My Name is Victoria

51CcJuhIa1L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  Lucy Worsley describes herself “by day Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and by night a writer of history books.” I first met her as the narrator of a BBC documentary about the wives of Henry VIII as she whispered commentary behind the scenes of the royal trysts.  Dressed as a maid servant in the series, her short blonde bob and posh accent gave her an air of the friendly yet knowledgable expert in British royal history.  With PBS Masterpiece Theater about to launch the third season of “Victoria,” her children’s book about an overlooked chapter in Queen Victoria’s young life is tantalizing.

As I read, I checked Worsley’s facts.  She didn’t make it all up; her historical novel fictionalizes a relationship between young Victoria and John Conroy’s daughter that did exist, and marks the introduction of Victoria’s beloved spaniel Dash into court life.

Kensington Palace may hold the upscale apartments of Princes William and Harry today, but Victoria felt trapped inside its dreary walls when she was a young girl, waiting to be queen.  John Conroy, the villain Irish comptroller and lover to her mother the Duchess of Kent, imposes rules restricting Victoria’s access and keeping her under constant guard, not only to keep her safe from her relatives who would kill her to get themselves closer to the throne but also to control her.  To offer some respite from the hostile environment of his Kensington System, Conroy brings his young daughter and her dog Dash to live as companions and playmates.  His daughter, Miss V, also named Victoria is also expected to spy on the young princess.

Historical references to Queen Victoria’s diaries have Miss V as a despised and suspicious tool of her father, but Worsley discounts those descriptions and has the two girls as friends growing up together.  The famous dolls are featured as are Victoria’s temper tantrums and her resistance to handing over regency power to the ambitious Sir John.  Handsome Prince Albert makes an appearance later in the book.

Worsely deftly educates the reader while offering some tantalizing possibilities about Victoria’s personality.  Her surprise ending actually has some creditability, feeding on the nineteenth century rumor of Victoria’s illegitimacy noted in A.N. Wilson’s biography Victoria: A Life.   It was still a surprise,and I loved it.

Never again will readers think of Queen Victoria as the overweight matron in black.  Worsley reminds us – like everyone who grows old, she once had a life.

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Three Audible Notes from Old New Yorkers

My New Yorker pile may sit for months, even years, but I usually find something between the old covers.  Although I was looking for suggestions for audible books, I did not expect to get ideas from an article on Willa Cather or Adam Gopnik’s 2017 review of Ron Chernow’s historical biography, Grant.

Gopnik’s review of Chernow’s Grant did not inspire me to read the book; I’ll wait for the Broadway musical.  But his reference to “the funniest thing ever written about Grant…James Thurber’s “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” led me to the Thurber collection – The James Thurber Audio Collection, read by Keith Olbermann.  Thurber is one of my favorite humorists; I still have a copy of The Thurber Carnival from my college days.51X6jSZbZBL._SL500_

If laughter is healing, this is great medicine.  The first essay – “There’s No Place Like Home” – first published in the New Yorker in 1937 – had me laughing through Thurber’s interpretation of a French-English Dictionary for travelers.  Who knew how funny it could be to hear a translation for asking for directions.  For my adventure loving travelers, the next story is called “The Bear Who Let It Alone.”  I’m looking forward to all the other twenty-two stories.

51BroN3HRXL._SL500_  Touted as the book Cather considered her best, Death Comes to the Archbishop, was the focus of Mary Duenwald’s essay on a trip to New Mexico for a 2007 essay in the New York Times Travel section – Entering The world of Will Cather’s Archbishop.  The story follows

“Cather’s portrayal of Jean Marie Latour (her fictional name for the real-life bishop, John Baptist Lamy) paints a complicated but very romantic picture of New Mexico in the mid-19th century, just after its annexation to the United States…her book provides a realistic account of the bishop’s efforts to replace the lawless and profligate Spanish priests of the territory, his visits to a beloved Navajo chief, his friendship with the Old West explorer Kit Carson and his dream of building a cathedral in Santa Fe.”

51CXbQEFAXL._SL500_Dan Chiasson’s essay on Emaily Dickinson focused on a 2017 publication of the Envelope Poems, a small book similar to the handmade books the poet made as gifts.  Some of her poems, later found on backs of used envelopes, are included in the selection. Because the Envelope Poems include actual transcriptions of Dickinson’s handwriting, with facsimiles of her layout and her process (crossings-out, substitutions, etc.), the book is to seen more than heard.  However, reading the article – Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry – gave me a better understanding of the poet, and had me thinking how nice it would be to listen to some of her poetry.

Audible has several possibilities, one with a collection – Fifty Poems by Emily Dickinson read by Jill Eikenberry, Nancy Kwan, Melissa Manchester, Jean Smart, Sharon Stone, Meryl Streep, and Alfre Woodard – a 44 minute respite.

I’m listening…

 

White Houses

Unknown-1On International Women’s Day, a book about Eleanor Roosevelt seems appropriate, but Amy Bloom’s White Houses is more about Lorena Hickok, Eleanor’s companion and lover as she reflects an aspect of the great First Lady’s humanity and the inner self few knew.  Although fiction, Bloom carefully contains the historical moments, referencing letters and research from historians bringing the famous friendship of two middle-aged women into the physical.  With insights into their personal lives and sacrifices, Bloom creates an homage to two strong women who wrote a quiet but forceful chapter of American history.

Beginning with Hick’s introspection during the weeks after Franklin Roosevelt’s death, Bloom easily moves her story back and forth, offering biographical background on Hick’s  miserable childhood, her days with a freak circus, and later as an upcoming reporter for the Associated Press.  When Hick quits her job and moves into the White House, their affair seems unlikely to be kept from the public, yet this is the time when the press chose to ignore the President’s disability and quietly looked away from his many dalliances.  Hick and Eleanor became “good friends” with only a few knowing their real relationship – one of them Franklin himself.

The affair goes in and out of favor as life, family, and politics intrude on Eleanor’s sense of responsibility to her causes and her exhausting schedule.  Hick defers to Eleanor, but is the stalwart strength and support when needed, and always available when asked.  In Bloom’s book, Hick is not cropped out of the picture, as she actually was in pictures of the New Deal White House.   It would seem that with Franklin’s death, the two would frame a life together, but it was not to be.  Eleanor had more to accomplish around the world and Hick had books to write.

Bloom’s portrayal of the rogue eccentric in Franklin Delano Roosevelt may be the most entertaining pieces in the book.  Hick notes:

“He was the greatest president of my lifetime and he was a son of a bitch every day… He broke hearts and ambitions across his knee like bits of kindling, and then he dusted off his hands and said, ‘Who’s for cocktails?’ ”

Getting to know historic icons Franklin and Eleanor personally through the eyes of Hick, the outsider inside the White House, somehow opens them to more greatness.  In White Houses, Bloom’s last pages emphasize the cruelty of mortality – “All fires go out…” – while offering quiet gratitude for the value of knowing someone intimately, something to save us in old age.

I savored the book, reading slowly, not only to know Eleanor Roosevelt better but also to appreciate the strength of accomplished women, despite the obstacles they faced.

A Powerful Love Story for Valentine’s Day

51qBJz71b6L._AC_US218_51zpXTOlenL._AC_US218_Last week I accidentally found the movie The United Kingdom and was immersed in the historical fiction based on Susan Williams’ book Colour Bar: The True Story of a Love That Shook an Empire.  Based on the lives of Prince Seretse Khama (who would later become the first President of Botswana) and white English-born Ruth Williams who met and fell in love in 1940s Britain, the story is a powerful statement of overcoming racism and persevering for independence, but it is also a poignant love story across cultural, racial, and political lines.

I was reminded of the movie when Book Browse featured the book as one of its “five great book club books that are now movies.”

“…they were met with overt racism by the people and governments of both Britain and southern Africa; but with great dignity and extraordinary tenancity they, and the Bangwato people, overcame prejudice in their fight for justice–which, ultimately, led to independence for the country of Botswana…”

Although I am only half through the book, the movie seems to have been accurate in depicting the series of trials overcome by the couple, including the efforts of British government officials, family friends and church figures trying to prevent the marriage. After the marriage Britain attempted to separate the couple by luring him to London and then banning his return.

South Africa, which borders Bechuanaland, and was in the throes of apartheid, imposed economic pressure on Britain, adding to the political turmoil.  Britain’s secret Harragin special inquiry was to decide whether Seretse was fit to discharge his duties as his country’s Chief.  (The report reminded me of today’s secret political papers which later expose ulterior government motives).  The inquiry found in his favor but argued that South Africa’s opposition to his marriage, and therefore his chieftainship, constituted enough reason to bar Khama from returning to his country.  After seven years in exile, and with the help of friends in high places, the shameful report finally was released and Pariament acceded to Botswana’s right to mineral rights – both actions insuring the leadership and prosperous future of an independent country.

After his return home, Seretse Khama was elected first democratic head of the newly created nation state of Botswana, which he ruled for over 20 years before his death in 1980. Ruth took her place as the mother of the nation during Seretse’s life and after, and their son is now the fourth President of Botswana.

Whether you read the book (only available as a ebook) or watch the movie, this is a story worth finding, not only for its historical significance but also for its powerful message of love and redemption against insidious politics and arrogant men.

The Maze at Windermere

61mZtWszWnL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_   Gregory Blake Smith successfully plays on the mystique of déjà vu in The Maze at Windermere,  by following five timelines across centuries in one place – Newport, Rhode Island. As each of the five stories unravels, from colonial shipping village to present day, Smith follows the politics and loves of a cast of characters with different yet similar prospects and problems, stepping through time in the same place.  I confess I have a tendency to get lost, and this maze had me baffled and uncomfortably disconnected in its puzzling play of changing times and people, but eventually I made it to the center – and it was worth the trouble and confusion.

The five time lines could easily stand on their own, and probably would have been easier to follow in sequential order, but Smith keeps the reader off balance by jumping from one time frame to another.  Thankfully his clear identification of the year as well as his adaptation of the language and idiosyncrasies of the time help clarify where the reader is, and who is in charge. Nevertheless, it takes a while to feel comfortable

The five time zones include colonial Prudence, a fifteen year old Quaker orphaned by the death of her mother and father in 1692, and left to care for her toddler sister with the help of her slave; Ballard in 1778 who pursues a Jewish merchant’s daughter, Judith, while investigating her father’s political leanings; the not yet famous Henry James who meets Alice in 1863 and makes a life decision about his future lifestyle and writing; Franklin, a closeted gay man in 1896, at a time when Oscar Wilde was imprisoned, courts a wealthy widow and hopes to marry as his cover; and finally, Sandy, a handsome tennis pro (ranked 46th) in 2011 who falls in love with the disabled heiress of Windermere, another Alice, after he has secretly  slept with her sister-in-law and her best friend from college. Is he really in love or after her money?

Not until later in the novel, after the characters morph into substance, is it possible to navigate the maze of intersecting plots.  Prudence is under pressure to marry an older man from the Friends Assembly but she yearns to make a life with her childhood friend closer to her own age.  Her slave girl has a plan for her own freedom but must maneuver a contract between her black lover and Prudence to make it happen.  In 2011, the heiress’s best friend, Aisha, a black artist, is planning her own maneuvers to banish Sandy and gain the estate for herself.

Franklin and Ballard seem to be selfish and sometimes despicable lotharios, with dubious intentions toward the women they pursue; at times, Sandy seems so too.  Henry James, the observer of the human condition who eventually uses his experiences and notes to write a famous novel about the woman who awakens him, has something in common with Sandy too in his calculating approach.

Although Smith seems to point to lives forever repeating the historical loop, he also clearly digresses within each hero and heroine to demonstrate their differences in temperament and prejudices, and their reactions to the pressures of their times. The ending offers a reasonable solution to some, while others are left hanging – leaving it to the reader to decide how their lives will evolve.

A complicated novel with so many more nuances and plot twists than can be briefly noted here, The Maze at Windermere is a challenge to read, but, if you take on the game, be prepared to keep thinking about the consequences and alternatives after you finish.

I need to read this book again, now that I have a feel for the twists and interconnectedness in the puzzle.