Tag Archives: historical fiction

History and intrigue…a review of Courtiers by Lucy Worsley.

Watch out Georgians, I know all your secrets now…that insatiable gossip     Dr Lucy Worsley told me each and every one.

Yes, I have finished reading Courtiers by Lucy Worsley, my first foray into the realms of historical…dare I call it a novel? It’s sensational and gripping enough to be compared to any novel, that’s for sure. I think the phrase ‘never a dull moment’ must have been coined to describe the Georgian courts, trust me, there is more than enough intrigue to fill the book’s three hundred odd pages.

I first purchased Courtiers on a bit of a whim having watched Worsley’s BBC Four series about the Regency period, I must own up to the fact that I was a little apprehensive that it would be able to retain my interest. My worries were in vain. I’d been concerned that I might be in for a dreary trudge through the dates, political events and royal marriages of the era, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Courtiers in no way resembles a dreary trudge, in fact it’s more of an elated skip. Worsley deftly guides her readers through the courts of George I and George II with the tender hand of one who knows them well. She maintains a good pace throughout the book, not allowing the story to stagnate and never spending too long on any one character. She uses plenty of sources, but never falls into the trap of lengthy quotes from other historians or historical sources.  This is by no means heavy reading.

What I really admire about this book is its aim to portray so many aspects of the courts. You might be forgiven for expecting the book to solely focus on the royal family and their lives at Kensington Palace and St James’s Palace, and while they certainly figure as major characters in Worsley’s story, they are by no means the exclusive focus. I really enjoyed the thrill of reading about the other players in  the Georgian courts; from mistresses to poets…from architects to a feral ‘wild boy’ adopted by George I…there is a wide spectrum of characters to fascinate any reader.

Buxom AND brainy, Queen Caroline.

Worsley writes, ‘The more I learnt about their lives, the more convinced I became that the whole sumptuous and luxurious cocoon of court life was in many ways a prison’. Indeed, Courtiers is a rather sobering lesson for anybody apt to sigh ‘I wish I lived in the Georgian times’. Even for those at the very pinnacle of upper class society, the Georgian era was not without its trials and often considerable horrors. Respected doctors might at any moment remove your bowels, you had to give birth in a room full of people, you even had to get dressed every day in front of a crowd of paying spectators…and that’s just if you happen to be the Queen; there were plenty of other horrors suffered within the Georgian courts and none of them even remotely enviable.

In previous reviews I’ve hesitated to recommend some of the books I’ve read, not so with Courtiers. I thoroughly enjoyed every page. Although, I will concede that it probably isn’t for everyone, I doubt very much that my brother, for example, would be quite so enthralled. If you like history, if you’re interested in royalty, if you’d like to know more about the day-to-day lives of people at the Georgian court then this book is for you. If you’re fed up of history being presented as a long line of dates and events, then you will probably find Lucy Worsley as captivating as I have; however, if you’re an ardent and exclusive sci-fi fan, then Courtiers might not be your cup of tea.

As for me, what next? I think it’s time I return to my ever-growing pile of library books and stop abusing my Amazon account. The only book that’s been there since the very beginning, way back in March when I began this blog, is Jamaica Inn – I think it’s about time it got an airing.

I move on to Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier.

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Filed under 21st century, Books, Lucy Worsley, Non-fiction

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert…giving women, wives and mothers a bad name.

I know, I know…it’s been a while. I have been away, although that usually means I read more books (but, then, perhaps that’s only where chick lit’s concerned). So, Madame Bovary? Yes, I have finally finished it. It’s taken an incredibly long time for a relatively short book and I’m not exactly sure who or what to blame. Yes, I have been rather lax and easily distracted, but simultaneously the book has done little to entice me to pick it up and has failed to sustain my attention when I have done.

What is it about ‘classic’ novels that stipulates they only contain characters who are intrinsically boring or bad people? – and sometimes, shock horror, a person who has the unhappy misfortune to be both boring and bad – a very unappealing combination! I thought this was going to be a book with a carefully woven plot which cleverly and perceptively revealed the feelings of a woman who has chosen her husband badly and lived to regret it; and, on paper, I suppose that’s what this story is about, but I was bitterly disappointed by so many aspects of the book that the plot has been rendered unappealing by belonging to the same pages. Madame Bovary is – no, I won’t mince my words – an ignorant, vain, self obsessed monster of a woman. In fact, she gives women, wives and mothers a thoroughly bad name; and she was created by a man, I can’t help thinking that some woman must have made herself very repugnant to Flaubert to make him create such an abomination. She ponces around the small French towns that the story inhabits thinking only of herself – and, believe me, she has an unaccountably ‘puffed up’ opinion of herself, imagining that life has somehow tricked her out of living the life of a Duchess and robbed her of the beautiful, expensive possessions that she so covets – and eventually buys, at the expense of her baby’s booties. No, not even the birth of a healthy, happy daughter can draw this stubbornly selfish woman out of her own self-obsession. Gradually she is overcome with a seething, vengeful anger towards her somewhat simple, but basically honest and good husband. She sneers at him, blames him for not earning more money with which to buy her fine things and flings herself from one extra marital affair to another. I was both infuriated and angered by her in equal measure from the moment she appeared on the page.

What of the novel’s plot and other characters though? Whilst certainly not inspiring such strong feelings as the eponymous heroine, they also are not what I would call ‘good people’. From Charles Bovary to Homais  (the apothecary in the story) almost every character introduced seems completely self-absorbed and out to further their own cause. Charles, though not an overtly bad person, plods through his life never bothering to consider the world from anyone’s perspective but his own, he is also so easily persuaded to one course or another that at points you simply want to shake him and tell him to use his brain. Where plot is concerned, by another pen perhaps this could have been an engaging story, although perhaps never gripping. It is a simple tale about rural people and their ordinary lives, but there’s no shame in such a plot and, invariably, it is such simple settings and plots which are able to expose the magic of everyday life and the gems found amongst ‘ordinary’ people; but these rewards were not to be gleaned from Madame Bovary, well, not for me, anyway.

I would not recommend Madame Bovary, unlike The Five People You Meet in Heaven, it presents a very poor picture of humanity and, were one to consider it accurate, could become more than a little depressing. To put it simply…I think people are intrinsically better than this. And ‘classic’ books, well after the last two, I won’t deny I’m becoming a little despondent – maybe I should’ve stuck to Jane Austen and Tolkien after all? But I refuse to be so easily beaten, especially by the horrendous Emma Bovary. If people are better than this, then by that virtue, books should be too. My next book? A slightly more modern one for some variation…Possession: A Romance by A. S. Byatt. Fingers crossed for a woman to be proud of, it’s about time.

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Filed under 19th century, Books, Fiction, Gustave Flaubert, Novel

A real test…finishing Middlemarch by George Eliot.

It has taken me two weeks and one day, but I have finally finished Middlemarch. Hooray! I won’t deny that it was hard-going at times and required more than a little perseverance.

It’s described as a classic and I have had it said to me (when I’ve said that I’m reading it) “Oh, now that’s a good book” – and I won’t deny that at points I’ve felt tempted to answer “is it?”. I suppose, as always, that depends on your definition of a good book. With hindsight and careful consideration I think I would go so far as to say that Middlemarch is a good book, but I would not say that it is without fault. Perhaps the style it is written in might have been more easily interpreted in its day, however, I won’t deny that I found Eliot’s style of writing rather ‘exclusive’ and superior – it’s prose for intellectuals. Some might consider this a good thing, but I can’t understand how any mode of writing which prohibits its being understood by all who could be cheered and affected by it can be good. It reminds me in many ways of academic texts which I pored over while at uni, and they too seemed to be written to deliberately exclude the understanding of all.

But, I have been very critical, and Middlemarch does have a great deal to recommend it. The story, or should that be stories, are real moral tales which show a great understanding of human nature and the motives that drive and restrain us. It also provides a very complete and real picture of life in 19th century England – although only, it must be said, for a certain rank of people. Despite touching upon the same sort of society as Austen, Eliot’s novel is – in my opinion – barely comparable. To see what two different female authors can create of a similar setting and period (Middlemarch is set just a little over fifteen years later than Pride and Prejudice’s publication) has interested me whilst reading Middlemarch. It can’t be denied that  Middlemarch does directly address and comment upon the politics of the age in which its story is set, something which Austen has been greatly criticised for ignoring; however, I have to question what exactly this reference to the politics of the time does to enhance Middlemarch. The lives of the characters seem to pass untouched and unaffected by them because of their rank and means. Eliot does provide us with snapshots of the harder lives of Mr Brooke’s tenants and the farm labourers of Lowick, but they are not the characters which her novel is mainly concerned with. Dorothea is imbued with an innate and Christian desire to improve the lives of those around her, however, in Middlemarch‘s ‘Finale’ we are not informed of the conditions of Mr Brooke’s tenants, merely of the futures of the novel’s more wealthy characters. But I have rambled away from my point, which is that though Eliot’s novel is widely held up as being less trivial and introverted than Austen’s (and, therefore, a more serious novel), I can’t say that its referring to politics and the wider world does anything to make the story being told more important or valuable.

The real value of Middlemarch lies, just as in Austen, in its characters and the way they choose to live their lives. Their moral compasses and how they meet the challenges that life throws at them. Middlemarch is a story that teaches you; I’ve heard it said that it’s a ‘book to live your life by’ – and I concede that through seeing the faults and vices of Middlemarch’s inhabitants you are forced to see your own weaknesses rendered ugly in another. A sobering lesson for anyone; and Middlemarch does have so very many characters who have so very many faults that I think it would be a rare reader who did not see something of their own flaws in one of them.

Will I be reading Middlemarch again? No, I don’t think so. Am I glad that I have read it? Yes, undoubtedly. Would I recommend it? Not to everyone, it’s an acquired taste. Middlemarch is a book for those who have an appreciation of moralistic writing, an understanding of high-brow prose, and who find people’s flaws intriguing. You can learn a lot from this book,  but you pay for this knowledge with time and much effort.

As for me? Well, I don’t intend to take on quite such a long book this time. I move on to Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert.

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Filed under 19th century, Books, Fiction, George Eliot, Novel

Improving…continuing Middlemarch by George Eliot.

I’m almost half way through Middlemarch now, and am starting to enjoy it a little more; although I’m still of the opinion that it is far from an easy read. It’s taken me until now to have a good grasp of who all the characters are and what their relationships are to each other (not helped by the fact that many of them have quite similar names). Maybe I’m becoming simpler as I read and not more well-informed as one would expect.

This is by no means a book for the idle reader, it takes application and determination to continue reading it. Only now, just shy of the half way point, am I beginning to care about the characters and what befalls them. The social commentary that the novel is concerned with is noteworthy, but, again, not entertaining for any who are not specifically interested in rural England at that time. There are certainly lessons to be learnt from this book, and one gets the impression that, at this stage, they have not been fully taught. Many of the book’s characters are growing in experience, and consequently sense, as the novel develops. It will be interesting, therefore, to see where the story takes Dorothea and Fred before its close – as they seem, to me, to be two people who had the most to learn about themselves at the story’s beginning.

I have gone so far as to say that Middlemarch is beginning to interest me more and is seeming slightly less of a task than it was two days ago, however, I will leave it to you to decide whether or not one should have to read so far into a book before it begins to recommend itself to you in any way. Perhaps, like many before her, Eliot has merely saved the best till last.

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Filed under 19th century, Books, Fiction, George Eliot, Novel