Hazel McHaffie

Alison Weir

More festival fun

Wow! I’ve just attended my THIRD virtual book festival of lockdown! Feels like a real indulgence. This one was another trip to MyVLF, a free global virtual literary festival, connecting readers with authors.

This time the focus was on historical fiction and included a stellar cast of well known names – Kate Mosse, Victoria Hyslop, Alison Weir, Elizabeth Buchan, Bernard Cornwell. Of course, they were speaking from their own homes, and I was amused to see them in relaxed lockdown mode (without benefit of hairdressers, makeup artists, camera men) side by side on the same screen with their professional promotional photos. But grooming aside, they were every inch the polished, fluent and accomplished professionals in their performance: responding to interview questions, sharing their favourite time periods, their experiences researching their topics or drafting their stories. And a day of listening to them positively enthused me, the old brain whirring into writing mode again.

They also inspired me to dig out a hitherto unread historical novel from my shelves: Philippa Gregory‘s Three Sisters, Three Queens … another household name. Perhaps the craftsmanship behind it will be even more apparent to me now that I’ve just heard about the painstaking work that predates writing such a book, the importance of a firm scaffolding of facts through which characters can weave and wander. Certainly I shall appreciate all over again the way the author must immerse herself in the dates and customs and places and mores of the time, even though most of the research never gets into the book. That’s a lesson I learned early on in my own career as a novelist: the reader mustn’t be aware of the knowledge you the author have acquired, but of course, hearing these marvellous writers talk about their obsessions, what they’ve learned, how much they know, serves only to make admiration of the finished product the more sincere.

Three Sisters, Three Queens will make a change from being back in my own specialist field of medical ethics, too. Three years ago exactly I wrote a post on this blog which looked at the subject of children in trouble through the novels of Susan Lewis. By some weird coincidence this very week a neighbour left the sequel to Stolen, the third book I mentioned back then, on the shelves at the end of our drive. Well, I had to read it, didn’t I? At the end of Stolen, Charlotte Goodman had fled to New Zealand from the UK with a little girl she had stolen from abusive parents. You said Forever picks up the story five years later. By this time Charlotte and lawyer husband Anthony have two other children biologically their own. Chloe, now legally adopted by Charlotte but not Anthony, is causing mayhem both at home and at school. When she threatens the life of the younger children, Charlotte knows drastic action is needed. But what? How can she choose between her children, the little people she loves more than life? She promised Chloe a forever-home; but can she keep that promise?

Lockdown is certainly affording me plenty of new experiences. I’ve even cut my own hair – very very short, slicing into three fingers at the same time! And painted the outside of our windows and doors, and renovated and wallpapered a walk-in-larder. Much ladder-climbing involved. It might just be a relief to get back to sitting safely at my desk writing!

 

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The Captive Queen

Having devoured the two Tudor novels by Alison Weir (reviewed in recent posts), I was keen to read her third excursion into fiction: The Captive Queen.

This one goes back four hundred years earlier, to the twelfth century, a time of which, I confess, I knew very little. And it tells the tumultuous story of the making of a nation, of passionate personal and international conflicts, of a high-profile royal marriage in meltdown. Records that far back are incomplete but, as an historian and novelist of integrity, Weir has extended great efforts to fill in the gaps as authentically as its possible to do, as her end note explains.

At the core of this tale is the beautiful, fabulously wealthy, young  Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204). As the sovereign Duchess of Aquitaine and Countess of Poitiers, she’s the most eligible bride in Europe. She’s also a formidably wise and firm governor, a trustworthy leader, and a woman who inspires passion, famed for her fairness, generosity and humanity.

But her own powerful emotions lead her into tumultuous situations. After fifteen years as Queen consort of France, she turns her back on a shattered marriage to King Louis VII, her crown, and two young daughters, to pursue the love of her life.

Louis VII has been more monk than either king or lover, and Eleanor is a sensuous woman with strong dsires. As soon as she can persuade Louis to have their marriage annulled on the grounds of consanguinity within the forbidden degrees dictated by the Church, she launches into marriage with Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy, who combines youth (he’s ten years younger than her) and handsome looks with voracious carnal appetites, conveniently drawing a veil over her adulterous liaison with his father Geoffrey. Their union represents not just the fulfillment of their love and lust for each other, but the founding of one of ‘the greatest empires in Christendom’, spanning vast territories on both sides of the channel. Henry becomes Henry II of England and they produce a further eight children together, three of whom later become kings themselves.

But in time Henry reveals his true nature: cruel, overbearing, jealous, self-important, serially unfaithful. Eleanor is forced to acknowledge that her own beloved subjects reject and dislike him and his dictatorial ways, and that she personally has gone from one disastrous marriage to a weak and inadequate man, into one where she is a captive wife to a very aggressive husband. When she remonstrates with him, he betrays his patronising view of women: ‘… a wife’s duty is to obey her husband, to rear his children, and to warm his bed when he so desires. And there it ends.‘ Never mind that she was a ruler in her own right as well as Queen of France before he ever met her! He increasingly sidelines her. By now Eleanor can see that he is utterly incapable of appreciating her point of view, and once his mind is made up, nothing will move him. ‘I am determined to have my way’ extends beyond ruling despotically, taking territories and insisting on absolute obedience; it includes deflowering innocent well-born girls as well as taking many other beautiful and available women.

When she discovers the extent of his unfaithfulness, in spite of the passion within their marriage, Eleanor feels totally betrayed. But when she confronts him, Henry is brutal: ‘We are a partnership, Eleanor. You are Aquitaine, and I am England, Normandy and the rest. Together, we straddle much of the western world. Nothing can sunder us, not even hatred. To be invincible, we have to work together, to give a semblance of being in harmony. Our personal feelings do not count.’ Political gain and advantage is his sole driving force. But even in her worst nightmares, Eleanor could not have envisaged just how vengeful this man she had once loved so passionately could be.

It is, however, his obsessive relationship with Thomas Becket, that proves Henry’s greatest preoccupation for years. Initially Becket, as Henry’s Chancellor, is his best friend and companion, so much so indeed that Henry entrusts his own eldest living son and heir, Henry, to his care and guidance. But when King Henry insists on making him Archbishop of Canterbury, Becket changes completely, becoming a hair-shirt self-flagellating ascetic, and in defence of the Church, turning against his King, and openly defying him. Henry’s rage, born of pain and betrayal, knows no bounds. In his desperate search for absolute power, he is even prepared to use his own infant daughters to score points against his enemies! Afraid for his life, Becket seeks refuge on the continent, further fuelling Henry’s impotent fury. When the King eventually extends an olive branch, Becket returns to England, but shortly afterwards he is brutally murdered in his own cathedral by knights who believe they are fulfilling the King’s wishes. Henry however, is wracked with guilt and remorse; this was never his intention.

Things go from bad to worse for him when Eleanor, disgusted by the extent of his domination and unfaithfulness, turns her back on him and, with her endorsement, his sons all rebel against his tyranny. He has her imprisoned, first in a single barren room in a tower in Rouen, later in a bleak wind-ravaged stone keep in Wiltshire, demoralised, starved of civilised company, cut off from the rest of humanity, with no news of her children – a terrible punishment for such a free spirit with sunny Aquitaine a constant ache in her heart. Only by degrees does he eventually relax the strictures and grant her more comfort and luxury, although she remains closely guarded.

A bitter decade follows. Henry seeks to have the marriage annulled. His newest paramour dies of cancer. He impregnates his son Richard’s betrothed, King Louis’s daughter, Princess Alys. Vile rumours discrediting Eleanor abound. The young King Henry dies.

It’s their shared parental grief that finally persuades Henry to release Eleanor, reunite her with her children, introduce her to her grandchildren, and free her to visit all her disputed fiefdoms  to re-establish her – and thence his – sovereignty. But good intentions only take them so far. Eleanor is increasingly appalled by the behaviour of her husband and her sons, and bowed down by the death of yet another of her boys.

Henry consigns Eleanor once more to captivity, in the same stone keep, and this time it is only his own death that releases her – after sixteen years captivity.  Now at last, Eleanor is appointed to rule England as its regent on behalf of her favourite son, King Richard. She rules wisely and well, puts many wrongs right, upholds the rights and interests of her people. But her success is dulled by the haunting tragedy and sadness of both her tortured marriages, all the mistakes and misjudgements, the enmities and betrayals, the loss of nine of her eleven children. She dies aged 82, amidst the peace and tranquillity of her sisters the nuns of Fontevrault, in the heartlands of the River Loire.

Apologies for such a long resume, but almost 500 pages of galloping story about such an exceptional, colourful and passionate woman and Queen, justified more than a bald summary. I’d highly commend this romping tale to anyone interested in a period of history that is so often shrouded in the mists of time.

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The Lady Elizabeth

Well, in a week of widespread turmoil following the statement by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex about their decision to withdraw from the traditional roles associated with their status as senior members of the royal family, it seems fitting to talk about previous blue-blooded incumbents – Prince Harry’s ‘glorious’ ancestors no less. And I’m not talking about the Duke of Windsor /King Edward VIII, who also married an America divorcée. No, rather let’s go back to the 16th century …

The year is 1536.

From a young age, Elizabeth Tudor, flame-haired fiery daughter of King Henry VIII, the most powerful king England has ever known, is very aware that she is different. She is an exceptionally gifted child with prodigious and precocious talents, a show-off and a rebel. Even aged three she is attuned to tiny nuances which betoken a shift in power. Why, for instance, does Sir John Shelton suddenly stop calling her ‘Lady Princess’ for example, and adopt the title ‘Lady Elizabeth’? What possible reason could ‘The King’s Highness’ have for decreeing such a thing?

Those around her see a small innocent child; they cannot bring themselves to explain the vagaries of the court or the bedchamber to her.  But the sudden beheading on the order of the king, of her own mother, Anne Boleyn, aka ‘The Whore’, and the introduction of a new stepmother/Queen, Jane Seymour, cannot be kept from this curious and impressionable mind. She seeks answers. She listens in to private conversations whilst pretending to be absorbed in juvenile pursuits.  She makes it her business to winkle out information. Risking much, her governess describes the young vibrant late Queen to her:
‘… your mother was a charming lady. She was not beautiful, but men found her very attractive. Your father the King pursued her for seven years, which must give you some idea of how fascinating she was. Accomplished too. Everything she did, she dd gracefully – she could dance, sing, embroider, write poetry, play the lute and virginals, and as for intelligence and wit – well, she shone. She was slim and poised, and always elegantly dressed, for she had a way with clothes, and could make much from a little. You are very like her in many ways.’

This information is at once comforting and dangerous to Elizabeth. To speak positively of her mother is to criticise her father the king, who had the woman who had been his great passion put to death for adultery and treason. Elizabeth soon feels the burden of knowledge. Even she can be banished from the court and her father’s presence, if she speaks unwisely. When she is, she feels the disgrace keenly.

In The Lady Elizabeth, the second work of fiction by Alison Weir, we see the world of the Tudor court through the eyes of this, one of the most famous characters of all time, Elizabeth I, (1533 – 1603) who reigned for 44 years as the last of five monarchs in the Tudor period. Yawn, yawn, you might be thinking; it’s surely been done to death. But no. Weir starts with Elizabeth as a tiny tot and takes us up to the moment she is declared sovereign, imagining vividly how such a pampered and revered child would perceive the world around her, how react to inexplicable tragedies, how reconcile her dream of power and wealth with the changing edicts of her father, how respond to her own fluctuations on the ladder of inheritance and divine right. We watch her preparing for her coming destiny, responding to a series of stepmothers, to the adulation of men, to banishment, to threatening death.

As we saw last week, this is an era when the monarch commands frightening power, the power of life and death. Elizabeth sees it at work in her own beloved father, whom she both adores and fears. After his death, without his majestic presence and absolute control, her world becomes a confusing and threatening place. Under her sickly young brother Edward VI, she is suddenly barred from court, forced to ‘rot’  in obscure properties away from the public eye. Bewildered and enraged, she is consumed by pain, loneliness, resentment and suspicion, all too aware of fickle loyalties, suspect motives, intrigue, back-biting, rumours, an ever-present sense of impending peril.

But this highly educated and clever young woman has inherited something of her father’s formidable will and presence herself, and in spite of her youth, she develops strategies for survival and getting her own way.

Her older sister Mary who assumes the throne next, is also King Henry’s daughter, however – determined, implacable, imperious. What’s more, she is devoutly religious, bent on bringing the country back to Catholicism. ‘Heretics’ who refuse to recant are burned at the stake or beheaded. Aghast at the brutal persecution her sister supports, Elizabeth outwardly succumbs to Mary’s demand that she attend Mass, whilst inwardly vowing to be a more compassionate Queen if and when her turn comes.

Mary is only too conscious that Elizabeth’s conformity is not genuine; the only problem is she can’t prove it; her young half-sister is devilishly clever. And although we know the eventual outcome, Alison Weir’s descriptions of their battles, of Elizabeth’s fall from grace, imprisonments and house arrest, the accusations and threats, keep us in suspense. The more I learned of the historical detail – around her mother’s execution, her own bastardy, her precarious childhood, the scandal of her relationship with the Queen’s husband, her religious rebellion, her imprisonment in the Tower and subsequent house arrest, Queen Mary’s mistrust, the schemes to marry her off against her will and to banish her from the country –  the more I could only marvel that she survived. But in reality, Mary’s brutal regime predisposes the people to support Elizabeth and strengthens Elizabeth’s own certainty that the only way to keep the throne safe is through the hearts of the subjects.  ‘The voice of the people is the voice of God’ as she herself puts it.

The author admits that she has speculated in places, but on the basis of evidence and factual records, her surmisings are perfectly plausible. When she was fourteen Elizabeth did have a highly suspect and indiscreet relationship with Admiral Sir Thomas Seymour, the Queen’s husband. Whether or not it resulted in a pregnancy can’t be proven, but there is sufficient known to support such an hypothesis. She most certainly recognised that it was a small step between the warm tumbled bed and the cold axe and grave.

Much as I found this book compelling and engrossing, I was again disconcerted by points of view abruptly changing within sections. There’s a case to be made for an omniscient narrator, but Weir purports to be seeing the world through the eyes of her characters, and it’s discombobulating to have the perspective blurred by sudden unheralded leaps into another mind. Perhaps this is a throwback to her more academic writing where history allows such tactics. Whatever, it’s a small price to pay for such a brilliant insight into life in Tudor times.

A salutary reminder that the shenanigans of the present incumbents of the royal dynasty pale into insignificance against the lives, loves and deaths of their forebears.

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Living breathing history!

14th November 1553
It is over. My trial has ended, and I am back in the Tower of London, this place that was once my palace and is now my prison.

What a fab opening paragraph; dramatic, intriguing, suspenseful. And credible. Here is a 16-year-old girl surrounded by ambition, scheming, greed and treachery: ‘I am to die when I have hardly begun to live.’ And we know it to be true. That’s the thing with historical fiction about famous figures. We know the basic plot, we even know a lot about the characters, but Alison Weir brings them totally alive. And because she’s an authority on the historical detail, she weaves in so much real life, that we can easily believe the fiction too. We’re in extremely safe hands. Some parts of this book may indeed seem far-fetched, the author concedes, but they are the parts most likely to be based on fact.

A word then, about this remarkable author. Alison Weir is the biggest-selling female historian (and the fifth best-selling historian) in the UK since records began in 1997. She has published twenty-three titles and sold more than 3 million books. Her biography makes fascinating reading in itself.

Having published ten factual history books, she moved into fiction, ‘which is something serious historians attempt only at their peril‘, as she says herself. But it gave her ‘a heady sense of freedom’, allowing her imagination free reign, trying to penetrate the minds of her characters. In telling the shocking stories of life in one of the bloodiest and dangerous times in history, her aim is to enthrall and appall in equal measure. And indeed she achieves that aim.

Her writing is masterly. We can smell those fetid, hot, dark, fearful birthing rooms; sense the backbiting and treachery behind the obeisance; fear each fickle regal mood change and caprice; despair at the restrictions and inequalities of court and diplomatic etiquette, class and gender; tremble with the naive maidens, pawns in their destiny as obedient and virtuous brood mares; cringe at the barbarity of religious fanaticism. Weir weaves together a massive cast of characters, intricate contextual detail, politics, religion, romance, with consummate skill.

Innocent Traitor is the first of two books set in Tudor times, telling the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey from her birth to her death through, not just her eyes, but those around her.

Lady Jane Grey is the granddaughter of Henry VII, great-niece of Henry VIII; cousin of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. Precious Tudor blood runs in her veins. From the moment of her birth, she is in direct line to the throne, and destined for great things. As a growing child she is bright and articulate, extremely well educated and articulate and a devout Protestant. Unwanted daughter of a ruthless mother and a scheming father, she nevertheless becomes a pawn in their dynastic power games. They set her up to be Queen of England, a reign which lasts a mere 9 days from 10th to 19 July 1553.

These are the times when a sovereign could command a whole country to espouse his/her preferred religion. With a change of monarch or a regal whim the people are required to swing from Catholicism to Protestantism … and back again. Protesters are put to death as heretics. Following Lady Jane’s brief reign, Queen Mary demands a return to the Catholic faith. Initially she is keen to show leniency and give people time to change, but  unscrupulous schemers (including Jane’s father) take advantage of her gentleness and plot to overthrown her. She is forced to accept the dangers of giving them a foothold – heresy, revolt, treason – and concludes: ‘I have thought long on this, and prayed for guidance and I have decided to revive the old statute against heresy, and root it out, for it is like a canker that gnaws away at the very vitals of the Church. Those who do not recant will be burned at the stake. If my people will not come to salvation by gentler means, then they must be constrained to it, for the safety of their souls.‘ As the French Ambassador puts it: ‘…a foretaste of hell-fire on Earth wonderfully concentrates the mind, and can bring about the conversion of the most stubborn heart.‘ Gibbets are placed at every street corner to help the people ‘learn that it is no light thing to rebel against their lawful sovereign.‘ And Weir doesn’t spare us the horror of what burning at the stake, beheading, drawing and quartering, mean. The people of the time thronged to watch the spectacle; she drags us into the crowd, forces us to watch with them. But looking on through the eyes of a 16-year-old innocent girl counting down the days to her own beheading, walking to that feared block, kneeling, praying for the last time … it’s powerful, harrowing stuff and definitely not for the faint-hearted.  As a reviewer from The Times says: ‘If you don’t cry at the end, you have a heart of stone.’

Faced with the burden of consigning that innocent girl to death, Queen Mary says: ‘I am discovering that it is no easy thing to be a queen, and not for the first time I find myself wishing that I were a simple country goodwife with a houseful of children instead.’  I suspect there are royals closer to our time who might embrace the same sentiments at times!

 

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