I, Claudius by Robert Graves

When I decided, a few years ago, to include I, Claudius on my list of books to read for the Classics Club I didn’t really expect to enjoy it. It was a book that I felt I should read, due to its status as a work of classic historical fiction, rather than one that I actually wanted to read. The reason I didn’t particularly want to read it was because Ancient Rome was not a setting I found very appealing. That has slowly begun to change since reading Robert Harris’ excellent Cicero trilogy in 2015 and then Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero earlier this year. It’s probably a good thing, then, that I, Claudius has lingered on my Classics Club list until almost the end – it meant that when I did finally pick it up last month, I was much more receptive to it than I would have been a while ago.

I, Claudius, as you would expect, is narrated by Claudius, the fourth Roman emperor. It takes the form of a fictional autobiography:

I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot”, or “That Claudius”, or “Claudius the Stammerer”, or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius”, am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.

Claudius doesn’t actually tell us about his time as emperor in this novel – that will come later, in the sequel Claudius the God – but instead he gives us a very detailed account of his family background, his childhood and what it was like to live through the reigns of his three predecessors, Augustus, Tiberius and Caligula, who seemed to become progressively more corrupt, unstable and dangerous. However, it is obvious that the real power in Rome is wielded by Livia, the wife of Augustus (and Claudius’ grandmother) who systematically removes various rivals to the throne to ensure the succession of her own line. The ambitious, manipulative Livia is a great character and a constant presence throughout the novel as she works to control and shape the future of the Empire.

Of course, life for someone part of the imperial family as Claudius is comes with its own set of dangers. With his stammering, his twitching and his limp, he is regarded as an embarrassment, kept in the background and not taken seriously as a possible contender for the throne. There are hints and omens from the beginning – including one memorable scene which takes place early in the novel involving a poetic prophecy spoken by a Sibyl – but otherwise the very qualities that appear to make Claudius unsuitable as an emperor seem to keep him safe as those around him are methodically poisoned, exiled or assassinated. This might not be entirely down to luck, though, as Graves has the historian Asinius Pollio advising Claudius to exaggerate these qualities as they could be his only means of survival.

Although I did enjoy I, Claudius, it was a bit of a challenging read for me at times – but that was mainly due to the fact that I haven’t read a lot of fiction (or non-fiction, for that matter) about the Roman Empire so I only have a basic familiarity with the important events and people of the period. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary to have any prior knowledge before starting this book, but it would certainly help! A piece of advice for future readers: you may find it useful to draw a family tree as you read, if your edition doesn’t already include one. The relationships between the characters quickly become very complicated, especially as so many of them marry and divorce several times, with children from each marriage (as well as adopted children) – but with a little bit of effort and attention, keeping track of the major players in the story isn’t too difficult.

If I have a criticism of this book it would be that as Claudius spends most of his time telling us about events that happened before his birth, elsewhere in the Empire or in which he had no personal involvement, this occasionally takes away the sense of drama and immediacy that there could have been had our narrator always been at the heart of the action. It’s still quite gripping in places – such as the sequence of events leading up to the death of his cousin Postumus, or the ‘haunting’ of his brother Germanicus (two of the few people to actually show Claudius any kindness) – but it’s probably worth being aware that this is not just a book about Claudius himself but also the history of the Roman Empire in general (the real Claudius was a writer and historian so Graves’ decision to have him tell the story in this way feels authentic).

I can’t comment on the accuracy of this novel, the sources Graves has used or the way he has chosen to interpret the characters, because I simply don’t know enough about the subject, but I do know that I found it much more enjoyable than I’d exected – and that I’m glad I decided to read it, despite my ambiguous feelings about Roman history. I’ll look forward to continuing the story soon with Claudius the God.

Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull

Having had such a good experience with my first Rebecca Mascull book, The Wild Air, I knew I would have to read her previous two novels as well – and I was delighted to see Song of the Sea Maid on the shelf on a recent visit to the library. I hoped I would love it as much as The Wild Air…and I did. In fact, I thought this one was even better.

Song of the Sea Maid begins with a little girl living on the streets of London with only one aim in life: to do whatever it takes to survive from one day to the next. When her sole friend and companion, an older boy who may or may not be her brother, is taken by a press gang, she finds herself all alone. Caught attempting to commit a desperate act – stealing from a gentleman – she expects to be punished, but instead she is taken to an orphanage where she is given food, shelter and the name Dawnay Price.

Dawnay is an intelligent child with a natural curiosity for the world around her. As she grows older and teaches herself to read and write, her thirst for knowledge becomes apparent and she is chosen by a generous benefactor to receive a full education. It is not at all common at this time for a girl to be educated beyond the absolute basics, so Dawnay is determined to make the most of the opportunities she has been given. Eager for new experiences and the chance to use her skills, she travels to Portugal and the Berlengas islands where her studies of the flora and fauna lead her to come up with some very controversial theories. It seems the 18th century world is not quite ready for Dawnay and her ideas!

Song of the Sea Maid is a wonderful exploration of what it was like to be a woman trying to forge a career in science in a period when it was not considered normal or socially acceptable to do so. Dawnay has a lot of good luck which enables her to indulge her passion for study and travel, but she also faces many obstacles in both carrying out her work and in making her findings known, and by the end of the novel it becomes clear that she really is, as Rebecca Mascull states in her author’s note, just the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time. It made me wonder about all the other people – women in particular, but men as well – throughout history who may have had innovative ideas or developed advanced theories but were dismissed and silenced so that their names and their views have been entirely forgotten today.

I also enjoyed reading about the various places Dawnay visits on her travels; her time spent alone on the Berlengas Islands is particularly interesting – I think I would have felt too isolated and lonely, but Dawnay finds peace and harmony there, coming to think of the rocks and caves as her own. Still, she is unable to completely escape from world events; she is in Lisbon for the Great Earthquake of 1755 (which I have previously read about in Linda Holeman’s The Devil on Her Tongue) and in Minorca a year later when the island is captured by the French. The Seven Years’ War forms an important backdrop to the novel and from time to time Dawnay is brought into contact with the crew of a Royal Navy ship, initially during her voyage to Portugal. I found all the ship-based scenes surprisingly enjoyable – I think my recent forays into Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series have really helped me in this respect!

I haven’t mentioned yet that Dawnay also falls in love; I found it quite predictable – as soon as one particular character appeared in Dawnay’s life I knew that they were going to be the love interest – but it was still a beautifully written romance which developed slowly throughout the novel. There’s really nothing negative I can say about Song of the Sea Maid; even the use of first person present tense, which I often dislike, didn’t bother me – in fact, I barely noticed it because I found Dawnay’s voice so strong and real.

This is a lovely novel and now I really must read Rebecca Mascull’s first book, The Visitors!

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 recent additions to my Historical Fiction TBR

For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and Bookish) we are asked to list our ten most recent additions to our TBR pile in a genre of our choice. The genre I have chosen is historical fiction – no surprises there! A few of these (books 4, 6 and 9) are also on my 20 Books of Summer list, so I’ll be reading those soon.

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1. Elizabeth, the Witch’s Daughter by Lynda M Andrews

I already have one or two unread books about Elizabeth I on the TBR and didn’t really need to add another, but I was intrigued when I discovered that Lynda M Andrews is also the Lyn Andrews who wrote The Queen’s Promise, a book I read a few years ago and enjoyed.

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2. The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

I remember seeing a lot of praise for Natasha Pulley’s first book, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, but I never got round to actually reading it so was pleased to find her new one available through NetGalley.

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3. Claudius the God by Robert Graves

I read I, Claudius last month (my thoughts on that one should be coming soon), so the sequel went straight on my TBR.

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4. By Gaslight by Steven Price

This promises to be the sort of atmospheric Victorian mystery novel I would usually enjoy, but now that I have my copy I’m not sure about it. I think the writing style could be a problem for me, but we’ll see!

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5. Death in Bordeaux by Allan Massie

I need to read the fourth book in this historical crime series for my Walter Scott Prize project, but I decided to start with the first book as it sounds like a series that should really be read in order.

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6. The Silk Merchant’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies

I loved the last Dinah Jefferies book I read, The Tea Planter’s Wife, and am looking forward to reading this one which is set in 1950s Vietnam.

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7. He Who Plays the King by Mary Hocking

I hadn’t heard of this until I saw Ali’s review a few months ago, but it’s set during one of my favourite periods of history – the Wars of the Roses – and I thought it sounded like my sort of book.

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8. Viper Wine by Hermione Eyre

Another book I will be reading for the Walter Scott Prize project. I feel a bit wary of this one as it sounds very unusual and experimental. I’m not sure what to expect from it but I’m happy to give it a try.

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9. Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

I don’t know much about this book, but it’s set in 19th century Egypt which sounds good to me. I’m looking forward to reading it soon for the 20 Books of Summer.

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10. The Words in My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

This book is set in 17th century Amsterdam and is the story of Helena Jans and her relationship with the philosopher René Descartes. I usually like books set in the Netherlands, so I’m hoping I’ll enjoy this one too.

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Have you read any of these books? Do any of them tempt you? Which historical fiction novels have you added to your TBR recently?

House of Names by Colm Tóibín

After talking recently about my desire to read more fiction set in Ancient Greece, I was pleased to have the opportunity to read Colm Tóibín’s new novel House of Names. It retells the tragic story of the House of Atreus, described in Aeschylus’ famous trilogy, the Oresteia. Not being very familiar with this story, I had no problem following the plot of the novel, but couldn’t help wondering how different my experience would have been if I was already more well-versed in the Greek classics.

House of Names begins in dramatic style with Agamemnon sacrificing his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. In return the gods will bring about a change in the wind which will allow his army to sail to Troy. Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, is forced to witness the terrible scene – made even worse by the fact that she had believed she was coming to watch her daughter’s wedding, not her murder. The first section of the novel is narrated by Clytemnestra and I thought it was wonderful, vividly describing the moment of the sacrifice and perfectly capturing the agony and heartbreak of a mother at the loss of her child and the bitter fury of a wife at the treachery of her husband. Angry and grieving, Clytemnestra returns to Mycenae to await her husband’s return from Troy and her chance to take revenge:

Her screams as they murdered her were replaced by silence and by scheming when Agamemnon, her father, returned and I fooled him into thinking that I would not retaliate. I waited and I watched for signs, and smiled and opened my arms to him, and I had a table here prepared with food. Food for the fool! I was wearing the special scent that excited him. Scent for the fool!

But what effect will Clytemnestra’s next actions have on her two remaining children, Orestes and Electra? We don’t have to wait long to find out as sections written from the perspective of each of those characters follow. Orestes’ is told in the third person and describes his kidnapping from the palace of Mycenae and his later escape with the help of two other boys, Leander and Mitros. Together, far from home and away from their families, Orestes and his friends must find a way to survive into adulthood. His sister Electra, meanwhile, pushed aside after Iphigenia’s death, watches Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus and begins to plot a revenge of her own…

This has been a difficult review for me to write as I still can’t quite decide what I thought of House of Names! I loved the powerful opening section of this novel but, two weeks after finishing the book, that’s the only part that has really stayed with me. The Orestes and Electra sections, although I found them interesting at the time, felt strangely detached and emotionless. The writing style helped to create an eerie, otherworldly feel at times, but it came at the expense of the passion and intensity I would have preferred from a story like this.

I do think that my lack of knowledge of the Oresteia and the fate of the House of Atreus could have been an advantage rather than a disadvantage as far as this book is concerned. I’ve read several other reviews that mention being confused by Tóibín’s decision to change so many details of the story, such as the use of the character of Leander to fill the role of Pylades, but not being familiar with the original I didn’t even notice things like this. Maybe I should have an attempt at reading the Oresteia itself one day. Does anyone know of a good translation to read?

As for Colm Tóibín, I’m looking forward to reading more of his work. Brooklyn is the only other one of his novels that I’ve read and the two couldn’t be more different. Which of his books do you think I should try next?

Thanks to Penguin for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

My Commonplace Book: May 2017

A selection of words and pictures to represent May’s reading

My Commonplace Book

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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When you are young you are too busy with yourself – so Caroline thought – you haven’t time for ordinary little things, but, when you leave youth behind, your eyes open and you see magic and mystery all around you: magic in the flight of a bird, the shape of a leaf, the bold arch of a bridge against the sky, footsteps at night and a voice calling in the darkness, the moment in a theatre before the curtain rises, the wind in the trees, or (in winter) an apple-branch clothed with pure white snow and icicles hanging from a stone and sparkling with rainbow colours.

Vittoria Cottage by DE Stevenson (1949)

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Mata Hari

“Tell me where you learned to dance.”

“Java.” I paint the picture for him. Gamelan orchestras playing in the night. White orchids floating in private pools. Parties so lavish the queen of Holland might have attended. “There was a woman who danced at these affairs. Mahadevi.” I describe how she taught me to dance and I can see him struggling to decide whether or not I’m telling the truth. But he doesn’t say anything. He must believe me.

Mata Hari by Michelle Moran (2016)

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She loved her country, Botswana, which is a place of peace, and she loved Africa, for all its trials. I am not ashamed to be called an African patriot, said Mma Ramotswe. I love all the people whom God made, but I especially know how to love the people who live in this place. They are my people, my brothers and sisters. It is my duty to help them to solve the mysteries in their lives. That is what I am called to do.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (1998)

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With a conscious effort, he brought his focus back to the present. He had decided long ago that dwelling on the past was for fools. You could not go back and change your actions, so why go over and over your mistakes in your memory? Because he was a fool. A sentimental fool, who was getting old. He smiled at the thought.

The Serpent Sword by Matthew Harffy (2015)

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Possible portrait of Lucrezia Borgia.

How else to explain the chaos strewn in our wake, the ravaged lives, the sacrificed innocence and spilled blood? How else to justify the unexpected trajectory of my own life, forever wandering the labyrinth of my family’s ruthless design?

There can be no other reason. Infamy is no accident. It is a poison in our blood.

It is the price of being a Borgia.

The Vatican Princess by CW Gortner (2016)

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“So I ask you,” said the boy. “Here I am on this rock. Am I the same boy as the one on land? Do the same codes apply if you’re wholly, entirely alone?”

The Winter Isles by Antonia Senior (2015)

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Below her, gentle flower filled gardens sloped down to the lake in three terraces, with paths, steps and benches strategically placed between the three. The lake itself was the most gloriously shining silver she’d ever seen. All memory of the previous day’s car journey, with its terrifying hairpin bends, deep ravines, and nauseating bumps, was instantly washed away. Rising up behind the lake, and surrounding it, was a tapestry of green velvet, the tea bushes as symmetrical as if they’d been stitched in rows, where women tea pickers wore eye-catching brightly coloured saris, and looked like tiny embroidered birds who had stopped to peck.

The Tea Planter’s Wife by Dinah Jefferies (2015)

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House of Atreus family tree

I know as no one else knows that the gods are distant, they have other concerns. They care about human desires and antics in the same way that I care about the leaves of a tree. I know the leaves are there, they wither and grow again and wither, as people come and live and then are replaced by others like them. There is nothing I can do to help them or prevent their withering. I do not deal with their desires.

House of Names by Colm Tóibín (2017)

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The gift of independence once granted cannot be lightly taken away again.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)

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I sit up straight and clasp my hands, my heart soaring at the thought of it, to see London; to pass through these walls, to be free. “From my window I often think I should dearly love to sprout wings and rise above the rooftops and see beyond the buildings, the city and the river. I should like to see whence the moon rises. I want to go where the sun sets.”

Song of the Sea Maid by Rebecca Mascull (2015)

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Fumata nera (black smoke) from the Sistine Chapel

Conclave. From the Latin, con clavis: ‘with a key’. Since the thirteenth century, this was how the Church had ensured its cardinals would come to a decision. They would not be released from the chapel, except for meals and to sleep, until they had chosen a Pope.

Conclave by Robert Harris (2016)

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Favourite books read in May: The Tea Planter’s Wife, Song of the Sea Maid and Conclave

20 Books of Summer – 2017

For the last few days I’ve been trying to make up my mind whether or not to take part in this year’s 20 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books. The rules are simple – to make a list of twenty books (or fifteen or ten) you want to read this summer and then read as many of them as you can between 1st June and 3rd September – but as I’m not usually very successful at sticking to lists, that’s why I’ve been hesitant about joining in. It always looks fun, though, so I’ve decided to give it a try this time!

My list is a mixture of review copies (NetGalley and physical), the remaining books I need to read for the Classics Club, library books – I’ll have to read those first – and some that I’ve simply been looking forward to reading. I probably won’t read all of them and will almost certainly find myself drawn to other books as well, but I’ll see how it goes.

Here are my twenty books, in no particular order:

1. The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

2. To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey

3. Long Summer Day by RF Delderfield

4. The Mad Ship by Robin Hobb

5. Beneath a Burning Sky by Jenny Ashcroft

6. The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian

7. Heartstone by CJ Sansom

8. The Light Years by Elizabeth Jane Howard

9. The Last Son’s Secret by Rafel Nadal Farreras

10. The Silk Merchant’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies

11. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (re-read)

12. A Desperate Fortune by Susanna Kearsley

13. The Wicked Day by Mary Stewart

14. Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton

15. For the Winner by Emily Hauser

16. Shadow of the Moon by MM Kaye

17. The Reckoning by Sharon Penman

18. Crimson and Bone by Marina Fiorato

19. The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

20. By Gaslight by Steven Price

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What do you think? Have you read any of these? Will you be taking part in 20 Books of Summer this year?

The Vatican Princess by CW Gortner

Since putting together my recent post on historical fiction covers, I seem to be feeling more critical than usual of the covers of the books I read.  I really don’t like this one as not only is it (almost) one of the faceless women covers I highlighted, but there’s nothing about it to suggest the darkness and intrigue usually associated with the Borgias.  Fortunately, though, I did enjoy the book – with a few reservations.  

Set in Renaissance Italy, The Vatican Princess is narrated by Lucrezia Borgia – seductive, manipulative and a well-known poisoner.  Or was she?  Actually, in this version of the Borgia story, she is none of those things.  CW Gortner is very sympathetic to Lucrezia’s situation, portraying her as a vulnerable young woman used by various members of her family to their own advantage and to further their own ambitions.  The novel opens in 1492, with Lucrezia’s father, Rodrigo Borgia, bribing his way to the papal throne as Pope Alexander VI (the second book I’ve read this month featuring a papal conclave).  Lucrezia is only twelve years old but that’s old enough to be useful to her father in securing political alliances and, with this in mind, Rodrigo marries her off to Giovanni Sforza, Lord of Pesaro.   

Lucrezia’s marriage to Giovanni is not a happy one and although it will eventually be annulled and she will marry again – twice – this period of her life forms the largest portion of The Vatican Princess.  It’s a very eventful period and one with plenty of mysteries and controversies, providing endless possibilities for an author to explore.  Why did Lucrezia enter confinement in the Convent of San Sisto while the annulment of her marriage was negotiated?  Did she have a secret son?  Who murdered her brother, Juan?  And was Lucrezia really involved in an incestuous relationship with her other brother, Cesare?  Gortner offers answers, or at least theories, to all of these questions, while showing Lucrezia in a generally very positive light and suggesting that she had much less control over her own fate than is often thought.    

As our narrator, Lucrezia is engaging and easy to like, but I couldn’t help feeling that she was a little bit too innocent and too good to be true – and this made her less interesting to read about than she should have been.  I thought the ambitious Rodrigo was portrayed well, but Cesare needed more complexity and Juan was purely evil with no nuances to his character at all.  However, I was intrigued by the other main female characters in the book: Lucrezia’s mother, Vannozza; the Pope’s mistress, Giulia Farnese; and Lucrezia’s sister-in-law, Sancia of Aragon.  I would be interested in reading more about all of these women, as they have not featured very heavily in the few other fictional accounts of the Borgias that I’ve read so far.       

This is the second novel I’ve read by CW Gortner and although I did enjoy it (and always love a Renaissance Italy setting), I preferred the other one, The Last Queen, which was about Juana of Castile.  I would like to read more of his books, but I don’t really feel drawn to his Tudor mystery series – published as Christopher Gortner – or his recent novels on Marlene Dietrich and Coco Chanel, so that would leave either The Queen’s Vow (about Isabella of Castile) or The Confessions of Catherine de’ Medici.  Have you read either of those?  Which should I read first?     

As for the Borgias, maybe I’ll have another attempt at reading Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant soon.  I struggled to get into it the first time but am happy to try again!