Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Plot summary: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Pride and Prejudice is one of the great love stories in English literature. It takes place in a fictional village called Meryton in Hertfordshire where the Bennet family makes their home. The family consists of a father and mother and five unmarried daughters. The story revolves around the interaction of this family with their neighbors and family. The first line of the book “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife” sets the stage for the story to unfold.

Mrs. Bennet, a loud and pushy woman of a lower class and little wit, is set on finding husbands for her daughters. Her daughters are determined to marry for love. Jane the eldest daughter, attracts a wealthy young man who is of a higher class than the Bennets. Jane is as sweet as she is lovely and she falls in love with Mr. Bingley. They are both quite shy so neither expresses their feelings in so many words. Mr. Bingley has brought his friend Mr. Darcy with him from London. Mr. Darcy is very wealthy and very proud. He doesn’t approve of the Bennets but at the same time is attracted to the intelligence and pretty eyes of Elizabeth Bennet.

The plot revolves around the relationship that develops between Darcy and Elizabeth and the many twists and turns that it takes. There are several subplots going on as well. The youngest daughter Lydia is soldier crazy and in a moment of lunacy elopes with a soldier who has a grudge against Mr. Darcy. When he doesn’t marry her, Mr. Darcy proves his worth by saving the family from a very great shame.

Another subplot in Pride and Prejudice is Mr. Collins relationship with the Bennet family. He is a distant cousin who is set to inherit since the Bennets have no son. When none of the Bennet girls want to marry him, he marries Elizabeth’s friend Charlotte Lucas. Elizabeth visits them and meets Mr. Darcy’s Aunt Lady Katherine De Burgh. She does not approve of Elizabeth and she dominates the lives of Mr. Collins and Charlotte.

We learn very clearly about the English class system in this story. Lady Katherine has a title and money. Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingly have no title but have money. The Bennets have no money and the Gardeners (Elizabeth’s aunt and uncle) are in trade which is very low class indeed. Marriage and its many forms are a central theme of this story.

The Bennets are a poor match of two people of different classes. Charlotte and Mr. Collins are almost as mismatched because they married for convenience. We see hope in the relationships of Jane and Bingley and Elizabeth and Darcy. And as Elizabeth tells Lady Katherine, “I am the daughter of a gentleman and Darcy is a gentleman, there is no class difference.”

In the end, love triumphs over class and pride.

I realize that this isn't really a book review, but I so love this story that I enjoyed writing about it. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

Philippa Gregory is known for her books of fiction about royalty. Normally, I am more of a fan of historical non-fiction but the heroine of this novel is not a woman who I have ever found any non-fiction work about. She is Jacquetta of Luxembourg.  Not a household name by any means, but as a lover of English history, especially Plantagenet England, it is one that is very familiar to me. 

John of Bedford was the grandson of one of my favorite historical figures, John of Gaunt.  He was also Jacquetta's first husband. He was a great soldier and statesman who made one tragic misstep which ended up being what he is remembered for,  he had Joan of Arc burned at the stake. This was, however, two years before he married Jacquetta. 

In spite of this, in this story, Jacquetta and Joan meet and form a connection. Historically it is unlikely but it makes for more drama in a novel. Another license that is taking is giving Jacquetta 'second sight". While her enemies did bring charges of witchcraft against her they never came to fruition and she was never found guilty of anything. 

It is important to note that in this time period, almost anything that was unusual could be credited to witchcraft. 

If it sounds like I didn't like this book, that is not the case. I liked it very well but I accept that it is fiction. 

Jacquetta lived during a very turbulent period of history and she was very much in the center of the action. Her second husband, Richard Woodville was if not quite a commoner, certainly way below her in position but since it was a love match, it is romantic.  

From what pictures I could find of Jacquetta and Richard, they were a good looking couple, certainly, their children were known to be excessively handsome. 

Her daughter, Elizabeth Woodville,  would one day go on to marry the English King Edward IV, but that is another story altogether. 

This book is a good read and will familiarize you with all of the major players in the English War of the Roses. Jacquetta was a pivotal player in this most interesting period of history and her great grandson Henry VIII is certainly someone who is familiar to everyone. Many women have been overlooked in the written histories and it is about time that someone gave us the story of Jacquetta and Philippa Gregory has done just that. 

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer was my favorite author for many years. She was the queen of regency romance. Her novels are historically accurate and her character development is superb. She has, in fact, created some of my favorite characters of all time.

The title says it all, Sir Waldo Hawksridge is the nonesuch. What is a nonesuch you may ask? A nonesuch is a paragon, perfection, the ultimate in all that Regency England considers important. He is handsome, wealthy, a great horseman and most importantly single. 

We meet Sir Waldo and his two cousins in the first chapter and it is impossible not to admire his character. He has a great sense of humor and does not take himself at all seriously. We discover that beyond perfection he is also kind and caring and has a very altruistic side. 

We are next introduced to two females who will play a very important part in the rest of the story. Ancilla Trent is of good but impoverished birth and is working as a governess/companion to the great beauty Tiffany Wield. Tiffany is shallow and self-centered and inclined to throw tantrums when she is thwarted in any way. Ancilla does her best to keep the worst tendencies from manifesting themselves outside of the household. 

When Sir Waldo comes to Yorkshire to take possession of his inheritance, Broom Hall, the two households are thrown together and what ensues is a very entertaining romance that will have you smiling throughout. 

While the ending is predictable, it is arrived at in a very entertaining way that makes this a book that is hard to put down. 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Royal Bastards by Peter Beauclerk-Dewar & Roger Powell

For lovers of English history and the British monarchy, in particular, this will be a very interesting read. The author, Peter Dewar Beauclerk is a descendant of King Charles II and his mistress Nell Gwyn so has a personal interest in the topic. 

The book is divided into four sections, Tudor, Stuart, Hanoverian and Royal Loose Ends. You will learn about the acknowledged bastards as well as those who were not acknowledged. While some of the names may be familiar, the depth of the stories and what became of these royal children makes for a fascinating story. 

Not all of these bastards are the results of the king straying, sometimes it is other members of the royal family. 

The Loose Ends is of particular interest as it begins with the Tudors but comes forward into the twentieth century. 

I personally enjoyed reading this book, it is well written and while packed with history, names and dates, is not dry or hard to read. Beauclerk-Dewar makes the connection as well between the royal bastards and the families that have resulted up to the current day. It is interesting to note how many aristocrats owe the start of their family to a royal affair with a less than royal woman. 

The book also includes lots of photos in case you need to try to put a face to the many characters who appear within these pages. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Queen’s Secret by Jean Plaidy

Jean Plaidy was the pen name of English author Eleanor Hibbert. She also wrote under the name Victoria Holt and Philippa Carr. When she was at the height of her career in the 1950- and 60s she was one of the most popular writers in the world. Recently her historical novels have been re-released and have found favor with a new generation of readers.

The Queen's Secret is part of the Queens of England series. It is the second book in the series and is the story of Queen Katherine of Valois who was the wife of King Henry V of England. 

He is the great warrior of the Shakespearean play of the same name. While he may have been great in battle, his love of war made him a poor king and he spent much of his reign away from his country.

This book is written in the first person, like a diary by Katherine. She takes us from her childhood in France and leaves us understanding a little more about where she came from. Her Father King Charles of France was called Charles the Mad and his madness made her life as a child very unsettled and allowed for the war that was brewing with England.

This dynastic marriage produced a son and with the early death of King Henry V his widow was banished from the court but not allowed to return to France. Thus begins the real story of the novel, the queen’s secret if you will.

Owen Tudor was Welsh and certainly not of the class of Katherine of Valois. He became after the death of King Henry the Clerk of the Wardrobe in the dowager queen's household. At some point, he also became her lover and eventually her husband though it was a secret marriage and relationship. Their union resulted in several children including their eldest some Jasper Tudor who was the father of Henry Tudor who would eventually become the King of England.

Jean Plaidy takes great care in creating her characters. The main characters in this drama are real but of course, as with any good historical fiction, she supplies the conversations and adds minor characters to fill in information that would otherwise not be provided.

The history in this book is spot on. The author does not take liberty with the known facts. The book is very easy to read and you will learn a great deal of history without even realizing it. This is historical fiction at its very best.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Young Victoria by Alison Plowden

If you have ever read any of Alison Plowden’s other books you know that she writes history in a style that is easy to read and appreciate. This book basically continues the story that was presented in Caroline and Charlotte. The Young Victoria by Alison Plowden is an easy and entertaining historical read.

When Princess Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817, the hopes of the house of Hanover died with her. Even though King George III and his wife Charlotte had a large family, 9 sons and 6 daughters, they had not one legitimate heir. A crisis was brewing. Those sons who were not married (there were three) must marry and try to produce an heir.

William, the Duke of Clarence, was the eldest at 52. He had already fathered a large family of ten with actress Dorothea Jordan. He seemed a good candidate and he married Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen. Edward, the Duke of Kent, was 50, and he married Princess Victoire of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, who was a widow with children; Adolphus, The Duke of Cambridge was the youngest at 43 and he married Augusta of Hesse-Cassel.

The baby stakes were on and it would take quite a few years to determine who would be the winner. As everyone knows now, The Duke of Kent and his wife had a baby girl, named Victoria after her mother, who was the only baby to survive. This book is her story.

The Duke of Kent was a hardened soldier and as healthy as a horse and yet it only took a week of the horrifying medical practices of the early 19th century to kill him, leaving a heartbroken wife and a baby daughter who would never know him.

The book deals with all the intrigue and controversy that swirled around the little girl who would be queen. Her mother tried to keep her from having contact with both of her uncles who were the kings of England. Her life was controlled in just about every aspect and it was the loyalty and devotion of her companion Baroness Lehzen that helped to make life tolerable for her.

Her mother, much in need of the strength of a man, had turned to John Conroy for advice and he sought to control not only the mother but the daughter. In the days before she became queen, he tried to pressure Princess Victoria into granting her mother regency over her, and through her mother, of course, himself. He underestimated the backbone of the young woman he was dealing with. She resisted all attempts to pressure her and from the moment she became Queen he was banished from her court. It took many years for her to forgive her mother but eventually she did.

In the book, we watch the adorable little girl grow into a stubborn woman who would have her own way. We also see her learn to be Queen from Lord Melbourne her first Prime Minister. By the end of the book, she has fallen in love with Prince Albert and has started to become the woman that she was always meant to be.

The Young Victoria by Alison Plowden is a very good read, filled with interesting stories and a close look at the upbringing of one of England’s greatest monarchs.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Founding Mothers by P.M. Zall

When we think out the founding of the United States, the first names that come to mind are George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. There are no women whose names come immediately to mind. This is totally wrong, however, because it was true then, as it is now, that behind every great man there is a great woman. In the book Founding Mothers by P.M. Zall, we get to meet some of these women.

The late Paul Maxwell Zall was a renowned professor at Cal State L.A. among other prestigious universities. He was also a research scholar at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., where he did research for this book and others that he has written. He had a way of extracting the humor and the personality of the people he writes about, and in “Founding Mothers” he brings us biographical sketches of ten women who played an important part in the founding of the United States. Some of them, like Abigail Adams and Dolly Madison, will not come as much of a surprise. Others are mere shadows who have been obscured by the shadows of time.

He begins his book with a dedication to his sisters. He then goes on to explain what should be obvious to everyone: while the founding fathers were off in Philadelphia or at the forefront of the diplomatic effort or the battlefield, someone had to be back home holding down the fort. It was the wives of the founding fathers who made sure that when the war was over; their husbands still had a home to return to.

The first woman we are introduced to is the common-law wife of Benjamin Franklin, Deborah Reed Franklin. We know very little about Deborah except that over the period of her 44-year marriage to Ben Franklin, they were apart for 25 years and she was making sure that their business ventures could support his foreign travels. They were young lovers and it would seem that while Ben became an international figure, Deborah was happier just staying home. This may well have been a case where he outgrew her but his affection was genuine and he never had another serious relationship.

Abby Smith Adams is much better known since she was very aware of her husband’s place in history and as an educated woman used her mighty intellect to promote him in every way that she could. I think the closest analogy of their relationship might be Bill and Hilary Clinton where you are never quite sure who is the stronger and smarter of the couple. She kept all their correspondence, and it gives a wonderful picture of their affectionate and intellectual relationship.

Beyond these two, there are eight other fascinating women introduced. The biographies include quotes from letters and any other extant comments that refer to them. This is all very well documented and a very interesting read for anyone who enjoys American history and biographies in particular. If you are a history lover,  Founding Mothers by P.M. Zall will be a very good read.