The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett

The Peoples Queen They say you should never judge a book by its cover and in the case of The People’s Queen, I have found that to be very true. The image on the cover of this particular book gives the impression that this is a typical ‘royal court’ novel, maybe similar to the sort of book you might expect from Philippa Gregory. If you take away the cover, the novel itself – written in third person present tense and with a focus on politics, money and trade rather than love and romance – feels much more like Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.

Our heroine, if it’s possible to call her that, is Alice Perrers, most famous for being a mistress of England’s King Edward III (who reigned from 1327 to 1377). Alice was never a queen and, as far as I can tell, was never popular with the people either, so I’m not sure where the title of the novel comes from – other than that she was a woman from a humble background who rose to a position of power. I have read fictional portrayals of Alice before, but only as a secondary character, so I was curious to see how she would fare as the protagonist of her own story.

The People’s Queen is structured around the medieval concept of the Wheel of Fortune. As the novel opens, Alice is riding at the top of the wheel, at the height of her power and influence. During her rise, Alice has made a lot of enemies…but also some friends, including the poet Geoffrey Chaucer, who has gained a new position as comptroller of customs for the Port of London under Alice’s patronage. It is said that pride comes before a fall, however, and Alice’s fortunes are about to change.

Aware that the King is starting to grow old and infirm and won’t be around forever, Alice begins to make plans for the future. Knowing that she will lose his financial support when he dies, she enters into an unscrupulous business venture, confident that nobody will discover what she has been doing. Eventually, of course, Alice’s schemes start to fall apart as the Wheel of Fortune begins to turn again.

Alice’s story takes place during an interesting and eventful period of English history: the novel incorporates the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt and features characters such as John of Gaunt, the Black Prince, Katherine Swynford and Wat Tyler. Somehow, though, Vanora Bennett manages to make a potentially fascinating story feel boring and passionless. I mentioned a similarity to Hilary Mantel, but the similarity is in the style of writing only. Where Wolf Hall is a compelling and enjoyable novel, The People’s Queen just isn’t, at least not in my opinion. Not being particularly interested in economic history, I thought there was too much time spent discussing taxes, budgets, loans and interest rates. I was also disappointed in the lack of medieval atmosphere; I think the author was trying to draw parallels with modern life and modern politics, but I felt that this came at the expense of creating a sense of time and place.

I do think Bennett does a good job of making Alice a complex, well-rounded character. She is shown to be greedy, ambitious and manipulative, as well as intelligent and shrewd…but she also has a softer, more vulnerable side, and it can’t be denied that she does provide some happiness and comfort to Edward. The way in which she becomes involved with Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt appears to be completely fictional and does not feel convincing, but I liked the portrayal of her friendship with Geoffrey Chaucer (which forms a major part of the story). There is some historical basis for this as they did know each other and Alice is believed by some historians to be the inspiration for the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Despite finding Alice an interesting character, though, I didn’t feel any sort of connection with her. I didn’t expect to actually like her, but it was disappointing to find that I didn’t care at all what happened to her.

I haven’t given up on Vanora Bennett yet because I did like Midnight in St Petersburg a lot more than this book and I also still have Queen of Silks on my shelf to be read. I’ll hope for a better experience with that one!

My Commonplace Book: March 2016

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

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He had a narrow, swarthy face with a high forehead, so high he had his cropped dark hair brushed forward – he was losing his hair, then. His eyes slanted downward, sensual, melancholic and secretive. Saints in the churches, painted on panels and murals, had halos of light around their heads and bodies; the prince seemed to have a tracing of darkness, as if he was standing in front of a prince-shaped hole that led into something terrible, and you could just catch glimpses of it when he moved…

The Red Lily Crown by Elizabeth Loupas (2014)

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Do you keep time in the same place that you save it? If so why is it so difficult to find? It must be in a very safe place.

Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (1997)

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Miss Rebecca was not, then, in the least kind or placable. All the world used her ill, said this young misanthropist, and we may be pretty certain that persons whom all the world treats ill, deserve entirely the treatment they get. The world is a looking-glass, and gives back to every man the reflection of his own face. Frown at it, and it will in turn look sourly upon you; laugh at it and with it, and it is a jolly kind companion; and so let all young persons take their choice.

Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847)

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Buddhist caves, two hundred and fifty BC…? It was the Emperor Ashoka who had ordered them to be made, he felt almost sure about that. But there was something else, something to do with the shape of the caves, that escaped him. Was it about meditation? He hadn’t been paying close attention, his mind had been preoccupied, and now their purpose remained a mystery – as it seemed so much in this country was destined to, at least for him.

Arctic Summer by Damon Galgut (2014)

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The children of Dynmouth were as children anywhere. They led double lives; more regularly than their elders they travelled without moving from a room. They saw a different world: the sun looked different to them, and so did Dynmouth’s trees and grass and sand. Dogs loomed at a different level, eye to eye. Cats arched their tiger’s backs, and the birds behind bars in Moult’s Hardware and Pet Supplies gazed beadily down, appearing to speak messages.

The Children of Dynmouth by William Trevor (1976)

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Days lived, whether full or empty, whether busy or serene, are but days gone by, and the ashes of the past weigh the same in every hand.

The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon (1957)

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As for the cold, he had never experienced anything like it: a dry, iron clamp upon the land, like death itself, full of unexpected beauty, like the hard crystals that formed on the inside of the windows. The cold did something strange to the quality of sounds around the farm, deadening all background noise so that the smallest scratching or whisper was emphasised. It was easy to see how the unwary settler could die in such a scene, lulled into marvelling at its deadly beauty even as his blood began to freeze.

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale (2015)

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Jane_Eyre_title_page

Under Dad’s philosophy, books were not shape-shifting constructions of a reader’s imagination. Novels, he said, offered the specific clues, maps and guidelines necessary for their own evaluation. By clues, he did not mean metaphors and he did not mean symbolism. He meant actual clues. To him, every book was its own treasure map. A good novel, he said, left the close reader with a useful souvenir. All you needed to do was learn to see what was right under your nose.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell (2016)

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“Robert has been led most of his life by his ambition – our family’s ambition – for him to be king. All of us have paid a price, for some the highest price, for him to fulfil that desire, but we have done so because we see in him something that lifts him above most other men; something that makes us hope. He has the iron will of our grandfather and, yes, the hot blood of our father, though he’ll not hear the latter said, but he also has the heart of our mother. It is a true heart. A good heart. You must keep faith, my lady.”

Kingdom by Robyn Young (2014)

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Sitting at her bureau a short time before, Frances had been picturing her lodgers in purely mercenary terms – as something like two great waddling shillings. But this, she thought, shuffling backward over the tiles, this was what it really meant to have lodgers: this odd, unintimate proximity, this rather peeled-back moment, where the only thing between herself and a naked Mrs Barber was a few feet of kitchen and a thin scullery door.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (2014)

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“I think you’ll find most women in pursuit of a husband share an interest in appearing less educated than they really are,” said Beatrice. “It is why I have a low opinion of them.”

“Of women, miss?” said Abigail.

“No, of husbands,” said Beatrice.

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson (2016)

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Knighthood’s not for the likes of these people; for Madame Perrers’ brood. He thought she knew her place. But she’s overreached herself; she’s as grasping as the rest of them, after all. Do these people think they can buy or steal everything?

The People’s Queen by Vanora Bennett (2010)

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Favourite books this month: The Red Lily Crown and The Summer Before the War.

Midnight in St Petersburg by Vanora Bennett

Midnight in St Petersburg Midnight in St Petersburg begins in the year 1911 and tells the story of Inna Feldman, a young Jewish woman from Kiev. Inna is an orphan living with relatives but when they decide to leave for Palestine to escape the anti-Jewish violence in Kiev, she is left to make her way to St Petersburg on her own to seek refuge with a distant cousin, Yasha Kagan. For a girl travelling alone carrying stolen identity documents, the journey north is dangerous, especially as the Russian Prime Minister has recently been assassinated during a visit to the theatre in Kiev, but with the help of a peasant who calls himself Father Grigory, Inna is able to find her cousin’s home. Through Yasha she meets the Leman family and is given a job in their violin-making workshop.

As the political situation in St Petersburg becomes more unsettled and the country heads towards revolution, Inna finds herself torn between two very different men. The first is her rebellious cousin Yasha, a revolutionary activist who shares her love of violin music. The second is Horace Wallick, a respectable Englishman who paints miniatures for the famous jeweller, Fabergé. Inna must choose between these two men and the completely different lifestyles they offer: one passionate but filled with danger; the other more predictable but secure and safe.

I received a review copy of this book unexpectedly a few months ago and despite being immediately attracted by the title (I love books set in Russia, especially St Petersburg) it has taken me a while to find time to actually read it. I regret not reading it earlier as it turned out to be such an interesting read. The author explained the politics of the period very well, making everything clear and easy to follow, and I liked the fact that we were shown the effects of the revolution on a wide variety of people from different social and cultural backgrounds.

The only problem I had with this book was that I just didn’t find the central romantic storyline very exciting or convincing. This is probably because, for a long time, I didn’t like either of Inna’s two love interests, so wasn’t particularly bothered which of them she would eventually choose. I did start to warm to them both towards the end, though, and after finishing the book and reading the author’s note I was fascinated to discover that Horace’s character was based on the story of Vanora Bennett’s own great-great-uncle who also worked as an artist in pre-revolutionary St Petersburg. I thought this personal connection helped to add a real touch of authenticity to the story I had just been reading.

Luckily, even without being very interested in Inna’s romantic relationships, there were still plenty of other things I could enjoy. One of the most intriguing storylines within the novel, for me, was the one involving Father Grigory, the man Inna met on the train to St Petersburg near the beginning of the book. If you know your Russian history you will know, or be able to guess, who Father Grigory really was, but if not then I’ll leave you to find out for yourself. I also really liked the violin-making aspect of the story as it was something different and unusual. I took violin lessons myself for a few years when I was younger (though I certainly wasn’t as talented as Inna) so I found it interesting to read about the processes of making and repairing violins.

I’m not sure if I liked Midnight in St Petersburg enough to want to look for more of Vanora Bennett’s novels (I know she has written three or four other historical fiction novels) but I did enjoy learning about a period of Russian history I didn’t know much about.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book