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.

Margaret Tudor by Melanie Clegg

Henry VIII’s sister Margaret is one of the lesser known Tudors and doesn’t usually get a lot of attention either in fiction or non-fiction, yet she was important historically as both an English princess and a queen of Scotland. This very enjoyable new biography by Melanie Clegg takes us through the whole of Margaret’s life from her birth in 1489 to her death in 1541, throwing some light on her childhood, her time as queen and her unhappy second and third marriages.

As the eldest daughter of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, Margaret had the sort of privileged childhood you would expect – perhaps more so than usual because Henry, not yet secure on his recently claimed throne, wanted to do everything he could to increase the rank and status of the new Tudor dynasty. Margaret grew up well aware of her own importance and value to her father in his efforts to arrange marriages for his children and form alliances with other royal families. In 1503, at the age of thirteen, Margaret was married to the thirty-year-old James IV of Scotland and made the long journey north while still in mourning for her mother, who had died earlier that year. It must have been a daunting experience for such a young girl, but James, despite already having several mistresses and illegitimate children, treated her with respect and kindness and helped her to settle into life in her new country.

Margaret was still just in her twenties when James was killed fighting the English at the battle of Flodden in 1513, leaving her to rule as regent for their young son who was crowned James V. She did not remain a widow for long, however, and soon married again, this time to a husband of her own choice, Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, a move which angered the rest of the Scottish nobility and resulted in her losing the regency. The remainder of Margaret’s life was marked by political turmoil and personal tragedy – including the death of her younger son, divorce from Angus and an equally unhappy and unsuccessful third marriage to Henry Stewart, Lord Methven.

I thoroughly enjoyed this biography. It is written in a clear and easy to read style and although it may not be academic enough for some readers (sources are just listed at the back of the book, for example, rather than being directly referenced in the text) for the general reader this is a good introduction to Margaret Tudor’s life and to this period of Scottish and English history. Melanie Clegg’s portrayal of Margaret feels quite fair and balanced, so that the reader feels some sympathy for her while also being aware of her flaws. There are parallels with the life of her granddaughter Mary, Queen of Scots (James V’s daughter), who also made some poor decisions when it came to choosing husbands!

Clegg shows how, in Margaret’s first few years in Scotland she has little interest in politics and government, but as time goes by she begins to grow in knowledge and experience. She is often torn between her adopted country and the country of her birth and does everything she can to bring about peace between Scotland and England, not always successfully. It can’t have been easy being the sister of a man like Henry VIII, after all (though maybe slightly preferable to being his wife). She should have been able to rely on him for support, especially after James is killed at Flodden, but instead he tries to make his own plans for Margaret and her children, aimed at uniting the two countries under one crown. Of course, this is what would eventually happen anyway, if not quite in the way Henry had hoped, through the marriage between Margaret’s granddaughter Mary Queen of Scots and grandson, Lord Darnley (son of Margaret’s daughter, Margaret Douglas) which resulted in the birth of the future James VI of Scotland and I of England.

I particularly enjoyed the second half of the book, which deals with the rivalries between the various factions of Scottish noblemen, the conflict between Margaret and the Duke of Albany (the next nearest in line to the throne) and her escape to England. The earlier chapters, although less dramatic, are interesting too and I loved the way James IV was portrayed. Staying in this fascinating period of history, I am looking forward to reading another new non-fiction book I have waiting on my TBR, The Afterlife of King James IV by Keith J Coleman.

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

When Women Ruled the World by Kara Cooney

Despite my love of history I know very little about Ancient Egypt, so when I was given the opportunity via National Geographic and TLC Book Tours to read When Women Ruled the World, I was immediately interested. Written by Kara Cooney, professor of Egyptology at UCLA, the book explores the lives of six female rulers – Merneith, Neferusobek, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti, Tawosret and Cleopatra – asking how each was able to come to power, what challenges they faced during their reign and what the modern world can learn from studying them.

Apart from Cleopatra, I had never read about any of the other five rulers before, so I was looking forward to adding to my knowledge, but I don’t feel that I’ve learned as much about these six women as I would have expected to from this book. I can appreciate that the author was doing her best to work with the limited amount of factual information we have available to us, but there’s still a lot of speculation, interpretation and uncertainty. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched and there are detailed notes at the back, as well as an impressive list of resources and further reading; I just don’t feel that I’ve come away from the book with any real idea of what these female pharaohs may have been like as people, what their style of ruling was like or what their main accomplishments were.

To be fair, the author does point out that one of the reasons why we know so little about these women’s achievements is because the male pharaohs who followed tried to remove all traces of their predecessor from the historical records. Thutmose III, who ruled after his aunt Hatshepsut, “smashed her statues to bits, chiseled away the reliefs of the Punt expedition, and reassigned kingly images to her husband or father.”

This is a book with a very strong feminist message, which is fascinating when related directly to the Egyptians, for example when Cooney discusses how Nefertiti may have had to assume a male name and identity in order to rule, or how Hatshepsut had herself depicted wearing masculine clothes and with the appearance of a man. However, the author spends too much time drawing parallels with modern politics, discussing the stereotypes directed at female leaders and the language used to describe women like Hillary Clinton, Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel. It seems that the purpose of the book is to show that women have qualities which make them better equipped to rule the world than men and that the stories of the six female pharaohs of Egypt are being used to illustrate that point, rather than because they are interesting historical figures in their own right whose stories deserve to be remembered.

On a more positive note, I thought this book was written at the right level to make it accessible to the general reader. It wasn’t necessary to have any prior knowledge of Ancient Egypt and I found it easy enough to follow and to understand. There’s a map at the beginning and a useful chronology showing each ruler’s place in history, as well as an interesting selection of photographs and illustrations. Although this book wasn’t quite what I’d expected, I’m pleased to have at least been made aware of women like Merneith, Neferusobek and Tawosret, whose names weren’t even familiar to me before. I would like to read more about them one day.

Nonfiction Mini-Reviews: A Tudor Christmas and Henry VII

I didn’t have time last month to write about all of the books I read for Nonfiction November, so I’m combining the final two into one post today, which I think is quite appropriate as they are both Tudor related!

First, A Tudor Christmas. If you haven’t finished your Christmas shopping yet, this lovely little book by historian and novelist Alison Weir and her co-author Siobhan Clarke, a guide for Historic Royal Palaces, could be the perfect gift for any history lovers in your life (or for yourself, at any time of year, of course).

Divided into twelve sections to represent each of the twelve days of Christmas, the book takes us through the origins of many of our favourite Christmas traditions, as well as some that were popular in Tudor times but have disappeared over the years. The text is interspersed with recipes, poems, carols and illustrations, so if you don’t want to read it straight through from beginning to end, you could just pick it up and read a page or two whenever you have a few spare moments over the festive period. This is much shorter than the other non-fiction books I’ve read by Alison Weir and obviously doesn’t have the same level of depth, but even so she and Clarke manage to cover a large amount of material, touching on almost every aspect of Christmas you could think of.

I enjoyed reading about the various ways in which St Stephen’s Day/Boxing Day was celebrated in different parts of Europe, ranging from hunting the wren and taking beribboned horses to be blessed by the priest, to distributing alms to the poor. There’s a discussion of when the turkey was first introduced to England, a fascinating chapter about the typical games that would be played at home or at court, and some eye-opening accounts of how much money Henry VIII would spend on celebrating Christmas. There are also descriptions of earlier traditions such as the burning of the yule log and the origins of holly, ivy and mistletoe being used as decorations and, although I would have preferred a tighter focus on the Tudor period itself (which is what I’d expected from the title), I did find the whole book an interesting and worthwhile read.

From a Tudor Christmas to a Tudor king…Henry VII by Gladys Temperley is a biography of the first Tudor monarch who reigned from 1485 to 1509. Originally published in 1914 (and reissued more recently by Endeavour Compass), it does feel a bit dated and dry in places, but I still found it perfectly readable.

I started to read this book shortly after finishing The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson, a fictional account of Henry’s life before he became king, so I was particularly interested in the earlier sections which gave the facts behind some of the episodes which were featured in the novel such as Henry’s time in exile and preparations for his return to England at the head of an army. However, all of this is passed over very quickly, to be followed by a much longer section on the rebellions, conspiracies and pretenders to the throne – including Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Simnel – that repeatedly threatened Henry’s reign. As Temperley says, “He trusted few men, suspected many. He had plunged too early into the bitter waters of adversity, and as a fugitive exile, eating the bread of dependence at the courts of France and Brittany, had learnt to watch and school himself until repression had killed all spontaneity.”

Henry VII isn’t one of my favourite kings, but Gladys Temperley seems to have a lot of respect and admiration for him, which I think is a good thing – as long as it doesn’t lead to too much bias, I always think it’s better when an author likes and is genuinely passionate about their subject. Temperley highlights many of Henry’s lasting achievements, such as his ‘Mercantile System’, a policy which aimed to increase foreign trade and improve England’s economy, and the steps he took towards reforming the country’s judicial system.

The book feels thoroughly researched; there are footnotes throughout the text, three appendices giving more information on The Star Chamber, Perkin Warbeck and Juana of Castile, and a very impressive bibliography. You do need to remember, though, that this is a very old biography and that what we know of history is constantly evolving. For a more modern look at Henry VII, I recommend Winter King by Thomas Penn.