Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Merry Monarch's Wife: Catherine of Braganza

Several of Jean Plaidy's historical novels have been re-printed in recent years, particularly the books in her "Queens of England" series. One recent re-release is "The Merry Monarch's Wife," (originally published in 1991) a biographical novel about Catherine of Braganza, wife of King Charles II in the late 17th century. As with all books in this series, the story is told in first person by the queen looking back on her life -- along with the woman's repeated expressions of "if only" regret and how she might have done things differently. In each "Queens" book, Jean Plaidy features a character and basic story previously included in earlier series. For example, the "Courts of Love" Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine also is found in the first four books of the "Plantagenet Saga." Catherine of Braganza, the Merry Monarch's Wife, is also featured in the second book of the "King Charles II" trilogy (part of the overall Stuart Saga about the Stuart monarchs): A Health Unto His Majesty.

Through the earlier "King Charles II" series and this Queens of England companion book, Plaidy brings her great historical research to the interesting and romantic story of King Charles II and his merry England, the British Court of the Restoration Period. "The Merry Monarch's Wife" is a decent enough telling of the same story from the King Charles II trilogy, with some additional material specific to the life of Catherine before and after her marriage to Charles II. The many characters at court, including Charles' mistresses and extended family members, are sufficiently developed for a story that tells the details of life at court as well as the political events of the time, including especially the conflict between Catholics and Protestants. These novels about Catherine of Braganza bring out many interesting details about the tragic Queen, who introduced Britains to their (until recently) favorite beverage of tea, yet as a foreigner and Catholic was unpopular in her new country -- and in the end failed in the major duty of a Queen, to provide the country with an heir. Throughout, we see the young, naive and sheltered woman who was sent to a foreign country to become the wife of a promiscuous man who could not be faithful to one woman, and yet still loved Charles and clung to her position.

The story itself, as a part of the English Restoration, is one of marked licentiousness, the English extreme reaction against the preceding years of Cromwell's Puritan rule. Plaidy even included an author's note addressing this matter in the introduction to her King Charles II story -- an explanation no doubt needed in the 1950s -- along with her justification for what others' called her too favorable portrayal of Charles himself. This actual history shows the real depravity of mankind which as an overall society cannot yield to the holy and moral life desired by God, and bears out the Calvinist understanding that without God's work in the heart, man cannot conform to God's moral standards -- the underlying reason why Cromwell's Puritan England failed. Plaidy thankfully wrote in an earlier time and thus does not include the common vulgarity and gratuitous sex scenes so typical of many modern-day writers. Yet her telling of the story clearly states her own attitudes, as so aptly expressed in the Billy Joel song -- "I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints / the sinners are much more fun."

Plaidy (real name Eleanor Hibbert) was near the end of her life and career when she wrote this 9th book in the "Queens of England" series; she died in 1993. As such -- and as noted by other reviewers -- these later books lack the quality of her earlier works. Yet many of her earlier works, some written in the 1950s and 1960s, are out of print and hard to come by. Three Rivers Press has re-released the later Plaidy works to re-introduce Jean Plaidy to a new generation, and hopefully they will see enough interest to also re-print Plaidy's earlier works.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Review of DEATH COMES BY AMPHORA, by Roger Hudson

Reviewed by Cyril Gillen

This most enjoyable and illuminating of novels combines the best of several genres. As a historical mystery, Death Comes by Amphora by Roger Hudson is both a captivating portrait of Athens in the 5th century BC and an engrossing detective story but it is also a story of revenge, a political thriller, a coming of age love story and even has elements of a family saga. The period falls into the gap between the account of the Persian Invasions by Herodotus and the Peloponnesian War described by Thucydides and, as a secondary/high school classics teacher, I feel that, for a work of fiction, it fills the gap incredibly well, testifying to the thoroughness of the research behind it.

The author makes the Athens of 461 B.C. come alive as, through the eyes of the 18-year-old Lysanias, we witness a city in the throes of political turmoil and revolution. Our young tyro has just come to Athens and suddenly finds himself driven to avenge the murder of his wealthy uncle Klereides. We explore a thriving, pulsating city – its markets, shipyards, dye works, building sites, banks and banquets. We meet its politicians, generals, bankers, merchants, artists and artisans as Lysanias and his elderly slave Sindron discover that many of them had reason for wanting his uncle out of the way. They all seem so modern woven into this rich tapestry of courage, nobility, generosity, cowardice, sensuality, venality and humanity.

The atmospheric account of the murder of Klereides that launches the novel is worthy of any bestselling crime thriller. The subsequent detective work of the ‘dynamic duo’ of master and slave, Lysanias and Sindron, is worthy of Morse and his sidekick Lewis. The cast of possible suspects would satisfy Poirot. The clinical examination of the physical evidence makes it akin to an episode of “C.S.I. Athens”. The pace and suspense established in Chapter 1 never falter and culminate in a conclusion which is as credible and unexpected as it is riveting.

It is illuminating to see that Athens at that time had what appears to be a very contemporary combination of power hungry politicians, corrupt businessmen, amoral bankers and a most fickle Assembly and populace. Politicians and generals who had best served their city were often rewarded for their troubles with exile by citizens who had a most healthy fear of hubris. In a world dominated by men, we meet an absorbing gallery of women who have found ways to empower themselves as courtesans, wives, mothers and mistresses. The beautiful Aspasia, future wife of Pericles, provides a ration of sexual interest as our young hero is initiated into much more than the customs and mores of the city.

I would recommend this novel to all classical students without hesitation as well as to crime fiction enthusiasts. Some classicists might debate one or two of the historical interpretations (no bad thing) but there is much erudition behind the entirely believable descriptions of the city, customs, businesses, politics, public and private characters. There is a vitality in the writing which engages the reader and makes learning painless – the dream of any teacher. We admire the aristocratic General Kimon and his selfless acceptance of his fate. We are surprised to find the wily Themistocles back meddling in political affairs. We lament the death of Ephialtes and look forward to the time when his apprentice Pericles will preside over a golden age in this great city. This could perhaps supply Roger Hudson with the setting for what would be a most welcome sequel.

Death Comes by Amphora is an excellent read for anyone who has an interest in the classical world, or has not – for anyone who likes a good tale well told and one which leaves us at the end just a little wiser.

Book and Reviewer Information:

Death Comes by Amphora
By Roger Hudson
Twenty First Century Publishers
ISBN: 978-1-904433-68-2

Review by Cyril Gillen
Classics Teacher
St. Joseph’s School

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Hearth in Candlewood: Candlewood Trilogy in 1840s New York State

A Hearth in Candlewood, by Delia Parr, begins a nice “Candlewood Trilogy” series. Set in 1841, this story chronicles the lives of several residents at a boarding house in a canal village in upstate New York.

Widow Emma Garrett, in her early fifties, recently sold her general store and bought the Hill House. Her new business venture includes several residents, including her mother-in-law (another “Widow Garrett”) and an elderly former pastor, as well as guests who make frequent trips to the area. Two teenage workers, Liesl and Ditty, provide help to the kitchen and general upkeep of the boarding house.

When an elderly grandmother and widow runs away from her feuding sons to stay at Hill House, Emma quickly becomes involved in trying to reconcile the sons with their mother, but encounters problems along the way.

The canals running along nearby are ever present in the background, named as the mode of transportation for people visiting Candlewood, New York. Occasionally we even meet characters who work at the ship yards, the major employment of the area. However, this story is more focused on the actual characters, with few details of the canal operations, for a story that could take place in any time or place.

The story is the focus, a nice, “chicken soup for the soul” type of feel-good story about nice, simple characters in this village. Unlike most Christian historicals, the main characters are older adults. As such, their problems are not the exciting, page-turner suspense type, but the more mundane everyday problems of life. Emma knows nothing of today’s big societal problems, and instead frets about such things as: what people will think of her for wearing unconventional clothing when she goes horseback riding with two eccentric visitors. Or, how to keep Liesl and Ditty at the boarding house and away from the temptations of boys (at least, unchaperoned visits). And, for the biggest and somewhat humorous one, how to handle several renegade chickens that run loose in the town and then decide to roost at the Hill House.

Throughout the story, Emma always seeks solutions, wanting the best for everyone around her. She also sees herself as a good business woman, with plenty of experience from running a general store and now the boarding house. Yet her biggest worry she keeps to herself: news from her lawyer that she bought the boarding house from an unscrupulous salesman who did not have the right to sell it to her – and thus, she does not legally own title to the Hill House. So Emma must consider her own past actions, questioning her motives and judgement, as she continually remembers to trust God in everything.

A Hearth in Candlewood is a nice beginning to the “Candlewood Trilogy.” Some conflicts are resolved, but the biggest question, Emma’s questionable ownership of the actual property, are left for us to wonder – for the next story in the series.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Under the Northern Lights

Under the Northern Lights, by Tracie Peterson, continues the “Alaskan Quest” story begun in Summer of the Midnight Sun. Beginning in September 1915, Under the Northern Lights picks up from the previous story’s cliffhanger ending, and finally resolves that story, while continuing the relationship issues between Jacob and Helaina.

This novel clearly works as part of a continuing story. It assumes familiarity with the first book, and as a middle piece it leaves another unclear ending. The final installment in this trilogy, Whispers of Winter, will be published this November (2006). Recognizing that the series is really one longer story, the publisher will soon also publish the “Alaskan Quest” as a complete set.

Chase Kincaid has already abducted Helaina Beecham, the Pinkerton agent originally sent to find the man responsible for crimes back East. Now Chase abducts Leah as well, and part of the story involves the typical “chase” story of the abducted ones with their captor, and their loved ones following their trail. Beyond this subplot (which is resolved halfway through the book), though, we see Leah and Helaina grow and mature from their experiences. Leah learns to trust God, even when bad things happen to her, and accept God’s ability to heal her soul. Meanwhile, Helaina must deal with her attitude of justice at all costs, and learn that some things are more important than what money can buy.

Under the Northern Lights continues the fast-paced and enjoyable reading, along with more time getting to know the main characters: Jayce Kincaid and his evil twin brother Chase, Leah (now married to Jayce), Jacob Barringer and Helaina Beecham. Though some story elements are clearly far-out—such as an evil twin abducting his brother’s wife and headed into the wilds of Alaska as winter sets in—many relational aspects are presented realistically enough.

The historical and regional background is again well-established. The “real world” of the lower 48 states is in the background, with only brief references to the events of World War I. However, the day-to-day survival life in Alaska is ever-present, a simple yet attentive world in which the characters must always be vigilant and prepared for the weather. The author skillfully blends her research into the ongoing story—through the many chores and activities of a small Alaskan village, along with great dialog and interactions with the missionaries and local natives—to create an interesting picture of Alaska in 1915 and 1916.

Under the Northern Lights is an enjoyable historical fiction novel, a great follow-up to the beginning of this “Alaskan Quest” story.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Mozart's Sister

Mozart’s Sister, by Nancy Moser, is the story of Mozart’s older sister, Nannerl. Told in the first person in the style of an autobiography, it tells of the Mozart family’s life beginning with their international tours as children, up to Mozart’s death at age 35. Throughout, we experience the particular feelings and frustrations of Nannerl, whose talent was overlooked because of her gender. The story is in fact a rather sad one, of a woman always in the shadow of her controlling father and genius brother, denied both the musical career and the normal life of marriage and family.

Mozart’s Sister is an interesting and easy reading, with its combination of biography and a narrative with characters and dialogue. The main characters are developed quite well (father, mother, Nannerl, and “Wolfie”), but other characters come and go and are not as clearly developed. But such should be expected, as the focus on the family members reflects the historical research, in which more is known about the Mozarts than the other people they interacted with.

The author does an excellent job with the historical research, presenting a story as true as possible while filling in the gaps of what is known and not known in the Mozart family history. As the author notes at the end, she took advantage of the great collection of letters from the Mozart family; much of the dialogue comes straight from the actual letters. The setting of late 18th century Europe, and the larger context of events going on in England, France, and Austria, is also well established. Names of nobility are mentioned and introduced throughout--some names well known today, such as Marie Antoinette, due to what would happen to them in later years. Other names, including the political leaders of Austria and even the musical and political leaders of Salzburg, where the family resides when not traveling, are less familiar; these names of nobility and leadership complete the picture of the broader, political landscape of Europe especially during the 1760s through 1780s. Opera is of course a big part of music at the time, and the book gives some attention to these great music events in Italy as well as Vienna, Austria.

As with most “biography” stories, the best parts are early on, the person’s childhood. Later on, the story tends to drag at times, especially as Nannerl tends to be rather morose and moping. Still, the story has great educational value, an entertaining way to learn more about this great classical music composer and his family. As a “Christian” story, though, it is rather on the weak side, since the topic involves somewhat nominal Catholics with glaring character faults. Nannerl has some sense of God and religion, and accepts “God’s will” for her life, but the story overall lacks the specifically evangelical Christian themes that are more easily presented in other fictional settings.

Mozart’s Sister is still an enjoyable read, a great way to learn the untold story of this forgotten woman, Mozart’s older sister, and the particular trials and challenges she endured.