Wednesday, August 19, 2009

How Much Change?

I took a flight of fancy during my recovery from my operation last month - read two very pleasant court romances by Susan Holloway Scott - "The French Mistress" about Charles II's last main squeeze, Louise de Keroualle, and "Duchess", regarding Queen Anne's right arm, Sarah Churchill (pictured). They were very easy to read and quite entertaining - and led me to wonder about the evolution of court life in England over the early modern period. Both stories were told in the first person, with just enough color and not too much sartorial detail.

I know little about the period - the weakening of the monarchy due to its unresponsiveness to social movements (could that be?), the rise of Parliament, the prominent placement on the world stage. The nobility did weird stuff with the styling of their hair. The presence of lap dogs...\

Perhaps similar to the courtesans of Ancient Greece, the mistresses of Restoration England, at least as Louise is portrayed here, have unexpected political influence. Indeed, Louise is employed as a spy for the court of France. Sarah Churchill, of course, exacted great pull with Queen Anne, though she never acted as a courtesan, marrying as a young lady in waiting.

We have here come a long way from Margaret of Anjou's court, dingy as they say, with Elizabeth Woodville appearing far too fetchingly beautiful a lady for comfort, and also the ladies-in-waiting stitching altar cloths in the Tudor court. Seems like Restoration ladies played a ridiculous amount of cards rather than employing their hands at needlework. Their gaming debts remind me of modern credit card debt holes. Somehow the money wasn't real.

What was real was the commerce of the nation and its military might. The display of the court remains the same - the concept of show equalling majesty that it did in Tudor England.

I realized this post is but ramblings, but historical fiction at its best for me elicits same. I am sure I will read more of Ms. Scott's work.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

"The Queen's Sorrow"

"The Queen's Sorrow" by Suzannah Dunn, gives a portrait of England under Mary Tudor that has thick background brush strokes fronted by delicious detail. With a very deceptive cover, it is marginally about Queen Mary herself, but rather a Spaniard in her Philip's entourage named Rafael. Rafael starts with almost no English and goes through his experience in Tudor London with thoughtfulness. He lodges with an English family that soon goes to the country, leaving a skeleton crew behind, including a housekeeper that is drawn poetically and lovingly by the author and Rafael as well.

Rafael is in England to execute plans for a sundial at court, a paradoxical commission as there seems to be little sun. His preoccupation throughout is going home, an elusive event, even after the sundial project is in jeopardy. Cecily, the housekeeper, has a son, Nicholas, who recalls Rafael's own son in Spain. The story of these three plays out with a backdrop of burnings, which shock Rafael ("They don't burn people in England!").

This book drew me in completely, and I felt like I was looking into Rafael's experience fully. Also I acquired a poetical picture of Marian England, a period of which I know little.

Two Annes, Different Results

I must confess to a fascination with the wives of Henry VIII, though their stories be a century along from my area of greater interest (Lancaster and York). Our century is a huge distance from the 19th, but I have yet to learn how different the 15th and 16th centuries were in practice. In any case, it was easy to read two novels about two Annes, "The Concubine" by Norah Lofts, and "My Lady of Cleves" by Margaret Campbell Barnes.

Anne Boleyn, briefly "The Most Happy" and Anne of Cleves, for awhile the least happy. Of all the wives, Anne of Cleves, initially called the Flanders Mare by her boorish self centered royal husband, and deeply insulted, turned out to be the only one who left Henry with her head and a comfortable home intact. The comparison between their respective visages is deceptive, the old story of the lack of the surety of surfaces. In Anne Boleyn's case, Henry is enchanted with a vivacious sprightly young thing, and in Anne of Cleves' case, he falls for what he sees in a portrait. He falls out of love in both cases, cruelly so, and all in a moment, as both authors describe the Annes' individual catastrophes.

Both of these women are presented very sympathetically, and it is interesting to speculate how their lives would have played out if they hadn't fallen under the royal eye. Would Anne Boleyn have been hardened by grief to dip into ambition due to the loss of young love in any case? Would Anne of Cleves have glided in the Flemish countryside unremarked? Anne of Cleves, in the royal bedchamber - "if he only gives me children" she could bear it. Anne Boleyn totally devastated by the birth of Elizabeth, and crazed under the pressure that was life and death.

I have ordered a biography of Jane Seymour, so my preoccupation with the wives will continue. What a collection of gutsy women! What a king trapped by circumstance and his view of his place in history.