The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath

The Silken Rose is the first in a new trilogy of novels telling the stories of three medieval queens who have been referred to at one time or another as ‘she-wolves’ because of their unpopularity or because they managed to wield power or influence in a period dominated by men. The second and third books in the series are going to focus on Eleanor of Castile and Isabella of France, but this first novel is about Eleanor of Provence. Carol McGrath uses the alternative spelling of Ailenor, so I will do the same throughout the rest of this post.

Ailenor of Provence is not a queen I’ve ever read much about; I think it’s safe to say that she and her husband, King Henry III of England, are not the most popular subjects for historical fiction! They appear in Sharon Penman’s Falls the Shadow, but otherwise I’m struggling to think of other books I’ve read about them and that’s a good thing because it means that the story which unfolds in The Silken Rose feels fresh and different. It begins in 1236 with Ailenor, at the age of only thirteen, arriving in England from France for her wedding to Henry, a man more than twice her age. Although her new husband treats her with kindness and their marriage is not an unhappy one, Ailenor finds it difficult adjusting to life in a strange country and values the friendships she forms with two very different women.

One of these women is Henry’s sister, Eleanor, known as Nell, who has taken a vow of chastity after being widowed. Ailenor quickly discovers that Nell is in love with Simon de Montfort, one of the most powerful noblemen at Henry’s court, and she decides to help her sister-in-law break free from her oath and marry Simon. However, this marriage will eventually have serious repercussions for Henry and for England. The other friend Ailenor makes is Rosalind, a talented embroideress who is brought to court to teach Ailenor and her ladies to embroider intricate new patterns. Unlike most of the other characters in the novel, Rosalind is a fictional character, but she plays an important part in the story, providing a link between the nobility and the merchant classes.

Although Ailenor is the main focus of the novel, there are some sections written from Rosalind’s perspective (and occasionally from Nell’s), which helps to build up a full picture of the events that take place during this period, rather than only being limited to things that Ailenor experiences herself. The story Carol McGrath builds around Rosalind feels believable and fits seamlessly into Ailenor’s story – but despite this, I didn’t find her as interesting or engaging to read about as Ailenor and although I did understand the reasons for her inclusion in the book, I would have preferred it if the novel had stuck solely to the real historical characters. Apart from that, I really enjoyed The Silken Rose; there’s not a huge amount of drama, but I was never bored.

You may be wondering why Ailenor has been described as a ‘she-wolf’; well, it seems that this was partly due to the fact that she brought a large number of her relatives to England with her, where they were given positions of power and were able to influence the king. These included several of her uncles (the ‘Savoyards’), one of whom was made Archbishop of Canterbury, and her sister, Sanchia, who married the king’s younger brother. This and some of the other reasons for Ailenor’s unpopularity are explored in the novel, yet she remains a sympathetic character and one I very much enjoyed getting to know. I am looking forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy.

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

This is book 3/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post earlier this month asking for recommendations of novels about artists; I now have a whole list of titles and authors to investigate – and as promised, here are my thoughts on one of my recent reads, Mrs Whistler by Matthew Plampin. The Whistler the title refers to is, of course, the American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and ‘Mrs Whistler’ is his model, muse and mistress, Maud Franklin. Although I was familiar with a few of his most famous paintings, such as Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (known as Whistler’s Mother), I knew nothing about his personal life or what sort of man he was, and I’m sorry to say that I hadn’t even heard of Maud.

The story of Maud’s relationship with Whistler is played out against a backdrop of some of the significant events that occurred in their lives between 1876 and 1880. The first part of the novel concentrates on the controversial Peacock Room, a decorative interior Whistler creates in the dining room of Frederick Richards Leyland’s London townhouse. Leyland is not at all happy when he sees what Whistler has done and a bitter feud follows. Later, the novel explores Whistler’s decision to sue the art critic John Ruskin for libel after he describes Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold as ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’.

These two incidents form the basis of the plot and as I had no prior knowledge of any of this, I found that I was learning a lot about Whistler, his paintings and his life. But this is not so much a book about Whistler as a book about what it was like to know Whistler, to be near him and to share both his triumphs and his troubles. Maud Franklin must have known him as well as anyone – she was with him for around fifteen years and they had two children together (whom she had to see raised by foster parents), which makes her a logical choice of character to focus on. However, according to Plampin’s author’s note the real Maud had refused to talk to Whistler’s biographers who complained that ‘Maud could tell the whole story, but she will not’. This means Plampin has had to use his imagination to decide how Maud felt about Whistler and the other people in his life and how she may have thought, spoken and reacted.

Whistler, at least as seen through the fictional Maud’s eyes, does not come across as a very pleasant man. He’s self-absorbed, he treats Maud badly at times and often lacks awareness and judgement, which is particularly illustrated by his relationship with his friend Charles Augustus Howell, known as Owl. It is obvious to the reader that Owl cannot be trusted, but Whistler remains irritatingly loyal to him, not able to see what we and (eventually) Maud can see. I did have sympathy for Maud and wouldn’t have blamed her if she had left Whistler, but she stayed with him, I suppose, through a combination of love and a need for security. It’s a sad and often frustrating story, but told in a way that I found believable and convincing.

This is the first book I have read by Matthew Plampin, but I know he has written four others. If you’ve read any of them, maybe you can help me decide which one I should read next.

Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

Tsarina is the story of Catherine I of Russia – not to be confused with Catherine the Great! Born Marta Skowronska in 1684, we first meet her as an illiterate peasant growing up in Livonia. When a rich merchant passes through her village, Marta’s family sell her to him as a maidservant and she is forced to leave her home behind and embark on a new and very different life. From these humble origins, we follow Marta’s rise to become the most powerful woman in Russia, first through her marriage to Peter the Great, who renames her Catherine Alexeyevna, and then as Empress in her own right.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I had initially been put off by the cover, which hinted that it would be more of a bodice ripper than the serious sort of historical fiction I prefer, but as I had seen some very positive reviews I decided to give it a try anyway. Although I’ve read quite a lot of novels set during other periods of Russian history, I’ve never read any that cover the life of Catherine I, so I thought if nothing else this would be a good introduction to a woman of whom I previously knew very little. And in that respect, it was a success because I finished it feeling that I’d learned a lot and had come away with a good knowledge of Catherine’s life and significance, while remembering that the book is a work of fiction and not everything in it can be assumed to be completely true – particularly in the early chapters, as so little is known for certain about Catherine’s early years.

Tsarina is a long novel and I could tell the author had put a lot of effort into researching it and trying to create a complete and believable 18th century Russian world. The book begins with a map of Russia under Peter the Great and a full list of characters, including all the members of the Tsar’s large family, the many courtiers at the Russian Imperial Court and the serfs and peasants with whom Marta/Catherine grew up in her village in the Baltics. Despite all of this I didn’t find the book quite as immersive as I would have liked, and although some parts of the story are certainly very gripping, I found myself struggling to get through other sections. As I’d suspected, there’s a lot of focus on Catherine’s sex life and many pregnancies, as well as a lot of long and graphic descriptions of the general violence, drunkenness and debauchery of Peter’s court – and while I’m sure it was all quite accurate, it did become repetitive after a while.

Still, it would be hard not to have some admiration for a woman like Catherine who overcame so much hardship in life (I won’t spoil the plot for those of you who know nothing about Catherine, but the novel shows how she was repeatedly exploited as a young woman and treated with brutality and unkindness) and even after she began to rise to power, she knew that her position was precarious and that she couldn’t afford to be caught off guard even for a moment. As for Peter, the author captures the many different facets of his personality, from his monstrous cruelty and ruthlessness to his intelligence and his vision of Russia as a modern western empire.

Although this wasn’t really the right book for me (or maybe I was just in the wrong mood for it) it was good to have the opportunity to get to know Catherine I. If any of you have read any other books about her, I would love to hear about them.

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

This is book 1/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

The Irish Princess by Elizabeth Chadwick

I love Elizabeth Chadwick’s books and some of her very best, in my opinion, are the ones she has written about William Marshal – described as ‘the greatest knight that ever lived’ – and his family. In The Scarlet Lion we met William’s wife, Isabelle de Clare; now The Irish Princess tells the story of Isabelle’s parents, Richard de Clare and Aoife MacMurchada. There’s not really a lot of historical information available on Aoife (even how and when she died is unknown) but I know that Elizabeth Chadwick is an author who does her research and I’m sure this novel is as accurate as she could possibly make it.

Born in Ireland in the middle of the 12th century, Aoife is the daughter of Diarmait MacMurchada, King of Leinster. Growing up during a turbulent period of Irish history, Aoife is loved by her father but also valuable to him as a way of forming alliances with those who may be able to help him gain power. When his lands are invaded by a rival and he loses his kingdom of Leinster, Diarmait is forced to flee to Wales and then to England, where he seeks the help of King Henry II. Henry gives him permission to recruit men to try to reclaim his lands – and one of those who agrees to join him is Richard de Clare, lord of Striguil.

Richard had fought on the ‘wrong side’ in the recent civil war between Henry II’s mother, Empress Matilda, and her cousin, King Stephen. Now that Henry has come to the throne of England, Richard, who had been one of Stephen’s supporters, has found himself disinherited and out of favour with the new king. When Diarmait offers him Aoife as a wife in return for his assistance in Ireland, Richard sees this as an opportunity to regain power and influence. But this is no unhappy, forced marriage; when Aoife meets the man who is to become her new husband, she finds that he is a man she is able to love and trust.

I liked Aoife and thought she was a great subject for historical fiction, particularly as she’s somebody who isn’t written about very often. Although it may seem at first that she is little more than a pawn to be used in the schemes of men, it quickly becomes clear that Aoife has a mind of her own and is quite capable of coming up with her own plans and schemes, especially in her dealings with Henry II, in order to get what she wants from life. Richard proves to be the perfect partner for her; although they don’t always see eye to eye they treat each other with respect and I loved watching them settle into their marriage over the course of the novel. Richard, nicknamed Strongbow (thought to be derived from the word ‘Striguil’ rather than a reference to his skill with a bow), is also an interesting character in his own right and I enjoyed getting to know him as well as Aoife.

Although the relationship between Aoife and Richard is at the heart of the novel – there is a stronger romantic element here than in Chadwick’s last few books, I think – their personal stories fit seamlessly into the history of the period and the events of the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland are clearly described so you should find it all easy enough to follow even if, like me, you start the novel with little or no knowledge. I don’t think I would rank this book amongst my favourites by Elizabeth Chadwick as I found it a bit too long for the story being told and slightly repetitive at times, but it’s still a very enjoyable read and a good opportunity to meet two historical characters who are rarely given much attention.

Thanks to Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Castle Dor by Daphne du Maurier

My choice for this year’s Daphne du Maurier Reading Week (hosted by Ali of Heavenali) is one of du Maurier’s more obscure novels; in fact, it’s debatable whether it should really be considered one of her novels at all, as it was begun by another author, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, also known as Q. At the time of his death, Quiller-Couch had left the novel unfinished and du Maurier completed it at the request of his daughter. I have seen some very mixed reviews of this book so wasn’t expecting too much from it; however, I have now read all of her other books – apart from some of her non-fiction – so I wanted to read this one as well for completion.

Published in 1961, Castle Dor is set in 19th century Cornwall and is based on the legend of Tristan and Iseult. The novel opens with a chance encounter between Linnet Lewarne, a young woman married to a much older man, and Amyot Trestane, a Breton onion seller, who fall in love and embark on a romance which will closely follow the events of the legend. Linnet and Amyot themselves are unaware of the parallels with that much older love story, although they know that something unusual is happening to them – that they have knowledge they really shouldn’t possess, are using words that should be unknown to them, and are behaving in ways they cannot control.

Local doctor and scholar Dr Carfax has a particular interest in Cornish legends and as he observes Linnet and Amyot together, he grows more and more concerned about the relationship between them and how it is mirroring the tale of Tristan and Iseult – and he begins to wonder whether he himself is playing a role in the retelling of the story.

If you’re not familiar with Tristan and Iseult, I won’t tell you what happens, but like most legendary love stories, it’s dramatic and tragic. Something in the way the novel is written, though, makes it feel less dramatic and tragic than I had expected, which was disappointing; the characters feel strangely flat and never really come to life and I struggled to believe in the romance between Linnet and Amyot. I expect that is at least partly due to the change in authors in the middle of the book; we will never know how Q had planned to develop the characters or how du Maurier would have depicted them if she had written the book from the start.

The exact point where du Maurier takes over from Q is not known and the transition is smooth and seamless so it’s not easy to detect the change, but I definitely noticed a difference in the writing style in the later parts of the book. The earlier chapters, which we know were definitely written by Q, are more heavily laden with historical and geographical detail as Carfax and his friends discuss various sources of the Tristan and Iseult story and try to locate some of the landmarks associated with the legend. I found this interesting, but not particularly compelling; the second half of the book was faster paced and more engaging as du Maurier brought the story towards its conclusion.

Although there are some similarities with du Maurier’s later time travel novel, The House on the Strand, this book is not really representative of her work (I think it’s unfair that Quiller-Couch is not credited on the cover). Unless you’re particularly interested in Tristan and Iseult, I think it’s one you should come to after reading some of her other novels first; it definitely wouldn’t give you the best impression of the qualities I love in her work. Still, Castle Dor was an interesting read and I have now reached my goal of reading all of Daphne du Maurier’s novels!

This is also book 16/50 read from my second Classics Club list.

The Ninth Child by Sally Magnusson

I enjoyed Sally Magnusson’s first book, The Sealwoman’s Gift (with one or two reservations), so I had been looking forward to reading her next one, The Ninth Child, which sounded very different but equally interesting. However, although some aspects of it certainly are fascinating, there are other parts that I struggled with and on the whole I think I preferred The Sealwoman’s Gift.

The Ninth Child is set in Scotland in the 19th century and tells the story of the construction of the Loch Katrine Waterworks, an engineering scheme designed to provide clean water to the people of Glasgow. The story is told from the perspectives of several characters associated with the scheme, the main one being doctor’s wife Isabel Aird. Having suffered several miscarriages during her six years of marriage, Isabel is depressed and unhappy, a state of mind which is not improved when her husband, Alexander, informs her that they will be moving to the Trossachs where he will be involved in the building of the new waterworks.

As a doctor, Alexander believes that the recent outbreaks of cholera in Glasgow are caused by the contaminated water supply, so he is looking forward to doing something that can really make a difference to people’s lives. Isabel accompanies him, reluctantly at first, but as she settles into her new home she finds comfort in walking in the countryside by the loch, especially when she begins to believe she is receiving messages from her lost children. It is during one of these walks that she meets the Reverend Robert Kirke, a man said to have been taken by the fairies two hundred years earlier. Are the stories about Robert true – and if so, why has he returned to the land of the living and what is his interest in Isabel?

The novel is written from the perspectives of several different characters: Isabel herself; Robert Kirke; Kirsty, the wife of one of the men working at Loch Katrine; and, surprisingly, Prince Albert, who is staying at Balmoral with Queen Victoria and preparing to appear at the official opening of the new waterworks. Unfortunately, the transitions from one character’s narrative to another are not very smooth and sometimes I couldn’t immediately tell who was narrating (something which wasn’t helped by the poor formatting of the NetGalley copy I was reading and will presumably have been improved in the finished version). The Victoria and Albert storyline felt unnecessary and out of place to me, but the others all added something different and complemented each other well, with Robert and Kirsty’s stories steeped in Scottish folklore and “the hills and the hollows and the brown peat moors and the ancient mounds of the Sìthichean – that’s fairies to you.”

Robert Kirke was a real person – an Episcopalian minister who lived from 1644 to 1692 and was the author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, which was later published by Sir Walter Scott. Legends arose after Kirke’s death saying that he had been spirited away to fairyland after revealing their secrets and this is the basis of the story Sally Magnusson creates for him in The Ninth Child. I loved this aspect of the novel, which reminded me in some ways of James Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, but I couldn’t help feeling that this magical, fantastical tale didn’t really belong in the same book as the much more realistic and factual story of the Loch Katrine Waterworks. Lots of fascinating ideas found their way into the pages of The Ninth Child, but in the end I felt that it didn’t quite work either as fantasy or historical fiction.

Thanks to John Murray Press for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

After enjoying Stacey Halls’ The Foundling earlier this year, I decided to read her previous book, The Familiars. It didn’t sound as original as The FoundlingThe Familiars is about the Pendle Witch Trials and I’ve read quite a few other books about witches – but I hoped it would still be interesting.

The novel is set in 1612, in Lancashire in the northwest of England, and is narrated by Fleetwood Shuttleworth, mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. Fleetwood is seventeen years old, in love with her husband, Richard, and pregnant with his child; this should be a happy time for her, but instead Fleetwood is filled with dread. This is her fourth pregnancy and all of her previous three have ended in a miscarriage – and, more worrying still, she has discovered that Richard has been hiding a letter from a doctor warning that if his wife became pregnant again neither she nor the baby would survive.

A chance meeting in the woods one day with Alice Gray, a young midwife, gives Fleetwood new hope. Alice seems to know a lot about herbs and remedies and what is needed to bring about a healthy birth, so Fleetwood asks her to join the household at Gawthorpe Hall until the child is born. Just having Alice around makes her feel better and she is sure that this time she will give birth to the son and heir Richard so desperately wants. 1612, however, is a dangerous time for women who are seen as ‘different’ in any way, and when a group of suspected witches are arrested Alice is one of those accused. Fleetwood vows to do whatever she can to help her friend, but will she be able to save her before it’s too late?

I think The Foundling is the better of Stacey Halls’ two novels, but I did still enjoy this one. As I’ve said, I’ve read other books on similar subjects – for example, Beth Underdown’s The Witchfinder’s Sister, Katherine Howe’s The Lost Book of Salem and Helen Steadman’s Widdershins – but this is the first one I’ve read specifically focusing on the Pendle Witch Trials. I was interested to learn that most of the characters in the book are based on real people, including Fleetwood Shuttleworth herself, the ‘witches’ and the men responsible for arresting them and arranging the trials. In her author’s note at the end, Stacey Halls explains which parts of the story stick to the historical facts and which are fictional.

Although the witches are obviously an important element of the novel, we don’t see as much of them as I had expected. Because the story is written entirely from Fleetwood’s perspective, a lot of the action – including the so-called acts of witchcraft, the arrest of the witches and the trials – takes place elsewhere and Fleetwood hears about these things from other people rather than witnessing them for herself. That’s one of the limitations of a first person narrative, I suppose, and it wasn’t really a problem as I found Fleetwood’s personal story quite engaging anyway. I liked her from the beginning and could really feel her fear and anxiety over her pregnancy and her frustration at not being able to do more to help Alice and the other witches.

I’ll be looking out for any future novels from Stacey Halls, but if you have any other books to recommend on the Pendle witches, please let me know which ones.