Tag Archives: English history

“The Mirror and the Light” by Hilary Mantel and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 25

This book is #3 in Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell (1485 to 1540), who served as chief minister to King Henry VIII of England. The title of this book is perfectly clear – King Henry is the light and Thomas Cromwell is the mirror. Reading this book and knowing Thomas Cromwell was executed by order of King Henry, I kept wanting to yell out a warning. “Get out! Now! While you can!”

Serious question: Was hereditary monarchy worse or better than the democratic chaos we now face? Trump will not hold office as long as Henry VIII. What kinds of change can a leader impose? How can those around a powerful leader maintain both sanity and self-respect? Will any Trump cabinet member be beheaded?

For your consideration, I offer Shakespeare’s Sonnet 25:

Let those who are in favour with their stars

Of public honour and proud titles boast,

Whilst I, whom fortune of such triumph bars,

Unlook’d for joy in that I honour most.

Great princes’ favourites their fair leaves spread

But as the marigold at the sun’s eye,

And in themselves their pride lies buried,

For at a frown they in their glory die.

The painful warrior famoused for fight,

After a thousand victories once foil’d,

Is from the book of honour razed quite,

And all the rest forgot for which he toil’d:

Then happy I, that love and am beloved

Where I may not remove nor be removed.

If you don’t want to entertain yourself with historical fiction, why not memorize a sonnet? And share it with someone you love!

“Enchantress of Numbers” by Jennifer Chiaverini

Enchantress of Numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace

This work of historical fiction is subtitled “A Novel of Ada Lovelace”. The long version of the protagonist’s name is Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. Her mother was Annabella Milbanke Byron, wife of the stunningly famous Romantic era poet George Gordon, Lord Byron. The marriage of Milbanke and Byron was short – Byron was unpredictable, promiscuous and moody. (That’s putting it mildly.) Byron left England, and Ada never had the opportunity to know her father.

Ada’s childhood was lonely, but she always had access to tutors and her intellectual life blossomed. She was passionately attracted to mathematics and science, and met many of the leading scholars of her age. Her name is often mentioned in connection with early “calculation machines” which preceded the invention of computers. She died at age 36, of uterine cancer.

It’s hard to read this book without applying contemporary standards of social judgement. Jennifer Chiaverini deserves high praise for staying within the cultural and social context experienced by Ada Lovelace.

Jennifer Chiaverini has published many books, including a series of TWENTY volumes called The Elm Creek Quilts Novels. I would rather start with her other six volumes of historical fiction. The only series of such magnitude I ever attempted was Patrick O’Brien’s wonderful Aubrey/Maturin saga.

Having now read a little about Lord Byron, I should read some of his poetry, which is considered the height of the Romantic era verse. Poetry is not my strong suit. I hope I can persist.

“Call the Midwife – A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times” by Jennifer Worth

This well written memoir was published in 2002, the first of three books about practicing as a midwife in the poverty stricken East End area of London (the Docklands) in the 1950s. The BBC produced a television series based on these books, broadcast beginning in 2012. Having seen just one episode, I was expecting Call the Midwife to be humorous and exciting. Instead I found it to be gritty and very sad. I actually skipped one chapter (about the workhouse), not feeling up to it.

The first surprise for me was how BAD conditions were in postwar London. Wartime damage to buildings had not been repaired. Housing was limited, so poor people lived in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. Not every apartment had a bathroom or hot water. Men readily found employment on the docks, but the work was hard and poorly paid. Women married young and had many children. If they worked, they were poorly paid.

Nonetheless, there were positive aspects to life in the Docklands. People knew their neighbors well, and extended families were very supportive. Nurses and doctors were so respected that they were safe even in violent neighborhoods, where the police worked in pairs. Worth also mentions in passing the richly expressive Cockney dialect, almost a distinct language. She understood it most of the time, but certainly never spoke it.

Having just read  Empty Planet – the Shock of Global Population Decline by Bricker and Ibbitson (see blog entry dated August 15, 2019), I found myself pondering the “demographic transition”, the shift of a community from high birthrate with high death rate to (eventually) low birthrate with low death rate. Sometimes countries at these two extremes are described as “third world” and “developed”.  East End London in the 1950s was in a transitional state, with high birthrate and low death rate. It was challenging and (inherently?) unstable. The conditions described were so bad, I had trouble remembering that I was NOT reading about, say, the year 1900.

The quality of obstetrical care provided in this teeming slum was amazingly high. Midwives and nurses were well trained. Doctors and hospitals could deal with a wide range of emergencies. Most babies were born at home, attended by a midwife. Follow up as extensive as three nursing visits PER DAY might continue for several weeks. Doctors also made home visits, and extreme emergencies were handled by an Obstetric Flying Squad which could transport mother and baby to a hospital quickly if necessary. The maternal and infant survival rates were high. Little was available by way of contraception, so families with more than 10 children were common.

Death rates also fell because antibiotics became available and communicable diseases were increasingly controlled.

In the introduction to Call the Midwife, Worth attributes the disappearance of the Docklands community to “the closure of the docks, slum clearance. and the Pill”. When oral contraception became available, women chose to have much smaller families. The midwifery practice in which Worth was employed saw births fall (over a few years) from 80-100 per month to four or five per month! One can only speculate about how things would have changed if this reproductive revolution had NOT been accompanied by job loss and the wholesale destruction of old (but potentially useful) housing.

This book should be read by urban planners. Some experts think that the most sustainable human future will arise from high density urbanization.

“Facing Enemies” by Mary Ann Trail

The Napoleonic Wars seem to attract imaginative attention, being fictionalized by everyone from Patrick O’Brian (Aubrey and Maturin series, 20 volumes) to Suzanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, see my blog entry of February 2, 2018). The site Goodreads offers a list of 135 novels set in that era, but the number of authors involved is much fewer. What makes the Napoleonic era so compelling? Anyone have a theory?

Mary Ann Trail’s recently published second book, Facing Enemies, is set in 1803. It begins in Dublin, but most of the action takes place in France.

And there’s plenty of action! This book is engaging and fast paced. The characters are well drawn, and the bad guys are REALLY bad. I had no trouble dashing through this book during a busy week. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction. I hope there’s a sequel pending! Some of the characters are too good to leave behind.

“Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell” by Susanna Clarke

Do you believe in magic? Do you like historical fiction? If you answer “yes” to either question, this book is for you. It falls into the oddball category of fantasy historical fiction.

The setting is England (mostly) during the Napoleonic Wars. A number of characters are historical figures, like the Duke of Wellington and members of the British royal family.

Despite the title, there are many more than two important characters in this book, and sometimes I had trouble keeping them straight. Some characters that seem minor become the focus of important plot twists.

The author has a “grand scale” imagination, creating a world in which the supernatural intersects with “ordinary” life. The plot is mostly an adventure story. The language is lively.

Unusual for a work of fiction, this book has footnotes! I skipped them because my e-reader is awkward, but you will enjoy the book more, I think, if you read them as you go along.

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is long, but you couldn’t do better for a rainy weekend at the beach.

“The Agincourt Bride” and “The Tudor Bride” by Joanna Hickson

Nothing matches historical fiction for escape value! I particularly enjoyed these books because they were set in France. Maybe I’ve maxed out on English historical fiction.

I’ve decided historical fiction is part of the “fan fiction” genre (which I don’t actually read). People write “fan fiction” because they don’t want to let go of the character, settings and situations in their favorite fiction. I certainly sympathize with the inclination! Who isn’t frustrated about the delay in publication of more volumes of Game of Thrones?

A close friend of mine wrote a version of Homer’s Illiad. It’s a way of merging with the work and the author, a profoundly respectful assertion of co-ownership.

Will I ever take a stab at “fan fiction”? I doubt it. Historical fiction? Also unlikely… I like to write, but have stayed with non-fiction. Check out the works of Joanna Hickson if you need an agreeable dose of historical fiction.

“God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible” by Adam Nicholson

As a family, we have concluded that the best (audio) books for travel are non-fiction. (The exception being Arthur Conan Doyle, and we’ve got him memorized…) Faced with a trip of ten hours duration over a two-day period, we chose God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicholson. It kept us interested.

The creation of the King James Bible contradicts the notion that nothing good can be done by a committee. The churchmen involved did not think of themselves as writing a new translation of the Bible, but rather were told to reconcile inconsistencies so everyone would share the same text. Nicholson says “It…is one of the greatest of all monuments to the suppression of ego.” 

When I hear passages from the King James Bible, to me they sound and feel “right”. Why? I think the Bible I heard as a child was the King James version. Often I wasn’t really paying attention, but I believe it settled into my subconscious, and I recognize it unwittingly.

Oddly, when I was given a Bible in Sunday school, it was NOT the King James but the New Revised Standard.

I enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who is curious about the Bible. In our public discourse, it is so commonly referenced, but to me it seems to be rather little read.

If YOU read the Bible, I’d love to hear what version you use, and why!