Tag Archives: english history

My Name is Will, by Jess Winfield

Title: My Name is Will: A Novel of Sex, Drugs, and ShakespeareMyNameisWill
Author: Jess Winfield
Year of Publication: 2008
Length: 304 pages
Genre: historical fiction / modern fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 2 stars. Maybe.

I have conflicted feelings about this book. I wanted to like it, somewhat enjoyed half of it, and could’ve entirely done without the other half.

My Name is Will tells two stories in parallel. The William section, set in 1582, follows William Shakespeare through a tumultuous few months of his life, where he woos women, gets entangled in a Catholic conspiracy, becomes a man, and winds up accidentally married to Anne Hathaway. The Willie section of the book, set in the 1980s, follows a lackluster graduate student through a weekend where he tries to defend an indefensible thesis topic, bangs a lot of women, gets stoned a lot, and winds up accidentally smuggling drugs to a Renaissance faire.

The William section of the book is pretty fun — though a total fantasy hinging on a highly inventive narrative. But whatever, I can deal with that. The writing here occasionally soars, because Winfield has a good grip on rhetoric. For someone who knows what syllepsis looks like and can spot anthimeria at fifty paces, these chapters can be a real treat. Unfortunately, it can never sustain that high quality for very long. There are plenty of bits that drag. Winfield occasionally belabors his history to cram in the backstory that not everyone will have when it comes to Shakespeare’s life, conditions in mid-16th century Warwickshire, or the politics of Elizabeth’s reign. And then it sort of unravels at the end. Events collide into each other with bizarre pacing, and there are a few tangents that most definitely come out of nowhere.

The Willie section of the book… if that were all the book was, it would’ve been a DNF for me. I found Willie to be 3000% unsympathetic. I mean, really, I’m supposed to feel bad for this entitled, lazy-ass grad student, who can’t be bothered to finish the thesis and get the degree his father has paid his way for, because he’s too busy trying to figure out how to nail PhD candidates and spends all his father’s money on weed and mushrooms? Seriously? That is not a protagonist to me. That is someone I want to kick in the shins. I am thoroughly unimpressed by druggie culture, and even more unimpressed by crappy students who give academia a bad name. This made it impossible for me to connect with the character or to care about his story. I didn’t care if he managed to make his drug deal to get the money he so desperately needed because his father (sort of) (finally) cut him off, except insofar as I wanted the arrogant little snot to get arrested.

There were also times in both sections when it felt like Winfield was trying to be gritty for grittiness’s sake. I’m not someone who enjoys crudeness. I know some people appreciate that in their fiction, but I’m not one of them. I don’t need to be reminded every other page that people piss, shit, fart, and are full of pus. I just don’t. Maybe that makes me squeamish or something, but it just puts me off.

And then there were the female characters. Between both storylines, there was exactly one female character who had a purpose beyond being a receptacle for sperm — Shakespeare’s mother, Mary Arden. And we don’t even see that much from her until the last quarter of the book. Every other women in the book, no matter her station, her purported intellect, whatever, just seems to fall flat on her back with her legs spread for William or Willie. It’s beyond ridiculous. Willie’s section in particular is just the pornographic fantasy of an emotionally stunted twenty-something male. Lord knows I don’t mind sex in a book — as I’m sure y’all can tell from the number of romance novels I review — but in My Name is Will, it’s just pathetic and tawdry. I have exactly no interest in the erectile state of some spoiled, entitled loser, but by God will you hear about it in this book. Over and over and over again.

Overall, I think this book is a really big case of YMMV. I’m sure there are a lot of people who would find appeal in the very things that repelled me. The 1582 chapters kept me reading, but this book was very nearly something I could not even get through. There were a few worthwhile moments, and those, I imagine, will stick with me. But this is not one I’ll ever feel the compulsion to re-read.

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Shakespeare on Theatre, edited by Nick de Somogyi

Title: Shakespeare on TheatreShakespeareonTheatre
Author: Nick de Somogyi
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 213 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? new (review reposted from the ASC Education blog)
Rating: 3.25 stars

Shakespeare on Theatre is a good entry-level exploration of how Shakespeare’s plays comment on the conditions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world. From company structure to architecture, from prompters to casting, from prologues to epilogues, de Somogyi provides a compendium of Shakespeare’s commentaries on the theatre. What’s best about this, I think, is that de Somogyi shows that those references don’t only turn up in the expected places — the plays-within-plays in Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost, the self-aware prologues of Henry V and Romeo and Juliet, the masque of The Tempest. Rather, the book also explores the subtler and smaller intra-theatrical instances. He reminds us of Cleopatra’s horror of watching a child actor “boy” her greatness on a rudimentary stage, of Macbeth’s metaphor of death as the ultimate exeunt omnes, of Margaret costuming the Duke of York with a paper crown.

De Somogyi also does well to expand his explorations and include  examples from other playwrights, many of them more overt in their self-referential moments, such as Ben Jonson’s various admonishments to the audience, or the appearance of actors Burbage, Condell, and Lowin as themselves at the top of Marston’s The Malcontent. The book includes snippets of poetry and of polemics both pro- and anti-theatrical, giving a broader view of the role of playhouse culture in 16th- and 17th-century London. Throughout, de Somogyi connects the conventions of Shakespeare’s theatrical world to examples of how those conditions have changed — or stayed similar — through to the modern age. It’s also pleasing that he typically off-sets terms like “metatheatrical” or “fourth wall” with quotation marks in recognition of the fact that those concepts, while common to theatre today, would have been alien to Shakespeare’s company and their audience.

Curiously, he seems less interested in that interplay when it comes to characters who “perform,” unless they do so explicitly. In The Taming of the Shrew, for example, he devotes considerable attention to the frame story involving Sly and the Players, but none at all to Petruchio’s various performances within the text. Nor does he consider the theatricality inherent in kings speaking to royal courts or to the commons. The deposition scene in Richard II, the fraught peacemaking of King John and King Philip, Richard III’s pretended reluctance to assume authority — these would all seem to be fruitful for what they have to say about the intertwining and overlapping of performing on the stage and performing in life (and about the blending and manipulation of on-stage and off-stage audiences), yet de Somogyi does not plumb them for their potential.

The overall effect of the book is to remind the audience that, as de Somogyi points out explicitly more than once, a playwriting was “a functional craft”. Shakespeare on Theatre goes a long way towards de-mystifying the idea of theatre as sacrosanct art. Modern culture tends to designate it as an emotional enterprise, but the early modern reality was much different. The book peels back the romantic notions and exposes the business of theatre — and demonstrates clearly that Shakespeare was a man who knew the practical aspects both on the production and the financial sides.

The book’s main flaw, in my opinion, is its freedom of conjecture. De Somogyi does not often enough qualify his pronouncements on Shakespeare’s life with the necessary disclaimers. I worry that someone approaching this book with a less solid grounding in the subject matter might take his narrative constructions as true biography. It’s even more concerning that this trend begins on the very first page of the introduction to the book. De Somogyi begins with the admirable opening statement that Shakespeare “was a working man of the theatre to his core,” but from there slides effortlessly into an imagined sequence of events — a lovely fantasy, of a “stage-struck boy” eventually “talent-spotted by a later touring troupe” who grew from an actor with “precociously impressive skills as a textual fixer” into the greatest playwright of the age. There are perhaps even some probabilities mixed in with the inventions, but they are still only conjectures, not evidenced facts. De Somogyi seems to assert things as truth that we cannot know for sure. More imaginative declarations of this type take place throughout the book, along with other generalizations about early modern theatre that I feel could have used some end-noted explanations.

With that caveat, however, I can generally recommend this book as a solid introduction to the interwoven dialogue between play, playing, and playhouses. Devoted scholars aren’t likely to find anything new here, but the book is accessibly written and a comfortable first step for someone who might then move on to deeper examinations like Gurr, Stern, or McDonald. It also might serve as an interesting source of monologue material for auditioning actors. Many of de Somogyi’s selections are the appropriate length, but a different variety than typical guides provide.

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The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, by Dan Jones

PlantagenetsTitle: The Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England
Author: Dan Jones
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 560 pages
Genre: medieval history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

This book is a comprehensive political history of England from the early 12th to the end of the 14th century. Jones opens with the wreck of the White Ship and closes with the deposition of Richard II, and in-between, he charts the evolution of the English monarchy, the rise of the cults of St.s George and Edward the Confessor, and the ebb and flow of English fortunes in French territory. While Plantagenet history is something I’m more than passingly familiar with already, I was happy to get a really solid look at some reigns that don’t always warrant a lot of historical attention — John (apart from Magna Carta), Henry III, Edward I. Jones also provides some anecdotes and small details which flesh out the broad strokes. My favorite had to do with the sinking of the White Ship, and how the heir to the throne would’ve been safely away — had he not gone back to rescue his sister, which led to his lifeboat being overwhelmed by other drowning victims.

Jones does an excellent job of chaining cause and effect together, even when those things are complex, balancing the demands of family and feudalism. Jones relies on a lot of primary sources, though he writes in such a way as to keep them from becoming too dense — those who fear footnotes will not need to cringe at this text. Instead, he offers a bibliography of suggested further reading at the end of the book, and most of those sources date from 2000 and forward.

Jones does a nice job of contextualizing the relationship between the king and the barons and how it changes over time, as well as the complex network of ever-shifting alliances on the continent. Reading this book, you do get the sense — as I always felt about Tudor-era politics — that really everyone was out to screw England all the time. No one can seem to hold an alliance for more than twenty minutes. Similarly, the English don’t seem to be able to keep control over the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish any longer than that.

What’s particularly fascinating from my point of view is seeing the aristocracy take shape underneath the king’s rule. As someone who loves family trees, it’s fun to see when different families wax and wane, particularly once it starts getting into the 14th century and the names become those more recognizable to those of us familiar with Shakespeare’s history plays and with Tudor history — de Bohun, de Vere, Howard, Dudley, Neville, Montagu. In so doing, you also see the entire country become more thoroughly English. Slowly, the Norman and Aquitanian influence bleeds out and the nobility comes from England’s own magnates.

There were, though, ways in which the book was disappointing. For something subtitled The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England, there’s precious little on those queens. This is, still, a male history. Queen Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine get a little attention, but nothing compared to their men — and really not much to personalize them. Their deeds are mentioned, not themselves. Joan of Kent, somewhat scandalous wife of the Black Prince, is little more than a tabloid feature. As for the other women crucial to the Plantagenet line, all those wives and daughters and sisters — Phillippa of Hainault, Eleanor of Provence, Isabel the She-Wolf of France, Eleanor of Castile, Princess Joan, Princess Isabella — hardly get any attention but for how they affect the reigning king. Once they’re married out or pensioned off, and thus “off-stage”, as it were, they cease to exist. And it’s such a shame, because they have stories in their own rights. They had will and agency. So many of them defied type, or redefined it. Jones does them a discredit, I think, by relegating them only to the reactionary status women have so typically occupied in histories. Based on the book’s title, I was really hoping for much more. (Jones also goes out of his way to dismiss any whisper of homosexuality or bisexuality as attached to the English crown; I’ll give him that claims about Richard I and II still generate a lot of disagreement, but Edward II? Aren’t we pretty sure about that? Yet Jones waves it all off with no examination whatsoever).

It also ends rather strangely. This book covers up to Richard II’s 1399 deposition, and Jones tries rather hard to make this a conscious stylistic choice, rather than an awareness that going on through the rise of the Tudors would produce an 1100-page book. Except that it rings false. While the essence of kingship may change after Richard II’s fall, Jones simultaneously tries to claim that his ascension somehow breaks the line of Plantagenet kings — which is ridiculous. Henry Bolingbroke had every drop as much Plantagenet blood in him as Richard. They were both sons of Edward III’s sons. First cousins. Jones even points out that Henry was Richard’s closest heir in the male line. So it’s a bit hard to claim that the blood line was broken, any more than it was when King John succeeded Richard I.

So, on the whole, this is an easily digestible compendium, and I could recommend it as a good starting point to someone with no real familiarity with the era. Someone with more background in England’s medieval history might not find much new here, though, and if you’re looking for something incisive that treads new ground, this isn’t it. Jones compiles a rather unchallenging view of English history in a simple presentation — perhaps too simple, really.

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World Without End, by Ken Follett

Title: World Without EndWorldWithoutEnd (Kingsbridge)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 1025 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Kingsbridge of the 14th century is a different place than Kingsbridge of the 12th. Two hundred years does a lot for England, and the sense that you get in World Without End is that it’s more advanced yet less imaginative in some ways, more dogmatic but less truly spiritual. Politics are no more stable than ever, but at least they more or less confine themselves to the nobles, rather than tearing apart the countryside in civil war like in Stephen and Maud’s time. There’s a sense of stagnation. Things are the way they are because that’s the way they’ve been, and few people think to question it. Life is more orderly, and less free.

And then the plague hits, and everything changes.

The book starts about twenty years before the plague, when Merthin and Ralph, sons of a knight who’s fallen on hard times, join up with Caris, daughter of the richest wool merchant in town, and Gwenda, daughter of a landless labourer, playing in the woods on a festival day. They oversee an altercation between several knights. The survivor, Thomas, makes Merthin help him to hide a letter, with the promise to deliver it if he should hear of Thomas’s death. The mystery clearly has dangerous political origins, but Merthin can’t learn anything more about it, and Thomas enters the monastery, determined to live a quiet life from now on.

Ten years later, Caris and Merthin are in love, Ralph is struggling to win acclaim as a squire, and Gwenda is pursuing the serf Wulfric. Their trials are, as you can imagine, many. Caris can’t figure out what her place in the world should be, as a clever woman who would like to be a physician but clearly can’t be, and Merthin is finishing an apprenticeship under a master who is jealous of his talent (a descendant of Jack Builder, Merthin has clearly inherited that genius). Unlike in Pillars of the Earth, the enemies are inside the walls here. The prior, Godwyn, is no righteous protector of the city, but a greedy abuser of it, and he has help from Gwenda’s brother Philemon, a sycophantic kleptomaniac. The townspeople and the nuns both find themselves at odds with the monastery under his leadership, and Merthin and Caris in particular have to battle him for the good of Kingsbridge — particularly when it comes to rebuilding the bridge into town following its collapse. From Gwenda, we see the point of view of the lowest of the low — and the main villain in her piece is Merthin’s brother Ralph, no noble knight, but a raping and murdering brute whose shame over his own failures leads him to oppress his tenants.

It’s hard to talk about a lot of this book without giving away major plot points, but suffice it to say that World Without End does a nice job examining the major social changes happening in England in the early- to mid-fourteenth century. Years of famine and poor weather start the trickle, racheting up the tensions between the peasantry and the nobility, and then the plague turns the tables entirely. For the first time, the lower classes have power, in the form of a labour shortage — with fields going untilled and harvests going unreaped, landless labourers can demand higher wages, and even serfs try to negotiate new terms for their tenancies. The plague also up-ends religion in some major ways, making some people doubt the power of God, leading others to give themselves over to fanaticism. I remember how astonished I was back in high school, when my AP Euro teacher explained to us (with the backing of Simon Schama) that without the Black Death, the Renaissance likely could not have happened. This book doesn’t cover enough of a span of time to really see that happen, but you can see the first snowballs of the avalanche.

I enjoy this book, but I feel like it falls down in a lot of places that Pillars of the Earth doesn’t. For one thing, its villains don’t have the sort of sweeping power that the original’s do. There’s no one with the sort of broad scope and vaulting ambition that Bishop Waleran had. Godwyn and Philemon don’t demonstrate any larger aims — they’re confined to Kingsbridge, and the things they choose to care about are so much more petty, so small, so pedestrian. They’re middle managers, not evil overlords. Even Ralph’s sadism pales next to that of his opposite number from Pillars, William Hamleigh. William at least had drive as an antagonist. He was a brute, no intellectual and no planner, but he had naked hunger and a lust for revenge in him, which made him a more interesting opponent. Ralph is just a thug. His villainy is almost casual.

Caris feels anachronistic in ways that Aliena doesn’t. I don’t know if Follett was attempting to write a heroine that would more strongly appeal to modern female readers, but mostly it just ends up ringing falsely. Her desire for such complete and total independence just isn’t rational inside the world she lives in — but even more than that, it also comes off more as selfishness than as some sort of proto-feminism. I do appreciate that she comes to find satisfaction in her work, as it demonstrates that she’s not totally irreconcilable with her reality, but still, there is so much in her attitude that seems peevish rather than autonomous. She wants people to do as she wishes, but she doesn’t want to give anything back, and she’s hellbent on the idea that forming any sort of attachment to anyone will jeopardize her own sense of self. The secondary female characters — Lady Phillippa, Mattie, Madge — actually give a more realistic view of how a woman could be successful and as independent as possible in the Middle Ages while still being part of her family and community. Unfortunately, as in Pillars of the Earth, we never get any other female POVs, so we don’t get to experience a lot from that angle. I also end up finding the romantic drama between Caris and Merthin tedious, rather than inspiring. Their conflict never really changes, and it takes them rather longer than seems sensible to arrive at the logical solution to their problems.

The book’s views on medicine are also somewhat anachronistic, but I’m more willing to forgive that as cast in the same light as the exceptionalism in Pillars of the Earth. Such wholesale rejection of the theories of Galen wouldn’t start happening in Europe for about another century, though, and it wouldn’t really catch on in the general populace until much later on. The same goes for some of the religious notions that creep in towards the end of the book.

Despite all of that, World Without End is still a cut above a lot of historical fiction. I appreciate how much Follett deals with those outside the aristocratic sphere — townspeople, merchants, nuns, priors, and serfs. Gwenda in particular is a great character: tough as nails, pragmatic, hard-working, and sharp-tongued. Caris’s cleverness is great fun when she’s not being too cantankerous, and through Merthin we get more insights into architecture and principles of building. The world is well-drawn and detailed, breathing in a way that makes it easy to visualise life in a village of the fourteenth century. The book also deals, without much obliqueness, with the idea of homosexual relationships in the medieval period, a topic which gets little treatment, either in non-fiction or fiction. I appreciate Follett’s willingness to combat the erasure. Really it only suffers by comparison to its exemplary predecessor, which is perhaps an unfair mark to hold it against. If you enjoy historical fiction, and if you like a good long epic as much as I do, you’ll enjoy World Without End.

Follett has announced that he intends to write a third Kingsbridge novel, which he will probably begin writing in 2014. I can’t express how fervently I hope that it’s going to take place another two hundred years later, during the dissolution of the monasteries. It would be a perfect way to round out the trilogy — watching how the town deals with the Reformation, factions on each side, trying to protect the books and artwork belonging to the cathedral and the monastery when so many across England were destroyed — there’s just so much potential! I’ll be eagerly awaiting further word.

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The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Title: The Pillars of the Earth PillarsoftheEarth(Kingsbridge #1)
Author: Ken Follett
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 983 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

I love an epic. I particularly love a historical epic. And The Pillars of the Earth, set primarily during the 12th century civil war between Stephen and Maud, is about as good as they come.

A monk named Philip, who believes God has a mission for him, sets out to reform a tiny monastic cell in the woods, but ends up prior of the Kingsbridge monastery, seat of the Kingsbridge bishopric. He initially thinks of Archdeacon Waleran as an ally, but when he realises that Waleran shamelessly manipulated him in order to get himself appointed Bishop of Kingsbridge, Philip vows never to be blindsided like that again. Though an extremely clever man and a capable organizer, Philip begins the book with almost astonishing naivete — not even in general ignorance, but because he, a man whose intentions are always good and peaceful, has trouble conceiving that not everyone is as honest as he is. Just as he’s taking control of the monastery, his path crosses with that of Tom Builder, a genius architect and master mason. Unfortunate circumstances have left Tom out of work: he had been building a mansion for a local knight’s son, William Hamleigh, who was meant to marry an earl’s daughter, Aliena, but Aliena refuses to have the boorish oaf, and with the wedding off, William cancels the house as well. Tom and his family wander in the woods looking for work, but when his wife died in childbirth in the wilderness, Tom decides to expose the infant they cannot care for. (This infant will later end up in the care of the Kingsbridge monks). In the woods, he encounters the outlaw Ellen and her son Jack. Ellen has been living in the forest for over a decade, after she cursed a monk, a priest, and a knight for unjustly hanging Jack’s father, but she falls in love with Tom and decides to accompany him, also believing that Jack needs exposure to civilization. In order to assure Tom of work and their family of stability, Jack starts a fire in the Kingsbridge cathedral, bringing it to the ground — and Philip gives Tom the job of master builder to design him a new and more glorious building. Meanwhile, Aliena’s father gets involved with the first phase of the rebellion against King Stephen, but the Hamleighs get wind of it and seize his castle. William brutally rapes Aliena and disfigures her brother Richard; Aliena later escapes and finds her father in prison. He makes her swear an oath to help Richard recover the earldom from the Hamleighs — but first she has to keep from starving to death. After several failed attempts at other jobs, she takes to purchasing wool fleeces from peasants to sell to the markets — but immediately finds that she’ll be cheated simply because no one will pay a girl what they’d pay a man. Prior Philip comes to her rescue, buying her wool at a fair price and allowing her to get herself and her brother back on their feet.

And this is all only in the first section of the book. Throughout the novel, Philip and the rest have to contend with the scheming Waleran, the murdering brute William, and his insidious mother Regan, among other petty enemies, all of whom want to see the Kingsbridge Cathedral fail. They find themselves in a delicate balance during the civil war and the Anarchy, when Stephen and Maud trade power, and when, more often than not, the rule of law means next to nothing. And for a lot of the book, the good guys lose. It’s hard to get through at points, because it just seems so damned unfair — but there’s always a glimmer of hope, always some way that the clever, resourceful, loyal people will win out over the vicious and mean-spirited, and so, as a reader, you plunge along with them.

Follett is a masterful storyteller. He nimbly balances the need to convey information about the time period with his character building, something that’s not easy to do. The technical explanations can easily drown the human story if you’re not careful. And make no mistake, a reader of Pillars of the Earth will learn a lot, not just about the Anarchy, but about the social history of the Middle Ages, about the ecclesiastical hierarchy and monastic daily life, about masonry and geometry, about fulling and parish guilds and medieval war tactics. Yet somehow, it all feels naturally conveyed, not like a lecture, because all of those details are integral to the characters’ lives. The cathedral is, appropriately, a framework, but the story is about how people live with each other. 

Philip is incredibly clever and generous of heart, but he’s also somewhat dogmatic and more than a little prideful. He struggles with that, knowing he should learn better humility, but finding it incredibly difficult — which, as any gifted student can attest, is a real challenge when you know you’re a mile smarter than anyone around you. By contrast, Tom Builder is quietly confident and incredibly smart, while being completely illiterate. He yearns to build something beautiful, something to last the ages, but he struggles with the secret of having abandoned his infant son in the woods — and as the boy grows up in the monastery, Tom has to try not to give himself away. He also has a blind spot where his older son is concerned, as Alfred is an unabashed bully, and moreover, not remotely talented. He’s a competent workman, but not intelligent or imaginative; all that he is comes from brute strength, which he has no compunction about using on those smaller and weaker than him — including his sister Martha and stepbrother Jack. That leads to conflict in the family, as Ellen tries to call Tom out on his favoritism. Jack is a strange boy at first, poorly socialized, but he soon proves himself a genius as well, who quickly takes to the intellectual challenges of building. And then there’s Aliena, an incredible woman who pretty much everyone falls in love with, but who rejects all advances. Follett does a nice job conveying the psychological reality of a rape survivor in a world with even less sympathy for that condition than our own. Aliena builds a tough shell around her, but triggers still leap up to surprise her, and they definitely continue to affect her life for years afterwards. Aliena is a Scarlett O’Hara figure in a lot of ways. She comes from privilege but suffers incredible trauma, then has to claw her way back to some semblance of stability, and every time she thinks she’s making advances, something slaps her back down. She keeps going, though, putting her shoulder to the wind and braving her way through every challenge. She also has the misfortune of being a supremely intelligent woman in a world that doesn’t reward that: her brother Richard, while not a fundamentally bad person, is listless and lazy, suited for nothing but soldiership, ungrateful for the assistance he receives and embarrassed to have to take it. The last POV character, interestingly enough, is William — and I do find it interesting that Follett gives us so much insight into his head. He’s not even the prime mover among the villains — that would be Waleran. He’s all muscle, brute force, and senseless violence, a pustule of indignant fury and irrational resentment. I suspect a lot of the reason for making him a POV is to heighten the tension for the heroes. The reader frequently knows that something terrible is about to happen, and the terror of wondering how the Kingsbridge set will defend themselves drives much of the novel.

The book sometimes falls prey to accusations of historical inaccuracy, and there are a few — a very few, and they’re pretty nit-picky details (the name Francis would have been unlikely for a Welsh peasant; sugar was not yet widely available; British squirrels don’t hibernate; etc). Many of the things I suspect most people would take as inaccuracies are actually the result of common misconceptions about the medieval period. Many of the characters have attributes which in the 12th century would have been extraordinary, but not impossible. There was more of a middle class than high school history classes let on. The economic power which Aliena wrests from her society would not have been the norm, but it would not have been even particularly uncommon. Many women took over businesses after husbands, brothers, or fathers died. What makes Aliena more unusual is that she managed it at such a young age without having married first. And we do see that it’s a struggle for her, and we see the traps that religion and economy lay for her — but still, there were women who did as she did. The brilliance of Tom and Jack is likewise unusual, but clearly there were men of such prodigious intelligence and talent. Even Ellen isn’t impossible, and I do thank Follett for not attaching any overt pagan religion to her. She’s anti-Christian and makes oaths “by all the gods”, but there’s no pretense of making her a Druidess or anything. Her curses are firmly grounded in folk superstition. It’s unusual that as many characters in the book would be bilingual as they are, but Follett at least gives plausible explanations in each case. On the whole, this book offers more authenticity than it doesn’t.

There are only a couple of things that ding this book down from being a solid 5 stars, for me. One is is that the delineation between good and bad is a little too neat. While the POV characters are fabulously complex people, they and their opposite numbers still come down very solidly on either side of the morality line. Philip, Tom, Aliena, Jack good; William, Waleran, Alfred, Regan bad. While Follett does a lot to explore various psychological and emotional realities, no one’s really presented as morally grey. I also think that more female characters could use detailed attention. Aliena is, as I’ve said, fantastic, but she’s really the only woman whose head we get a look into — and she’s the POV for fewer pages than any of the other main characters. Ellen, also fantastic, is off-screen for too much of the book, and she’s never a POV character. Regan is barely more than a stock villainess, Martha is broadly overlooked, and no other female characters rank higher than tertiary status.

Overall, The Pillars of the Earth is just flat-out a masterpiece. It’s beyond engaging, it’s absorbing. Follett makes England of 900 years ago seem real and vital, full of believable people, relatable despite its differences from the world we live in now (and, in some cases, he makes it apparent how little people have changed in nearly a millennium). Reading a thousand-page book is always an investment, but it’s one I very seriously recommend that any fan of historical fiction make for The Pillars of the Earth.

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Shakespeare’s London: Everyday Life in London 1580-1616, by Stephen Porter

Title: Shakespeare’s London: Everyday Life in London 1580 to 1616
Author: Stephen PorterShxLondon
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 286 pages
Genre: historical nonfiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.5 stars

Shakespeare’s London is a thorough and detailed look at the English metropolis during the early modern period. While other books have taken similar approaches, none have honed in quite so specifically on a particular place at a very particular time. Porter uses not just Shakespeare’s life but his time in London as his fenceposts, and this allows him to delve deep and narrow into a moment in history.

Porter is nothing if not comprehensive. The book wends its way through many aspects of early modern life, particularly with regards to economic realities and social conventions of the common citizens of London. Porter devotes a lot of time to industry and mercantilism, and not unjustly, since trade formed the basis for London’s explosive growth in following centuries. He discusses the various neighborhoods and their relative statuses at length, and the pictorial sections of the books include a number of illustrative maps (though, since they are early modern in origin and scaled down to fit the page, these are not always easy to read). Throughout the book, Porter liberally mixes primary source accounts in with his narrative, adding valuable details to the picture he’s painting. I particularly appreciated that during the heavily economic sections of the book, since it gave the real human interest factor back to what would otherwise have been a rather dry summary of trade deals and market fluctuations.

Major events to do with monarchs and nobles only get coverage for how they affected the bulk of the populace. One of my favorite examples has to do with King James’s influence on the cloth industry. England had always done quite a lot of trade in both heavy broadcloths and lighter linens, but typically sold them overseas “in the white,” undyed. English dyers just weren’t as adept as those in other countries, nor could they dye as cheaply, so although finished cloth fetched a higher price, England had chosen to rely on its strengths and focus on creating a huge output of undyed cloth. In 1614, King James decided, on the advice of a wealthy alderman (who, coincidentally, lent the king money), that the country would, from then on, only export dyed cloth. The Dutch responded by banning imports of dyed cloth, since that was one of their major industries. James then banned the export of wool, the main raw material which the Dutch used. This trade war did not go well for the English, who did not have the expertise to turn out quality material in high enough quantities to match previous sales of undyed cloths. In 1617, with the entire industry in England threatening to collapse, James changed his mind, with the Privy Council declaring that it was ‘now his Majesty’s pleasure and resolution not to disturb the trade of whites with any further essay, but to leave the same to the train and course of trade now in practice and according to the use before the former alteration’ (116-117).

The book also does a good job of tying the social history into the world of the plays. Porter frequently refers to various plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, illustrating how the temporal reality of London found its way into so many stories on the early modern stage. Playwrights like Dekker and Middleton often put London itself right up onto the stage, and Dekker was also a pamphleteer, whose observations about the world around him tell us much about life in the era. Shakespeare may never have written a city comedy, but that definitely does not mean that his London was absent from his plays. Porter relates the conmen and petty criminals of London to Mistress Overdone’s customers in Measure for Measure, and he suggests that “Shakespeare’s metropolitan audience at The Winter’s Tale no doubt smiled at the pretentiousness of the newly-rich shepherd and his son’s shopping list for their sheep-shearing feast,” based on recognition of the produce and spices traded out of London to country burghers (120). He points out that the Boar’s Head tavern in Henry IV was likely the same as that in Great Eastcheap, near to where the Lord Chamberlain’s men then played in the winters. The diseases and pestilence mentioned in so many of his plays were those that the people of London lived with and feared spreading. Any Shakespearean reference to apprentices reflected the vast population of young men in the city who, while vital to the economic structure, were also apparently prone to lethargy and rioting. Shakespeare’s London clearly lives in his plays, no matter if they’re set in Italy, Egypt, or Bohemia.

My biggest criticism of Shakespeare’s London is that I think this book could have benefited from a different organizational structure — perhaps by sub-dividing chapters or by simply having more chapters. There are only eight in the 250-page book, and so each one has a lot of topical ground to cover. As a result, sometimes the sense of storytelling is rather haphazard — and as someone whose attention span often struggles with nonfiction anyway (even when I enjoy the topic!), it led to more than a few moments of nodding off while reading. A few chapters get a little “info-dump”-y, while others seem to have a strong narrative which then gets derailed. The best example of that is when the section on printhouses and print culture comes in the middle of a chapter which is otherwise about demographics and the early modern life cycle. The information is both interesting and useful, but it sort of comes out of left field. Printing also doesn’t get a mention in the index (which seems to focus more on proper nouns than on broader topics), so if you picked this book up specifically looking for information on that subject, it would be difficult to suss out where to find it. Information about the playhouses and playgoing culture is also scattered through a few different chapters.

On the whole, though, Shakespeare’s London is chock-full of fantastic, detailed information, much of it straight from the original sources. I think it’s most comparable to David Cressy’s Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England: a compendium of information, almost overwhelming at times, but providing a detailed window into the lives of everyday citizens who just happened to live four centuries ago. 

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Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

Title: Wolf HallWolfHall
Author: Hilary Mantel
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 608 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3 stars

Another book I’m honestly not quite sure how I feel about. I know that it’s the sort of book I should’ve eaten up with a spoon — one of my favourite historical eras, told from the perspective of a “side character” with a fascinating story of his own — and yet, somehow, it just didn’t take for me.

Wolf Hall tells the story of Henry VIII from the viewpoint of one of his most trusted advisers, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell begins the story as the much-abused son of a Putney blacksmith who leaves home to bounce around the Continent for a while before returning and somehow landing a position with the then-triumphant Cardinal Wolsey. After the prologue section showing Cromwell’s early life, Mantel dives right in to the sequence of events that will eventually lead to the English Reformation. King Henry VIII is dissatisfied — with his position on the world stage, with his inability to get an heir, with his once-lovely but now dour and dumpy Spanish wife. He sets Wolsey to fixing all of his problems, as Wolsey has done pretty much since the start of Henry’s reign. Attached to Wolsey’s household, Cromwell’s fortunes also rise — but as Wolsey starts to fall, when he can’t accomplish Henry’s wishes fast enough (and when he makes an enemy out of Lady Anne Boleyn), Cromwell finds himself in a difficult situation, not wanting to betray the man to whom he owes so much, but not wanting to crash and burn, either. Watching Cromwell nimbly navigate the turbulent waters of political intrigue — particularly when the Boleyns start getting involved — is most of the excitement in this book.

But what I like best about it is instead its depiction of life in London as a member of the middle class during Henry’s reign, since so many books focus only on the royal court (excusable, since what a court it was, but still). As Cromwell bounces back and forth between the two worlds, we get to see the contrast. We also watch Cromwell build a home and a family, things that are more important to him than he generally lets on, cultivating the public image of a hardened and devious Machiavel. But he cherishes his home life, and the losses he suffers all too frequently affect him deeply. The economy and status marks of Londoners are wonderful to observe as well — how they aped the court and gossipped about them, but frequently held a different moral standard. Cromwell there stands in stark contrast to Thomas More, another up-jumped adviser to the king, whose home life is supposed to be a model of ideal Christian lifestyle, with a reality that seems almost unendurably cruel.

So, in that regard, it was a compelling novel. But there were some things that rubbed me the wrong way. I’m not a fan of historical fiction told in the present tense. Honestly, I’m not a big fan of present-tense fiction in most instances, but for some reason, in historicals, it bothers me more significantly. It didn’t help that Mantel’s pronouns had unspecific antecedents often enough to be a major distraction. So often she would jump from talking about one character to offering Cromwell’s viewpoint or experience, but without any transition — and if both characters were “he”s, as was typically the case, it was jarring and made the narrative a little disjointed.

Hall also includes a lot of historical rumours that were either known to be completely unfounded in their own time or else were inventions of later centuries looking back on the Tudor era. It’s hard to tell whether Hall means this to be indicative of the rumour mill of 16th-century England — or whether it’s a flaw in her own historical knowledge, if she’s buying into the hype without stripping away the falsities. I honestly don’t know which is the case, and that’s the problem. I want to believe it’s the former, that she’s presenting a semi-satirical commentary on the transmission of information — but since I can’t tell for sure if that’s what she’s doing, then I have to consider it a flaw in the writing either way.

I am also just, personally, a big fan of Anne Boleyn. And of Catherine of Aragon. (The two opinions are not as necessarily mutually exclusive as you might imagine). This book isn’t a fan of either. Anne is a complete shrew, Catherine a dullard. None of the Boleyns come off well, really — brother George is a fop, father Thomas is a pompous grasper, and Uncle Norfolk has a hot temper and a viciously inventive vocabulary (he’s hilarious, though, and he may be my favourite character for that alone). Sister Mary fares a little better, more a pawn than an agent and at the mercy of her sister and father, but she still displays a pragmatic streak that Mantel paints in a less-than-flattering light. Queen Catherine appears infrequently and never to good effect, and Princess Mary is generally described as weak both of body and mind — hugely unfair to them both, since they were both pretty incredible women, whatever their faults. Nor is Wolf Hall a fan of Thomas More, though I’m okay with that, having always thought him a bit too much of a pompous stick. And it’s far too forgiving of Henry, who I, frankly, view as the villain in this entire story. That, at least, I can understand, from Cromwell’s point of view — though you would think that a man as keen and calculating as Cromwell wouldn’t be quite so mentally permissive of his king’s really obvious foibles. Mantel makes some gestures in that direction, with Cromwell musing on how “you choose your prince” and then stick with him, but ultimately, there’s still just a little too much adoring glitter thrown on a man I’ve always seen as self-deceptive to the point of total immorality. I think, with all of the above characters, Mantel falls into the same trap: in attempting to flesh out Cromwell, she ends up flattening everyone else.

On the whole, this book definitely has some great stuff in it, and I love getting to see the story from a new viewpoint. I think the technical merit of the work leaves a lot to be desired, however. I understand that she’s continuing this as a series (presumably through Cromwell’s fall and death), and I don’t know whether or not I’ll pick up the others.

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