A trio of books: London Roses; The Hurlyburly’s Husband; The King’s Favourite

I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with my reviews recently – I seem to go into each new month with at least four or five books still to write about from the month before – so I thought I would try putting together the occasional multi-book post with slightly shorter reviews than normal.

London Roses by Dora Greenwell McChesney, first published in 1903, follows the stories of a group of people who meet in the Manuscript Room at the British Museum. Rhoda Comstock is a young American woman who has come to London to stay with her English cousin, Una Thorpe, and the two strike up a friendship one day with journalist Stephen Fulford and his brother Thomas, getting together to discuss their research and to engage in lighthearted debate about the differences between life in Britain and America. When Stephen makes the sudden decision to go to South Africa to report on the Boer War, he leaves behind a scandal which puts Thomas in a difficult position and poses a threat not only to the bond between the two brothers but also to their newly formed relationships with Rhoda and Una.

London Roses is packed with interesting ideas and themes – loyalty and friendship; the importance of trust; adjusting to life in a different country – although none of these things are explored in as much depth as they could have been. The characters also had the potential to be a lot more complex and well-developed than they actually were. None of the main four ever came fully to life and I was much more intrigued by the character of Anthony Pettigrew, an old man Rhoda nicknames the Moth, who has spent thirty years coming to the British Museum to research books that he’s never written.

Far too much of the novel is spent discussing the English Civil War, which is apparently a passion of several of the characters (and also of the author – as I know, having read her historical novels Rupert, by the Grace of God and Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse), but which felt a bit strange as it had very little to do with the rest of the plot. On a more positive note, there are some nice descriptions of London and the Museum, but overall I was disappointed by this book and was thankful that it was such a short one!

The Hurlyburly’s Husband is an English translation by Alison Anderson of Jean Teulé’s 2008 French novel. Set in 17th century France, it tells the story of the often forgotten husband of Madame de Montespan (mistress of the Sun King, Louis XIV). Louis-Henri, Marquis de Montespan, marries Athénaïs, as she becomes known, after her fiancé flees following a duel. He loves his new wife and believes that she loves him, but it’s not long before Athénaïs goes to court as a lady-in-waiting and takes the place of Louise de la Valliere in the king’s affections. Unlike many cuckolded husbands of the period, Montespan is not interested in using his wife’s position to gain money and titles at court; instead, when it becomes obvious that Athénaïs is lost to him, he chooses to defy the king and take revenge in any small way he can.

A lot has been written about Madame de Montespan, her relationship with the king and her involvement in the Affair of the Poisons, but her husband is usually ignored. It was good to have the chance to read his side of the story and to see how he may have felt about all of this. As Athénaïs is absent from her husband’s life for most of the novel, the focus is always on Montespan himself: his attempts at winning glory on the battlefield, his relationships with his children, and his acts of defiance against the king (adding horns to his coat of arms, for example).

This is an entertaining little novel, as lively, colourful and scandalous as the French court it describes. There are even some illustrations, which are always a nice addition to any book. And in case you’re wondering, the hurlyburly of the title refers to the hairstyle popular in the 17th century known as the hurluberlu.

The final book I want to talk about here is The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen (originally published in 1938 under the pseudonym George R Preedy). The King of the title is King James I of England and VI of Scotland – and the Favourite is Robin Carr, a young man who catches the King’s eye when he falls and breaks his leg in the tilt yard. Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, sees his chance to gain influence at court by pushing his pretty, seventeen-year-old great-niece Frances into an affair with Robin. But Howard is not the only one who is plotting and scheming; Robin’s friend, Tom Overbury, is also keen to encourage the romance between Robin and Frances in the hope of gaining more power for himself.

Nobody expected the two to actually fall in love, but that is what happens. With his plans thrown into disarray, Overbury finds himself caught in the middle of another plot – but this one is directed at himself. The King’s Favourite is based on real events from history, but I was unfamiliar with the details of this particular story. My lack of knowledge meant I had no idea what was going to happen and could enjoy this as a suspenseful true crime novel before looking up the facts after I’d finished and comparing them with Marjorie Bowen’s version.

While the plot (after a slow start) is an exciting, dramatic one, the characters are not particularly strong and not at all sympathetic either! I can’t say that I liked any of them – although I was interested to see that the astrologer and physician Simon Forman plays a prominent part in the story. I remember being intrigued by his appearances in Sally O’Reilly’s Dark Aemilia, so it was good to learn more about him here.

I see that there have been several other novels written over the years that also deal with the Overbury case, including one by Rafael Sabatini (The Minion) which I’m now very interested in reading. The TBR continues to grow!

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Dora Greenwell McChesney’s Civil War

Rupert by the Grace of God I have not just one book but two to tell you about today. Dora Greenwell McChesney is an author from the late 19th/early 20th century whose work I discovered a few months ago when I read her Richard III novel from 1913, The Confession of Richard Plantagenet. I love reading about Richard III, but I also enjoy reading about the English Civil War, so when I spotted reissues of two of her Civil War novels on NetGalley recently I was curious to see what they were like.

Rupert, by the Grace of God, originally published in 1899, was the first one I read. I was attracted to this book by the title; it refers, of course, to Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of Charles I and commander of the Royalist cavalry. When I read a biography of Rupert earlier in the year, I said that I was interested in reading more about him (and was given a few suggestions in the comments, which I will get around to reading eventually – I promise!) so that was definitely part of the appeal of this particular novel for me.

The story is narrated by Will Fortescue, a young man who has defied his father to join the Royalist army. Taking refuge in a church to hide from enemy soldiers one day, Will finds an unusual golden coin on the floor and picks it up, unaware that in doing so he is changing the whole course of his life. The coin is recognised by Cosmas, an elderly man whom some say is a wizard, and Will finds himself drawn into a secret plot to put Rupert on the throne in place of Charles. Rupert himself, however, is loyal to his king and wants no part in such a treacherous scheme!

There were parts of this novel that I enjoyed, but it wasn’t really what I’d been expecting. Being part historical adventure novel and part gothic melodrama, it was entertaining at times, but I have to admit, I can see why it was allowed to go out of print for so long. I was interested in Will Fortescue’s personal story and in his involvement in the battles and key moments of the Civil War, but there was too much focus on secret conspiracies and black magic rituals for my taste and after a few chapters I felt my attention starting to wander.

Cornet Strong of Iretons Horse The second McChesney novel I read was Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse, published several years later in 1903. This is a different sort of story, concentrating on the relationship between two soldiers within the Parliamentarian army: Nathan Standish, a young captain, and Reuben Strong, who is promoted to the rank of cornet after capturing Prince Rupert’s banner. Throughout the novel, Strong and Standish cross paths on several occasions with a young Irish Cavalier, Roy O’Neil, and his sister, Eileen.

Strong is a dedicated, inflexible person who believes very strongly in carrying out God’s work. When another character tells him “we are all somewhat more than mere engines of soldiership,” Strong answers “I am no more! I am a sword, a sword tempered to this work and to no other use.” Standish is a more likeable character and plays such a prominent part in the story, I wondered, at least for a while, why the author had chosen to put Strong’s name in the title.

Of these two books, I preferred Cornet Strong. Although it was still quite reliant on coincidences, chance encounters and last-minute escapes, it felt like a more ‘serious’ historical novel, telling a more straightforward story. Instead of the magic and mystery of Rupert, by the Grace of God, this one deals with battles, military campaigns and army life. Again, though, I never really felt fully absorbed – not until near the end, when something was revealed which made me think differently about everything I’d read up to that point.

Dora Greenwell McChesney’s writing style won’t appeal to everyone – the language used in her dialogue is archaic and her prose in general feels old-fashioned, even for books published in 1899 and 1903. These two novels haven’t won a place on my list of favourite Civil War books, but they were interesting in parts and were fairly quick reads, particularly the shorter Cornet Strong, so I did find them worth reading.

My Commonplace Book: August 2016

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

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

Collins English Dictionary

~

Margaret Beaufort

She could have asked, of course, but she would not get any answers. She thought of all the words that went unspoken in the world, throughout time: what happened to them, where did they go? What would happen if they were all spoken? How different would the world be then?

Succession by Livi Michael (2014)

~

“Molly, I cannot have you speaking so to Lady Harriet,” said Mrs. Gibson, as soon as she was left alone with her stepdaughter. “You would never have known her at all if it had not been for me, and don’t be always putting yourself into our conversation.”

“But I must speak if she asks me questions,” pleaded Molly.

“Well! if you must, you must, I acknowledge. I’m candid about that at any rate. But there’s no need for you to set up to have an opinion at your age.”

“I don’t know how to help it,” said Molly.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)

~

I know very little about my mother, and have no family to help me fill in the gaps. I am an only child and my father’s two elder sisters died several years ago. I am intrigued by this photograph and would like to find out more about the people in it…I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions. Any information you could offer would mean a great deal to me.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (2011)

~

Penny dreadful

Since cheap magazines were traded on street corners, in playgrounds and factory yards, each issue could have many readers. Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale (2016)

~

It can’t have been much of a life, can it? for a woman of over seventy, living alone in lodgings, in debt to her landlady, wearing our cast-off clothes, trotting round after jobs that never materialised, writing articles that nobody would publish, and eating bread and margarine for supper. There really was something rather pathetic about that awful room of hers – crowded with papers full of impossible schemes…I don’t suppose there can ever have been anyone whose life was much less important, or who had less influence on anybody else.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)

~

It was something he’d learned in the war: only think about what is directly in front of you. No, that wasn’t quite right. He’d had to plan ahead all the time…but not to feel ahead. For a man of Giles’s far-seeing, intricate temperament that had been a hard lesson. But Simon, he could see, knew it by instinct.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore (2016)

~

Red Cocker Spaniel

Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been — all that; and he — But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.

Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)

~

“I play,” he once said to me, “for the best musician in the world – he may not be there, but I play as if he were”. I thought to myself that he was always there when Sebastian was playing, but I did not say so, for that was the kind of thing which did not please him.

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell (1925)

~

It is quite beautiful, a metaphoric triumph over adversity, with every millimetre of its gnarled trunk proudly displaying its struggle.
I wonder now why humans hate the map of their life that appears on their own bodies, when a tree like this, or a faded painting, or a near-derelict uninhabited building is lauded for its antiquity.

The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley (2016)

~

I cannot say – I had misjudged him before – yet I do think, in that moment, he had his battle to fight – one fierce as his fiercest charge. Cosmas waited, devouring him with his eyes. And I waited; a sudden, amazing sense springing up in me, that if he yielded, as I had so desired him to yield, this King who might be would never be the Prince whom I had served and loved.

Rupert, by the Grace of God by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1899)

~

louisedelavalliere

“Life, monsieur,” said Planchet, laughing, “is capital which a man ought to invest as sensibly as he possibly can.”

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

~

Hélène wondered whether the lady was protesting a bit too much in order to convince her, or to convince herself. Could she start a new life at her age? You can start a new game of cards or redecorate the living room, but life itself, can you do that again?

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat (2013)

~

And now? Overseas in England, his brethren in the faith were fighting, were dying, to achieve the freedom which he had sought. Before his eyes rose the grey, thronged sea-port town he knew, the richer fields, the narrower skies; and yet here, in this strenuous bleakness, he had found his soul.

Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1903)

~

Love for her was to be a slow, ripening process, the fruit of many meetings and mutual interests. She had never believed in love at first sight. That surely, she told herself, was an invention of novelists, whose business it was to make everything slightly larger than life.

The Jewelled Snuff Box by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1959)

~

Fountains Abbey 1

The queen responded a week later. “We are sending a young gentleman up to Yorkshire to resolve the matter. We do not wish to hear from you again.”

It was a measure of Mr Aislabie’s poor standing at court that I was the young gentleman in question.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson (2016)

~

Favourite books this month: Wives and Daughters, Flush and Exposure

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet by Dora Greenwell McChesney

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet With the Wars of the Roses being one of my favourite periods of history, I like to read everything I can find on the subject. This novel by Dora Greenwell McChesney – an author completely new to me – sounded particularly intriguing because it was published in 1913, making it the oldest Wars of the Roses novel I have read, coming sixteen years before even Marjorie Bowen’s Dickon (1929).

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet begins with the Yorkist victory at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 and ends with Richard III’s defeat at Bosworth Field in 1485. Between these two events we are given not so much a confession as a fairly straightforward account of Richard’s life, showing the circumstances which led to him taking the throne following the death of his brother, Edward IV, and then leading us through the key moments of his own brief reign.

As this is described on the front cover as ‘a sympathetic novel of Richard III’, I was interested to see how McChesney was going to tackle the many controversies surrounding Richard, such as the death of Henry VI and, of course, the disappearance of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Well, this novel does show Richard either directly or indirectly committing some of the crimes of which he has traditionally been accused, but always for good and noble reasons or because he has been left with no other choice.

I can appreciate that because she was writing what was surely one of the earliest pro-Ricardian novels, McChesney (like Marjorie Bowen with Dickon) was trying to counteract the more widely held view of Richard as an evil, hunchbacked murderer, but I think she went too far the other way, with the effect that Richard comes across as blameless and almost saintly. Still, it was interesting because the approach taken in this novel is slightly different from others I’ve read. This is why I’m happy to keep on reading about the same historical people and events again and again – because each different author offers a different set of opinions, ideas and interpretations.

If you have never read about this time period before, however, I probably wouldn’t recommend starting here. McChesney seems to assume the reader has at least some prior knowledge, so if you’re not already familiar with the background to the Wars of the Roses and the names and relationships involved, you might find the plot difficult to follow, especially in conjunction with the style in which the book is written.

Like a lot of older historical fiction novels, the language McChesney uses is archaic and flowery, particularly in the dialogue. As someone who reads all sorts of historical fiction, from the latest releases to books written hundreds of years ago, I always find it interesting to see how trends in the genre have changed. McChesney’s dialogue feels very outdated today, but personally I liked it once I got used to it and thought it added to the atmosphere of the novel.

Despite the flaws I have mentioned I enjoyed reading this version of Richard’s story and I’m sure it won’t be long before I find myself picking up yet another one!

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

My commonplace book: May 2016

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

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

Collins English Dictionary

~

He could put the young king aside as some nameless bastard; he could take England into his hand to shape to what greatness he would. In that moment, he never questioned his power. It was his to claim kingship or forgo it. On the strains of the dirge drifted to him a sound of King Edward’s voice: “Richard hath failed me never; him I do well to trust!”

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1913)

~

Vaux le Vicomte

The scaffolding had disappeared, flowers and shrubs were gradually covering the bare earth, bringing the flowerbeds to life, and Vaux was slowly taking shape, little by little revealing its full majesty.

The Sun King Conspiracy by Yves Jégo and Denis Lépée (2016)

~

Thus at two on a Sunday morning, on the second day of September, in the year of our Lord, also the year of the Beast, 1666, London begins to burn.

Fire by C.C. Humphreys (2016)

~

Phileas Fogg

The mansion in Savile Row, though not sumptuous, was exceedingly comfortable. The habits of its occupant were such as to demand but little from the sole domestic, but Phileas Fogg required him to be almost superhumanly prompt and regular. On this very 2nd of October he had dismissed James Forster, because that luckless youth had brought him shaving-water at eighty-four degrees Fahrenheit instead of eighty-six.

Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne (1873)

~

Even after all this time, grief threatens to overwhelm me when I think about my family…so powerful, so vigorous, yet all destroyed in a few short years. But still, we left our mark on history; never again will the world see our equal.

The Sons of Godwine by Mercedes Rochelle (2016)

~

Mary Anne Clarke

This was what they remembered in after years. The rest was forgotten. Forgotten the lies, the deceit, the sudden bursts of temper. Forgotten the wild extravagance, the absurd generosity, the vitriolic tongue. Only the warmth remained, and the love of living.

Mary Anne by Daphne du Maurier (1954)

~

“The worst of it is, I’ll have to tell him so myself. He’ll never dare to mention the subject again, after what I said to him that night he proposed last. I wish I hadn’t been so dreadful emphatic. Now I’ve got to say it myself if it is ever said. But I’ll not begin by quoting poetry, that’s one thing sure!”

Love and Other Happy Endings edited by M.R. Nelson (2016)

~

She could not even recall his features properly nor remember the colour of his eyes, but she could recall how her heart had leaped when he looked at her. She could remember the sound of his voice but not the words he had spoken, as one remembers the perfume of a flower long after it has been pressed out of shape between the pages of a book.

The Queenmaker by Maureen Peters (1975)

~

Pembroke_Table_by_Chippendale

Sometimes the apprentice fainted with exertion and had to be revived with a cup of water dashed in his face. Thomas often thought, when a veneered surface had been subsequently polished to a satin-like shine, that it was doubtful if the future owner of the piece would ever have the least idea what sweaty, strength-wrenching effort went into the making of it. Hell held no fears for him. It could be no worse than a veneering shop.

Gilded Splendour by Rosalind Laker (1982)

~

“Jack, Jack,” cried Stephen, running in. “I have been sadly remiss. You are promoted, I find. You are a great man – you are virtually an admiral! Give you joy, my dear, with all my heart. The young man in black clothes tells me you are the greatest man on the station, after the Commander-in-chief.”

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (1977)

~

Favourite book this month: Around the World in Eighty Days