Posts from February 2013

February 6th, 2013

Six for the Regicide!

Scientific reconstruction of Richard III
Scientific reconstruction of Richard III

Avunculicide would be just as accurate, since of course we’re referring to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who in 1483 became King of England after having disposed of the niggling little obstacle of the previous king of England, 14-year-old Edward V, who’d become king upon the death of his father, Edward IV, Richard’s brother. Young Edward and his brother were the famed “Princes in the Tower” whose disappearance has led to such explosions of verbiage in the last four hundred years.

Richard is in the news again lately because – in an absolutely thrilling discovery – his bones were recently excavated from a car park in Leicester. The identity of the bones was only just now conclusively established using sorcerous DNA technology, so there’s very little speculation and all that much more astonishment: here, after four centuries, are the remains of the last Plantagenet king, the loser at the Battle of Bosworth Field. It’s not every day that history steps so vividly into the popular-news limelight.

He’s always occupied the more rarefied versions of that limelight, the realm of historical speculation – and of books, especially books. Thomas More’s riveting History of King Richard III, first published in 1557, is a thriller of deceptive dramatic complexity, and it was gobbled up by Raphael Holinshed for his 1578 work Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, woven into a broader historical narrative that painted Richard as nothing less than a serpent in a garden of roses. It was all so vivid, it’s little wonder it drew later dramatists like flies – and it’s with one of those dramatists that our little tour of Richardiana must begin:

penguin richard iiiRichard III by William Shakespeare – Surely no single writer’s version of a historical figure has been this definitive since the Gospel of St. John: Shakespeare’s Richard (in the play first printed in 1597) – ruthless, venal, almost buffoonishly evil – has become so cemented in the popular historical consciousness that there’s simply no dislodging him. This “troubler of the world’s peace” is smarter and funnier than all the virtuous victims that populate the play, whose self-righteousness he wheedles when he can’t simply overthrow it. It’s an entirely masterful stage creation – Shakespeare is clearly revelling in some of his best work – and like all the best such creations, it convinces. This Richard instantly became every bit as real as the actual flesh-and-blood (and bone) Richard had ever been – real enough to cast a shadow over every single word subsequently written on the subject. This Richard is so evil we root for him. And rooting for him is just what our next author had in mind.


daughteroftimeThe Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey – 355 years might separate these two works, but they’ll be inseparably joined for the rest of time, and it says a lot about Tey’s 1951 murder mystery that it’s enjoyed very nearly the same sway at Shakespeare’s play – in fact, in many circles, even more. Shakespeare is easy for scholars especially to disregard as the willing dupe of Tudor propaganda, who was in any case spinning fictional stories for the stage (his fast-and-loose dealings with historical fact were well known even in his own day), whereas Tey not only researched her novel but then had he main character duplicate that research right in front of the reader – in fact, the research is the plot of the book. Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital and bored enough so that when his eyes light on a portrait of Richard he begins to wonder the famous monster of English history doesn’t look like a monster. Grant begins to read the sources in-depth and comes to the conclusion that Richard was framed – that he was in fact a generous and kindly monarch who had nothing to do with the death of his nephews. The book burst on the reading public and the historical establishment like a bombshell, and it still makes genuinely fascinating reading today, when most of Tey’s other novels have long since begun to show their age. And quite apart from its literary merits, it changed forever the nature of Richard III studies: it created the Richard Fan Club.

richard iii - kendallRichard the Third by Paul Murray Kendall – Every single biographer of Richard III from that point onward had to deal with the Richard Fan Club, even if their professional dignity (or snobbery) couldn’t allow them to stoop even to mentioning Tey’s name. In 1956 the greatest of those biographies appeared, by Professor Paul Murray Kendall, and it’s fair to say this is the first major modern biography of Richard that’s written by a member of the Fan Club. Kendall is an encyclopedically authoritative writer (the sheer sugary scholarship of his prose is still a wonder to behold), and one of his aims is the same as Inspector Grant’s: to renovate Richard’s dark reputation – to find the monarch underneath the monster. Instead of reading unrelenting evil back into the original sources for Richard’s life and reign, Kendall reads the sources themselves – and often draws from them a far more forgiving account of Richard than fans of Shakespeare’s caricature could have imagined. Although Kendall is careful not to summarily acquit Richard of the crimes history’s imputed to him (the aforementioned regicide and avunculicide), he gives us a Richard who could be acquitted.

we speak no treasonWe Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman – The Fan Club wasn’t done with Richard by a long shot, however, and those acquittals came in droves, none more floridly and effectively than Rosemary Jarman’s lush 1971 historical novel We Speak No Treason, in which readers see Richard refracted through four main other narrators, each one of whom gives us shards and pieces of a figure Jarman can hardly wait to exonerate. She didn’t originally intend this over-bursting manuscript for publication, and it shows on every page: there’s a very odd, often beautiful, gaudily ornate, and rawly personal fluorescence to these pages. The multiple narratives bring us closer and closer to Richard, and the closer we get, the more convinced we are of his inherent nobility and – in a neat elbow to Shakespeare – how easily that nobility can be ridiculed by lesser folk if it suits their needs (and how that kind of political calculation can become codified into history). The hard kernel of Richard’s guilt – the disappearance forever of his nephews – is here pulverized under a pile of partly purple prose. Readers will come away thinking just the same thing they thought when they finished Tey and Kendall: that there’s a very good chance this Richard person has been dealt a raw hand by posterity.

richard iii - rossRichard III by Charles Ross – a corrective of sorts was in order, and Charles Ross provides one in this 1981 biography. It’s thorough and balanced, even a touch on the dry side; there’s nothing in it to approach the grandiloquent mastery of Kendall’s book, but there’s likewise nothing to suggest partisan blinders. I don’t see a bit of this ‘dry’ business – I think Ross is a fine historian (his book on Edward IV is even better than this book, but Edward isn’t turning up in parking lots, so it doesn’t matter), and the extensive context he provides in this book is just what Richard III needs. Here we have the two things that tend to be overshadowed by the glitz and glitter of nephew-killing: that Richard wielded enormous power for years as Edward’s most trusted lieutenant, and that Richard did, in fact, rule the country after he stole its crown. Shakespeare the dramatist could be free to give us a Richard who was nothing but evil, but nobody in power can be only evil, all day long. Even Richard Nixon signed a few important pieces of legislation in his day. But when it comes time to weigh the evidence about those Princes in the Tower, Ross in sober judgement thinks Richard did it – and he has some unkind words to spare for all those lady novelists out there who might think otherwise! The Fan Club certainly didn’t like that!

the-white-queen3The White Queen by Philippa Gregory – The Richard Fan Club can look to quite a few more contemporary novelists for succor. The literary heirs of Rosemary Jarman (or Thomas More, if that’s your way of thinking) are legion: in the pages of historical fiction, the Wars of the Roses will never stop. Almost all the big names have dipped a toe in these waters, and unless Hilary Mantel decides to write Middleham Castle, the biggest of those contemporary names is surely Philippa Gregory, whose smash it novel The Other Boleyn Girl has already been filmed twice. In 2009 Gregory left off chronicling the Tudors and turned to York and Lancaster in her “Cousins’ War” books, starting with The White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the Princes in the Tower and the inveterate sparring-partner of Richard. But if the Fan Club was hoping for the ultimate fictional vindication in these pages, it was disappointed: Gregory paints a human but decidedly ambiguous portrait of Richard and doesn’t exactly exonerate him of his most famous crime. It’s an elegant and fast-paced book, but it’s no white-wash.

Of course, in the time it’s taken us to get this far, a dozen more books, articles, and monographs on Richard have been written, both by the Fan Club and its enemies. Guided tours like this one through the annals of Ricardiana have been done wonderfully already (curiously, both camps tend to agree on which books are the ones most worth discussing – almost as though reading were a kingdom no grasping hands could sully?) and will continue to be done, especially now that Richard is here among us again, fit to be cellular-tested and facially reconstructed and mitochondrially analyzed. And defended anew, Gawd help us.


November 3rd, 2011

Eight (more) Great Historical Novels!

What better way to end the week than with yet another lavish, happy list of book-recommendations? Our sub-genre is once again that of my beloved historical novels, those perfect embodiments of Horace’s famous split mission of delighting and entertaining, so let’s get right down to brass tacks, shall we?

When Knighthood was in Flower by “Edwin Caskoden” (1898)

Charles Major wrote this book in 1898 under the pen-name Edwin Caskoden, and it sold like hotcakes. Month after month, year after year, customers would walk into bookstores from Boston to Boise and ask for “the knighthood book” – and long-suffering clerks knew exactly what they were talking about. Major was a hard-working Midwestern lawyer when the book first came out, but it was such a huge best-seller that he was soon able to retire to writing full-time – although none of his subsequent books managed to recapture the fire and fun of this, his debut. It’s the story of the love that grows suddenly and unstoppably between Mary Tudor, the sister of Henry VIII, and Charles Brandon, the King’s best friend, and in its perfectly-tuned sunlit descriptions, it was the most irresistible piece of historical fiction to appear since Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur. Given the Tudor-mania that’s recently been sweeping the reading public, I’m amazed nobody’s reprinted this with a trendy cover. If an enterprising publisher were to dig deep enough, they could find a glowing blurb from none other than Theodore Roosevelt

The Romance of Leonardo Da Vinci by Dmitri Merezhkovsky (1902)

The 1963 Washington Square Press edition of Merezhkovsky’s monumental best-seller greatly expands the truncated version authorized by the Merezhkovsky in 1901. Despite its limitations (translators and audiences today would likely find them unacceptable), that 1901 translation done by Herbert Trench sold millions of copies around the world – month after month, year after year, customers would come into bookstores from Boston to Brest and ask for “The book about Leonardo” – and long-suffering book clerks knew there could be no other (despite the presence throughout the decades of some very good actual biographies of Leonardo). And with good reason: even in the 1963 translation by Morris Gurin and Helen Gourin (which improves on Trench but is still mighty damn creaky), the glow and pageant of the Renaissance lives again – and the central port of Leonardo is so perfectly researched and rendered that it’s small wonder half the used bookstores in in the world accidentally shelve this thing under Biography.


The Devil in Velvet by John Dickson Carr (1951)

Carr wrote dozens of novels, perhaps hundreds, under his own name and many others. He was a quintessential hack, churning out perfectly (and sometimes not so perfectly) plotted mystery yarns at a rate that makes Anthony Trollope look like a slug-a-bed. Carr never took days off from writing, never revised a single word he wrote (a word of his fiction, that is – like many hacks, he could be meticulous about his nonfiction)(his 1963 book The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey is very much worth your time), and never agonized over the woof and weave of his plots’ deeper meanings. Instead, he just kept at it, even when afflicted with a stroke. In this tangled and immensely rewarding pot-boiler, Carr’s intrepid Professor Fenton makes a deal with the Devil that sends him back in time to Restoration London in order to solve a murder. Carr takes great pleasure in summoning all the gaudy details of that oft-fictionalized period, capping everything with his signature puzzles and sudden revelations.

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott (1819)

It’s almost a sin to mention the words “historical fiction” without mentioning “Sir Walter Scott” in the same sentence. His book Waverley, first published anonymously in 1814, changed the genre of historical fiction completely – indeed, it would be fair to say it created what we now know as the historical novel. It and all Scott’s subsequent novels (none more so than Ivanhoe) exerted an influence on virtually every literate person in the Western hemisphere, and the strength of that influence can never be fully mapped and has thus, to my mind, never been given its proper due. Partly this is due to the uncomfortable fact that Scott is an atrocious writer of English prose – this famous story of the virtuous Saxon knight Ivanhoe, the various villains of King John’s court, the sweet young Jewess Rebecca, and Robin Hood himself is a great galloping inelegant thing, full of purple passages and cardboard characters. And yet, Scott wrote with that particular magic that’s only vouchsafed to hacks, and his millions of readers over the centuries (long may their line continue!) have willingly surrendered to the spell.

The Lord of the Two Lands by Judith Tarr (1993)

Alexander the Great is a tough choice for a fantasy writer, because his life reads more grippingly – and less believably – than most fantasy novels. Tarr takes the story of the young man who conquered most of the Western world before he was thirty and weaves into it a second narrative, a sinuous story of ancient Egypt and the many temptations it could offer somebody of Alexander’s messianic tendencies. The temple priests of Amon send Meriamon, the artistic, insightful daughter of the Pharaoh, to the sweeps of Persia to find this rumored phenomenon, this unbeatable Macedonian warlord and convince him to turn south and come to Egypt, where a godlike destiny beyond his imagination awaits. Tarr creates an Alexander to remember, but even more she creates an ancient Egypt steeped in magic and the pretense of magic – what results is like a turbo-charged variation on the theme of Marc Antony and Cleopatra – a meeting not only of religions but of living gods. A well-made new trade paperback of this wonderful book would be a good idea.

Katherine by Anya Seton (1954)

Publishers have recently been very good at keeping the great, under-appreciated Anya Seton in print, and it’s understandable why: in her taut narrative tempos, effective but not cumbersome ‘period’ dialogue, and powerful female characters, she’s an obvious precursor to that Attila the Hun of contemporary historical fiction, Philippa Gregory (a fact to which Gregory herself pays ample and becoming tribute). Katherine is easily Seton’s best book, the gripping story of Katherine Swynford, the smart, sharp long-time mistress and later wife of John of Gaunt (and the sister-in-law of that rising man about court, Geoffrey Chaucer). Historians look at Katherine Swynford mainly as the fons et origo of the Wars of the Roses, but no reader of this novel can ever do that – for us, history’s Katherine is forever Seton’s Katherine, inquisitive, passionate, self-assured yet self-doubting, and thoroughly, three-dimensionally human. And unlike some of her later disciples in the genre, Seton manages to impart something of that complex humanity to almost all of her characters.

Dear and Glorious Physician by Taylor Caldwell (1959)

This immensely popular historical novel about the life of Saint Luke was a best-seller for years, reprinted innumerable times, and month after month, year after year, in bookstores from Boston to Buenos Aires, customers would come in wanting “that Gospel book” – and long-suffering book clerks would know exactly what they meant. The author was prolific, and yet a great many of the novels are resoundingly good, and Dear and Glorious Physician (one of three of her books derived from the New Testament, the other two being Great Lion of God about Saint Paul and the vividly excellent I, Judas co-written with Jess Stearn) is one of her best. Her Lucanus is an early scientific sceptic, a rational young man who resists the Good News even while he’s interviewing healed people and talking with Mary, the mother of Jesus. There’s plenty of action and character here, but it’s the lavishly detailed depiction of the grudging stages by which a deep-thinking man acquires an unthinking faith that’s the most memorable thing about the book.

My Lord John by Georgette Heyer (1975)

At this point, need I say it? Month after month, year after year, in bookstores from Boston to Burundi, customers would come in looking for “her last book” and long-suffering book clerks would know exactly what they meant: My Lord John, the big, intensely ambitious historical novel by Georgette Heyer, published posthumously by her husband from the vast sea of notes and plot outlines and written drafts she left behind. Heyer was a monumental best-seller in her day, famous both for her fizzy murder mysteries (picture the novels of Agatha Christie, only well-written) and for her extremely lucrative Regency romances, which fell as the gentle rain from Heaven onto book shop front tables every Christmas and parted customers from their money as gently as a single raindrop. My Lord John – even in this truncated version (I often wonder if some enterprising Heyer archivist someday will give us a much, much longer version of this book – I’d clear my calendar to read it) – is a much weightier matter, the story of John, the nice-guy brother of King Henry V (and, coincidentally, the grandson of the aforementioned Katherine Swynford). The sweep and quiet swagger of this achievement will make just about any reader wish Heyer’s public had been a bit less demanding for more of those damn Regencies, so that she might have had the time to do this epic justice.

The White Queen by Philippa Gregory (2009)

I’m well aware that this surprisingly gripping novel of Elizabeth Woodville has been, um, very enthusiastically reviewed elsewhere, but I could hardly let this little round-up of historical fiction conclude without hauling in the very Philippa Gregory we’ve been hinting at and alluding to, now could I? Gregory of course made her name with The Other Boleyn Girl (bringing us full circle to those damn Tudors!) and its companion Tudor novels, but in this book and its mirror image The Red Queen, she explores the equally-fascinating (though far less popular) period of the aforementioned Wars of the Roses. The idiot ur-realityTV star Woodville is at the heart of that period, the wife of Edward IV and the mother of the famous Princes in the Tower, and The White Queen brandishes the same machinery that brought Gregory mega-success: short, fast chapters, naked first-person narration, and just the right seasoning of book club-friendly anachronisms. This book’s portrayal of Richard III will, incidentally, both intrigue and in part infuriate any remaining adherents that wretched character might still have in this day and age.

And there you have it! Not only eight meaty historical novels to tempt you, but also, I can’t help but notice as I look back on the list, a handy little illustration of that hoary old concept, the Wheel of Fortune: just look at how many of these authors are now entirely unknown despite once having their names on the lips of bookstore customers from Boston to Byzantium and back. Gregory had better salt something away for the proverbial rainy day.

February 8th, 2010

Keeping Up With The Tudors: The Other Boleyn Girl!

Our book today is the one that started it all: Philippa Gregory’s totally unexpected runaway bestseller, The Other Boleyn Girl (originally titled The Other Boleyn Sister – obviously it was feared that historically illiterate American audiences would feel they were reading a sequel, as with The Madness of King George III)(although I myself actually prefer the American title here – it has a slightly more brutal, impersonal tone, one that fits the book’s mercenary tale better than the more familial ’Sister’).

Safe to say no historical novel written in the last thirty years has been as influential as this one. In only ten years, The Other Boleyn Girl has generated five spin-offs, two different movie adaptations (one for the BBC and one for the mysterious ongoing purpose of keeping Eric Bana employed), an ongoing HBO series (since The Tudors would be unthinkable without the success of the book), and a vast, untrackable ocean of like-minded books set in the Tudor era (I plumb that sea at greater depth here). And like great touchstone historical novels before it, The Other Boleyn Girl has exerted its main influence as a kind of imaginative primer. Just as Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur opened the floodgates for Roman historical fiction, just as Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber opened the floodgates for a brief resurgence of Restoration bodice-rippers, so The Other Boleyn Girl has taught a generation of readers that the Tudor era isn’t something they need a Ph.D. in history to enter and understand. Such teaching often pays long dividends, and this time is no exception: Hilary Mantel owes her recent Man Booker win as much to Philippa Gregory as to the intrinsic strength of Wolf Hall.

Gregory’s book stands like an imperturbable tower above the brick-bats that have been hurled at it by its critics (myself included, way back when and under a pen-name), who for years have assailed its historical accuracy. Those critics, being critics, would have done that anyway, although in this case they were egged on by Gregory’s own claims for the historical accuracy of her book. Historical novelists almost always make such claims, and critics are well-advised to ignore them and concentrate on the important things about fiction, foremost of which is this: does it work?

The Other Boleyn Girl incontestably works. Gregory had written extremely competent if tweedy historical novels earlier in her career (including a whole series chronicling the exploits of a family of gardeners to royalty – how’s that for an English double-whammy?), but in this book she makes some key decisions, and they all pay off.

As you all know, this is the story of Anne Boleyn’s sister Mary, who was the first of Thomas Boleyn’s daughters to catch the roving eye of King Henry VIII, who’s portrayed here as tiring of his aging Spanish queen and hungry for sexual adventures – and a male heir. Gregory decides to tell the story from Mary’s point of view, to tell it sharply with none of the fustian palaver that had usually infested Tudor novels, and to shape her characters into resolutely modern people in period costume. Scenes unfold and transform with almost time-lapse rapidity, and Gregory’s previously languid approach to character development is here whittled to a series of mostly pointed observations. In crafting such a narrative, Gregory inadvertently grants Mary far, far more intelligence than she really possessed, but it’s a minor infraction, especially considering the sheer amounts of fun that result. The Other Boleyn Girl is above all a quite fantastic read. It’s comforting to think that alone might account for a great deal of its success.

Despite the cavils of historical critics, there’s a good deal of accurate research at the back of this book. But its main delight comes in it quick exchanges of dialogue, as in the tense little scene in which Anne sends her sister off to be with Henry:

“Are you clean?” Anne asked sharply.

I nodded.

She looked at me anxiously. “Go on then. And you can resist for a bit, you know. Show a little doubt. Don’t just fall into his arms.”

I turned my face away from her. She seemed to me quite unbearably crass about the whole matter.

“The girl can have a bit of pleasure,” George said gently.

Anne rounded on him. “Not in his bed,” she said sharply. “She’s not there for her pleasure but for his.”

I didn’t even hear her. All I could ear was the thud of my heart pounding in my ears and my knowledge that he had sent for me, that I would be with him soon.

“Come on,” I said to George. “Let’s go.”

Anne turned to go back into the room. “I’ll wait up for you,” she said.

I hesitated. “I might not come back tonight.”

She nodded. “I hope you don’t. But I’ll wait up for you anyway. I’ll sit by the fire and watch the dawn come in.”

I thought for a moment about her keeping a vigil for me in her spinster bedroom while I was snug and loved in the King of England’s bed. “My God, you must wish it was you,” I said with sudden acute delight.

She did not flinch from it. “Of course. He is the king.”

You can see several of the basic ingredients of The Other Boleyn Girl in that little scene (and a few of its key weaknesses, here symbolized in that repeated ‘sharply’): the modern speech cadences, full of contractions and free of ‘thee’ and ‘thou,’ the economical evocation of setting (characters in the book imagine each other doing things almost as often as they actually do things), and of course a free-wheeling willingness to make a scenery-chewing Lucifer out of Anne Boleyn.

Gregory’s also not above winking a little at her audience, as in this much later scene in which Mary and George attend the banquet in honor of Anne becoming the Marquess of Pembroke (and honor bestowed by the besotted Henry):

At the banquet George and I sat side by side and looked up at our sister, seated beside the king.

He did not ask if I was envious. It was an answer too obvious to be worth inquiry. “I don’t know another woman who could have done it,” he said. “She has a unique determination to be on the throne.”

“I never had that,” I said. “The only thing I’ve ever wanted from childhood was not to be overlooked.”

“Well you can forget that,” George said with brotherly frankness. “You’ll be overlooked now for the rest of your life. We’ll both be as nothing. Anything I achieve will be seen as her gift. And you’ll never match her. She’s the only Boleyn anyone will ever know of or remember. You’ll be a nobody forever.”

It was the word “nobody.”At the very word the bitterness drained out of me, and I smiled. “You know, there might be some joy in being a nobody.”

“You’ll be a nobody forever” indeed. There are Other Boleyn Girl tours, Other Boleyn Girl garden parties, Other Boleyn Girl stationary lines and book clubs … and I already mentioned the legion of knockoff novels set in a Tudor court suddenly become so lusty it’s a wonder anybody ever had time to trade dispatches with the Venetian ambassador.

We all owe that renaissance – the good and the bad of it – to Philippa Gregory and her improbable blockbuster of a book. Each publishing season, roughly 400 hopefuls plop their Tudor wares on the counter and hope the public will consume them in equal quantities, but so far that kind of success has evaded them all (and Gregory herself – none of those sequels sold more than a fraction of what the original did and still does). This is only natural, though the poor things don’t see it. The next lynch-pin book that catches and sparks the public’s imagination will be as unexpected as The Other Boleyn Girl was, and it will turn all eyes toward a different era entirely. The Windsors, anyone?