Review 2100: Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster

I looked for a biography of Katherine Swynford after reading Anya Seton’s Katherine, a novel about her life. I had a suspicion that the story was greatly romanticized, and acclaimed biographer Alison Weir agrees with me.

The bare bones of Katherine Swynford’s story are dramatic. Of undistinguished foreign parentage, Swynford was married to a low-ranking knight in the army of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and son of Edward III. John was the most wealthy and powerful noble of his time except for the King. Katherine was attached to the Duke’s household as sort of a governess for his children with his duchess, Blanche of Lancaster, to whom he was devoted. Katherine’s husband served overseas. (Weir has him dying of illness rather than being murdered by a servant faithful to the Duke.)

After Blanche’s death, John married Constance, titular Queen of Castile and tried for years to take back her country from usurpers. This marriage was not successful, and soon the Duke began an affair with Katherine that lasted for years. The couple parted then reunited, but Lancaster astounded everyone by marrying her after Constance’s death. Amazingly, Katherine was the ancestress of every king of England since 1399 and of six American presidents.

Although Katherine’s story is an intriguing one, there is so little historical information available about her that the biography is mostly about her husband and sons, with information derived from records of grants and budgets. This is the kind of research that is probably fascinating to the writer but not so interesting to the reader.

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Review 2085: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

Last summer, my husband and I watched a set of programs on BritBox—not a series but separate movies each with the title “The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher” and a different subtitle. When I looked at the credits, the name Kate Summerscale rang a bell, and I realized I had read her book The Wicked Boy about a Victorian true crime. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher is also nonfiction, about a famous Victorian murder and the detective whose career was nearly destroyed by the case.

In June 1860, the Kent family awakened to find three-year-old Saville Kent missing. Searches of the property eventually located him under the seat of an outside privy with his throat cut. A window of the dining room was ajar.

The initial investigation was botched, with local police assuming the crime was committed by a servant or outsider, and even hiding some potential evidence. John Whicher, a top detective in the newly formed detective department, was assigned to the case after two weeks, as a result of reported bungling.

Mr. Whicher was thorough in his investigation despite lack of cooperation and even obstruction by the local officials. He concluded that Saville was murdered by his 16-year-old sister, Constance (this is not a spoiler because this information comes out fairly early in the book), but felt he didn’t have enough proof to make an arrest. However, the local magistrates pushed him into it.

It is the national reaction to the crime and Mr. Whicher’s suspicions that Summerscale concentrates on, as well as telling what happened to the principals later. This is a really interesting book, relating how Mr. Whicher was a model for early fictional detectives and how this case affected early crime fiction.

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Review 2069: Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving

TV host and comedian Mo Rocca loves obituaries and little factoids. So does my husband, so I bought him Mobituaries last Christmas. Then, after listening to the podcast, I decided to read it myself.

Unfortunately for me, a good deal of the content of the book was in the podcast and in seemingly greater detail. Still, it’s a fun book to read and full of factoids.

Rocca has written not just about the lives of people, some well-known, like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor, some whose contributions are less known, like Elizabeth Jennings (the first black woman to refuse to leave a streetcar, 100 years before Rosa Parks) or Ada Lovelace (inventor of the computer algorithm in 1843) but also of objects and concepts that are not longer with us—the belief in dragons, Prussia, the station wagon, alchemy, and other medieval sciences. Obviously, this book, while not at all comprehensive, more notional, is wide-ranging. It is also fairly funny, and its asides, quips, and incidental factoids remind me of some of the works of Bill Bryson, although Bryson is a better prose stylist.

In any case, the book is enjoyable to read and provides plenty of fodder for trivia buffs.

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Review 1886: Dostoevsky in Love

Up until now, it has seemed to me that biographies fall into two categories: more academic works that are full of notes and citations and are sometimes turgid or too detailed or works meant primarily for the public that often list no backup material whatsoever and are sometimes sensational or even untruthful. Dostoevsky in Love makes an interesting compromise between the two. It is short at a couple hundred pages, it does include notes, and it somehow distills a sense of the true person that pages and pages of detail may not. Dostoevsky lived an interesting life and Christofi relates the events and Dostoevsky’s ideas in an interesting way, including quotations from his work to illustrate his points.

Dostoevsky’s life was difficult. He was poor for most of it, yet one reason was his generosity. (Unfortunately, another was his addiction to gambling, which he finally conquered.) Most of his life was spent in ill health, including epilepsy, serious bladder infections, and finally emphysema. As a young author, his first work was acclaimed, his next reviled, and then he was arrested for his radical politics and spent four years in Siberia (after suffering through a fake execution), followed by a stint of extra compulsory military service (he had already completed his usual service) with years before he was allowed to go to either Moscow or St. Petersburg.

Finally, in the last few years of his life, he gained the recognition he deserved, but he was still so poor that his wife Anna had no money to bury him with.

I found this to be an absorbing book. I have always wondered why most of Dostoevsky’s characters seemed to be in a frenzy, and now I think it’s because he himself was often in a frenzy, beset as he was with cares.

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Review 1856: Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth

First, let me say that I am not a religious person, furthermore, that I have a big problem with how many people practice their religion, especially if it involves war. I believe one of my brothers feels the same, so I was surprised when he recommended Zealot to me.

Reza Aslan is not so much interested in Jesus Christ as in Jesus of Nazareth, that is, not in the ministry of Jesus or the beliefs about him, but the actual man—what can be found about him from the earliest and most reliable sources. This examination involves placing utterances and events in their proper context, not as we understand them today.

The result is eye-opening, starting with the story of his birth, for example. For Aslan reveals this story as a construct by the writers of the gospels—all written well after his death—to support messianic claims. The messiah was supposed to be a descendant of David, which meant he had to be born in Bethlehem. There was indeed a tax levied, but on Judea, and it would never have required the populace to travel to pay it, as taxes were levied in the place of residence. Jesus’s parents lived in Galilee and so were not subject to that tax. Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth all his life, as he was born in Nazareth.

One by one Aslan knocks down the myths that have risen around the life of Jesus and explains why these myths were created. Instead of the gentle soul that emerges from the gospels, we get a fighter for the poor and a strong supporter of the laws of Moses who never intended his teachings for anyone but Jews.

One of the myths is that Jews killed Jesus, not the Romans. Aslan explains that after his death, the new religion shifted from being a sect that was always meant to be a form of Judaism to one that began to recruit gentiles. As Rome was the base of many of these activities, the writers of the gospels had to find a way to appease Rome. They couldn’t come out and say Jesus was killed by Rome. So, to quote Aslan, “Thus, a story concocted by Mark strictly for evangelistic purposes to shift the blame for Jesus’s death away from Rome is stretched with the passage of time to the point of absurdity, becoming in the process the basis for two thousand years of Christian anti-Semitism.” And wait until you read what this book says about Paul.

This book is an eye-opener, written by an acclaimed scholar of religion.

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Review 1749: The Life of Sir Walter Scott

I happened to read a comment that Sir Walter Scott had led a sad life, which made me realize that I knew nothing about him. So, I looked for a biography, but I might have done better to look for a used book. I was concentrating on not getting a print on demand book but ended up with one anyway. Boy, I hate those things.

I wouldn’t necessarily call Scott’s life sad. He overcame childhood disease that sounds like polio and resulted in a withered, weakened leg. However, because of strenuous exercise, he became remarkably fit until the strains of later life.

He was also crossed in love but overcame that as well, and two years later formed a lifelong attachment to his wife, Charlotte. He remained warm friends with the man who married his first love, Wilhelmina Stuart.

In actuality, Scott was successful at everything he did until the stresses of later years resulted in several strokes. Even then, he was amazingly productive. However, a collapse of a series of businesses, for which he was in no way responsible but took responsibility for, resulted in the ruination of him and his partner in a printing company, and he was doggedly repaying his debts the last few years of his life.

The book is interesting enough for about half the time, but the problem with it is that the author is obsessed with the biography written by Scott’s son-in-law, Lockhart. Although Wright frequently criticizes Lockhart’s wordy, “journalistic” writing style, this book would have been half as long if Wright wasn’t concerned to refute practically everything Lockhart said about Scott, even to the point of repeatedly calling Lockhart a liar. The problem with this for readers who have not read the Lockhart book is that they therefore don’t care.

As for my edition by Borgo Press, it was full of typographical errors and oddities, probably as a result of an old text being machine-read with no subsequent human editing.

Charles Dickens: A Life

Jane Austen: A Life

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Review 1720: Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream

As a young adult in the late 60’s and 70’s, I did not have a high opinion of Lyndon Johnson. Although I was not political, like many people, I was against the Vietnam War. It wasn’t until I lived in Texas that I saw another side to Johnson, who was revered for, among other things, bringing electricity to rural Texas to ease the work of women.

Doris Kearns Goodwin worked in the White House in the late 60’s, and when Johnson asked her to help him write his memoirs, she declined because she also was against the war. However, Johnson was a master of persuasion, and she finally agreed. The memoir never got written, but Goodwin had unprecedented access to Johnson because of it and eventually used her notes to write this biography.

Goodwin is obviously interested in the pursuit and use of power, and Johnson is a perfect subject for that interest. She depicts a man who did not pursue power for itself but for the good he could do with it. I failed to mark them in the text, but many of his comments about the presidency and the use of power contrast starkly with the thinking of our last regime, which was fizzling out as I read this book.

Goodwin paints a picture of a complex man, brilliant but at times crude, organized, manipulative, a consummate negotiator, but a man with good intentions. It’s a pity that the war overshadowed and overwhelmed the other accomplishments of his presidency. Because of it, we forget that he put into process programs to help the needy and people of color. Medicare and the Voting Rights Act are down to him as well as other programs that were not handled as well because of his preoccupation with the war or that were gutted by Richard Nixon.

I did get a little bogged down in the chapter about the war, and it being a different time, today’s readers may have problems with how Johnson and others refer to minority groups. Still, I found this book really insightful and interesting, as it explores the reasons for some of his controversial decisions.

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Review 1658: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

My curiosity about this subject was piqued by seeing the movie starring Kiera Knightly. Predictably, the movie exaggerated the story of Georgiana’s home life and left out her role as a serious political negotiator. (Those scenes of her on the podium don’t really count.) For the Duchess of Devonshire was a complicated person, intelligent but too trusting, generous but also profligate, adored by most but not by her own husband, a savvy politician, a serious amateur scientist, an author who never published under her own name, and an important figure in 18th century social and political life whose legacy was either purposefully erased by rivals or too-proper Victorian descendants or overlooked by historians.

Georgiana’s home life was exciting enough to provoke the prim, for, married at 16 to a husband who was cold and unloving, she was full of insecurities that eventually led her to live most of her married life in a ménage with her husband and Lady Elizabeth Foster, her husband’s mistress. Although Bess Foster seldom missed an opportunity to undercut her even after her death because she envied her position, Georgiana always considered Bess her best friend despite her mother’s and children’s detestation of the woman (with good reason).

Aside from Georgiana’s loyal support of the Whig Party and Mr. Fox, who may have been her lover, an overarching concern of her life was debt. Georgiana and her family all shared the trait of an inability to live within their means, despite having fortunes at their disposal. Georgiana missed several opportunities for the Duke to settle her debts by being too ashamed to admit them all, so all her life she was constantly juggling money, borrowing from one person to pay another or gambling away money meant to pay her debts.

Georgiana was a flawed but fascinating woman, and this biography reveals not only her life but her times to the reader.

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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 1609: A Literature of Their Own: British Woman Novelists from Brontë to Lessing

When I began reading A Literature of Their Own, I expected it to be more like Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers, which is a recounting of the achievements and short biographies of American women writers, many of whom have been ignored by academics, critics, and editors. A Literature of Their Own, however, is Showalter’s dissertation, one of the first feminist literary studies, published originally in 1977 and revised in the 90’s.

As such, it is a bit scholarly and outdated and at times felt mired in its feminist analysis. Showalter divides 19th and 20th century works by women into three categories: female, feminine, and feminist. When she first made this distinction, it seemed artificial and overly finicky, but as she described the fiction, it clearly belonged in three categories, becoming more likely to be feminist in later times.

This book was a bit of a struggle at times. I have two lit degrees, but I don’t necessarily enjoy reading more academic works. Some sections were very interesting while others devolved into a sort of classic early feminist analysis. Still, for those interested in feminism and literature, this is probably a must read. And I’m not implying I am not, just that sometimes the analysis from such a limited viewpoint seems stretched and overdone.

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