Reading History: “American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt” (by Stephanie Marie Thornton)

Warning: Full spoilers for the novel follow.

We seem to be living in a golden age of women’s historical fiction. Authors such as Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, Michelle Moran, and Stephanie Marie have done a great deal to excavate the experiences of historical women. These include the subject of today’s blog post, Stephanie Marie Thornton’s new novel, American Princess: A Novel of First Daughter Alice Roosevelt.

The novel follows Alice as she negotiates her position as the daughter of President Theodore Roosevelt, particularly her tumultuous relationship with the Ohio Congressman Nicholas Longworth, her affair with Senator Bill Borah of Idaho, and her vexed relationship with her daughter Paulina.

Alice emerges from these pages as a woman determined to claim her own happiness, often in direct opposition to the wishes of the men in her life. Her thoughts crackle with intensity and verve, particularly as she chafes against the restrictions placed on her by society’s expectations. Indeed, one of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in its ability to convey the many ways in which women frequently faced restrictions that their male counterparts did not, particularly those women, like Alice, who occupied the upper echelons of society.

I particularly enjoyed seeing the interactions between and among the various members of the Roosevelt clan. Alice is particularly contemptuous of her distant cousin Franklin, and she is hardly more approving of first cousin Eleanor (the daughter of her father’s brother). Thornton reveals the extent to which the two halves of this American political family were frequently (and often vociferously) at odds and in doing so highlights the conflict between the political and the familial that was all too often a part of the American landscape.

Throughout the novel, Alice also struggles with her friendships with women. Whether that is the duplicitous daughter of the Russian ambassador, her best friend who ultimately has an affair with Nick, or her own cousin Eleanor (who sabotages her brother’s chances at election). she faces betrayal on multiple fronts. She also has trouble with her domestic arrangements, as Nick’s mother is a harridan of the worst type.

As for Nick himself, time and again, she must confront his infidelities, and the strange alchemy of their relationship–and it is clear that they truly love one another, despite all of the messiness of their relationship. Thornton does an excellent job exploring the strange ways in which the mind, and the heart, work when we are in relationships that we know are toxic but which are an essential part of who we are. Likewise, Thornton allows us to understand Alice’s desire for for true fulfillment that leads her to engage in an affair with Bill Borah. While we may not necessarily approve of this decision, we are allowed at least to understand it.

Much as she loved both Nick and Bill, it was undoubtedly her father Teddy (who hated that nickname) who exerted the strongest influence on her life. Throughout the novel, she yearns for his approval (he struggled with the fact that she reminded him so strongly of his first wife. The friction generated by their two competing (and larger-than-life) personalities persists, but eventually they find a way of embracing and expressing their deep, genuine love for one another.

The novel is compulsively readable, and I think it is not exaggeration to say that it is truly one of those books that it is impossible to put down. Thornton allows us to get a glimpse of early 20th Century America, an era of fierce politics, glittering society balls, and larger-than-life personalities. Through all of this, Thornton allows us to see Alice as a woman somewhat ahead of her time. Indeed, reading the book, it’s hard not to shake the feeling that Alice would have made a damned good politician had she turned her hand to actually running for office. As it was, she lived one of the most eventful lives of any woman of her era, beating breast cancer twice and living to the ripe old age of 96. Small wonder that many wits called her the other Washington Monument.

American Princess is my favourite Thornton novel so far (and I’ve loved them all), and I very much look forward to her next book, which will apparently be about Jackie Kennedy. I just know it will be great!

Advertisements

Reading History: “The Impeachers: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Dream of a Just Nation” (by Brenda Wineapple)

Note: My thanks to NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book for review.

Going in to this book, I didn’t know a great deal about the circumstances surrounding the impeachment of Andrew Johnson, and I knew even less about the reasons that drove the era’s legislators to this great length. Having read Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, I’m happy to say that I now know a great deal more.

Wineapple populates her story with the giants of the era, men such as Thaddeus Steves, one of those who lead the charge for impeachment, Salmon Portland Chase, the cunning, Supreme Court justice who had ambitions of his own that coloured his perception of the case, and of course, Andrew Johnson himself. These were men of imposing personalities, and Wineapple does a magnificent job painting them in big, bold colors; they fairly leap off the page.

Ultimately, of course, the measure failed, but Wineapple makes the case that this had less to do with the merits of the impeachment articles (and the evidence for them) than with these personalities and their varied motivations and concerns. Essentially, it was felt that impeaching Johnson would cause irreparable damage to the Republican waiting in the wings to ascend to the presidency: none other than the hero of the Civil War, Ulysses S. Grant (who was also a prominent character in this unfolding drama). Rather than do so, they felt it was a safer bet to acquit Johnson and start over.

Given that the book is about impeachment, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between that time and our own and, especially, between the temperament of Andrew Johnson and our current president. Like Trump, Johnson was a blusterer and a bit of a megalomaniac, convinced that he was the victim of conspiracies and unwilling to acknowledge his own weaknesses and his part in his situation. The portrait that Wineapple paints is a very unflattering one indeed, and there are very good reasons for that. For, as Wineapple points out, Johnson was a a racist who built his appeal on stymying almost all measures that would have contributed to the betterment of people of color in the former slave states. Indeed, there were often times when he went out of his way to ensure that people of color understood that not only were they second-class citizens, but that their president had no interest in changing that.

The Impeachers does a fine job of providing the context that allows us to understand just why it is that this signature event in American history transpired in the way that it did. Despite the end of the Civil, many (including Johnson) felt that the United States was still a white man’s country, and that less effort should be spent in punishing the former Confederacy and more in ensuring that white citizens regained their former amity. The great tragedy of the whole affair is that it would be almost another hundred years before the desire for a better country for all would experience another great leap forward with the Civil Rights Movement on the 1950s and 1960s.

Though subsequent generations of historians painted the impeachment as a partisan affair, Wineapple argues that these arguments were themselves focused on a discrediting of the policies and mindset of the Radical Republicans. Her work allows us to see these men as visionaries committed to the idea that the United States could, in fact, be a more perfect union if only its leaders would have the will to do so.

Stylistically, Wineapple has a masterful command of both her materials and her language. While some books on history can be slow going even for those who love reading about the past, this is certainly not the case with The Impeachers. While reading it, I almost had the feeling that I was there in the moment, swept up in this epochal event, so adeptly does Wineapple capture the tenor of the times and the voices of her subjects.

By this point in 2019, it seems pretty clear that our own Andrew Johnson is not going to be impeached even though, as Yoni Applebaum compellingly argues in a recent issue of The Atlantic, there is very good reason to do so, the case of Andrew Johnson, as Wineapple presents it, serves as a warning of becoming too confident.

Le sigh.

Reading History: Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement (David K. Johnson)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me a copy of this book for review.

In Buying Gay: How Physique Entrepreneurs Sparked a Movement, noted historian David K. Johnson (known for his research on the Lavender Scare), does a deep dive into the world of physique magazines and the strong connection between capitalism and activism in the fledgling gay rights movement.

Johnson shows the extent to which these magazines provided a site in which gay male desire could have free rein, an important psychic and collective space in a culture and society that relentlessly pathologized and policed gay desire. As a result, these magazines also played a pivotal role in the coalescing of a specifically gay male identity, one that was unequivocally centered on erotic desire. Those who bought these magazines–and who wrote to them–recognized that they were part of something greater than themselves.

As Johnson amply demonstrates, it’s a mistake to keep consumption and politics separated; instead, we should see them as two streams that constantly fed into and reinforced one another in the years preceding Stonewall. Indeed, the owners of these magazines were often at the forefront court cases that were to have a significant impact on the trajectory of gay rights and, indeed, the very legitimacy of gay identity. Several cases went right up to the Supreme Court, which surprisingly frequently decided matters in their favour. One of the great strengths of Johnson’s book is that he brings to light these oft-forgotten cases.

Johnson doesn’t unnecessarily valourize these men and women (because yes, there were women who owned physique magazines). They were often at odds with one another (hardly surprising, considering the large personalities involved), and they were not always allies with one another. Despite their differences, however, they all played a part. Collectively, they forged important sites of resistance that continue to have an effect on our culture today.

The book also makes it clear just how ubiquitous was the condemnation of homosexuality in Cold War America. It’s one of those things that you probably know on a subconscious level, but which you can’t really grasp in its enormity until you read about it from a historian’s perspective. From our standpoint, it seems so silly that so many people in government and in society at large would have such bigoted ideas about people who happen to love differently than they do, but it does explain why it is that there are still far too many Americans who would like nothing more than to chase queer people back into the closet. In the era that Johnson documents, the post office was determined to crack down on what it termed “obscenity,” a ridiculously flexible term that allowed them to subject numerous individuals to state persecution.

It’s important to point out, as Johnson does, that this was very frequently a white gay male community. While some magazines did feature men of color, it was far more common for the era’s segregationist ethos to permeate its magazines. It’s actually rather refreshing to see a writer of queer history acknowledge the implicit (and often explicit) racism that has long plagued the LGBT rights movement.

Those with little familiarity with Cold War history, or with queer history, will learn a great deal from Johnson’s book. Though he primarily focuses on physique magazines, he also demonstrates that there were a variety of other print venues in which gay men found expression. There were even book clubs devoted to distributing gay-oriented books to (surprisingly large) numbers of subscribers. If anyone has ever told you that there weren’t gay people when they were young, you can simply brandish the examples that Johnson documents to show them just how wrong they were. Gay people have always existed in America, and it is important to recognize the many ways in which their experience has taken shape.

Johnson’s work does justice to an all-too-often ignored aspect of gay life in Cold War America. Just as importantly, it shows us the ways in which the the actions of Stonewall in 1969 did not emerge from a vacuum. Instead, it was a logical outcome to a gay community that had slowly been taking shape in the years after the end of the World War II and that, in the wake of Stonewall, would finally come into its own.

Reading History: “The Huntress” (by Kate Quinn)

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

I’ve been a fan of Kate Quinn’s historical novels for some years now. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed when she moved away from antiquity and the Renaissance into the 20th Century, but then I read The Alice Network, and all of my doubts were utterly swept away. The novel kept me captivated from the beginning to end.

Having been quite thoroughly convinced that, in Quinn’s capable hands, even modernity could make for good historical fiction, I waited for the release of The Huntress with baited breath. And, once again, I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel centers on the woman known as The Huntress, a Nazi who was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of several children in the last days of the war. She comes into the life of young Jordan, an aspiring photographer living in Boston, in the form of Annalise, her father’s wife-to-be. She is also pursued by Tony (an American), Ian (a Brit), and Nina (a former Russian fighter pilot), who each have their own reasons for wanting to pursue this dangerous and deadly woman. Gradually, their fortunes will coincide with that of this ruthless killer, and none of their lives will remain the same.

The story of a Nazi murderess is, sad to say, incredibly relevant to the United States in 2019. As several of the characters point out, the US in the aftermath of World War II was far more interested in rooting out communists than in hunting down Nazis, and Quinn ably captures the struggles (financial and emotional) that devoted Nazi hunters had to endure as they sought justice from those who perpetrated the horrors of the Holocaust. Fortunately, Quinn’s novel is also unequivocal in its denunciation of The Huntress, and there were several moments in the novel where I truly wished that she would be struck down in the cruelest and most violent way possible. I suppose that’s a good feeling to have when it comes to Nazis, right?

As she always does, Quinn manages to create kick-ass female characters, ones who are willing and able to set out on paths that are very different from the ones that society expects of them. In that sense, the novel really reminded me of a film from the 1930s or the 1940s, when female stars like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford kicked ass and took names. Jordan, as a young woman coming of age in the aftermath of the Second World War, faces intense pressure to give in to the cultural imperative to get married, have children, and settle into peaceful domesticity, but she would much rather be out taking photographs like her idols. Right up until the end, she refuses to be put in any of the boxes that society has for her.

Of course, the most kick-ass of all the characters is Nina, a complicated and conflicted heroine if ever there was one. As she claws her way into the ranks of the Russian air pilots, she finds herself falling for another woman named Yelena, and their passionate (though brief) affair provides some of the most moving scenes in the entire novel. There aren’t very many people who can capture same-sex desire in a way that isn’t either sterile or prurient (and this is particularly true of queer women), but somehow Quinn manages to do just that with Nina. While she eventually comes to have feelings for Ian, the novel makes it clear that it is Yelena who owns a piece of her heart that she can never quite bring herself to give in the way that she did when she was young. And while some might hope that she stays with Ian past the novel’s end, I for one hope that she finds happiness, somehow, with Yelena.

I thus especially enjoyed the ways that the novel gives free rein to women’s sexual desire. The novel isn’t erotica, obviously, but boy does it really capture the power of sexuality to impact people’s lives, both men and women. Quinn doesn’t romanticize sex, however, and she makes clear that sometimes it’s okay if people submit to desire even if they have no intention of getting married. Sex is often far messier, and more complicated, than we realize.

What really set this novel apart, however, was that it avoided the ease of a simple happily-ever-after ending. Sure, the main characters are all still alive, and they are all together, but it remains unclear whether things will stay that way. Nina, in particular, might decide to go off and search for her long-lost Yelena, or she might be happy with Ian. Jordan will probably be happy with Tony, but it may be that she’ll find someone else. The point is that we do not know for sure, and it is this narrative indeterminacy that I found especially refreshing.

Lastly, I just want to say how much I enjoyed the novel’s reflections on the nature of photography and how the camera has the ability to capture truths that we may not notice with the naked human eye. As a scholar of visual culture, the question of whether (and to what extent) the camera can capture objective truth is one that I have thought about a lot, and let me tell you, Quinn gets to the heart of the question. When Jordan captures her stepmother’s face showing its true colours as a ruthless hunter, it shows us just how powerful a photograph can be, how easily it can expose parts of ourselves that we would rather remain hidden. It’s an unsettling thing to think about, precisely because it tears away the illusions that we have about ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world.

I truly cannot say enough good things about this book. It reminds us of why it’s important to not forget history, to remember those who have given so much to rid the world of evils like the Nazis. If you take my advice, you should go out as soon as possible and buy The Huntress. I guarantee that you won’t be disappointed.

Reading History: “A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin” (by Simon Jenkins)

Every so often you find a book that is quite upfront about what it is and what it isn’t, and such is Simon Jenkins’s A Short History of Europe: From Pericles to Putin. Beginning with ancient Greece and going from there, Jenkins provides a magisterial overview of several thousand years of European history. It’s a bit of a greatest hits of the past 3,000 years of history, ranging over the great convulsions that have rocked the continent almost from the beginning of its existence.

The early parts of the book are a bit too reductive for my tastes, and I would say that the book really doesn’t hit its stride until he moves out of antiquity and into the medieval, Renaissance, and modern periods. There, he starts to provide what I view to be actual historical analysis rather than repetition of the traditional narratives about both antiquity and late antiquity. Once we get into the more recent centuries, we begin to see how the conflicts that roiled these centuries set the stage for what was to come later.

As Jenkins makes clear, Europe has always struggled with two competing impulses: the desire to forge a collective identity and the equally powerful drive to seek self-determination for its constituent parts. Just as importantly, Jenkins points out that Europe’s other continual struggle has been against the impulse to barbarism and warfare. Again and again, Europe has been convulsed by armed conflicts that have left hundreds of thousands of dead. One would think that this would provide an imperative for the various nations to find some way of preventing such conflict, but such peace has proved elusive.

As a result of this deep history, Jenkins allows us to see the reasons for the current struggles and upheaval afflicting the European Union. I would go so far as to suggest that it is this contextualization that is the book’s primary contribution to an understanding of European history. One senses that his own ambivalence about the EU might be coloring some of his conclusions–and some of his analysis–but as a whole I find his diagnosis of the problem (if not his solutions) convincing.

I do have a few quibbles with the book. While Jenkins makes it clear from the beginning that most of the figures he discusses will be men–presumably because most of the most important figures in European history have been male. I find this to be a rather disingenuous argument, and it runs the serious risk of marginalizing those figures who have actually been far more influential than Jenkins seems to give them credit for.

All in all, A Short History of Europe is a useful guide for those who may not have much of a knowledge of European history and want to understand how it is that the entity that we know came into being. It also helps us to understand why it is that Europe continues to be such a draw for so many people around the world, a continent characterized by its utopian desires and the concomitant inability of those desire to be fulfilled.

Reading History: “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mid of America” (by Greg Grandin)

Note: My sincere thanks to NetGalley for providing me an ARC in return for an honest review.

Every so often you read a piece of history that is blistering, refreshing, and utterly compelling. Such is historian Greg Grandin’s The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America. This book explores the ways in which the frontier as a concept, a myth, and an ideology has remained central to how America has conceived of itself and how, in the latter part of the 20th and the early 21st Centuries, the myth has at last begun to collapse upon itself.

The End of the Myth is roughly chronological, starting with the American Revolution (when the frontier was basically the Appalachians) and moving into such epochal events as the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, World War II, and the recent financial crisis. He has a keen eye for detail and an ability to parse primary texts to expose the assumptions undergirding ideologies. Indeed, so sharp is his close reading ability that I almost felt at times like I was reading a trained English professor (which, coming from me, is quite the compliment).

Two figures loom large in his analysis: Andrew Jackson and Frederick Jackson. The former was the first populist president, a man who based his “egalitarian” vision on the brutal exploitation and oppression of people of color and Native Americans. The latter was, arguably, one of the most influential historians of an era, one whose theorization of the frontier provided a set of parameters within which any discussion of this concept must take place.

As Grandin points out throughout the book, the frontier has, from the beginning, symbolized the political aspirations of the United States. That is to say, it has served a multitude of purposes: as a safety valve, as the engine of empire, as a means of social control. So long as there was a frontier, the inner problems facing American politics–white supremacy and all of its ugliness foremost among them–could be projected outward. Those toxic, destructive energies could be used to expand the boundaries of the nation, while simultaneously serving the needs of those in power.

Beyond the realities of the political, however, the frontier has also served as a unifying me The frontier, and the promise of infinity that it represents, allowed Americans to believe that they were immune to the cyclical nature of history, with its rise and fall of empires. The frontier promised perpetual growth. Because of the frontier, America could convince itself that it existed outside time itself, a fantasy that would inevitably come crashing down into ruin as the realities of the limitations of the frontier became more and more obvious as the 19th and 20th Centuries progressed.

As Grandin explains, now that the frontier has utterly closed, the very energies that it was meant to channel have redounded upon the country. In the wake of globalization, endless wars in the Middle East, and the financial meltdown of 2008, the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. The social unrest and problems that have always existed at the heart of America’s accomplishments–and which were, to an extent, deflected by the frontier–have now burst into the open. The wall, with all of its ugly rhetoric and racist overtones, is the ultimate physical symbol of the closing of the frontier.

Grandin pulls no punches in what he sees as the political ramifications of the frontier myth and its demise in the 21st Century. Sometimes, in fact, I found his political claims (and investments) overshadowing his historical consciousness, particularly in his analysis of the Clinton and Obama years (admittedly, this may be because of my own political investments). Nevertheless, I do think that there is a danger in allowing one’s political investments to so transparently mold the perspective one takes on events.

Despite that, this is the sort of bracing, politically-engaged history that is like a breath of fresh air. Grandin tears away the air of obfuscation that allows so many (particularly white) people to believe that the frontier is some sort of infinitely tappable resource that can be exploited at will. Just as importantly, Grandin suggests that, if we want to create a more just and equitable country, we must confront the very ugly and violent parts of our collective past. Only by confronting our original sins can we move forward into a hopefully bright future.

Reading History: “The Splendor Before the Dark” (by Margaret George)

Ever since I finished Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero, the first part of her two-book exploration of Rome’s most notorious emperor, I’ve been eagerly waiting for the second half. Thankfully, the wait is finally over!

The Splendor Before the Dark picks up where Confessions left off, with Nero racing back to the city Rome, now engulfed in flames. Though he does his best to help with the fire, much of Rome is destroyed. In the aftermath, he attempts to rebuild parts of the city to provide green space, but his efforts are misunderstood by the senatorial elite. Surrounded by those who would see him brought down, he eventually resorts to acts of brutality, cementing his reputation and ultimately bringing about his downfall.

George makes the convincing case that Nero never wanted to be emperor; he had the heart and soul of a poet, not a ruler. Just as importantly, she also ably demonstrates the extent to which Nero’s psyche was (mis)shaped by his family, particularly his ambitious mother Agrippina, but also by all of those other branches of the tangled Julio-Claudian tree that yearned so desperately for the ultimate position of power. Growing up in such a viper’s nest, is it any wonder that he turned at times into a monster? 

As George aptly paints it, Nero himself recognizes that darkness that lives inside him. In her telling, he sees himself as comprised of three Neros: the Nero who wants to be an artist, the Nero who recognizes his responsibilities as an emperor and leader of his people; and the ruthless shadow Nero, the one responsible for protecting the other two. It is this last that leads him to lash out at those he suspects–often rightly–of conspiring against his life, as when he strikes down the schemer Piso and his confederates, including the philosopher Seneca.

With her usual incisive eye, George peers behind the invective and myth that has shrouded Nero since at least the time of Tacitus and Seutonius. As she rightly points out, our understandings and perceptions of Nero have been so clouded by hostile Roman historians and by almost hysterical Christian narratives that it is hardly surprising that characterizations like that of Peter Ustinov in Quo Vadis (1951) have become so dominant. George helps us to see Nero as a fundamentally flawed person, but one who genuinely sought to make good on his promises to the people of Rome, who saw himself as an artist, yes, but also as a champion of the people and the subjects over whom he was appointed to rule.

At the same time, she allows us to see the extent to which Nero’s naiveté is his own undoing. He cannot, or will not, understand that his artistic aspirations are fundamentally at odds with what those in power believe a ruler should be. Thus, his decision to go to Greece and compete in the Games is in many ways pivotal to his undoing, as it allows those who despise him to drum up support for their own plots. 

Of course, Nero’s life is full of other tragedies besides his death at his own hand. He loves Poppaea with a passion bordering on madness, but a drunken accident results at her death at his hands, a death preceded by their unborn child. His beloved Acte refuses to return his affection, believing (probably rightly) that an open romance between them would endanger him even more. No matter how hard he tries, Nero cannot seem to find the romantic fulfillment that he desires, a tragedy that persists until the very end. 

In terms of style, George (as always) has a keen eye for period detail, and we are treated to lush descriptions of food, sights, and sounds. This is Rome at the height of its glory, when the world seems bathed in the golden light of the emperor and all of the grandeur he enjoys. Small wonder that the people of Rome were said to love him, for he was one of those figures who was truly larger-than-life. Small wonder that so many of the men (and some of the women) who surrounded him sought to cut him down to size in the eyes of those that followed.

It seems to me that The Splendor Before the Dark is fundamentally a melancholic text, in keeping with so many other recent depictions of antiquity. Nero represents something of a utopian vision of how the world might be–full of beauty, sexual freedom, and a surrender to the senses. Of course, such a world can never be fully realized, for the demands of pragmatism and of history always intercede. No matter how much we may enjoy the world of plenty and joy that Nero creates for us, we also know that it is doomed to be temporary, that it will be consigned to the ashes of history.

As important as Nero’s perspective is, George also provides us two other important viewpoints that act as something of a Greek chorus: Locusta the poisoner and Acte the freedwoman. Locusta has a keen eye and sees aspects of Nero that remain invisible even to him. Her status as someone outside of the respectable parts of society ensures that she can feel the political pulse of the world around her even if, ultimately, she doesn’t survive Nero’s fall for very long.

It is really Acte, however, who is the novel’s heart and soul. She loves Nero completely and unequivocally, and this is both her greatest joy and her greatest tragedy. It is she who remains steadfastly loyal to him, in life and in death. The novel gives her the final word, as she visits Nero’s tomb and promises him that she will join him soon. As she always does, George imbues the novel’s final words with a profound sadness mingled with a little bit of joy, a yearning that lovers separated by death might once again be reunited. 

It is this, finally, that gives The Splendor Before the Dark it’s raw emotional power. George proves once again that she truly is the grand dame of historical fiction.

Queer Classics: “The Song of Achilles (by Madeline Miller)

For some time now, I’ve been putting off reading Madeline Miller’s debut novel The Song of Achilles. Not because I didn’t want to read it, but because I wanted to make sure that I was in the right frame of mind to really enjoy it. This was one of those books, I thought to myself, that needed to be relished and savoured, not rushed through at breakneck speed.

When I finally settled down to do the deed, I was not disappointed. In fact, I found my instincts completely vindicated. This is one of those novels that deserves time and attention, not a skim. In other words, if you’re going to read it, make sure you give yourself time to fully immerse yourself in the experience, to savour the rich feast that she has prepared for you.

Told from the perspective of Patroclus, the companion to Achilles, the book details the deep relationship that springs up between the two men after Patroclus is sent to live with Achilles at his father’s court. They quickly form a bond far deeper than they share with any other people in the world, and this bond endures even after they are both dragged into the toils of the Trojan War. While their experience there is tainted by tragedy (as any reader of The Iliad knows), it also reveals the brutal grace of the war and its heroes.

Truly, Miller is an author who has the power to make words sing. Miller has said that it took her ten years to write The Song of Achilles, and it shows. Each word, phrase, and sentence seems to have been weighed, measured, and evaluated to make sure that it fits into a seamless hole. As a result, reading this book is one of those truly transcendent experiences that only rarely happens (to me, at least). It’s not just the subject and the story that excites; it’s the way that the story is told to us. If anyone has managed to capture a bit of the brutal beauty of the ancient poets, it would be Madeline Miller.

It’s more than just the exquisite, almost painful, beauty of the prose that makes this book such a delight, however. For me, what really made this an emotionally wrenching (yet satisfying) experience is the way that Miller manages to capture the visceral and intense nature of same-sex desire between men. Even now, when queer representation is better than it has been in ages past, there is still something uniquely powerful about reading a book that really seems to get it. It’s not just the emotional part either (though Miller is quite good at conveying the richness and depth of their love for each other), but also the echo in the flesh that happens whenever I read about the unique mix of the physical and the transcendent entailed in male/male sexuality.

The fact that Miller chooses to depict their relationship as a physically sexual one is especially satisfying given the reticence of some recent attempts to adapt this myth for contemporary consumers (see also: Troy and the bastardization of Patroclus into Achilles’ “cousin”). Miller’s novel dispenses with the prudery and latent homophobia that has so frequently robbed these two men of their true passion for one another.

Indeed, as Miller makes clear, Patroclus is the one character in all of the book who loves Achilles for what he is rather than what he signifies. Thetis, his vengeful and dreadful sea-nymph mother, selfishly tries to keep Achilles away from his lover, for she fears that he will corrupt her son’s powers. Agamemnon sees him as an impediment to his own desires for glory and plunder and power. And the Greeks as a whole are more than willing to use up Achilles’ life so that they will find their own ambitions satisfied.

The world that Miller captures is one of those that sits at the crossroads of myth and history. This is a brutal but also beautiful world, where the gods still touch the world but are, for the most part, hovering offscreen. This is a world where the actions of great men change the world that surrounds them; they bestride their world like great colossi. Patroclus is more than a little out-of-place in this world; his soul is too sensitive, his emotions too rich. Perhaps it is precisely because he seems ill-suited to the archaic world of the Trojan War that he comes across as so compelling as a narrator. We feel what he feels, we experience with him the rush of joy and pleasure when he discovers love, and we watch with him, powerless, as the strands of Achilles’ fate ensnare them both.

While I won’t spoil the ending of the book, let me just say that after I read the last word I simply sat in my chair, overcome with feeling. I don’t yet know exactly what those feelings are, but…wow. They were something. Even now, I still can’t quite over how intense a reading experience The Song of Achilles was for me.

This, in sum, is one of those books that will really break your heart upon the rocks of its beauty. There are very, very few books that I think really accomplish this, that can strum the strings of our innermost selves–Mary Renault could do it, Anne Rice can do it, Tolkien could do it–and Miller has joined that exalted pantheon of great writers. While it fits squarely into the tradition of historical fiction, I also think that Miller’s work transcends that; I would go so far as to say that she has made a book that will become a myth in its own right. She shows us that the old stories of gods and heroes, mortals and immortals, love and hatred, still have the power to move us in new and exciting ways.

In the end, The Song of Achilles is about the power of love to move us, to frighten us, and to show us a world beyond our own limitations. As one reviewer put it, “Mary Renault lives again!”

Reading History: “Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen” (by Alison Weir)

If Anne Boleyn has gone done in history as one of England’s most notorious, and thus documented, queens, her successor Jane Seymour has done the opposite. She hovers in the background of Henry’s reign, remembered largely for her success in bearing Henry the son that he had long desired.

Alison Weir’s new book, Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, seeks to rescue Jane from this bit of historical amnesia, giving her a chance to tell her own story. We meet Jane in her youth, as she navigates the fraught waters of her deceptively simple country family and struggles with whether she should join a nunnery. She is gradually drawn to the world of the court, however, where she serves first Katherine and then Anne, before herself becoming the queen of Henry VIII. Though she succeeds in bearing him the son he has so long desired, she dies soon thereafter.

Now admittedly, Weir is not the most graceful of fiction writers. As with her nonfiction, Weir aims for workmanlike sentences over sophisticated ones. Perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed this as much had I not just been reading several other historical fiction authors who do have a true gift with language (such as Madeline Miller and Mary Renault). However, Weir does have a remarkable eye for period detail, and one does often feel a sense of immersion in this darkly beautiful and dangerous world.

Furthermore, Weir manages to let us as readers have a keen look inside Jane’s mind, what motivated her as she attempted to survive in the cutthroat atmosphere of Henry’s court. We are left in no doubt as to the fact that it is Henry and Henry alone who has the power, even as there are many around him–Cromwell, Anne, Jane’s family, and even Jane herself–who try to manipulate him into doing their bidding and granting them the power and influence they so desperately crave. Jane, like her predecessors, must learn the craft of trying to maintain her own persona in the face of the various forces around her, without falling victim to the fall from grace that sent Katherine into exile and Anne to the headsman.

Throughout the novel, two things dominate Jane’s sense of herself and her role as Henry’s queen. First is her absolute love and devotion to Katherine. It is precisely this loyalty that enables her to be a participant in Anne’s downfall (though she later expresses regret at her complicity). The second, equally important component of her personality is her commitment to Catholicism. Not for Jane the Reformist sentiments of Anne Boleyn (or her brother). Indeed, Jane is particularly vexed and saddened by the fate of the monasteries, which are in the process of being dismantled by Henry and Cromwell. She desperately wants to keep Henry from continuing in this vein and does whatever she can to convince him to change his course.

Unfortunately for Jane, even she cannot quite escape the power that is Henry VIII. Though he feels more affection for her than he does for Anne, he only does so as long as Jane is willing to submit to him. This she does, though she is always aware of just how much it costs her to do so. Weir does an admirable job conveying the many conflicts of conscience that Jane experiences as she tries to survive the reign of this king who sees himself as the absolute center of the universe and will brook no opposition to his will.

All in all, I’d say that Weir does justice to one of Henry’s most enigmatic queens. She may not have been as flashy and independent as Anne, nor as stalwart as Katherine, but it is important to remember that she lived in a very dangerous time indeed (as her untimely death attests). Can we really blame her if, confronted with the dreadful examples of her two predecessors, she opted for a third way? Weir allows us to experience with Jane the sense of impending doom, the possibility that at any moment she might go the way of her predecessors. The Tudor court was a place of exquisite beauty, but it was also a place where the wrong word or gesture could lead one down the beginning of a path that would end on the block. Or worse.

One can’t help but wonder, however, what might have been had Jane lived. Would she have produced more children to add to the Tudor dynasty? Would Elizabeth–and the magnificent reign she produced–have ever happened? Would Henry have tolerated her independent streak after she produced the longed-for son, or would he have instead found some way of getting rid of her as well? The very unanswerability of these questions continues to structure the myth of Jane.

Thank goodness we have Alison Weir to shed light on these for us!

Reading History: “Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession” (Alison Weir)

Alison Weir continues to surprise and amaze me with her ability to bring something new to the stories of Henry VIII’s six queens. In Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, she brings Henry’s most infamous queen to vibrant life, painting a portrait of a woman doomed to live in a period that is as beautiful as it is deadly, as full of peril as it is pleasure.

Contrary to what some might like to see from a new novel told from Anne’s perspective, Weir doesn’t attempt to make her into a saint. She is imperious, and she knows that she is smarter and cannier than Henry, who emerges from this novel as something of a spoiled brat who is as indecisive as he is cruel, as prone to folly as he is sparkling wit and intelligence. Raised in privilege and coming of age in the courts of Europe where women are the dominant voices, Anne returns to an England still very conservative in its views of women and the relationship between the sexes. Indeed, it precisely Anne’s inability to adapt to the restrictions of England that sets her on a collision course with her inevitable execution.

Throughout the novel, we get a sense that Anne wants something more out of life than is possible in the world in which she lives. She is, in many ways, a proto-feminist, a woman who chafes at the restrictions placed upon her by a culture that is so thoroughly dominated by men that it cannot even imagine that a woman would have a mind of her own. While this might seem anachronistic to some, it is worth pointing out that this was a period of rapid social change, and the evidence we have suggests that, indeed, Anne was quite responsive to the currents of social change that were sweeping through Europe, both in terms of the Reformation and the relations between the sexes. Unfortunately, Henry is far more conservative than he appears to be.

And this, ultimately, is what causes her downfall. Though she knows that she should do more to placate Henry and not endlessly antagonize him and downgrade him in front of others, she cannot seem to help herself. It is this constant oscillation between knowing the wise thing to do and being unable to do it that gives the novel its essential dramatic tension and that makes Anne’s story so profoundly affecting. We in the 21st Century view her sentiments as entirely justified, given that (I would assume) those of us reading women’s historical fiction feel at least a measure of feminist sentiment.

Weir’s style has truly matured since her earlier historical fiction outings, and though there are a few repetitive turns of phrase that mar the flow of her work, for the most part I was able to lose myself in this sumptuous world of sex, plotting, and politics. This is a world that is at once exquisitely courtly and yet also perilous, where the whims of a virtually absolute monarch can bring even the most powerful noble crashing down into ruin and death. As he points out to Anne, he can bring her down as quickly as he raised her up from obscurity.

Given that the entire novel is told from Anne’s perspective and is therefore somewhat limited, Weir still manages to capture the complex psyche of one of history’s most infamous women. She doesn’t shy away from the less appealing parts of Anne’s personality–particular her vengeful attitude toward the recalcitrant Katherine–but she makes these feelings understandable and explicable. She also deftly weaves in Anne’s unrequited love for Henry Norris, though she goes to great lengths to show that, however unhappy Anne was with Henry, and however much she did not really love him with her heart, she never went so far as to engage in a physical affair with another man.

Nor is Weir afraid to demonstrate the darker parts of the Anne Boleyn saga. The last scene of the novel details Anne’s experience after the sword decapitates her. While the science has yet to decide whether in fact one remains conscious after decapitation, Weir opts to end the novel with a (mercifully) short sequence. It’s one of those scenes that really sticks with you, long after the book is finished. I’m still not quite sure how I feel about this particular artistic choice, but Weir deserves a great deal of credit for being adventurous enough to end the novel in this way.

All in all, I quite enjoyed Weir’s novel. I must admit, though, that I am quite looking forward to the next outing, where we will get a glimpse into Jane Seymour, certainly one of Henry’s more enigmatic queens. If Weir does as expert a job at depicting Jane as she has with Katherine and Anne, then we are in for a treat indeed.