Reading

Recommended Reading

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I haven’t been able to give you much to read on the blog in recent months, struggling as I am with my novels about George IV. With so many confused and confusing characters, posts have rather fallen by the wayside. However, I wanted to recommend some excellent Georgian-themed books I’ve read recently to keep you occupied while you await my next one!

The first is Ace, King, Knave by Maria McCann. I am still thinking about this book and the characters, which is always the mark of a good read. It follows three very different characters: Sophia, the well-raised daughter of a country squire; Betsy-Ann, gypsy turned prostitute turned gin dealer; and Fortunate, a slave who seems to be anything but. On the surface these three have nothing in common, but their lives are linked by one man, Ned Hartry. By turns Ned appears as the Ace, the King and the Knave but we can’t tell what he is really up to – or indeed, who will pay the price of his games.

The real beauty of this novel is voice – McCann manages to capture a trio of distinct and compelling voices that carry the plot along. I liked the Hogarthian atmosphere and the use of historical language, however the cant was perhaps a little overdone. When it’s necessary to include a whole glossary in the back of the book to explain the historical words in the story, you can’t help feeling they should have been reduced. This was the only fault I found. Some reviews on Goodreads say that they didn’t like the end of the book, but I think it was believable with just the right mix of comeuppance and tragedy. Highly recommended.

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Next, a non-fiction, and one that has been sitting on my shelf for a while. Janice Hadlow’s The Strangest Family made me so happy with its balanced and insightful view into the lives of George III and Queen Charlotte. As you know, I’m rather hard to please on this topic! I really felt that Hadlow understood Charlotte and grasped her depression – something lacking in many other biographies. What’s more, she gave a good rounded view of George III, not trying to paint him either as a saint or a tyrant, but listing his virtues alongside explanations for his faults. A particularly helpful fact was that Hadlow chose to give an indepth summary of the events leading up to George’s birth and upbringing, something often overlooked but absolutely essential to understand the man and his actions. While I didn’t love it quite as much as Flora Fraser’s Princesses, it is one of the very best books I have read on the Hanoverians.

mary-anne-daphne-du-maurierI’m currently reading Mary Anne, a novel about the mistress of Frederick, Duke of York and Albany. I was hugely excited to start this, being a massive fan of Du Maurier. I have to say, it’s not her best and feels a little disjointed. However, there are some fantastic scenes and insights into the life of a Georgian mistress. I particularly like the part of the story dealing with the young Mary Anne, a girl whose quick wits lifted her from the streets. To fully enjoy the book, I think you need to have at least a basic grasp of the period already and the celebrities of the time. It’s more one for established Georgian fans than beginners in historical fiction.

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The Penny Heart

24378570It was perhaps inevitable that I would love Martine Bailey’s second novel, The Penny Heart. I was a huge fan of her debut, An Appetite for Violets and once again she has returned to my beloved Georgian period. What makes The Penny Heart even more exciting is the Gothic world in which it immerses the reader. In a nod to the popular novelists of the era, Bailey creates a neglected old house with dark secrets to unearth.

There are two heroines to this story. The first we meet is the indomitable Mary Jebb, a flame-haired beauty working the Manchester streets as part of a criminal gang. Alone in the world and reliant on her own resources, Mary soon realises she does not want to become a prostitute like the other poor drabs at her lodging house. Using her talent for crafting sweetmeats, she charms herself into the graces of the forger Charlie and becomes involved in his operations. However, when she is caught in a confidence trick, she soon learns that her friends are powerless to protect her. The gentleman she tried to defraud, Michael Croxon, gives a powerful testimony against her and she is sentenced to death. At the very last moment, Mary’s life is saved. But is it really a reprieve? When Mary learns she is being sent to the penal colony of Botany Bay due to a ‘shortage of women’ she begins to suspect her trials are just beginning.

When we next meet Mary, she is back home in England. With forged papers from her friends, she is trying to start a new life as a housekeeper, under the name of Peg Blissett, at Delafosse Hall. Her mistress is our second heroine, the new Mrs Grace Croxon.

I found the character of Grace compelling and extremely sympathetic. Bailey has done an excellent job of making her a woman of her time, whilst giving her just enough spirit to get the reader onside. Grace has lived a sheltered life after the death of her mother, trying to care for her drunken father. When her best friend marries and her father chases her sweetheart away, she realises the true misery of her situation. It is no surprise that when the opportunity to marry the handsome Michael comes along, with her father’s blessing, she is eager to take it. Like many women of the era, Grace is aware that Michael’s primary interest is the money she will bring to the marriage. But although she feels gauche and inexperienced in his presence, she trusts that love will come in time.

Despite these happy auspices, the union proves difficult. Grace’s marital home is the stately but dilapidated Delafosse Hall; uncomfortable, low on staff and positioned in the middle of nowhere. Local gentry do not come to call and her husband is more interested in his business and the local tavern than her company. Left alone, Grace begins to find strange rooms and stories about the house. Every detail of Delafosse is vividly created, from its winding passages to the overgrown trees that tap against the window panes. We begin to share Grace’s curiosity as she explores and gains a strange affection for the old place.

Deprived of friends, Grace becomes intimate with her servants. Peg Blissett, the confident and knowledgeable housekeeper, is just the companion Grace needs to combat her own timidity. With Peg’s help, she sets out to win her husband’s love with money, sumptuous apartments, fine food and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes. Although she succeeds, Grace begins to suspect she has been foolish and allowed her servant too much freedom. Moreover, she is not sure that Peg is altogether what she seems . . .

The narrative switches between the two women as we sense a deadly trap closing about Grace. We do not know what Peg intends, but is clear from her narration that Grace is the object of her latest fraud. . .

Peg/Mary was a fascinating and skillfully drawn character. Through flashbacks, we begin to discover what she endured in the years at Botany Bay and how she arrived home. Teased out with perfect precision, the story reveals a more tortured and yet sympathetic character with every scene. Bailey balances condemnation with a brilliant pathos that really strikes at the heart of this woman and her need for revenge. While she is by no means a nice person, Peg’s reactions are believable given the life she has endured. And perhaps it’s just me, but I couldn’t help rooting for her a little – even if her plans were evil. She is one of those characters you just love to hate.

Through Peg, we encounter a variety of Georgian cant and get a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the criminal underworld. We sit on the dirty tumbrel to the gallows, we blister beneath the Australian sun. We also have a taste of some more period recipes, which was such a great feature of An Appetite for Violets. But Peg being Peg, these recipes have a dark twist, with many intended for nefarious means and others used to cheat customers out of money.

While both Grace and Peg are wonderful characters, it is clear that only one can survive. As the story begins to unravel, the women realise how they have underestimated each other. It all comes down to a thrilling battle of wits and nerve – I literally could not put the book down for the last quarter!

I would highly recommend The Penny Heart for a historic, disturbing and wonderfully exciting read!

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The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins

9781444780499_p0_v1_s300x475Hodder and Stoughton must be my favourite publisher at the moment. Not only are they releasing books set in the Georgian era, but very good books at that! I’m currently reading Martine Bailey’s The Penny Heart and have just finished Antonia Hodgson’s The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. Both are the authors’ second books, both dark and wonderful in different ways.

I read Hodgson’s debut The Devil in the Marshalsea last year and enjoyed it. The sensory details and grim reality of life for 18th century debtors were well captured. However, something was lacking for me, and I couldn’t really put my finger on it until I read The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins. It was pizazz, something extra that kept me turning the pages and holding my breath. And the good news is, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins has this in droves.

Hawkins, a kind-hearted but fatally flawed young man, has recently won his freedom and a new girlfriend. He should be happy, but gradually he begins to slip into the old habits that landed him in debtor’s prison in the first place. What starts off as a harmless adventure soon embroils him in the world of criminal gangs in St Giles and vicious wife beaters.

Finding the lives of his loved ones at risk, Hawkins tries to wriggle out of his troubles. Yet he only puts himself in further danger. Not only does he owe a debt to the Queen, he has been wrongly accused of murder.

The victim’s family all hide dangerous secrets. But will Hawkins be able to discover them before the law catches up with him? The twists and turns just keep coming – right until the last few pages.

While the narrative is an enjoyable murder mystery in its own right, it is interspersed with present tense ‘snapshots’ of Hawkins in a cart on his way to Tyburn. For me, these little glimpses made the book extra special. They were immediate and extremely well written, driving the narrative forward and providing a hauntingly accurate account of the last journey made by so many to the ‘Tyburn tree’.

Another clever interruption to the narrative were the ‘press-cuttings’ of Hawkins’ case. We see a ballad written about his crimes and a court record of his trial. These snippets evoked the flavour of the time perfectly and came across as very authentic.

Amidst some heart-pounding action scenes and forays into the slums of St Giles, we also get a glimpse of life at the highest rank of society. I have to confess, I was a little nervous to read the parts where Queen Caroline and the King’s mistress, Henrietta Howard, featured in the book. I’m a bit of a hard customer to please when it comes to two historic figures I hold so dear. But not only was the depiction accurate, Hodgson’s portrayal of Queen Caroline was, to my mind, spot on. I even managed to guess which of the princesses Hawkins was talking to, merely from her speech, which shows what a good job was made of researching the family, despite their comparatively small bearing on the main action.

While Hawkins is not exactly my type of hero, I found myself rooting for the well-drawn characters and eager to return to the their world. A highly recommended book.

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A Grim Almanac

51c-3XBsqiL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve just finished reading another piece of Georgian non-fiction – and a rather ghoulish one at that! While A Grim Almanac of Georgian London is not for the faint-hearted, it is fascinating and I wanted to share it with you.

Since the Old Bailey records went online, we have a wealth of real crime information at our fingertips. But sometimes it can be a chore to sift through them all, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking for. A Grim Almanac of Georgian London takes the leg work out for you – all the famous and strange cases are listed in a handy ‘on this day’ format.

We tend to think of crime as a very modern phenomenon, but as these real life cases show, we are probably safer in our own time period. In a society where men could carry guns and swords around every day without comment, accidents could and did happen. Added to this were the frequent riots, duels and brawls, which went south very fast.  A fight in a Georgian pub often proved fatal.

rowlandson_thomas_theduelMore surprising, though, are the range of punishments – or lack thereof – for the guilty. While some offenses, which we would view as minor, received the pillory – a punishment that could quickly prove a death sentence when the crowds started slinging brickbats and dead cats – there were truly hideous cases of child neglect where the perpetrator was acquitted. Your sentence really did seem the luck of the draw – or jury. And in no field was this more obvious than that of domestic abuse.

Having written so much about Henrietta Howard, who spent over twenty years in an abusive marriage, I was both interested and appalled to read just how many incidents appeared in this small sample of Old Bailey cases. While men and women both suffered, as today, the female victims were the most predominant.

While writing about the abusive Charles Howard, I sometimes worried I was going over the top. I based most things he did on the accusations Henrietta leveled against him, but I did wonder if any person could be so truly dreadful to their wife. After reading A Grim Almanac of Georgian London, I have come to realise Henrietta was very lucky to survive at all. It is clear that in some poor quarters, mistreatment and starvation, along with both mental and physical abuse, were the common lot for women and children. While neighbours might pity, they hardly ever intervened. It was only when a death occurred that the abuser got into any sort of trouble.  A huge amount of the murders listed were women killed by their own husbands, and of course a few examples of vice versa. Many of the murderers were hung or branded as punishment –  a worrying amount also came off scot-free.

If anything, I have come to admire Henrietta even more after reading about these contemporary cases. She lived in this world, she knew what could happen. She knew there was little hope of legal redress for her. But through it all, she refused to be a victim. In many instances of domestic abuse, the victim can end up blaming themselves or making excuses for their abuser. It is, psychologically, very understandable. But it was not so with Henrietta. She always believed the treatment she received was disgusting and reproachful – and told her abuser roundly in an impassioned letter many years later. This takes a strength of character, and a bravery that astounds me.

100_8753.originalHowever, the Almanac is not entirely full of gory murder and upsetting abuse. There are also the wily thieves, the insane and the tricksters. One of the latter who stands out was the lady who tried to convince the world she had given birth to rabbits. While I had heard of many of these tales before, it was lovely to have them grouped together and with a good deal of detail. I would recommend this book to all Georgian enthusiasts for an intriguing glance at the underbelly of London.

 

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The Second Empress

51z+c-y1D2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve now read two books by Michelle Moran and absolutely loved both of them! She is undoubtedly an author that keeps you turning the page. Madame Tussaud enthralled me with its depiction of the French Revolution, skillfully portraying the struggle from both sides of battle line. I galloped through The Second Empress in an even shorter time and, as it handily fits into the Napoleonic era, I thought I would tell you a little bit about the book.

I was thrilled when I found out that this novel existed, and not only because it was by Moran. I had long thought that the story of Maria Lucia of Austria was just waiting for its own historic novel. This was a young woman who, despite strong personal feelings against the match, became Napoleon’s second wife to save her country. Rather than sinking into a depression or becoming obstructive, as many a princess would in her position, she actually made the marriage a success. If this wasn’t a good enough reason to admire her, she also grew up in my favourite palace, Schönbrunn.

Moran brings Maria Lucia to life masterfully. We meet her as an artistic young woman who loves her family and is being raised as the future regent for her unwell brother. Her political astuteness and strong nature are clear from the start – she wishes to be a credit to her homeland of Austria. Through her eyes, we also learn of the toll the Napoleonic wars have taken on the land and grow to understand how hated an enemy the French were at the time period. This only heightens the conflict we feel when, to get her country out of its difficulties, she is forced to leave the man she loved and become the bride of Napoleon, a man she despises. I say she is forced – I mean by her conscience. Perhaps the most inspiring thing of all is that Maria Lucia is under no compulsion from her loving father – she makes the sacrifice for her people.

Maria Lucia/Marie Louise
Maria Lucia/Marie Louise

We join Napoleon’s court as fellow newcomers, equally dazzled and appalled by its excesses. Whilst Napoleon does not come across positively in the story, his behaviour is perfectly in keeping with the accounts I have read of him. Furthermore, we must remember that Moran is portraying him through the eyes of his enemy – ancient royalty looking down on what they perceived as an upstart solider. While Maria Lucia settles into her strange marriage, well aware that Napoleon is still in love with Josephine, we meet the other narrators of the story.

Napoleon’s most scandalous sister, Pauline, takes up the tale. I found her point of view immensely fun and wonderfully disturbing to read. While at times I thought the voice sounded a little modern, Moran’s choices seem to be supported by further reading I have undertaken about Pauline. Pauline is a bold woman, wildly ambitious and the closest of all the family to Napoleon. While she is bitchy and clearly mentally unstable, it is impossible not to feel a kind of affection for her. Her obsessions with Egypt and – worryingly – her brother, push her beyond the means of her health as she strives to become a queen worthy of legend. Slyly manipulating the split between Napoleon and Josephine, she is also instantly jealous of the success of his second empress. In her distracted state of mind, she begins to think that she will one day wed Napoleon herself. We learn that this bizarre love/hate relationship between the siblings goes back a long way; in his need to be beloved, Napoleon has exiled all of his sister’s lovers. It’s all rather disturbing, but it’s fascinating to read about.

Pauline Bonaparte
Pauline Bonaparte

Our third narrator is Haitian man whose name, for the moment, is Paul. He has given up his given name, his family and his heritage to serve Pauline, While he loves her, he is able to see her faults and condemn her treatment of Maria Lucia. Through his struggles, we see the price that the conquered have paid for Napoleon’s wars. We learn of Paul’s once beloved country, laid to ruin, and his identity crisis following the move to France. While he has made a good life for himself, he is reaching the end of his patience. He cannot put up with the hollow pretense of the French court for much longer. So far, his heart has kept him in France, but as times change he begins to take on courage. Pauline with have to choose between him and her brother – a contest he rather hopes than expects to win.

Full of drama and conflict, this is a book that will appeal to most readers of historical fiction. I do not mean to imply that men cannot enjoy the story, but I feel that women would perhaps appreciate it more, bound up as it is with the intricacies of female relationships and squabbles. The beginning of the book lacked pace for me, as it was full of backstory for the three narrators. However, this soon picked up and I found myself enthralled. A must for lovers of the French court and those who want to read about women in history who have dared to defy convention.

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Life Mask

Elizabeth Farren
Elizabeth Farren

It’s time for another Georgian book review! I’ve been reading a lot lately, so I thought I would share with you my thoughts about Emma Donoghue’s Life Mask.

I was drawn to the book, not only but its eighteenth/nineteenth century setting, but the fact that one of the heroines was Elizabeth Farren. I grew interested in Elizabeth after seeing her spectacular portrait at a Thomas Lawrence exhibition. The catalogue explained that she was a famous actress who went on to become a Duchess. How could such a fairy-tale fail to capture my imagination? I was also interested to learn that Elizabeth was a great comic actress, a rival to Dora Jordan. Jordan’s long-term relationship with the Duke of Clarence, late William IV, has ensured her prolonged fame, but Elizabeth Farren has disappeared into some obscurity.

In Life Mask, Emma Donoghue brings Elizabeth to life as determined and proud character. We learn that her life was far from easy as she forged a path for herself from a poor background. Through all her trials, she is shown as guarding her hard-won reputation with jealousy. She keeps the Duke she will eventually marry at arm’s-length until he is single, defying the contemporary stereotype of actresses with loose-morals. Through Elizabeth, we get to explore the world of the eighteenth-century theater in all its bawdy glory, braving rowdy audiences and meeting some of the leading lights of the age. Donoghue shows that Elizabeth could be ruthless and was prepared to sacrifice friendships for the sake of her career. But in spite of, or perhaps because of that, I rather liked her.

Life Mask is not written entirely from Elizabeth Farren’s point of view. One of the narrators is the Duke of Derby, her future husband. His part of the story provides a fascinating insight into Georgian life and politics, especially the expectations on the Georgian man. Although Derby was caricatured for being short and ugly, his wealth and status ensured him a good position in society. He is represented as a man of his time, taking us into the bloody world of cock fights and the fast-paced arena of horse-racing. What appealed to me most about Donoghue’s portrayal of Derby was his state of flux – at once a reformer and an aristocrat, he often finds himself in a difficult position. Doggedly loyal to the Whig Charles James Fox, he is nonetheless jealous of his ancestral rights. It was interesting, from my perspective, to see the inner workings of the Whig party. After spending my time studying Pitt and George III, I got the chance to sit in the other side of the camp, where they were referred to as ‘the Eunuch’ and ‘Old Satan’. I have to say, I came to understand Fox and his party much better. Derby’s political sympathies appeal to the reader and his devotion to Elizabeth is touching. While he is shown as being somewhat harsh to his first wife and indifferent to his children, this romantic worship of an actress rather wins us to his side.

Elizabeth Farren by Anne Seymour Damer
Elizabeth Farren by Anne Seymour Damer

The star of this show, however, has to be the sculptress Anne Seymour Damer. A widow, estranged from her husband before his death, she has grown used to governing her own life. She is first introduced to us as she befriends Elizabeth and begins work on her bust for display at the Royal Academy. However, as the story progresses, we find that the Life Mask of the title is the mask that Anne is wearing, hiding her progressive attitudes from the world. Somewhat outcast by her single state and daring to enter the realm of the arts, Anne focuses her life on sculpture and friendships. Sadly, these friendships begin to fall away before distressing gossip. She has to re-evaluate all the relationships she has known and come to terms with the fact that the rumours about her could be true. Her struggle provides a wonderful exploration of the female state and sexuality in the eighteenth-century, covering such diverse topics as intense friendships through to the legal nonentity of a wife. It is only towards the end of the story that Anne is finally able to embrace what she truly is and live the life she wants, in spite of society. She is helped along in her journey by the blue-stocking Mary Berry and Horace Walpole.

I have to admit that Donoghue made rather too much use of her research in this book. I did feel like I was being hammered with facts at times. There were parts that dragged for me and, had I not been interested in the period to start with, may have made me give up reading. Much could have been edited, however the excellence of Donoghue’s writing shines through in some truly beautiful phrasing. What is more, she makes you truly interested in the lives of the people she writes about. I was keen to do my own research and find out more about the real historical figures straight after reading. I particularly enjoyed her representation of Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill. I am now very eager to visit his Gothic mansion and see some of the scenes from the book with my own eyes.

On the whole, I would say that perhaps Life Mask does not work as a novel – I would struggle to tell you the story or the plot. It meanders and does not compel you in the way a novel should. Nonetheless, it is a great piece of creative biographical writing, and one I think her subjects would be very flattered by.

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Georgian Reads 2014

Well another year is over, which means there’s a whole new calendar of books to look forward to in 2015! I’m pleased to say I’m seeing more and more releases set in the Georgian era. Here are the best I’ve read over the past year, both fiction and history. Not all of them were published in 2014, but that’s when I read them.

An Appetite for Violets – Martine Bailey

violetsLet’s start with my favourite, the amazing An Appetite for Violets. I don’t think there’s much I can say about it that wasn’t covered in my review earlier this year, but I’ll just stress that it’s a must read for historical fiction fans. The exciting news is that Martine Bailey’s next book, The Penny Heart, (also Georgian) will be out on 21 May 2015. I can’t wait!

Slammerkin – Emma Donoghue

227684Donoghue is clearly a gifted author. Her book Room was listed for the Booker Prize and her Victorian novel The Sealed Letter was additively page-turning. In my eyes, Slammerkin is her best piece of all. Telling the tale of an impoverished Georgian girl who yearns for more than her lot in life, it takes us from the slums of London through to brothels and the wilds of Monmouth. The subject matter may be too shocking for some, but it is compelling and wonderfully written. Highly recommended.

Madame Tussaud – Michelle Moran

8689913I’m cheating a bit with this one – since it’s not set in England, it’s not actually under the reign of a King George, but . . . I really loved this book. I picked it up because I wanted to know more about the famous female artist. I actually got a gripping story of the French Revolution, seen through both sides of the conflict. Horrifying, moving and beautiful in equal measures, the tale captivated me. Moran has a wonder style and I can’t wait to read The Second Empress.

The Devil in the Marshalsea – Antonia Hodgson

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I don’t read many crime/murder mystery books, so I can’t tell you if this was a good specimen of that genre. However, I found this offering by Antonia Hodgson very readable and bursting with Georgian detail. My interest in the Marshalsea was sparked by Little Dorrit, but this book tells the more brutal truth of a corrupt prison split into a master’s side and the common side, where death is all but inevitable. The characters were lively and likeable, particularly the so-called ‘devil’ Fleet. I thought it was a stand-alone when I read it, but now it appears there will be a whole Tom Hawkins series – watch this space!

Longbourn – Jo Baker

17380041It’s always going to be difficult to please die-hard fans when you meddle with a classic. Still, I enjoyed this take on Pride and Prejudice from the servants’ point of view. I think it painted an accurate picture of what life would have been like serving the Bennet household and it had some lovely descriptions of the English countryside. My favourite parts actually had nothing to do with Pride and Prejudice, so I’ll be interested to see what this author can do when not tided to another’s story.

Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England – Roy & Lesley Adkins

16158557Non-fiction this time and a real treat. Full of quotes, anecdotes and snapshots from of all walks of life, this is popular history at its highly-readable best.

London in the Eighteenth Century – Jerry White

13153303Wow. This non-fiction book is, quite simply, a masterpiece. I can’t imagine the years it took the research and write, examining every aspect of London life in great detail. While it’s great for the eighteenth-century lover, some readers may find it rather hard going and daunting due to its size. I skipped the section on architecture as it was a bit too dry for me, but the rest was amazing.

The Wideacre Trilogy – Philippa Gregory

WIDEACRE_1291585335PThe oldest of all the books mentioned here, but as I read two out of three of the trilogy during 2014 I had to give them a mention. I hugely enjoyed these dark, mystical and disturbing chronicles of a gentry family in the late 1700s to early 1800s. Some readers might find the amorality and ‘unlikeable’ heroine too unsettling, but I doubt they’ll be able to put the books down! For more, see my post Gregory and the Georgian era.

Lined up for 2015 so far I have more treats such as The Silversmith’s Wife and Ace, King, Knave. And of course my own Mistress of the Court will be out – I don’t have a date yet, but I’ll let you know.

Happy (Georgian) reading!

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Gregory and the Georgian Era

Meeting Philippa Gregory
Meeting Philippa Gregory

Here’s me meeting the lovely Philippa Gregory in July with her tour of The King’s Curse. Having read her work since I was an early teenager, I was hugely excited to get a chance to meet this best-selling author. She is one of my favourites, although I know this is not a popular opinion in the historical fiction world. People always tell me I can’t possibly like Gregory, because The Other Boleyn Girl was historically incorrect. Well yes, it was. It was also a darn good story, and the one that got me into the genre of historical fiction. Before I picked up that book, I had refused to read anything written after 1900. But I’m not here to write about the Tudor works that have made Gregory famous. I want to tell you about my favourites: her earlier works, stories made up by the author herself and set in the gorgeous Georgian era.

When I met Philippa, I gave her a copy of Queen of Bedlam as a thank you for all the inspiration her writing has provided. I will be delighted if it brings her even a fraction of the pleasure her Georgian books have brought me.

You might not associate Philippa Gregory with the Georgians, but you should. She studied 18th century literature and chose the period for her debut novel, Wideacre. As this is a blog dedicated to Georgian historical fiction, I thought I should give you a taste for Gregory’s Georgian novels. Below, I’ve provided a little summary of each one and my thoughts.

A Respectable Trade

n68145Like most women of her time, Frances Scott seeks a marriage for life-long security. But in order to achieve this, she has to stoop from the position she was born to. She finds Josiah Cole, a prosperous merchant who needs her connections. The two strike a bargain and embark on an amiable, if not loving marriage.

However, when a cargo of African slaves arrive, the politics of the family begin to shift. Frances strikes up an unlikely friendship with Mehuru, which turns her world upside down.

I absolutely loved this book. I read it so quickly and it completely absorbed me. Not only does it treat the subjects of slavery, oppression and ambition with the darkness they deserve, it provides a fascinating insight into the world of the Bristol traders. In particular I remember feeling for Josiah, who is desperate to work his way up. The twists and turns in his story had me screaming at the pages – I couldn’t believe that I didn’t see them coming.

The only thing I didn’t entirely like was the romance aspect of the book. I think it would have been more powerful, and believable, if the relationship between Frances and Mehuru had stayed as a profound friendship. The end also leaves you guessing a little, which may not appeal to everyone.

The Wideacre Triology

Three generations, one estate.

WIDEACRE_1291585335P

Wideacre

Beatrice Lacey, the darling of her father, is devoted to her home estate of Wideacre. She is at one with the land and the people upon it, but society has other plans for her. Her mother wants her to become an ‘indoor miss’ and marry. Terrified at the prospect of anything that might force her to leave Wideacre, Beatrice embarks on an increasingly desperate campaign to secure her place – at the expense of her soul.

Read if you dare! I won’t pretend Wideacre is a comfortable book. It will probably disturb you, and that’s why I like it so much. It had me turning the pages and gasping. The heroine clearly becomes mentally unstable during the course of the narrative, but while she is hard to like, you cannot help secretly rooting for her. You understand her motivations, even if you do not approve with her methods (any of them).

On a historical note, I also found Wideacre a great tale of a village and its squire in the 18th century. You gain an understanding of the farming methods and the way the labouring classes lived. I had read a lot of academic work about enclosures and wheat prices, but it took this novel to bring home to me just how much the poor suffered.

The Favoured Child

Julia is growing up on the dilapidated estate of Wideacre with her kind mother and bullying cousin Richard. Money is short and the villagers are openly hostile. Her difficult childhood is punctuated by vivid dreams that offer glimpses into both the future and the past. She cannot be sure if she has a gift, or she is going mad.

As Julia grows, she is torn between her love for her cousin and her desire to help the village. Her tentative steps toward independence meet with crushing obstacles. At last she finds two men who seem willing to further her schemes for social improvement, but Richard is not willing to let either Julia or the land go.

Julia Lacey is a very likeable character, a refreshing breath of air after Beatrice. I found her to be a realistic representation of a woman of her time, although at times that could be annoying – you really wanted her to stand up to her male cousin. Hers is a sad story, but I found it captivating. Another page-turner, though perhaps not as fast-paced as Wideacre. The visions and trances – almost akin to possession – that Julia experiences are, at times, overdone.

Once again the plight of the poor comes into fascinating focus: children abducted from the village to be apprentices, corn-riots, the back-streets of Bath. The dirty truth behind the glamour of the Georgian era is revealed in a very human way.

Meridon

The last of the trilogy and in my opinion, the best. This was a relief, as I have read so many trilogies let down by the final book!

Meridon is a gypsy orphan, keeping body and soul together by training horses for an abusive step-father. Her only comfort is her sister Dandy; a reckless, beautiful girl. At night, Meridon dreams of a place called Wide and a girl named Sarah. She vows to find the land of her dreams. Somehow, she will make life better and save her sister from a future as a whore.

The sheer scope of this story is amazing – you travel from a gypsy wagon to horse shows, Wideacre to the highest London society, balls to card-sharping dens. The story is good, but the main pull for me was the characterisation. Meridon is someone you enjoy spending time with, despite her gruff ways. She reacts in ways that ring true based on her experience. I found her a deeply sympathetic character, especially since she was so rough around the edges.

While this book refers to The Favoured Child, you don’t actually have to read the first two installments of the trilogy to understand Meridon. If you just pick one of the three, I’d make it this one.

 

An Appetite for Violets

violetsIt’s always a pleasure to read new fiction set in the Georgian era, but that delight is intensified when the story is written by a captivating new author like Martine Bailey. I was lucky enough to get chatting to Martine on Goodreads, where she told me about her upcoming Georgian release. As you can imagine, my ears perked up and I dashed to the launch party! Since this blog is the haven of Georgian historical fiction, I’d like to share my thoughts on Martine’s wonderful book, which I have just finished reading.

I have to admit that if left to my own devices, I probably wouldn’t have picked An Appetite for Violets off the shelf. The cover and the title struck me as a bit girly to start with – I couldn’t have been more wrong! This is not a twee tale of flowers and baking, but a dark mystery that explores the underbelly of Georgian life. Venereal disease, unwed mothers, a cursed jewel, slavery and poison all feature in this rich adventure across 18th century Europe.

Our heroine is Biddy Leigh, a straight-forward but kind-hearted undercook at the old estate of Mawton Hall. At the beginning of the story, Biddy’s life seems simple. She is planning to marry a local lad and save for a tavern of her own. But when the master of Mawton Hall takes a new wife, a rich young woman descends on Biddy’s world and changes it forever. Biddy’s good heart and ambition draw her deeper into her mistress’s life, until she is forced to leave all she knows behind. Stuck abroad with a secretive employer and increasingly shifty fellow-servants, she must use all her wits before she is entrapped.

Biddy has to be one of my favourite heroines to appear for a long time. Whilst hard-working and generous, she has a sharp tongue and will not be taken for a fool. She felt very realistic to me – in almost every situation, she acted as a normal person would do. Moreover, I found her a convincing representation of a rural eighteenth-century servant; keen to advance, loyal, gently mocking of the rich folk whilst envying their possessions. But the real triumph of Biddy has to be her language. As you know from my previous posts, I often struggle when historical authors use outdated words. Sometimes it seems they are just chucking them in to sound clever, or it distracts from the meaning of the sentence. Not so with Martine Bailey. Every Georgian slang word Biddy uses is clearly expressed, and is often used to marvelous comic effect. I have never seen language so lightly and skillfully interwoven into a historical character.

There are other voices in the narrative: that of Loveday, a slave forced to work as a footman; Mr Pars, whose correspondence Loveday reads to us and most importantly, the recipe book The Cook’s Jewel. I liked the touch of letters telling part of the story; it reminded me of the eighteenth-century epistolary novels. And while I am no cook, I found the old recipes intriguing. You do not have to be a foodie to love this book (although you will adore it if you are one!). Bailey’s descriptions and Biddy’s enthusiasm soon give you an appetite for a fascinating culinary world.

Loveday’s character is excellent and again, his speech is convincing. He speaks imperfect English, but it is never hard or jarring to read. Bailey has clearly done her research on the island and culture Loveday would have come from, giving a wonderful glimpse into the man behind the slave. Through his foreign eyes we see oddities of eighteenth-century culture that Biddy would not remark upon as strange. We also root for him on his quest to discover the man he once was. But along the way, Loveday manages to discover one or two other things that thicken the plot . . .

It is very hard to find a genre for An Appetite for Violets. It is a historical novel with mystery, crime, romance, comedy and gothic elements. Whilst parts of the story are dark, the book has an overall cheerful feel to it. It is easy to read and never feels cumbersome. I suppose at the end of the day, it is like one of Biddy’s recipes. There are many ingredients, some of which you would hesitate to blend together, but when all is mixed and cooked, the finished dish is a triumph.

BUY THE BOOK

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The Secret Wife of George IV

Book Cover

I realised it was unforgivable, in a blog about Georgian historical fiction, not to provide reviews for the novels I read set in this period. So from now on, I’m going to include occasional posts about other books to stop you getting bored with mine!

I’ve recently finished reading Diane Haeger’s The Secret Wife of George IV. I must admit, I’d been putting off reading this for a while, because I didn’t want to be influenced by another work when writing my own story about Maria Fitzherbert. So when a rough draft of A Forbidden Crown was complete, I decided I’d give it a try. But then, two fears crept up on me. Firstly, what if I hated it? There’s nothing more annoying than reading a book where the time period and characters you love are gradually destroyed. What’s more, if I did hate it and then reviewed it, I’d be suspected of trying to take down the competition maliciously. But the second fear was even worse – what if I adored it? What if it was the best story in the world about Maria, said everything I wanted to say, was far better than anything I could ever do and made me want to rip A Forbidden Crown into teeny tiny shreds?

Happily, I fell in between these two extremes. I found Haeger’s work to be a thoroughly enjoyable reading experience, sprinkled with delightful period detail. However, her interpretations of Maria and George are rather different from mine and the focus of her story is romance. This means A Forbidden Crown still has something new to say about the characters – hooray! Naturally, I’m hard to please when it comes to interpretations of the Hanoverian dynasty. For fairness, I’m going to split my review into one of a reader’s perspective and one of a historian’s. The historical review will have spoilers!

As a Reader

I’ve never read stories by Diane Haeger before, but I’ll certainly download some more. The writing style draws you in right from the start. Haeger is gifted at painting characters and descriptions. There were many scenes where I felt I was really there with the characters in Almack’s or on the sea front.

In this tragic love story, she does a magnificent job of handling emotions, capturing perfectly the despair and desire felt by the couple. There were times when I felt the romance was perhaps a little overblown – lots of “You are my soul”. However, this is a romance novel, and if anyone was over the top in protestations of love, it was George IV.

The novel uses multiple points of view, which gave a good insight into the world outside of the couple’s bubble and took a look at interesting figures such as Charles James Fox. Although I didn’t mind switching viewpoint in general, I did get frustrated when it happened within the same scene. Haeger “head-hops” between characters quite a bit. I got confused when I walked into a room with Maria, found out what Fox and Georgiana thought about her, then left the scene in George’s head. Some readers might not mind this but it spoiled my enjoyment a little.

In the main, there’s lot of action. However, I did find the last few years were rushed through, with lots more telling than showing. Having said that, the end strikes just the right note and is packed with emotion, despite a few “listing” chapters leading up to it.

I would certainly recommend this book to others.

As a Historian

There’s no doubt that George IV is treated harshly by fiction and history alike. It was refreshing to read something sympathetic to his predicament – but I have to say, I found Haeger’s approach rather too sympathetic.

Characters refer to the prince as “wild” and a drunk, and on his death-bed he mourns his “petty selfishness”, yet we never see any of it. All we see are noble actions. He talks of his demons, but they don’t seem to haunt him. He finds it astonishingly easy to give up alcohol with no backsliding and only lies to protect people. I feel we need to see George’s bad side for a fair assessment. My fascination for the man stems from his contradictions; at the same time he was a rash fool, he was also a lovely and kind man. He was petulant, childish and selfish; loving, devoted and charitable. To fully understand Maria’s difficulty in this relationship, I needed to see more of this contrast. As it was, I felt George was an utter victim and had never done a bad thing in his life. One of the great stage-moments of his wooing/bullying Maria into marrying him was an attempted suicide – Haeger leaves this out completely.

Haeger’s theory has George taking up with his mistress Lady Jersey under duress, caring nothing for her, and marrying Caroline of Brunswick to save Maria from hideous gossip. Jersey is his “foil”, used to fool Maria into believing he has gone back to his old ways and make her angry enough to leave him. Personally, I don’t buy this. George was besotted with Lady Jersey and endured the hatred of the nation for her sake. He also used her to taunt Caroline. No mention is made of George marrying Caroline for money, as he certainly did. The choice of bride is also foisted on George III. In fact, the bridegroom suggested Caroline himself. George III was not usually in favour of cousins marrying.

George’s debt is imputed to the King being stingy, rather than his own carelessness. In truth, it was a mixture of both, but it sat ill with me to read of George ordering staff to sell all his luxury items and “see the profit divided equally between my staff and their families for the money they are owed.” – George was notorious for never paying staff. However, this novel has him determined to pay his devoted servants “even if he had to sell every last stick of furniture and precious art in Carlton House”. I don’t think so. The other miracle is that George never seems to get fat. In his old age, we have one scene of him on the porky side, but he’s still described as muscular and handsome at periods when he weighed at least 17 stone.

It saddened me that the complex relationship between George and his parents was only just touched on. George III was made out to be a monster; we only saw him and Charlotte twice throughout the whole book. What’s more, the Regency crisis – perhaps the most important incident in any story about George IV – was reduced to one argument with the Queen. George wasn’t shown taking advantage of his father, hungering after power or trying to organise the next government.. He made a brief trip down to London and only wanted to be King so he could make Maria Queen.

Other characters were strangely skewed, too. Maria’s great friend Lady Anne Lindsay hardly features, but when she does it is to inform the lovestruck George where Maria is travelling in France. Lady Anne was against the marriage and although she did help George in the end, it was very reluctantly, not at all in an attempt to trap Maria as it seems to be here. Maria’s companion Belle Pigot becomes a sort of foster-mother for George, a person he was apparently closer to than the Queen, but I’ve never come across anything like this in the history books. Then there was Captain Jack Payne – somehow transmuted here into a butler called Jacko Payne. Why? Maria’s butler was Whale. There was no obvious reason for these changes. I did feel, however, that Lord and Lady Seymour were drawn well, and also Lady Sefton. These characters had traits I had read about in the past and made for a richer story.

Maria was well interpreted and I was pleased Haeger had included her temper and her pride – characteristics that are often overlooked. I found her a likeable character, but hard to understand towards the end. Her ambition was left out, I believe in an attempt to heighten the disinterested romance.  I laughed aloud when she cried “I do not want his wretched money!” – since Maria spent many years trying to get her allowance paid by George. Maria’s longing for a child is well described, although she seems to mistakenly think the laws of England could not take a bastard by George away from her.

The main problem with Maria’s character in this portrayal arises over the Lady Hertford issue. Again protecting George from any possible slur on his character, Haeger has him flirt with Lady Hertford only to keep her sweet and let Maria look after Minney Seymour. I could potentially believe this (although he later clearly chose Lady Hertford over Maria) and it might have worked for the story, if not for one thing: in this book, he explains his actions to Maria. When she challenges him about Lady Hertford, he confesses it is a deception to make sure she can retain custody of Minney. Given these circumstances, it is almost incomprehensible why Maria leaves him for the last time. It seems whimsical. When it’s clear she loves him so much, it’s hard to believe something he is doing for her could cause them to split.

Haeger also explores Maria’s admirers outside of the royal circle, which I was glad of, for she was a woman much in demand. I think history tends to see her like the caricatures – dull, fat and old – when in truth she was quite the toast of society. I had heard the Duke of Bedford loved Maria, but I feel a little too much was made of it in this story. Not only does the Duke follow her to France, he later sleeps with her and takes her to St. James’s Palace on the day of George’s wedding. In fact, Maria was at Marble Hill and refused to believe the messenger who told her George had gone through with the ceremony. I also don’t think she’d ever sleep with someone outside of marriage, let alone the Duke.

From a research point of view, there were little inaccuracies peppered throughout. One that glared at me was the mention of a vase, which apparently George’s “grandfather had given to him personally shortly before his own death.” Both George’s grandfathers were long dead before his parents were even married. I nearly blew a gasket when Sheridan was described as Scottish.  And then the beach at Brighton was described as sandy, when it’s shingle or pebble. These things are perhaps fussy, but they bothered me. A turn of phrase upset me as well. Maria was making up her mind up to something and thought “That’s it. Period.” Not only is this far too modern a phrase for the eighteenth-century mind, but it’s an American word. If Maria thought that, she would have thought “Full stop”. Yes, it’s petty, but these are the kinds of things my critique group would pick up in a first reading. I just wonder how they made it through.

In summary, I would say the history and characters of Maria and George are recognisable but not entirely accurate in this portrayal. Many concessions have been made to make a better romance. I would recommend this book as a good read and something for people who already know the history. It gives a lovely flavour of the period but, I feel, an idealised view of the people who lived through it.

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