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?

My Commonplace Book: November 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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tensyoin

“Barbarians,” she murmured in tones of disbelief. “Barbarians.” Perhaps if she said the word often enough she could defuse the threat. “But in that case…we’re finished. We’re all dead.” It was just as Lord Nariakira had warned. These were not gentle Hollanders. These were other beings, those nameless hordes who’d rampaged across China. Barbarians like those didn’t come in peace. They threatened their lives, their world, everything they knew.

Things were spinning around her. The world was turning upside down. But she couldn’t help feeling curious as well. She wished she could catch a glimpse of these exotic creatures with her own eyes.

The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer (2016)

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“And then do ye wait and see more; there’ll be plenty of opportunity. Time enough to cry when you know ’tis a crying matter; and ’tis bad to meet troubles half-way.”

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy (1887)

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My family were not readers, but Xavier Mountstuart’s writings had inspired and transported me. I had devoured The Courage of the Bruce and The Black Prince, then graduated to the Indian writings: The Lion of the Punjab, of course, and the tales of bandits and rebels in the foothills of Nepal. I had read of white forts and marble palaces and maharajas’ emeralds; of zenanas and nautch girls in the Deccan; of the sieges and jangals. I had even read a short tract about Hindooism, vegetarianism and republicanism, which had left me a little confused. Mountstuart seemed to me the very acme of Byronic manhood. It was not simply that he was a poet and writer of genius, but that he had lived his writings.

The Strangler Vine by MJ Carter (2014)

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highwayman

“Now, what mean you by that?”

“Just that I am a common highwayman, Miss Betty.”

She stared at him for a moment, and then resumed her work.

“You look it.”

John cast a startled glance down his slim person.

“Is that so, madam? And I rather flattered myself I did not!”

The Black Moth by Georgette Heyer (1921)

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“No, I don’t care for novels,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ve never really understood them, if I’m honest.”

“In what way?” I asked, confused by how the concept of the novel could be a difficult one to understand. There were some writers, of course, who told their stories in the most convoluted way possible — many of whom seemed to send their unsolicited manuscripts to the Whisby Press, for instance — but there were others, such as Jack London, who offered their readers such a respite from the miserable horror of existence that their books were like gifts from the gods.

The Absolutist by John Boyne (2011)

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britannia

Frances struck an attitude, sitting upright with head poised high and left hand outstretched as though she grasped an invisible weapon. “Of course, when I am really posing for Roettier, the engraver, I shall wear a helmet and hold a trident and I shall have flowing, Grecian robes. It was altogether the King’s idea, but James of York thought it should be called Britannia. To represent the nation’s might.”

Lady on the Coin by Margaret Campbell Barnes (1963)

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“My thoughts are my own,” I answered: “and though you keep my person prisoner, these are beyond your control.”

Redgauntlet by Sir Walter Scott (1824)

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“Not to my knowledge, sir,” said the Viscount.

“I’m glad to hear it! But if you had agreed to the marriage I planned for you a son of yours might have been sitting on my knee at this moment!”

“I hesitate to contradict you, sir, but I find myself quite unable to believe that any grandchild attempting — at this moment — to sit on your knee would have met with anything but a severe rebuff.”

Charity Girl by Georgette Heyer (1970)

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aemilia-lanyer-poetry

She has a soft spot for little Peter; he had asked why he needed to learn to read when he first arrived.

“Because without reading you only have half a life,” she’d said, watching his puzzled face. “Reading will open doors for you to new worlds.” He had looked at her in wonder then.

“Like the men who sail to the Americas?”

“Yes, something like that.”

The Girl in the Glass Tower by Elizabeth Fremantle (2016)

~

Favourite books this month: The Woodlanders and The Strangler Vine

Lady on the Coin by Margaret Campbell Barnes

lady-on-the-coin One of the many things I enjoy about reading historical fiction is seeing how different authors choose to interpret the same historical events and people. This is the second novel I’ve read about Frances Stuart, one of the prominent figures at the court of Charles II, and as I remembered being disappointed in Marci Jefferson’s Girl on the Golden Coin, I was curious to find out how Margaret Campbell Barnes had approached the same subject in this novel from 1963.

Lady on the Coin opens with Frances Stuart (or Stewart, but I have gone with the spelling used by Barnes) and her family in exile in Paris where they have been living since the Royalists were defeated in England’s recent civil war. In 1660, the monarchy is finally restored and Charles II, to whom Frances is distantly related, takes the throne. After saying goodbye to her close friend, Henrietta – Charles’ beloved sister, ‘Minette’ – who has married the brother of Louis XIV of France, Frances returns to England to join the household of the new queen, Catherine of Braganza.

With her appealing combination of beauty, enthusiasm and youthful innocence, Frances soon finds herself with many friends and admirers at court, and Charles himself is one of them. Although she enjoys the attention, Frances has no desire to hurt Catherine, so she does her best to resist the King’s attempts to make her his mistress. As she comes under more and more pressure to agree to his demands, a rumour begins to circulate that he is planning to make her his wife should anything happen to Catherine. A chance of escape arrives when she falls in love with the King’s cousin, the Duke of Richmond and Lennox, but there will be more obstacles to overcome before they can find happiness together.

I found this book better written and more satisfying than Marci Jefferson’s. Although the two are very similar in terms of plot (I suppose there’s a limit as to how much could be written about Frances Stuart, after all), I felt that Margaret Campbell Barnes did a much better job of forming a compelling story from the material available and giving her characters depth. Frances is portrayed as frivolous and immature, but she also has a kind heart and I couldn’t help liking her, as did most of the people around her. I say ‘most’ because her popularity at court earns Frances some enemies as well as friends and puts her at the mercy of those who wish to manipulate her for their own ends, such as Barbara Palmer, Lady Castlemaine, the King’s mistress of many years.

Later in the novel, when Frances’ relationship with Lennox begins to develop and she has some important decisions to make, we see a stronger, more serious side to her character. I don’t know enough about the real Frances or Lennox to be able to say whether their relationship has been romanticised here, but I expect it probably has; he is described, by his own admission, as a gambler and heavy drinker, but these problems seem to be brushed aside very easily once he and Frances get together. I did find their romance quite moving, though, and much more interesting to read about than the King and his mistresses!

Frances Stuart’s story is played out during an eventful period of history, but important events such as the plague, the Great Fire of London and the Anglo-Dutch Wars seem to pass by in the background without having much of an effect on the life of our heroine. It’s probably true that Frances would have been very insulated from the outside world by her position at court, but I would still have liked a better balance between her personal story and the wider history of the period in general.

Now, you may be wondering why the title of the book refers to the ‘lady on the coin’. Well, one of Frances Stuart’s claims to fame is that she was apparently the model for Britannia, appearing on a commemorative medal produced after the war with the Dutch and then on various British coins until as recently as 2006.

Lady on the Coin is the second book I’ve read by Margaret Campbell Barnes; the first was Mary of Carisbrooke, which told the story of Charles I’s imprisonment in Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of her books and the next logical choice is With All My Heart, her novel about Catherine of Braganza.

I received a copy of this book via NetGalley for review.

Mary of Carisbrooke by Margaret Campbell Barnes

Mary of Carisbrooke Margaret Campbell Barnes is an author I’ve been curious about for a while, since some of her historical fiction novels started appearing in my recommendations on Goodreads. Not really knowing anything about the author or her books, I chose Mary of Carisbrooke (originally published in 1956) because most of her others are set in the Tudor period and I wanted something a bit different, having read a lot of Tudor novels recently. This book is set in the 1640s at the end of the English Civil War, which is a period I’ve read about less often.

The ‘Mary’ of the title is seventeen-year-old Mary Floyd, whose father is a sergeant in the military garrison stationed at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight. Over on the mainland, the Civil War is coming to an end, having resulted in victory for Oliver Cromwell and his Parliamentarians; for the islanders, separated from the rest of England by several miles of water, the drama is just beginning. The defeated King Charles I has fled to the island to take refuge in Carisbrooke Castle, hoping that the Governor, Robert Hammond, will be sympathetic. Unfortunately, Hammond feels it is his duty to inform Parliament and so the King finds himself a prisoner in the castle.

Many of the people in and around the castle, including Mary Floyd, still have Royalist sympathies and the rest of the novel follows their numerous attempts to help the King escape from Carisbrooke. If you know your English history you will know whether or not he does escape and what his eventual fate will be, but even if you do think you know how the story ends Barnes still manages to create some suspense and has us hoping that the islanders’ latest scheme will be a success!

I watched a BBC documentary, Castles, a while ago and remember a mention of Carisbrooke and one particular escape attempt involving a barred window; I kept waiting for this incident to appear in the book, which it does, but it is only one small episode. The King and his supporters have lots of other plans in store, and through the character of Mary, conveniently placed within the castle walls, we are right at the heart of the action as preparations are made, secret messages are sent and letters are smuggled in and out.

And yet, despite all the secrecy and intrigue, I found Mary of Carisbrooke quite a boring book. Mary is a likeable enough character, but a bit too good to be true – too nice, too generous, too kind, too courageous, and lacking the flaws and complexity I prefer my heroines to have. There’s a romantic subplot for Mary, as she becomes involved with two of the King’s men who have joined him on the island, but again, there was a lack of passion here. I did love the sections of the novel told from the King’s perspective and wished there had been more of these! His character is written very well, making him not just a King but also a father and a husband wanting to be reunited with his family, a human being we can identify with and understand.

It’s rare to find a book set on the Isle of Wight so I enjoyed that aspect of the story. It was interesting to see how the islanders felt about being suddenly thrust into the middle of the action after being used to feeling distant and removed from what was going on over in mainland England. However, I did wish that the author had spent more time setting up the story and explaining the background. I felt that we were introduced to a lot of characters all at once and I struggled to keep track of who they all were and which side they were on – which wasn’t helped by the fact that some of them seemed to have divided or ambiguous loyalties.

I would be happy to try another of Margaret Campbell Barnes’ books, but I’m not desperate to do so. I’m curious to know whether all of her books would leave me feeling the same way or if I’ve just picked the wrong one to start with.