Becoming Queen by Kate Williams

This is not the book that I expected it to be – it’s more in some ways but less in others.

The title, the image on the front cover, the words on the back cover – they all suggest that this is a book about the early years and the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria. And it is, but there’s a great deal of ground to cover before the story gets there, because this story goes much further back.

It tells the story of two young women who might have been Queen. Each was her presumptive to the British throne, each seemed likely to ascend to that throne, but only one of them did. And she was only born because the other did not.

It’s an amazing true story – or it might be truer to say a series of stories – very well told, in a style that is both chatty and informative. It’s clear that the storyteller knows and loves her subject, and that she is eager to share what she knows.

2785115Princess Charlotte of Wales was born in 1796 to Prince George – later Prince Regent, later George IV – and his wife, Princess Caroline of Brunswick. Although her parents adored her, they detested one another and used her as a weapon in their squabbles. She had a lonely childhood, surrounded by governesses and servants but seeing few other children, and seeing her parents very rarely.

And athough it was apparent early on that she might become Queen of England, she was given little education or preparation for the role she was expected to be called upon to play.

Charlotte was born into an age when the large, profligate royal family was poorly regarded by its subjects. But she was popular; the hope of not just the masses but also those of the upper class who saw the desperate need for reform. Her dissolute, spendthrift father  hated that, and so he did his level best to keep her away from the public gaze, shut up in a grand mansion run by his own trusted servants. .

She grew up to be spoiled and wilful; but she also grew up to be vibrant, energetic, and very good at managing people.

When her father tried to marry her off to the unattractive and unappealing Prince of Orange she finally rebelled. Charlotte made some missteps, but eventually she turned to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, who she described as  “a good tempered man with good sence, with whom I could have a reasonable hope of being less unhappy & comfortless than I have been in a single state.”

Charlotte was eager to escape from her father’s tyranny, and her father was eager to marry her off to a foreign prince and hopefully get her out of England for at least part of each year.

The young couple were married on May 2, 1816, and then moved into their Surrey estate, Claremont House, where for the first time in her life Charlotte was secure and happy. Very soon she was expecting a child.

On November 5, 1817, after nearly three days of labour, Charlotte gave birth to a stillborn boy. The next day, she followed him to the grave.

Public grief was overwhelming. And after the Prince Regent and his six brothers, there was no heir to the throne. George  III had ore than fifty grandchildren, but not one was legitimate.

Charlotte’s death set off an unseemly rush to the altar by several the of the sons of George III. Mistresses and morganic  wives were cast aside. The Duke of Kent, a lifelong military man,  set out to court Prince Leopold’s widowed sister, Victoire. They married in 1818, and barely nine months later, the duchess gave birth to a girl, who would be named Alexandrina Victoria.

The Duke died before his daughter was a year old.

Her mother kept her close, and kept her away from the world, determined that she would reign as her daughter’s regent.

William IV – her uncle, who had come to the throne after the death of George IV – steeled himself to live long enough for his niece to come of age, so that she could rule without a regent.

And her widowed uncle, Prince Leopold, who later became King of the Belgians, remained close to his sister and niece; and he spent years groomed his young nephew, Price Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, for the role that Leopold himself had hoped to assume – Prince Consort to the Queen of England.

That story rolls on until Victoria is a wife and mother and twenty-two years old – the age that Charlotte was when she died.

The telling of this whole extraordinary story is wonderful; it’s full of detail and it is clearly underpinned by a great deal of research.

I loved that it made history a very human story.

But I was disappointed that it didn’t highlight the parallels between Charlotte and Victoria, and that the author seemed more interested in comparisons with the present day. I was disappointed with that lack of analysis generally, and that momentum of the story overtook almost everything else.

I was left to do all of my own thinking, and I loved doing that but I couldn’t help thinking that I shouldn’t have had to do quite so muc hwork.

And yet I was engaged from start to finish by a story I already knew; I had a lovely time reading, and I am eager to read more about many people and events that this books touched upon.

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

I’m so pleased that I picked up my 100 Years of Books project and began again.

I’ve read two and a half books since my last update; I’ve rediscovered the joy of digging up books to fit difficult years; and I already have ten ore books to present to you, because I found a good number of books to match up with years that needed them from my reading in the time between putting down and picking up this project.

Here they are:

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1853 – Bleak House by Charles Dickens

“The stories told by the two narrator overlap and characters move between them. The story of the consequences of the chancery suit and the story of the illegitimate child, a story that had been buried but will be disinterred, work together beautifully, although they are linked only by a small number of characters who are involved in both. I loved the diverse elements, I loved the wealth of detail; and although I can’t sum up the plot and the relationship I had no problem at all understanding all of the implications, and I was always intrigued.”

1878 – Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“I might have loved Anna if I had met her when I was younger, but I am afraid that I found her infuriating. I loved her spirit, I loved her vitality, but I could not accept that she was so oblivious to anyone else’s feelings and while it might be wonderful to want everything – to live with your lover, to have your child with you always, to hold a high position in society – it is not always possible to have everything you want; life sometimes demands compromises.”

1884 – Jill by Amy Dillwyn

“Jill was the much loved daughter of a prosperous squire, but her life changed when her mother died and when a gold-digger succeeding in luring her father to the altar. She hated her step-mother’s new regime, especially when she realised she wouldn’t be allowed to come out until her two step-sisters had been found husbands. That was why she decided to run away and to earn her own living in London.”

1887 – The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

“The Canterville Ghost haunted Canterville Chase for more than three hundred years, but things changed when his home was sold to an American family. Lubricating oil was proffered when he clanked his chains, detergents were deployed when he left bloodstains, and young children aimed their peashooters whenever they caught sight of him. He deployed every trick he had in his armoury, but nothing worked. One final, desperate act had unexpected consequences, and led to exactly the right ending. There’s so much here – gentle but knowing satire of English and American attitudes, real pathos in the plight of the ghost, and a lovely thread of romance – it all works together beautifully.”

 1893 – In the Vine Country by Somerville & Ross

“There is much to be enjoyed here: accounts of travel by train and by boat; observations of people, places and so many things that the ladies see long the way;  time spent at vineyards, where they saw the harvest and the treading of the grapes; visits to chateaux, where they were most impressed by the great barrels that lay maturing. Along the way they sketched, and they were very proud of their Kodak wherever they went.”

1895 – The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler

“It’s heart-breaking, watching two grown-ups – three when the governess arrives – getting things so terribly wrong. Thank goodness that the children had each other, that they were resilient, that in their innocence it didn’t occur to them that anyone could ever have anything other than good intentions, however inexplicable their actions might be. I couldn’t help thinking how wonderful their lives might have been in the hands of the right grown-up; somebody with the wisdom to gently guide them, to tactfully explain things, to understand the magic of childish imagination and play.”

1912 – Alexander’s Bridge by Willa Cather

“I must confess that I didn’t really remember ‘Alexander’s Bridge’, Willa Cather’s first novel, from 1912; but I did remember that she hadn’t written a book that she didn’t like. Now that I’ve read it again I have to sat that it isn’t her finest work. The story is a little underdeveloped, a little contrived; the writing, though lovely, is sometimes a little less than subtle. But it is a very accomplished and very readable first novel. Her understanding of character, her skill in evoking places was there; I could see so many signs of the fine novelist she would quickly become.”

1915 – I Pose by Stella Benson

“At the beginning I felt that Stella Bowen was presenting a puppet show; later I felt that she was staging a production at the theatre, but by the end of the story I had been drawn into a very human story. It was a story that explored the relationship between the poses we present to the world and our real concerns in all of its complexity with wit and with such understanding. I don’t know what Stella Benson did, I don’t know how she did it, but she did it quite brilliantly.”

1937 – Enchanter’s Nightshade by Ann Bridge

“The story is of a family that has grown so big that it has become  a community, spending the summer months in the country. Days drift by as they exchange visits, go on picnics, and make trips to places of especial interest. The young are kept busy with lessons in the mornings before that are given their freedom in the afternoons and evenings. One family has a Swiss governess of many years standing who is wise and capable, and who has tactfully and effectively managed the household since the death of its mistress. Another family is awaiting the arrival of a new governess from England.”

 1938 – The Wild Geese by Bridget Boland

“Britain and Ireland were ruled by the House of Hanover, but the throne was contested by Jacobite rebels, supporters of the descendants of the deposed King James II. Catholics were repressed by their Protestant rulers: they could not own land, enter many trades and professions, educate their children in their faith, or worship as they chose. Many could not live with those laws, and this story tells of the implications of those laws for one family. It’s a story told entirely in letters.”

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The full list of what I’ve read is here and my first three 10% reports are here, here and here.

I’m well on my way to my next 10% already. It may take me a while to get there but that doesn’t matter, I’m enjoying the journey.

Modesta by G B Stern

I do wish that I could see more people reading more of G B Stern’s books.

I know that ‘The Matriarch’ is back in print, in a lovely new editions; I know that the two books about all things Austen that she wrote with Sheila Kaye-Smith still have many admirers; but she wrote so much more than that – fiction and non fiction, for adults and for children.

I can understand why she’s still relatively obscure, because she wrote a great many books, because they are wildly diverse, and because it is said that some of the are not so strong. But I haven’t found a book I haven’t liked yet, she wrote fiction with such intelligence and wit, and her multiple memoirs – where she writes of anything and everything that has captured her interest are sublime.

I was delighted to find one of her more obscure titles – a novel named ‘Modesta’ that was published in 1929.

I knew nothing about it, but when I started reading I found that I had an utterly charming  social satire, firmly built on an excellent understanding of human nature.

2010183964Modesta was an Italian peasant girl who dreamed of being an English lady. Her father was a landlord and so she was able to spend time talking to his guests, offering them charm and flattery, subtly pointing out the differences between their situation and hers; admiring their lovely things, especially the dresses, the likes of which she could only dream about; arranging  the flowers and make everything nice for them. She was always so, so busy; but she always managed to take the nice jobs and to leave the not-so-nice jobs for her sisters!

She was a minx, but I just had to love her.

Lawrence Ferrier, a wealthy and  idealistic young Englishman proposes marriage, with the chivalrous idea of granting her every wish.

At first things swimmingly

“And here she was, an English signora, Mrs. Laurence Ferrier. Modesta could not pronounce her own name, but she had visiting cards, and that was a joy.”

Modesta  had a lovely time, but she didn’t know when enough was enough.

Her husband had loved the peasant girl he had married, but he didn’t love the spoiled society woman he  turned her into. He blamed himself, and he decided that he had to do something about it.

He sent her back to Italy – alone – so she would have to stand on her own two feet!

He planned to follow her – once she had learned her lesson!

At first Modesta was shocked, but she soon decided that she liked the husband with firm opinions much more than the poor creature who had let her walk all over him; and that she enjoyed being a peasant much more than she liked being a society lady.

Her husband was happy with that – and he found that the change in lifestyle suite as him as much as it suited has wife.

The story plays out beautifully, and there’s a lovely twist at the end.

The style is warm, witty and conversational. It’s clear that the author loved the people and places she is writing about and that she was having a lovely time telling their story. Every character is clearly drawn, their dialogue is exactly right, and there’s just the right amount of detail to make the story sing without weighing it down.

Everything lives and breathes, and I loved it.

As a whole it isn’t quite perfect: there are elements that haven’t dated as well as they might have and a sub-plot involving the Ferrier family doesn’t really work.

It is a lovely light read though , with just enough serious underpinnings to stop it floating away, and I’m so pleased that I met Modesta.

The Romance of A Shop by Amy Levy

This is a lovely story of four sisters, set in Victorian London.

They are the daughters of a photographer, and when he dies and leaves them with very limited means they decide that, rather being separated to make their homes with different relations they will use what capital they have to open a shop and follow in his footsteps.

Gerty was twenty-three years old and, though she dreamed of being a writer, she was bright enough and loved her sisters enough to put her own dreams aside so that they could live and work together.

Next came Lucy, who at twenty-years old was both sensitive and sensible. She was also the sister who showed the most skill as a photographer.

Seventeen year-old Phyllis was the youngest and the prettiest of the sisters. Because of that, and because her heath was fragile, she was spoiled and she was incline to be mischievous.

Fanny was half-sister to the other three, and though she dreamed of marriage and a home of her own she knew that at thirty her chance of catching a husband had probably gone. But she willingly offered up the small legacy she had from her mother to help the new household.

Romance of a shopI liked all four, and I believed in them. Amy Levy captured their individual characters and the sisterly bonds between them.

Whenever I find four sisters in a novel I’m inclined to draw parallels with Louisa May Alcott’s March sisters. In the case of the Lorrimer sisters I saw parallels but I also saw significant points of difference; and I appreciated a nice touch late in the novel that suggested that Amy Levy was acknowledging the influence of the older author.

A photographer friend of their fathers’ made practical suggestions for the sisters’ new venture, as well as giving Lucy practical training. Family friends helped them to find suitable premises, a studio with a flat above, in Baker Street, and helped with the move and introducing potential clients too.

That was what kept them going in the difficult early days, when many potential customers were unwilling to offer work to women, or if they were willing expected to pay left. In time though they made contacts, and their professionalism and the quality of their work helped to establish them in London’s artistic circles.

‘The Romance of a Shop’ illuminates both the joys and the perils that faced independent women in London at the end of the 19th century. I learned a great deal about photography: that there was a fashion for photographing corpses; that artists wanted their work to be photographed; that many doors would be opened to the right photographer.

But there’s more to this book than photography; it balances the concerns of a new women novel with the concerns of a new woman novel very well, and there are as many ups and downs  and as many incidents in the emotional lives of the four sisters as there are in their professional lives.

Their relationships with family and old friends change. They will cross paths with a neighbouring newspaper engraver, a widowed peer of the realm, a celebrated but amoral artist …..

This is a short novel, but there’s plenty going on. Amy Levy manages her plot beautifully, and she tells her story well, in pose that is simple, clear and lovely.

I was just a little disappointed that she – and her three sisters – were rather hard on poor Fanny.

The story, and the four sisters, were always engaging though. I loved sharing their emotions and their experiences.

The ending was beautifully judged. The afterword told me what happened next, and it was exactly as I would have wanted.

I can’t say that this is a lost classic; but I can say that it is a lovely little book, and that it has something to say.

The Far Cry by Emma Smith

In September 1946  23-year-old Emma Smith set sail for India, to work as an assistant with a documentary unit making films about tea gardens in Assam. She was dazzled by India …

‘I went down the gangplank at Bombay, and India burst upon me with the force of an explosion.’

… and she wrote down as much as she could about her experiences because she so wanted to pin down the wonder of it all.

A few years later she would use what she remembered and what she wrote as the foundation for a wonderful, wonderful novel that would go on to with the James Tate Black Award for 1949

‘The Far Cry’ tells the story of 14-year old Teresa Digby. She’s an introspective and rather award child, and I think it’s fair to say that she is what her circumstances made her. When her parents’ marriage broke down her mother left her to go to America and her father left her for his sister to bring up. Teresa’s aunt wasn’t unkind, she was bringing her up as well as she could, but she lacked warmth and she lacked empathy.

When he learned that his wife was returning to England, and that she wanted to see her daughter, Mr Digby decided that he would take her to India, to visit his daughter from an earlier marriage, who was married to a tea planter. It wasn’t that he was interested in his daughter, it was just that he didn’t want his wife to have her.

He was a self-absorbed, dull-witted man who could never be the man he wanted to be or have the roles in life he wanted to play, but who would never acknowledge that, even to himself.

It’s telling that he remains Mr Digby from his first appearance to his last,

His sister knew his weaknesses, knew what he was lacking, but she believed that she had played her part and  it was time for him to play his.

“He polished off this diplomacy and his visit with a kiss that landed haphazard on the nearest part of her face, and so left. Such kisses are interesting. For it might be thought that lips which had once, so any years before given off those dark flames of roses must always at a touch bestow a scent, the merest whiff, a pot-pourri of passion. But no, nothing like it.”

The relationship between between father and daughter is awkward, they are uncomfortable with each other. They don’t know each other, they don’t particularly want to know each other. He disdained her awkwardness as she dealt with so much that was unfamiliar – getting in and out of taxis, eating in restaurants, holding on to things like gloves and tickets  – but she struggled through, and she came to realise that in attaching so much importance to such things and in not understanding how new and strange things must be for her it was her father who was lacking.

“Teresa, who had watched defeat and then recovery first line and then illuminate his face, observed the breach in his armour: he was old, and therefore weak. And she was young, with her strength growing. Age shook him as fiercely as he had yesterday shaken her in the street. Thoughtfully she ate her breakfast. That she had seen his weakness and was bound to take advantage of it was a tragedy, and a tragedy that the only alternative to his conquering her seemed to be for her to conquer him.”

When they set sail for India Teresa find a role and her confidence grows a little more. She helps with young children, and she formed a tentative friendship with Miss Spooner, an elderly spinster who was travelling to visit her sister. Her father lacks a role, and is left to worry over mosquito nets and play the occasional game of piquet.

In India though the story that had played out in London would play out again. Teresa was overwhelmed and that made her awkward, leaving his father to organise and mange their progress. He was ineffectual, and so Teresa stepped forward, with the interest in the strange new world they were encountering.

 

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of 'The Far Cry'

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘The Far Cry’

 

The early pages of this novel were an intriguing character study, so well done that even seemingly unsympathetic characters became interesting, but in India there would much more. Through Teresa’s eyes I saw the wonders of India, and I was as smitten as she was and as Emma Smith had been. She caught so many impressions so very, very well.

“Teresa’s head was full of sound and colour. Her head was a receptacle for tumbled rags of impression, rags torn from exotic garments that could never be pieced entirely together again; but the rags were better.”

The sea voyage, the journey though India, the feelings of strangers in a strange land are caught perfectly; every detail, every description feels so right.

In Assam Teresa meets the older half-sister her father adores.

Ruth is a beauty, she had been told that since she was a child, but her tragedy was that she was so caught up in presenting that image to the world, that she had lost the woman  she really was. Edwin, her husband adored her, she wanted to tell him how she really felt, but she lacked the courage to tarnish the façade she had worked so hard to create.

It’s a compelling, heart-breaking, horribly believable portrait.

The presence of her father and her half-sister unsettles Ruth’s world; Teresa didn’t realise, she was caught up with new experiences and impressions.

There was a tragedy and Ruth thought that it might offer her an escape. Maybe it did ….

Sadness and hopefulness mingle in the end of this story

There is so much that makes it special.

Smith’s prose really is gorgeous. It’s distinctive, it’s right, and the descriptions so lovely and they catch every sensation. She follows the journey and she manages the both the day-to-day and the  set pieces wonderfully well.

“Lights, no bigger than the candles on a Christmas cake, fringed every balcony, every wall, every stall, every hovel, a multitude of tiny red flames flickering alive in the huge dark night. They were still being lit: glistening haunches bent forward, hands poured a trickle of oil into saucers…The warm air was soft with sorrow. They trod among the muddy unseen ashes of the dead. Widows lay along the slushy steps, prostrate in grief, or crouched forward silently setting afloat their candles in little boats of tin the size and shape of withered leaves.”

The characters and relationships are captured beautifully; with the understanding and the empathy that they lack.

The direction that the plot takes is unpredictable; it isn’t contrived, it twists and turns as life does,

And everything works together beautifully, in this profound story of people alive in the world.

“India went on and on, on and on, as though it had no end, as though it had no beginning, as though seas and shores and other continents were only part of a feverish dream, as though this was the whole world and nothing exited beyond it; a world fat and dry on whose immense surface, far apart from one another, dwelt men and their beasts, living and dying together, generation after generation.”

10% Report: 100 Years of Books

100 Years of Books

I ditched my 100 Years of Books project when I made a new design for my reading life towards the end of last year.

I didn’t miss it at first, but in time I did, especially when other people – SimonAnnabel – I’m looking at you! – started lovely new projects!

I’ve learned that I need a project, but I also need plenty of space to read other things.

And so I’m picking up the threads again.

 100 different books by 100 different authors – 1850 to 1949!

But I’ve taken away the deadline. It’ll be done when It’s done.

If it can be done.

I’m not going to read books that I don’t want to read just to fill in missing years so I might never finish. But I think I can, if I do a little re-shuffling of books and authors along the way, so that the authors with many books can fit around the authors with not so many.

I’m going to carry on with my 10% reports every 10 books, and because I’ve read a few books from missing years since I ditched the list I’m able to say – here’s my third 10% report!

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1865 – Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope

I am so pleased to say that I have finally discovered why so many readers love Anthony Trollope. In fact, if it isn’t wrong to say so after reading just the one book, I am now one of them. I’d picked up one or two books over the years and they hadn’t quite worked. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them but I didn’t love them, they weren’t the right books; I had to find the right place to start, the right book at the right time at the right time, and this book was that book.

1867 – Cometh Up as a Flower by Rhoda Broughton

The story is simple, but it is made special by the way it is told. Nell’s voice was underpinned by excellent writing, and Rhoda Broughton’s understanding of character and her command of the story stopped this from becoming a sensation novel. It’s a very human story of love, passion, betrayal, loss …

1891 – Mona and True Love’s Reward by Mrs Georgie Sheldon

At first I thought that Mona might be a little too nice, a little too good to be interesting, but she grew into a very fine heroine. She continued to be good, but she was ready to stand up for herself, she learned to be practical and capable, and she coped well with some very tricky situations.

1903 – The Girl Behind the Keys by Tom Gallon

She was hired, she was given an advance on the salary that was far more than she had expected, and she learned that the work would be not very demanding at all. It seemed almost too good to be true. It was, and it didn’t take Miss Thorn very long at all to work out that the Secretarial Supply Syndicate was a front for a gang of criminals; con men who were ready to use any means necessary to extract money from their victims.

1910 – The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I had to love Laura. Her letter’s home were a riot. I loved that she delighted the invitations to tea that the other girls dreaded, because it gave her a chance to examine new bookshelves, and that made the fear of being called on to recite or perform fade into insignificance. I loved her joy when an older girl look her under her wing; and her outrage when she found that she had a young man.

1920 – The Adventurous Lady by J C Snaith

I was intrigued to see J C Snaith described as a ‘teller of enthralling tales.’ I had never heard of the author, and when I went to look for him I found that he was very obscure, but I found a book titled ‘The Adventurous Lady’ that promised so many things I love – a train, a governess, a country house, a play – and so I had to start reading.

1927 – Red Sky at Morning by Margaret Kennedy

William and Emily Crowne were the loveliest of children. They were attractive, they were imaginative, and they played so happily together, caught up in their own world and oblivious to the world around them. They didn’t see how jealous the Frobisher children, Trevor and Charlotte, were. They didn’t know that their father’s notoriety would follow them into their adult lives.

1928 – Grey Mask by Patricia Wenworth

Something else I particularly liked was the way Patricia Wentworth threaded serious questions – about Margaret’s life as a single woman and the choices that she made, about Margot’s vulnerability and the position she had been left in, and most of all about the consequences of not knowing our own history – through an classic golden age style mystery. The story is bold, but its author clearly understands where subtlety is required.

1935 – Four Gardens by Margery Sharp

Caroline  – the heroine of ‘Four Gardens’ – would be of the same generation as my grandmother. My mother’s mother that is; my father’s mother was a good deal younger. They were born when Queen Victoria was on the throne, near the end of her reign but not so near the end that they didn’t remember her. Their values were formed by that age, and by the Edwardian era that followed, and after that they lived through Great War and the repercussions that reverberated through the twenties, the thirties ….

1945 – Haxby’s Circus by Katharine Susannah Prichard

I read that Katharine Susannah Prichard travelled with a circus when she was researching this novel, and I think it shows. The pictures she paints of the people and their world are wonderful.

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The full list of what I’ve read is here and my first two 10% reports are here and here.

I’m well on my way to my next 10% already, but I have lots more years to fill and so recommendations – especially for the earliest years – would be very welcome.

 

The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made Britain by Dan Jones

This is a very big book and it holds: eight generations of Kings and Queens from 1120 to 1399; a period choc full of events, history and change. It says much for Dan Jones’ ability to marshal his facts and theories and his ability to spin a compelling (true) story that I flew threw the pages.

I knew the names, I had read many of the stories; but much of what I knew came from historical fiction, and I wanted a book that would help me to put things in the right order and fill in the gaps. This was definitely the right book for the job.

The narrative opens in the year 1120, with a drunken party aboard The White Ship. Amongst those present was William the Aetherling, grandson of William the Conqueror and the only legitimate son of Henry 1st. It had been intended that the ship would race from France to to England, but drunkenness had spread to the crew and the ship hit a rock and was wrecked. It was a catastrophe, there were few survivors, and William the Aetherling was not among them.

Henry I named his daughter, Matilda, as his heir, and took care to marry her to a strong and strategically positioned consort, Geoffrey of Anjou. But when the King died many of England’s nobles were unwilling to accept a Queen Regnant, making it easy for Matilda’s cousin Stephan of Blois, one of the few survivors of The White Ship, to seize the crown while Matilda was overseas, tied to her husband’s lands, awaiting the birth of a child.

the-plantagenetsThat began a long, dark and difficult period of English history that would be known as The Anarchy; a civil war with the country divided between supporters of two claimants to the throne. That conflict was only ended when, after the death of his only son, Stephen agreed to name Matilda and Geoffrey’s son, Henry as his heir.

He, as Henry II, would be England’s first Plantagenet King; inheriting the name from his father, Geoffrey, on whom it had been bestowed because he habitually wore a spring of yellow broom blossom (planta genista).

That story – from the sinking of the white ship to the accession of Henry II – is told ‘Age of Shipwreck’, the first of seven acts. It’s full of drama and colour, as are the six acts that follow.

‘Age of Empire’ charts Henry’s conquests, his troubled – and ultimately catastrophic – relationship with Thomas a Becket, and his struggles with his wife – Eleanor of Aquitaine – and their troublesome children who history would label the ‘Devil’s Brood’. And it continues with the story of Richard the Lionheart, who came to the throne in the age of the crusades and would spend his life defending and expanding the empire he inherited from his father. An empire that his youngest brother, King John, would lose.

After that ‘Age of Opposition’ follows the conflicts that led to those loses, the conflicts with King John’s nobles and churchmen that led to history’s most famous failed peace treaty – ‘Magna Carta’ It continues into the story of John’s son, Henry III, a very different King who would also be opposed by his nobles, chief among them Simon de Monfort.

The next inheritor of the throne – Edward I – changed things, casting himself as the inheritor of King Arthur; the story of his reign, his quest to steady his kingdom and rebuild an empire, and to establish the rights and obligations of Kings is told in the ‘Age of Arthur’.

‘Age of Violence’ tells of how all of that would be undone by his son – the notorious King Edward II – who seemingly failed to understand any of those obligations or any of the consequences of his actions, playing favourite with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Despenser, and setting into motion a chain of consequence that would send his wife, Queen Isabella, into the arms of rebel Roger Mortimer, and would end with them putting his son, the young Edward III on the throne in his place, as a puppet king.

The story of how Edward III broke free, brought stability to England and re-established the country as a military power with victories on land and at sea at the start of what would become The Hundred Years War is told in ‘Age of Glory’. It tells of his sons, who included his heir Edward, The Black Prince, and John of Gaunt.

The Black Prince’s early death signalled a change in England’s fortunes. The final act – ‘Age of Revolution’ charts that decline, the accession of the Black Prince’s son, Richard II, a boy King thrown into a difficult situation without any real understanding of his rights and responsibilities. That was disastrous, and his story would end when he was usurped by his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke.

That’s where this story ends. Not with the last Plantagenet King, but with a significant shift. You might say that it was the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end for The Plantagenets. It was the right place to break the story; good though it was this book was long enough.

There were so many stories, all well told, with enough colour and detail to make them live. I was left with some striking images, and their was more than enough to keep my intention through the few quieter period.

The author stated that his intention was to track how the government and the role of monarchy changed over the years, and he did that very well indeed. I was fascinated to learn much more that I’d known before about Magna Carta and to learn about acts and treaties and settlements I’d known little or nothing about. That may sound dry but it really isn’t; it grows quite naturally out of the changes and conflicts of the human drama that was being told.

But the human story was what I missed in this book. Even on a book this long you can’t have everything, but I wish there had been a little more room for many of England’s Queens and to understand a little more of what made England’s Kings the men that they were.

I could see that the author had favourites, and that there were other he had little time for. That’s understandable, but I was disappointed that there were times when there was room for different interpretation of events that wasn’t mentioned. I accept that space was a factor, but a little space could – should – have been made to allow that there are shades of grey, not just black and white.

That leave me a little worried about picking up the story in ‘The Hollow Crown’ – because their are definitely different views to be taken on the War of the Roses. But I will because there were so many more things about this book that I did appreciate.

I took what I wanted from this book; I’ve filled gaps and I have my Kings in order; it’s a starting point not an end, and it has me enthused about reading more to fill out the human stories and build my understanding of the history.