The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

This book was recommended to me by a dear friend with whom I often exchange reading ideas. Actually, she was staying with me as she was finishing this and I watched as she gasped, sighed and looked altogether satisfied with what she was reading, barely able to put the novel down. She didn’t need many words to persuade me to enjoy this book as well.

When I first simgres-1tarted reading this tale, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it. Based on true stories of “fasting girls” from history, those who refused food and remained alive, claiming it was God’s work, this is a about an eleven-year old, clever and very sweet Irish girl who, though not eating for months, remains alive, claiming to be nourished by God. A British nurse, Lib, along with a Catholic nun, is sent to remain by her bedside for a fortnight to see whether or not the girl is fraudulent or a miracle. The story of what happens is told through Lib’s eyes.

To be sure (couldn’t resist), the writing was lovely, lyrical, and it was easy to be swept away by vivid descriptions of the Irish midlands, the brusqueness and almost fanatical devotion of the locals and the resistance to the British woman’s presence among them and the suspicion she brings in her wake.

Now that I have finished the book, it’s hard to remember why I felt that way. I think it might have been the religiosity underpinning the tale, the blind faith and the painful accuracy with which this was painted. It is frustrating indeed. Though, having said that, the wonderful superstition and pagan practices that were still extant in this period were marvellously realised. The reader sees the family, the wee girl at the heart, and the neighbours and local authorities who believe this child is God’s proof on earth, and their desperate need for God to be among them. Even the reporters sent to cover the story, err on the side of believing – with one exception, whom Lib befriends. Even so, the scope – in terms of setting – of the book is narrow. Almost all the scenes take place in the tiny, bare cottage of the family, the small hotel room of the nurse, or upon the wild bogs. There’s a sense of suffocation, especially as the child begins to become frail and weak and everyone remains in almost wilful denial about what’s happening.

As Lib’s frustration and confusion about what’s happening grows (is it a hoax or real?), she is uncertain who to turn to – is the nun is an enemy or friend? Is the reporter, who appears to share her cynicism to be trusted or is he just after a scoop?

The further I went into the narrative, the harder I found to leave until, like my girlfriend, I was gasping, sighing and unable to tear myself away.

Superbly written and, I realise, paced, this is a suspenseful, cloying yet stunning tale of faith, stubbornness, necessity, trust and betrayal.

Highly recommended.


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King Charles II by Antonia Fraser

imgres-1It is a literary accomplishment to write a detailed and well-researched biography so that it reads like a rollicking piece of great fiction. Antonia Fraser’s, King Charles II is, like her other fabulous historical non-fiction works, such a book. In this wonderful and erudite tome, she tells the tale of a monarch who, against a backdrop of religious, political and cultural upheaval, dissent and change, rises above the conditions of his early childhood and the untimely and savage death of his father, Charles I, and consequent exile, to restore the monarchy and an uneasy peace to England.

Known as the “merry monarch” (among other less favourable appellations) and for being lazy, lustful, debauched, dissolute and inclined to petticoat government, Fraser presents a different picture of this rather marvellous and fascinating king. Born to loving parents, Charles was given all that a young royal should be: a good education, belief in himself and his family, an understanding of the important role he was set to inherit, and an awareness of the religion he must adopt as his own: the Anglicanism of his father as opposed to the Catholicism of his mother.

Protected from much of what was occurring in the realm and beyond its borders, the execution of his father was a shock. First challenging Oliver Cromwell and his troops, Charles is later forced to flee England. His unbelievable flight (Fraser describes this period of his life wonderfully, claiming the truth is better than much of the fiction – she is right) allows for the rise and ultimate rule of the Protector, Cromwell and the period known as the Interregnum. Homeless and dependent on the grudging charity of his Scottish vassals as well as various rulers across the continent for many years and the loyalty of committed (if few) royalists, Charles, as Fraser argues, could not help but be affected both by what he endured (poverty, dependence, hunger, pain) and witnessed in the lives of others. These experiences would remain with him for the rest of his life.

Restored to the English throne in 1660 and returning by invitation of the Parliament that was only recently the enemy of the monarchy, Charles determines to be an arbitrator. For all the goodwill and gratitude Charles has, the return of the king also inspires opposition. Describing the rise of the Whigs and the development of the Tories, Fraser paints a picture of a city (London) and of a country slowly tearing itself apart with political and religious discord and suspicion and a monarch seemingly helpless to prevent it. Only, as the author acknowledges, he isn’t helpless at all. Learning from his mistakes, Charles uses whatever in his power to delay what he feels are poor decisions or the pressure of the Commons. Proroguing parliament many, many times, he manages (mostly, but not always) to avoid catastrophic results; procrastinating (like Queen Elizabeth First) becomes a strategy to exert benign control, a practising of what Fraser terms “negative capability”. It is a stroke of brilliance that allows Charles II to have his way without accusations of absolutism sticking.

Weathering the storms of anti-Catholic sentiment and various plots and accusations against the throne, particularly those delivered towards his immediate family, lovers, and favoured retainers, as well as enormous debt and an inability to repay it, Charles II also had a reputation as a seeker of pleasure and an irreverent ladies man. The father of his people, he was also father to 12 illegitimate children from different women – nobles, actresses, and gentry. In fact, the only woman with whom he had a long relationship and who did not produce a child was his wife, Catherine of Braganza – a tolerant and devout woman who stood by Charles even after his death.

A good, interested father, and a well-regarded lover, Fraser argues that far from using women, Charles II adored and respected them. Allowing women on stage for the first time in English history, and encouraging female playwrights such as Aphra Behn, women, according to Fraser, held a better position in the seventeenth century than they did in the nineteenth. But it wasn’t only women who piqued his insatiable interest, Charles also supported science, music, landscaping, building and, importantly, was the monarch who ruled throughout the Plague that decimated a quarter of London’s population in 1665, and earned the undying admiration of his people when he fought side by side with them during the Great Fire of 1666.

There was much to esteem about Charles II and, if it hadn’t been for his wheelings and dealings with his cousin, Louis XIV, from whom he was promised money ensuring he wasn’t dependent on parliament for the same, his record (disregarding morality) as a tolerant (he tried to introduce Bills to allow religious toleration, but such was the anti-papist sentiment in the country, the Commons and Lords wouldn’t pass it) would have been relatively unblemished. Relatively.

Certainly, the popularity of the king rose and fell according to various goings-on at home and abroad – war with the Dutch, religious persecution, accusations levelled against his brother and queen and the choler and sustained antagonism levelled against him by figures such as Shaftesbury who could stir up both the gentry and the masses.

Overall, however, Fraser tries (and succeeds) in persuading us that far from being a “merry” monarch, Charles II was melancholy, “cynical and dissimulating”. He was simply able to hide it well and present, especially in the first decades of his reign, a contented, “lazy” face. But she also describes him as “witty and kind, grateful, generous, tolerant, and essentially lovable, he was rightly mourned by his people…”

Beautifully written, impeccably researched, peppered with quotes from dramatists and poets of the age, as well as from Charles II himself and those nearest and dearest to him (such as his wife and his mistresses like Nelly Gwyn), we are given insights into the man “born the divided world to reconcile,” this is a book and life that is difficult to tear yourself away from.

For lovers of British history or just history; for those wanting an insight into the tumultuous Seventeenth Century and an oft misunderstood but charismatic ruler who formed a bridge between the Interregnum and the events leading to James II’s fall, as well as those that changed the world (from colonial expansion, trade and the beginnings of factories, never mind religious division and dissent), this is a terrific book by a marvellous historian and writer.


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Book Review: The Tudor Conspiracy by C. W Gortner

While I really enjoyed The Tudor Secret by CW Gortner, I simply loved The Tudor Conspiracy. Picking up a short time after the events in The Tudor Conspiracy (The Spymaster Chronicles, #2)The Tudor Secret, we find Queen Mary upon the throne and negotiations for her marriage well under way. Our hero, Brendan Prescott, and his love, Kate are embedded in Elizabeth’s household at Hatfield. Not for long. Summoned by William Cecil, Brendan has no choice but to journey to London and find employ at the royal court, feigning an allegiance to Queen Mary, the woman he once helped. Though he is sympathetic towards Queen Mary, Brendan is really at court to protect the Princess Elizabeth from the plots and cunning of not only the Spanish delegation, but even Elizabeth’s so-called friend and Brendan’s former employer, Robert Dudley who, though locked in the tower, appears to be manipulating events. With the Spaniards determined to indict Elizabeth for treason and deliver a death sentence and the Dudley’s working for their own ends, Brendan has his work cut out.

Ensconced among the courtiers, Brendan doesn’t know who to trust, or where to turn and is forced to make decisions, decisions that prove deadly and place not just his Princess at risk, but those he loves.

Fast-paced, evocative and well-written, this is a page turner par excellence that takes known history and turns it on its head in exciting and plausible ways. Cannot wait for the next instalment.

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Book Review: The Life of Elizabeth I by Alison Weir

Having read Weir’s non-fiction, The Princes in the Tower, and thoroughly enjoyed it, I knew that this biography of Queen Elizabeth I would be worth investing in as well. It was much more than that. Impeccably researched and beautifully written, Weir’s work on arguably one of the most significant English historical figures is a tour de force. Commencing before Elizabeth’s birth in order to provide a familial, cultural, social and religious context for the monarch she was to become, Weir quickly establishes the fraught times into which the second daughter of Henry VIII was born.

The period leading up to Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne is well known: the decapitation of her mother, Anne Boleyn, for apparent treason when she was only three; her half-brother Edward VI becoming king at nine, dying at 15 and, in order to ensure England remain Protestant removing his sisters’, Catholic Mary and Protestant Elizabeth from the succession in favour of his cousin Lady Jane Grey; Lady Jane’s ousting in favour of Mary after only nine days; England plunging into religious schism as Catholicism was restored and heretics burned, suspicion of heresy and treason falling upon young Elizabeth, who living with Henry’s last wife, Katherine Parr had to endure the unwelcome (?) sexual attentions of her step-mother’s new husband Thomas Seymour, as well as having to hide her Protestant leanings from her older sister- and that’s just some of the events! Witness to so much turmoil, when Elizabeth finally took the throne at 25, in 1558, it’s no wonder that she took a more moderate line on religion, refusing ‘to open windows on men’s souls’ or that sheThe Life of Elizabeth I was reluctant to relinquish her unexpected but hard won autonomy and power to a husband.

After ‘Bloody Mary’s’ reign, Elizabeth was regarded by many as a saviour of the country, but her sex was always, even by those who respected her fierce intellect, ability with languages, and creativity (she was a gifted poet, musician and translator of the classics) struggled with her sex. Weir carefully explores the way Elizabeth kept both the Privy Council and the Commons dancing to her tune, enduring and appearing to consider their constant demand for her to find a husband and thus produce an heir while actually procrastinating continuously. Weir offers both psychological and practical reasons for Elizabeth’s ‘Virgin Queen’ status that are fascinating and plausible.

Virgin or not, ‘Gloriana’ enjoyed and encouraged the attentions of men and was a consummate flirt. Men were attracted to her power and, one imagines initially at least, her beauty. Robert Dudley, the Earl Of Leicester, his “stepson”, the Earl of Essex, Raleigh, Drake, foreign princes and dukes came into her orbit, but only a fortunate few were not destroyed by the encounter. Mercurial, demanding, vain, whip smart and with an enormous capacity to understand her people, proud, generous, haughty, Elizabeth was a handful. Prone to tears and tantrums, she also succumbed to flattery, particularly in her declining years.

Not all men fell for or pretended to yield for her charms (though none could deny her intelligence) and the queen, Weir makes clear, had a knack for surrounding herself with talented and loyal men such as William Cecil (Lord Burghley), his son, Robert, and Francis Walsingham. Women too, while not Elizabeth’s preferred company to keep, were among some of her closest and most beloved companions, such as Kat Ashby.

Earning the love of her people, the enmity of Catholic Europe, and the grudging admiration of her closest counselors, Elizabeth ruled England for decades, escaping assassination attempts, rebellions and Catholic uprisings, two papal bulls, never mind the Spanish Armada and countless attempts to marry her off. Weir not only gives us a fabulous portrait of the queen on the throne, but the woman beneath the white make-up, wigs and sumptuous gowns.

This is a marvellous biography that brings Elizabeth and the period to which she gave name to life. The problems – famine, greed, failed harvests, plague, disease, Catholicism – and the triumphs – the flourishing of the arts (theatre, writing, poetry, pamphlets, music, art) exploration, creativity, firmer establishment of the Protestant faith – with her unerring eye, gifted imagination and erudite mind. This is for lovers of history and those who enjoy a terrific read.

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