The Empress of Hearts by E. Barrington

The Empress of Hearts was originally published in 1928 and was one of several historical novels written by E. Barrington (a pseudonym of Elizabeth Louisa Moresby, who also wrote under the name Lily Adams Beck).  It is described on the cover as “a romance of Marie Antoinette”, but I think that description is slightly misleading.  Marie Antoinette does appear in the novel as a major character, but the focus is really on the scandal known as The Affair of the Diamond Necklace which was thought to be a factor leading to the French Revolution.    
  
The story centres around a diamond necklace created by the Parisian jewellers Boehmer and Bassenge, commissioned by Louis XV of France in 1772 as a gift for his mistress, Madame du Barry.  However, by the time the necklace is ready to be sold to the King, Louis has died and du Barry has been sent away from court.  Boehmer and Bassenge hope the new Queen, Marie Antoinette, will wear it instead, but when her husband, Louis XVI, offers to buy it for her, she refuses, unwilling to appear extravagant and frivolous when the money could be better spent on other things.  Enter Jeanne de la Motte, an ambitious young woman who sees an opportunity to make herself rich and acquire the necklace for herself in the Queen’s name.  The ensuing scandal will damage Marie Antoinette’s reputation and discredit the French monarchy in the eyes of the public:        

Marie Antoinette rose from her chair and moved toward the inner room, holding herself together with an effort so tense that for the moment grace was dead and she moved with stiff, short steps like an old woman. At the door she turned: “Did I not tell you that there would be no need for poison? They will kill me with calumny.”

As you would expect with a book from the 1920s, the writing style is rather different from most modern historical fiction novels; it is more formal and more detailed but, unfortunately, it is also quite dry.  Although I had heard of the Diamond Necklace Affair before, I hadn’t read about it in any depth, so I found The Empress of Hearts an interesting read from that perspective, but as a work of fiction it is less effective – like the other novel I’ve read by Barrington, Glorious Apollo, it would probably have worked better as non-fiction.  We are given large amounts of factual information and as a result the plot moves very slowly and lacks the drama, excitement and tension that should have been present given the subject of the story. 

The characters are not the most vibrant and life-like either, although they had the potential to be fascinating, particularly Jeanne, as the villain of the novel, and Cardinal de Rohan, another prominent figure implicated in the plot.  I was intrigued by the role the Italian occultist Alessandro Cagliostro plays in the story – in reality, it seems that although he was arrested and questioned, it’s uncertain how much involvement he actually had in the Affair – but again, I think there were missed opportunities here.

I’m aware that Alexandre Dumas also wrote a novel about the Affair of the Diamond Necklace – The Queen’s Necklace.  As a fan of Dumas, I’m looking forward to reading it and seeing how he approaches the same subject.

Shadow of the Moon readalong

Just a quick post today to tell you about a readalong I’m going to be participating in this summer. I know I’ve mentioned before that The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye is one of my favourite historical fiction novels. I have also enjoyed two of her mysteries – Death in Kashmir and Death in Berlin – but for some reason still haven’t read her other historical novels, Shadow of the Moon and Trade Wind, despite having had a copy of the former on my shelf for a while now. When I saw that Cirtnecce of Mockingbirds, Looking Glasses and Prejudices and Cleo of Classical Carousel were planning a Shadow of the Moon readalong starting in June this seemed the perfect opportunity to finally pick up my copy and start reading.

Like The Far Pavilions, this book is set in India, a country Kaye really seemed to understand and wrote about beautifully. It was published in 1957, much earlier than The Far Pavilions (1978), so I’m curious to see what it is like and, from what I’ve heard about it, I’m anticipating another great read!

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies

I’ve been falling behind with Dinah Jefferies’ novels; after reading her first, The Separation, back in 2014, she has since had another three books published, none of which I had read until picking up The Tea Planter’s Wife a few weeks ago.  I regret not reading it sooner, because I loved it and am now desperate to read her other two, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter and Before the Rains.    

The Tea Planter’s Wife is set in Ceylon (the former name for Sri Lanka) in the 1920s and 30s, and begins with the arrival of newly married Gwendolyn Hooper who has come from England to join her husband, Laurence, on his tea plantation. Gwen is only nineteen years old and barely really knows her husband, a widower much older than herself.  Settling into married life proves to be more difficult than she’d expected, particularly as she also has to get used to a whole new culture and climate.  It doesn’t help that Laurence’s sister Verity comes to live with them and makes it obvious that she resents Gwen marrying her brother.  To make matters worse, Gwen is convinced that Laurence is trying to hide the truth surrounding the death of his first wife, Caroline.   

Feeling lonely and neglected, Gwen is grateful for the friendship of Savi Ravasinghe, a Sinhalese portrait painter, and is mystified as to why Laurence seems to disapprove of him so much.  Then something happens which makes Gwen think that Laurence was right to distrust Savi – and which throws her already troubled life into even more turmoil. 

With its evocative setting and aura of mystery and secrecy, this is a wonderfully atmospheric novel with an almost gothic feel at times.  Throughout the first half of the novel, in particular, I was constantly reminded of one of my favourite books, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: the naive, inexperienced young woman; the mysterious older husband who becomes increasingly distant as soon as the wedding is over; the first wife who, even in death, still casts a shadow over the household.  The similarities lessened as the story continued, though, and more themes and elements were introduced.

Ceylon, as it was known then, is a country I know very little about, so I found it interesting to read of the racial and political tensions between the various groups of people who live on the island – the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the British planters.  With Gwen being a newcomer and unfamiliar with the way of life, we see things through her eyes and share her experiences as she tries to adapt to her new home.  Gwen finds the living standards of the plantation workers particularly difficult to accept and her well-meaning attempts to improve things for them often get her into trouble.  And yet this doesn’t feel to me like an author simply projecting her own modern views onto a character from a bygone time, as often happens in historical fiction, but more a way of showing that Gwen was a decent person who wanted to help in any small way she could, with a natural sympathy for children, the sick and the vulnerable, whatever their colour or status in society.        

The setting plays an important part in the story, but so do the people, the decisions they make and the ways in which they communicate – or fail to communicate – with each other.  This is the sort of book where you find yourself becoming frustrated with the characters because they just won’t tell each other the truth…but at the same time you understand why they feel they can’t! 

Having enjoyed The Tea Planter’s Wife so much I’m pleased that I still have two more books by Dinah Jefferies to read.  I just need to decide which one to read next!

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books seem to have been around forever, but I have never really felt tempted to try one. It didn’t help that whenever I noticed some on the library shelf, they tended to be the later books in the series and my personal preference is always to start at the beginning if possible…so when I had the chance, earlier this year, to read the first book in the series via NetGalley, I thought it would be a good opportunity to finally see what it was like.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is set in Botswana and features thirty-four-year-old Mma Precious Ramotswe. When her father dies, leaving his herd of cattle to Precious, she sells them and uses the money to buy herself a house and an office which becomes the headquarters of her very own detective agency. She hangs a sign above the door, employs a secretary, then sits back and waits for clients. They do come, eventually, and Mma Ramotswe finds herself with an intriguing selection of cases to investigate.

This is not a straightforward detective novel with one central mystery to be solved; instead, there are lots of separate little mysteries, with only a few pages devoted to some of them, although a few are longer. They are not particularly complex – I often managed to solve them myself, which is unusual for me – and deal mainly with cheating husbands, rebellious teenagers and cases of insurance fraud, for example, rather than more serious crimes. Mma Ramotswe takes a practical approach to her detective work, based around common sense and logic, and following the guidance of The Principles of Private Detection by Clovis Andersen. Sometimes she makes mistakes, but more often than not she is successful and proves that those who tell her women can’t be detectives are most definitely wrong!

As well as the mysteries, there are also chapters relating earlier episodes in Mma Ramotswe’s life, descriptions of Botswana – its scenery, its wildlife and its people – and some insights into African culture. The novel is disjointed and messy and, apart from one slightly more involved case to which we return several times throughout the book, there is no overarching plot. And yet, somehow, it does work! I really enjoyed getting to know Mma Ramotswe and picking up a little bit of knowledge of a country I previously knew nothing about.

I haven’t been left wanting to rush out and buy all the other books in the series, but I would be happy to try another one at some point. Maybe those of you who are familiar with Alexander McCall Smith’s work can tell me if it’s necessary to read this series in order or if you can just dip in and out. Are they all as episodic as this one? And are there any of his other books or series that you would recommend?

Historical Musings #26: Judging a book by its cover…

There was a recent Top Ten Tuesday topic on book covers which I would have liked to have participated in but already had another post scheduled for the same day. Better late than never, though, so for this month’s Historical Musings post I thought it would be fun to look at some of the various types of covers which tend to be used for historical fiction novels. There are only seven on my list rather than ten, but you will probably be able to think of more.

The ‘faceless woman in a pretty dress’ cover

Example: The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper

I didn’t have to look very hard to find some of these covers on my shelves! This design has become very popular in recent years and although there are some variations – sometimes we can see part of the face and sometimes we can see only the back of the head – the overall effect is the same. I have read that a lot of publishers like to use these covers because obscuring the woman’s face creates mystery and avoids the problem of readers complaining that her appearance doesn’t correspond to the author’s descriptions. However, this type of cover is usually associated with light, romance-focused historical fiction and, depending on reading tastes, might put some people off; there are exceptions, of course, so it’s not always fair to judge. As a separate issue, there’s the question of whether the dress is appropriate to the time period – I won’t go into that here, but you may be interested in this list of anachronistic covers on Goodreads.

The ‘swords and shields’ cover

Example: Insurrection by Robyn Young

These have the opposite effect to the previous type of cover, I suppose. When I see a cover with a shield, sword, helmet, flag or something similar, I expect the story to be action-packed with lots of battle scenes, not much romance and probably a male protagonist rather than female. Again, there are exceptions, but in general these novels have a very different feel from the headless women novels and will often appeal to different readers (although there are plenty of examples of both that I’ve enjoyed).

The distant lands cover

Example: The Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye

Many historical fiction novels have a strong sense of place as well as of time, and sometimes the publisher will choose to use that as the selling point for the book. One of my favourite historical fiction novels, The Far Pavilions, wouldn’t have worked if it had been set anywhere other than India and Afghanistan, hence the picture and the quote on the cover of my edition – “A Gone With the Wind of the North-West Frontier”.

The tie-in cover

Example: North and South by John Jakes

These are my least favourite types of cover, particularly if I haven’t already watched the adaptation in question. I prefer to form my own visual impression of the characters as I read, rather than have somebody else’s interpretation already in my head before I start, and I like other readers to be given that opportunity too. (I did love both the book and mini-series versions of John Jakes’ North and South trilogy, though, and must read/watch them again one day!) Tie-in covers are not specific to historical fiction, of course, and occur across all genres; although I don’t like them, I can understand the reasons behind their use. Here’s an interesting article from the Guardian.

The illustrated cover

Example: Cashelmara by Susan Howatch

This could overlap with some of the other sorts of cover listed above, but I thought I would still include it (and it gives me a chance to mention another book which is on my must-reread-soon list, along with some of Susan Howatch’s others). Do you prefer books with old-fashioned illustrations on the cover rather than the stock photographs and images that are more popular these days? What about covers with portraits or reproductions of famous paintings (like Girl With a Pearl Earring)?

The ‘what were they thinking?’ cover

Example: Lion of Alnwick by Carol Wensby-Scott

Not too much to say about this one, other than that whoever designs the covers sometimes doesn’t get it quite right. I thought Lion of Alnwick was a good book which deserved a much nicer cover!

The simple but striking cover

Example: The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior

Sometimes a publisher will avoid all of the above options and go with something basic and neutral. This makes it difficult to judge the book by the cover and to decide at a glance whether it’s something you want to read or not, but the advantage is that it’s not immediately off-putting to readers. (If you’re wondering, I’m reading The Winter Isles now, so haven’t posted my thoughts yet!)

~

What do you think of the covers pictured above? Would they make you more or less likely to pick up the book?

The Valentine House by Emma Henderson

The Valentine House surprised me. Having read Emma Henderson’s first novel, Grace Williams Says It Loud, in 2011, I had expected this new one, her second, to be something similar. Instead, what I found was something completely different. Grace Williams was a moving, thought-provoking story of a young girl in a 1950s mental institution; The Valentine House is probably best described as a family saga set in the French Alps.

The house referred to in the title is Arete, a large chalet in the mountains overlooking the village of Hext. It was built by a British mountaineer, Sir Anthony Valentine, in the 19th century and is used as a summer home by successive generations of his family. Our story begins in 1914 when Mathilde, a teenage girl from a farm in the valley, goes to work for the Valentines. Mathilde is an ‘Ugly’, the term given to the unattractive young women who make up Arete’s workforce, specially chosen by Sir Anthony’s wife, Lady C, as being less likely to catch her husband’s eye. Spending her summers at the house, Mathilde gets to know the Valentine family, particularly Daisy, a girl the same age as herself who becomes gradually wilder and more unstable as the years go by.

Decades later, in the summer of 1976, Sir Anthony’s great-great-grandson George is visiting Arete with several of his cousins. Even though Sir Anthony is long gone, his legacy lives on in the Alpine Club which he created to entertain the younger members of the family, and George and his cousins continue to carry out Club activities such as the outdoor physical challenges known as ‘Paideia’. Mathilde is still there too, an elderly woman now, but as much a part of Arete life as she has ever been.

The Valentine House is a dual time period novel: a chapter set in 1976 and written from George’s perspective is followed by one narrated by Mathilde and set earlier in the century. Eventually the two begin to converge and secrets which have been kept hidden from the reader (and from some of the characters) start to be revealed. What is the truth behind the disappearance of Margaret, Sir Anthony’s daughter, whose visits to Arete came to an abrupt stop many years ago? Mathilde is sure that if she could only find out what happened to Margaret everything else that has puzzled her about the Valentines would begin to make sense. Although some of the plot twists and revelations could probably be predicted, I didn’t even try to guess – I just relaxed and let the story take me in whichever direction it wanted to go, which meant I was kept in suspense until the various Valentine mysteries started to unfold.

I did struggle at times to keep track of all the characters and how they were related to each other. This is probably not surprising, as there are five generations of the family featured in the novel; drawing a simple family tree helped to solve the problem, although I wish I’d had the sense to do it at the beginning of the book instead of when I was already halfway through!

I think what I loved most about The Valentine House was the setting; I haven’t been to the area of France described in the book – the Haute-Savoie – but I would like to as Emma Henderson makes it sound beautiful. And this is a good place for me to mention that Sir Anthony himself has a unique way of describing the Alpine mountains and valleys, which you’ll discover in the opening paragraph of the novel. If you find that the language he uses makes you blush, don’t worry – this does not reflect the style of writing throughout the rest of the book!

Although I found both threads of the story very enjoyable, it usually seems to be inevitable with dual timeline novels that readers will have a preference for one storyline over the other and in my case it was the one narrated by Mathilde. And it was Mathilde whose story lingered on in my mind for days after finishing the book.

Now I’m wondering what Emma Henderson’s third book will be about. I hope there’s going to be one!

Vittoria Cottage by D E Stevenson

This is only the third book I’ve read by D E Stevenson, but I’m finding that her novels are perfect when I’m in the mood for something gentle and undemanding, but still with convincing characters, some insights into human nature and just enough plot to keep me interested from beginning to end. Having read what other people have to say about her books it seems that they vary in quality, but I think I’ve been lucky with the three I’ve chosen to read so far (Miss Buncle’s Book, Amberwell and now this one).

Vittoria Cottage is the first in a trilogy. The ‘cottage’ of the title is located in the quiet English village of Ashbridge and is home to the Dering family. Arnold Dering died before the novel opens, leaving behind his widow Caroline and their two daughters (there’s also a son who is with the army in Malaya). The younger daughter, Bobbie, doesn’t give Caroline any problems – at least not during the course of this first novel – but the same can’t be said about pretty, selfish Leda. Her engagement to law student Derek causes concern for both families, who can see that the young couple will have no money and are perhaps not very well suited anyway. However, Caroline and Derek’s father resist the temptation to interfere too much and leave Derek and Leda to learn this the hard way.

Meanwhile, Caroline has a romantic interest of her own, although she tries to deny even to herself that she is falling in love. He is a newcomer to the village – Robert Shepperton, a man with a mysterious past. What did he do during the war? What happened to his family? And why has he come to Ashbridge? When Caroline’s sister Harriet, a London actress, arrives for a long stay at Vittoria Cottage, she also finds herself drawn to Robert. But which sister, if either, is Robert interested in?

The main characters in the novel are well drawn and engaging (apart from one or two, such as Bobbie, who remain a bit shadowy) and I liked Caroline immediately. As an older, more mature heroine, she is sensible and practical and if she can sometimes be frustratingly naive and lacking in self-confidence, it only makes her all the more human. I enjoyed watching her relationship with Robert Shepperton slowly develop – a relationship built around friendship and trust. I also liked Caroline’s maid, Comfort Podbury, a young woman who has gained a lot of weight due to a medical condition and is devoted to Caroline because she is one of the few people in Ashbridge who doesn’t judge her by her size.

Vittoria Cottage was published in 1949 and the effects of the war on Caroline and her friends are clear – rationing is still in place, the Derings wonder where Mr Shepperton gets enough coupons to buy so many new clothes, and Caroline is surprised when she finds herself in trouble for attempting to send eggs to Harriet in London. If I’m going to be critical, I could say that this book doesn’t feel very original and I can think of quite a few other novels I’ve read by similar authors which have similar settings and similar types of characters. I don’t think that matters too much, though, because DE Stevenson is very good at writing novels like this and, as I said at the start of this post, sometimes they are just what I’m in the right mood for.

I didn’t enjoy Vittoria Cottage as much as the last Stevenson book I read, Amberwell, but I did like it. The ending seems very abrupt and, without saying too much about it, it’s satisfying in some ways but in others not very satisfying at all! If I want to know what happens next to the Dering family, I’ll have to read the other two in the trilogy, Music in the Hills and Shoulder the Sky.