Catching up…three historical reads

I usually try to write about each book I read as soon as possible after finishing it, but sometimes that doesn’t happen and I find myself with a backlog of reviews to write for books read earlier in the year. Here are three historical novels that I read a few months ago and haven’t got around to writing about until now.

I was drawn to The Minion (1930) both because I’ve loved some of the other Rafael Sabatini books I’ve read and because it is a fictional account of the Thomas Overbury Scandal, a 17th century murder case I’ve previously read about in The Poison Bed by EC Fremantle and The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen. Set during the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland, the novel follows the story of Robert Carr, a young man who becomes a favourite of the king. The ambitious Earl of Northampton sees a chance to get closer to the throne by encouraging his great-niece, Frances Howard, to begin an affair with Carr, but the romance is opposed by Carr’s friend, Thomas Overbury. When Overbury is found dead in the Tower of London, suspicion falls on Carr and Frances.

As a fan of Sabatini, I have to confess I didn’t really like this particular book very much. Unlike the other novels of his I’ve read that have mainly fictional characters and storylines, this one is based very closely on real history and I think maybe he felt too constrained by historical fact to be able to create a compelling, entertaining story like his others. The characters seemed quite lifeless and the writing felt a bit dry – not really his usual style at all. Having said that, the history on which it is based is fascinating and Sabatini makes no secret of how he feels about the petty rivalries of the Jacobean court. It’s still an interesting read, if not a great example of Sabatini’s work.

If you want to know more about the Thomas Overbury affair, try the Fremantle novel instead – and if you’re new to Sabatini, start with Scaramouche!

Joanna Hickson has previously written several novels set during the Wars of the Roses, one of my favourite periods of English history. Her latest book, The Lady of the Ravens (2020), opens just after the final major battle in that conflict – the Battle of Bosworth, which resulted in Henry Tudor taking the throne as King Henry VII. This novel looks at the events of the early part of Henry’s reign from the perspective of Joan Vaux, lady-in-waiting to Henry’s queen, Elizabeth of York. We see how precarious Henry’s grip on the throne is, with challenges from various Yorkist pretenders, and the steps he takes to deal with these threats, and we are given some glimpses of his children, including Prince Arthur, his eldest son who is betrothed to Katherine of Aragon, and the future Henry VIII, seen here as a charming, confident young child, already popular with his father’s subjects.

Joan herself has very little, if any, direct involvement in the political intrigues of the court, which perhaps makes the story less exciting than it could have been, but she does form a strong bond with Elizabeth, bringing her close to the lives of the royal family. Joan’s own family life is also explored; I don’t know how historically accurate the book is regarding her personal relationships, but the fictional Joan appears to have been quite fortunate in her marriage to Sir Richard Guildford. It might not exactly be love at first sight, but she and Richard soon learn to get along with each other and, for an arranged marriage in the 15th century, it’s not an unhappy one. As for the ‘ravens’ of the title, they are the birds that live at the Tower of London; as legend has it, if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall, so Joan, who has become fascinated by the birds, does her best to protect them from those who wish to do them harm.

I didn’t find this quite as interesting as Joanna Hickson’s previous book, The Tudor Crown, maybe because that one was about Henry Tudor and took us straight to the heart of the action, whereas the choice of Joan as narrator of this book, as I’ve said, means a slower pace and a more domestic story. Still, I enjoyed it and was pleased to see that there’s going to be a sequel.

Having enjoyed some of Margaret Irwin’s other books, particularly the first two of her Elizabeth I trilogy (I must read the third one soon), I had high hopes for this one, about Charles II’s younger sister Henrietta – known as Minette. Royal Flush (1932) is a straightforward fictional retelling of Minette’s life, beginning with her exile in France as a child during the period of her father, Charles II’s, beheading and the rule of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Growing up at the French court, it is at first hoped that Minette will marry the young king of France, Louis XIV, but when another bride is chosen for Louis, Minette finds herself married off to his younger brother Philippe instead.

I won’t say any more about the plot as you will either already be familiar with Minette’s history or, if not, you won’t want me to spoil it for you. However, if you’re completely new to her story, be aware that the book is quite slow and detailed and possibly not the best starting point (although this is the first novel I’ve read specifically about Minette, I’ve come across her many times as a secondary character in books like Dumas’ Louise de la Vallière and Margaret Campbell Barnes’ Lady on the Coin and I found it very useful to have that little bit of prior knowledge about her). I do like Margaret Irwin’s writing and the old-fashioned charm of her novels, which have quite a different feel from most of the historical fiction being published today, but I think this is the weakest of her books that I’ve read so far.

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Have you read any of these – or any other books by these authors?

The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

This is the first novel by historian Tracy Borman, although she has previously written several non-fiction books, none of which I have read. The King’s Witch is set in England in the early 17th century, during the reign of James I (who was also James VI of Scotland), and from the title I was expecting something similar to The Witchfinder’s Sister or Widdershins – a story of witch trials and burnings, and of innocent women persecuted because of a gift for healing. Well, The King’s Witch does cover those topics, but there is much more to the book than that and I wasn’t surprised to learn that this is the first in a trilogy and another two novels will be needed to finish the storylines begun in this one.

Our heroine – the ‘witch’ of the title – is Frances Gorges, a young noblewoman whom we first meet in 1603 at the bedside of Elizabeth I, helping her mother to nurse the dying queen through her final days. Frances knows how to use herbs to treat illness and provide comfort, but when Elizabeth is succeeded by James, her skills are no longer appreciated. The new king is determined to stamp out witchcraft in his kingdom and women like Frances could become a target. It is decided that she will be safer away from court, so she is sent home to the peace and quiet of Longford, her family’s manor house in Wiltshire.

It’s not long, however, before Frances is summoned back to court where her ambitious uncle, the Earl of Northampton, has secured her a position as maid to the king’s daughter, the young Princess Elizabeth. But court has become a very dangerous place and Frances almost immediately finds herself in conflict with the king’s Lord Privy Seal, Robert Cecil, who is hoping to please the king by hunting down a witch. It’s not just women healers who are under suspicion, though; James also sees Catholics as possible conspirators – and he is right, because a secret plot is taking shape that could bring his reign to an early end.

As I’ve said, the title of this book is slightly misleading. Frances’s knowledge of the properties of herbs and plants and the danger this puts her in with Cecil is certainly an important part of the story, but this is not really a book about witches and witchcraft. I would describe it more as a book about a young woman trying to make her way in a world full of treachery, lies and conspiracies. Most of the second half of the novel is devoted to one of these conspiracies – the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – and Frances’s own involvement in it. This is what I will remember about this book rather than the witch-hunting aspect, which doesn’t really come to anything.

Although I enjoyed the book overall, the pacing seemed to be a problem for me. The story gets off to a slow start and I felt that I’d been reading for a long time with very little happening; somewhere around the middle of the book when the Gunpowder Plot begins to take shape, I started to find it much more compelling. There is also a romance for Frances with the lawyer Thomas Wintour and I thought this was handled well, especially as Frances – and the reader – begins to have doubts as to whether he can or cannot be trusted.

Frances Gorges was a real historical figure, but she and her family are not characters I have come across before in historical fiction. It seems that very little factual information is available about Frances – I could only find a few basic details online – although more is known about her parents, Thomas Gorges and Helena Snakenborg. The lack of information on Frances must have given Tracy Borman the freedom to use her imagination in building a story around her, without being too restricted by historical fact.

By the end of the novel, there is a lot going on in Frances’s life and I will be interested to see how her story continues in the next two books in the trilogy.

Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 7/20 for my 20 Books of Summer challenge.

A trio of books: London Roses; The Hurlyburly’s Husband; The King’s Favourite

I’ve been struggling to keep up to date with my reviews recently – I seem to go into each new month with at least four or five books still to write about from the month before – so I thought I would try putting together the occasional multi-book post with slightly shorter reviews than normal.

London Roses by Dora Greenwell McChesney, first published in 1903, follows the stories of a group of people who meet in the Manuscript Room at the British Museum. Rhoda Comstock is a young American woman who has come to London to stay with her English cousin, Una Thorpe, and the two strike up a friendship one day with journalist Stephen Fulford and his brother Thomas, getting together to discuss their research and to engage in lighthearted debate about the differences between life in Britain and America. When Stephen makes the sudden decision to go to South Africa to report on the Boer War, he leaves behind a scandal which puts Thomas in a difficult position and poses a threat not only to the bond between the two brothers but also to their newly formed relationships with Rhoda and Una.

London Roses is packed with interesting ideas and themes – loyalty and friendship; the importance of trust; adjusting to life in a different country – although none of these things are explored in as much depth as they could have been. The characters also had the potential to be a lot more complex and well-developed than they actually were. None of the main four ever came fully to life and I was much more intrigued by the character of Anthony Pettigrew, an old man Rhoda nicknames the Moth, who has spent thirty years coming to the British Museum to research books that he’s never written.

Far too much of the novel is spent discussing the English Civil War, which is apparently a passion of several of the characters (and also of the author – as I know, having read her historical novels Rupert, by the Grace of God and Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse), but which felt a bit strange as it had very little to do with the rest of the plot. On a more positive note, there are some nice descriptions of London and the Museum, but overall I was disappointed by this book and was thankful that it was such a short one!

The Hurlyburly’s Husband is an English translation by Alison Anderson of Jean Teulé’s 2008 French novel. Set in 17th century France, it tells the story of the often forgotten husband of Madame de Montespan (mistress of the Sun King, Louis XIV). Louis-Henri, Marquis de Montespan, marries Athénaïs, as she becomes known, after her fiancé flees following a duel. He loves his new wife and believes that she loves him, but it’s not long before Athénaïs goes to court as a lady-in-waiting and takes the place of Louise de la Valliere in the king’s affections. Unlike many cuckolded husbands of the period, Montespan is not interested in using his wife’s position to gain money and titles at court; instead, when it becomes obvious that Athénaïs is lost to him, he chooses to defy the king and take revenge in any small way he can.

A lot has been written about Madame de Montespan, her relationship with the king and her involvement in the Affair of the Poisons, but her husband is usually ignored. It was good to have the chance to read his side of the story and to see how he may have felt about all of this. As Athénaïs is absent from her husband’s life for most of the novel, the focus is always on Montespan himself: his attempts at winning glory on the battlefield, his relationships with his children, and his acts of defiance against the king (adding horns to his coat of arms, for example).

This is an entertaining little novel, as lively, colourful and scandalous as the French court it describes. There are even some illustrations, which are always a nice addition to any book. And in case you’re wondering, the hurlyburly of the title refers to the hairstyle popular in the 17th century known as the hurluberlu.

The final book I want to talk about here is The King’s Favourite by Marjorie Bowen (originally published in 1938 under the pseudonym George R Preedy). The King of the title is King James I of England and VI of Scotland – and the Favourite is Robin Carr, a young man who catches the King’s eye when he falls and breaks his leg in the tilt yard. Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, sees his chance to gain influence at court by pushing his pretty, seventeen-year-old great-niece Frances into an affair with Robin. But Howard is not the only one who is plotting and scheming; Robin’s friend, Tom Overbury, is also keen to encourage the romance between Robin and Frances in the hope of gaining more power for himself.

Nobody expected the two to actually fall in love, but that is what happens. With his plans thrown into disarray, Overbury finds himself caught in the middle of another plot – but this one is directed at himself. The King’s Favourite is based on real events from history, but I was unfamiliar with the details of this particular story. My lack of knowledge meant I had no idea what was going to happen and could enjoy this as a suspenseful true crime novel before looking up the facts after I’d finished and comparing them with Marjorie Bowen’s version.

While the plot (after a slow start) is an exciting, dramatic one, the characters are not particularly strong and not at all sympathetic either! I can’t say that I liked any of them – although I was interested to see that the astrologer and physician Simon Forman plays a prominent part in the story. I remember being intrigued by his appearances in Sally O’Reilly’s Dark Aemilia, so it was good to learn more about him here.

I see that there have been several other novels written over the years that also deal with the Overbury case, including one by Rafael Sabatini (The Minion) which I’m now very interested in reading. The TBR continues to grow!