The Confessions of Young Nero is a fictional account of the early years of Nero – or Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, to give him the name by which he wasThe Confessions of Young Nero is a fictional account of the early years of Nero – or Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, to give him the name by which he was known as a child. Narrated in his own words, Nero begins by taking us through the events of his childhood, starting with one of his earliest memories: the time his uncle, the Emperor Caligula, tried to drown him. This is the young Nero’s first experience of the ruthless plotting and scheming which surrounds those close to the imperial family; it is never far from his thoughts as he grows older and, following the deaths of first Caligula and then his successor Claudius, becomes emperor himself.
Although, as I’ve mentioned, most of the story is narrated by Nero, there are several much shorter sections scattered throughout the book narrated by two other characters: Locusta, a poisoner whose skills are very much in demand, and Acte, the former slave who becomes Nero’s lover. This was one of the least successful aspects of the book, in my opinion. I really don’t think those sections added anything to the story and I’m not sure why those two characters in particular were chosen, as there were plenty of others who had just as much significance in Nero’s life.
Nero himself is portrayed much more sympathetically than I’d expected. Admittedly I don’t know a huge amount about him, but from the little I had previously read I had formed a very different impression of Nero than the one given by this novel. I can see from Margaret George’s author’s note that she has deliberately taken a revisionist approach to Nero’s story, believing that he has been unfairly treated by history and that some of the accounts we rely on for information about him were written to discredit him. I can accept this (it reminds me of the way Tudor propaganda was intended to discredit Richard III) but I personally found this version of Nero far too nice! Nothing was ever really his fault and on occasions where he did commit a wicked act, it was because he had been driven to it and left with no choice. I think a more complex, morally ambiguous character would have been of more appeal to me.
I did like the characterisation of the main female characters in the novel, particularly Messalina, Agrippina and Poppaea, three ambitious women each of whom wields power in her own way. Something which comes across very strongly throughout the novel – and especially when one of these women is involved – is the continuous sense of danger and the way in which anyone of importance in the Roman Empire had to be constantly on their guard against an attempt on their life.
Having such limited knowledge of Ancient Rome, I found the complicated family relationships difficult to follow at first, but I think Margaret George does an excellent job of clarifying them for readers like myself and by the time I was a few chapters into the book I was starting to get Nero’s family tree clear in my mind. As this is quite a long novel and only tells the first half of Nero’s story, it allows plenty of time to explore the major personal and political incidents which take place during this stage of Nero’s life; some of this was familiar to me, but much of it was new and I found it all fascinating. While important events such as Boudicca’s revolt are described in detail, Margaret George also devotes many pages to discussing Nero’s love of music, poetry and sport. I can appreciate how much research must have gone into the writing of this novel!
I’m pleased that I’ve read this book as I think I’ve learned a lot from it – and despite having some negative feelings about it as well as positive ones, I do want to read the rest of the story and will be looking out for the sequel. Meanwhile, I’ve been reminded that I have Margaret George’s novel on Mary, Queen of Scots on my TBR – I’m looking forward to it as that’s a period of history I’m much more comfortable with! ...more
This is the second novel I’ve read recently about Jane Shore, the mistress of King Edward IV. The other was Mary Bennett’s Jane Shore, which I found qThis is the second novel I’ve read recently about Jane Shore, the mistress of King Edward IV. The other was Mary Bennett’s Jane Shore, which I found quite disappointing. Having read two of Philip Lindsay’s other historical fiction novels, I was interested to see how he would tell the story of Jane’s life.
Set during the Wars of the Roses, the story is narrated by Jane herself, beginning as she is forced to walk through the streets of London dressed in her kirtle as public penance for her part in the conspiracy between Will Hastings and the Woodvilles. Jane then looks back on her life, starting with her unhappy marriage to the mercer William Shore and then taking us through her romances with Edward IV, Hastings and the Earl of Dorset. Lindsay ignores other possible facets of Jane’s character to focus almost exclusively on her relationships with the other men in her life. I appreciate that Jane was a royal mistress, after all, and not famous for much else, but I still felt that this book needed something more.
However, this book is completely different from Bennett’s! Lindsay’s Jane is a much more forceful personality who decides what she wants out of life and then goes and gets it. I expect the fact that this novel was published much more recently – in the 1950s – will have something to do with that. But despite Jane making a point of telling us that she expects no rewards or favours from the king in return for becoming his mistress and that she always does her best to help the poor and needy, I didn’t think she was a particularly likeable or sympathetic character. She uses her beauty to get her own way or to manipulate the men around her and I found her quite a shallow, controlling person.
Things do become more interesting and more compelling in the final third of the novel, when Edward’s death throws the court and the country into disarray once more after several years of relative stability. However, this is very much Jane’s story, so politics are pushed into the background apart from when they touch directly on Jane’s life. Still, I thought The Merry Mistress was a much better novel than Mary Bennett’s Jane Shore. ...more
I hadn’t read anything by Geraldine Brooks until now, but I had heard so much praise for her books that I knew I would have to try one of them eventuaI hadn’t read anything by Geraldine Brooks until now, but I had heard so much praise for her books that I knew I would have to try one of them eventually. I was pleased to have an opportunity to read her latest novel, The Secret Chord, even though the subject didn’t initially sound very appealing to me. It tells the story of King David from the Old Testament, and as my knowledge of Biblical kings is almost non-existent, I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this book!
As the novel opens, David has decided that he wants the story of his life written down so that people will know what he was like, not just as a king but as a man. His friend and prophet, Natan, is given the task of writing the account, but as there’s a limit to how much Natan really knows about David, it’s necessary for him to seek the help of other people who can offer insights into David’s life and character. And so Natan sets out to speak to David’s family, including several of his wives, recording their thoughts and their memories, before taking up the story himself and remembering the dramatic circumstances of his own first encounter with the king.
Natan slowly pieces together the information he is given and a portrait of David begins to emerge: a portrait of a complex, flawed and fascinating human being. A former shepherd boy who has risen from his humble origins to become King of Israel, David’s personality is a mass of contradictions. He’s a beloved king, an accomplished musician and writer of Psalms, and loves his sons so much that he’s blind to their faults; on the other hand, he can be heartless and cruel, particularly where his first wife Mikhal is concerned, or when he sends his soldier Uriah to be killed in battle because he is lusting after Uriah’s wife, Batsheva.
As I’ve already said, before starting to read this novel I knew almost nothing about David (apart from the story of David and Goliath, which is only one small episode in David’s life) so I was able to learn a lot from The Secret Chord. Although the novel is narrated by Natan, who is himself an interesting character with his prophecies and uncontrollable visions of the future, we also hear from a wide range of other characters. Through the eyes of David’s mother, Nizevet, his brother, Shammah, and his wives Mikhal, Avigail and Batsheva, we gain a better understanding of who David really is, as well as getting to know the men and women who played significant roles in his life. Not all of this is told in strictly chronological order, but I can understand why the author chose to structure the story the way she does.
Another choice Geraldine Brooks makes is to use the Hebrew names for characters and places. I was completely unfamiliar with these and sometimes it took me a while to realise exactly who or what I was reading about. Instead of Samuel, for example, we have Shmuel; Solomon becomes Shlomo and Joab becomes Yoav, while the Philistines are the Plishtim and Bethlehem is Beit Lethem. In a way, I liked this because it helped me to think of this as an original work of historical fiction rather than a re-write of the Bible stories, but it also made the book more challenging to read than it might otherwise have been. Once I settled into the style of writing and got used to the unusual names, however, I started to really enjoy The Secret Chord. I’m sure I’ll be reading more by Geraldine Brooks. ...more
Elizabeth Shore, known as Jane, was a mistress of King Edward IV of England. She often appears in fiction set during the Wars of the Roses as a minorElizabeth Shore, known as Jane, was a mistress of King Edward IV of England. She often appears in fiction set during the Wars of the Roses as a minor character – depending on the book, either as a bad influence or a comfort to Edward in his declining health, and a possible conspirator in the rebellion which followed his death – but several novels have also been written specifically about Jane. This one was written in the 19th century by Mary Bennett, a truly ‘forgotten’ author if ever there was one. It seems that she had several historical novels published, though, so she must have enjoyed some success at the time.
As Jane was a relatively unimportant historical figure, there is still a lot that we don’t know about her today – and obviously even less was known in Bennett’s day. If you do choose to read this book, then, you should be aware that although it does follow the basic outline of Jane’s life, not everything in it is factually correct.
Bennett’s Jane is portrayed, in typical Victorian style, as an innocent, virtuous young woman at the mercy of the king, his friend Will Hastings, and several other men who want to take her from her father and husband. She is the sort of person who has things happen to her rather than making them happen herself, which means she is not the most interesting of characters to read about. In fact, I didn’t feel that any of the characters in this novel ever came to life on the page or seemed like real people at all.
This book was entertaining in parts – mainly when the action switched to Wales and the story of two fictional characters, Nesta Llewellyn and the musician Leolin – but very tedious in others and wouldn’t be the best introduction to Jane Shore’s life. ...more
London Roses by Dora Greenwell McChesney, first published in 1903, follows the stories of a group of people who meet in the Manuscript Room at the BriLondon Roses by Dora Greenwell McChesney, first published in 1903, follows the stories of a group of people who meet in the Manuscript Room at the British Museum. Rhoda Comstock is a young American woman who has come to London to stay with her English cousin, Una Thorpe, and the two strike up a friendship one day with journalist Stephen Fulford and his brother Thomas, getting together to discuss their research and to engage in lighthearted debate about the differences between life in Britain and America. When Stephen makes the sudden decision to go to South Africa to report on the Boer War, he leaves behind a scandal which puts Thomas in a difficult position and poses a threat not only to the bond between the two brothers but also to their newly formed relationships with Rhoda and Una.
London Roses is packed with interesting ideas and themes – loyalty and friendship; the importance of trust; adjusting to life in a different country – although none of these things are explored in as much depth as they could have been. The characters also had the potential to be a lot more complex and well-developed than they actually were. None of the main four ever came fully to life and I was much more intrigued by the character of Anthony Pettigrew, an old man Rhoda nicknames the Moth, who has spent thirty years coming to the British Museum to research books that he’s never written. On a more positive note, there are some nice descriptions of London and the Museum! ...more
Rosemary Sutcliff is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years, having heard only good things about her work. I wasn’t planning to start with thisRosemary Sutcliff is an author I’ve been meaning to read for years, having heard only good things about her work. I wasn’t planning to start with this particular book (The Eagle of the Ninth and Sword at Sunset are the ones which have been recommended to me most often) but as I had the opportunity to read The Rider of the White Horse via NetGalley and have been enjoying other books set in the same time period recently, I thought I would give it a try.
Many of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books were written for younger readers, but this is one of her adult novels, published in 1959. The ‘rider’ of the title is Sir Thomas Fairfax, also known as Black Tom, commander-in-chief of the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil War, and the ‘white horse’ refers to his stallion, White Surrey. Sutcliff’s novel tells Fairfax’s story, from the events leading up to the conflict, to his exploits on the battlefield and the formation of the New Model Army. But this is also the story of Anne Fairfax, the devoted wife who – along with their daughter, Little Moll – follows her husband to war.
Written largely from Anne’s perspective, The Rider of the White Horse is a moving portrayal of the relationship between husband and wife. It’s not so much a sweeping romance as a quiet, poignant tale of a woman with a passionate love for a man whom she knows does not – and probably never will – feel the same way about her. Despite this, Anne wants to be there for Thomas whenever he needs her; she wants to help in any way she can. Following him on campaign, travelling from one town to another, a lot of time is spent anxiously awaiting news of Thomas, but Anne also has adventures of her own – including one episode in which she is captured by the Royalist commander, Lord Newcastle.
As for Thomas Fairfax himself, I have to admit that he’s someone I previously knew very little about. Although I’ve read other books (both fiction and non-fiction) about the Civil War, Fairfax tends to be overshadowed by Oliver Cromwell. In this novel, he comes across as a decent, humble, honourable man who loves his daughter and – even if he is unable to return her feelings – appreciates and respects his wife. He is portrayed very sympathetically, which I hadn’t really expected as from the little I’d read about him I had picked up a more negative impression. Of course, that could be partly because I tend to be drawn more to the Royalist side anyway (not for any good reason, I have to confess, but purely because from a fictional point of view, they seem more colourful and interesting). I have no idea how accurate this portrait of Thomas is – or how much of Anne’s story is based on fact – but I did like this version of both characters.
I’ve never been a fan of battle scenes as I often find them boring and difficult to follow. There are several in this novel and while I could see that they were detailed and well-written, they didn’t interest me as much as the domestic and family scenes. Luckily for me, there are plenty of these too. What I’ll remember most, though, is the character of Anne and her love for a man who is simply not able to give her what she wants, cherishing each moment of happiness, however brief and fleeting…“You could not hold a winged thing; you could not even perfectly remember it afterwards, for that, too, was a kind of holding.”...more
As someone who prefers to learn through fiction, I often struggle to find the motivation to start reading a long non-fiction book, especially one by aAs someone who prefers to learn through fiction, I often struggle to find the motivation to start reading a long non-fiction book, especially one by an author I’ve never tried before. I’ve had this one on my Kindle since last year waiting until it was the right time to read it – and that time came a couple of weeks ago after I read The White Witch by Elizabeth Goudge, a novel in which one of the main characters fights alongside Prince Rupert in the English Civil War. Rupert has a relatively minor role in that novel, and in others that I’ve read, but I thought it would be interesting to find out more about him.
Prince Rupert of the Rhine, as he is usually known, was born in Prague in 1619. His mother, Elizabeth, was the sister of King Charles I of England, while his father, Frederick, was the Elector Palatine and – briefly – the King of Bohemia. When Frederick lost his crown to the Habsburg Emperor, his wife and young children were forced to flee Prague and take refuge in The Hague. Growing up in exile, Rupert gained military experience in the Thirty Years War before coming to England and joining his uncle, Charles I, at the beginning of the Civil War.
As the commander of the Royalist cavalry, Rupert was one of the most colourful characters of the Civil War. When most of us think of a ‘cavalier’ we probably form a mental image of someone very like Prince Rupert: young, tall and handsome, with long, flowing hair and dressed in the latest court fashions. To the Parliamentarians, however, the cavaliers were villains, guilty of theft, rape, drunkenness and all sorts of debauchery. As the most iconic of the cavaliers, and the King’s most famous general, Rupert was the main target of enemy propaganda – he was even accused of witchcraft and his beloved white poodle, Boye, was suspected of being his familiar.
Earlier in the conflict, Rupert led the Royalists to some impressive victories, before suffering defeats at Marston Moor and Naseby. While Charles Spencer’s portrayal of Rupert is generally very favourable, I do think he does a good job here of showing why the Royalist cause ultimately failed and why rivalries and divisions between Rupert and his fellow commanders, as well as some very poor decisions, contributed to their downfall. Spencer does seem to like and admire Rupert (which must be an advantage when writing historical biography) but at the same time, he is aware of Rupert’s negative points and not just his positive ones.
The Civil War years only take up about a third of the book, but Prince Rupert’s military career continued after his part in the war ended. After being banished from England in 1646, he became a Royalist pirate, attacking Parliament’s shipping in the Caribbean. Then, following the Restoration of his cousin, Charles II, in 1660, he returned to England and fought in the Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars as a senior naval commander. Both of these episodes of the Prince’s life are given a lot of attention in this book, as are his final years (he died in 1682).
I thoroughly enjoyed this fascinating biography – Charles Spencer’s writing is clear and easy to follow, and I even found the descriptions of battle tactics and military strategies compelling, which is unusual for me! The only time I thought it began to drag a little bit was during the naval sections (I always seem to struggle with books set at sea, which I accept is usually my fault rather than the authors’).
What I found particularly interesting was the information on Rupert’s other accomplishments away from his army and navy career: his scientific work and the part he played in the founding of the Royal Society; his role in the development of the mezzotint printing technique; and his governorship of the Hudson’s Bay Company (Rupert’s Land in Canada was named after him). I wasn’t aware of any of this and hadn’t appreciated just how much Prince Rupert had achieved in his lifetime.
I would be happy to read more non-fiction by Charles Spencer but I’m not sure that any of his other books really appeal to me. He is the younger brother of the late Princess Diana (something I didn’t know when I first started reading) and most of his work seems to be concerned with his family history. If anyone has read any other books on Prince Rupert, though – either fiction or non-fiction – I would love some suggestions. ...more