Category Archives: Books

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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Memoir Review of My History by Antonia Fraser and BOOK GIVEAWAY

London-born and Oxford-bred, Lady Antonia Fraser, queen of biography, remembers her own life in My History: A Memoir of Growing Up. With anecdotes that speak to Fraser’s love of, and later career in, biographical history, this winding journey of memory will appeal to lovers of Fraser’s work as well as Anglophiles who want to explore life in England during the 1930s and 1940s. The book follows Fraser’s memories from early childhood through her beginnings in publishing.

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up by Antonia Fraser

A magical remembering of the bells ringing in Oxford start us out in the first chapter. Not yet three years old, Fraser witnesses King George V and Queen Mary on their Silver Jubilee, standing in a tower in Oxford. Throughout her childhood she speaks of castles and ancestral haunts. With such beginnings and surroundings, who can be surprised by Fraser’s later obsession with the history of the British?

Much of the first section of the book talks about Fraser’s parents, both of whom were very passionate politically and professionally. Coming from a privileged British family, Fraser was given a front row seat to her country’s workings as both her parents were involved in the government. She tells of canvassing door-to-door in her parents behalf and working on her mother’s campaign. This was a time Fraser remembers fondly.

Lady Margaret Hall Oxford “LMH Quad” by Sarah from UK

Those who are well-read in Fraser’s work will likely not be surprised by her interest in strong, fascinating women in history, such as Marie Antoinette and Mary, Queen of Scots. This attraction to the female anecdotes of history can be seen starting in Fraser’s childhood. Reading the works of Henrietta Marshall from the young age of four, Fraser quickly gained an interest in the aged past, and especially the noted women of history. As she read about Mary, Queen of Scots, Fraser put herself in the place of the fated Queen; this speaks to her intuitive ability to connect the past with modern readers.

Perhaps another reason Fraser portrays strong female characters is because of her mother as well as her own upbringing. Watching her mother run for government and speak with passion about her beliefs perhaps inspired the daughter in her own independence and personal passion. Fraser recounts the years she spent at a school once known as a strictly boys’ school and how she felt somewhat special about being in the small number of girls present. These experiences no doubt helped build Fraser’s own character as she later made a name for herself in publishing.

Through vivid details and charming narratives, Fraser brings her own life to the realm of biography. She peruses her past with a historian’s analysis combined with a grandmother’s reminiscence. It’s as if Fraser is taking a step aside from her lifetime career of literary work to make meaning of her experience and bring it all full circle.

Those familiar with the biographies of Antonia Fraser will find her childhood background enlightening, connecting pieces of her own past to her future fascination with history. But even those for whom My History is their first book by Fraser will enjoy her personal stories, her tales of living through World War II, school at Oxford, and her growing up surrounded by British politicians. For Anglophiles, My History provides a look at an England changing from pre-war to post-war; it gives the reader glances at the streets of Oxford as well as the publishing realm during the mid-century.

My History: A Memoir of Growing Up will be published in the U.S. October 13, 2015, but you can you pre-order your copy here.

Don’t forget to enter the book giveaway below! Doubleday has provided me with 2 copies of this wonderful book for my readers, so comment away and spread the word! Just follow the link and use your email to sign in. Then leave a comment or follow me on Twitter to enter the giveaway. Be sure to submit your entry THROUGH the Rafflecopter link below. Please let me know if this is not working for you and we will work it out :)

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Other works by Antonia Fraser:

Marie Antoinette: The Journey

Wives of Henry VIII

Mary Queen of Scots

The Weaker Vessel

The Gunpowder Plot
Thank you to Nan A. Talese/Doubleday for providing a galley for review.  

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Review of “London Road: Linked Stories” by Tessa McGovern

As the end of summer simmers down and autumn approaches, you may be looking forward to some quiet afternoon reading. Just the thing for a relaxing bookfest on the sofa, London Road: Linked Stories by Tessa Smith McGovern is a group of short short stories taking place in my favorite of all places: England.

london road cover

London Road: Linked Stories by Tessa Smith McGovern

The scene opens on an unusually hot morning outside, of all places, Chorley Prison. We meet Janice Bailey, recent inmate, as she sets off on a journey to London to restart her life. All she has to go on are a few pounds and a friend’s recommendation to a halfway house in the city. Having been in prison for manslaughter in self-defense, she doubts that anyone will ever take her in or give her a shot.

This lovely group of stories is essentially about second chances. Janice has a second chance to live again, with new friends, a new job, and new purpose. With each story, we meet a new character, someone linked with the rest. All the characters have come together in the city to find a new way of life, pulling the past’s baggage along with them. We meet Mandy, known for petty theft, on probation in a literary reading group. We meet Isobel, who’s on antipsychotic drugs and has a difficult relationship with her mother. We meet women who are obsessive, afraid, lonely. What do they have in common? They all come to this boarding house in London where life throws them one more chance to stay alive and keep going.

With the montage-feeling of Love Actually. London Road is written to lift your spirits and show you the hope that follows tragedy. Each character has been through life’s worst, but by the end, they find resolution and something to help them along. I suppose this is what the title could refer to: the journey each character takes from bad to good, from hopeless to purposeful.
Because of this forward-looking perspective, I recommend this book to anyone looking for an easy, uplifting read. Each story is quite short, and the entire book could be read in an afternoon.While at times I would have like a more in-depth look at the characters’ lives, it’s good to remember that these stories are purposed as flash fiction. McGovern manages to combine good storytelling and conciseness in London Road. I especially recommend this book to my fellow Anglophiles as the book also includes references to the Queen, afternoon tea, and pubs. What’s not to like?

You can find the e-book for free or $0.99 (depending on your Amazon membership) here!

Thanks to BookTrib for providing me with London Road to review.

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The Man in a Three-Cornered Hat: A Review of Poldark

For over forty years, PBS Masterpiece has been good to us Anglophiles. As our main importer of many of BBC’s classic television series, Masterpiece has given us such memorable visual feasts as Jeeves and Wooster; Upstairs, Downstairs; Agatha Christie’s Poirot; and Sherlock. If you, like me, thought Downton Abbey was the peak of Masterpiece’s best programs, then think again. Poldark, the latest English drama to invade America, has been sending its fans indoors every Sunday night to enjoy the most recent episode. With the release of Poldark on DVD and Blu-ray this week, those of us who missed it on television can catch up. (Follow the link at the end of the post to enter my giveaway of 5 Blu-ray sets of Poldark!)

Poldark overlooking the cliffs of Cornwall  © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Poldark overlooking the cliffs of Cornwall
© ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

The Plot

Episode One opens on unusual territory for BBC: the thick woods of Colonial Virginia, 1781. We are introduced to Captain Ross Poldark (how’s that for a hero’s name?), a British soldier who seems dissatisfied with the American Revolution and his own lot in life. After two years and an injury that leaves a scar down the side of his face, Poldark returns home to his family estate in Cornwall, England. Only, neither his family nor his estate is the same as when he left.

His father having died in his absence, Poldark’s only family left are his uncle and cousins who live on an adjacent property. They at first welcome home the man they thought had died in battle, but when Poldark learns that his former love interest, Elizabeth, is now engaged to his cousin, his family relations start to decay.

If coming home to a dead father and unrequited love isn’t enough, Poldark returns to his inherited estate which has been essentially abandoned to the decay of dust and rodents. Poldark, worn down by combat and the corrosion of his entire life, works to restore his home, a difficult task considering the poverty-stricken economy Cornwall has acquired since the war. His two current servants being next to useless, Poldark does much of the work of rebuilding walls and upkeep himself. His lack of funds and food eventually drive him to seek investors in order to reopen his abandoned copper mine, in the hopes that his luck will turn.

Meanwhile, Poldark, whose local reputation is slightly less than respected, takes an interest in others who have likewise nothing to lose. He meets Demelza, a red-headed girl dressed as a boy to escape her father’s abusive supervision. Despite his inadequate money for food, Poldark takes her in as a kitchen maid and even fights off a hoard of brutish relatives when they arrive to claim her. As Poldark struggles to survive, we see him grow into his circumstances, helping those around him in his community.

The Cast

Captain Ross Poldark, played by Aidan Turner (known for his role as Kili in The Hobbit trilogy), is our complicated hero. Known as the gambler that he was in his youth,, Poldark has been changed by his experiences in the war. His life has been darkened by tragedy, and he approaches life’s uncertainty with a calm, confident demeanor. He is not just a likeable hero; he is lovable. We love him because of his determination in the face of loss, his compassion on Demelza, and (of course) his sexy, brooding charm.

Captain Ross Poldark  © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Captain Ross Poldark
© ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Elizabeth, the girl Poldark left behind, is played by Icelandic actress Heida Reed (from the film One Day). Although at first we find her attractive and pitiable (how could she know Poldark was still alive?), before long, we realize that she ties herself to her circumstances by obeying her culture’s rules of decorum and going through with the marriage to Poldark’s cousin Francis. She still feels something for Poldark, however, but this only makes matters worse when she risks reputation-damaging gossip by seeking his attention in public.

Ross Poldark with © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Ross Poldark with © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Demelza, the red-headed girl who transforms from being dirty, afraid, and dressed like a boy, into a clear-eyed, beautiful, and supportive companion to Poldark, is played by Eleanor Tomlinson, who is no stranger to English television drama, having played in The White Queen and Death Comes to Pemberley. Demelza provides a refreshing contrast to Elizabeth: she tackles life’s hardships head-on and stays by Poldark’s side no matter what. Over time Demelza comes into her own and we can quickly imagine her

Demelza  © ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Demelza
© ITV plc (ITV Global Entertainment Ltd)

Three-cornered hats off, if you please, to playwright-screenwriter Debbie Hosfield for her adaptation of Winston Graham’s novels. It’s been forty years since the first television adaptation of the series, and Hosfield, together with directors Edward Bazalgette and William McGregor, has refreshed modern television with a renewed old story.

I’d also like to note the gorgeous score by Oscar-winning composer Anne Dudley. The soaring violins run along with the dramatic views of cliffs and ocean swells, adding that extra dimension to film which deserves to be recognized in its own right. The scenery itself is absolutely breathtaking as the show was filmed on location in Cornwall. Overall, Poldark shouldn’t be missed as it captures all the elements that make a great Masterpiece!

Poldark is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from PBS Distribution. I’d like to thank PBS Distribution for providing me with the material I needed for this review.
If you would like a chance to win your very own  Blu-ray set of Poldark, enter our giveaway here. But hurry, the end date is midnight EST on Monday, July 20th!

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Father Brown and Great Expectations

The crackle of leaves at night … the breath of darkness … the hum of dreams awakening. Days have been long of late, and long in the coming. But pull through we will, we must. And though I live in the world’s “paradise”, I still find it a relief to escape to the misty bogs, the stone houses, the afternoon tea of England.

The book form of my latest Anglophile escape:

Father Brown stories by the renowned G.K. Chesterton. I’m really surprised how long it’s taken me to jump on the Chesterton wagon, and I’m glad I finally have. His witty words feel rather comforting in a embers-on-the-hearth kind of way. I confess his stories as stories aren’t as stimulating as I was expecting. When I think mystery, I think Agatha Christie. Father Brown is much more under the radar. I don’t feel shocked or excited when I read these stories, just amused, entertained, and mildly surprised.

On the screen front:

Masterpiece Theater on PBS is airing a new BBC edition of Great Expectations (by, of course, Charles Dickens). It is in two parts, and the first part is now available for viewing online at PBS. I really enjoyed this first part and wishing I could watch the second part tonight. I’ll have to wait until Sunday, but I am very impressed by this new version. The costumes – love them. The setting is gorgeous, that is, if you’re into barren wastelands covered in fog. The actors are good for the most part, though I can’t help but be annoyed by Miss Havisham’s tiny squeak for a voice. Overall, I recommend watching! But what’s this, yet another version with Helena Bonham Carter in the works? Sounds great to me.

Back to my palm trees for now…

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London, The Tempest, and The Importance of Being Earnest

One can take quite a long holiday from blog-posting, but this one has a hard time taking a break from all things British. So to catch up with myself, here are the latest confessions:

I have been reading:

London: The Autobiography by Jon E. Lewis

It amazes me how far back the history of London stretches. Yes, I know England has its own ancient history, but I didn’t realize that London had its origins 2000 years ago under the name Londinium from the occupying Romans. No wonder this city has such a strong personality. It has survived life-change from the Romans to the Anglo-Saxons to the Vikings to the Normans and so on, for centuries upon centuries.

I have been watching:

The Tempest

William Shakespeare’s play is reborn rather startingly in this modern film. Some of the elements come across as bizarre (the scenes with Ben Wishaw as a male/female spirit have a strange combination of mythology and hallucination). At first I was hesitant about Prospero being rewritten as a female, but Helen Mirren pulled off the role with that strong dignity that she can portray so well. The comic element of Alfred Molina and Russell Brand (of all people) keeps you laughing, while the romantic element left a little wanting, in my opinion. But as a whole, I rather think father William would have enjoyed it.

And while we’re on The Tempest:

Miranda and the Tempest by John William Waterhouse is a gorgeous painting, a masterpiece of the Pre-Raphaelites. It hangs from my wall, reverse-mirroring the sunny skies outside with its stormy prospects. I love it.

I have been studying:

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

And my conclusion is: Earnest never gets old, and I learn something new each time I read it. If you would care to read my thoughts on contradictory truths and Victorian society satirized, here is my article on HubPages.

And I must not forget:

Downton Abbey.

I am rewatching the first season, and haven’t seen all of the second yet, so no spoilers please! Did you know there is a current sweepstakes to win a trip to Highclere Castle, the setting for Downton Abbey? You can enter here. Alas for me, the contest is only open for residents of the 48 contiguous states. That means no Hawaii.

And so that is the thought-life in summary of this Anglophile. Cheers until next time, and drink more tea!

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