The Light Ages by Seb Falk

The Dark Ages is a term still used – although maybe not as often as it used to be – for the period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, bringing to mind images of people living in an intellectual darkness, a time when little scientific progress and cultural advancement took place. In The Light Ages, historian Seb Falk dispels this idea by showing how this period was actually a time of discovery, invention and learning, and that the word medieval ‘rather than a synonym for backwardness should stand for a rounded university education, for careful and critical reading of all kinds of texts, for openness to ideas from all over the world, for a healthy respect for the mysterious and unknown.’

Instead of concentrating on the work of famous historical figures, Falk has chosen to focus on a man whose name is probably unfamiliar to most of us: Brother John of Westwyk, a monk who lived in the late fourteenth century. Although there’s a lot we still don’t know about John, Falk takes us through the known facts and uses his general knowledge of the period to flesh things out, describing what John’s life may have been like at St Albans Abbey where he was ordained and outlining the type of education he would have received at Oxford University. Later, John continued his mathematical and astronomical studies at Tynemouth Priory and then went on crusade with Henry le Despenser in 1383 before returning to London where he produced his biggest scientific accomplishment:

He had made an equatorium – an equation-solver, a computer – and he was calibrating it to give the precise positions of the planets.

I won’t pretend that I understood the descriptions of John Westwyk’s famous Equatorie of the Planetis (once believed to have been the work of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer) – like a lot of the information in this book, it went completely over my head. However, before we get to the discussion of the Equatorie, Falk explores several of the other scientific, mathematical and astronomical advancements and discoveries that made such an invention possible. The topics covered include the Babylonian base-60 system of numbering, the development of early clocks, mapping and the magnetic compass, and the functions of the device known as the astrolabe. Some of it is fascinating (did you know how to count to 9,999 on your fingers?), but there are also a lot of geometric diagrams, equations and calculations that will probably be of much more interest to people with a background in physics and mathematics than to the general reader.

A line runs from the Middle Ages to modern science. It is not an unbroken line, of course, and certainly not straight. But if you struggled with any of the trigonometry in earlier chapters, you will admit that medieval people – who carried out such painstaking calculations without the help of any electronics – were not stupid.

Although the book often became too technical for me, I did enjoy all the insights we are given into medieval life. I loved the image of John trying to work on his astronomical tables in his room in St Albans while pigs roam the streets outside:

According to local tradition, pigs too small to sell were donated to the hospital. As they trotted through the streets, Londoners fed them up from runts to valuable livestock, in small but frequent gestures of civic charity. The hospital marked its porcine property with bells to prevent their confiscation and deter theft. For John Westwyk, though, the grunting and clanging from the street cannot have aided his attempts to comprehend Ptolemaic planetary theory.

The Light Ages has clearly been thoroughly researched, drawing on medieval documents and texts ranging from Pierre le Pèlerin’s Letter on the Magnet to Bernard of Gordon’s Lily of Medicine and making occasional diversions to other parts of the world to discuss the impact of the Crusades or to highlight the work of the Persian polymath, Tusi, to give a few examples. For readers who want to explore further, there’s a large selection of primary and secondary sources provided at the end of the book. This wasn’t the ideal book for me as I would have preferred something slightly less academic, but for the right reader I’m sure it would be a wonderful read!

Thanks to Penguin Press UK – Allen Lane for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Lifted Veil and Silly Novels by Lady Novelists by George Eliot – #NovNov

The second book I’ve read for this month’s Novellas in November is one of the Penguin Little Black Classics series. It contains a novella by one of my favourite Victorian authors, George Eliot – The Lifted Veil – as well as an essay, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, also written by Eliot.

The Lifted Veil was written very early in Eliot’s career and published in 1859, the same year as her first novel Adam Bede. It’s a controversial story which seems to get very mixed reviews and now that I’ve read it, although I found it quite enjoyable, I can understand why. It’s not her usual sort of book at all; I’ve seen it described as science fiction, Gothic fiction and horror, none of which are genres you would normally associate with Eliot!

Our narrator, Latimer, is a young man who suffers from an illness which seems to leave him with an unusual and unwelcome gift – the ability to see into the future and into the minds of other people. It begins with a vision of Prague, a city he has never visited or seen in a picture, and it is so incredibly detailed – ‘right down to a patch of rainbow light on the pavement, transmitted through a coloured lamp in the shape of a star’ – that Latimer is both excited and alarmed. Other episodes of clairvoyance follow, including dreamlike sightings of a tall, blond-haired young woman dressed in green. This turns out to be Bertha, his brother Alfred’s fiancée…but Latimer has seen a future version of himself married to Bertha. Will this come true – and if so, will the marriage be as unhappy as the vision seems to suggest?

I can’t say much more about the plot without spoiling the story, but I found The Lifted Veil an interesting and intriguing read. For such a short piece of writing, it contains many different topics and themes: the contemporary scientific ideas of Eliot’s time, ranging from mesmerism and phrenology to blood transfusions; fate and whether it can be changed; the possibility of life after death; and the question of what we can see when the ‘veil is lifted’. I should warn you that there is a scene involving a dead body – as I said, this is not a typical Eliot book – although it’s quite tame if you’ve read a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, as I have!

The novella takes up just over half of this 110 page book. The essay from 1856 that follows, Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, is unrelated and seems to be a bit of a random choice to fill the remaining pages in the book. Still, I thought it was fascinating to read Eliot’s thoughts on her fellow female authors. In case you can’t tell from the title, Eliot has a very low opinion of books she describes as ‘the frothy, the prosy, the pious or the pedantic’, and an even lower opinion of the women who write them:

It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink and a ruby pen; that they must be entirely indifferent to publishers’ accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains. It is true that we are constantly struck with the want of verisimilitude in their representations of the high society in which they seem to live; but then they betray no closer acquaintance with any other form of life. If their peers and peeresses are improbable, their literary men, tradespeople, and cottagers are impossible; and their intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.

Although I did feel a bit sorry for the lady novelists mentioned in the essay, including the authors of Laura Gay, The Old Grey Church and Rank and Beauty (three of the novels which come in for particular criticism from Eliot), I can also see why Eliot would have felt frustrated by female writers who were perpetuating stereotypes of Victorian fiction such as the perfect, virtuous heroine, and making it difficult for more literary authors like herself to be taken seriously. Of course, her male pseudonym would help to distance her work from the type of novels she despised and I’m sure Eliot would be pleased to know that her own novels have stood the test of time while the ‘silly novels’ and their authors have largely been forgotten.

So, two very different short reads in one book! Have you read either of them? I would love to hear what you thought.

The Brothers York: An English Tragedy by Thomas Penn

I don’t often get excited about non-fiction books, but having enjoyed Thomas Penn’s Winter King – a biography of Henry VII – a few years ago, I was really looking forward to reading this new one, particularly as it covers one of my favourite periods of English history: the Wars of the Roses. I’ve read about this period many times now, but it sounded as though this book had something different to offer, promising to focus on Edward IV, Richard III and George, Duke of Clarence – three of the sons of Richard, Duke of York and Cecily Neville.

The Wars of the Roses were a series of battles for control of the throne of England fought between two rival branches of the House of Plantagenet: the House of York and the House of Lancaster. The background to the conflict is quite complex, but Thomas Penn devotes the early chapters of the book to explaining how it came about and the efforts of first the Duke of York and then his eldest son, Edward – assisted by his cousin, the Earl of Warwick – to take the throne from the Lancastrian king, Henry VI. Penn then takes us through the whole of Edward’s reign until his death in 1483 when his youngest brother, Richard, claims the throne under controversial circumstances. A relatively short account of Richard’s reign follows, before the book comes to an end with Richard’s defeat at the Battle of Bosworth and the rise of a new dynasty: the Tudors.

The Brothers York is as well written and thoroughly researched as I would expect from a Thomas Penn book, yet I had mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it provides an excellent overview of a complicated, fascinating period of history written in a very readable and accessible style; on the other hand, if you’re already familiar with the period, as I am, there’s nothing new here that hasn’t been covered before in other books. I found The Hollow Crown by Dan Jones, for example, just as engaging and informative – and a more manageable length! I should mention that The Brothers York is a very long book that took me most of January to read; if you’re planning to read it, bear in mind that it’s going to be quite a commitment.

The majority of the book deals with Edward IV, which is understandable as his reign spanned more than twenty years (apart from a few months in 1470-71 when the crown was briefly reclaimed by Lancaster). I thought Penn’s portrayal of Edward seemed quite fair and unbiased, showing his transformation over the years from the brave, handsome, charismatic young man who succeeded so brilliantly on the battlefield to an increasingly overweight and unhealthy king, interested mainly in comfort and pleasure, accused of showing favouritism towards his wife’s Woodville relatives, something which caused resentment amongst his own loyal friends and supporters.

The portrayal of Richard, whose short and troubled reign is covered in the final section of the book, is less well balanced. It’s certainly not as negative as some I’ve read, but I definitely felt that Penn was selective about which sources he used and which aspects of Richard’s life he chose to focus on in order to show him in a bad light. That’s not really surprising though, as his sympathies are clearly with Henry Tudor, the subject of his previous book. What did surprise me was that the mystery of the Princes in the Tower is hardly mentioned at all. It’s implied that Richard was responsible, but it’s all passed over very quickly and none of the other theories for the princes’ disappearances are explored, which I thought was unusual (not that I particularly wanted to read about all of that again, but if this was the first time you’d read about it you wouldn’t realise it was actually one of history’s biggest unsolved mysteries).

As for the third York brother, George, Duke of Clarence, although he never becomes king himself he spends most of his adult life alternating between supporting Edward and conspiring against him, and in conflict with Richard over the inheritance of the Neville lands (George was married to Isabel Neville and Richard to her sister, Anne). The book is subtitled An English Tragedy and I think it’s obvious that the tragedy we are being shown here, as far as the House of York is concerned, is that the division within the family and the inability of the brothers to stay united and work together is what led to their downfall.

While the focus of the book is obviously on the situation in England, events taking place elsewhere in Europe are also discussed, including the succession to the Duchy of Burgundy and diplomatic relations between France and England. It’s all very interesting and all adds up to give a full and detailed portrait of the period. What I really wanted from a book with the title The Brothers York, though, was more analysis of the relationships between the three brothers and more insight into their characters, and there was just not enough of that for me. I think I learned almost as much about the Earl of Warwick as I did about Edward, George and Richard.

Overall, this is a very good book but I suppose I was slightly disappointed because I was hoping for something a little bit different and not just a straightforward retelling of the Wars of the Roses. For newcomers to the period, though, I’m sure you will find a wealth of information here and I would have no hesitation in recommending this book as a suitable place to start.

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

Sir Francis Bryan: Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Ambassador by Sarah-Beth Watkins

Sir Francis Bryan is one of the figures from the Tudor period I know very little about. I keep coming across him in fictional form, in novels like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Alison Weir’s Jane Seymour, the Haunted Queen, but this new biography by Sarah-Beth Watkins is the first opportunity I’ve had to read a non-fiction account of his life.

Subtitled Henry VIII’s Most Notorious Ambassador, the book takes us through Bryan’s life beginning with his arrival at court at a young age, when he and his brother-in-law Nicholas Carew became close companions of the king, and ending with his final days in Ireland. In the years between, he held a number of positions at Henry’s court including Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, Master of the Toils, Master of the Henchmen and Chief Cupbearer, as well as carrying out diplomatic missions to France and Rome. He was also, at various times, a soldier, sailor, cipherer, poet and translator. However, his greatest skill seems to have been his ability to keep the king happy and tell him what he wanted to hear, keeping his head while those around him, including his cousins Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, were not so fortunate. Some people saw this as lacking principles, others as common sense and self-preservation.

This is a short book and a very quick read, with the author sticking mainly to the facts and rarely providing any analysis or deeper insight into Francis Bryan’s actions or character. Nicknamed The Vicar of Hell and known for his love of wine, women and gambling and his reputation as ‘a rake and a libertine’, I had initially expected him to be a fascinating character to read about, but I felt that he never really came to life on the page at all. I suppose it depends on the type of non-fiction you like – other reviews of this book are glowingly positive – but I found it a bit dry and not quite what I’d been hoping for.

Despite the book being so short, it does appear to have been thoroughly researched and contains a large amount of factual information. The author draws on primary sources such as letters and often reproduces large chunks of them in the text. However, in many cases I didn’t feel that the letters added much to my understanding of Francis Bryan – sometimes he is only briefly referred to once or twice and the rest of the letter is not particularly relevant. Without these long excerpts, though, the book would have been even shorter and less substantial, and the letters do still have value if you’re interested in the Tudor period in general.

Overall, this book has given me a good overview of what Francis Bryan did and achieved, even though it isn’t the more personal sort of biography I prefer. I appreciate that there’s a limit to what we actually know about Bryan, though. We don’t even have any idea what he looked like; in 1526, he lost an eye during a jousting tournament and after that wore an eye patch which, as Watkins tells us, could have explained why he never allowed any portraits to be painted.

I have looked to see if any other books about Sir Francis Bryan have been written but this is the only one I can find. If you’re aware of any, please let me know!

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

Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister by Jung Chang

Jung Chang’s Wild Swans is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, so when I saw her new biography, Big Sister, Little Sister, Red Sister, available on NetGalley, I knew I wanted to read it. As the title suggests, this is the story of three sisters – the Soong Sisters – who were at the heart of twentieth century Chinese politics. Like Wild Swans, it gave me some fascinating insights into a country whose history I know very little about, but unlike Wild Swans, the author has no personal connection with the women she is writing about and I thought that made it a much less immersive and powerful read.

Despite their important roles in Chinese history, I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of the three Soong Sisters before reading this book. In case anyone else hasn’t heard of them either, here’s a quick introduction:

‘Big Sister’ Ei-ling, born in Shanghai in 1888, was the eldest daughter of Charlie Soong and Ni Kwei-tseng. Through her marriage to the banker H.H. Kung – who later became Minister of Finance in the Nationalist government – Ei-ling was one of China’s richest women.

‘Little Sister’ May-ling was the youngest of the three. As the wife of Chiang Kai-shek, who was chairman of the Nationalist party (the Kuomintang) and later President of the Republic of China, May-ling was China’s First Lady. With her American education and excellent command of the English language, she provided a link between Chinese and Western cultures.

In the middle was Ching-ling, or ‘Red Sister’. In 1915, she married the much older Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary leader who helped to overthrow the Qing Dynasty. After Sun’s death, Ching-ling’s continued involvement in left wing politics and her support for the Communist Party often put her in direct opposition to Big and Little Sister.

The book takes us through the lives of all three of these women from birth to death, comparing the different paths they choose to follow and describing their achievements and their influence on Chinese politics and society. Rather than devoting a separate section of the book to each sister, Chang jumps from one to the other and back again, moving forward chronologically over a period of more than a hundred years. As this is the first time I’ve read about the Soong sisters I’ve no idea how they are usually portrayed, but it seemed to me that Chang’s account was quite fair and balanced, showing sympathy for all three women but an awareness of their faults and weaknesses as well.

I found Ei-ling the least interesting to read about. With her wealth and position, there’s a sense that she is very detached from the realities of life, although she does come across as a generous and dutiful sister who tries to help her younger siblings in any way she can. May-ling is more appealing; although she is depicted as ambitious and sometimes extravagant, she also seems warm and compassionate, with a genuine interest in carrying out humanitarian work. But it was Ching-ling who intrigued me the most, with her unwavering dedication to the communist cause that sets her apart from her sisters and creates divisions in the family that never really heal. Was she, as one observer says, ‘most responsive and likeable, quiet and poised but misses nothing’ or was she, in the words of another, ‘basically a cold, hard, ruthless woman who knows what she wants and how to get it’?

Although the three Soong sisters all found themselves in positions of influence and power, these positions initially came about because of the men they chose to marry and that, for me, was one of the problems with this book. Almost as much time was spent describing the lives and careers of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek and H.H. Kung as was spent on May-ling, Ei-ling and Ching-ling, who were supposed to be the subjects of the book. Overall, it felt more like a general political history of twentieth century China than a biography of three specific people. I found it a much more challenging read than Wild Swans, which was as gripping as fiction, and it has taken me more than a month to finish it as there was just so much information to take in and digest. I can’t pretend that I am now an expert on Chinese politics, but I do feel that I learned a lot from this book and although it was a struggle at times, I’m glad I persevered and finished it!

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

Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey by John Ashdown-Hill

As this is Nonfiction November, I have been working through a few of the non-fiction books on my TBR this month. This one, by the late historian John Ashdown-Hill, is a biography of Elizabeth Woodville, who became queen consort of England when she married Edward IV in 1464. Ashdown-Hill, who died in 2018, spent many years studying and writing about the Wars of the Roses and was a member of the Richard III Society, playing a part in the discovery and identification of Richard’s remains in 2012. This is the first of his books that I’ve read so I hoped I would be in good hands with an author who seems to have been an expert on his chosen subject.

As soon as I started to read, the depth of Ashdown-Hill’s research and knowledge was obvious. He begins with a detailed discussion of the origins of the Woodville name and why he believes ‘Widville’ is a more accurate spelling, before going on to spend several chapters looking at Elizabeth’s ancestry and genealogy charts. This level of detail continues throughout the book as we are taken through the rest of Elizabeth’s life, including her first marriage to Sir John Grey, her widowhood and meeting with Edward IV, the births of her many children and, after Edward’s death, how she fared under the reigns of Richard III and Henry VII. He frequently quotes long passages from primary sources (and doesn’t make it easy for us by translating them into modern English). However, his main source seems to be himself – he constantly references his own earlier works, which is not particularly useful when you haven’t read them!

Another thing that quickly became obvious to me was that this was not going to be a balanced, unbiased account of Elizabeth’s life. In his introduction, Ashdown-Hill questions whether Elizabeth could really be considered Edward IV’s wife and queen as Edward had allegedly been pre-contracted to another woman, Eleanor Talbot, before marrying Elizabeth (hence the book’s subtitle which refers to Elizabeth as ‘Edward IV’s chief mistress’). I already knew about the pre-contract, but Ashdown-Hill also puts forward a theory I haven’t come across before, which is that Elizabeth was responsible for Eleanor’s death. And this is not the only murder he attributes to Elizabeth; he also suggests that she was behind the deaths of the Earl of Desmond and of George, Duke of Clarence, and that she poisoned Clarence’s wife and young son. There is no real evidence for any of this and I found it disappointing that the author makes no attempt to be fair and objective, letting his own personal dislike of Elizabeth come to the forefront.

As this is my favourite period of history to read about, I found it interesting to read Ashdown-Hill’s thoughts on Elizabeth, even if I didn’t necessarily always agree with them – and, as I’ve said, the amount of detail he goes into is very impressive. He can even draw on his own studies into the mitochondrial DNA sequences of Elizabeth’s descendants. If you’re new to the period, though, I would recommend looking for a good general book on the Wars of the Roses first. As for other non-fiction specifically on Elizabeth herself, I remember enjoying David Baldwin’s essay in The Women of the Cousins’ War, but haven’t read any other full-length biographies. If you know of any good ones, I’d love to hear about them.

Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor by Phil Carradice

As those of you who have been following my blog for a while will probably know, my favourite period of English history is the Wars of the Roses, the conflict that dominated the second half of the fifteenth century as the rival houses of York and Lancaster fought for control of the throne. The Wars of the Roses came to an end shortly after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, during which Richard III was killed and the victorious Henry Tudor came to the throne as Henry VII. In Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor, Phil Carradice looks at Henry’s life from childhood to death, but with a special focus on his journey to Bosworth Field.

Beginning with Henry’s birth at Pembroke Castle in Wales to Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor, Carradice goes on to give us an overview of the period, explaining how the throne changed hands several times between York and Lancaster and describing Henry’s fourteen years in exile under the protection of the Duke of Brittany. In 1485, with Richard III’s reign becoming increasingly troubled, Henry returned to Wales ready to launch his own claim to the English throne. His long march into England at the head of an army – a journey which took more than two weeks – where he would meet Richard on the battlefield at Bosworth, is the main subject of this book.

Carradice goes into a lot of detail on why the place usually described as the site of Henry’s landing in Wales may be incorrect and attempts to establish exactly where he did begin his journey. He then looks at some of the legends that surround the various stages of the march and whether they are likely to be true or not. He draws on primary sources such as The Ballad of Bosworth Field and the chronicles of Polydore Vergil, but also refers to the work of more recent historians and even includes some excerpts from his own interview with a man who decided to mark the 500th anniversary of Bosworth in 1985 by recreating Henry’s march. The one thing that was missing and would have really added to my enjoyment of the book was a map showing the route taken by Henry and his men; there was plenty of other additional material, such as photographs and illustrations, a bibliography and an index, so it’s disappointing that no map was included.

The account of the Battle of Bosworth itself was particularly well written and interesting, giving a good idea of how both Richard and Henry may have felt as they made their preparations and how each of their fates rested on winning the support of Thomas and William Stanley, who waited until the very last minute to enter the battle. The author makes no secret of the fact that his sympathies are with Henry and the Lancastrians rather than with Richard and the House of York – and he gives his reasons for his bias in the prologue at the beginning of the book. However, he does acknowledge some of Richard’s good points, such as his courage on the battlefield and his skill as a soldier, and in general I thought the book was quite fair and balanced – certainly not as biased as others that I’ve read.

As for accuracy, I noticed a few small errors such as a reference to the white rose of Lancaster and red rose of York (it’s the other way round, of course) but I’m sure these were silly mistakes rather than a lack of knowledge from the author. Overall, I found this an enjoyable and informative read; even though it’s a period I have read about many times before, I felt that I was learning new things from it – and I think it would be accessible for readers with little or no knowledge of the period too.

Following in the Footsteps of Henry Tudor is published by Pen & Sword Books as part of their ‘Following in the Footsteps’ series. The other books in the series explore the stories of Edward II, Oliver Cromwell and The Princes in the Tower. Thanks to Pen & Sword for providing me with a copy of this book for review.