Tag Archives: historical fiction

Reading History: “Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women”

Any time that you have a historical fiction novel co-written by the likes of Stephanie Dray, Kate Quinn, Sophie Perinot, and Laura Kamoie, you are guaranteed to have a rousing read about some truly kick-ass women.

And that is just what you get in Ribbons of Scarlet: A Novel of the French Revolution’s Women.

The novel is divided into six different sections and an epilogue. Each chapter focuses on a different character, ranging from peasants to aristocrats. As a result, we get a keen sense of the many different types of women who played such crucial roles in this pivotal historical moments. Most of the characters are women who took an active part in the Revolution and committed themselves to the cause of overturning the old order and creating something new, a political order founded on the fundamental principle of equality. These are women who aren’t afraid to write and to think and to protest, even when the powers that be would much rather have them stick to the roles that were considered appropriate for women.

One exception to this is the Princess Élisabeth, the sister of Louis XVI and a devout royalist. While she comes across as a very proud and stubborn woman–hardly surprising, given her upbringing–it’s also hard not to feel at least a little bit of sympathy for her plight, caught as she is in a world that doesn’t understand. Indeed, it’s hard not to feel at least a little sorry for each of the characters, since so many of them are caught up in the gears of history.

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this novel was the way in which the authors managed to twine together the various strands into a cohesive whole. To my mind, this is no small accomplishment, given the fact that you have some of the finest talents in historical fiction writing several different stories. The novel is roughly chronological, so that you have a sense of the way in which the Revolution unfolded, its highs and its lows, and its ultimate descent into the worst forms of barbarism and self-destruction (the infamous Robespierre makes an appearance).

I’ve always had a rather ambivalent relationship to the French Revolution, and reading this novel has reminded me of why this is the case. For, although that great historical event began with the loftiest of political and philosophical ambitions, all too quickly it began its descent into barbarism and bloodshed. And, as this novel makes clear, some of the first–and very often the most easily-targeted–victims of such violence were the women. Time and again, we witness these powerful and intelligent women persecuted by the very men who should be on their side, subjected to every sort of ignominy and humiliation. At the same time, it is precisely their willingness and their ability to persevere despite all of these setbacks that makes these women such extraordinary figures in history and thus an inspiration to those who live in the present.

It should be noted that this novel is not necessarily for the faint-of-heart. It doesn’t shy away from the more brutal turns of the Revolution–including the infamous use of the guillotine–and there are some truly tragic and heart-wrenching moments when characters are forced to confront their own dreadful mortality. There is a scene very near the end where one of the prime characters is awaiting her time at the guillotine, and I have to admit that I choked up when she had to contend with the reality that she was soon to meet her death. It’s one of the most exquisitely painful scenes that I’ve read in a historical fiction novel.

Despite the dark turns that the novel takes, one is still left with the feeling that, for those women who were so intimately involved in it, the French Revolution promised something more than their lives had possessed before. The novel does an excellent job conveying just how bifurcated French society had become on the eave of this great upheaval, with a yawning gulf between the haves and the have-nots (doesn’t this sound more than a little like our current moment?) Given the way that the nobility–and, of course, the royalty–refused to see the truth staring them right in the face, it’s hardly surprising that French society eventually ignited into a conflagration that ultimately couldn’t be controlled. History, though, is like that, sometimes, moments of seeming stasis that erupt into destructive chaos seemingly in the blink of an eye.

Indeed, even after the darkest parts of the Revolution are over, Sophie–the philosopher–is still struggling to make sense of what has taken place. In the eloquently-written epilogue, she is left to try to put together at least a few of the pieces of shattered world that the Revolution has left behind. Indeed, one of my favorite scenes in the novel occurs near the very end, when Sophie confronts the man who would go on to be the opposite of everything that the Revolution had supposedly stood for: Napoleon Bonaparte himself. The fact that she dares to challenge the man who would come to be one of the titans of his age is a fitting conclusion to a novel full of characters who are larger than life, striding across the stage of history.

Overall, I found myself utterly enraptured by Ribbons of Scarlet. Much as I wanted to savor every delicious, blood-soaked, tragic moment of it, I found that I simply couldn’t. I suspect that there will be many others out there who will devour it as quickly as I did. In my book, there is no greater measure of how good a book truly is. Ribbons of Scarlet shows us just how important women are to the workings of history, and for that reason alone it is worth reading and celebrating.

The only question that remains is: when will we get another collaborative novel from these fantastic authors? I suppose we’ll just have to be patient!

Reading History: “Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait” (by Alison Weir)

When it comes to the wives of Henry VIII, a few stand out in the popular consciousness: Anne Boleyn (obviously), Katherine of Aragon, perhaps Jane Seymour. Then maybe Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr. Rarely, I suspect, do many people give much of a thought to Anne of Cleves, Henry’s fourth wife whom, it was said, he found so physically disgusting that he had their marriage annulled. Indeed, it is often held that the failure of this marriage is what cost Thomas Cromwell the king’s love and eventually his life.

Poor Anne has not received much justice from popular culture. Joss Stone did a serviceable job portraying her in The Tudors, and Philippa Gregory brought her usual soapy approach to at least part of Anne’s life in her book The Boleyn Inheritance. But other than that, she has tended to hover in the background, eclipsed by her more glamorous peers.

Enter Alison Weir’s new book, Anne of Kleve: The Princess in the Portrait.

I’ll admit that when I first heard that acclaimed historian and historical novelist Alison Weir was writing a six-book series about these women, I was a little dubious that she’d be able to write anything new or exciting about them. To some extent, alas, I was proved correct. While the earlier entries in this series were enjoyable, they all seemed to lack a certain spark that would have made them really soar. Don’t get me wrong. They were enjoyable; they just weren’t thrilling.

With Anna of Kleve, I think she may have finally hit her stride. The novel doesn’t get bogged down in relentless recitations of detail (Weir is nothing if not rigorous in that regard), but it does give us a very rich, thorough portrait of Anna’s emotional state as she moves through the dangerous world of Renaissance politics, both in her own country and, later, in Henry VIII’s England.

The novel starts with Anna’s young adulthood in the Duchy of Kleve, during which she has an illicit affair with one of her cousins and gives birth to a bastard child, a secret she carries with her for the rest of her life. After interminable negotiations with the English, she eventually sets sail to be the next Queen of England. Unfortunately for her, King Henry takes an instant dislike to her, and she ultimately feels pressured to concede to an annulment, after which she is granted significant wealth and manages to stay out of the worst of the political troubles that afflict the kingdom.

The novel is quite a brisk read, and Weir manages to keep the pace going while also largely adhering to, and even correcting, the historical record. We learn, for example, that Anna was a devout Catholic, though her marriage was intended to solidify Henry’s relations with the Protestant German princes. Indeed, Weir does a fine job of conveying how integral Anna was to the politics of her day, and how astute she was in her own political calculations.

Admittedly, Weir does take some rather generous liberties with the established truth, most notably in the ongoing plot-line of Anna’s illegitimate son and her cousin Otho, who is truly the one love of her life. Her reasoning on this in the “Author’s Note” reads a little thin to me, but I will agree that it does give the book an emotional core and resonance that I think it might otherwise have lacked (the irony is not lost on me that the very thing that makes the novel really work is the one thing that is probably not true).

That quibble aside, the novel is a strong outing. Indeed, one of its greatest strengths is in its ability to portray Anna’s emotional attachment to Henry. Rather than fighting to hold onto a position that knows is rightfully hers, she quickly gives in to the king’s request and becomes, in effect, his sister, blessed with manors and incomes and wealth. She’s shrewd enough to realize that she has far more to gain as the king’s sister than as his wife, and her reasoning proves sound when it is revealed that Catherine Howard has been committing adultery with and is summarily executed. At the same time, however, Weir does show how it must have stung for Anna to accept what was, in many ways, a humiliation, even if a lucrative one.

In that sense, the novel is more emotionally textured than I found the other three entries in the series to be. There, I often felt at somewhat of a remove from the titular heroines (part of this may be due to the fact that Weir chose to narrate each of the books in third person limited, rather than the first person). Here, however, we really get a chance to live inside Anna’s head, to experience with her the trials and tribulations of the Tudor era. It also allows us to get a more sympathetic perspective on Henry, a man vainly fighting against encroaching age and infirmity.

Likewise, it answers the question: what exactly happened to Anna after Henry VIII died? Some, no doubt, remember that she was actually present at Mary’s coronation, but others will have assumed that she died in obscurity. In fact, she continued to fight for rights against all the odds. While she died in her early 40s (probably of breast cancer), she nevertheless managed to outlive all of Henry’s other wives. Needless to say, that is quite a feat!

Anna of Kleve is a fascinating portrait of a royal woman’s struggle to not only survive but thrive in a world haunted by the past. Confronted with challenge again and again, she nevertheless perseveres. And when, in the end, she finally succumbs to illness, she does so surrounded by the people that she loves, including her illegitimate son. Her story is one, then, of ultimate triumph over adversity. Finally, after all of these centuries, Anna gets to tell her own story, and Alison Weir deserves tremendous praise for doing it with such grace, beauty, and eloquence.

Reading History: “Circe” (by Madeline Miller)

Warning: Full spoilers for the novel follow.

When I had finished The Song of Achilles, I felt bereft. Here was this extraordinary author who managed to hit all the right notes I look for in historical fiction, and now I had nothing more to look forward to! Fortunately for me, Madeline Miller had just released a new book, Circe, and I devoured it even more quickly than I had her debut novel.

While Song had touched me because of its sensitive yet frank depiction of physical and emotional love between two men, Circe was something else, a tale of one woman’s desire to both understand and, ultimately, become the mortals whom she has spent so many hours and encounters, both good and bad. It is a novel about the nature of mortality and the burdens associated with being a child of the gods, at once a story of tremendous suffering and exquisite love.

Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios, but from the beginning she feels that she is not like the other petty gods and Titans that surround her. When she discovers that she actually has magical abilities, the stage is set for a confrontation with her fellow immortals and, ultimately, her father. She is ultimately banished to  a distant island, where Circe encounters many of the famous figures of mythology, including Jason and Medea, the wily hero Odysseus and, eventually, his son Telemachus. As the years go by, she feels herself increasingly drawn to these mortals until, as the novel reaches its conclusion, she must decide whether she will become one of them or retain her immortality.

It’s always a challenge (I think) to write a convincing fictional account of the ancient pantheon that isn’t simply a parody or attempts to poke fun at the gods that we (in a world that still straddles the line between scientific rationalism and Christianity) see as little more than fairy tales. Fortunately, Miller has a knack for conveying the gods in a way that makes them both utterly realistic and yet fantastic at the same time. Her Olympians are, I think, very much in keeping with what the Greeks themselves imagined, full of spite and cruelty, yet also inescapably compelling.

As she did in The Song of Achilles, Miller manages to capture the beautiful yet brutal world that emerges from the words of the ancient Greeks. When Circe wanders through the halls of her father’s palace, or when she embraces the lonely bleakness of her isle, Miller allows us deep, piercing glimpses of these places as Circe herself would see them. In the process, we come to not only understand the woman herself, but also to appreciate the lushness of the prose through which that experience is conveyed.

Circe shares with Song a deep, rich awareness of the power of language to move us, to make us look at and think about the world in new, exciting and (sometimes) uncomfortable ways. Like Mary Renault–with whom she is often compared–Miller has the knack for conveying the foreignness of the ancient world that does not efface or detract from its ability to draw us into it.

Circe, however, is in many ways a very different novel than its predecessor, if only because it seems so focused (refreshingly) on a woman (even if she is a demigoddess). Circe is far from perfect, and Miller doesn’t try to idealize her. She is rebellious, prone to making foolish decisions,  and, despite her divine parentage, fundamentally curious about the mortals that the gods have in their thrall. Indeed, it is her desire to understand humans–in all of their beauty and ugliness, their loves and their hates, their kindness and their cruelty–that allows her to keep going despite all of the betrayals and heartbreak she faces.

And that, to me, is the novel’s fundamental purpose: to probe at what it is that makes us human. Because of her quasi-divine status, Circe has a perspective on the foibles of mortals that we lack, simply because we are imprisoned within our own perspectives. More than that: we are imprisoned in time. Circe recognizes that the one thing that humanity cannot escape is its mortality, and it is the one thing that will always structure (and doom) her relationships with her mortal lovers. While she is fated to continue marching through this world, she must contend with the inescapable fact of losing them.

Ultimately, it is this focus on mortality that gives Circe’s decision to abrogate her immortality and use her magic to become one of them. One can debate whether her choice to do so undercuts her power as a strong female character, but to me that rather misses the point. By the end of the novel, Circe has seen enough of the cruelties of the gods to know that she no longer wants to be one of their company, and she has at last found a man who will love her as she deserves to be loved. The fact that he is a mortal finally forces her to make the choice that seemed obvious from the very beginning. In the end, Circe becomes a mortal not just because she loves Telemachus, but because she finally recognizes that humans have an ability for compassion that the gods simply cannot. It is this recognition, even more than her love that ultimately drives her to give up her immortality.

And now that I’ve finished Miller’s sophomore effort, I think I feel even more devastated than I did when I finished, knowing that it was going to be quite a while before I saw something else from this very talented author of historical fiction. All I can say is that Circe is a must-read for anyone who loves the ancient world and its reception in the modern one. With this book, Madeline Miller shows that she truly deserves recognition as one of the finest historical novelists writing today.

I just hope that we don’t have to wait too long for Miller to offer us more of her inimitable vision.

Reading History: “Templar Silks” (by Elizabeth Chadwick)

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

When his lord Henry, the Young King, dies of dysentery William Marshall goes on pilgrimage to the Holy Land in order to atone for the sins he, and his young master, committed. Once in Jerusalem, William finds himself more and more ensnared in the politics of Outremer (the name used in medieval France to refer to those French territories, such as the Holy Land, that were beyond the sea).

Central to the novel is William’s affair with Pascia de Riveri, the concubine of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The two of them feel an immediate attraction for one another, and Chadwick compellingly conveys the deep and powerful sexual bond they share. Sex scenes are notoriously easy to do badly, but the novel avoids this, straddling the fine line between the prurient and the genuinely sensual and erotic. What’s more, she makes it clear that William sees in Pascia not just an object of his desire, but a woman with whom he genuinely wants to build a future. For her part, Pascia emerges as a woman very conscious of the role that she plays in this world; for all of her seeming self-assurance, she knows that she remains beholden to the patriarch for what little worldly power she has.

Chadwick acknowledges that much of the novel’s narrative is fictional, since we do not really know what Marshall did during his sojourn in the Holy Land. That being said, she is adept at providing a compelling and richly layered portrait of the land and the key political players, ranging from the strutting but incompetent Guy de Lusignan, the noble but dying King Baldwin (known to many as the Leper King), the worldly and urbane Patriarchh Heraclius and, most importantly, Paschia de Riveri herself. These are men and women who are contradictory and rich as any to be found in historical fiction.

I was particularly drawn to Baldwin, the doomed king who nevertheless does everything in his power to do right by his people. I’ve always been fascinated by this figure, ever since I saw him portrayed (hauntingly) by Edward Norton in the 2005 Kingdom of Heaven. For William, he is one of the few people in the Holy Land who seems to possess both nobility and honour, though he is hampered by his physical ailments from being the king that his land needs. As a result, William can only watch helplessly as the matters careen out of control after the king’s death, until he at last takes the opportunity to go back to his home.

The novel is largely framed as a flashback as William lies dying in his home in England. Indeed, some of the most moving moments of the novel occur as he confronts the fact that he must soon leave behind his earthly responsibilities, and it is clear that William truly loves his wife, the woman with whom he has built a life. However, he holds a secret from her–one that has to do with the Templar silks of the title–that will stain their last hours together. Passionate, headstrong, and deeply honourable, Marshall emerges from the novel as a man that you can definitely cheer for. He’s not perfect by any means, but is still a man who does everything he possibly can to protect those that he loves.

Chadwick has a keen eye for physical and atmospheric detail, and I really felt myself immersed in the beautiful but deadly world of the Middle Ages. I was particularly impressed with her ability to draw out the small details that make a novel truly shine: the rich, loving relationship between Willim and his younger brother Ancel; the smells and tastes of a different world; the small dog (named Pilgrim) that joins William and his company on their journey to the Holy Land.

All in all, Templar Silk is a poignant and exquisite exploration of the power of one important man’s attempt to make sense of his life. This is highly recommended for anyone who loves the medieval period, as well as for those who love their historical fiction leavened with equal doses of politics and passion.

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!

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: “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: “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!