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.

Rosie: Scenes from a Vanished Life by Rose Tremain

I don’t think I’ve read enough of Rose Tremain’s books to really describe myself as a fan or as any kind of expert on her work, but I’ve enjoyed the little I’ve read by her – Restoration and Merivel, her two novels set in 17th century England and France, and The Gustav Sonata, set in Switzerland before, during and after the Second World War – so I decided to give her recent memoir, Rosie, a try.

Judging purely by the cover and the subtitle Scenes from a Vanished Life, I was expecting something light, charming and nostalgic, but the reality was very different and the book left me feeling quite sad. It’s a slim book covering only the first eighteen years of the author’s life and I think it’s fair to say that Rose – or Rosie, as she was known when she was younger – didn’t have the happiest start to life. Born into an upper-middle-class family, with all the privilege and opportunity that comes with that, the one thing Rosie lacks is parental love. She is ten years old when her playwright father, Keith, leaves her mother, Jane, for a younger woman. Jane quickly remarries and sends Rosie and her sister, Jo, to boarding school, an incident Tremain thinks of as ‘The Great Casting Away’ and which she describes with both resentment and an attempt to understand:

When we were safely away in our cold dormitories at Crofton Grange, she and her friends could forget all about their children’s future. Instead, they could go to plays, go to films, go to restaurants, get drunk at lunchtime, flirt, shop, swear, take taxis, waste money, go dancing, have sex, and wander through London in the dawn light, laughing, determined to forget the war that had stolen their youth and so many of the people they’d loved.

The child Rosie is often hurt and confused by her mother’s actions, and not much has changed by the time she reaches adulthood; when her first play is broadcast on BBC radio in 1976, Jane says she is too busy to listen as she is going out to lunch that day. Rosie does acknowledge, however, that her mother’s lack of affection for her could be partly due to her own upbringing. Many of Rosie’s childhood memories revolve around holidays spent at her maternal grandparents’ home, Linkenholt Manor, but it quickly becomes clear that it is the house that holds a special place in her heart and not her grandparents themselves. Mabel and Roland Dudley, Jane’s parents, are depicted as cold, stern people who have struggled to move on from the loss of their two sons and see their daughter as a poor substitute; their granddaughters interest them even less. I found this so sad because my own childhood relationship with my grandparents was completely different – warm and loving and full of fun. The only love Rosie seems to receive comes from her nanny, Vera Sturt, and I was glad that she had at least one person who cared about her, although even this relationship was lost when she was sent away to boarding school.

As the title of the book suggests, the world of Tremain’s childhood is a world that has now largely vanished. Her account of her school days, of beliefs and attitudes and of society in general could only have been written by someone growing up in the 1950s and belonging to a certain class. As Rosie becomes a young adult and sets her sights on attending Oxford University, she sees her dreams shattered yet again when her mother insists on sending her to a Swiss ‘finishing school’ instead. Jane doesn’t see the need for her daughter to continue her education when all a woman needs to do to succeed in life is to find a rich husband.

Despite her privileged background then, Tremain still had obstacles to overcome as she grew from Rosie into Rose and embarked on her writing career. Because her memoir ends before the publication of her first book, she doesn’t spend a lot of time discussing her writing, but she does give us a few insights into how incidents, people and places from her early life later found their way into her novels. I’m sure this would have meant more to me if I had read more of her work! The book ends very abruptly, which was disappointing as I would have liked to have continued to follow Rose through her adult years. Still, it was interesting getting to know the young Rosie and her world. I will have to read more of her books soon; if there are any you would recommend please let me know.

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

Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry by Arthur C. Wright

You have probably seen The Bayeux Tapestry – if not in real life then in books, on websites or on television – and you may know that it depicts the story of the Norman Conquest of England, but have you ever looked at the pictures that appear in the margins and wondered what they mean? This new book by historian Arthur C. Wright, Decoding the Bayeux Tapestry: The Secrets of History’s Most Famous Embroidery Hidden in Plain Sight, attempts to interpret these often-overlooked images and relate them to the action taking place in the main body of the Tapestry.

At a quick glance, the pictures in the margins look very random and don’t appear to be connected with the larger pictures in the middle, but now that I’ve read this book I know that is not the case. Wright takes us step by step along the whole length of the Tapestry, matching the marginal story to the one in the main panel and this adds to our overall understanding of what the Tapestry is telling us.

So, what exactly are these marginal illustrations? Well, many of them depict birds and animals such as dogs, lions, ‘pards’ (the name given to large leopard-like cats), crows, foxes, mythological beasts such as dragons – anything that might have appeared in a medieval bestiary. These creatures add extra meaning to the central panels; for example, a dog is shown howling below the picture of Edward the Confessor being taken to his burial. Others display fear, joy, pride, anger or other appropriate emotions at relevant points in the Tapestry. The margins also include illustrations of some of Aesop’s Fables; the story of ‘the Fox and the Crow’ is one of them. In order to understand the significance of the fables and the other messages we are being given in the margins, it helps if we know who embroidered these images, who commissioned the Tapestry in the first place and who the intended audience was, and Wright spends a lot of time discussing these things as well as interpreting the images themselves.

All of this was fascinating, but I did wonder who this book was really aimed at. Even though I do have an interest in the subject and a moderate amount of knowledge of the Norman Conquest (admittedly, gained mainly through historical novels such as Gildenford, Godwine, Kingmaker and 1066: What Fates Impose), I didn’t really feel the need to go into so much detail on the size of the fleet that invaded England or the geographical features of the landscape. There are lengthy appendices exploring both of these topics and I think this sort of information would only really be of interest to an academic reader who wanted to make a very thorough study of the subject. Although the earlier chapters are much more accessible, I’m not sure whether I could recommend the book overall to the general reader, especially not to those who are unfamiliar with this period of history.

I’m still pleased to have had the opportunity to learn a little bit more about the Bayeux Tapestry, though, and to have been made aware that those medieval embroiderers were perhaps telling us more than meets the eye. If anyone else has read this book, or has ever studied the Tapestry, I would love to hear your thoughts.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry

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

This is book 8/20 of my 20 Books of Summer.

Richard III: Fact and Fiction by Matthew Lewis

I find most periods of history interesting, but there are none that fascinate me quite as much as the Wars of the Roses, the name given to the conflict between two rival branches of the royal House of Plantagenet – York and Lancaster. This period included the reigns of Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III and ended following Henry Tudor’s victory at the Battle of Bosworth. Matthew Lewis (not to be confused with the Gothic author of the same name!) has written several non-fiction books on this subject, as well as two novels; Richard III: Fact and Fiction, was published earlier this year by Pen and Sword and is the first of his books that I’ve read.

Richard III is surely one of England’s most controversial kings; no two historians seem to agree on any of the mysteries surrounding his life and reign, while fictional depictions range from the saintly to the wicked. As Lewis explains in his introduction:

Contradictory facts are launched from either side causing the deafening cacophony of explosive opinions that can make the real facts hard to discern and deter some from becoming embroiled in the debate.

Lewis then takes one question or supposed ‘fact’ about Richard at a time and attempts to separate the facts from the fiction. Some of these are very basic (such as “Was Richard III the Duke of York?”) and can be given simple, factual answers (No – that was his father’s title) but others give rise to longer, more involved discussions. The various crimes of which Richard is often accused – including the murders of Edward, Prince of Wales, and King Henry VI, and the alleged poisoning of Queen Anne, which would clear the way for Richard to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York – are all examined, setting out the evidence for and against Richard being responsible. The author manages to stay largely neutral and unbiased, which I’m sure is no easy feat when writing about Richard! I was a bit disappointed that the greatest mystery of them all – the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower – was covered relatively briefly, but I see Matthew Lewis has written another book devoted to that topic, so maybe didn’t see the need to explore it in depth here too.

Although I’ve already read a lot about Richard III, there was enough new information in this book to keep me interested; for example, I can’t remember having read anything before about Richard’s dispute with Thomas Stanley over the ownership of Hornby Castle, which could be one reason for Stanley’s treachery at Bosworth fifteen years later. However, I think this book would be a particularly good choice for someone who knew much less than me about Richard III and was looking for a place to start learning. The way the book is divided into short sections, with each question and answer followed by a ‘Little Known Fact’ and a brief Glossary picking out one or two words which might be unfamiliar to the reader, makes it easy to read and to digest what we are being told. There are also lots of pictures interspersed throughout the text, including some of the author’s own photographs of castles and monuments from his private collection, which I thought added a nice personal touch.

Thanks to Pen and Sword for providing a copy of this book for review.

If you’re interested in reading about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, you can see a full list of all the fiction and non-fiction books I’ve read on the subject on my Wars of the Roses page.

The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J. Coleman

After reading Melanie Clegg’s new biography of Margaret Tudor a few weeks ago, I thought the perfect book to follow it with would be another new release, The Afterlife of King James IV: Otherworld Legends of the Scottish King, which looks at the myths and legends surrounding the death of Margaret’s husband, the king of Scotland. As I only knew the basic facts about James IV, I had no idea there was so much controversy about his death at Flodden Field in 1513, but it seems that there were many rumours and conspiracy theories that began to circulate following the battle and Keith J. Coleman discusses some of these in this book.

As penance for his involvement in the death of his father James III, James IV famously wore an iron chain around his waist and it was the fact that the body removed from Flodden did not have the chain that gave rise to the conspiracy theories. Had James switched places with another man on the battlefield? Did he escape and go into hiding? If so, why did he never return? And where is his body’s true resting place? These are just some of the questions the book explores and attempts to answer.

To understand some of the stories surrounding the king’s death, we need to consider where they originated and who might benefit from them. It’s easy to see why the Scottish people, who must have been shocked and disheartened by the scale of their defeat at Flodden, may have found comfort in the idea that somewhere, somehow, their king had survived and might one day come back to lead them again. But Coleman also looks at the situation from an English perspective and from the point of view of ambassadors from elsewhere in Europe, who may or may not have been happy to think that James was still alive.

The selection of legends are certainly interesting and varied. Some are more plausible (though still unlikely), such as the possibility that James went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land or that he avoided being killed in battle only to be murdered shortly afterwards by one of his enemies, while others take us into the realms of the supernatural and stories of other worlds. The book also covers some accounts of the ghostly apparitions and prophecies that supposedly foretold the outcome of the battle and there is an examination of how the myths and legends about James compare with those about some of his predecessors such as Alexander III and Macbeth. I was also intrigued by a discussion of the short story Wandering Willie’s Tale, which appeared in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, as that is one of the few Scott novels I have read!

Despite the fascinating subject, however, I didn’t find this book quite as enjoyable as I’d expected. The way it is structured made it difficult for me to become fully absorbed in the writing – I thought it jumped around too much from one idea or thought to another rather than being set out chronologically or in any other order that would have made sense to me. It felt repetitive and there was also less time devoted to the actual legends and folklore than I’d anticipated. It’s probably not a book I would recommend to people who are completely new to Scottish history either; it’s written in quite a scholarly style and if you have at least a little bit of familiarity with names and events I’m sure you’ll find things easier to follow. My reading of Rosemary Goring’s two novels After Flodden and Dacre’s War helped me here, I think!

Although this book was not as entertaining as it sounded, I’m pleased I’ve read it and added to my knowledge of the life – and particularly the death – of James IV.