Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Books I read last week

I read a mish-mash of books last week, ranging from historical biographies to a fantasy-chick-lit. First, the Fantasy chick-lit...was a book called If you coulod see me now by Cecelia Ahern, a 25 year old author who's written 4 books already and whose book PS I love you has just been released as a major Hollywood film. I love a certain genre of fantasy book, where the wisdom is contained in simple little nuggets, like The Little Prince, which is far and away amongst my favourites. Cecelia Ahern's book while not quite as exalted is in the same genre. It is an intensely likeable book full of little incidents and windows upon what really matters in life. It is absorbingly written and one starts feeling for the main characters immediately. It is a book with whimsy, fun and frolic and yet with a message, and is a quick read. It is certainly one I'll be picking up again whenever I need a pick-me-up sort of book.

The historicals were mainly Jean Plaidy's - Victoria Victorious about Queen Victoria, written from a first-person perspective, The Haunted Sisters about the daughters of James II( son of Charles I of England who was beheaded by the Roundheads), Myself my Enemy, about Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I and in some ways a key instrument in causing his downfall by her insistence on Catholicism, The Goldsmith's Wife about Edward IV's mistress Jane Shore and The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. They were all fascinating reads, though after going through them, I find myself all the more thankful that I'm a simple member of the proletariat rather than an aristocrat - they just had too many things to live up to and too many expectations imposed on them.

Victoria comes across as not a very shrewd ruler, led hither and thither by her personal likes and dislikes of the ruling Prime Minister of the day and content to listen to her husband whom she elevated into the status of a Saint who could do no wrong. She was a lively, fun-loving person with a temper until Albert came along and with his rather priggish attitudes towards life, made her also more and more prissy until she was unable to take a joke, which may explain why the phrase "We are not amused" is the chief one associated with her. Victoria also had little or no grasp of politics or policies, as per the book, and was content to either listen to Albert and her Prime Ministers on most state matters. Even on issues like the fact that Victoria's mother had tried to usurp her place in terms of importance and forced her to be rude to the King and Queen of England had to be swept under the carpet and Victoria's own resentments sat on because Albert was shocked that Victoria did not think everything her mother did was perfect.

She was also so completely in thrall of Albert that she didn't even bother to protect her own children from his sometimes harsh behaviour. Maybe it's because I'm a mother myself, but I found it impossible to understand why she let Albert treat the Prince of Wales so harshly - any tutor or governess the PoW ever liked was sent or taken away from him and harsher and harsher ones found so they could drive learning into his head. His powers of charm, liveliness and ability to love and protect his brothers and sisters were ignored or belittled, and anyone who spoke in favour of the PoW was promptly banished, while Albert continued to run him down and punish him with both rod and scoldings and harsh treatment. No wonder the PoW ran wild when he grew up! Frankly, Albert does come across as a rather dislikeable gentleman.

The Haunted Sisters and Myself My Enemy are about the Stuart reign. The Haunted Sisters was a rather shocking book in that it was the story of King Lear all over again - the two daughters of James II turned against him, mainly for their own ambition and sided with their husbands or friends who had personal ambitions. The two sisters too turned against each other both because they had advisors whose gains lay in the enmity of the two sisters and because they both nursed ambitions for the throne of England. Henrietta Maria's story is yet another proof, if I needed one, that anyone who becomes too dogmatic about religion and insists their own way is the only way is bound to cause trouble for themselves and for other people. One of the reasons I like being Hindu is because one of its basic tenets is that there are many roads all leading to God and that neither is better or worse. Catholicism has a lot to answer for in its dogmatism, from the Inquisition to the attempts to proselytise, to the disdain for other religions and the way the church reacted to Hitler's policies. It's a bit ironic that anyone with wide tastes is said to have 'Catholic' tastes when it's amongst the least embracing religions.

The Goldsmith's Wife was a glimpse of the Plantagenet period at its height, when Edward IV ruled. There was witchcraft and treachery and strife amongst the brothers, leading to a possible fratricide by Edward of his brother Clarence who was supposed to have died in a butt of Malmsey. Jean Plaidy believes in the anti-Tudor theory that the sons of Edward IV were done away with by Henry VIIth, rather than Richard who certainly thought they were royal bastards but loved them as his nephews. It's always been one of the fascinating mysteries of English history and of the Tower of London, as the Beefeaters will tell you when you visit. It makes me want to re-read another book written on this subject by a detective fiction author, Josephine Tey, called A Murder in Time, which had a fascinating theory, if I recall correctly. Interestingly, in this book, Plaidy makes the point that Richard was the last English King - and if you think about it, it's true - the Tudors were Welsh, the Stuarts Scottish and the Hanovers German. So Britain had its last English king way back in the 1500s.

The Other Boleyn Girl was brilliantly written and has made me curious about more books by Philippa Gregory. It was a very detailed portrayal of life at King Henry the 8th's court, with its scheming, jockeying for power, ambitions and the making of a tyrant who thought any of his desires was justified because it was 'the will of God'. I had never thought much about Mary Boleyn, Henry's mistress before Anne who eventually married him. The depths to which ambition can take you and the description of the long, long courtship dance which Anne had to perform to hold the King's interest long enough to marry him and the barren fruits of that marriage are incredibly well described and too me away into a world where I could heard and see the swishing silks and velvets, furtive whispers behind the doorways and the singing and dancing of the royal court. I hope the film releases here soon - if it's a good adaptation of the book, it should be a spectacular film, though I'm not sure about Eric Bana playing Henry the VIIIth - he looks too thoughtful and intelligent, whereas Henry was a sensual, selfish man given to self indulgence rather than reflection.

If you like historical fiction, read the Plaidys. If you're in the mood for high drama and intrigue, read The Other Boleyn Girl. And if you're in the mood for something fun and whimsical, go for If You Could See Me Now.

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