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