Historical Musings #37: Reading Anya Seton

Welcome to my monthly post on all things historical fiction. Last month, I looked at the work of Elizabeth Chadwick; this month it’s the turn of another historical fiction author: Anya Seton.

Anya Seton was the pseudonym of Ann Seton Chase, an American author born in Manhattan in 1904. She died in 1990 aged eighty-six, having written twelve novels, some of which were bestsellers and some which were adapted for film.

I have read six Anya Seton novels, although she was an author I discovered years before I started my blog, so I don’t have reviews to link to for most of these books.

Katherine (1954)

This is probably Seton’s most famous novel. It was my first introduction to her work and, in fact, I think it was the first book I read that dealt with real historical figures rather than fictional characters in a historical setting. The Katherine of the title is Katherine Swynford, mistress of Edward III’s son John of Gaunt. The descendants of Katherine and John were the Beauforts, who included Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII. I thought it was a wonderfully moving story and a vivid portrayal of 14th century England – the world of Edward III and Richard II, the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, Geoffrey Chaucer and Julian of Norwich.

Green Darkness (1972)

Green Darkness was the second Anya Seton novel I read and, although I enjoyed some aspects of it, I thought it was slightly disappointing after Katherine. It’s a reincarnation story about a present day (1960s) woman who revisits her former life in Tudor England, during which she lived with the wealthy Browne family and fell in love with the family chaplain. The 16th century romance didn’t really work for me but I did like the setting, particularly the descriptions of the manor house, Ightham Mote.

The Winthrop Woman (1958)

This was another one I loved. It tells the story of Elizabeth Fones, a young Puritan woman who, in the 17th century, marries into the family of John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. I can’t remember very much else about this book now, but I did find it interesting because I had never read anything about this period of American history before.

Avalon (1965)

Avalon is my least favourite of the Anya Seton books I’ve read, although that could be because, at the time when I read it, the setting didn’t particularly interest me as I preferred reading about later periods. The story takes place in the 10th century and follows the adventures of Rumon, a nobleman from Provence who is shipwrecked off the coast of Cornwall, and Merewyn, a Cornish girl who believes she is a descendant of King Arthur. Maybe I’ll try reading this book again one day to see if my opinion of it has changed.

Devil Water (1962)

Having read the four books above, it wasn’t until years later that I picked up my fifth, Devil Water, in the library. This one centres around the Jacobite Rebellions of 1715 and 1745, focusing on two English Jacobites, James Radcliffe, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, and his younger brother, Charles. Later in the book, Charles’ daughter travels to America, to the plantations of colonial Virginia. Although this wasn’t a favourite, it was of particular interest to me because the first half of the novel is set in the North East of England, which is where I’m from.

Dragonwyck (1944)

This was the last Anya Seton book I read, in 2013. This one is a gothic novel about a young woman from Connecticut who becomes a governess in the home of Nicholas Van Ryn in Hudson, New York. Again, not an absolute favourite, but I did love the historical setting – the Anti-Rent War, the Astor Place Riot of 1849, steamboat races on the Hudson River and even an appearance from Edgar Allan Poe!

I still haven’t read the rest of Seton’s novels, partly because I have already read the ones which appealed to me the most. The other titles are:

My Theodosia (1941)
The Turquoise (1946)
The Hearth and Eagle (1948)
Foxfire (1950)
The Mistletoe and Sword (1955)
Smouldering Fires (1975)

I do have a copy of The Turquoise, which I will read eventually, but if you have read any of the others please let me know what you thought of them!

I will be looking at another author of historical fiction in next month’s post, but for now:
Have you read any of Anya Seton’s novels? Which are your favourites?

Six Degrees of Separation: From Memoirs of a Geisha to A Tale of Two Cities

It’s the first Saturday of the month, which means it’s time for another Six Degrees of Separation hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best. The idea is that Kate chooses a book to use as a starting point and then we have to link it to six other books of our choice to form a chain. A book doesn’t have to be connected to all of the others on the list – only to the one next to it in the chain.

The first book this month is Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. I have never read it, but I know it is set in Japan.

Thinking about other books I’ve read that are also set in Japan, the first one to come to mind is Shogun by James Clavell, but I prefer to only link to books that I have actually reviewed on my blog. My next choice, then, is The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer. I really enjoyed this novel about Atsu, wife of the Shogun Tokugawa Iesada.

The Shogun’s Queen was part of a quartet of novels, although I still haven’t read the other three in the series. Another quartet of novels I have started (but not finished) is Johan Theorin’s Öland Quartet, which begins with Echoes from the Dead.

These four crime novels are all set on the Swedish island of Öland, which is a very atmospheric setting, and each book takes place in a different season. The other two I have read are The Darkest Room and The Quarry. I don’t often read Scandinavian crime fiction, but apart from the Theorin books, another that I enjoyed was Burned by Norwegian author Thomas Enger.

The main character in Burned, Henning Juul, is a journalist. Journalism makes me think of a book I read recently and loved – Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce, about a young woman who dreams of becoming a Lady War Correspondent but finds herself typing up letters for the problem page instead.

For my next link, I thought of other books I’ve read with ‘bird’ in the title and decided on Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore. This was Dunmore’s last novel before her death and although the story is set in England, the French Revolution is played out in the background.

I have read quite a few novels about the French Revolution so I had plenty of options for the last book in my chain. The one I’m going to choose is A Tale of Two Cities, which, so far, is my favourite Charles Dickens novel.

So, that’s my chain for this month! From Japan to France via Sweden, Norway and England. Have you read any of these books?

Next month, the starting point will be The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, yet another book I haven’t read!

The Sapphire Widow by Dinah Jefferies

I love Dinah Jefferies’ books; they always have such interesting settings. So far they have taken me to 1950s French Indochina (The Silk Merchant’s Daughter), Malaya during the Emergency of 1955 (The Separation) and 1920s Ceylon (The Tea Planter’s Wife). Her new novel, The Sapphire Widow, takes us back to Ceylon again but the story this time is quite different.

It’s 1935 and Louisa Reeve is grieving for her stillborn daughter, one of several miscarriages and stillbirths she has suffered over the years. She should be able to rely on her husband Elliot for support, but Elliot has become withdrawn and distant, spending more and more of his time visiting a nearby cinnamon plantation in which he says he has bought shares. When he tells her about his latest business venture – converting an old Print House into a shop trading in jewels and spices – Louisa feels more optimistic. It will be something they can work on together – and if they could only have another child, surely their marriage will survive.

Sadly, Louisa will never know what the future might have held for the two of them, because Elliot is killed in a tragic accident. Before she has even begun to come to terms with losing him, she makes a series of shocking discoveries that leave her questioning whether she ever really knew her husband at all. Hoping to find answers at Cinnamon Hills, she only uncovers more lies and secrets, but when she meets Leo, the plantation owner, and a little boy called Conor, she begins to find the strength to move on.

I think The Sapphire Widow could be my favourite of the four Dinah Jefferies novels I’ve read. It was lovely to return to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was then) and a nice surprise to be reacquainted with characters from The Tea Planter’s Wife, which I hadn’t expected! Although this book doesn’t explore the history and politics of 1920s/30s Ceylon in the way that the earlier book did, it doesn’t really need to because this is a different type of story. Unlike Gwen in The Tea Planter’s Wife, Louisa doesn’t have the same level of interaction with people of different backgrounds and beliefs; her story revolves around Elliot’s lies, her constant battles with her mother-in-law Irene, and the relationships that are beginning to form with Leo and with Conor.

This doesn’t mean that the setting is any less wonderful, of course! Dinah Jefferies writes so beautifully about Ceylon, bringing each location to life as the action moves between the coastal city of Galle, the capital Colombo and the cinnamon plantation where Leo lives. The characters are great too. I loved Louisa and really admired her patience with the interfering Irene, for whom Elliot can do no wrong and Louisa can do no right. I was glad that Louisa had a good friend in her sister-in-law Margo, who helps her through this difficult time despite the problems she is experiencing in her own personal life.

I really enjoyed The Sapphire Widow and will look forward to whatever Dinah Jefferies writes next. Meanwhile, I need to go back and read Before the Rains, her novel set in India in the 1930s. I’m not sure how I still haven’t read that one!

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

Mini-reviews: Three books, three queens

I have read three older historical fiction novels recently which I’ve decided to write about all in one post to avoid boring those of you who don’t share my interest in ‘kings and queens’ novels – and also because I’ve fallen hopelessly behind with my reviews again and need to start catching up!

The first book I’m going to mention is With All My Heart by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1951), which tells the story of Catherine of Braganza, the Portuguese princess who comes to England as the wife of King Charles II. Although I’ve read a lot of other novels set during the reign of Charles II, this is the first one that specifically focuses on Catherine. Catherine is portrayed very sympathetically throughout this novel, beginning with her early days in England, trying to adjust to a climate and culture so different from Portugal’s, and later, when she discovers that she will have to share her husband with his many mistresses.

There is some overlap between this book and the last one I read by Barnes – Lady on the Coin – which is about Frances Stuart, one of the other women at the court of Charles II, but the two novels have a different feel, probably due to the very different personalities and positions of their heroines. One notable difference between the two books is that while major events such as the plague and the Fire of London are only touched on lightly in Lady on the Coin, they are given much more attention in this book and that made this one a more interesting read.

The second queen to feature in my recent reading was only queen for nine days: she is, of course, Lady Jane Grey and her story is told in Destiny’s Lady by Maureen Peters. The book takes us through Jane’s life from her childhood in the household of Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour to her acceptance of the crown, her imprisonment and finally her beheading in 1554. Jane’s mother, Frances Brandon, is very much the villain of the novel, but remembering that it was published in 1972, I think that was the accepted view of Frances at the time – it only seems to be more recently that historians have started reassessing what we know of her again.

I have read a few other books by Peters and I complained that they were too short to do the subject justice. This is another short one, but as Jane Grey’s life was sadly also very short, I felt that the length of the book was adequate for everything that needed to be said. The pacing is better and there is not the same sense of struggling to squeeze a person’s entire lifetime into two hundred pages. Having said that, I would only really recommend Destiny’s Lady if you just want a brief overview of Jane’s life or are looking for a light and undemanding read set in this period. If you would prefer a more in-depth novel about Jane, you will need to look elsewhere.

Finally, I read The Queen’s Caprice by Marjorie Bowen, a book about a queen of Scotland this time. The story of Mary, Queen of Scots, is a fascinating, eventful one and always a good subject for historical fiction. Bowen’s novel is a straightforward fictional biography of Mary, covering the period from her return to Scotland in 1561 following the death of her husband, the King of France, and her imprisonment at Lochleven. In between, there’s always something happening: a murder, a plot, a rebellion or a disastrous marriage or two!

This is an interesting look at Mary’s life, although as it was published in 1933 I think the style will be too dated for some readers and it’s probably not the best book to read as a first introduction as Bowen does seem to assume we have some background knowledge of the period. It isn’t a very flattering portrayal of Mary either – as the title suggests, a lot is made of her capriciousness and her tendency to think with her heart rather than her head, making poor decisions regardless of the consequences. I was never sure whether our sympathies were supposed to be with Mary or with her ambitious half-brother, James Stewart, the Earl of Moray. I’ve read a few other books by Marjorie Bowen and while I thought this one was worth reading, it isn’t one of my favourites.

Have you read any books about Catherine of Braganza, Lady Jane Grey or Mary, Queen of Scots? Which would you recommend?

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

It’s 1941 and Britain is at war. Emmeline Lake has always wanted to be a journalist and is thrilled when she sees an advertisement in the newspaper for a job at the London Evening Chronicle. This could be her opportunity to become a Lady War Correspondent. How exciting!

To her delight, Emmy is offered the job and arrives at the Chronicle offices ready to ‘sniff out Political Intrigue, launch Difficult Questions at Governmental Representatives, or best of all, leap onto the last plane to a far-off country in order to send back Vital Reports of resistance and war’. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that there has been a misunderstanding. Emmy isn’t going to be a War Correspondent – she won’t even be working for the newspaper at all. Her new job actually involves typing up letters for Mrs Henrietta Bird’s problem page in the weekly women’s magazine Woman’s Friend, which happens to be based in the same building as the Chronicle. Emmy does her best to pretend that Everything Is Absolutely Tip Top (as you can see, she likes to think in capital letters), but really she is devastated. This is not what she had expected at all!

Trying to make the best of things, Emmy begins sorting through the letters, picking out some for Mrs Bird to reply to. She quickly discovers, though, that Mrs Bird has a whole list of words and topics which she considers unsuitable for publication in the magazine. Any letters which mention love, marriages, pregnancies, affairs or romantic relationships of any kind – almost all of them, in other words – must be rejected and thrown away immediately. Emmy can’t bear to see so many readers’ problems being ignored; if only there was something she could do to help…

Dear Mrs Bird was an absolute joy to read from start to finish! I loved Emmy from the beginning and her friendly, enthusiastic narrative voice pulled me straight into her world. She’s such a kind-hearted, well-meaning person, yet she doesn’t always say or do the right thing, which makes her feel very human. The language is perfect for the time period too and I could easily have believed that I was reading a much older book – and as I usually complain about language feeling too ‘modern’, that’s high praise from me!

At first, much as I was enjoying following Emmy’s adventures at Woman’s Friend and meeting the other characters in the story – who include her best friend Bunty, her fellow typist Kathleen, and the formidable Mrs Bird herself – I thought this was going to be a very light-hearted, cheerful novel despite the wartime setting. However, in the second half of the book there’s a noticeable change in the tone, as the bombing raids on London become more frequent and more ferocious. There’s drama, there’s tension and there’s heartbreak…but there’s never too much of any of these things and the book never loses its charm and its warmth.

Dear Mrs Bird is a lovely book and I was pleased to discover that there is already the possibility of a television adaptation. It will be perfect for a Sunday evening, I think. Meanwhile, I highly recommend finding yourself a copy of this book and getting to know Emmy and her friends.

Thanks to Pan Macmillan for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

My Commonplace Book: March 2018

A selection of words and pictures to represent March’s reading:

commonplace book
noun
a book into which notable extracts from other works are copied for personal use.

~

And she wondered then what it would feel like to make a poem from words, as you might make a stitching needle from a sheep’s bone, or a vest from woven wool, or a rope bound so strong from slender horse hair that it could swing a man through the air across a cliff face. To tie one word to another and one line to the next and with it let one person enter the mind and heart of another – would that not be a fine thing to do?

The Sealwoman’s Gift by Sally Magnusson (2018)

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“She may not have the lifestyle she could have had, but she’s happy – and free. And the two go together: You can’t be happy unless you are free, and you can’t be free until you’re truly happy – which means being true to yourself first and foremost.”

The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn (2015)

~

13th-century depiction by Matthew Paris of the Earl of Pembroke’s coat of arms

He raised his head to her. “Because how else do you steer a ship through a storm – especially a ship that’s already battered and leaking, with no certainty of safe harbour? If I abandon the helm and wring my hands in panic with the rest of the crew, then we go down…and fast.”

The Scarlet Lion by Elizabeth Chadwick (2006)

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“It seems as if all the men in your family have been kindhearted, Alma. There aren’t many people like them in this world of ours.”

“There are a lot of good people, Irina, but they keep quiet about it. It’s the bad ones who make a lot of noise, and that’s why they get noticed…”

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende (2015)

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Why should life be lived as a crushing tedium and unrewarded toil? Why should the haves live in splendour and the have-nots in squalor? Although I did not envy the highwayman his vices – neither drinking, gambling nor whoring were my game – I did envy his freedom. But here I was now, on the open road, as free as any highwayman.

Ill Will by Michael Stewart (2018)

~

His early life, he thought, was like the slow flip of photographs: the images were too sparse and sporadic to make any sense together, but each was so vivid that whenever one flickered to his mind, he was startled by its intensity. How could certain visions like these remain so luminous, and yet he had no recollection at all of what had come before or after?

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry (2015)

~

With the rest of Auburn and the thousands of villages like us I have found something out, and there is a rock under my feet. Physical fear, recantations under torture, are weapons of the enemy. They are not truths. If we are not free tomorrow, we shall not be happy tomorrow. There will be no living in false content. That in all the world is certain.

The Oaken Heart by Margery Allingham (1941)

~

Parliamentarian propaganda depicting Prince Rupert and his dog, Boy, pillaging Birmingham

Then James realised that the prince had made no complaint about the fact that he too was branded with infamy. What was it like to be a man of twenty-three, called to lead tens of thousands of men onto the battlefields of a country not his own, and to have every aspect of his life, character and high ideals dragged in the dirt for more than twelve burdensome months?

The Winter Prince by Cheryl Sawyer (2007)

~

It was Nigel’s experience that in each of his cases there was a moment when the drama took on a third dimension and became fully alive for him, as when on the stage the entrance of a character, the delivery of a key line, or it may be only a single consummate gesture, a moment of stillness or a change in the lighting, grips the spectator so that he is no longer a spectator but a participant deeply involved with the tragedy enacted before him.

The Dreadful Hollow by Nicholas Blake (1953)

~

“Surely we should be standing up to bullying?”

“I’m sorry.”

She rose as anger surged through her. “So, you’re just going to give in?”

“I have no choice.”

“Then how will we ever change people’s attitudes?”

The Sapphire Widow by Dinah Jefferies (2018)

~

“It is really remarkable,” he said, “how quickly this sort of thing becomes all in the day’s work. But I wonder, would the interest last? Suddenly into one’s life comes a romantic and dangerous episode, and one is excited, keyed-up, acknowledging fear, anger – all sorts of relatively unfamiliar emotions. But – do you know? – I believe I should get a little bored if it went on for long.”

The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes (1940)

~

“There are enough letters,” I said. “But Mrs Bird won’t answer most of them. Some people are in a real pickle, but she says they’re just Unpleasantnesses.”

“She would,” said Mr Collins. “I have to say, it’s all Greek to me. That’s why I stick to fiction. Making things up is somewhat easier than sorting out real life.”

Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce (2018)

~

Jebel Akhdar mountain, Oman

Gradually she became aware of the hugeness of the Earth, and its incomprehensible age. She learned, finally, how small she truly was, how fleeting. It was beautiful, and not at all disheartening. Quite the opposite – she finally felt that she knew who she was, and she knew her place, and she felt totally at peace with both. She felt she could go anywhere and do anything; she felt the world turning, peacefully, resolutely, unendingly. The silence was like a magic spell; it seemed to promise infinite time in which to do all the things she wanted to do.

The English Girl by Katherine Webb (2016)

~

We are all fuel. We are born, and we burn, some of us more quickly than others. There are different kinds of combustion. But not to burn, never to catch fire at all, that would be the sad life, wouldn’t it?

Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift (2016)

~

Favourite books read in March:

The Scarlet Lion, Dear Mrs Bird, Church of Marvels, The Sapphire Widow

Where did my reading take me in March?

Iceland, Algeria, USA, England, Scotland, Oman, Sri Lanka

Authors read for the first time in March:

Sally Magnusson, Isabel Allende, Michael Stewart, Leslie Parry, Cheryl Sawyer, Graham Swift, AJ Pearce

~

Have you read any of these books? What have you been reading in March?

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende

The Chilean author Isabel Allende is probably best known for her first novel The House of the Spirits, but since its publication in 1982 she has written over twenty other books, most recently last year’s In the Midst of Winter. The Japanese Lover (2015) is the first one I’ve read; I was drawn to it by its wartime setting and by the fact that, unlike some of her other books, it didn’t seem to include any magical realism, of which I’m not really a fan.

The novel opens in the present day with Irina Bazili, a young woman from Moldova, starting a new job at Lark House, a home for the elderly in San Francisco. Irina soon settles in, getting to know the old people in the home and forming a special bond with one of them, a woman called Alma Belasco who is able to live independently on the ground floor of the building but knows the day could soon come when she no longer can. When Irina is introduced to Seth, Alma’s grandson, the two are united in their concern for Alma and their curiosity over her occasional disappearances from Lark House. Eventually they piece together the story of Alma’s life, but this only happens gradually over the course of the entire novel.

When I first read the synopsis for this book I assumed it was a dual timeline novel with two alternating stories – Irina’s in the present day and Alma’s in the past. Well, it is, but not in the same way as dual timeline novels written by authors like Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton or Susanna Kearsley, for example. In other words, it doesn’t feel like a book with two distinct storylines, but more like a book set in the present with some chapters describing events from Alma’s past.

And Alma is a character with a very interesting past. At the beginning of the Second World War, she is sent away from her native Poland to stay with rich relatives in San Francisco and here she meets Ichimei Fukuda, the son of the family’s Japanese gardener. As time goes by, Alma and Ichimei begin to fall in love, but when war finds its way to America and the Japanese become ‘the enemy’, the Fukudas are sent to an internment camp. The two young lovers are later reunited, only to be separated again, a pattern which will repeat itself several times over the decades and their relationship will endure despite Alma’s marriage to another man. It is this relationship which Irina and Seth find so intriguing and which they hope to learn more about.

Although I struggled to believe in the love Alma and Ichimei felt for each other (I couldn’t sense much passion between them and, for me, it just wasn’t the heartbreaking romance I thought it should have been, given the setting and subject), I did find it interesting to read about the injustices suffered by the Fukuda family, their time in the internment camp, and the racial, cultural and class barriers that stood in the way of Ichimei and Alma’s happiness. However, Allende does not just focus on this storyline; she also delves into Irina’s background and those of some of the other characters, touching on a huge number of issues such as child abuse, homosexuality, pornography, drug use and abortion. All things which are relevant to modern life, but the book was not really long enough to explore them in much depth.

I found plenty of things to like about this book, but there were times when I felt that I was reading a long string of facts and information rather than an engaging story – too much ‘telling instead of showing’ – and there’s also not much dialogue, which could explain why I found it difficult to connect with Alma and Ichimei. I was slightly disappointed, but it’s possible that I just chose the wrong Isabel Allende book to begin with. I know she has a lot of fans who love her writing, so I’m hoping that if I try another of her books I’ll understand why.

This book counts towards this year’s What’s in a Name? Challenge: A title containing a nationality.