Pepy’s London: Everyday Life in London 1650-1703 by Stephen Porter

11987791Short, sharp and interesting, if sometimes a little dryer than the title might suggest, Porter’s brief history of London as it was immediately after the execution of Charles I, throughout the Interregnum and Oliver Cromwell’s reign, the leadership (!) of Richard Cromwell to the restoration of Charles II, James II’s time on the throne, the Glorious Revolution and the beginnings of the reign of William and Mary, is packed full of facts and observations.

Though the title suggests this is London as Samuel Pepys experienced and wrote about it, it’s more than that. It’s also a London on the brink of religious and political upheavals as suspicion and faith caused many tensions and riots. It’s a city enduring and moving with swiftly changing economic circumstances and robust and exciting scientific discoveries, as well as a place that was culturally enterprising and rich, as theatre, music, writing and art underwent another Renaissance.

Using Pepy’s life as a yardstick by which to measure the altering moods and landscape of the city, Porter offers a keen insight into the various people and events that helped to fashion London into what it is today. Whether it was intolerance for immigrants, appreciation and exploitation of other cultures, growing literacy, expanding borders as the Empire grew, trade, war, frosts, plague or fire, what is clear is that London was rarely if ever dull – whether you were gentry or from the lower classes.

The just over half a century covered really does encompass an amazing array of transformations  – and not just in terms of leaders and governing styles. Porter is such a good historian, my only beef with the book is that it is so dry at times and when you use the name Pepys in the title, I think it’s dryer than it has a right to be! Nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this great overview. The illustrations are also terrific and really well explained.

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Murder at Hatfield House by Amanda Carmack

16101141Murder at Hatfield House by Amanda Carmack is, as the title suggests, an historical mystery featuring an amateur sleuth – a female musician, Kate, who is tasked with/takes it upon herself to solve the gruesome deaths occurring around Hatfield House. Hatfield House being the place where the young Princess Elizabeth was placed under house arrest by her sister, Queen Mary.

Set in 1558, in the months before Elizabeth ascends to the throne, suspicion between the Protestant Princess and her Catholic half-sister and the forces that align on either side of them are thick and plots abound. When the servant of an envoy of the queen’s, the obnoxious Lord Braceton, sent ostensibly to find heretics being shielded by Elizabeth, is killed, the envoy determines that the princess and her household must be guilty.

As other bodies appear and mistrust grows and the envoy’s bullying tactics to elicit confessions reach new heights, Elizabeth employs Kate to act as her spy and try and seek out those responsible for the horror. Aligning herself with her friend, the lawyer Matthew, a handsome actor, and various servants of the princess, Kate must risk life and limb to not only stop more of her friends dying and the princess being put at risk, but to protect the future of her country as well.

I had mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I really enjoyed the setting and timing of the novel and felt this was well done – the political and religious tension, the finger-pointing, and even the vulnerability of the young Elizabeth who, despite being feisty, was at the whim of her sister’s good grace. On the other, I found Kate, while clever and kind, was too modern for the era in the sense of what she was able to do (wander the countryside unescorted, disappear and roam all over houses, and even in her friendship with Matthew etc). Some of her actions also belied her intelligence and I wanted to shout at her not to be so stupid as to put herself at such obvious risk. I understand characters do have to do perilous things, build narrative tension and show their heroic stripes, but really, sometimes Kate was just a dolt.

The ending was also strange. When the big expose comes, the “who dunnit” if you will, though I half-expected it, the reasoning didn’t seem sound. I thought, somehow I’d misread something and went back to reread the part before – but no, it was as is and, for some reason, I found it didn’t sit as well as I’d hoped.

Overall, however, despite these misgivings, I did enjoy the book.

 

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Hotel Du Barry by Lesley Truffle

27429443Urged to read Hotel Du Barry by Lesley Truffle by a dear friend, she began telling me a little about the book in order to persuade me. She had me sold when she described the opening scene (this isn’t a spoiler, either, because it’s part of the blurb) where a baby is found hanging on the clothesline of a chic hotel in London during the 1930s. What’s not to love about such a gloriously unusual beginning?

Just who the chortling baby’s mother might be is uncertain – never mind her father. Enchanted by the splendid little girl, the hotel staff determine to keep her. When the owner of the place, Daniel Du Barry, who is grieving the loss of his lover, discovers the child, he too falls under her spell.

Naming her Cat, after his favourite bottle of champagne, Daniel is captivated. Unfortunately his new wife, Eddie, sister of his lover is not, but she’s forced to tolerate this child everyone else adores – the clever little girl with violet eyes and the propensity to fall asleep at the most inopportune moments – or is it only in Eddie’s presence? Over the years, Cat grows into a charming and talented young woman, as comfortable with the luxury of the penthouse as she is with the maids and various staff below stairs. Raised on a diet of classic and modern art, music, great (and sometimes inappropriate for her age) literature, as well as gossip, the sexual high-jinks, drug-taking and alcoholism of her step-mother and dirty habits of too many hotel guests, Cat isn’t at all damaged by what she bears witness to – she has her insatiable curiosity piqued again and again and her zest for life and people grows.

When, however, tragedy strikes her rather charmed existence, Cat decides to get to the bottom of not only the mystery surrounding the death of loved ones, but to also find her mother. Drawing on the help of her all too eager hotel family, together they plumb the depths and scale the heights of the hotel and its associates searching for answers… answers that not only take her beyond English shores, but prove dangerous to find…

This is a delicious romp filled with such memorable characters, witty, snippy asides that had me laughing out loud, heartfelt scenes that make your soul ache, and characters you want to sit back and swill gin with. The tone is marvellous – light and yet not at the expense of beautiful writing or deeper meaning. It’s so very different to the kind of books I’ve been reading lately and utterly refreshing. What I also found really stimulating was the fact that not all threads are neatly tied together at the end of the story. Truffle (what a great name) allows the reader to make their own minds up about some of the characters’ pasts and, indeed, their futures beyond the pages of the book and I simply loved that.

This is a sizzler of a read that I cannot recommend highly enough for those who love to be emerged in a past they can smell, see, feel and taste, like a good mystery packed to the brim with three-dimensional characters with personalities you love and loathe, or for those who simply enjoy great writing.

Unexpected and simply delightful.

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Book Review: The Elizabethans by A.N Wilson

After some quite shaky moments where I wanted to hurl this book from my sight, I ended up thoroughly enjoying and learning from A.N. Wilson’s, The Elizabethans, a rigorous and highly entertaining study of England and its people throughout the long reign of Elizabeth the First.

The book commences with a statement that rapidly needed explication: that is, that we are only now, in the Twenty-First Century, seeing the end of the Elizabethan world. Startled by this observation at first, I then understood what was meant, as in the first two chapters Wilson quickly covers Elizabeth’s disastrous campaigns in Ireland and attempt to oppress and subjugate its peoples before examining the beginnings of English expansion and colonialism in the New World. Shocking the reader with some cold, hard facts about E11733162nglish geographical growth and plans for domination (I think one of the terms used was “Seeding” – but that may have been another book) it soon becomes clear that Wilson is being deliberately provocative in order to insist the reader suspend contemporary judgement and the sins of “isms” (racism, sexism, classism etc.): that we view the Elizabethan world through Elizabethan eyes, politics, religious upheavals and belief systems and that we, as far as possible, withhold judgement (and for the sake of better words, “politically correct” assumptions and thus criticisms about actions and decisions – though this is very, very hard) and instead seek to immerse ourselves in this rich, brutal, decadent, paranoid, artistic and amazing time.

While I initially struggled with some of Wilson’s assumptions (and though he is an historian, he makes many, liberally sprinkling the text with terms like “possibly” and “maybe” and words that, as one chapter is titled (borrowing a quote from Edmund Spenser’s The Fairie Queen), lie “twixt earnest and twixt game”, sitting somewhere between fact and writerly elaboration) – let me give you an example of one of the worst.

It happens on page 207. This is where I almost put the book down never to pick it up again. In chapter 17, when writing about Sir Philip Sidney and Ireland, Wilson discusses William of Orange and the Protestant upheavals in the Netherlands:

“English involvement in the Low Counties was something about which Queen Elizabeth nursed ambivalent feelings. In the years 1585-6 the English soldiers serving there, and the people of the Netherlands, suffered acutely from an excess display of all her worst character traits – vacillation, tight-fistedness, hysterical rages. Presumably [another one of those twixt words] the ill-fated campaigns in which thousands of Englishman, including Sir Philip Sidney, perished coincide with her menopause (my emphasis).”

Yes, you read it right. I was astounded. Elizabeth’s menopause was the reason so many men died and suffered needlessly? Good God.

After my initial shock at this blatant, frankly offensive and bold postulation, I found myself reconsidering how to read and respond to the book. The information is wonderful, the scope wide and fascinating and the characters that people this landscape so interesting. Sure, Wilson peppers the history with his observations and witticisms and, frankly, obvious adoration for as well as somewhat misogynistic attitude towards Queen Elizabeth, but it was like being in the presence of a really, really knowledgeable professor at university who discourses freely around a subject about which he knows a great deal and isn’t afraid to offer his own opinion and interpretation of people and events. I imagined him pausing or raising an eyebrow, daring a response with a twinkle in his eye (yeah, I know, I am now twixting). In other words, I felt he was challenging us to think, pushing us to move outside known historical squares and ruminate on what might have been… even menopause, I guess…

Instead of continuing to be offended or concerned, I chose to sit back and go along for the ride, enjoying the gossip, his asides, the facts, the summations and learning more about Elizabeth, Dudley, Dee, Essex, Burghley, Hawkins, Walsingham, Marlowe, Jonson, Sidney, Harrington, Lyly, Campion, Raleigh, Burbage and so many more than I might have from a more, shall we say, circumspect book or author (and I have read and enjoyed many).

The times are beautifully evoked – from the narrow dirty streets of London, the sermons at St Paul’s, the lawlessness of Bankside and the Stews, the piracy and profligacy – and not just of Drake, Raleigh et. al., to the dreadful conditions of the poor who suffered more than any others through plagues and failed harvests and the ravages of constant threat of invasion and wars offshore. The religious schism of the times, the ideological fracturing that occurred and the people that both fell into and profited from the cracks that followed are beautifully and imaginatively rendered.

By the time I finished, I found I really, really liked this book. Furthermore, I liked Wilson and his historical chutzpah – comments about women and menopause and the attribution of blame (as well as other problematic and taxing statements) aside. That he concludes the book by referring to Elizabeth as a distinguished monarch (even with all her flaws and faults) who the British can thank for the country (or, I guess, curse) they live in now reveals the esteem in which he holds this woman of history, but it’s not an esteem that is without qualification or, as I said, awareness of her very real failings. Wilson wears his little British heart on his leather-padded elbow sleeve and I admire him for it.

Wilson is the sort of bloke I wish I’d had as my history lecturer – and I had some marvellous ones. If you want to take a confronting, rollicking and always interesting ride through Elizabethan times, then this is the book for you.

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