Category Archives: History

Reading History: “And They Called it Camelot: A Novel of Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis” (by Stephanie Marie Thornton)

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a sucker for a good historical novel. While I mostly prefer novels that are set in the distant past, recently I’ve found myself drawn to a recent crop of historical novels set in the more recent past. One of the best authors in that regard is Stephanie Marie Thornton. I very much enjoyed her novel American Princess, which was about the life of the spitfire Alice Roosevelt, the daughter of Teddy Roosevelt, and so I was looking forward to her new book about Jackie O., the beautiful and enchanting wife of John F. Kennedy and the queen of Camelot.

As soon as I started reading the novel, I knew that I was going to be entranced, and so it proved to be. From the first page to the last, I found myself swept up in the heady and enchanting world of mid-20th Century America, when everything seemed possible.

The novel starts just before Jackie begins her romance with John Kennedy. The two quickly and fall in love and get married, and Jackie finds herself drawn along as Jack begins his political ascent. Of course, she also has to deal with a multitude of other conflicts and issues: his powerful family, her sister and mother, Jack’s health troubles and infidelities, the strain of the 1960s and its political conflagrations. Through it all, Jackie continues to show her signature strength and durability, weathering each blow. The novel concludes with a visit to the White House, where she stands with her two children and gazes at the portrait of Jack Kennedy, poised to take on the future and all that it holds.

Throughout the novel, we come to feel with Jackie as she confronts the realities of her husband’s infidelities. (She doesn’t have much good to say about Marilyn Monroe, needless to say). Like so many other political wives, she has to work through the complicated political calculus of whether to stay with this man that she so clearly loves, or whether she should set out on her own and leave him. Ultimately, she decides on a middle course, and in doing so she radically reshapes the role of the First Lady, shaping a template that will influence subsequent women. Most notable is her decision to remake the White House into a repository of American history, a testament to Jackie’s historian sensibility.

As important as Jack was to Jackie, her second husband, Aristotle Onassis, is also a significant figure. I have always found that particular relationship to be something of enigma, but in the novel Thornton makes the convincing case that Jackie married the Greek magnate in an effort to escape from the glaring lights of the public and to provide her children with some level of security. We can’t help but sympathize with her desires.

The novel steers something of a middle course when it comes to her relationship with Bobby Kennedy, which is understandable, given that historians and biographers alike remain similarly divided on the issue. The novel makes it clear that they felt dearly for one another, that Jack’s death brought them even closer together. Whether or not they ever consummated their relationship physically is left unclear, but in the end it is somewhat beside the point. For Jackie, Bobby is in many ways the man to fill the hole in her life left by Jack’s brutal death, and his subsequent death is yet another example of the tragedy that afflicts Jackie’s life.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the novel was the way that it emphasized the fact that Jackie Kennedy was a fierce and sharp intellect. This is no small thing, considering that the dominant image of Jackie in the popular imagination is of a glamor queen. However, this is a woman who knew French, who studied at the Sorbonne, who had a passionate interest in history, who went on to become an editor at a major press. It is her interest in history that I found particularly compelling, especially as she attempts to ensure that Jack’s legacy is remembered in the way that she deems appropriate.

And They Called it Camelot also allows us to see how it is that a woman who was more comfortable out of the spotlight than in it found herself at the center of one of the most famous presidencies in the history of the United States, the glittering queen who ruled over a golden court. At the same time, the novel doesn’t shy away from the fact that her life was also marred by an almost bewildering amount of tragedy. In addition to Jack’s brutal assassination in 1963, Jackie also had to endure several miscarriages (the last of which occurred right before Jack was killed). Time and time again, however, she

And it’s not just that the novel is well-constructed. It’s also just exquisitely written. The prose is at times incredibly lush, as frothy as the champagne that the Kennedys so frequently drink. At times, I simply allowed myself to just luxuriate in the prose. Though there is something to be said for using beautiful prose just for its own sake, here it serves a greater purpose. It allows us to believe that we are truly in the mind of the First Lady, with all of her refined taste and her nuanced ways of looking at the world. Every page is a pleasure to read, and before you realize it you’re done with the book.

And They Called it Camelot is one of the finest sorts of historical fiction. It allows us an intimate look into the mind of one of the most influential and well-known First Ladies to have inhabited the White House. It’s hard not to feel a profound sense of sadness at the fact that Camelot, that brief glimmering moment when America seemed poised on the cusp of a whole new world, lasted such a short period of time before being cut short by an assassin’s bullet. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I can’t wait for Thornton’s next effort!

Reading History: "Victoria" (by Daisy Goodwin)

I’ve always been fascinated by Queen Victoria, and it’s unfortunate that the image that dominates the popular imagination has been, until fairly recently, the dowdy old queen who appears in so many photos from the period. As a corrective to that, Daisy Goodwin has written Victoria, a novel that exists in conjunction with the British television series of the same name.

In this novel, we get a more intimate glimpse into Victoria as she comes to the throne. She is particularly drawn to the formidable Lord Melbourne. Though he starts out as her prime minister, she soon finds herself falling in love with him, to such a degree that she almost considers taking him as her husband. At the same time, she is surrounded by multiple people who want to see her manipulated for their own advantage, including both her mother and her conspirator Lord Conroy. Through it all, however, Victoria manages to assert her own identity and her own desires, until she meets the man who will change the course of her life forever: her cousin, Albert.

Goodwin excels at drawing us into the mind of the young Victoria, a woman who is willful and more than a little foolish sometimes. However, there’s no question that Victoria matures as the novel progresses, as she slowly comes to terms with what it means to be a queen. She must learn the painful lesson that so many monarchs both before and after her have had to absorb: that being a ruler means putting the needs of one’s subjects and one’s country ahead of one’s own. It’s really quite fascinating to watch Victoria learn these lessons, and her growing maturity is part of what makes her such a charming and sympathetic character.

Now, it must be said that there are times in the novel when it gets a little easy to lose patience with Victoria. She tends to be more than a little childish, and she indulges her whims to an unreasonable degree. However, that is precisely the point. This is a young woman who, because of her mother and her scheming paramour Lord Conroy, has kept Victoria sheltered from the outside world. Is it any wonder that, for a time at least, she was far too willing to give in to the demands of her heart, even if they exist in tension with the needs of the kingdom? And, besides, who hasn’t felt themselves falling in love with someone who showed us a bit of kindness and compassion when we needed it most?

One of the novel’s greatest strengths is in its exploration of relationships. Obviously, the most important one is that between Victoria and Lord M., but we also see the vexed and fractious bond she shares with her mother. There’s something almost tragic about the tension that always exists between the two of them, for while it’s clear that they truly love one another, there are always those who keep them from expressing that in the way that they both clearly want to. Lord Conroy deserves the lion’s share of the blame in this regard, for while he clearly has some affection for the dowager, he primarily sees her, and her daughter, as his pathway to power. Those moments when Victoria finally manages to attain a bit of closeness with her mother are some of the most affecting in the novel, and they remind us of the dangers of alienating those who should be closest to us.

Though the vast majority of the novel is told from Queen Victoria’s point of view, it does occasionally shift into other perspectives. For example, there are several times when we get to see into the mind of Lord Melbourne, and I often found myself struck by just how tragic it is that he and Victoria cannot have the romance that they both so clearly desire. Lord Melbourne is a man whose life has been marred by romantic tragedy, with his deceased wife having been responsible for hurting him (through an affair with Lord Byron, of all people).

Arguably the novel’s most important relationship is that which finally begins to develop between Victoria and her cousin Albert. When they first meet, they spar almost incessantly, each of them attempting to fight back against the feelings that they clearly feel for one another. It is only as they each begin to let their guards down and to embrace their own vulnerability–this is particularly difficult for Albert–that they allow their clear feelings for one another to begin to grow and develop. Though some reviewers have taken the novel to task for waiting until near the end to show the two of them falling in love with one another, I actually found that to be one of the novel’s greatest charms, their romance a satisfying way of bring it to a conclusion.

Only occasionally does the outside world intrude upon the world of enclosed world of Buckingham Palace. There are some few mentions of the war in Afghanistan, and there is a crucial scene in which Alfred bears witness to the grinding poverty afflicting London. These incidents show us the broader world of which Victoria was a part, despite the fact that she spent the vast majority of her life moving in the upper echelons of power.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Victoria. My only disappointment, and it’s a relatively minor one, is that, so far, this is the only novel Goodwin has written about Victoria. Goodwin really has a knack for both capturing the essence of a historical period and for getting us inside the minds of her characters. Though she has, clearly been at work on the television series as well , to my mind there’s a particular pleasure to be had in the reading of a historical novel, one that’s be easily replicated in a television series. However, now that I’ve finished the novel, I definitely plan on watching the show, if only to enjoy the fantastic costumes that will be on display.

Stay tuned for my review!

Reading History: “The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile” (by C.W. Gortner)

In the annals of European history, there are few women who have had as great an influence on the course of history as Isabella of Castile. With her husband Ferdinand–called here Fernando–she was responsible for bringing to a successful conclusion the Reconquista, in which the Muslim rulers of Spain were pushed out. While she was certainly one of the more enlightened monarchs of her era, Isabella was also subject to bouts of religious-influenced intolerance.

C.W. Gortner manages to capture all of these contradictions in this spell-binding novel. The Queen’s Vow begins in Isabella’s youth, when she flees the court of her dead father to take up exile with her mother. Due to court politics, however, she soon finds herself swept up in the ambitions of others, and when at last her brother dies she ascends to the throne. After a marriage to Fernando, prince and later King of Aragon, the two of them push to finish the reconquest of Spain from the Moors. By the end, she is poised on the brink of sponsoring the voyages of the man who would go on to become known as Christopher Columbus.

Through trial and triumph, however, one thing remains steady in Isabella’s life: her belief in her own right to rule Castile. And there is plenty of trial in this novel. From the beginning, Isabella finds herself caught up in plots and schemes by those who don’t have her best interests at heart. All too often, these cause Isabella tremendous emotional distress. She has to watch her mother slide slowly into madness, and she also has to confront the reality that both of her brothers are fated to meet ends that are truly tragic.

Through it all, however, she still manages to keep a firm grasp of her vision as the one person who can bring peace to her fractured kingdom. And it is, indeed, fractured. Due to the ineffectual reigns of both her brother and her father, the nobles of Castile are more intent on enriching themselves and oppressing the peasants that work than their land than they are on how to make the kingdom function as a true polity. It is a testament to Isabella’s formidable skills as a queen that she manages to not only survive but positively thrive. Time and again, she does what no one expects and, slowly but surely, she builds up her power.

One of Gortner’s great skills as a historical novelist is his willingness to engage with the flaws of his main character. In this instance, this has to do with the speed with which she decides to abandon the Jews when it becomes politically necessary to do so. And, of course, it’s worth pointing out that she also gave permission for the Spanish Inquisition, one of the most ruthless and cruel religious experiments in the history of Christianity. Gortner doesn’t try to gloss over or explain away these parts of Isabella’s record. As he points out in his note following the text, Isabella was very much a person of her time, and that means that she was as prone to mistakes and acts of cruelty as anyone else. Of course, the fact that she is queen means that her actions have consequences far beyond her own life.

Gortner also captures the strong emotional bond that clearly existed between Fernando and Isabella. Given that this was the Renaissance, a period in which royal women and men married for reasons of political expedience rather than for love, the fact that these two people managed to find so much wedded happiness with one another is nothing short of miraculous. The parts of the novel that depict the passionate love between them are truly steamy, drawing you into the physical intimacy that they share with one another. (Though I have to say that the description of Fernando in this novel is somewhat at odds with most of the portraits of him that I’ve seen).

As he always does with historical novels, Gortner manages to richly and convincingly convey the world of 15th Century Spain. There are times when you could swear that you were actually there, witnessing the sheer breathtaking beauty of this country (having been there, I can attest to the truth of that description). At the same time, he doesn’t get so lost in the details that you find yourself getting bored. Instead, this is very much a novel that you can get lost in for hours.

While Isabella is of course the focal point of the novel, we also get a glimpse into the many other larger-than-life characters that inhabited this particular world. We see ruthless churchmen, caring ladies, zealous friars, and more. All of them attempt to pull Isabella–and through her Castile–in their preferred direction, but she is a woman very much of her own mind. And, of course, there are her children, all of whom are positioned to take up leading roles in the history of Europe. Her descendants, as it turns out, will go on to rule Europe and, in fact, the world.

There is no denying that Isabella lived at one of the most important points in the history of Europe. This was an era of tremendous religious unrest and Spain, with its unique history as a place where Jews, Muslims, and Christians were able to exist in at least a measure of peace and accord, was poised to undergo cataclysmic change. Even though the novel is told entirely from the perspective of Isabella, it nevertheless conveys a significant amount of sympathy for the men and women who are affected by the rising tide of Christian zealousness that is poised to sweep over the peninsula, destroying much in its path.

All told, I very much enjoyed The Queen’s Vow. It’s everything that I look for in a historical fiction, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Soon, I’ll be starting on Gortner’s novel about Isabella’s tragic daughter, the woman known to history as Juana the Mad. Stay tuned!

Reading History: “The Romanov Empress” (by C.W. Gortner)

I’ve been meaning to read the works of historical novelist C.W. Gortner for some time now, and when I saw that he’d recently written a book about Dagmar of Denmark, the woman who would eventually become Tsarina Marie of Russia, I knew that I had to pick it up and read it. From the first page to the fast, I found Gortner’s story utterly captivating. In fact, I almost couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it!

The novel begins with Dagmar–known to many as Minnie–living in her native country of Denmark. While she is initially affianced to the young son of the tsar, after his unfortunate and untimely death she finds herself affianced to his blustering younger brother. What begins as a reluctant marriage soon blooms into true love, and they find true happiness with one another. Unfortunately, it is Minnie’s destiny to live in Russia during a period of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, and by the end of the novel she has lost nearly everything as the Russian Revolution sweeps the monarchy away.

Minnie is a captivating narrator, and it’s easy to like her. She’s fierce and intelligent, willful and clever, and she isn’t shy about letting others know about how she feels. The novel ably portrays the ways in which she was a positive influence on the rule of her reactionary husband, curbing some of his darker tendencies and channeling her own energies into a variety of charitable causes. Likewise, she tries–with only limited success–to imbue her sensitive and ineffectual son Nicky with the strength and determination he needs in order to secure his throne.

Now, the book doesn’t shy away from the less flattering aspects of Marie’s personality. She does tend to be a bit imperious, and she has a certain pride that doesn’t always allow her to be as sensitive to the needs of others as she should be. In particular, she has a difficult relationship with her two daughters, and she often finds it difficult to accept that they are not willing and/or able to follow the same path that she did. Born into a role that they didn’t ask for, one can hardly blame them for striking out on their own and forging their own destinies (in fact, it may be just that independent spirit that keeps them alive during the Revolution).

Minnie’s most difficult relationship, however, is with her daughter-in-law Alexandra. It’s not hard to see why. There’s no doubt that Minnie feels some jealousy that her beloved Nicky falls head-over-heels in love with a woman she deems unsuitable (for both good and bad reasons). For all of her flaws, Minnie truly cares about the well-being of the empire and the people, and she realizes, even if the two rulers do not, that their actions are exacerbating an already-existing political crisis. She sees the truth with a clarity that the rest of her family lacks, and this often means that she has the unenviable burden of seeing how the future will turn out, even as she is unable to change it.

I really admire a historical novelist who can both capture the ambience of a past historical moment while also not getting too bogged down in the details of material culture. I mean, I love the descriptions of fabrics and furniture and jewels as next as the next person, but sometimes it’s easy for novelists to get lost in the detail and to forget about the plot. Not so Gortner. He manages to keep the plot moving at a quick pace, and when I was finished with the book I was rather surprised to feel that I actually had a pretty good snapshot of most of Minnie’s life. What’s more, I felt as if I had a stronger understanding of what it was like to be a royal living in the heady days of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, right before the chaos of modernity swept all of their lives away.

There’s no question that, for many, the Romanovs are the epitome of tragedy. Unwilling or unable to transform their country in the ways that it needed in order to move into the 20th Century, they ultimately found themselves victims of a situation of their own making. While the novel ends on a somewhat triumphant note–with Marie escaping from the Bolsheviks–it also leaves us in no doubt that she has lost almost everything that was dear to her. That crown and throne that she committed so much time and energy to preserving has now been utterly abolished, and to make matters worse she doesn’t have definitive word about what happened to her beloved Nicky and her grandchildren.

Of course, now we know that Nicky and his family were indeed slain in the basement of the house in Yekaterinburg, in one of the most infamous slaughters in a regime known for its barbarity. One can’t help but feel a powerful sense of pity for Marie, never knowing exactly what happened to either of her two sons who perished in the Revolution. She can hardly blame the woman for insisting that they might still be alive, clinging to the hope that there might be a restoration of the monarchy that she worked so hard to preserve. To my mind, Minnie, more perhaps than any of the other members of her family, draws us into the complicated mindset of the last ruling Romanovs. She might not be perfect, and the system of which she was a part might have been fatally flawed, but you can’t help but have at least a little bit of sympathy for them, trapped as they were in a gilded cage.

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Romanov Empress. It has all of the things that I usually look for in an historical novel, and I can’t wait to dive in to some of the other books that Gortner has written. Next up is his novel about Isabella of Castille, certainly on of history’s most powerful queens. Stay tuned!

Screening History: “The Spanish Princess” (Season 1)

Having really enjoyed both The White Queen and The White Princess on Starz, I naturally decided to dive right into The Spanish Princess, which picks up the story several years later. By this point, Henry and Lizzy have settled quite well into their lives as king and queen of England. They now have four children that have lived to adulthood, and at last it is time to find a bride for elder, Arthur. Enter Katherine of Aragon, a young woman of indomitable will and sweeping passions. Katherine, however, will find all of her considerable charm, strength, and political skills challenged by the nature of the Tudor court.

From the moment that she appears on screen, Charlotte hope shines as Katherine of Aragon. She somehow manages to capture both Katherine’s steely self-control and vulnerability, her heart and her sharp intellect, and that’s quite an accomplishment. I’ve always thought that there’s been far too little focus on Katherine’s youth in popular culture, and The Spanish Princess really allows us to see how this young woman would grow into a queen who would hold her own against all who came against her.

Much as I liked Hope as Katherine, she’s a little outshone by two other members of the cast. The first, of course, is the divine Harriet Walter as Lady Margaret Beaufort. She’s a little less dour and bitter than Michelle Fairley’s iteration of the character, but she seems to be a bit shrewder in terms of her political abilities. She’s laser-focused on ensuring that her dynasty continues, even if that means destroying Catherine. Walter brings all of her considerable talent to bear in the role, and her presence helps to elevate some of the clunkier writing (it remains a little unclear why she bears Katherine such irrepressible hatred). Walter truly shines in the final episode of the season, as she has to confront the sudden death of her beloved son, the collapse of her own power, and the legacy of her own actions that brought her family to the throne. Walter fully captures the mix of strength and vulnerability that has always been key to Margaret’s character in all three of her iterations. As the only character that has had a substantial presence in all three series, it was very satisfying to see it brought to such a stunning conclusion.

In my opinion, the real star of this show is Lina, played by Stephanie Levi-John. Her character is fascinating for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that we finally get to see a woman of color playing a prominent role in a costume drama set in the 16th Century (something that I’m sure will cause all of the racist fans of the genre to lose their minds). More than that, though, Lina’s storyline allows us a glimpse into the lives and mentalities of a group of people who have been largely ignored in costume dramas set in this period: i.e., the first generation of those who were forcibly converted by Catholic monarchs of Spain. In The Spanish Princess, it is precisely this question of faith that is one of the central crises that Lina must negotiate, since her beloved Oviedo still adheres to Islam. Her conflict, between her love of Oviedo and her devotion to Katherine, is one of the most moving in the entire season.

As with the previous two series, however, I found some of the writing infuriatingly lazy. For example, I’m not sure I buy the idea that Maggie Pole was in on the conspiracies against the Tudors rather silly (though Laura Carmichael is spot-on casting for this character). Unfortunately, some of this sloppiness is due to the nature of the source material. Philippa Gregory is a little notorious for her tendency to blur the boundaries between fact and fiction in her work, while insisting that she isn’t doing so, and the series carries on with that.

To some degree, The Spanish Princess is hamstrung by its own story. It’s a little difficult to feel much sense of narrative urgency or mystery about Katherine’s narrative, since we already know how it ends up. We all know that Katherine ended up being Henry’s first wife, if only because his attempt to get that marriage annulled would be such an earth-shattering historical event. The cast, however, deserves universal praise for doing their best to keep things moving forward and engaging.

Ultimately, The Spanish Princess is about the ongoing conflict between the past and the future in the Tudor court. Margaret Beaufort is, of course, the most visible icon of the past and its iron hold on the present, while Henry and Katherine are the promise and the peril of what’s to come. Even at this early stage, however, we can see the ways that Henry’s willfulness and disregard for how things are done are setting him on the road that will lead to his later despotism (and it’s worth pointing out that Ruairi O’Connor does an excellent job of bringing a young Henry to life. His is certainly one of the better interpretations of the monarch in his youth). Likewise, Katherine’s choices–particularly her claim to be a virgin–will come to have consequences that are truly historic in their impact.

All in all, I was mostly pleased with this outing into Renaissance England. Though some of the plot points felt rather contrived–and not particularly effectively, at that–overall I thought that the series did justice to Katherine of Aragon’s plight as she sought to navigate the vicious and venomous court. I’d ultimately place it somewhere between The White Queen and The White Princess. It has significantly better production values and acting than the former, but the writing and acting aren’t quite as strong as the latter.

I’m very excited about the fact that there is now a second season on the way, and I’m genuinely curious to see how far they take it. Given my endless fascination with the Tudors and with costume drama, I’m willing to go along for the ride.

Reading History: “The Habsburgs: To Rule the World” (by Martyn Rady)

I’ve always found myself fascinated with the Habsburgs. As one of the most powerful and prominent (as well as long-lived) dynasties in Europe, their dynastic fortunes played an outsize role in the fortunes of Europe as a whole and, as the centuries progressed, they came to play an increasingly important role in both the stability and the eventual disintegration of Central and Eastern Europe. So, when I saw that there Martyn Rady’s new book on the dynasty, I leapt at the chance to read it.

Rady provides a detailed account of Habsburg fortunes, from the founding of the dynasty until its monarchical demise in the aftermath of the First World War. While certainly the titanic figures feature largely in his narrative–figures such as Charles V (who sparred with Martin Luther), Maria Theresa, and Franz Joseph–he also pays attention to the lesser-known figures, such as Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. We see the ebb and flow of their power as they have to contend with the fundamentally unstable nature of the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the numerous conflicts, both religious and political, that roiled Europe, ranging from the Protestant Reformation to the rise of nationalism.

While the book is, naturally, primarily about the political fortunes of the dynasty–particularly its Austrian branch–it also delves into the complicated relationship between the Spanish branch of the family and their eastern cousins, as well as various other European powers. The French often figure largely, particularly Louis XIV and Napoleon, the latter of whom would inflict one of the most crushing defeats the dynasty would endure. The Habsburgs also frequently found themselves in conflict with their own nobles, as well as the Ottoman Empire. Through it all, however, they aspired to be the guarantors of stability and peace–and as purveyors of the legacy of the Roman Empire–and, if they didn’t always succeed in those endeavors, Rady makes the case that they should be respected for at least attempting to do so.

In addition to being rulers of vast domains, the Habsburgs were also voracious collectors of knowledge and devout defenders of the Catholic faith, and Rady does an excellent job of providing a big-picture view of the culture in the Habsburg domains. They truly saw themselves as a dynasty destined to rule the world, and from the 15th to the 19th Centuries, that no doubt appeared to be true. Even though the Protestant Reformation rocked their domains–and severely curtailed their power–they still managed somehow to be bastions of Catholicism. Likewise, the Habsburg commitment to knowledge and order provided a fertile environment for both art and science to flourish.

Rady also demonstrates the extent to which the Habsburg monarchs also provided a foundation upon which Eastern Europe could base itself. As strange and contradictory and unwieldy as their domains ultimately became–most evident in the clunky appellation “Austro-Hungarian Empire” to define their domains during the 18th and 19th Centuries–it was largely due to their influence that the region remained as fundamentally stable as it did. Ultimately, of course, even such an august dynasty couldn’t withstand the forces of history and the rising tide of German nationalism, and so they became embroiled in Prussia’s ambitions. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand was the spark that would consume the dynasty and lead to the disintegration of its fortunes.

In the aftermath of World War I, the Habsburgs lost almost all of their political clout. However, as Rady points out, its most prominent member, Otto, actually became a prominent figure in the drive to achieve unity and peace in Europe. One can’t help but wonder what might have happened if he’d succeeded to the throne.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Rady’s book. He has a keen eye for historical detail, and while at times it’s rather easy to get lost in the bewildering sea of names and dates and places, Rady does usually keep you grounded in the main narrative. It’s clear that he admires the Habsburgs as an ambitious but deeply flawed dynasty that often became victims of their own success. For those who want to get a richer and deeper understanding of a European dynasty so famous that they’ve become almost mythological, Rady’s book is highly recommended.

Reading History: “The Scourge of Henry VIII: The Life of Marie de Guise” (by Melanie Clegg)

Marie de Guise is one of those Renaissance women who’s suffered something of an image problem. Since she doesn’t shine as brightly as her contemporaries or her descendants–Elizabeth I, Catherine de Medici and, of course, Marie’s infamous daughter Mary, Queen of Scots–she tends to be glossed over by most histories of the period. Since she reigned as Queen of Scotland for such a short time as the consort of the ill-fated James V and was, for most of the rest of her life a regent rather than a regnant, it’s perhaps understandable.

However, as Melanie Clegg argues, this is a grievous injustice, and Marie deserves a great deal of respect for her ability to navigate not only the cutting world of French politics, but also those of the Scots. Born into a family that gradually rose in power, she ultimately found herself wedded to the mercurial James V of Scotland. Upon his death, she did everything in her power to make sure that the throne was kept secure for her daughter Mary, even though this often put her at odds with the Scottish nobility. In Clegg’s deft hands, we find ourselves swept along with Marie’s later life as she skillfully navigates the unfriendly political world of Scotland.

Unfortunately, as Clegg amply demonstrates, Marie’s life was doomed to be marred by tragedy and disappointment. A great deal of this stemmed from the nature of the Scottish nobility, who were always consumed with their own internecine feuds and attempts to grab power for themselves. However, her life was also marred by personal tragedies, most notably her years-long separation from her daughter. For all of her success in keeping Scotland in line, she ultimately died abandoned by all but, ironically, the very men who were her most steadfast enemies.

Despite the book’s title, Henry VIII actually plays a relatively minor role in the book and in Marie’s life as a whole. However, it is true that England’s rulers, both Henry and his successor Edward (as well as Edward’s guardian and uncle Edward Seymour) were to prove formidable enemies to Scottish independence. Marie actually deserves quite a lot of credit for managing to keep the English at bay as much as she did, though they did of course inflict a great deal of damage on the Borders and, at times, even the capital Edinburgh itself.

Clegg has a keen sense of narrative momentum, and she doesn’t allow her biography to get bogged down in the mundane details in the way of some other historians (I love Alison Weir, but she does have a tendency to get down into the weeds a bit). Clegg shows us the highs and lows of Marie’s political life, giving us a good idea of the type of woman she was and how she managed to succeed in the world of Renaissance politics. She also gives us enough details about the material world to give us a sense of the everyday life of the period.

As informative and readable as this book is, however, it does suffer a number of handicaps. Foremost among these is the lack of a comprehensive biography or any notes. Now, for the lay reader this probably doesn’t really pose much of a problem. I daresay that most people read biographies and popular histories for the information, not for the rigour of the historian. However, for someone who wants to know exactly how Clegg is reaching her conclusions, it can be a little frustrating to not have a paper trail of any kind to follow. I don’t hold Clegg entirely accountable for this, as it seems to me that the editors at Pen & Sword should be a little more diligent in ensuring that they’re providing their readers with accurate material.

All of that being said, Clegg deserves a great deal of credit for bringing Marie out of the shadows into the light of day. She truly was one of the most extraordinary women of the Renaissance and, while not native to Scotland, she clearly cared deeply for her adopted country and did her best to govern it as effectively as possible under incredibly difficult circumstances. I’d definitely recommend this book to others, though with the caution about reliability.

Screening History: “The White Princess” (2017)

Warning: Some spoilers for the series follow.

When I first watched The White Princess (which I, unfortunately, didn’t finish the first time around), I was a little underwhelmed by Jodie Comer’s performance. However, having seen her in Killing Eve (where she is nothing short of brilliant), I thought I’d see if the series merited another try.

I wasn’t disappointed.

This miniseries focuses on Elizabeth Woodville’s daughter Lizzie who, despite her love for the dead Yorkist king Richard III, must instead marry the man who defeated him on the battlefield at Bosworth. As the series continues, she finds herself in two directions, as she must decide whether she will throw in her lot with her husband and their growing family or whether she will side instead with her mother and the remaining Yorkist affinity. In the end, she must make a terrible decision that truly shatters her heart, even as it finally means that she and her family can have peace.

One of the first things to note is that it’s an almost entirely different cast than its predecessor. With one exception–as the Duchess Cecily–there are no repeats from The White Princess. At first this is a little distracting, but the more I thought about it, the more sense it made that they would go with older people. In fact, one of the drawbacks of The White Queen was that, as the years passed within the narrative, it got less and less believable to see these characters not at all looking their diegetic ages.

Further, The White Princess definitely benefits from having an older cast. Michelle Fairley’s Margaret Beaufot strides through her scenes with a steely, austere grace very different than that she brought to the role of Catelyn Stark in Game of Thrones. Essie Davis is similarly great as an aging Elizabeth Woodville, a woman who remains so committed to her loyalty to the York cause that she’s willing to put her own daughter’s life at risk for it. And, upon rewatch, I am amazed at how well Comer does with this role, amply showing Elizabeth’s transformation from na├»ve young woman to ruthless politician.

Though some might dismiss The White Princess as something of an epilogue to the story recounted in The White Queen, but that sells the story far too short. For one thing, the series manages to avoid the shortcomings of the book, which basically amounted to Elizabeth striding around her various palaces while Henry goes off and fights against the risings and usurpers. Here, we get multiple points of view, ranging from Elizabeth’s scheming from her prison at Bermondsey, the Duchess Margaret of Burgundy’s lending her support to various potential usurpers, or Lizzie’s own struggles to reconcile the feuding factions of her family. The series is well-written enough, and the acting strong enough, that it helps to support some of the rather questionable historical choices (more on that in a moment).

If that earlier series was about two women fighting for each of their children to inherit the throne, this one is about what happens when the battle is done and a victor has emerged. How does one go about rebuilding a kingdom that has been in the midst of a civil war that has torn apart both the royal family and the land itself? For that matter, how do those who are supposed to be doing the crucial work do so when there are those who refuse to move on from the past? In this case, the success of the dynasty depends, not on the past and all of its recriminations, but on the ability of the new king and queen to bind up the wounds that separate them and, ultimately, to put their parents firmly in the background.

Chief among these are the two mothers. While it was easy to identify with Elizabeth Woodville in The White Queen, her scheming starts to wear very thin by about the midpoint of this series, precisely because it endangers her daughter and her grandson. Davis does a lot with the role, but it does get frustrating to watch Elizabeth try to strong-arm Lizzie into surrendering her throne to her brother. That being said, there is a genuine connection between Davis and Comer.

On the flip side of the coin, Margaret is still haunted by her ordering of the murder of the Princes in the Tower (an argument that the books make that I find incredibly implausible). This ultimately leads to her estrangement from Henry and yet, oddly enough, also leads her to grow closer–in spirit if not in fact–to Lizzie, who must also make terrible choices regarding the safety and well-being of her children.

All in all, The White Princess is significantly stronger than The White Queen. Because the performances are so much more uniform than in its predecessor, it’s significantly easier to feel more involved and invested in them, rather than growing annoyed with adolescents storming about and arguing with one another. There are moments of genuine pathos, such as when Teddy, Earl of Warwick is executed, and the chemistry between Henry (Jacob Collins-Levy, infinitely better than Max Irons at portraying royalty) and Elizabeth is genuine, and it’s easy to grow involved in their romance.

If I have a complaint about the series, it’s the same that I have with the book. I just find it strains credulity to think that Perkin Warbeck was actually the lost Prince Richard. I tend to believe that he was who he confessed to be, a son of a boatmaker in Tournai, and that the man who was executed at Tyburn was Perkin and not a changeling (in the series, he is swapped out and the real Richard is given a royal execution by sword while Lizzie watches). Even more incredibly, Margaret of Burgundy actually sets up shop in London to continue plotting against Henry. It strains credulity to think that a duchess a.) would put herself at risk this way and b.) would go so long undiscovered.

Those gripes aside, I truly did enjoy The White Princess, and I cannot wait to begin its successor The Spanish Princess. Stay tuned!

Screening History: “The White Queen” (2013)

When I first watched The White Queen way back in 2013, I’m afraid I wasn’t much of a fan. While I love costume dramas, there just seemed to be something missing from this one, which seemed oddly bloodless compared to Showtime’s The Tudors. However, having recently finished The Crown and feeling myself in need of some royal soap opera, I decided to turn back to it.

I’m glad I did.

The series definitely benefits from a re-watch. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it’s a truly great series, either as a costume drama or as simply drama, it does its job well. It has characters that are easy to either care about or hate (Rebecca Ferguson and Amanda Hale are particularly fine). The story, while uneven, is compelling. And it has some gorgeous scenery and costumes to look at. The ingredients for a delicious costume drama are all there; they just don’t always hold together well.

The White Queen begins when Elizabeth Woodville (Rivers), daughter of a Lancastrian supporter, puts herself and her two sons in the pathway of the victorious Edward IV (Max Irons). After she meets him, the two find that they fall in love, marry, and ultimately raise a fine brood of children. Unfortunately, all of this unfolds against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, which leads, inevitably, to violence, bloodshed, and heartbreak.

While the story begins with Elizabeth, her tale is also interwoven with two other powerful women with their own dynastic ambitions: Anne Neville, daughter of the Kingmaker Richard Neville, and Margaret Beaufort, a scion of the Lancastrians who, driven by what she believes to be God’s will, does everything in her power to ensure that her young son Henry Tudor ascends to the throne as the last viable Lancastrian heir.

There’s no question that The White Queen succeeds when it focuses almost exclusively on these female characters (which is fitting, since that is precisely why Gregory wrote the books in the way that she did). Rebecca Ferguson is captivating as Woodville, ably conveying both her iron will and her vulnerability and her passion. Amanda Hale is her opposite number, and she really brings out the religious zealot part of Margaret’s character. I was also pleasantly surprised how well Fay Marsay did as Anne Neville, bringing to the character a steely ruthlessness that one doesn’t always associated with this queen. Between the three of them, these three women make the show, and it’s worth watching just for them alone.

The men are an altogether more mixed back, particularly Max Irons. He’s pretty enough, but he just doesn’t have the weight or the charisma to play a king like Edward IV, and his shortcomings are all the more glaring when he’s shown with Ferguson. That being said, the actors portraying both George and Richard (David Oakes and Aneurian Barnard) deserve special mention as standing out. I was particularly impressed with Barnard’s rather sensitive portrayal of Richard, arguably the most vilified of any English king. And, of course, credit must be given to James Frain, who has truly established himself as uniquely able to bring to life villainous yet oddly compelling villains (he is also known for his portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in The Tudors and Franklin Mott in True Blood).

The writing and plot are at times quite uneven, and the series only really seems to find its footing after the halfway point. Part of this stems from the fact that Edward dies, and so the drama benefits from no longer being distracted by how bad Max Irons is. Strangely enough, I think that the series would have benefited from having two half seasons rather than a single season often. The time jumps seem very contrived for the most part, and since the characters aren’t seen to age. The bigger problem is that these time jumps also short-circuit character development, so that we don’t really get to see the most important characters changing over time.

The White Queen also suffers from a very limited budget. This is far more noticeable in the few battle scenes, which feel very paltry in comparison to the lushness of the interior scenes and the costumes. In fact, as I watched the series I had to wonder why they didn’t simply jettison them altogether, or at the least choose one to focus on. As it is, the only battlefield death that has even a modicum of emotional impact is Richard’s at Bosworth, though even that is rather undercut by the choppy editing. Nevertheless, there is something powerful about the image of Margaret standing triumphant on the battlefield with her son, her years of scheming and manipulating and bloodshed having finally born fruit.

All in all, The White Queen is a very serviceable costume drama. While it doesn’t quite reach what I feel to be the stellar quality of The Tudors (which it clearly takes for a model) nor the grittiness of Game of Thrones (with which it was clearly designed to compete), it still deserves praise for its attempt. Like Gregory’s novels, the series shows us the substantial role that women have in the making of history. While history books might be full of the great battles between men, with all of their blood and “glory” and “heroism,” in reality it is in the drawing rooms and bedchambers that the fates of nations are decided. In that sense, it’s actually rather a good thing that the series chose to forsake the conventions of the epic–with its grand vistas, its cluttered battlefields, its daring acts of bravery–to focus instead on the power of the domestic.

In the future, I plan to watch both The White Princess, which chronicles the courtship and reign of Elizabeth of York (Woodville’s daughter, played by the inimitable Judy Comer), as well as the Spanish Princess, about the youthful exploits of the woman who would go down in history as one of the two most famous of Henry VIII’s wives, Katherine of Aragon.

Reading History: “The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors” (by Dan Jones)

Having finished Dan Jones’s magisterial history The Plantagenets, I decided to dive right in to the follow-up The Wars of the Roses, in which he documents the civil war that fatally undermined the Plantagenet dynasty and led to their final destruction and their supplanting by the upstart House of Tudor, in the person of Henry VII.

The Wars of the Roses is even more fast-paced than The Plantagenets. Some authors might have erred on the side of detail, immersing us in the byzantine connections among the various players, as well as the numerous battles, skirmishes, and plots that characterized this seemingly interminable conflict. Instead, Jones remains laser-focused on the key players, including and especially the kings Henry VI, Edward IV, Edward V, Richard II, and Henry VII. In doing so, he allows us to keep a firm grasp of how the conflict unfolded, and how each of the players had their own key part to play as it gradually consumed both of the cadet houses of Lancaster and York.

Jones sets the scene by showing how the success of Henry V in securing the inheritance of France for his son ultimately sowed the seeds for his son’s downfall. For, holy as he may have been, Henry VI simply was not a king capable of handling the enormous burdens placed on him by the time. Gradually, as the realm slipped beyond his grasp, he was confronted by his own rebellious nobles, including notably his cousin Richard, Duke of York. Jones makes no secret of his dislike of Richard, who was a bit too full of himself and prone to showing off.

As arrogant as Richard was, however, this wouldn’t have mattered if Henry VI had been a stronger king and if the Crown as an institution hadn’t been deeply damaged by his grandfather’s seizing of it from Richard II. Throughout the conflict that followed, ruler after ruler thought that they had a better right to it than its current occupant. For Jones, this extends to Richard III, arguably one of the most complicated figures in the entire saga. Jones is fairly judicious in his approach to this very divisive historical figure and, while he ultimately concludes that Richard almost certainly ordered the murder of his nephews (the infamous Princes in the Tower), he also takes pains to demonstrate that Richard was an able king, one who met his death at Bosworth bravely (and who came within a hairsbreadth of defeating Henry).

Jones is clearly no fan of the Tudors, and there’s good reason for that. It would have been difficult for anyone at the time–except perhaps for his mother, Margaret, one of the canniest survivors of her age–to imagine that Henry Tudor would ascend to the throne. However, as Jones demonstrates, he was able to do so precisely because the country had become destabilized enough to render it possible.

Furthermore, Jones makes the wise decision to show us the effects of the Wars after their supposed end with the victory of Henry Tudor at Bosworth. For, as Jones shows us, this wasn’t the end of the dynastic squabbling, not by a long shot. In fact, it would continue right up until the botched execution of Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, Henry’s second cousin and one of the last members of the old dynasty. Those who occupy a stolen throne, it seems, are doomed to always feel unsteady upon it (or, to put it another way, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown).

Though there are many theories as to the ultimate cause and effect of the Wars of the Roses, Jones capably demonstrates that its principal cause was the fact that Henry VI was a weak and ineffectual king, totally incapable of binding together a realm that had already endured a significant amount of stress, still less of managing the numerous feuds that plagued the great families. The ultimate effect of these feuds was to damage, almost beyond repair, the idea of the Crown as an institution. No longer could it be guaranteed that it would be passed down in legitimate line; instead, it could be snatched by any warrior or rebel who thought that he had a better right to it than the current occupant.

All in all, I truly enjoyed this foray into one of England’s darkest yet most fascinating periods. Full of rich detail, breathless narrative storytelling, and perceptive historical insight, The Wars of the Roses is the best kind of popular history.