The White Princess by Philippa Gregory

The White Princess - Philippa Gregory The White Princess is the fifth book in Philippa Gregory’s Cousins’ War series. The Cousins’ War is another name for the Wars of the Roses, a series of 15th century conflicts between the House of York and the House of Lancaster, two rival branches of the English royal family. This novel is set at the end of the period, just after Henry Tudor has defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and has been crowned Henry VII. Our narrator is Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York, a niece of Richard III and daughter of another former king, Edward IV. The novel takes us through the early years of Elizabeth’s marriage to Henry (an alliance which was supposed to unite the houses of York and Lancaster), the births of their children and the plots and conspiracies that troubled Henry’s reign.

The Wars of the Roses is a period filled with mysteries and controversies and every author or historian seems to have their own set of opinions and theories. The most intriguing of these mysteries is of course the question of what happened to Elizabeth of York’s two younger brothers who disappeared from the Tower of London never to be seen again. Were they murdered and if so who by? Or did one of them manage to escape? Henry VII was unable to prove that the two princes were dead, so the possibility that they could have survived gave rise to a series of Yorkist rebellions. In The White Princess we focus on one of these uprisings, centred around a pretender known as Perkin Warbeck who claims to be the younger of the princes, Richard, Duke of York. Is he really who he says he is and if so, must Elizabeth choose between her husband and her brother?

While I’m not a particularly big fan of Philippa Gregory’s writing and I think there are much better historical fiction authors out there (and much better Wars of the Roses novels – The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman is my top recommendation) I have quite enjoyed following this series and learning more about the women of the period. This one, though, was disappointing and the weakest of the series, in my opinion. It felt repetitive and unnecessarily long and I just didn’t find Elizabeth a very engaging narrator.

The story is based around two theories that you may or may not find plausible. The first is the idea that Elizabeth was in love with Richard III, her uncle, and that they were romantically involved. As far as I know, there is no historical evidence for this but Gregory is not the only author to have suggested it and I suppose it did add an extra layer to her portrayal of Elizabeth and Henry’s marriage. Then there’s the Perkin Warbeck story, which dominates the second half of the novel. I have read about Perkin Warbeck before and am familiar with the arguments for and against him being the lost prince; the theory Gregory describes here seems very unlikely to me, but this is fiction after all!

Something I think Philippa Gregory is very good at is making a complex period of history easy to understand. Even with no previous knowledge you would probably be able to follow what is happening in this novel without too many problems. Sometimes, though, I think she goes too far in her attempts to clarify things for the reader. For example, when Elizabeth is talking to her sister Cecily about their half brother she refers to him as “Thomas Grey, Mother’s boy” which just sounds silly, doesn’t it?

My biggest problem with this book, though, was the portrayal of the main characters. Elizabeth had such an interesting life and yet she comes across in The White Princess as boring. She doesn’t have the strength, intelligence and spirit of the other women who have been featured in the series – Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen), Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen), Jacquetta Woodville (The Lady of the Rivers) and even Anne Neville (The Kingmaker’s Daughter). The portrayal of Henry VII is very negative, which makes it difficult later in the book when we are expected to accept that Elizabeth is starting to love him. I don’t see how anyone could have loved the cruel, petty, vindictive Henry described in this book – especially after something he and his mother do to Elizabeth at the beginning of the novel, which I won’t go into here!

I think maybe I should have skipped this book and gone straight to the latest one, The King’s Curse, which sounds more intriguing and seems to be getting better reviews than this one. It’s about Margaret Pole, Elizabeth’s cousin, an historical figure I know nothing about. I’m looking forward to reading it eventually despite my problems with this one.

For more Wars of the Roses recommendations see My Journey Through Time: The Wars of the Roses and for more on Elizabeth of York and Henry VII see The Tudors – Part I.

A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

A History of Loneliness The first John Boyne book I read was This House is Haunted, a Victorian-style ghost story. The second was Crippen, a fictional account of the life of the murderer Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen. His latest novel, A History of Loneliness, deals with a subject no less dark and disturbing: the child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church in Ireland.

If you have heard about this scandal on the news or read about it in the newspapers, you have probably asked yourself the following questions. How did these paedophiles get away without being caught for so long? Their friends and colleagues must have known what was going on, so why didn’t they say anything? And why did the victims not come forward earlier? John Boyne attempts to answer these questions and more through the story of Odran Yates, a Catholic priest from Dublin who is ordained in the 1970s and lives through some of the darkest days in the church’s recent history.

Having lost his father and little brother under tragic circumstances during a family beach holiday, the young Odran doesn’t argue when his mother tells him he has a vocation for the priesthood and must dedicate his life to God. After seven years of training, Odran begins working at Terenure College where he finds that teaching English and tidying books in the school library suits him better than carrying out the duties of a traditional parish priest. Hiding away in his library for thirty years, Odran is able to ignore what is happening elsewhere in the church…but is he really as oblivious as he claims to be?

A History of Loneliness is a very insightful and thought-provoking novel and my favourite John Boyne book so far. This is obviously never going to be an easy or comfortable subject to write a book about, but he handles it with sensitivity and understanding. By telling the story from Odran’s perspective this means the focus is not just on the issue of child abuse itself, but also on the dangers of burying our heads in the sand and choosing not to confront things that we find difficult or unpleasant.

There are several different ways in which Odran’s character could be interpreted. I saw him as a weak, naïve but basically well-meaning person who made some terrible mistakes and serious errors of judgment. It’s difficult for anyone to know how they would react under similar circumstances, but I’m sure we would all like to think that we would do what is right and not just take the easy way out. Odran doesn’t always do the right thing and he does sometimes take the easy option, but does that make him as guilty as the people who have actually committed the crimes? It’s left to the reader to decide how much blame should be attributed to Odran and those like him and whether there can ever be any excuse for turning a blind eye and doing nothing.

The novel has an interesting structure as the chapters don’t follow each other chronologically (a chapter set in 2006 is followed by one set in 1964 and then 1980). This was confusing at times but very effective because it meant we were filling in one piece of the story at a time, like a jigsaw puzzle. John Boyne is a wonderful storyteller and as well as exploring the serious, sensitive issues I’ve already described, he also creates an absorbing personal story for Odran and his family which unfolds slowly as we jump back and forth in time.

With the story spanning more than five decades, we are shown how public perception of the Catholic Church has changed over the years. In the 1970s and 1980s, Odran is treated with respect and admiration everywhere he goes; people trust him and look to him for help and advice, never questioning his integrity. By the time we reach the present day, attitudes are completely different. A man spits in Odran’s face just because the clothes he is wearing identify him as a priest, while an attempt to help a lost child in a department store ends in disaster. It’s sad because, of course, not everyone within the church was involved in these sexual scandals and yet they have all suffered through the actions (or non-actions) of others.

A History of Loneliness could easily have been a very depressing book, but thankfully Boyne does add some humour to the story – even if he does seem to rely on Irish stereotypes and clichés at times (if you’ve ever watched the comedy Father Ted you’ll know the sort of humour I mean). If I haven’t already made it clear, I loved this book and am so glad I still have so many of John Boyne’s earlier novels left to explore!

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame Or Notre-Dame de Paris, to give it its original French title and one which is much more appropriate. Quasimodo, the hunchback, has a surprisingly small role in the book while the cathedral of Notre-Dame itself is at the heart of the story, with most of the action taking place within its walls, on top of its towers or in the streets and squares below.

Set in 15th century Paris, the novel follows the stories of three tragic and lonely people. First there’s the beautiful gypsy dancer, La Esmeralda, who captivates everyone she meets with her looks, her dancing and her magic tricks. Alone in the world with only her goat, Djali, for company, she dreams of one day being reunited with her parents. Then there’s Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon, once a good and compassionate man who rescued Quasimodo as a child and raised him as his son. He becomes obsessed with Esmeralda after seeing her dancing in the Place de Grève and descends into a life dominated by lust and envy, turning away from the church and towards black magic. Finally, of course, there’s Quasimodo himself, the bell-ringer of Notre-Dame. Outwardly deformed and ugly, his kind heart and his love for Esmeralda lead him into conflict with his adoptive father, Frollo.

I read Hugo’s Les Miserables almost exactly five years ago and I really don’t know why it has taken me so long to read another of his books. I loved Les Miserables and I loved this one too, though not quite as much; this is a shorter and slightly easier read, but I didn’t find the story as powerful or emotional. It was a good choice for the R.I.P. challenge, though – the atmosphere is very dark and there are plenty of Gothic elements.

At least having had some previous experience of Hugo meant that I knew what to expect from his writing! You need to be prepared for some long diversions and chapter after chapter that has almost nothing to do with the plot or the main characters. Hugo devotes a lot of this novel to discussing Gothic architecture, the structure of the cathedral, the geographical layout of Paris and other topics which may or may not be of interest to the reader. I’m happy to admit that I didn’t read every single word of these sections (in fact, I skipped most of the chapter entitled A Bird’s-Eye View of Paris) and I don’t feel that I missed anything as a result.

The version of the book that I read is not actually the one pictured above (I just wanted a book cover to illustrate my post). I downloaded the free version from Project Gutenberg for my Kindle, which is Isabel F. Hapgood’s 1888 translation. I was very happy with it, but I’m used to reading older books and older translations; depending on your taste you might prefer a more modern translation. And just as a side note, does anyone else love books with imaginative chapter titles? There are some great ones here, including The Inconveniences of Following a Pretty Woman through the Streets in an Evening, The Effect which Seven Oaths in the Open Air Can Produce and The Danger of Confiding One’s Secret to a Goat. Much more intriguing than just numbering them 1, 2, 3!

As I’ve now read Hugo’s two most popular books, can anyone tell me if there are any others that I should read? I like the sound of Ninety-Three and The Man Who Laughs, but are they worth reading?

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Burial Rites Based on a true story, Burial Rites is a fictional account of the final weeks in the life of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to be executed in Iceland.

It’s 1829 and Agnes – along with two other people – has been found guilty of murdering her lover, Natan Ketilsson. Due to the lack of prisons in the north of Iceland, Agnes has been sent to the farm of District Officer Jón Jónsson where she will await the day of her beheading. Understandably, Jón’s wife and daughters are nervous and angry about having a convicted murderer coming to stay with them, but as they have no choice in the matter they must find a way to deal with their fear and distrust.

Agnes is visited at the farm by Assistant Reverend Thorvárdur Jónsson (known as Tóti), the young priest she has chosen to act as her confidant and spiritual adviser. At first Tóti is surprised to have been given this task and isn’t sure how he can help Agnes, but he soon discovers that all she needs is someone to talk to about her past and about the events leading up to the night of the murder. As Tóti and the Jónsson family listen, the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir begins to unfold.

It seemed that everyone was reading Burial Rites a while ago, especially when it was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier in the year. Despite the good reviews, it was not a book that sounded very appealing to me and I wasn’t planning to read it, but when I noticed it in the library I thought I would give it a try. Now that I’ve read it, I can understand why it has been so successful – it’s beautifully written, the setting is stunning and the atmosphere is haunting – and I did enjoy it, though maybe not as much as other people have.

I loved the Icelandic setting. This is not a story that would have worked had it been set in any other time or place. Nineteenth century Iceland, its landscape, its weather and its small rural communities are as important to the novel as the characters and the plot. The author does a great job of portraying both the isolation of farms and crofts such as Jón Jónsson’s at Kornsá or Natan’s at Illugastadir and the claustrophobia of daily life (entire families lived and slept in one room, known as the badstofa). The book includes extras such as a map and pronunciation guide for readers who, like me, know very little about Iceland.

While Agnes tells part of her story herself in first person, other sections of the novel are told from other perspectives and these are important in helping us to understand the perceptions people have of Agnes. It’s not surprising that Jón’s wife, Margrét, and daughters, Steina and Lauga, react with fear and suspicion at first, but as they learn more about Agnes they begin to adjust the way they think about her. Tóti’s feelings also change over the course of the novel, and so does the reader’s: at the beginning of the book we know nothing about Agnes and have no idea whether she is really guilty or not; by the end, we are left with a sense of sadness and injustice, especially on learning that the other woman accused of the murder (who happens to be younger and prettier) is given the opportunity to appeal while Agnes isn’t.

Of course, the account the fictional Agnes gives of her life and the circumstances of Natan’s murder is not necessarily what happened in real life and we don’t know whether Iceland’s last execution really was a miscarriage of justice or not. Burial Rites is a combination of fact and fiction, the result of both careful research and the author’s imagination. I thought it was interesting that in her author’s note, Hannah Kent says that she doesn’t think of Agnes Magnúsdóttir as a feminist heroine or even a heroine at all; just a ‘human who does not want to die, and no more’. But whatever else Agnes was, she was a character I cared about and I’m pleased to have had the chance to read her story.

The Misbegotten by Katherine Webb

The Misbegotten I really enjoyed The Misbegotten; I don’t normally choose books depending on the season (unless for a specific event such as the R.I.P. challenge) but this was a perfect October book! A big, thick novel with an atmospheric nineteenth century setting, a dark and gothic feel, and a mystery at its heart: ideal for this time of year.

In 1803, a little girl known only as Starling is found wandering in the marshes and is taken in by Alice Beckwith, a loving, kind-hearted young woman with a mysterious past of her own. Having grown up with only an elderly servant for company – except for the occasional visit from her guardian, Lord Faukes, and his grandson, Jonathan Alleyn – Alice is delighted to have Starling living with them and they soon come to think of each other as sisters. The only threat to their relationship, as far as Starling is concerned, is Alice’s love for Jonathan.

In 1821, we meet Starling again, now working as a maid in the household of Jonathan Alleyn, who has been left mentally disturbed after returning from the Peninsular War. We learn that Alice disappeared several years earlier and that Starling believes Jonathan may have killed her.

Into the Alleyn home comes another young woman, Rachel Crofton, who has recently left her position as a governess to marry the wine merchant Richard Weekes. Married life isn’t quite what Rachel had hoped it would be and when Jonathan’s mother asks her to become a companion to her reclusive son, Rachel agrees. Soon she finds herself spending more and more time at the Alleyns’ house and as she gets to know both Jonathan and Starling better, she becomes determined to uncover the truth behind Alice’s disappearance.

The Misbegotten is a story of secrets: secrets between family members, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between friends. As the story unfolds, we see the consequences of these secrets and how they lead to lies, to devastating tragedies and to the destruction of relationships. The suspense builds as Rachel and Starling come closer to discovering what really happened to Alice and the plot takes some unexpected twists and turns. I was reminded of one of my favourite Victorian authors, Wilkie Collins, whose novels also include similar elements – and I was also reminded of Jane Austen, because most of the action takes place in the city of Bath.

The characters are interesting and well developed and I found that I cared about them all. I cared about Rachel, trapped in an unhappy marriage and doing all she can to help another unhappy family. I cared about the gentle, loving Alice who had vanished without trace. I cared about Jonathan, struggling to cope with his wartime experiences and the loss of the woman he claims to have loved. And I cared about Starling, who is not at all easy to like but who is doing what she believes is right.

This is a long and complex novel and sometimes there are details, subplots or conversations that seem irrelevant – but as the various threads of the story come together we find that everything that happens is significant after all. The only time I began to get impatient was towards the end, when there are some lengthy passages describing Jonathan’s adventures in the Peninsular War. Although these are very well written (and again, very relevant) I was so caught up in the main plot by that point that I resented being pulled away from it even for a few pages!

This is the first Katherine Webb book I’ve read, but based on this one she seems to be just the sort of author I love. I’m sure I’ll be reading more!

Wolves in Winter by Lisa Hilton

Wolves in Winter Beginning in 1492, Wolves in Winter is the story of Mura Benito, the young daughter of a bookseller from Toledo. Even at the age of five, Mura knows she is not like other children. With her mixture of Moorish blood (from her father) and Nordic blood (from her mother) and her pale, androgynous appearance, she has always looked different. She has also grown up listening to her father read to her from his books and possesses a wealth of arcane knowledge which would be unknown to most little girls.

When Mura’s father is arrested by the Inquisition, he leaves his daughter in the care of his friend, Adara, but Mura is eventually sold into slavery and finds herself taken to Florence where she becomes a maid in the household of Piero de’ Medici. Here she continues her education under the eye of the great scholar Marsilio Ficino, learns the arts of healing and fortune telling with the help of the wise woman Margherita, and makes a special friend called Cecco who shows her the sights of Florence. However, Mura’s life is soon to undergo another big change: the downfall of the Medici, the rise to power of the monk Savonarola and the threat of war with the French mean that these are uncertain times in Florence. Fate will take Mura next to Forli and the home of the Countess Caterina Sforza, known as the Lioness of the Romagna.

I picked up Wolves in Winter while browsing the shelves in the library and was intrigued by the promise on the cover of “poison, alchemy and intrigue in the court of the Medici”. I had never heard of either the book or the author but thought I would take it home and give it a try. I did enjoy some aspects of the novel – it’s an entertaining, imaginative story set against a fascinating historical backdrop – but it wasn’t as good as it could have been or as I’d hoped it might be. The positives first: I loved the atmosphere and the richness of Lisa Hilton’s writing (I particularly liked the way she used colour in her descriptions) and the various settings were vividly described. In 350 pages we move from a Spanish bookshop to a Florentine palazzo, from the camp of a travelling circus troupe to a castle under siege!

It was the fictional story of Mura that I had a few problems with. First, she narrates in the first person and although she does age over the course of the novel, she never feels significantly different from the child she is at the beginning. Then there are the supernatural elements of the book – for example, Mura believes she has the ability to communicate with wolves and that she has the gift of the Sight. I just don’t feel that this added very much to the story. Renaissance Italy is always an interesting setting anyway and you would expect any novel featuring both the Medici and the Borgias to be full of intrigue and drama. Add Caterina Sforza, a fascinating character (and one I haven’t read about until now), and there should already have been enough material here to tell a compelling story without the addition of the ‘magical’ elements.

Mura herself is an unusual heroine; I liked her, but I think her strangeness made her a difficult character to fully engage with. I did appreciate, though, that Lisa Hilton was trying to do something a bit different here and that this was not supposed to be your average heroine or your average historical novel! Another way in which Mura’s story is unusual is that it doesn’t involve a lot of romance – she does have a romantic interest but it only forms one small part of the novel. There’s a good reason for this, which I won’t explain here but which will be revealed if you read the book.

Wolves in Winter was an enjoyable, easy read but it lacked the sort of depth I prefer in historical fiction. This edition of the book includes a preview of the author’s next novel, The Stolen Queen, which is about Isabelle of Angoulême. It looks promising but I’m not sure I’ll be reading any more by this author.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens Since reading Kate Forsyth’s Brothers Grimm-inspired The Wild Girl last year, I have been looking forward to Bitter Greens, another novel with a Grimm connection. I’m sure most of us know, or have at least heard of, the fairy tale Rapunzel. Although this fairy tale was included in the Grimm Brothers’ 1812 collection, Children’s and Household Tales, it was actually based on a much earlier story, Persinette, which was published in 1698 and written by a woman called Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force. In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth combines a re-telling of the Rapunzel story with a fascinating account of the life of Charlotte-Rose.

The novel begins in 1697, on the day that Charlotte-Rose is banished from the court of Louis XIV and sent to a convent. With her sharp tongue, sense of humour and spirited personality, it seems that Charlotte-Rose has been the cause of too much scandal for the Sun King’s liking and is now receiving her punishment. After the lively and opulent court of Versailles, Charlotte-Rose finds it very difficult to adapt to life in a strict and austere nunnery. The only thing that makes her days bearable is her friendship with one of the nuns, Soeur Seraphina, who entertains her with a story about a little Italian girl called Margherita…

Accused of stealing a handful of bitter greens from a witch’s garden, Margherita’s parents are forced to make a bargain with the witch: she will not report them for the theft if they agree to hand over their daughter as soon as she reaches the age of seven. And so Margherita finds herself taken from her parents and locked in a high tower by Lake Garda – a tower which can only be accessed when Margherita throws her long red hair from the window to form a ladder.

Margherita’s story unfolds slowly, a few chapters at a time, and alternates with the story of Charlotte-Rose who is looking back on her life, her love affairs and her time at court. There is also a third strand to the novel and in this we learn the history of Selena Leonelli, the witch of the fairy tale, who was once a Venetian courtesan known as ‘La Strega Bella’ and a model for the artist Titian. These three women lead lives which are in some ways very different but in others quite similar. Each has been touched by sadness and tragedy, but each woman proves herself to be strong and resilient in the end.

There’s just so much packed into this novel: the scandals and intrigues of the 17th century French court, a version of Rapunzel much darker and more compelling than the one I remember from my childhood, a vivid depiction of Renaissance Italy, magic and witchcraft, religious persecution, stories within stories, and much more. I was never bored, no matter which of the three women I was reading about. Charlotte-Rose is a wonderful character and I’m surprised that more authors of historical fiction haven’t used her as a subject for their novels. This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading about her and I think it’s sad that she seems to have been largely forgotten by history.

Much as I loved Charlotte-Rose, though, I always found myself looking forward to returning to Margherita in her tower. She and Selena never felt quite as real to me as Charlotte-Rose did (which is maybe not surprising as they are supposed to be fairy tale characters, after all!) but I really enjoyed revisiting the Rapunzel story, which I hadn’t read or even thought about for such a long time. There were elements of fantasy and magical realism within Margherita’s tale that worked well alongside the more realistic narrative of Charlotte-Rose and I thought the balance was perfect. I loved Bitter Greens and would highly recommend both this book and The Wild Girl.

Bitter Greens_Blog Tour Banner_FINALv2 I read Bitter Greens as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. For more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule.