Author Archives: roseofthewest

About roseofthewest

Anglophile Extraordinaire. My philosophy is: There is nothing that can't be fixed with Jane Austen, a cup of tea, and a little afternoon rain.

Book Review of Queens of the Conquest

Queens of the Conquest

Medieval times–we might think of the “Dark Ages,” primitive torture devices, a lack of medicine, a time of legends. The more I read and learn about this time period, the more amazed I am at the complexity of people’s lives, the drama and tragedy that wove together to become a colorful tapestry of a history that I never learned much about in school. In Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens, published in September, Alison Weir looks deeply into these times, bringing the lives of these English queens to light: Matilda of Flanders, Matilda of Scotland, Adeliza of Louvain, Matilda of Boulogne, and Empress Maud.

As an avid reader, I love delving in a satisfying classic novel or historical fiction. When I was a child, I had books upon books about Queen Elizabeth I, finding some kind of affinity with this woman who reigned over four centuries ago. Now that I’m older, I find it hard to find time to get non-academic reading done, and when I do, I tend to turn to a good novel (usually under 300 pages). So a bulky 500-page history book is not my go-to read.

But when I picked up Queens of the Conquest, I was surprised how un-stuffy a read it is. I ended up loving the narrative voice, as it gives enough context and characterization to provide readers with an idea of the historical significance and a picture of the specific events. Besides using narrative and characterization, Weir takes a step back to provide a bigger picture:

“Queens were the gentler face of monarchy, exercising a civilizing influence on their husbands,

Matilda of Flanders

protecting their joint interests, taking compassion on the poor, the sick, widows, orphans, and those in prison. They were applauded when they used their feminine instincts to intercede with the King in favor of those facing a harsh fate, thus enabling him to rescind a decision without losing face. Many instances of queens using their influence probably went largely unrecorded . . . If she interceded with her husband it was usually in private . . . The medieval ideal of queenship constrained her to a role that was essentially decorous, symbolic and dynastic. She was to be beautiful–officially, even if not in actuality–devout, fertile and kind: the traditional good queen.” (76-77).

These women did not outwardly take a central role in the happenings of political life, and yet they were at the center of the action. It is fascinating to read about who they were and about their influence on historical events.

Queens of the Conquest is the first book in a new series by Alison Weir about the Middle Ages. There are to be three more books in this series, all presenting the history of Medieval British queens. As you might know, I’m a fan of literature that brings back the stories of women whom history has all but forgotten. So it’s very exciting that this series will be calling attention to women we might not know much about, even though their male counterparts are quite famous in the annals of history (think William the Conqueror).

Adeliza of Louvain

If you enjoy reading historical fiction about past royalty with all its drama and intrigue, then reading this non-fiction history is sure to bring you even closer to the truth of how dramatic and complex the lives of these women were. Think arranged marriages, wars, and rivalries. Everything one needs for a good story, right?

While this book can be termed “popular history” in that it present true events with narrative and storytelling, it maintains a historical credibility throughout with extensive appendix notes, maps, genealogy charts, and a glossary of British terms. I have not had the chance to read this all the way through (due to my heavy class load), but I do like having this on my shelf to reference and dig into when I get the chance.  

You can purchase Queens of the Conquest here.

Check out Alison Weir’s website here for news and updates.

Thank you to Ballantine Books for providing this book for review!

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Dark Angel Review

If you think PBS Masterpiece is just about duchesses and romance and afternoon tea, then think again. Dark Angel is their newest release, starring Joanne Froggatt (our favorite ladies’ maid Anna from Downton Abbey) who plays a completely different character in this short two-episode piece. Directed by Brian Percival (known for his work on Downton Abbey and for directing North & South), Dark Angel introduces us to Mary Ann, a woman from County Durham in the north of England. At first, the story seems to be one of a struggling family, trying to make ends meet with too many children to feed, and though Mary Ann and her husband have seen hard times, they seem like they can make it work. But sooner than one would expect, the story spirals into darkness as Mary Ann strives (in a very unconventional way) against her dismal lot in life. If you didn’t know already, Mary Ann is the infamous Mary Ann Cotton, a true-story serial killer known for poisoning her (multiple) husbands and children with arsenic.

I told you it wasn’t Downton Abbey.

Mary Ann Cotton – Image in Public Domain

Dark Angel tries to get a personal angle on Mary Ann. What motivated her? Why would she kill so many of her family? The obvious answer would be money: Mary Ann received the life insurance money from each of her dead husbands. But was that her only motivation? In Dark Angel, we see a woman who has little choice in her life and for her body. She does not seem to want children, yet she is always pregnant. Because of this, she is tied down at home and unable to break out from poverty. As her mother tells her, “it’s just how life is for women.” She’s lonely, overworked, and has no control over her own life. Unfortunately, instead of making things work and finding other ways to vent, she tries to escape by getting rid of the people she thinks are in her way. Even when we feel connected to her as a character (or maybe, because of this), it is still shocking to watch her get the arsenic out of the cabinet and spoon it into her victim’s tea like a bit of sugar. 

Because it is only a two-episode mini series, the events of Mary Ann’s life are very compacted into the limited time of Dark Angel. I felt a little rushed watching it, and I couldn’t process one event in time before something else happened on screen. It felt like the narrative time passed too quickly, and Mary Ann’s many children were born and died (from sickness? or poison?) too fast. I would have liked to see more of Mary Ann’s husbands and children, but perhaps the filmmakers were trying to keep the focus on this woman who quickly unraveled into a murderer.

That said, Dark Angel is an interesting look into Mary Ann Cotton’s life, how she might have felt and what she was looking for. As the PBS press release worded so well: “Female serial killers are so rare that criminologists continue to debate what makes them tick. Is it a thirst for power, a desire for material gain, or a sadistic delight in undermining gender stereotypes when they ask, ‘Why don’t I make you a nice cup of tea?’”

Dark Angel is available now on DVD from PBS!

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#BronteGiveaway Winner

Congratulations, Daniel M! You are the winner of the DVD To Walk Invisible: The Bronte Sisters! Look out for a message in your inbox. We hope you enjoy!

Thank you to everyone for participating in the giveaway! It’s been a lot of fun :) If you didn’t win this time, you can still watch the film by shopping at PBS.

And look out for another giveaway coming your way soon. More on that later!

Cheers!

 

 

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To Walk Invisible – Review & Giveaway!

“I think if a good fairy were to offer me the choice of a gift, I would say—grant me the power to walk invisible.” ~ Charlotte Brontë

Four children – three sisters and a brother – run around their little house, fiery halos of imagination hovering over their heads. They gather around a box of toy soldiers come alive, telling each other stories about the tiny men. They are full of inspiration and hope.

This is how the latest PBS Masterpiece, To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters, begins. Coming to DVD and Blu-Ray April 11, 2017, this two-part film explores a three-year time period in the lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë, telling the story of how they became published under male pseudonyms, writing some of the most popular works of their time, books that continue as classics today.

To Walk Invisible - Bronte Sisters

The Bronte Sisters – Image Copyright: To Walk Invisible _15 – “To Walk Invisible: BBC/Michael Prince 2016”

I imagine many of you are familiar with the heart wrenching romance of Jane Eyre and the tragedy of Wuthering Heights and maybe even Agnes Grey; perhaps you’ve always wondered about the sister authors who developed such powerful narratives. The Brontë sisters lived short, sorrowful, isolated lives, yet they created some of our favorite stories: tales of lost love and madness and loneliness, stories that reflected the world as seen by these sisters from Northern England.

To Walk Invisible reveals how Charlotte, Emily, and Anne always made up stories together for fun, but as they got older, they realized that publishing might be their only chance to provide for themselves (as unmarried women) in case their elderly father died. “This is what we’ve done all our lives – we’ve lived in our heads,” says Anne. The sisters are shown as writing almost constantly, often together at a table. Their silence as they write hides the passion of their words. As Anne says, “I’m never more alive than when I write.”

 

To Walk Invisible - Charlotte Bronte

Charlotte Bronte, played by Finn Atkins – Image Copyright: To Walk Invisible_53 – “To Walk Invisible: BBC/Michael Prince 2016”

This contrast of exterior peace and internal turmoil is a strong theme throughout the film. The sisters lead quiet lives, but we see how angry and sorrowful they feel as they recall the death of two other sisters and as they worry over their brother Branwell. A poet himself, Branwell never seemd to find his place in the world. The film provides some explanation for this (growing up with too many expectations and losing a woman he loved), letting Branwell be the voice of passion that perhaps his sisters feel and express only in their work. He rants and raves around the house in frustration, eventually succumbing to alcohol and drug addiction, growing deathly ill. His narrative works as a mirror or contrast to that of his sisters. They feel frustrated with him, but ultimately love and want to take care of him as all of the siblings have grown up together with the same trials and loss.

 

The Brontë sisters are not only struggling with a broken family, but also against the social hindrances toward women of the time. They come up with ambiguous pseudonyms (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell) in order to overcome male bias in the publishing industry. Even when they do get published, they must keep their identities secret or risk their reputations. What they see as presenting the truth of reality in their novels, the world sees as vulgar or unfeminine. A satisfying moment comes when the publisher finally meets them, completely surprised at their gender and genius. As Emily puts it, “When a man writes something, it’s what he’s written that’s judged. When a woman writes something, it’s her who’s judged.”

To Walk Invisible - Emily Bronte

Emily Bronte, played by Chloe Pirrie, Image Copyright – To Walk Invisible_41 – “To Walk Invisible: BBC/Matt Squire 2016”

 

One of my favorite aspects of the film is the scenery from Yorkshire. The film was created in their own countryside, and many shots scan over the gorgeous gold and green landscape. As I was watching, I kept thinking about the windswept moors from Wuthering Heights.

I won’t spoil the ending for you all, but I will suggest having the tissues close to hand! The Brontës didn’t have easy, carefree lives, but they did their best to share their view of the world through their writing in a time when many women’s voices went unheard. As the passionate Emily Brontë wrote: “No coward soul is mine.”

To Walk Invisible - Emily and Anne Bronte

Emily with Anne, played by Charlie Murphy – Image Copyright: To Walk Invisible_36 – “To Walk Invisible: BBC/Matt Squire 2016”

 

And now… what you’ve all been waiting for… it’s giveaway time! PBS Distribution has graciously given us one DVD copy of To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters! And if you aren’t the lucky winner this time around, the DVD and Blu-ray will be available for purchase on April 11 at www.shoppbs.orgTo Walk Invisible - Box Art

To enter the giveaway, just leave a comment below (be sure to link contact information or include some way for me to reach you in case you win! It’s easier if you sign in with Twitter or Facebook.) and/or post on Twitter using the hashtag #brontegiveaway and @roseofthewest. By leaving a comment on this post or on Twitter, you are agreeing to the following rules:

OFFICIAL RULES

  • No purchase necessary
  • One entry per person. An entry is a comment on this post. An additional entry is granted by posting a comment on Twitter with the hashtag #brontegiveaway and @roseofthewest
  • Entrants must be 18 years old or older and residents of the U.S.
  • Giveaway entries will be accepted from Sunday, April 2, 2017 until 11:59 p.m. Sunday, April 16, 2017.
  • 1 randomly selected winner will win the DVD version of To Walk Invisible: The Brontë Sisters. The run time of this program is approximately 120 minutes on 1 disc. The DVD SRP is $29.99.
  • 1 winner will be selected at random from the comment section on this post and the comments on Twitter. Only comments received before 11:59 p.m. Sunday, April 16, 2017 will be entered. Winners will be announced Monday, April 17, 2017. Winners will have one week to claim prize.
  • Prizes can only be shipped to addresses in the U.S.
  • The number of eligible entries received determines the odds of winning
  • By entering giveaway, you are submitting the right to access your name for the winning entries as well as for use in a post revealing winners
  • If potential winner forfeits or does not claim prize, prize will be re-awarded in Sponsor’s sole discretion
  • Neither Rose West nor PBS Distribution is liable for any negative impacts as a result of the prize or giveaway
  • Prize is provided by PBS Distribution
  • Giveaway is regulated in the state of Michigan
  • Void where prohibited by law

Don’t forget to share this post with your British-loving friends. Follow me on Twitter for Giveaway updates!

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Becoming Queen Victoria – Book Review

The Victorian Era was a pivotal moment in time for British culture, and as we all know, Queen Victoria, was at the center of this changing world. Her ascension to the throne of England followed the tumultuous time of revolutionary democracy in America and France, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, population growth, as well as uprising and unrest. Victoria herself inherited her rule from a lineage of failed kings: George III who lost the American colonies and eventually his sanity, George IV who lost his relationship with his wife as well as his daughter Charlotte who died in childbirth, and William IV who was unable to produce a surviving legitimate heir. Into this disrupted world and dysfunctional family, Victoria rose as queen at the age of eighteen, a young woman leading her world into a new era of progress.

becoming-queen-victoria

Last year, Ballantine Books released a new paperback edition of Kate Williams’ 2008 history Becoming Queen Victoria: The Unexpected Rise of Britain’s Greatest Monarch. With the feel of a smart historical novel, this biography of Victoria takes a broad view of historical context while simultaneously incorporating intricate behind-the-scenes details of Victoria’s family and personal life. It’s a fascinating read, especially if you (like me) having been watching the recent rendition of Victoria’s life on PBS Masterpiece and love the intrigue and drama of the royal family.

Interesting enough, instead of jumping right to the birth of Victoria, the book begins with a lengthy section detailing Victoria’s predecessors in the Hanoverian line, specifically the Princess Charlotte, who would have been queen if she had not died in childbirth. As Williams writes, Charlotte was Britain’s “perfect princess: sweet, reserved, possessed of a kind heart, and entirely unlike her self-centered father” (54). England was ready for a queen after too many terrible kings. Alas, Charlotte was only a shadow of the future queen.

Aside from Charlotte, the Hanover family was dysfunctional: full of alcoholism, affairs, unhappy arranged marriages, wasteful spending, and massive debt. Not to mention King George III, who eventually became so mentally ill that he had to be locked up in the last years of his life. George III’s many children had failed the dynasty, marrying against the will of the state and producing only illegitimate children. Until the birth of Charlotte, of course. And when Charlotte married and became pregnant, it seemed like the line would definitely continue. But tragedy struck, and the line was cut off.

This is the family background Williams sets up in the first 150 pages. At first this seemed strange, given that I expected the book to be solely about Victoria. But reading through the drama and tragedy of the Hanovers gave the desired effect: it was refreshing to dip into the section about Victoria. Before, the text submerged me in too many names and too many tragedies, but then, Victoria was born and the air cleared, and I felt relief just as the British people must have felt as their monarchy was finally stabilized over the rest of the 19th century.

 

The rest of the book then dives into Victoria’s life from infancy, concentrating on her young adulthood and early reign. Born into such a family, she definitely had an unusual upbringing: “The little girl was treated like a queen from the very beginning. A footman in splendid livery accompanied her wherever she went, and servants bowed subserviently when she trotted along the corridor” (174). From the moment she was born, her destiny was laid out for her in every way.

 

Unlike some histories I’ve read, this book does not get bogged down in dry facts. Never losing sight of her research, Williams provides beautiful visual details about people and setting and history, filling in the gaps when necessary: “She went to the robing room, where she donned a long red mantle lined with ermine . . . she walked, dazzled, into the abbey. There, in the interior that had been newly decorated with crimson and gold hangings and tapestries, the floors covered with oriental carpets . . . The queen herself looked charming. Lord Melbourne declared her floating on a silver cloud, a vision perhaps intensified by the quantities of laudanum he had consumed” (299).

But Williams doesn’t rely on primary sources and narrative alone: she incorporates poetry from Shelley and Byron, detailed descriptions of political cartoons from the time, as well as diary entries and letters from Victoria and her counterparts. These with the paintings and images in the center of the book combine to lend a complex look at Victoria’s world and what she was up against.

 

Historical Importance

Why study Queen Victoria anyway? Is it just to revel in more sedately British intrigue? Or to dream about a splendid royal life? I would argue that understanding the beginnings of Victoria, not only help us to understand the life of this queen, but also give us a look at an important moment in world history.

Reading Victoria’s story, I couldn’t help but meditate on the irony of it all. In the midst of a dysfunctional, directionless family, Victoria is born, coming to rule England as well as raise a seemingly happy family of nine children. However, the irony doesn’t end there. We think of the Victorians as prudish, restricting women to domestic spheres, yet Victoria as a woman was arguably the most influential leader of her time. I can’t help wonder what she truly thought about women’s rights (perhaps this would make an interesting deeper study). Also, Victoria is well-known as one of Britain’s greatest monarchs, yet under her reign, the British Empire expanded across the globe, colonizing and destroying many non-Western cultures, leading to war and conflict that continues today in our post-colonial time.

Studying Victoria’s place in this broader history, then, is important. Perhaps by understanding a little more about the time and family in which she was born gives a better idea of who she was as a woman and queen, helping us understand the state of our current world a little better.

About the Author

Writer and historian Kate Williams studied at Oxford and writes about world-changing leaders and royalty. Check out her website here!

Thanks to Ballantine Books and Penguin Random House for providing a copy of the book for review!

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Book Review of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

Quiet country village. Rolling hills. Grazing sheep in pastures. Singing choir and church bells resounding out of the parish church.

Sound familiar? It’s the setting for many of the British stories that we love. Except this time, the story takes place during World War II, when most of the men in the community have left for battle, leaving the women at home to fend for themselvthe-chilbury-ladies-choir-jacket-252x380es.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan is a fast-paced story about a group of women who sing together, but it is more than that: the women are individuals who suffer, worry, and triumph through their separate experiences. One of the things that I find the most interesting about this book is this idea of the converse narrative. Most history book stories about WWII revolve around male narratives: men training, men fighting, men dying, men returning home. But a lot of the time (at least in the history I studied as a child), the female narrative is glossed over or left out entirely. Not so, in this book. Although it is a fictional narrative, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir reconstructs a female history of the war, covering the stories of many women of different ages, personalities, and social statuses. Put together, the book shines a light on the complexity of women’s lives during war time in the U.K. Jennifer Ryan does a good job of crafting a unique voice for each character, making it easy to follow along.

 

As a story of many stories, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is made of the narrations of many women through the form of letters and diaries. This not only makes the text easy to read, but also allows each woman to speak in her own voice.And voice is important in this story. 1940s Chilbury seems to be a culture in which women are supposed to be silent, or at least quiet, but these women sing to show their power and togetherness.

So here’s the gist (I will try to avoid too many spoilers):

The Setup

World War II. England. Most of the men (at least the young ones) are gone to the Continent to fight the advancing German army. Meanwhile, in the small village of Chilbury, the vicar wants to close down the community choir because there aren’t enough male voices to keep it going. Through the instigation of a female music teacher, the women of the village step outside the norm to create an all-female choir.

The Ladies

Mrs. Tilling is a widow who lives alone now that her son David has gone to France. Being alone makes her ruminate on the danger her son faces. She’s quiet, known as a “do-gooder,” and can be a little curious about other people’s lives. As a nurse, she helps out when the army retreats from Dunkirk, gaining a close-up encounter with the fatalities of war. When she has to take in a seemingly cranky colonel under billeting, her internal world starts to come undone.

Edwina Paltry is something of an outsider. She claims to be a midwife and seeks to boost her clientele (and pocketbook) in the village. Edwina gives us a look at the hierarchical social class of the village, as she represents someone without property. Wanting to retake her childhood home where she dreams of living with her sister, she is willing to do whatever it takes to save up enough money to return. I won’t reveal too much, but let’s just say that it has something to do with baby-swapping.

Kitty Winthrop is thirteen years old but sees herself as much older than she is. She serves as an observing lens to the rest of the community because she’s a bit ignored. However, Kitty’s view of the world is a little skewed as she imagines things to be more than they are in reality: for example, a “proposal” by a handsome young man. At first, I was a little confused by Kitty’s section as the descriptions seemed extravagant and overdone, but once I realized her voice as a dramatic teen, it made sense, reminding me of my own diary at that age.

Venetia Winthrop is Kitty’s older sister at eighteen years old. She is rather a flirt, and likes the attention of the young men of the village (most of whom have now joined the army or air force). With all the young men gone, Venetia turns her attention to Mr. Alastair Slater, a mysterious artist who doesn’t reveal too much about his past. Venetia finds a satisfying independence in spending time with him, but if her father knew what she was up to, he might think it was a bit too much time.

Silvie is a little Jewish girl who has come to live with the Winthrops after escaping the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. As an evacuee, she left behind her family and all her belongings. She’s very quiet both in life, and in the narrative, but her character adds to the depth of female experience in Great Britain at the time.

Other characters include Prim, the inspiring choir leader; Elsie, the maid who knows too much; and Mrs. B who has the negativity of a Debbie Downer and the forceful stubbornness of Mrs. Rachel Lynde.

dover_white_cliffs
The White Cliffs of Dover, near where the soldiers returned – Photo Credit: Ad Meskins / Wikimedia Commons

At times, because of its simply styled language and dialogue-driven plot, this book reads like a British miniseries, which was appealing to me, lover of the BBC. I’ve heard the television rights have been picked up by Carnival TV, so here’s to hoping it does get made.

I read this at a fitting time, I think, since I’ve been watching Land Girls,  a TV show about women working for the British Women’s Land Army to produce food during WWII, and I just re-watched Atonement, one of my favorites, a film that connects the war to themes of family, love, and the power of words. So altogether, WWII has been on my mind, especially the non-battle stories of people who remained at home and fought metaphorical battles of their own.

Reading stories of hope and cooperation in the midst of danger and uncertainty is uplifting in times such as ours. As Mrs. Tilling writes in her journal: “Then we were in our own little worlds, with our own problems, and then suddenly they seemed to dissolve, and we realized that it’s us here now, living through this, supporting each other.”

Order your copy of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir (released on February 14, 2017) here.Thank you to The Crown Publishing Group and Penguin Random House for providing this book for review.

 

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Missing Downton Abbey

Dear Downton Abbey,

I miss you. This is the first winter in six years that you are not waiting on the other side of Christmas to cheer up my dreary post-sunshine days. I will have to  find another justification for my blanket-wrapped, Biscoff binge-eating evenings (but between us, you are still my favorite). There are and will be other British television series to watch, but I will always remember you. I miss Anna and her patience, Carson and his dignity, Sybil and her daring, the Dowager Countess and her tartness. (sometimes, I even miss you, Thomas.) They say all good things must come to an end, but I don’t see why. Maybe someday, I will be able to visit Highclere Castle in Berkshire to see what you all are up to. Tea time, probably.

Cheers,

Rose

highclere_castle_april_2011

Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey) image credit: Richard Munckton

For those of you also interested in visiting the locations from Downton Abbey, this is an amazing interactive map produced by Wayfair.co.uk :

I like clicking on each location to see the photo of what it looks like “out of costume.” As you can see, the show was filmed all over England and even Scotland, from Basildon Park to Byfleet Manor to Inveraray Castle. I don’t know about you, but I am already mentally planning a Downton themed vacation….

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