrant and his attempts at Elizabethan dialogue are convincing. Also, if he was not distorting history I’d say that his plot is quite suspenseful. At the time of its publication, historians slammed The Talisman just because Scott created a fictional Plantagenet, even though he did much worse things historically in that book and in this one.

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Review 1499: Tombland

My understanding was that Lamentation was supposed to be the last of C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake mysteries; then Tombland came out. I had previously wavered about whether to continue with the series about the dour lawyer, but Lamentation was so good that I decided to read Tombland.

It is 1549. Edward VI is 12 years old, so the country is being ruled by Lord Somerset, the Protector. It has been a late summer, so crops are not expected to be good. Further, landlords have begun illegally enclosing common land for sheep, throwing their tenants off the land. As a result, thousands of poor are roaming the country. The Protector has promised that a commission will look into this problem, but so far nothing has happened.

Lady Elizabeth asks Matthew to look into a case where a distant relative, John Boleyn, has been arrested for murdering his wife, Edith. Lady Elizabeth does not wish anyone to know that Edith came to her for financial help and did not receive it. Edith had left her husband nine years previously, and no one knew where she went. Recently, she was found brutally murdered, upside down in the creek on her husband’s property. Lady Elizabeth wants to know whether John was guilty and if not, have Matthew find the murderer. If need be, she will try to get John a pardon. This notion is difficult politically because of the Boleyn connection, so it is a last resort.

Matthew thinks it is unlikely that John would have killed his wife and left her body so exposed, because he is the likely suspect and it negates his subsequent marriage to his mistress, Isabella. John’s twin sons, Barnaby and Gerald, seem like demented feral animals, but Matthew also believes they loved their mother. He finds Edith’s father, Gawen Reynolds, to be an angry, hateful man. Still, aside from a land dispute, he can’t find a motive for Edith’s murder.

This novel is 800 pages long, and John’s trial is in the first few hundred pages, so I was wondering about that as we approached the verdict without a solution to the crime. But, for this novel, the mystery is really an excuse, almost a McGuffin, for what Sansom is really interested in, the story of Kett’s Rebellion. Common men anticipating the promised commission begin making camps, rounding up landlords who have enclosed their land, and tearing down enclosures. Matthew, his assistant Nicholas, and his old friend Barak are taken up by the rebels when they go to visit a potential witness, Flowerdew. The last half of the novel is about this incident in history.

I thought this novel was interesting, but I also felt that if Sansom wanted to write about the rebellion, it might have been better not to wrap it into a mystery. In fact, I felt that the section dealing with the rebellion was a bit too detailed, taking up more than 400 pages, with a 50-page essay at the end of the novel. As a result, I didn’t think this book was as good as some of his others, particularly Lamentation. Sansom appears to want to be a straight historical novelist, and maybe he should just do that.

Finally, although I feel that some of the books in this series are outstanding, it has always bothered me that no one in them ever shows a vestige of humor, and Matthew has to be one of the most depressed characters ever.

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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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