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!”

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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.

Reading History: “Elizabeth of York: A Tudor Queen and Her World “(Alison Weir)

Elizabeth of York is one of those fascinating figures of English history. Part of this has to do with her elusiveness. As prominent as she was as a figure–the daughter of Edward IV, the wife of Henry VII, and the mother of Henry VIII–she remains something of a sphinx, always hovering on the edge of the frame, taunting us.

Fortunately for those of us in the 21st Century, the British historian and royal biographer extraordinaire Alison Weir is a practiced hand at excavating such tantalizing female figures.

Traditional historiography asserts that Elizabeth was largely overshadowed by the men in her life. This tends to be true of almost any biography or historical fiction about her (of which I include Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess). Elizabeth was the Yorkist heir that allowed Henry to solidify his claim to the crown, and she was the mother of one of England’s most (in)famous monarchs and, through her eldest surviving daughter, she is the ancestress of all subsequent English kings and queens. Yet what was she like?

Admittedly, Weir only has so much to work with, but it is refreshing that she gives Elizabeth more agency and control over her destiny than has been the case with many other interpretations (both fictional and nonfictional). She digs through the texts and archives of the period to show a woman who was at the center of the political life of her time, and while she may not have been the dominant personality that the other women in her family were–one thinks of both her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, and her granddaughter, another Elizabeth–Weir convincingly argues that Elizabeth of York worked closely with her husband.

She also dispenses with the many myths that have grown up around Elizabeth, Henry, and Henry’s mother Margaret Beaufort. While most people tend to assume that Margaret and Elizabeth had an antagonistic relationship, Weir asserts that this is based on a selective reading of the evidence. In fact, they probably had a cordial relationship with one another, as one might expect of two women invested in the survival and thriving of the monarchy.

Above all, Weir makes clear that Elizabeth was a survivor, a woman who managed to survive the untimely passing of her mighty father, the disappearance (and presumed death) of her two brothers, and the collapse of her mother’s ambitions for her children. Elizabeth emerged through all of this determined to forge a life for herself, for her husband, and for the several children that she bore him. While she might, understandably, have felt a fair bit of enmity toward Henry when they were first married, Weir convinces us that she was able to find a measure of contentment–perhaps even happiness–with the man who came into England as a conqueror.

As always, Weir pays exhaustive attention to the material details of everyday life in this period (at least as such things apply to those of royal descent). This can make for some tough going at times, but I will say that it does give the reader a very strong, detailed sense of the lives that these people led. I’ve always admired her willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of that world, somehow finding a way to make even the driest of privy purse expenses yield up significance about the lives of those who spent that money.

Of course, the figure of Richard III looms in the background of this biography, and it is quite clear that Weir is most definitely not a supporter of this most infamous of English kings. She remains in no doubt that he was responsible–probably directly–for the murder of his nephews. I don’t want to weigh in on that particular subject (I’m basically agnostic about it), but I do think it’s an essential part of how Weir views Elizabeth and her life.

While I was a little let down by Weir’s biography of Mary Boleyn, my faith has been utterly restored by this outing. While she’s not always the most graceful of prose stylists, Alison Weir does show us that it is possible to be a meticulous, rigorous historian even if you don’t have a degree in history. I very much look forward to making my way through more of her work.

Reading History: “Mary Boleyn: The Mistress of Kings” (Alison Weir)

By this point, Mary Boleyn has become best-known as the major protagonist of Philippa Gregory’s historical novel The Other Boleyn Girl, the (according to Gregory) younger sister of Anne Boleyn.

Alison Weir, one of my all-time favourite biographers of British royalty, undertakes an effort to excavate what we know of Mary.

And, as her work reveals, that’s not too much. Unfortunately, much of Mary’s life remains shrouded in mystery, precisely because she has been so thoroughly overshadowed by Anne’s dominance in the popular imagination of the Tudor period. It thus takes all of Weir’s considerable skills as a historian/detective to extract from circumstantial evidence details about Mary’s life, her loves, and her actions.

We do know (with a fair degree of certainty) that she was the mistress of the King of France, a dalliance that no doubt stained her reputation and endangered her future in the English court and may have rendered her particularly susceptible to the amorous attentions of Henry VIII (who always wanted to outdo his French rival).

And we also know that, contrary to the mores of the time, she ended up marrying the man she loved, at least on the second time around. Indeed, the decision to once again endanger her family’s fortunes by going against her father’s wishes may well have contributed to her later penury. Weir makes it pretty clear throughout the book that Mary was something of a black sleep among the Boleyns, particularly her father (anyone who has seen Thomas Boleyn in film will find this quite easy to believe).

Nevertheless, even Weir’s capable hands can only spin so much material out of these few threads of information. The book is one of the shortest that she’s written, and it feels like it. As a result, Weir sometimes has to resort to discussions of issues, people, and materials surrounding Mary, rather than the actual woman herself. Of course, this does give us a good sense of the world that Mary inhabited, as well as the various connections that she would have had as a member of a noble family. However, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Mary is a bit of an absence, a glaring hole around which we can construct a narrative but who nevertheless remains elusive.

Thus, if I have a complaint about this book, it’s that Weir tends to wander off on tangents that are only faintly related to the subject matter. Some of this no doubt reflects the fact that she could find relatively little to say specifically about Mary in the sparse sources, but it does make for difficult reading at times, particularly as Weir–as she often does–tends to indulge a bit too much on the material culture aspect of her biographies. If you want to learn about the many things that early modern nobility spent vast amounts of money on, you will learn much in this book.

For me, arguably the most interesting part of the entire book was the discussion of Mary’s two children, Catherine and Henry, both of whom became very prominent members of Elizabeth I’s court. Weir lays out a convincing case for Mary’s daughter Catherine being the result of her affair with Henry VIII (there was allegedly a pronounced physical resemblance between them), though the same is probably not true of Mary’s son Henry (ironically). Weir also goes into some detail analyzing portraits that may (or may not) be those of Mary.

Overall, I would rate this in the bottom tier of Weir’s books. She tends to make some assumptions and assertions that aren’t adequately supported by the evidence that she has presented. Such is certainly the case with her assertion that Mary’s mother Elizabeth was a woman of ill-repute, evidence for which is quite sparse and relies on a decidedly selective reading of what evidence exists. (For what it’s worth, Weir makes a more compelling case for this in her recent historical novel about Anne, Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession).

Nevertheless, even a low-tier Alison Weir outing is still a good read, and you will learn a great deal about the workings of the Tudor court, the luxuries and dangers of the period, and the fraught position that women occupied in this dangerously beautiful world.

Reading History: “Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen” (Alison Weir)

I first discovered the work of the historian Alison Weir when I picked up her Life of Elizabeth I way back in 2000. Since then, I’ve read several of her other historical biographies, as well as some of the historical fiction novels that she’s written. I’ve almost always loved them.

I was a little underwhelmed by the idea of another series about the wives of Henry VIII. Surely, the King’s Great Matter (his desire to have his marriage to Katherine of Aragon annulled so he could marry Anne Boleyn) has been so many times that another novel would feel repetitive.

Boy, was I wrong.

Somehow (probably through magic of some sort), Weir has managed to take this well-worn tale and weave it into something truly compelling, magical, and deeply saddening. A fitting way to describe the life of Katherine of Aragon, yes? Though all of Henry VIII’s queens deserve a measure of pity for having to put up with such a tyrant, Katherine has always occupied pride of place in the pantheon of royal martyrs.

The novel is basically a fictional biography of Henry VIII’s first queen, from the time that she sets out to be the bride of his elder brother Arthur (who dies soon after their wedding, probably from tuberculosis), all the way to her death several years later, after Henry has had their marriage annulled on his own authority and essentially had Katherine imprisoned.

It would be easy for a historical fiction author to paint this story in stark, unsubtle tones, so that Katherine is the virtuous sufferer while Anne is the scheming harlot. Though the novel is told exclusively from Katherine’s  perspective, Weir does manage to keep it from slipping into this simplistic model. Katherine is understandably resentful of her young rival, and we are certainly meant to identify with her, but that’s to be expected.

In Weir’s hands, Katherine emerges as a fiercely intelligent, independent woman who nevertheless accepts her inferior place in Henry’s life. She recognizes that, as a woman in Early Modern England, her status will always remain continent on her husband, and while her decision to defy him is certainly justified by her sincere belief that she was a virgin when she came to Henry–and, contra some other authors, Weir makes it clear that Arthur was not able to seeing the consummation through–and by her belief in her daughter’s inheritance, Weir also makes it clear that Katherine was not always as astute as she might have been.

One of the novel’s great strengths is its willingness to show Katherine in all of her complexity. She was incredibly proud–of her lineage, of her royal blood, of her status as a wife to Henry–and she was also deeply pious. We get the strong sense that she defied Henry not only from pride, but also from actual love for him. Whether or not an Early Modern royal woman could feel those things is rather beside the point.

Through this novel, we get a sense of a world that, as Weir puts it in the author’s note, was by turns beautiful and brutal. This was a world of courtly love and sumptuous banquets, but also of ruthless politicking and brutal executions. Katherine, as a royal, was in both a very powerful and privileged position, yet she too was subject to the whims of a man who gradually grew to believe that he truly was next to God in terms of how much authority he deserved. Thus, her life was always in his keeping, a fact that becomes crushingly evident as his royal favour gradually turns sour and his wrath threatens to fall in full force upon her.

Weir also makes no bones about the fact that Henry was, in many ways, a sociopathic tyrant whose will it was extremely dangerous to thwart. That being said, she doesn’t paint him in the sort of cartoonish villain light common to other works of historical fiction (ahem, Philippa Gregory), but instead as the natural product of his time. This was the period in which the medieval was already a memory and the Early Modern was giving birth to new classes of people. Katherine had the misfortune to fall squarely into that tumultuous period.

Next up, I’ll be making my way through some of Weir’s other works, so stay tuned!

Reading History: “The Last Tudor” (Philippa Gregory)

I’ve been reading Philippa Gregory’s books since around 2005, when I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl. I haven’t yet read all of then, but I’ve read enough to have a solid sense of her style and her interests and author, as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a writer of historical fiction.

Her most recent outing, The Last Tudor, puts Gregory’s puts all of that on display.

Broken into three parts, the book centers on the three Grey sisters: Jane, Katherine, and Mary. Jane, of course, has gone down in history as the Nine Days Queen, executed by Queen Mary as a result of her father’s foolish rebellion. Katherine, equally foolish, married a Seymour without first gaining the permission from the Queen, a crime also committed by her sister Mary, who marries a commoner and also finds herself imprisoned.

Jane, in keeping with the traditions of depicting her in historical fiction, emerges as something of a prig, convinced of her own wisdom, erudition, and piety. However, her self-assurance doesn’t keep her from being manipulated by others–notably her parents–into usurping the throne when her cousin Edward VI. Though frequently insufferable, Gregory does capture moments of genuine pathos with this quintessential Protestant martyr.

If only the same could be said of her younger sister Katherine. Though Katherine was surely a complicated and tragic character, in Gregory’s rather unsuitable hand she becomes an insufferable ninny, so swept up by her passion for the young Edward Seymour that she marries him without Queen Elizabeth’s permission, earning both of them imprisonment. As a character, she seems quite the dunce, especially as she moves from bad decision to bad decision. She can’t quite seem to wrap her head around why it might be that Elizabeth would see her as a threat, despite the fact that she constantly draws attention to the fact of her own superiority to her cousin.

It is Mary, ironically, who emerges as the most interesting and insightful character, though she also has the least to do. After her ill-considered marriage to Thomas Keyes, she is shuttled between various keepers. While her chapters are often witty and sardonic, the downside is that most of what she relates has to do with the travails of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. As a result, these chapters tend to drag.

All three sisters’ narrations are marred by one of Gregory’s increasingly prevalent tics: repetition. We endlessly hear about how one of the sisters might become the center of an effort to replace Elizabeth, how each of them is better than Elizabeth, how they all hate Elizabeth. I would probably have much more patience for Gregory’s consistent foibles if she didn’t have such a naked vendetta against Elizabeth I. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve long been a fan of QE I, even though I recognize that she has a lot to answer for. Still, Gregory takes this to extremes, and she clearly believes that Elizabeth was responsible for the death of Robert Dudley’s wife Amy Robsart. Given that historians now agree that Elizabeth was most likely innocent, this is at best farfetched and at worst deliberately misleading.

It’s not surprising that the three Grey sisters would see their cousin the queen through their own perspective, but it does strain credulity that three members of the ruling dynasty would not be a little more canny about their life choices. Having been raised to be conscious of their royal connections through their grandmother Queen Mary, they surely would have realized that their marriages had consequences far beyond their personal happiness. What’s more, it’s quite frustrating to read them making these foolish choices, especially as, if they had been wiser and cannier about maneuvering through court politics, they might have seen their children on the throne rather than enduring years of grueling captivity.

In the last several Gregory novels, we hear incessantly about how infertile the Tudors are, how paranoid they are because of this, and how they will willingly punish (or kill) anyone who they perceive as a threat. While there is something to this, and while I am aware that Elizabeth could be quite malicious, Gregory’s lack of subtlety mars what might have been a nuanced exploration of the truly tragic fates of three interesting figures in the Tudor family.

I suppose my greatest frustration with this novel was the fact that the story could have been told better, either by Gregory or someone else. The author’s note suggests that she is moving on from the Tudor and I, for one, must reluctantly admit that this is certainly a good thing.

Reading History: “The Alice Network” (Kate Quinn)

I hate to be a fangirl but, well, I’ve been a fan of Kate Quinn’s ever since I read her book Mistress of Rome way back when. I must confess, though, that I was a bit disconcerted when she announced that she would be moving from the world of ancient Rome to World War I and World War II. I just loved her books about ancient Rome so much, I wasn’t sure the magic would continue into this new outing or, more frustratingly, whether I would be able to do it. Ancient Rome was my bag; 20th Century…not so much.

Boy was I wrong.

From the very first page, right up until the last, I was absolutely hooked on this novel. There were moments of heartbreak, laughter, joy, and every emotion in between. Indeed, this novel is some of the best historical fiction from one of today’s undisputed masters of the craft. My loyalty to this author has once again been incredibly rewarded, and I have once again met fictional characters whose lives continue to live on in my brain long after I read the last page.

The novel follows two characters. One is Charlie St. Clair, an unwed and very pregnant American out to find her cousin Rose, missing since the end of WW II. Her search leads her to the door of one Eve Gardiner, a former spy in the Alice Network during World War I. The novel also follows Eve in her youth, as she overcomes her stutter to become part of the famous spy ring known as the Alice Network. In the process, she also confronts the villainous profiteer René Bordelon. As the two stories interweave, both of the characters have to confront unpleasant truths, both about themselves and about those that they love.

As a result of this back-and-forth narrative patterning, one gets a sense of the way that history repeats itself, often catching up individuals in the gears of events that they can never entirely name nor control. Both Charlie and Eve frequently find themselves falling in love with damaged men, men who for one reason or another find it difficult to reciprocate those tender feelings. And while Eve’s ultimately has more of tragedy than of romance to it, Charlie does manage to carve out a space for herself and, ultimately, for Eve as well.

In keeping with Quinn’s extraordinary ability to dive deep into the particular challenges that women faced in the past, the novel also shines a light on the double standard regarding women and their sexuality. Both Eve and Charlie have to contend with the issue of sex. Charlie, as the beginning of the novel makes clear, is an unwed mother (a particularly pernicious stigma in the postwar years), while Eve is slowly drawn into the erotic web of Bordelon, who is as sadistic as he is exquisitely cultured. He loves exacting pain and pleasure in equal measure, and he is particularly inspired by Baudelaire, whose bust he uses to inflict horrific torture.

And let’s be real here. René Bordelon is without question one of the best villains that Quinn has ever created. Of course, Quinn has always had a tremendous skill in crafting baddies that put the in in infamy, but with this collaborator she has really outdone herself. With his dedication to pleasure and the finer things in life, his suave and deadly charm, and his ruthless efficiency, he stands as the very worst that the modern world can create. While I don’t want to give too much away, suffice it to say that he gets his just desserts in the end and boy, let me tell you, it is incredibly satisfying to read it.

The novel also focuses on the way that both Wars have left tremendous scars on the men who were forced to fight in the trenches. Finn, Charlie’s love interest and Eve’s chauffeur, bears the scars of his time in the service, particularly his encounters with the freed prisoners of the concentration camps. Further, she is haunted by the specter of her brother, who committed suicide as a result of the wounds, both physical and emotional, that he sustained during his service. It is his death that drives her to continue fighting to discover the fate of her cousin Rose and, later, to do everything in her power to give Eve, who almost falls into death and despair, something to live for.

In the end, The Alice Network is a tale of the ability of women to triumph despite all of the things hurled at them by the horrors of war. There are terrible losses to be endured, sacrifices to be made, but these ultimately prove worth it by the happiness that the characters manage to grasp for themselves despite all they’ve endured. Though the experiences of women and their contributions to the grisly business of war are often glossed over (or excised entirely) from the war record, Quinn has brought them to life with a spirit and vitality that it would be hard to match. We feel like we know and love these characters, and thus we suffer and triumph right along with them.

What’s more, we also come to celebrate the unlikely and beautiful friendship that springs up between these two extraordinary women. Each finds in the other something that they lack as individuals, and it is precisely this melding of two very different spirits and temperaments that binds them and allows them both to heal from the wounds that two world wars have inflicted upon their minds, souls, and bodies. The novel is as much about the women as a team as it is about them as individuals, and that’s what gives it its particular power.

As always, Quinn has done a magnificent job bringing to light the struggles and triumphs of the forgotten women of history. I know that I, for one, cannot wait until she reveals her next work. I know that I’ll be one of the first in line to buy it when it comes out.

Reading History: “Mary, Called Magdalene” (by Margaret George)

Since finishing The Confessions of the Young Nero, the most recent literary outing from historical fiction author Margaret George, I’ve found myself possessed of the desire to re-read her entire oeuvre, beginning with the two novels of hers that I haven’t read. So, I started with Mary, Called Magdalene. 

In another life, I was passionately interested in the history of early Christianity, and I even entertained the notion of pursuing graduate work in that field. Since I opted out of that, I am very happy to see that works like George continue to bring to light the lives and experiences of those women who have been largely left out of the larger historical narratives concerning the genesis and birth of Christianity. Fortunately for me and those like me, Margaret George is right there to bring to light what it might have felt like to walk in the shoes of one of Jesus’s earliest converts.

Having combed through both the canonical gospels as well as numerous other ancient sources, George has managed to construct a plausible idea of what Mary’s life must have been like before, during, and after her membership in the circle of disciples that follow Jesus. While she begins the novel as a traditional Jewish wife and mother of the 1st Century CE, things begin to change when she is possessed by a number of demons, vengeful spirits that have grown angry at their dispossession. Ultimately driven nearly mad, she is only saved when she encounters Jesus at the River Jordan, after which she joins his ministry, following him until his death and even afterward.

George ably captures the contradictory position that women occupied in ancient Israel, and Mary consistently chafes at the limits imposed upon her by both her own family–who constantly criticize her for her willfulness and ultimately disown her after her decision to follow Jesus–and even by her fellow disciples. In refusing to bow down to the imperative of respectability, she also sacrifices her place in society. While this means that she must also give up her access to her daughter Elisheba–a sacrifice that haunts Mary throughout the novel–she never regrets her decision to follow Jesus and subscribe to the dictates of his ministry.

George also ably demonstrates the troubling sense of doubt that Jesus’s disciples must have felt as they struggled to accept a message and a man that went beyond anything that they had been raised to understand. All of them see in Jesus and his message something that helps them make sense of the world, and it is precisely in this multiplicity that George situates Mary and her own interpretation of Jesus. She sees in him both a possible romantic connection (ultimately dashed) and something more, something that is a message that is not based in empty ritual but instead on spiritual fulfillment. She sees in Jesus not a political messiah but instead someone who can, indeed, bring about a very different kingdom, one of the spirit rather than the flesh.

The world that George paints is one poised on the edge of a great conflagration. Increasingly embittered as a result of their subjection under the yoke of Rome, the Jewish people yearn for someone to deliver them. For some, Jesus promises an escape from their dilemma, while for others–most notably the leaders of the Temple–he represents a very real threat to their political alliance with Rome. Mary, as a prosperous Jewish woman, finds herself caught up in this conflict, even as she attempts to understand Jesus’ message and her relationship to it.

The novel is peopled by a variety of characters from all walks of life, from fisherman to tax collectors to zealots, all of whom see in Jesus something slightly different. It is for this reason that Mary fits in with them, though she does have moments of conflict. Most notably, she finds herself in several terse interactions with Judas, who is both the most like her and the one most prone to his own inner demons and despair. She also finds herself in something of a competition with Peter, with whom she vies for the position of being closest to Jesus.

While the entire novel is compellingly readable, it’s the last portion that I found to be the most moving. Here, we are given a close-up perspective of the gospel that Mary has begun to compose, for she comes to understand that Christianity as a faith increasingly diverges from its Jewish origins and that there are those in the fledgeling communities who desperately yearn for the words and testimony of those who were with Jesus while he still walked the earth. As time continues its inexorable march forward, Mary finds herself a key part of the history of a religion.

Yet the most heartbreaking thing is the fact that Mary is not reunited with her daughter until it is too late, after she has died as a result of injuries she sustains as a result of her casting down of idols in the city of Ephesus. It is only then that her daughter finally comes to see her, and she erects a memorial testifying to her affection. This sense of being too-late adds a further layer of emotional resonance to Mary’s story.

The core of Mary’s narrative and personal dilemma is her awareness and recognition that despite his earth-changing message, the historical world moves on, even though her own life has irrevocably changed. Tormented by the visions that she has of the future, she bears the heavy weight of historical and spiritual responsibility. With its privileging of her perspective–almost the entire novel is related either in third person limited or first person–Mary, Called Magdalene gives us a unique perspective on the presence of the feminine at the root of Christian thought and history.

Currently, I’m hard at work on George’s other novel about a famous Mary, Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles. It’s quite a large work, so it will take me quite a while to finish but worry not. Watch this space for my thoughts and reflections on that book as well.

Reading History: “The Confessions of Young Nero” (by Margaret George)

The release of a new novel by Margaret George is an event that occurs every six years or so. The author of such well-known works of historical fiction as The Memoirs of Cleopatra and The Autobiography of Henry VIII is well-known for her extraordinary detail in her magisterial works of historical fiction, in which she inhabits not just the mind but the very time of her subjects.

Imagine my delight, then, when release day at last dawned, and her new masterwork, The Confessions of Young Nero finally saw the light of day.

The novel, narrated in first person by the emperor himself, starts with a horrible moment of cruelty when he is tormented by his uncle Caligula, and moves through Nero’s childhood in the house of his aunt. Gradually, however, he is drawn into the poisonous atmosphere of the royal court, particularly after his mother Agrippina replaces the adulterous Messalina as the wife of the Emperor Claudius. Of course, he eventually comes to power as the emperor, all the while continuing to indulge in his true passion: the arts.

Nero as George depicts him is a man tormented by the demons of his childhood. Brought up in a nest of vipers in which the blood of royalty can be as good as a death sentence, he struggles to be a good person, even as a darker side of him gradually emerges, the side that will, we are led to believe, lead him down the road of madness and cruelty.

However, he is also a man who can see the beauty in the world. He is not the vain and awful faux artist as he normally appears in the popular media, but instead a man genuinely driven to create. He idolizes the Greek world and the beauty that it created, and he does everything in his power to create it. In this novel’s imagination, at least, he succeeds, several time entering into that beautiful and orgiastic state in which true art is produced. There is, though, a slight note of ambiguity, as we’re not quite sure whether those who flatter him are doing so because he’s the emperor or because they genuinely think he is good at what he does.

Just as he loves the world of beauty, so he often falls in love. His abiding love is the freedwoman Acte, who sees him for who he really is, for both good and ill. She, along with the famous poisoner Locusta, make infrequent appearances throughout the novel as a sort of Greek chorus, providing commentary on the events of his life and offering a counterpoint to his own perspective. Unlike Nero, whose perspectives on the world are more than slightly skewed by both his upbringing and by the art that is his solace, they are able to see what he refuses to.

Then there is Poppaea, the woman who gradually becomes the focus of all of Nero’s affections and attentions. At first she is married to his friend Otho, but she manipulates the emperor into coercing her husband to divorce her. She and Nero quickly marry one another. It’s rather difficult to determine how we should feel about her. Is she indeed the agent of her own destiny, or is she merely the screen upon which Nero seems determined to project his desires? Or is it some combination of the two? I suspect it’s a combination, and this allows her as a character to trouble the narrative that Nero tells and which he uses to try to make sense of the life that he has led.

Given that the majority of Nero’s reign was peaceful in terms of international politics, this gives George the opportunity to really dive into Nero’s psyche. In both its prose and its narrative, The Confessions shows a tortured and battered soul attempting to make its way in a milieu that is as dangerous and deadly as it is beautiful. Haunted by the spirit of his predecessors–including Augustus–and hectored by both his mother and his tutor and adviser Seneca, Nero tries to forge his own path. When the novel ends, right as the great fire has begun to consume his capital, Nero knows that this will be the greatest challenge that he has yet faced. Of course, we as readers know that this event will mark the beginning of the end for him.

While the novel seeks to explain Nero’s actions, some of which are quite terrible, it doesn’t excuse them. It doesn’t paper over the fact that Nero did indeed have his mother Agrippina killed, but she does go to pains to point out the lengths to which his mother is willing to do to solidify and maintain her hold on power, even if that means doing away with her own son. While Agrippina, perhaps unsurprisingly, emerges as the villain of the novel, one also gets the sense that she, like her son, like her brother Caligula, is the product of a poisonous and traumatic environment that leaves many scars. When we finish the novel, we’re left in no doubt that the shadow that has already fallen on Nero’s psyche is one that he will never entirely leave behind; some wounds are too deep to ever fully heal.

As always with George’s work, the book is saturated in period detail, bringing ancient Rome to piercing and vibrant life. There’s even a delicious little detail that I found particularly lovely: Nero ends up meeting the aged Alexander Helios, the son of Cleopatra and Marc Antony (and therefore Nero’s great grand uncle). As a result of George’s prose, we get a surprisingly strong sense of what it must have been like to live in the Rome of the first century of the Common Era.

All in all, The Confessions of Young Nero is a story of a broken and tortured young man thrust into a power he did not want who nevertheless does everything he can to be a good emperor to his people. I know that I, for one, will be eagerly awaiting the second installment, which will cover the last years of Nero’s reign.

I just hope I don’t have to wait too long!