Royal Affairs: British Monarchs Behaving Badly

November 27, 2008

Leslie Carroll’s Royal Affairs:  A Lusty Romp Through the Extramarital Adventures That Rocked the British Monarchy examines infidelity in the British monarchy from Henry II to Charles, Diana and Camilla.  It is fairly exhaustive and no major lover or mistress is left unturned (no small feat when dealing with a monarch like Charles II).  You have the homosexual lovers of Edward II and James I.  You have Henry VIII’s wives recounted in detail.  You even have Queen Victoria and John Brown whose actual sexual relationship is not seriously believed but as an emotional attachment is included.  I was actually a little disappointed that she ended with Charles, Diana and Camilla because why would I care to read about that old tale again, but Carroll made it interesting. 

My biggest quibble with the book is that Carroll’s writing is extremely dry.  Everything is presented factually and objectively, which is great, but it sort of took the oomph out of a book about GASP! infidelity.  It’s not necessarily a fun book, but you will learn quite a bit since she covers about 800 years of history.

Also recommended:


Mistress of the Sun: Beware the Female Icarus

November 16, 2008

Sandra Gulland’s Mistress of the Sun is the historical fiction account of Louise de la Valliere, one of Louis XIV’s mistresses.  Tomboy Louise, a noted horsewoman of nobile but impoverished birth, eventually finds herself serving Madame Henriette, the king’s sister-in-law at court.  There she catches the eye of Louis himself and a love affair is born.  Louise is one of the first mistresses of the young Louis.  She is pious and her piety struggles with her love for the man, her dislike for the King and her fear that evil stalks her for her wanton behavior.  Louise finally chooses to save her soul and herself and renounces the king for life in a convent.

Gulland’s book was a little slow to get going and a tad difficult to get into at first, but once Louise makes it to court, the action speeds up.  She is part of the early years of Louis’ reign when Louis is young and full of energy and the desire to do good.  There is no Versailles yet.  Tomboy Louise, meek and angelic in appearance, seems an unlikely candidate for Louis’ eye, yet she does and keeps it for years.  It was a bit disconcerting to read her declare her love for Louis on one page and then strive to avoid hurting the queen, Louis’ wife, on the other.  I doubt many royal mistresses would be so considerate.  She suffers in silence…she is Louis’ mistress before he began flaunting them, and as a result, his liaisons with her and the resulting childbirths are secret.  I can’t imagine what that must have been like.  To give birth and then get up and attend a ball, acting as if nothing had happened.  Forced to give up your child to others to raise because he or she might be used as a pawn.  I had a lot of sympathy for Louise.  Though I still found it hard to understand exactly what attracted the king to her. 

Gulland also weaves a strand of the supernatural throughout the book.  Louise attempts to tame a wild horse through bone magic in her youth and when it succeeds, she fears the evil she committed stalks her.  That she herself is evil and damned.  Her life and time at court is intertwined with that of Athenais de Montespan, at first friend and later rival and also mistress of the king who is connected with witchcraft. 

Gulland’s tale is interesting, and she takes what little is known of Louise and creates an engrossing narrative.  There is a dreamy quality to the book that prevents most of it from seeming real.  At times it reads more like an intriguing novel set in 17th century France instead of a work of historical fiction based on the life of a real woman.

Also recommended:

Lady Julia is Silent No More

September 6, 2008

It’s probably not a surprise to any readers of this blog or anyone who knows me in “real” life that I have a weakness for aristocrats, nobility and royalty that goes back very far (like 3rd grade).  I enjoy reading biographies about them but even more I enjoy historical fiction.  I recently stumbled across Deanna Raybourn’s Lady Julia Grey mysteries and found them quite enjoyable. 

  • Silent in the Grave: In which we meet Lady Julia.  The book opens with the death of Lady Julia’s husband and introduces both Julia and the reader to Nicholas Brisbane, the physically diverting private detective who stuns Julia with the news that her husband’s death may not have been from natural causes.  Julia insists on helping him investigate and as she investigates, she learns sordid facts about the husband she apparently didn’t know.  Widowed young and left wealthy, Julia begins to find herself and establish her identity while confronting truths about the life she thought she knew. 
  • Silent in the Sanctuary is the second book in the series.  Lady Julia has spent the last few months in Italy with two of her brothers, recovering from, well. everything in the first book when they are summoned back to spend Christmas in England with their father. Ostensibly, they are summoned due to their father’s displeasure with one of her brother’s sudden marriage, but Lady Julia discovers that her wily father is up to something.  They arrive at their family’s country estate to find a house full of relatives and friends…including Nicholas Brisbane…with a fiancee.  Soon, the joys of family are eclipsed by a murder in the old sanctuary in the house.  And Lady Julia discovers that everyone in the house appears to be hiding something.

Apparently, widowed aristocratic women becoming involved in mysteries is a trend. I can think of one other author right off the bat:  Tasha Alexander whose writes the Lady Emily mysteries (though I wasn’t a huge fan of the first novel in the series And Only to Deceive.  Writing about wealthy widows makes sense, though.  If you write about unmarried women, your novel might begin to resemble or become categorized with historical romance (which of course MUST mean the novel has no redeeming literary value since everyone knows romance novels are a blight on the literary world).  The widowed aristrocratic woman had freedom or at least much more freedom than an unmarried debutante did. 

Ok, so maybe one other author writing similar novels does not a trend make, but there are other similarities between Raybourne’s and Alexander’s books besides the widowed women and the mysteries:  the widows are rich and attractive; they both experience an awakening of the soul or intellect after the spouse’s death.  They discover the spouse was not who they thought he was.  A new, somewhat mysterious love interest is introduced almost immediately.  The widow soon travels to another country (France for Lady Emily and Italy for Lady Julia).  The heroine’s parents or family are prominent though in Lady Emily’s case, her family (at least her mother) disapproves of everything she does while Lady Julia’s family is bohemian (though protected by their wealth and privilege).  I feel like I just wrote a comparison/contrast essay!

I definitely prefer Lady Julia to Lady Emily.  If I recall correctly, I was not a fan of Lady Emily’s character in Alexander’s book.  She seemed very brash to me…too used to being the center of attention.  Lady Julia’s character seemed to have a true awakening.  Growing up in a wild, unconventional family, she wanted convention and not to stand out.  As the books go on, she begins to appreciate the freedom she has and take stands on she wants and deserves to be treated and to express herself.

The Lady Julia mysteries deftly explore some grim, sordid topics:  sexually transmitted diseases, incest, racism, etc.  Sometimes novels set in other eras fail when they attempt to explore topics that would have been a huge scandal in the designated time period because those topics and events just aren’t scandalous anymore.  It’s difficult to appreciate how shocking they would have been to an inhabitant of the era.  Raybourn does this well, however.  I felt Lady Julia’s shock and was just as shocked myself at some of the revelations. 

The second book in the series was not quite as good as the first.  It seemed like Raybourn tried to do too much in it, and some storylines and characters seemed extraneous.  But overall, I highly recommend the series.

Also recommended:

Why Mermaids Sing: Murder and John Donne

June 19, 2008

In 1811 London, someone is brutally killing young men and displaying the bodies in prominent places where they will be found quickly and attract much notice.  Never fear, for Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, is on the case. It is obvious that the murders are connected based on items left on each body and the manner of death, and St. Cyr quickly tracks down the significance of the items to a John Donne poem.  What is less obvious is why the murders are connected.  St. Cyr along with a quirky cast of characters must figure out this connection before more murders occur.  At the same time, his mistress is acting mysterious and facing demons of her own and his relationship with his father continues to be strained.

Why Mermaids Sing is C.S. Harris’ third installment in her Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series.  I read the first book, What Angels Fear, a few years ago and stumbled across the sequels recently.  I remember liking the first book a lot.  I checked out the second and the third book in the series, but I grabbed the wrong one and read the third one first.  After reading the third one, I don’t think I’m going to go back and read the second one.

This book was an extremely quick read.  I had read 100 pages before I even realized it and finished it in about 4 hours.  It’s a good beach read.  In some ways the plot was too elegantly handled.  There is a grittiness to the situations faced and the characters themselves.  They are all haunted and scarred in ways visible and invisible, and the connection between the murdered sons is quite gruesome, but it’s almost easy to overlook because of the elegance of the novel.  Harris has a Ph.D in history, and her details and depiction of the beliefs and mores of the time are great.

This book won’t change your world, but it is a good, quick read if you like Regency or period murder mysteries.  In a lot of ways, it reminded me of From Hell and other books dealing with Jack the Ripper (even though they are set in the later Victorian era).

Also recommended:  The Alienist (Carr)

Four Queens: Not Just Pretty Faces

June 6, 2008

Nancy Goldstone’s book Four Queens was an interesting book to read on the heels of Herman’s Sex with the Queen.  Goldstone’s book examines the lives of Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia and Beatrice, daughters of the Count of Provence and the contribution they made to European politics in the 13th century by marrying extremely well, with each becoming a queen.  Marguerite married King Louis IX (later “Saint Louis”) of France.  Eleanor married Henry III of England.  Sanchia married Henry’s brother Richard, Earl of Cornwall who later became the King of Germany.  Beatrice inherited Provence after her father’s death (in accordance with Provencal tradition) and married Louis IX’s brother Charles who later became King of Sicily.   

These four women hailed from a fairly insignificant and less prosperous county in France that became strategically important due to international politics of the time:  it bordered Toulouse, long a thorn in the French king’s side as well as Saxony, a desirable neighbor.  These sisters were not only beautiful but also well-educated, a rarity for women in that time.  It was said that their mother referred to them as her “boys” and had them educated thusly.  As a result, these women were able to become major players on the world stage.

Goldstone has a deft touch with her material.  Biographies and histories can be a bit dry by nature, but Goldstone manages to imbue the sisters with personalities, making them come alive.  I appreciate that these women’s stories have been told.  Their story would be inspiring enough due to the fact these four women were politically active and strong rulers, but they were also surrounded by other very strong, in some cases domineering women.  Marguerite’s mother-in-law was Blanche of Castile, a woman who ruled France before and after her son came of age and most definitely did not want to cut the apron strings.  Eleanor’s mother-in-law Isabella, former Queen of England, married the son of an old lover (who was meant for her daughter) in France and continued to scheme against the French royal family for years (she had an ancient feud with Queen Blanche).  The sisters’ own mother was forceful and an able ruler of Provence.  

The women lived during a volatile period of time in Europe.  Henry III was the son of John, infamous for necessitating the creation of the Magna Carta.  Henry’s rule was marked by agitation and conflict with the barons and constant swearing and repealing of oaths governing his powers.  Louis IX would have made an excellent monk and spent enormous sums of money and the lives of thousands of men to fulfill his need to free Jerusalem with a crusade.  As a result, their stories are a wonderfully sudsy soap opera containing sibling rivalry, religous fervor, rebellion, nepotism, war and conspiracy.

While the women in Goldstone’s book were typically competent and strong, the men were not as impressive.  Louis tries hard but is more interested in religion than kingship.  Henry means well but has little aptitude for politics or governance. His brother Richard neglects his wife and believes HE would make a better king than his brother.  Charles, Beatrice’s husband, earns the dislike of his Provencal subjects and breaks promise after promise on his quest for power.   The popes are ridiculously corrupt.  The difference between the men and women is so pronounced that I wonder if Goldstone has exaggerated any of the characteristics in order to make the men seem as incompetent or undependable as possible while depicting the women as more competent and dependable. 

But that isn’t to say that the women were perfect.  Goldstone’s work doesn’t gloss over their defects or mistakes. Marguerite and Eleanor disapprove of Beatrice’s inheritance of Provence and pettily emphasize how they are queens and she is not, an insult Beatrice never forgets.  Eleanor, while strong, does not have the political aptitude she thinks she does and makes many mistakes, becoming hated by her subjects and estranged from her son.   Despite having so much power and influence, the sisters’ stories are sad in many ways.  They have this in common with Herman’s depiction of what life was like for a queen.

I liked this book.  I didn’t like it as much while I was reading it, but after I’ve reflected on it, it impresses me much more than I thought it did.  The telling of the story is great, but Goldstone had fantastic material with which to work:  Four sisters from a fairly insignificant family who all became queens and were literate and strong as well.  What a story!  Goldstone told each woman’s story in separate chapters, which worked well to allow the reader to focus on one woman at a time, but it occasinally frustrated me when periods of time overlapped and I had to remember who was doing what when.  Goldstone also had no footnotes and few citations in the book, making me wonder how many of the conclusions she drew and suppositions she made had any basis in fact.

Overall, though, it was an intersting book about a unique, interesting family.

Also recommended: 

  • The Queens of England (Norah Lofts)
  • Jean Plaidy’s Plantagenet series.  She also has series on the Tudors, Georgians, Stuarts and Queens of England.  Engrossing historical fiction.

Sex with the Queen: Infidelity Most Royal

June 2, 2008

Sex with the Queen:  900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics is Eleanor Herman’s follow-up to Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adulter, Power, Rivalry and Revenge.  The latter book dealt with the (not very glamorous) life of a royal mistress or courtesan while the former deals with, obviously, the queen’s sex life.   While the usual suspects like Catherine the Great, Diana, Princess of Wales and Anne Boleyn are represented, Herman also focuses on other, less well-known royals of Spain, Denmark, England, Portugal and France.  The book is organized chronologically, beginning with queens in the medieval period and ends with the 20th century.  A good deal of time is spent on the period of time between 1500-1900.   While Herman presents queenly sexual adventures, she attempts early on to establish the thesis that being a royal bride and consort wasn’t the great honor it would appear since queens often had to put up with hideous, occasionally insane or troubled if not cruel spouses in order to fulfill their primary duty of royal womb and were often driven to find love where they could.  The reader is meant to have some sympathy for the position of these unfortunate women.

This book is a quick, gossipy read that is decently researched.  Herman makes some attempt to back up her stories with facts.  Some of the stories are less interesting than others, but overall, the book is fun.  I think the primary feeling I was left with after reading the book was pity.  No, I don’t envy these women.  Despite having plenty of money and luxury (in many but not all cases), their lives were hard.  I can’t imagine what it would be like to have to marry and copulate with some of the horrid specimens of manhood that some of these kings were.  In this, I know Herman was not exaggerating…especially with the Spanish kings.  Many of them were so inbred that generations of insane, often deformed monarchs ruled.  Can you imagine being a 16-year-old bride, knowing your duty was to THAT???? 

I did wonder at some of her stories, though.  For example, Marie Antoinette and Axel Fersen.  I wasn’t sure it was established that they were lovers.  The same for Empress Alexandra and Rasputin.  I wasn’t certain that story belonged in the book.  And maybe Diana, Princess of Wales’ story is too recent to be included, and it was clear that Herman wasn’t a big fan of the late princess.  I appreciated how many pages were devoted to the lusty Catherine the Great, but I objected at how Herman depicted some of the unfortunate, neglected queens as insatiable.  There’s certainly nothing wrong with liking sex, but it seemed to make these women even more pitiful and pathetic than they already were.  I feel like in her attempt to inject naughty, salacious bits in her story, she occasionally hurt the depiction of the queen.  No, no one made these women take lovers, and in many cases, they chose horribly.  But at the same time, does it help to paint them as insatiable?  I’m not sure it helps her thesis much, especially when you see the women making disastrous decisions for their countries based on their infatuation with their lovers.

Would I love beautiful gowns and fabulous jewels?  Yes.  Would I love to be called “Princess Bibliophylia” or Your Majesty?  Certainly!  But I wouldn’t want to trade my freedom to choose my path for any of it. 

This book’s a good beach read.  Enjoy with a potent potable and thank heavens it is the 21st century.

The Other Boleyn Girl

May 20, 2008

Most people know (or at least I hope they do; I consider it essential knowledge!) that Anne Boleyn was Henry VIII’s second wife and the mother of Elizabeth 1.  What many don’t know is that she had a sister, and before Anne was in Henry’s life, Anne’s sister Mary was the one in the spotlight and in Henry’s bed as his mistress.

Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl  tells the story of the Boleyn children–Anne, Mary and George–from 1521 until Anne’s execution in 1536 from Mary’s point of view.  Mary, though only 14, is already married when the novel opens but is forced to bow to her family’s ambition and begin an affair with the king when she catches his eye.  Anne, recently returned from France, does not like having to subordinate herself neither to her family’s ambition nor to her sister’s elevated status.  However, soon Anne catches the king’s eye, and the sisters’ roles are reversed as it is Mary who must now do what she can in support of Anne’s time in the spotlight.

I really liked this book.  It was a bit sensational in parts and incorporated some of the urban legends about Anne Boleyn (incest, witchcraft, etc.) and wasn’t completely faithful to history (e.g. Anne is the older sister in the book, but she was thought to be the younger in reality).  However, Gregory is a professor, and her command of the history and details of the period is very good and lends credibility to the novel that it may not otherwise have had.  Despite the sensationalism and occasional deliberate inaccuracies, I believe that Gregory has told the emotional truth of those events. 

Very little is known of Mary Boleyn, so Gregory had a bit of a blank canvas with her, but the character’s thoughts and motivations were very real.  She was by turns naive, stupid, and jealous, but I like that she rejected the poisonous court in order to take control of her life and finally carve out a life of her own after being her family’s pawn for so long.  I had always had a bit of a soft spot for Anne Boleyn because she is the mother of Elizabeth I, my favorite and the best monarch ever, but the way she was portrayed in the book made me dislike her a much of the time.  Even though I disliked her, I felt sorry for her.  It can’t have been easy to be a clever, educated woman in Tudor times when women were perceived as nothing more than possessions.  She was ambitious personally, yet she was also forced to be ambitious by her family.  It seemed like she was caught and as much of a victim as Mary was.  In some ways, I feel like she had to make the best of a bad situation, and she did, all the way to the throne of England. Gregory’s characterization of Anne was great.  In lesser hands, Anne could have come off as only a hateful schemer or a seductress, but Gregory made you feel sympathy for her.  Event when she was at her most awful, a shred of vulnerability would come through.  I also liked how the theme of the title was present throughout the book.  At various points both Mary and Anne were known simply as “the other Boleyn girl, ” an epithet that neither wanted. 

Anne’s story is the classic Icarus myth: she flew too high, too close to the sun and it burnt her, ultimately killing her. There’s also a bit of Phaeton’s hubris mixed in since she thought she could control the king, her family and her own destiny, but her ambition literally killed her. It’s interesting to juxtapose her fate with Mary’s, the sister who ultimate rejected ambition.

Good book.  I’m still thinking about over a week after I finished it.

Other recommendations: