Here Comes the King by Philip Lindsay

Here Comes the King Philip Lindsay (1906-1958) was an Australian author of historical fiction. His books have been out of print in recent years but are now being made available to a modern audience in ebook form by one of my favourite independent publishers, Endeavour Press. Here Comes the King, a 1933 novel about Katherine Howard and Thomas Culpeper, is the first of his books that I’ve read.

Katherine (or Catherine, but I’m sticking to the spelling used in the novel) is a young woman of seventeen or eighteen when she marries Henry VIII at Oatlands Palace and becomes his fifth wife. Her predecessor, Anne of Cleves, has recently been set aside by the king, who believes he was misled as to her appearance. The new queen’s beauty and youthful spirit are much more pleasing to Henry, who calls her his ‘rose without a thorn’. Katherine, though, is less enamoured with her fat, gluttonous, fifty-year-old husband who is suffering from painful leg ulcers and whose moods are becoming increasingly volatile. Although Henry is not generally unkind to her, she is tempted into an affair with the handsome young courtier, Thomas Culpeper – an affair which will lead to both their downfalls.

Here Comes the King is written in the third person from the perspective of several different characters including Culpeper, Henry and Katherine herself, as well as Will Sommers, the king’s fool, Francis Dereham, another man once romantically involved with Katherine, and Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford, who helps to arrange Katherine’s secret meetings with Culpeper. Jane and Sommers were both in a difficult position, knowing or suspecting what was going on and unsure of what to do with that knowledge, and this made them interesting characters to read about.

However, I felt that I didn’t get to know Katherine very well. She is portrayed as a pretty, flirtatious, immature young girl, and while this does seem to be a widely held view of what the real Katherine was like, I would still have preferred her character to be given a little more depth. Even when she was the viewpoint character, I never felt that I really knew what she was thinking. Culpeper’s character is better written; he is shown in a negative light, being irresponsible, impulsive and a heavy drinker (and allegedly guilty of both rape and murder, although these things are only briefly mentioned as they happen outside the scope of the novel), but his thoughts and feelings come through strongly.

I am far from being an expert on Katherine’s life and her time as Henry’s queen, so I can’t really comment on Lindsay’s accuracy, but the story did seem to follow quite faithfully the general outlines of Katherine’s and Culpeper’s lives. He incorporates things which are known to be historical fact, such as the text of Katherine’s incriminating letter to Culpeper (complete with grammatical mistakes; she is thought to be the least well educated of Henry’s wives) as well as things which may or may not be true but which have become part of the legends surrounding Katherine: practising laying her head on the block the night before her execution, for example, and declaring that “I die a Queen, but I would rather have died the wife of Culpeper”.

I had no problems with Lindsay’s writing (it’s slightly flowery and over-descriptive in places but otherwise feels surprisingly contemporary for a 1930s book) and I would read more of his work, but I didn’t find this particular novel very compelling, maybe because it’s so romance-centred. Admittedly, it would be difficult to write a book about Katherine Howard and not focus on her love affairs; as she spent such a short period as queen and died so young, she left less of a legacy than some of Henry’s other wives, and I think this is why her story has never appealed to me very much. Maybe one of Lindsay’s other novels would interest me more than this one did.

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

The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

“On the day when there was a full chamber-pot under the breakfast table I decided to leave. The place was beginning to depress me. It was not only the dirt, the smells, and the vile food, but the feeling of stagnant meaningless decay, of having got down into some subterranean place where people go creeping round and round, just like black beetles, in an endless muddle of slovened jobs and mean grievances.”

The Road to Wigan Pier I am working very slowly through George Orwell’s books, having read Keep the Aspidistra Flying last year and Coming Up for Air the year before, as well as 1984 and Animal Farm as a teenager (I should probably re-read those two one day). The Road to Wigan Pier is the first example of his non-fiction I have read.

Published in 1937, this book was commissioned by the publisher Victor Gollancz, who wanted Orwell to write about the living conditions of the unemployed in the north of England, particularly in the industrial towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire. Orwell spent several months in 1936 living in Wigan, Sheffield and Barnsley while he researched the book…which turned out to be not quite what Gollancz had hoped for. When it was issued by the Left Book Club, Gollancz was concerned that members would be offended by some of the ideas expressed in the book and added a foreword in which he distanced himself from Orwell’s views.

The Road to Wigan Pier is divided into two very different parts. The first half documents Orwell’s time spent in the north, staying with working class people and studying the way they lived. Orwell’s observations are honest, vivid and non-judgmental, and this is by far the most interesting section of the book. Although he was originally asked to write about the unemployed – which he does – he also writes about those who are employed but still living in poverty, and he devotes a lot of time to describing the working conditions of one sector of workers in particular: the miners. Orwell went down a coal mine himself as part of his research, in an attempt to understand what it was like, and the respect he gained for the miners is clear.

I found it fascinating to read Orwell’s descriptions of the houses he visited and stayed in: the layouts of the buildings, the furnishings and amenities (or lack of them) and the sleeping arrangements. The levels of squalor in which families with young children were living is shocking to read about. Here is one of the many examples Orwell gives of the notes he made while inspecting these houses:

1. House in Wortley Street. Two up, one down. Living-room 12 ft. by 10 ft. Sink and copper in living-room, coal hole under stairs. Sink worn almost flat and constantly overflowing. Walls not too sound. Penny in slot gas-light. House very dark and gas-light estimated at 4d. a day. Upstairs rooms are really one large room partitioned into two. Walls very bad — wall of back room cracked right through. Window frames coming to pieces and have to be stuffed with wood. Rain comes through in several places. Sewer runs under house and stinks in summer but Corporation ‘says they can’t do nowt’. Six people in house, two adults and four children, the eldest aged fifteen. Youngest but one attending hospital — tuberculosis suspected. House infested by bugs. Rent 5s. 3d., including rates.

The Penguin Classics edition I read includes a selection of photographs so you can see what these homes looked like (although, curiously, most of them are pictures of buildings in Wales and London rather than the northern towns discussed in the text). Being from the north myself I feel I should point out here that, thankfully, things have changed drastically since the 1930s! The slums were cleared long ago and towns and cities have been regenerated; some areas are still suffering from the loss of heavy industry, and poverty still exists, of course, but not on the scale or of the type Orwell describes in this book.

The second half of the book takes the form of a long essay in which Orwell talks about his own upbringing as a member of what he calls ‘the lower-upper-middle class’ and how this affected the way he felt about the unemployed and working classes (he grew up, he says, being told that working class people smell). He goes on to explain how his attitudes began to change and to discuss his theories on socialism, the class system and left-wing politics. He also takes the opportunity to criticise the views of his fellow socialists, which is what sent Victor Gollancz into a panic. While I found this part of the book much less compelling than the first (I have to confess that I found my attention wandering a few times and had to force myself to concentrate), it was still interesting to read.

Because Orwell puts so much of himself into this book, it has given me a better appreciation of what he was trying to say about class and capitalism in novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I’m now looking forward to reading Down and Out in Paris and London!

The Viper of Milan by Marjorie Bowen

Marjorie Bowen was a new discovery for me towards the end of last year. Born Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell, she wrote more than one hundred and fifty books under several pseudonyms, covering a variety of genres from historical fiction and romance to supernatural horror, crime fiction and biography. Having enjoyed Dickon, her fictional account of the life of Richard III, I decided not to wait too long to try another of her books.

The Viper of Milan The Viper of Milan, originally published in 1906, was Bowen’s first novel and a favourite book of the author Graham Greene. This reissue by Endeavour Press includes an introduction by Greene (I recommend reading it at the end to avoid spoilers) in which he explains how Bowen influenced his own early attempts at writing. The Viper of Milan, he says, taught him that human nature is “not black and white but black and grey”.

The novel is set in Lombardy in the middle of the 14th century and follows a battle for power between Gian Galeazzo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and Mastino della Scala, Duke of Verona. As the story opens, in 1360, Visconti is busy expanding his territories and forging alliances; he has forced della Scala out of Verona and taken his wife, Isotta d’Este of Ferrara, as a hostage. It seems that nobody can stop Visconti in his relentless conquest of northern Italy – nobody apart from della Scala, who vows to regain his lost lands and release Isotta from captivity.

Meanwhile, Visconti’s sister Valentine has problems of her own: her brother has arranged a marriage for her with the Duke of Orleans, while the man she really loves has been imprisoned in a deserted villa outside the city and is slowly starving to death. Another young lady, Graziosa, who lives with her artist father by the western gate of Milan, is also in love – but is her lover really as he seems?

As you can probably tell from my summary of the plot, The Viper of Milan is a dark tale of treachery, trickery and betrayal. I was amazed to learn that Marjorie Bowen was only sixteen years old when she wrote it. Apparently it was rejected by several publishers who considered it an inappropriate novel for such a young woman to have written. What interests me more than the darkness of the story, though, is – as Graham Greene said – Bowen’s view of the ambiguities of human nature. The Duke of Milan, a clever, patient and shrewd man, is also a cruel and brutal one, ruling through fear and violence. In contrast, the Duke of Verona is honest, honourable and trusting, inspiring respect and admiration in those who follow him. It’s only when he discovers that doing the right thing doesn’t always pay that he begins to wonder whether it’s worth continuing to stick to his morals.

After reading Dickon, I thought I had an idea of what to expect from Bowen’s writing, but I found The Viper of Milan to be very different in style and tone. The archaic language which felt slightly unnatural in Dickon suited this book perfectly, with its more melodramatic and gothic feel. This is an ideal read for people who, like myself, enjoy reading authors like Alexandre Dumas and Rafael Sabatini (in fact, Sabatini’s Bellarion is a very similar novel, set in the same part of Italy at about the same time).

If you do choose to read this book, I should warn you that the historical background to the story is not particularly accurate. Some of the characters have the names of real historical figures, but the plot is fictional and many of the things that happen have no basis in history. Having said that, the novel does capture perfectly the atmosphere of early Renaissance Italy with its warring city states and is a wonderfully entertaining story in its own right. There are some beautifully written descriptions of the Lombardy region too. If this sounds like your sort of book, then I would highly recommend The Viper of Milan. If not, Marjorie Bowen does seem to have been a very versatile author, so maybe one of her other books would be of more interest. I will be reading more of them, so I’ll let you know what I discover!

Death in Berlin by M.M. Kaye

Death in Berlin Almost exactly a year ago I read Death in Kashmir, the first in M.M. Kaye’s series of mystery novels. I loved it – in fact, it was one of my favourite books of the year – and last week I decided it was time to try another of her Death in… novels. I chose Death in Berlin because it’s the second in the series (although the books all have different settings and characters and all stand alone).

Death in Berlin, published in 1955, is set in a Berlin struggling to recover from the devastating effects of World War II. The city is divided into zones – American, British, French and Russian – and there are ruined buildings and piles of rubble everywhere. At the beginning of the novel we meet Miranda Brand, who is on her way to Berlin with her cousin Robert and his wife Stella. Robert, an army officer, is taking up a new post there and Miranda has decided to come along for a month’s holiday, keen to have a chance to see post-war Germany. During the journey to Berlin, they and a group of other military families listen to Brigadier Brindley tell a story involving a set of diamonds stolen by the Nazis during the war – a story which has special significance for Miranda. Later that night, the Brigadier is found dead in his train compartment and when a murder investigation begins, Miranda discovers that she herself could be a suspect.

This novel has many of the same elements as Death in Kashmir – a young heroine in danger far from home, a romance with a man she’s not sure she can trust, an eerie and atmospheric setting – but this book didn’t impress me as much as the first one. It doesn’t have the stunning opening chapter that Death in Kashmir has and the characters feel less developed, to the point where I had trouble telling some of them apart. I also thought there was a lack of chemistry between Miranda and her love interest, whom I found very bland.

What I did like was the portrayal of a ruined Berlin in the aftermath of war. M.M. Kaye herself spent some time in Berlin when her husband’s regiment was stationed there, so she could draw on her own knowledge of the city while writing this novel. While it isn’t the exotic setting that 1940s Kashmir is, it does provide a great backdrop for a story of murder and mystery. Kaye really excels at creating a sense of unease and writing spine-tingling descriptions of what it feels like to be alone and vulnerable in dark, lonely surroundings – to be the only person awake in the sleeper carriage of an overnight train or to be sitting downstairs in a large, empty house and hear noises coming from upstairs.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery, but I did have my suspicions about various characters. I don’t think it would have been possible to work out everything, though, because a lot of information is withheld from us until the final chapters of the book. This information is provided by one of the characters who, in one very long scene near the end, sums everything up for Miranda and the reader. This is something that works well in an Agatha Christie novel, but feels a bit unnatural here.

While I didn’t like this book as much as Death in Kashmir, it hasn’t put me off wanting to read the rest of the Death in… mysteries. Death in Cyprus will probably be the next one I read, but I also have a copy of Kaye’s historical novel, Shadow of the Moon, which I’m looking forward to reading (and should really have read before now as The Far Pavilions is one of my favourite books).

Have you read any of the Death in… books? Which do you think is the best?

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells

The Time Machine I don’t often read science fiction, but when I do I usually find that I enjoy it. H.G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine, is an early classic of the genre and I’m sorry it has taken me so long to decide to read it – especially as I’ve previously read and liked two of his other books, The Island of Dr Moreau and Ann Veronica (although the latter is not science fiction).

The Time Machine follows the adventures of a Victorian scientist known only as the Time Traveller who believes he has created a machine which can travel into the past and the future. After describing his invention to a group of friends and explaining how it works, he announces that he intends to use the machine to explore time. Assembling at a dinner party the following week, the gentlemen await the appearance of the Time Traveller – who arrives late, looking dirty and exhausted, and proceeds to narrate an incredible story.

The Time Traveller tells of his journey to the year 802,701, a world populated by the Eloi, a race of beautiful, innocent, childlike people who, far from being the advanced society he had expected, are leading surprisingly lazy, directionless lives and appear to be weaker and less intelligent than ourselves. Due to a change in language, he is unable to communicate with them to find out more about their way of life, although he does form a friendship of sorts with an Eloi woman whose name is Weena.

Later, the Time Traveller discovers that the Eloi are not the only inhabitants of this futuristic world; another race of human-like creatures live below ground, only coming to the surface at night. Known as the Morlocks, these creatures are brutish and savage but appear to be carrying out all the work and industry which enables the Eloi to live their simple lives of leisure on the land above. They also appear to have stolen the time machine, which means that unless the Time Traveller can find a way to retrieve it, he could be trapped in the future forever!

The Time Traveller comes up with several theories to explain what is happening in this futuristic world, but has to revise his opinion as more information comes to light. He speculates that the human race must have evolved at some point into two species, the rich and privileged becoming the Eloi and the working classes becoming the Morlocks. The Eloi, he thinks, have led such comfortable lives and faced so few challenges, that they have had no further need to grow and adapt:

“It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.”

I’ve always been intrigued by the possibilities of time travel and although I personally would be more interested in visiting the past than the future, I find it fascinating to see what people think the future will hold. Remembering when this novel was published, Wells’ vision of a future world has been developed from some of the issues which would have seemed relevant at the end of the 19th century, such as widening class divisions, theories of evolution and Darwinism. It’s a bleak and depressing view of the future – and if that really is what we have to look forward to, then imperfect as our current society may be, I’m very glad to be living in 2016!

While I enjoyed reading The Time Machine, I thought there could have been more to the story. I hadn’t realised it was such a short book (there are just over 100 pages in my edition, so it can easily be read in a few hours), and I would have liked it to have been a bit longer which would have allowed some of the ideas in the novel to be developed in more depth. Still, I’m pleased to have read such an important and influential science fiction novel and will think about reading more of Wells’ work at some point.

My commonplace book: January 2016

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

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I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

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Roger had learned from Mr. Gray that this particular kind of rhododendron was called Ponticum, so the secret hiding-place was called Ponticum House. It was used for all sorts of activities and gradually it was furnished with odds and ends of furniture.

Amberwell by D.E. Stevenson (1955)

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There was the rub: that Julia, who could get intimate with a trapeze artist after five minutes’ conversation – who was intimate with a salesman after buying a pair of shoes – had talked for an hour to her own daughter, about the girl’s own father and lover, without the least intimacy at all.

“I’m a fool,” thought Julia, again. “It’s just because she’s such a perfect lady. And what I need is a good sleep.”

The Nutmeg Tree by Margery Sharp (1937)

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So fine was the morning except for a streak of wind here and there that the sea and sky looked all one fabric, as if sails were stuck high up in the sky, or the clouds had dropped down into the sea. A steamer far out at sea had drawn in the air a great scroll of smoke which stayed there curving and circling decoratively, as if the air were a fine gauze which held things and kept them softly in its mesh, only gently swaying them this way and that.

To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927)

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Come, Joanna. I can wait no longer.

There it was, Henry’s declaration, as clear as my reflection in my mirror. Neither, I decided, could I wait.

I sent for my uncle of Burgundy. I had an urgent negotiation to undertake.

The Queen’s Choice by Anne O’Brien (2016)

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Meantime, all around me is violence and robbery, coarse delight and savage pain, reckless joke and hopeless death. Is it any wonder that I cannot sink with these, that I cannot so forget my soul, as to live the life of brutes, and die the death more horrible because it dreams of waking? There is none to lead me forward, there is none to teach me right; young as I am, I live beneath a curse that lasts for ever.

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore (1869)

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“It is the women who lay clothes to dry on the rooftops of Troy,” I continued. “It is the fishermen who catch the silver fish in the bay,” I gestured out over the plain towards the sea, sparkling blue in the sunlight, “and sell them on the stalls of the marketplace. It is the princes who live in the palaces on the windy heights of the city, and the slaves who draw water from the wells. This, my king – this is Troy. And if we act now, we may still be able to save our city before it is too late.”

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser (2016)

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The desolation struck me like a blow, fresh and painful, as if all this destruction had been newly made yesterday, and as if this were my first sight of it. It was grief, I think, nothing more or less. I knew it was absurd. But I had noticed this reaction in others as well as in myself: that we mourned for our ravaged city as if for a mother.

The Ashes of London by Andrew Taylor (2016) – Review to follow

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“And you cannot move at all in Time, you cannot get away from the present moment.”

“My dear sir, that is just where you are wrong. That is just where the whole world has gone wrong. We are always getting away from the present moment. Our mental existences, which are immaterial and have no dimensions, are passing along the Time-Dimension with a uniform velocity from the cradle to the grave. Just as we should travel down if we began our existence fifty miles above the earth’s surface.”

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

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Favourite books this month: Lorna Doone and Amberwell

For the Most Beautiful by Emily Hauser

For the Most Beautiful “For the most beautiful”. These are the words inscribed on a golden apple presented by Paris, Prince of Troy, to the goddess Aphrodite whom he has chosen over her rivals, Hera and Athena. In return, the goddess rewards Paris with Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world – but unfortunately, Helen is already married. Not surprisingly, her husband, Menelaus, is enraged by the theft of his wife and sends the mighty armies of Greece, led by his brother King Agamemnon, to the shores of Troy to bring her back.

The story of the Trojan War is one that has been told many times before and with which a lot of readers will already be familiar before picking up Emily Hauser’s debut novel, For the Most Beautiful. However, this book retells the story from a feminine perspective and focuses on two female characters – Krisayis and Briseis – who both have important roles to play yet have not been given much attention in other versions such as Homer’s Iliad.

Krisayis (whose name is usually spelled Chryseis) is the daughter of a Trojan priest and companion to Cassandra, a princess of Troy. As the novel begins, we learn that Krisayis is in love with Cassandra’s brother, Troilus, and that, much against her wishes, she is about to become a priestess devoted to the god Apulunas. Our other main character, Briseis, is a princess of Lyrnessus who has unexpectedly found love with her husband Mynes, despite growing up under the shadow of a prophecy which seemed to rule out the possibility of happiness. With the onset of war, the lives of both young women are thrown into turmoil; their paths cross while held captive in the Greek camp, but will they be able to change fate and save Troy?

I found For the Most Beautiful a very enjoyable read. I think it was probably aimed at a younger audience but there was enough depth to keep an adult reader happy too. Having only read two or three other novels about Troy (including Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles and Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire) I found that while I knew the basic outline of the story, a lot of it was new to me and the approach the author took made it feel fresh and original. It was interesting to see how Emily Hauser interpreted the characters of not just Krisayis and Briseis but also Achilles, Patroclus, Paris, Hector, Cassandra and others.

The stories of our two heroines unfold in alternating chapters and I thought these sections of the book were well written and emotionally engaging (both Briseis and Krisayis suffer the death of a loved one and then face further ordeals and difficult decisions after their capture by the Greeks). However, these chapters are interspersed with short scenes in which we witness the gods on their mountain observing and manipulating the lives of the mortals below – and this is the one aspect of the book which really didn’t work for me. The writing style in these sections is quite different – the language feels much more modern and the tense changes from past to present – and the gods come across as bored, shallow and petulant. I think I can see what the author was trying to do here and I’m sure other readers will enjoy the light-hearted, comedy feel of these scenes, but it just made me impatient to get back to Briseis and Krisayis!

After finishing this book, I was pleased to discover that it’s the start of a new Golden Apple trilogy. Greek mythology is not a subject that particularly interests me, but I was still captivated by For the Most Beautiful and am looking forward to reading another two books by Emily Hauser.

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