Day 1242: Lady Rose and Mrs Memmary

Cover for Lady Rose and Mrs MemmaryLady Rose and Mrs Memmary is an odd little book. It shows its naive heroine in the grip of Romanticism until she learns what the real world is like.

The novel begins in the 1930’s, when it was written. A couple and their friend are touring the area and come upon Keepsfield, a beautiful old Scottish house, which is available to let. They ask if they can tour the house and are taken around by Mrs Memmary, the old caretaker. As they tour the house, Helen Dacre gets Mrs Memmary to tell her about the life of Lady Rose, the Countess of Lochule, who owns the house.

Lady Rose has been brought up on stories of Rob Roy and Mary, Queen of Scots, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. She is an extremely romantic and enthusiastic girl from a life of privilege but not luxury, the daughter of an Earl. Her parents make no bones during her debut in 1873 that their job is to marry her to a man of equal fortune and position in society.

We see little vignettes of Lady Rose’s life from the age of six until she marries Sir Hector Galowrie when she is seventeen. Her parents don’t pay attention, however, to the idea of matching Rose in temperament.

By the time the visitors appear at the house, much has changed for the aristocracy of England and Scotland. The owners of fine mansions can no longer afford to live in them. This is the story of the attitudes of her peers once Lady Rose decides she has done her duty, but it is also the story of the fall of the aristocracy.

For such messages, the novel is written in an extremely sentimental style, with gushing descriptions of the house and landscape and chapters ending in poetry. I don’t think it is altogether successful, but it is interesting as a document of the times.

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Day 563: The Scottish Chiefs

Cover for The Scottish ChiefsWritten in 1810, The Scottish Chiefs tells the romanticized story of William Wallace, the Scots hero we know today as Braveheart. Jane Porter was a contemporary and acquaintance of Sir Walter Scott, who deemed her the first author of historical fiction, then went on to write some himself.

The novel begins in 1296 and covers roughly eight years. After the untimely death of Alexander III, Scotland could not decide between two claimants to the throne—Robert Bruce or John Baliol—and called upon its neighbor, Edward of England, to adjudicate. He chose the weakest candidate, Baliol, and shortly afterwards seized the country for England. At the start of the novel, his governors have been mistreating Scotland for two years by imprisoning its leaders and taking their property for themselves.

William Wallace has been minding his own business and trying to stay out of trouble when he is summoned to meet with Sir John Monteith. Monteith passes him a metal box given to him by Lord Douglas before Douglas was kidnapped by the English. Monteith’s home is overrun by English soldiers, and he is afraid someone will discover the box, so he asks Wallace to remove it. However, the soldiers glimpse it under his plaid, and assuming it is treasure, they soon arrive at his home to take it. Wallace escapes, but his wife Marion is murdered by the dastardly Heselrigge, English governor of Lanark.

After his wife’s murder, Wallace vows to devote his life to freeing Scotland from the English. The novel follows his adventures and his defeats of the English in battle. Wallace’s victories are muddied by the jealousy and treachery of many of the Scottish chiefs, who refuse to believe the purity of his motives and fear his growing power over the populace.

The novel is written in the overblown style of Romanticism. It features a godlike Wallace, heroic figures like beautiful and saintly Helen Mar and faithful Edwin Ruthven and villains such as the perfidious Lady Mar and vicious Heselrigge. The dialogue is florid. However, the deeds described are truly exciting, and Porter manages at times to build quite a lot of suspense. The introduction by Kate Douglas Wiggan, educator and author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, relates how her copy of the novel was in tatters from re-reading when she was a child and how she would beg for ten more minutes of reading time when called to supper.

While reading this novel, I was trying to decide whether a modern youngster would love it or be bogged down by its style and length. I am not sure, but children read for plot, and there is much in this tale to make it a page-turner. That it is about a man who was truly a hero should make it even more exciting to them. In any case, if the writing style of early 19th century Romanticism doesn’t bother you, I think anyone might enjoy reading this novel.

Day 558: La Reine Margot

Cover for La Reine MargotIf you’ve been following my reviews of Maurice Druon’s Accursed Kings series about medieval France, you’ve probably seen me use the phrase “nest of vipers.” La Reine Margot, set a couple of centuries later, is just as full of intrigues, infidelities, betrayals, and even poisonings.

It is 1572, and the French court is celebrating the inexplicable marriage of Marguerite of Valois (Margot) to Henry of Navarre. France is at the height of the wars between Catholic and Huguenot, and Charles IX has proposed the union between his sister and the leader of the Huguenots purportedly to further peace.

Soon, though, we find out that the wedding is a trap for the leading Huguenots planned by Charles and his evil mother Catherine de Medicis. (Note that throughout I spell names as they were in the book.) For that evening of St. Bartholomew’s Day, troops are sent out all over Paris to massacre the Huguenots, who are in town for the wedding.

Thinking to rid himself of an enemy in Henry of Navarre, Charles has not considered his sister. Even though she and Henry are not romantically attached, the two have sworn to support each other. When Henry is trapped in the Louvre with the royal family, a combination of Margot’s support and his recanting saves his life. Margot has also rescued a young wounded Huguenot, La Mole, from the slaughter, providing a romantic subplot for the novel.

So begins the novel about how Henry of Navarre, aided by Margot, survives the machinations of the Valois family. The rumor is that Catherine recently murdered Henry’s mother by poisoning her, and Catherine also works in charms and horoscopes. Charles IX is unstable, first mistrusting Henry and then treating him like a brother. Henry d’Anjou, Charles’ brother, detests Henry of Navarre and thinks he is a threat to d’Anjou’s own right to the throne after his brother. François d’Alençon, the other brother, wavers in his decision to ally with Navarre.

Dumas was a writer of the Romantic movement, which de-emphasized rationality and emphasized emotion. The romantic plot involves the love affair between Margot and the naive and gallant La Mole, who is drawn into danger because of his love and religion.

My Oxford World Classics edition was fortified with copious notes, including information about which events were true and which were invented. Dumas is prone to using real people in his historical romances, and it was just a little off-putting to discover, for example, that the real La Mole was not a gallant Huguenot but a fundamentalist Catholic who was responsible for many murders during the massacre. Still, I found the real stories as fascinating as the novel.

If you like a fast-moving adventure that also involves political maneuvering, this is a good book for you. I was more interested in the nerve and political agility of Navarre than I was in the romance, but I still enjoyed the novel.

One caution—an abbreviated version of this novel is available as Marguerite of Valois. I have not read it, but if you want the more complete novel, look for La Reine Margot. (Yes, it is in English but also in French, so be careful if you order it online.)

Just a side note. I have written much about Dorothy Dunnett’s excellent historical novels. One of her Crawford of Lymond novels, Queen’s Play, is also partially concerned with the massacre.

Day 111: The Black Tulip

Cover for The Black TulipThe Black Tulip does not feature the swashbuckling we have come to expect from the historical novels of Alexandre Dumas. Even though it begins with two innocent men being torn limb from limb by a mob, it is actually a romantic comedy about the mania for tulips in the 17th Century.

The two men are the uncles of an obsessed tulip grower, Cornelius van Baerle. Just before their deaths, they send him a message telling him to destroy some papers they’ve left with him, but he is too occupied with cultivating his black tulip bulbs to read it.

These bulbs are worth a lot of money, as the Horticultural Society is offering a huge prize for a black tulip. Cornelius himself is not interested in the money as much as the achievement of growing the tulip. However, a neighbor who covets the prize, Isaac Boxtel, betrays him to the authorities hoping to get a chance to steal his tulip when he is arrested.

Cornelius bequeathes his tulip to Rosa, the jailer’s daughter, when he thinks he will be executed. Although completely innocent of treason, he is sentenced to life in prison. The story continues with the attempts of Boxtel to steal his tulip, which Cornelius and Rosa are trying to grow in jail so that it can be delivered to the Horticultural Society. At the same time it is about the love that grows between Cornelius and Rosa.

The novel is funny, romantic, and well written. Although some historians currently believe that reports of tulip mania are exaggerated, this novel seems to accurately reflect what was earlier reported of this odd period of history. If you are interested in another look, try reading Deborah Moggach’s historical novel Tulip Fever or the Wikipedia entry on “tulip mania.” For a nonfiction account reflecting current ideas, try Anne Goldgar’s Tulipmania: Money, Knowledge, and Honor in the Dutch Golden Age, which I have not read, but is cited in the Wikipedia article.

Day Six: Waverley

Cover for WaverlyI have been trying to offer a mix here, not just mystery mystery mystery, and so far I have just reviewed books I’ve liked. But I plan to also review books I didn’t like. This book isn’t one of them; I’m just warning you.

I had a hard time even getting interested in reading anything by Sir Walter Scott after having been forced to plow through the dreaded and deadly dull Ivanhoe in high school. I tried rereading it again some years ago because sometimes things you find dull in high school are more interesting when you’re older, but it wasn’t. I have often wondered what criteria high schools use when picking the English curriculum, when there are much more vibrant classics available. I can only suppose that they thought a tale of knights, derring-do (whatever that is), and Richard the Lionheart would interest high school students. When you read Ivanhoe, it’s hard to imagine that at one time Scott’s books were waited for with bated breath by the whole family.

But most of us probably haven’t tried to read his Scottish novels, or the Waverley novels, as they are called. This review is about the novel called Waverley, presumably the one the others are named after. It was written in 1814 but is set in 1745. Scott’s Scots dialects are a little difficult—a glossary would be nice—and he can occasionally be a bit long-winded, but his Scottish novels are much more interesting and amusing than Ivanhoe.

Waverley is a dreamy, wealthy youth brought up in England who has been neglected by his father and raised by his uncle, a man of Jacobite sympathies. A romantic man of undetermined principles, he cannot decide what to do with himself, so he is sent off by his uncle to join the army.

On leave from a regiment stationed in Lowland Scotland, he goes to visit an old friend of his uncle. He makes a visit to the Highlands out of curiosity and ends up embroiled in the Jacobite conspiracy. He is charged with desertion and treason, mostly because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Part of Scott’s intent, I believe, was to show the British of the times that the Highland Scots were not just a bunch of savages and to depict them realistically.

The book is entertaining and humorous at times, and also occasionally a little ponderous. Waverley is a hapless hero who finds himself drawn into one fix after another, which perhaps makes him a more modern protagonist than you would expect.