Friday, July 24, 2009

Living In Utopia

A King and his Chancellor, Henry VIII and Thomas More - their collision is a story that I have been taken by for decades now - I saw "A Man for All Seasons" as a teenager, and just now finished "The King's Confidante" (previously issued as "St. Thomas' Eve") bye the Mistress, Jean Plaidy.

She has taken the far famed homestead at Chelsea and made it into a sort of utopia, with all living in harmony with animals and plant life, from the bustling Dame Alice, More's second wife (who acts as a foil with her worldliness set against his erudition), to itinerants who find a place at their table. It is a wondrous microcosm centered on More and his children, both natural and adopted, and their spouses, humble and ambitious.

More serves his sovereign reluctantly, ghosting Henry's tract against Martin Luther, pointing out constellations to the King and Queen Catherine, all the while regretting his time away from his family as the children grow up happy in his regard. He for a time fills a need of Henry's to have intellectuals around him, and ultimately can't fulfill Henry's need for his approval of what he did to ensure the succession, that is turning the English Church to his rule as it's head. No, Thomas could not come out in favor of the divorce. His silence had to be shown to be assent.

Anne Boleyn has a background part and Thomas More is empathetic, realizing that her hold on life is as tenuous as his. It is enjoyable to read enough Plaidy to have characters walk out of one book into another.

Thomas More was a huge hero of mine in my teenage years. Now I know his story had not that simple purity of explanation. He was a heretic hating zealot, and did wrestle with Will Roper, his son-in-law in a way over Will's beliefs that seems unreasonable to me, with his dear daughter Meg torn between them. Dame Alice spoke of his pride in refusing to approve the divorce, and the more I think of it, the more I see her point. It is justice vs expediency, martyrdom vs the middle road. Perhaps his family would not have loved him as deeply as they did had he taken that middle road. In the end, he had no choice, really, as so many victims of Henry VIII found.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

King John - A King Beset

There are fewer books more pleasant than those that draw you in to dispel your set of preconceptions and received hardened assumptions about a historical figures. At least I think this to be true after reading "The Maligned Monarch" by Alan Lloyd (1972) a biography of King John with a difference - the presentation of this dark king as not so bad after all.

John was hampered by a prejudiced press of clerical dudes - he couldn't do anything right by them due to the complicated relationship between he, his archbishops, and his pope. Following a king that hardly acknowledged England as somewhere important (Richard), John was to travel the country coast to coast, in peace time as an adjudicator and as a the Royal Commander in the war against the 25 barons. Many of the myths regarding John were fanciful fabrications by such as Matthew Paris, a chronicler always looking for a good story.

John made some serious mistakes, including starving a noblewoman and her son to death, but Lloyd asserts that he was quite the man of his rough times. Jean Plaidy's "Prince of Darkness" set out all the horrific stories chapter by chapter - and I am glad I read her take before this biography, as Lloyd refuted each horrific story in turn.

Oh and then there was the baronial war and that Magna Carta thing - a charter celebrated far beyond its due - only affecting freemen (one-quarter of the population) for one thing - and that warm day at Runnymede didn't solve the differences between baron and king. John kept his side of the bargain and seemed to bend backwards to try to bring peace to his land under his control.

Why is Richard the Lionheart celebrated as chivalrous although he shafted his Queen Berengaria, and John, by account a loving husband with a brood of children to carry on in the 13th century, is vilified as a faithless womanizer? It is all in the propaganda of the times.

Another note - John inherited a financial mess after Richard bankrupted the nation when it collected untold riches to ransom him after his capture in Germany. Henry VI inherited a financial mess after Henry V all but bankrupted England in search of chivalric empiric glory. Glory takes money, but such a cost.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Secret Alchemy

Let me say first that "A Secret Alchemy"(by Emma Darwin) is a moving trance-like work of historical and contemporary fiction. Presenting parallel unfoldings of the tragic story of Anthony Woodville at the mercy of Richard of Gloucester (Richard III) and of the heart-twisting homecoming of a professor of history studying the books of Anthony and his sister Queen Elizabeth (Woodville), this work left me breathless.

There is a leap from the study of the books in their possession to a narrative revealing how Anthony and Elizabeth felt about the cruel blows of irreversible history as they walk toward their fates. Their story is laid out alongside Professor Una's leap from living in childhood memory connected to a professional press to her discoveries of the intricacies of her own past, including both that of the press that is in a position to be saved from ruin, and also her connection with one Mark who, though an outsider to the press, is a man central in its story. Books are life. The alchemy is the leap.

Anthony Woodville is noble, sympathetic, a martyr among many to being on the wrong side when that side changes with time. Elizabeth, who impresses me more in each novel she appears in, is faced with the worst torture of all, that of not knowing the fate of her prince children. The 15th century characters are breathing, as well as those in the 20th century. The descriptive language is well done, to be savored. The story is strong, especially in its conclusions. This book must be the best of the fictive attempts to solve the riddle of the Princes in the Tower.