The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter

When the book chosen for me in the recent Classics Club Spin was The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter, I was quite happy with that result. It was a book I’d wanted to read for a while, it had been recommended to me by more than one person and I thought I might find it more enjoyable than my last Spin book, Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens, which I still haven’t managed to finish.

Jane Porter (1776-1850) was born in England but grew up in Edinburgh, where Sir Walter Scott was apparently a regular visitor to the family. The Scottish Chiefs reminded me very much of Scott’s work, although it was published several years before Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I don’t know whether Scott read and was influenced by Porter’s novel or not, but it’s hard to believe that he wouldn’t have done.

The Scottish Chiefs was published in 1809 and tells the story of Scottish hero William Wallace, a story many people are familiar with through Braveheart. Like Braveheart, this is a highly romanticised account of Wallace’s life and can’t be assumed to be entirely accurate; however, there is a limit to what historians know about Wallace anyway and for centuries one of our major sources has been Blind Harry’s narrative poem from the 1400s, The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace.

The novel opens in the summer of 1296. Having recently acted as arbitrator in a dispute over the succession to the Scottish throne – resulting in John Balliol becoming king rather than his rival Robert Bruce of Annandale – Edward I of England has entered Scotland with his army and gained victory at the Battle of Dunbar. Balliol abdicates and is sent to the Tower of London, while the majority of Scotland’s other noblemen agree to acknowledge Edward as their overlord. William Wallace, who is ‘too noble to bend his spirit to the usurper, too honest to affect submission’, is one of the few who refuse to accept this and at the beginning of the novel we see him visiting a fellow rebel, Sir John Monteith of Douglas Castle. Monteith presents him with a small, heavy iron box, which he had been given by Lord Douglas with the following message:

“…commit the box in strict charge to the worthiest Scot you know; and tell him that it will be at the peril of his soul, who dares to open it, till Scotland be again free! When that hour comes, then let the man by whose valour God restores her rights, receive the box as his own; for by him only it is to be opened.”

As Wallace rides away, the iron box is seen by English soldiers who assume that it contains treasure and soon the English Governor of Lanark, Heselrigge, arrives at Wallace’s home hoping to gain possession of it. In the violence that follows, Wallace’s beloved wife Marion is murdered by Heselrigge and when Wallace takes revenge by killing the Governor, he swears that he won’t rest until he has freed Scotland from Edward’s control and the day comes when the mysterious box can finally be opened.

I enjoyed The Scottish Chiefs, although I did find it a bit uneven. There are some gripping set pieces – such as the storming of Dumbarton Castle and Wallace’s infiltration of Edward’s court disguised as a minstrel – but there are other parts that were much less interesting and where I struggled not to lose concentration. It has to be remembered, though, that the book was published in the early nineteenth century and written in the wordy style that you would expect from literature of that period. It’s also a very long book – I read an ebook version and hadn’t appreciated just how long it was until I started reading!

Not many of the characters have the depth and complexity I prefer; most of the women, such as Marion and Helen Mar, are portrayed as paragons of virtue, while Wallace himself is too perfect and heroic to be true. The more villainous characters were the most interesting, particularly Helen’s stepmother, Joanna, Countess of Mar (in her notes at the end of the book, Porter says that Joanna was a real historical figure, daughter of the Earl of Strathearn and a princess of Orkney, but I haven’t been able to find any information about her anywhere). Porter doesn’t use any Scots dialect so her Scottish characters sound the same as the English ones, but some authors can write very convincingly in dialect and others can’t, so I think it’s best not to use it at all than to use it badly!

I ended up reading the free Project Gutenberg version of the book, mainly because there doesn’t seem to be a decent edition in print. The book covers in this post are for illustration purposes only. I hope someone like Penguin Classics or Oxford World’s Classics will decide to publish an edition at some point – with notes giving us more idea of which parts of the story are based on fact and which are purely fictional – as that might encourage more people to read this book; at the moment The Scottish Chiefs seems to be a bit of a forgotten classic, which is a shame as despite the flaws I think it’s definitely worth reading if you’re interested in Scottish history or in early examples of historical fiction.

This is book 13/50 read from my Classics Club list.

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.

The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff

This is the second book I’ve read for this week’s 1965 Club, hosted by Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. Like my first, Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper, Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Mark of the Horse Lord is described as a book for younger readers, although it doesn’t really feel like one. I have previously read two of Sutcliff’s adult books (The Rider of the White Horse and Blood and Sand) and I found this one just as beautifully written and with just as much to offer an adult reader.

The story is set during the time of the Roman Empire and our hero, the gladiator Phaedrus, is the son of a Greek wine merchant and his slave. The novel opens with Phaedrus, a slave himself, winning the Wooden Foil (and therefore his freedom from slavery) when he is victorious in a fight in the arena of Corstopitum, a town on the great wall built by Hadrian in what is now the north of England. His freedom is short-lived, however, when he is imprisoned after getting into trouble while out celebrating in the town, but this time he is rescued by a group of men who have noticed that he closely resembles their king and are hoping to persuade him to take part in a conspiracy.

Soon Phaedrus is heading north into what we now call Scotland, a land which at this time is home to both the Caledones (Picts) and the Dalriadain (Scots). The plan is for Phaedrus to impersonate Midir of the Dalriadain, who has been usurped by the Caledonian Queen Liadhan and blinded to prevent him from trying to rule. As he travels to the Antonine Wall and beyond, Phaedrus educates himself on the history and culture of his new people and comes to understand the significance of his new role as Horse Lord. But will he manage to convince everyone that he really is Midir – and who will win the upcoming battle between the Dalriads and the Caledones?

There was so much to enjoy about this book. I loved the descriptions of the Roman settlements along Hadrian’s Wall, including Corstopitum or Corbridge, as it is now known (I can recommend a visit to Corbridge Roman Town, run by English Heritage, if you’re ever in the area), and the contrast with the tribes in the north, where Roman rule hasn’t reached. I also found it fascinating to read about the differences in culture between the patriarchal Dalriads, whom Sutcliff tells us have ‘become a Sun People, worshipping a male God’ and the matriarchal Caledones who ‘had held to the earlier worship of the Great Mother’.

The plot was good enough to hold my interest to the end and made me think of other imposter stories I’ve read (such as The Great Impersonation and, in particular, The Prisoner of Zenda), but the setting, the time period and the themes it explores make it different and original. Also, without wanting to spoil anything, I thought the ending was perfect – both powerful and poignant. And yet, there was still something that prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I would have liked to. I’m not sure why, but I sometimes seem to struggle with books set in more ancient periods of history; I often don’t engage with the characters and storylines as thoroughly as I do when a book is set in slightly later periods. I’ve no idea why that should be, especially when an author writes as well as Rosemary Sutcliff does!

Katrina from Pining for the West has also reviewed The Mark of the Horse Lord for 1965 Club, if you would like to read a Scottish perspective on the book.

The Moon Sister by Lucinda Riley

This is the fifth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series based loosely on the mythology of the star cluster known as Pleiades or ‘the seven sisters’. Each novel tells the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious millionaire known as Pa Salt.

The girls come from different cultures and backgrounds, but all grew up together on Pa Salt’s estate in Switzerland. They are each named after one of the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. You may have noticed that there are only six sisters; for some reason, which we don’t yet know, a seventh was never adopted. This is one of many mysteries running throughout the series.

At the beginning of the first novel, The Seven Sisters, Pa Salt died, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their biological parents. So far we have heard Maia’s story, Ally’s, Star’s and CeCe’s; now, in The Moon Sister, it’s the turn of Tiggy. All of the books in the series work as standalones and it’s not essential to read them in order, but this book does overlap with one or two of the others and advances some of the storylines begun earlier in the series.

The Moon Sister follows Tiggy as she begins a new job in the Scottish Highlands, where she has been employed by Charlie Kinnaird to establish a colony of wildcats on his estate. With her degree in zoology and her love of nature, Tiggy is perfect for the job and quickly settles in, getting to know the animals on the Kinnaird estate and forming a close friendship with Cal, the man whose cottage she shares. The peace is disturbed, however, when Charlie arrives with his troubled teenage daughter and his spiteful, vindictive wife.

Away from the problems in the Kinnaird household, Tiggy meets Chilly, an elderly gypsy who lives alone on the estate. It seems that fate must have brought them together, because Chilly is the one person who knows the truth of Tiggy’s origins and can point her in the direction of her birth family. From Chilly, Tiggy learns of her ancestor, Lucia Albaycin, a famous Spanish flamenco dancer. But Chilly doesn’t know everything, so to discover the rest of her family’s story, Tiggy must travel to Spain and visit the gypsy community in the caves of Sacromonte.

Like the others in the series, this book is divided between the modern day storyline and the historical one. We spend a decent amount of time with each character before switching to the other, which means we can become absorbed in both stories. Lucia’s story is fascinating – I can’t say that I liked her, as I found her very self-centred and driven by ambition at the expense of everything else – but she is certainly a strong character, whose power and passion as a person is matched by the power and passion of her dancing. It was interesting to watch as she (along with her equally selfish and irresponsible father) start from nothing to build a successful career in flamenco which takes them all over the world. Meanwhile, in Sacromonte near Granada, we follow the sad story of how the lives of the other gitanos (Spanish gypsies) are affected by first the Spanish Civil War and then the onset of the Second World War, leaving their community changed beyond recognition.

It was good to get to know Tiggy better too – and she is much easier to like than Lucia. The other d’Aplieses think of her as the sensitive, spiritual sister…the sort of person who wants to help everyone around her, whether human or animal, and who cares deeply about nature and the environment, trying hard to resist temptation and stick to her vegan diet! Of all her sisters, Tiggy is particularly close to Ally, whom we met in The Storm Sister, and it was lovely to see her again in this book. The one part of Tiggy’s story that didn’t really work for me was the romance. I felt that she and the man concerned hadn’t spent enough time together for their love for each other to develop, so I didn’t become as emotionally invested in their relationship as I would have liked.

The next book is going to tell Electra’s story and I have to admit I’m very apprehensive about that one. From the little we’ve seen and heard of Electra so far, her personality strikes me as very unappealing. However, we are given lots of intriguing clues in The Moon Sister regarding Pa Salt, his death and some strange occurrences at his home, Atlantis, so I’m hoping Electra will fill in some more of the gaps for us. I’m also curious about the rich businessman Zed, who keeps popping up throughout the series, trying to worm his way into the lives of first Maia, then Tiggy and now, it seems, Electra. For those reasons, I will be looking out for the next book, which I’m hoping will be published later this year.

Nonfiction November Week 2: Book Pairings – Tapestry of War and The Desert War

For Week 2 of Nonfiction November, the topic is as follows:

(Nov. 5 to 9, hosted by Sarah’s Bookshelves) – Fiction / Nonfiction Book Pairing – This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.

I’ve recently read two books that fit this week’s topic perfectly…

Fiction: Tapestry of War by Jane MacKenzie

Tapestry of War follows the very different experiences of two young women during World War II. In Egypt, we meet Fran Trevillian, a journalist working for the Alexandria Journal, reporting on the issues that are important to the diverse communities that have made the city their home. As Rommel’s forces draw closer to Alexandria, Fran falls in love with Jim MacNeill, a Scottish radar specialist. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Jim’s sister Catriona has finished training to be a nurse and is hoping to use her new skills to provide therapy for injured soldiers who have been sent home from the war. On the Isle of Islay, where she lives with her father, however, nursing opportunities seem limited and Catriona longs to move away to somewhere where she feels her work can really make a difference.

Although there is occasionally some drama in the stories of our two main characters and their friends, this is a very character driven novel. Both women change and grow as people as a result of the work they carry out during the war and the new relationships they develop. I enjoyed each storyline equally, drawn more to Fran’s at the beginning because it was set closer to the action, but appreciating Catriona’s more and more as the novel progressed. I became completely invested in the lives of each woman, sharing in their happiness as each finds love when they least expect it and in their sadness as the tragedy of war strikes again and again.

Most of my previous World War II reading has concentrated on the war in Europe, so my knowledge of what was happening in North Africa is more limited. I found that I was learning a lot from Tapestry of War, but I knew I needed to read some non-fiction to fill in the gaps…

Nonfiction: The Desert War by James Holland

This little book is part of the Ladybird Expert series, aimed at adult readers but published in the same format that those of us who loved Ladybird books as children will remember. Written in a clear and concise style, the left hand pages contain the text while on the right there’s a map, a photograph or an illustration.

Beginning in 1940, when the Italians, under Mussolini, entered the Second World War, James Holland takes us in chronological order through each stage of the war in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It’s all very factual and straight to the point, with none of the author’s own personality coming through, but in a book with only 50 pages (half of them pictures) and a lot of information to cover, that’s understandable. Battles and raids are described briefly, concentrating on the outcome and any notable tactics or weapons that were used.

The Desert War is a perfect introduction to the subject and can easily be read in less than an hour. If, when you’ve finished it, you want to explore things in more detail, some recommendations for further reading are given, although there are no references or sources provided. I didn’t mind this as all I wanted from this book was a chance to learn some basic facts and to get the timeline of events straight in my mind – it’s obviously not intended to be a comprehensive, in-depth read. Looking at the other titles in the Ladybird Experts series, I see there are several more by James Holland covering different aspects of the war, as well as books by other authors on topics as diverse as witchcraft, genetics and Beowulf.

Thanks to Allison & Busby for providing a review copy of Tapestry of War and to Penguin Random House for a review copy of The Desert War.

Do you like to read fiction and non-fiction on the same subject? Can you think of any pairs of books that go well together?

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free by Andrew Miller

It’s 1809 and a wounded man is being carried into his home in Somerset. His name is Captain John Lacroix and he has just returned from Spain, where he has been fighting in the Peninsular War. Injured, exhausted and haunted by his experiences, he seems close to death, but with the help of his housekeeper, Nell, he slowly regains his strength. Unable to contemplate returning to the war, he sets off for Scotland instead – first to Glasgow, then to the Hebrides, in search of some peace and redemption.

Meanwhile, in Spain, a British soldier called Calley is providing evidence to a military inquiry regarding atrocities carried out in the Spanish village of Los Morales during the retreat of the British army. He says he can identify the man responsible for this war crime, the man who was in command of the troops as they raped and murdered. To satisfy the Spanish that justice has been done, Calley is sent to hunt down and punish the perpetrator of the crime, accompanied by a Spanish officer, Medina, who will act as a witness.

Due to the alternating of the two narratives, it very quickly becomes obvious to the reader that the man accused by Calley is John Lacroix…but can it be true? Can the quiet, decent, sensitive man we have been getting to know on his journey to Scotland really have carried out these appalling deeds? Either there is more to the story than meets the eye or we don’t know John Lacroix as well as we think we do. There’s plenty of suspense as we wonder when we will find out exactly what happened that day in Los Morales and what sort of man John Lacroix really is.

As we wait to see whether Calley and Medina will catch up with their target, Lacroix arrives on a remote Hebridean island where he meets Emily Frend and her siblings, Jane and Cornelius. Together with their absent leader, the mysterious Thorpe, they are the last remaining members of a small community who have made the island their home. Intrigued by their lifestyle, Lacroix compliments Emily on her freedom, only for her to explain to him that she does not consider herself to be free at all: “Is it because I take off my stockings to paddle in the sea?” she asks. “That I have let you see me do it? Is that my freedom?”

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free is a beautifully written novel and although there were one or two aspects of the plot that I found unconvincing and although I was disappointed in the Hebridean setting, which I would have expected to have a much stronger sense of place, I could overlook these things because there was so much else that I liked. Andrew Miller has a lot to say about so many things: guilt and blame, the atrocities of war, independence, redemption and love. This is only the second book of his that I’ve read – the first was Pure, a dark and fascinating novel about the destruction of a cemetery in Paris. I enjoyed both but preferred this one because the characters are stronger and because it left me with more to think about at the end. I’m sure I’ll be reading more of his books; I like the sound of Ingenious Pain, so maybe I’ll try that one next.

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