BIOGRAPHY//The Rival Queens- Nancy Goldstone

The Rival Queens: Catherine De' Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite De Valois, and the Betrayal That Ignited a Kingdom (May):

It’s a rare thing for me to read historical biographies these days, but once upon a time these were my bread and butter. So much, in fact, that I once wrote about how difficult I found reading novels. Thankfully, my reading diet is a bit more balanced these days- but I do still love a biography of scandalous and/or outrageous women from history.  And I’ve always enjoyed reading about the French court, an obsession that’s been fuelled by my unashamed obsession with Versailles. However,  the events in Rival Queens happen the century before the glory of the Sun King (I recommend Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography of him, by the way) and focuses on another colossal figure from French royal history- Catherine de’ Medici.

Catherine was ruthless, especially when it came to protecting her power and her favourite son. The mother of three kings of France, she was a complex woman and one who would stop at nothing to ensure she maintained her grip on the throne. Unfortunately, this involved regularly throwing her children, particularly Marguerite and Francois, under whatever the sixteenth century equivalent of a bus would have been. She was not a nice woman, but then maybe it’s wrong to expect that she would be. You have to make hard decisions when you’re in charge of a nation state, I guess. Goldstone examines Catherine’s life as it entwines with that of her children, especially her youngest daughter, the feisty and rather wonderful Marguerite de Navarre (who is now my new favourite person.)

After being forced into a marriage with a man she didn’t particularly like, who was of the wrong religion, who apparently smelled permanently of garlic and who made no secret of his mistresses, Marguerite not only saved his life THREE TIMES, she also became a force to be reckoned with in her own right. As queen of Navarre, she took on her formidable mother and spoilt elder brothers with aplomb. Despite tragedy, imprisonment, a loveless marriage and a quite frankly horrendous family background, Marguerite’s humour shines through in the memoirs she left behind and that are quoted from here.

This is a biography with humour and wit within in. It’s not a dusty, dry book at all (some of the footnotes are knowing and wry) and Goldstone allows Marguerite’s voice to shine through; her historical personality is one of a silly woman led mainly by love (a similar fate to that of her long-suffering, one-time sister-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots) and there is a clear attempt here to rescue her from this representation. I’m not sure how Catherine can be rehabilitated; indeed, her reputation seems to be going backwards as her daughter’s moves forward. She comes across here as an indecisive, untrustworthy and manipulative woman in thrall only to power and her favourite sons.

The only gripe I have about this book is that the illustration plates were shockingly pixellated, which is not cool. I like to actually see the faces of the people I’m reading about. However, this is a minor issue and should not put you off reading one of the most readable and accessible biographies I’ve read in years.

The Brontë Project//Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life- Samantha Ellis

Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life (Feb):  As I get older, Anne Brontë just makes loads more sense to me than her sisters. The sensible, shy and youngest Brontë sister was the only one who could make a job stick, who saw the world from the view of a working woman. Sure, I thought I liked Emily best- and she still has her moments, especially when it comes to her poetry- but Anne just grows more and more relevant to me as I grow older, even though she was younger than me when she died.

It’s in this spirit that Samantha Ellis writes this book. Sure, there have been tons of Brontë biographies and a few have made a good go at writing about Anne, even though there is scant evidence of her life outside of her work- none of the Gondal stories she wrote as a child with Emily survive, only five of her letters are known and there’s no existing manuscript of her masterpiece, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, that survives, possibly thanks to Charlotte destroying a lot of her work after her death. In truth, it would be easy to see Anne as some kind of a ghost, slipping her way through literary history. Ellis remarks in her book that staff at the Parsonage Museum state that they are rarely asked about Anne- more people apparently ask where Heathcliff is buried. (Bloody Heathcliff.)

In contrast to previous biographies, Ellis looks at Anne Brontë not through what is there and then filling in the awesome gaps left by the silence, but rather by exploring the different people in Anne’s life. Ellis is a playwright and these chapters feel almost like character studies- but they work. It’s a clever idea that allows her to weave in information about Anne’s life and the society in which she lived and how that is ultimately reflected back in the novels she wrote. A chapter on the Brontës’ beloved servant Tabby (always one of my most favourite people in the Brontë story, mainly because I imagine my own relatives being from good, honest Yorkshire stock like Tabby’s own family) allows Ellis to explore how Haworth and its surroundings shaped the work of the Brontës. A chapter on Anne’s father Patrick, much maligned by Gaskell and who to me has always seemed like a sweet man trying his best, means we get a look at the role of the clergy in his lifetime and how this shaped the upbringing of the sisters and their infamous brother. Each person in Anne’s life is here and the lessons that they bring to her work- and to us- feel like they have messages that are still relevant in today’s messy world.

Like her previous work, Ellis weaves her own exploration of Anne Brontë’s work. It’s a deeply personal tale of discovery for the author, too. Somehow, I think Anne would have liked that. She wanted her work to be a lesson for the reader, to help how they view the world. What she didn’t realise is the impact that she would keep on having nearly 200 years later.

 

Secret Diaries Past & Present- Helena Whitbread and Natasha Holme

Secret Diaries Past and Present (Jan): For my entire life, my grandma- Helena Whitbread– has been studying the life of Anne Lister, a remarkable Yorkshire woman who wrote a prolific diary in code. The diary held a secret- Anne, an upstanding citizen and landowner, well known in her hometown of Halifax, was a lesbian. What my grandma was working on (and some of my earliest memories are of her on her electric typewriter) was one of the earliest surviving records of lesbianism. I remember being fascinated by the code- it’s tiny and cramped and almost illegible if you don’t know what you’re looking at- and later, after I read the translated diaries, I was fascinated by the woman herself. She really does feel like an extra relative.

I’ve read most things my grandma has written, so I was pleased to get my hands this latest project, a Q+A with modern diarist, Natasha Holme. Natasha has written a diary-also in code, also dealing with her sexuality- since she was thirteen. This book looks at the two diaries together and discusses how diarists approach their work.

It is interesting to compare and contrast the two diaries, written 200 years apart but with so many similarities, through the use of an interview between Helena and Natasha and extracts of both diaries presented side by side. The discussion of the lives of Anne and Natasha (and, of personal interest to me, my grandma!) was very interesting. Although much in the world changes, some things stay the same it seems.

This is a book for those who enjoy reading diaries and maybe want to learn more about what motivates someone to write them; a chance to peek behind the curtain perhaps. There are also rumours that Sally Wainwright is to write a series about Anne Lister; you might want to get in there before it gets huge and find out more about coded diaries now- you could do worse than start here.

 

NON-FICTION//How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal that Shook the French Throne- Jonathan Beckman

How to Ruin a Queen: Marie Antoinette, the Stolen Diamonds and the Scandal That Shook the French Throne (Aug):  I’ll admit it- I am a Marie Antoinette obsessive. Benn thinks I have a thing for flawed queens who ultimately lost their heads (oh hai, Anne B./Mary, Queen of Scots!), but I think my interest is primarily about how they moved in a hostile society and how they made sense of their world. But I do have a special place in my heart for Marie Antoinette. I remember buying Antonia Fraser’s excellent biography from Shakespeare and Co on my first trip to Paris and just devoured it. Ultimately, I fall on the side of Marie Antoinette being a victim in a world that she didn’t quite understand and that never really accepted her.

This is perfectly encapsulated in the furore surrounding the Diamond Necklace Affair: a few years before the Revolution, a cardinal is conned into buying a ridiculous diamond necklace by a pretty young conwoman obsessed by her faintly aristocratic roots, thinking that he is buying his way into the favour of queen- who has never liked him. There’s a moonlit meeting (where he is fooled into thinking he has met her) and reams of potentially scandalous letters. Despite never being involved and not knowing anything about the plot until it’s too late, Marie Antoinette becomes embroiled in a PR nightmare which threatens to engulf the French throne- and is said by some to lead the French on a collision course with revolution.

Beckman’s account of the affair, its characters and its aftermath is as entertaining as it is detailed- I found myself chuckling at points (not something that happens all the time when I’m reading non-fiction!) The book finds something sympathetic about most of the characters involved in the story, which is not always easy- but is very effective at reminding us that people are driven to folly in desperate circumstances. It also means that , despite reading like a rollicking crime thriller, we see those involved as people- not merely 2D ‘heroes’ and ‘villains’.

The Bronte Project: The Brontes- Juliet Barker

The Brontës (Mar):

Juliet Barker’s The Brontes was first published in 1995 and is considered to be the definitive biography of the whole family. As such, it’s a huge and detailed book and one that I can’t really do justice to in a blogpost; there’s just so much of it. Unlike many Bronte biographies, it covers the family from Patrick Bronte’s birth at the tail-end of the eighteenth century, to just after his death in the latter part of the nineteenth. Of course, his brilliant family are the reason we’re reading the book in the first place, but I was quite unprepared for how quite extraordinary he was as well.

On paper, the Brontes really shouldn’t have been all that remarkable; a Northern Irish parson from a poor family becomes the vicar of a small industrial town in West Yorkshire. He marries, has children and lives his life. So far, so normal. Except that Patrick Bronte’s life-and that of his children- was one of great tragedy (he outlived his wife and all six of their children) and great creative spirit.

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Patrick Bronte, around 1860- he had outlived all six of his children by this time

Juliet Barker perfectly captures what I imagine 19th century Haworth to have been like (as I grew up in Leeds, it was a summer holiday trip that happened fairly frequently.) It’s really hard to describe the town and the surrounding moors to anyone who’s never been up there. But once you know it, even briefly, you kind of get how the Brontes wrote what they did. They were a product of a literary household, a doting father, a dramatic landscape and an unusually strong familial bond.

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A self-portrait of Branwell

The men of the family- Patrick, his wayward son, Branwell and Charlotte’s husband, Arthur Bell Nicholls- are all relatively well accounted for. The two Bronte men were well known in West Yorkshire in their lives and were regularly published in local newspapers (although the scandal assigned to Branwell losing his prestigious tutoring job is still shrouded in mystery; modern historians accept that it is more than likely that he had an affair with the mistress of the household where he was working and that she later sent the money that would send him on his downward spiral of drugs and alcohol.) Barker also deftly separates Patrick and Nicholls from the mythology created by Mrs Gaskell in her biography of Charlotte. Contrary to popular belief, both men were kind and devoted to improving the conditions of the poor in Yorkshire- quite different from the eccentric, disliked men she presented.

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The famous Richmond portrait of Charlotte, said to be a ‘flattering’ likeness

Charlotte, too, is of course well represented. She was a prolific letter writer and, despite her husband’s wish that her letters would be burnt after her death, many survive. They show a woman who was at times  bossy and infuriating, but also funny and caring. I admit, I didn’t always like Charlotte as she comes across here- her hypochondria drove me mad at points and I have been known to describe her as ‘a bit of a madam’- but I think I understood her. She’s a fully fleshed individual in Barker’s hands, ‘warts and all’, as Oliver Cromwell would have it and distanced from the saintly portrayal often presented. We see her grow, dealing as a little girl with the aftermath of losing her mother and two sisters and growing into an unhappy teacher before writing Jane Eyre at the age of 30. Her flirtations with her publisher, the mental image of her giving Thackeray what we would call in West Yorkshire ‘a right telling off’, her doomed and unrequited love affair with her Belgian teacher and finally her growing love for her husband make for fascinating reading. She was fiercely protective of her family (unless it came to her own ambition; Emily was less than impressed when she found that Charlotte had read her poetry without permission and was dead against publication.)

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Emily, painted by Branwell

In terms of writing, Emily has always been my favourite Bronte. Her poetry is magnificent and I love Wuthering Heights. Barker has less to work with here, as so few of Emily’s letters or diaries survive. I’ve long been convinced that if she lived now, Emily would be diagnosed as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum. I think it’s possibly why she clung so tightly to her made-up world well into her twenties. Barker also speculates on whether there was a second novel in the works at the time of her death in December 1848, which is both intriguing and frustrating, as if there was it’s highly likely that Charlotte chucked it on the fire soon after she died.

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Anne, sketched by Charlotte

Anne. Poor Anne. She’s the most neglected of the sisters and the one with the least amount of information. As a result, she’s almost a ghost. Of all the Bronte siblings, she was the one with the steadiest employment history, who just got on with life, causing a as few waves as possible. She’s also dreadfully misrepresented by Charlotte at times; in one letter, she describes Anne as being ready and welcoming of death- a direct contrast to a letter Anne herself wrote just before, where she states she wishes she has more time to get things done. However, this most enigmatic of the Brontes wrote one of the best novels in Victorian literature about a woman’s place in society, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Even though she’s not as famous as her sisters, she deserves a prominent place in the British literary canon.

Overall, this is a comprehensive book and acted as a good starting point for my own amateur Bronte studies and would be a good place to start if you wanted to do something to celebrate the 200th year since Charlotte’s birth. There were times when I recognised something from the novels (Charlotte’s experience in Brussels will be particularly familiar if you’ve read Villette) and it was particularly useful as I was slogging my way through the Tales of Angria. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the Brontes orthe Victorian literary establishment.

Review: Joan of Arc by Helen Castor

Joan of Arc (Oct):

I really enjoy Helen Castor’s work- if you ever catch her programmes on BBC 4, or get your mitts on a copy of She Wolves, her book about ferocious medieval English queens, I recommend taking a look. This book was one of those I bought quite a while ago and forgot I had, so was pleased to discover I had it waiting for me on my bookshelf!

I’ve learnt from experience that reading biographies of women from the medieval period can be frustrating; with the exception of queens, there’s frustratingly little in the way of material for biographers to work with and this is true even of Joan of Arc, one of the most famous women of the last 2000 years. How can it be, then, that one of the most recognisable names in European history- and one of a tiny handful of women- has so little in the way of a record of her life? There is only one picture of her from her lifetime and even that was drawn by someone who hadn’t seen her.

However, Castor does an admirable job of trying to get inside the head and the life of Joan and her remarkable courage in battle. Like most books about the period, I found a knowledge of the Hundred Years’ War and the Plantagenets (or, as they’re referred to by me, late at night as I can’t sleep and so I’m reading and also Googling their family trees ‘Those Bloody Plantagenets!’ Pretty sure Henry VIII used a similar phrase.) Because as much as we want to claim Joan as a feminist icon, or an idea to rally to our cause- and she has, as Castor points out, been used as a symbol for many, many causes, some often contradicting each other-her rise and fall was intrinsically linked to the fortune of men; cardinals, generals, the dauphin. When she agrees, in prison, to shun her male clothing and dress as a woman, there are strong suggestions that she is in some way sexually assaulted. She quickly recants her confessions and asks to be back in her men’s clothes. Like all women of her age, no matter how powerful, she was subject to the whims of the men in charge.

They say that history is written by the victors and this is especially true in the story of Joan of Arc. Denounced as a witch, then rehabilitated as a saint, her story has one of the most tragic and interesting trajectories of all of those medieval women we know about and Helen Castor comes close to making her seem real.

Review: The Bronte Cabinet- Deborah Lutz

The Bronte Cabinet: Three Lives in Nine Objects (Sept)

As someone who’s been fascinated by the Brontes since I was a kid (it’s hard not to be- my sister is named after Emily; I grew up in Leeds not far from Haworth where the Brontes lived and spent a lot of time visiting there over the years; my cat is named Bronte and is actually the third cat in my family to be named such) and it’s hard to not have a local pride- bordering on possessiveness of the Bronte legacy. So I was very interested to see that Lutz had written a book that took items from the Parsonage at Haworth and had used them as a launch pad for a book that was both a family biography and a social history of probably the most famous literary sisters in the English language.

The book takes you through the lives of the family, starting with the tiny books that survive, written by Charlotte and her brother Branwell as children (those written by younger siblings, Emily and Anne have been lost) and ends with a piece of jewellery that was found in a junk shop in the 1960s. It’s a tale of not just the sisters, but Haworth, the house and the society in which they lived and died in.

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I initially wanted to read the book to see which things I recognised from the Bronte museum (if you ever get the chance, it is well worth a visit.) I wasn’t disappointed- Anne’s sampler, made as a girl, is included and one of Emily’s ‘diary sheets’, that entranced me when I was younger is also there. It’s a small piece of paper with a sketch of Emily and Anne at the kitchen table and recounts a conversation the girls had with their maid Tabby. Emily writes that they were told to ‘pilopotate’ (‘peel a potato’)- and I remember this led to me having a discussion with my grandma, the historian Helena Whitbread, about how the girls would have spoken. (We settled on a mix of Yorkshire and their father’s Irish accent.) But I just remember the phrase and thinking that, yep, that’s how Tabby would have told them to get on with their jobs in her broad Yorkshire accent!

This was a good read and clearly Lutz had done her research, although I’m not sure how much is ‘new’ if you’ve read loads of other Bronte biographies. What it did for me, however, is set me on the path to making 2016 the year that I read (in some cases, re-read) all of the Brontes’ work, starting with their childhood writings and then each novel in order of publication. I’ll also be writing on my other blog (and you can see more about my project here) and reviewing biographies, films and so on. Feel free to join in, or just recommend books, films and adaptations I should be checking out as part of the project.