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Historical references to Queen Victoria’s diaries have Miss V as a despised and suspicious tool of her father, but Worsley discounts those descriptions and has the two girls as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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The New Countess by Fay Weldon

9781250028037_p0_v2_s260x420Fay Weldon completes her trilogy of British upstairs/downstairs society in The New Countess.  All the familiar characters are back, but if you’ve forgotten their assorted scandals and peccadilloes, as I had, Weldon fills in the back story.  The new countess does not emerge until the last chapter, when an accidental shooting at a hunting party conveniently wraps up the lives and stories of the three-book saga.

Maybe my expectations were too high but this final book was not as gripping or as fun as the first two.  Although I enjoyed the machinations of the various lords and ladies and the downstairs staff interventions and gossip, the story seemed stale.

In a recent interview with Carole Burns, Weldon proclaims the novel as dead:

“…the novel has become just entertainment.  Fifty or 60 years ago, the novel was the only way you had of finding out what was in other people’s heads.  You didn’t know anything other than what you read in fiction about how lives were for other people.  But now we have film and television, and the novel as a source of understanding and information is no longer really necessary.”

Maybe that’s the reason –  television – Downton Abbey is being broadcast where I live now, but I read the first two novels in that slough of downtime, awaiting the return of the Dowager Duchess played by  Maggie Smith.  Maybe watching has become more entertaining.

Review of First Two Books in the Trilogy

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Habits of the House and Long Live the King

9781250026620_p0_v1_s260x4209781250028006_p0_v1_s260x420Like catching up on past seasons of Downton Abbey, Fay Weldon’s trilogy focusing on the Edwardian lifestyle of the British is best enjoyed in sequence, without too much waiting in between.  I finished reading Habits of the House, the first in the series, to meet Lord Robert, Earl of Dilberne and related characters who could be the cast of Downton, with only  Maggie Smith’s Dowager Duchess absent; then quickly moved on to Long Live the King, to attend the coronation of Queen Victoria’s heir, Edward, the new king and a friend of the 51BCoER5+qL._SY300_family.  The publication of the last book in the series – The New Countess – will be in December, with the possibility of a Dowager Dutchess finally in residence.   Downton Abbey, Season 4 begins in January – perfect timing.

The grand Edwardian lifestyle is in jeopardy, and only a marriage with a wealthy American looking for a title can save the British aristocrats from losing the estate, the horses, the servants, and everything else – and modernization lurks in the wings.  Sound familiar?  Fay Weldon, the creator of the beloved “Upstairs Downstairs” series, uses wry humor to poke at the sensibilities and politics of the privileged as well those “in service.”  At times, the lines are blurred and the lady’s maid can be more adamant in maintaining the class structure than the lady of the house. Nonetheless, Weldon carefully inserts her ongoing commentary on the strained politics (Churchill was just a start-up then), as she quietly ridicules the narrow-minded attitudes that can be as rigid as the whale-boned corsets of the times.

The historical references are instructive, and I found myself looking up the Boers War, Queen Victoria’s John Brown, the Vanderbilt connection, and, of course, the succession chart.  In the first two books, the Earl and his family carry on to the early 1900s, with changes in fashion, lifestyle, and politics.  The gossip, however, remains the sustaining and stabilizing force in the stories, along with those wonderfully convenient soap opera scenarios that twist the plot lines: a beautiful young girl saved from a fire becomes a princess instead of a nun and saves the King.

With a little bit of luck and a lot of good writing, all ends well in each of the first two books.  My expectations are high for the third book; if you are a fan waiting for the next season of Downton Abbey, Weldon’s trilogy will sustain you.

A Dangerous Inheritance – A Novel of Tudor Rivals

Alison Weir uses the plight of two teenage girls caught in the politics of Tudor England to explain the mysterious death of a young king and his brother in A Dangerous Inheritance – A Novel of Tudor Rivals and the Secret of the Tower.

Katherine Plantagenet, illegitimate daughter of the usurping King Richard III, and Katherine Grey, sister to Lady Jane, who ruled as Queen for nine days before Catholic Mary arrested her and claimed the throne, enjoyed the life of court at least seventy years apart, yet they connect with unlikely commonalities in Alison Weir’s historical fiction.

The plot alternates between the narratives of the two Katherines; although one is identified as Kate, and Weir dates the entries, you may need to consult English history to place the action that is often plodding and confusing. Both young girls are pawns in their families’ ambitions and greed for the power of the throne, and Weir offers personal glimpses into how their lives were overwhelmed by events. As each girl emerges from their naive innocence, blind loyalty changes into self-preservation.

To connect the two girls, Weir uses the mystery of young King Edward V and his brother, the imprisoned Princes in the Tower, both nephews of Richard III. Both girls also find themselves imprisoned in the Tower – at different points in history but basically for the same reason – they are all viewed as threats to the royal power.
Weil has the girls investigating the deaths of the Princes, while each is trying to survive in her own time.

The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower

Weir’s use of fifteenth century dialect in the girls’ narrations becomes tedious after a while, and 500 pages is a long time to listen.  The history is unveiled slowly and the “mystery” gets lost in the descriptions of court life and the worries about loyalties, dissembling, and who will be next to lose a head.  Despite the four pages of genealogy charts, the relationship of the characters is not easy to keep straight; basically, they are all related somehow but the many Janes, Elizabeths, and Katherines, and the switching back and forth across a century require concentration.  After conscientiously including every detail and courtier of the era, Weil finally focuses the action in the final 100 pages on the mysterious disappearance of the two young princes.

Weil is an expert of these times, having written at least a dozen nonfiction books, including one on “The Princes of the Tower.”  If you like long slow reads with that Tudor Flavor, A Dangerous Inheritance will educate you on yet another piece of that turbulent time, but you will need patience to plow through the complicated history.

Bring Up the Bodies

Maybe you’ve already read the history of the mercurial Henry VIII and his wives? Maybe you’ve watched the Showtime series – the Tudors – and have met the villain Cromwell? Maybe you read Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, and discovered a different Cromwell? Maybe not, but the power of Mantel’s continuation of Thomas Cromwell’s influential life will still overwhelm you in her sequel – Bring Up the Bodies.

So many well-written reviews have been posted and published, that you can easily find the summary of this tale and praise for Mantel’s character invention:

“Historically, the royal adviser is considered an unscrupulous bully. In Mantel’s books, he is — like any other man — much more than his reputation”…from NPR

But Mantel’s gift is not in the rehash of history or even her humanizing of a man often seen as a manipulator yet a great statesman who changed the course of history. It’s in the details of daily life, secret dreams, unsure emotions, and the pieces of a mind that the outer world never sees. If you missed the background in Wolf Hall, Mantel graciously revisits Cromwell’s common beginnings (the son of a brewer and blacksmith) – important to understanding the disdain of nobility who were jealous of Cromwell’s influence with the king – and his training under Cardinal Wolsey, his disgraced mentor.

The dead or soon-to-be-dead bodies are everywhere as Cromwell juggles the king’s changing moods, the country’s lack of funds, Queen Anne’s decline into a nervous shrew, and his own ambitions. The focus in this sequel concentrates on Cromwell during the months that Anne Boleyn was Queen, until she fell out of favor and made way for Jane Seymour.

Mantel’s Cromwell is at once despicable and admirable. Revealing Cromwell’s inner soul, as only she can imagine it, Mantel offers a little compassion for a man who is ruled by logic in a world consumed by emotion. Above all, Cromwell is alert to his precarious position – please the king or fall to the scorn of the nobles. Cromwell keeps a Black Book on how to proceed.

What a man would do to maintain power has not changed over the centuries – although the chopped off heads have become more figurative than literal. As I read, I fought an overwhelming inclination to identify Cromwell with an ambitious contemporary man I knew – a number cruncher who rose to power by his talent for logical decisions – unafraid to abandon allies when they were no longer useful, even destroying them when necessary, and like Cromwell, taking revenge at any slights. “His whole career…an education in hypocrisy.” Maybe that is part of Mantel’s magic – discovering ways to identify with a public persona and revealing the man beneath the surface. You still may not like him, but you might be able to better understand his motivation.

Although you know the ending, Mantel still maintains the suspense; as Anne Boleyn walked to her execution, I almost expected a last minute reprieve – as Anne herself hopes. The humorous asides and personal agonies flesh out the historical characters, especially Cromwell. And who knows, maybe that’s really how it all happened behind closed doors.

Cromwell is coming back in the third book of Mantel’s series – I can’t wait.

Related Post: Wolf Hall