Queens of the Conquest – Alison Weir

From one Conquest to another! This one has elicited much less of a rant than Robert Conquest did, you may be pleased to know.

This book is about the 5 Queens of the Norman England, all of whom have extraordinary stories but, in the words of Alison Weir, not enough is discoverable about them to fill a book each.

The book starts with Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror. I know a little about her and it is one of my claims to fame that I won a quiz for my team because I was the only person in the room who knew what William’s Queen was called! This Matilda gets quite a long section of the book to herself.

The next Queen is Matilda of Scotland who was married to Henry I. There are a lot of Matildas in this book and it’s quite difficult keeping up with who is who! It’s even more confusing that Matilda of Scotland was also known as Edith in her early life. This was one of those books where it is useful to be able to keep referring back to the family tree at the beginning.

I found Matilda of Scotland’s life to be one of the most interesting sections of the book. I didn’t know anything about her before and she had an interesting and varied life.

The only non-Matilda in the book is Adeliza of Louvain, Henry I’s second wife who only gets a short section to herself. As a Queen she isn’t particularly interesting although, through her second marriage after Henry’s death, she plays a significant part in the civil war that broke out between Stephen, Henry I’s nephew, and Matilda, Henry’s daughter, over who should wear the crown of England.

King Stephen was married to Matilda of Boulogne, the third Matilda of this book. She shares part 4 of the book with Queen Matilda, her husband’s rival claimant. For the purposes of the book Queen Matilda is referred to as Empress Maud. Her first marriage was to Heinrich V, Roman Emperor, and throughout mainland Europe Matilda seems to have been known as Maud.

This, for me, was one of the most enlightening parts of the book. I have only a confused understanding of the civil wat between Stephen and Maud. I didn’t really understand what the dispute was about and the rights and wrongs of the two parties. Having read this section of the book I’m clearer about why they were fighting, clear that neither was an ideal monarch and still a bit confused over who was who and why they chose the side they did.

The final part of the book is about Empress Maud after Stephen died and her son by Geoffrey Plantagenet became King Henry II.

The book is written in Alison Weir’s usual readable style and she evokes a sense of who these women were and a sense of empathy with the difficult situations most of them found themselves in at one time or another.

I feel as though I leaned a lot from reading the book although I wish the European aristocracy of the 12th and 13th centuries had been a bit more imaginative about naming their girl children!

A useful addition to the literature on medieval women.


The Rival Queens – Nancy Gladstone

Another dip into history and 16th century, France this time though.

This is a history of the infamous Catherine de Medici and her daughter Marguerite de Valois. I already knew a little about them, although in fictionalised version; my mother encouraged me to read the Jean Plaidy historical novels when I was at that awkward age of being too old for children’s books and not quite old enough for adult ones.

I enjoyed finding out more about Catherine’s early life, particularly the early days of her marriage and I think it helped me to understand why she was so desperate to hang onto power through he sons reigns. It also helped me to understand why she was so manipulative and played at “realpolitik” so often. She lived in turbulent times but with a bit more firm purpose and subtlety her/her sons Courts could have been less turbulent than they were.

Marguerite seems to have spent most of her life being used as a pawn by the various members of her family. The major event in he life was being married to the protestant King of Navarre, who later became Henri IV of France. They were incompatible and, apart from one of two moments when it was expedient to help one another, lived largely apart. Henry didn’t trust Marguerite and Marguerite trusted too many people she shouldn’t have. Eventually, once they had divorced and Henry became King of France, they settled into friendship.

One of the problems of reading about 16th century women in the 21st century is that we live in a very different culture –  one of more equality for women, more religious tolerance etc – so it is hard to understand the limitations placed on these two women who were in a position where they could wield influence if not power. It was frustrating to read about their tactics and actions knowing, through experience and hindsight, they were doing the wrong thing. At times I wanted to shout “what are you doing!!!” at the book, which probably wouldn’t have gone down very well with my fellow commuters on the bus!

Overall. it was good to have a factual, evidence-based book about these women and I enjoyed reading it. It is a very readable book although there were some horrible American expressions thrown in unnecessarily.

If you are interested in European history, women’s history or the clashes between Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe you will find this book interesting, informative and a good read.

Click to find out more about Nancy Goldstone’s books

Atalanta: Women as Racing Drivers -S.C.H. Davis

I’m not quite sure how to describe this book, or more specifically the author and his writing style.

SCH Davis was a racing driver, motor racing journalist, an advocate of women racing, co-founder of the Veteran Car Club and, clearly a man of taste, he owned a Frogeye. On the downside he shows himself to be very much a man of his era when he describes the women he is writing about as “attractive, little bundles of fun” and the like! It grates on my 21st century sensibilities to read this sort of sentence that patronises these incredibly determined, fiercesome women.

That said, it is an interesting book written by someone who actually knew some of the drivers he is writing about, which means there are a number of anecdotes that bring the characters of the drivers alive. It was nice to read about the drivers human side rather than just about their racing skills.

Most of the chapters are about drivers I already know something about. The best of these was about Margaret Allan, a member of the 1935 MG Le Mans team, Bletchley Park code-breaker and Vogue motoring correspondent.

The best of the chapters about people who were new to me are Madam Juneck, a Czech driver who came 5th in  the Targa Florio, and Sheila Van Damm, a driver in the 1950s.

Overall, I would describe this book as an interesting period piece written by an interesting period piece!

The Merry Wives of Windsor – Fiona Laird for RSC

Shakespeare twice in one week! And both of them laugh-out-loud funny, leaving me with an aching face.

We haven’t seen Merry Wives for ages – December 2012 in fact – and whilst I usually enjoy it I didn’t expect this version to be as funny as it was.  Think of it as a 17th century pantomime with great word-play, plenty of slapstick and lots of fun being had by the actors.

I certainly never expected audience participation singing Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer!

The stand out performances were, for me, Rebecca Lacey and Beth Cordingley as the titular Merry Wives, David Troughton, who was a brilliant Falstaff and Katy Brittain as the Hostess of the Garter.  Their exaggerated, stereotype characters were much more believable than the 2-dimensional figures they can sometimes be.

There were nice subtle touches too; Charlotte Josephine’s transformation from rough, loutish Bardolph to a polished young woman with a career in particular.

The staging was a bit faffy in some ways with the skeleton outlines of Dr Caius’ house and The Garter dominating the stage, rotating periodically and bit sliding out.  There also seemed to be  a lot of furniture moving.  I think some of it was unnecessary and the idea of moving from place to place could have been suggested in other ways.

That said, there were some really nice touches like the Visit Britain sign in the window of The Garter and the parking sign outside Dr Caius’ house.

The costumes were excellent; a mix of modern and Elizabethan dress.  The “types” were easily identifiable by their clothes.  David Troughton in his tennis whites and then striped blazer were particularly funny, especially once the whites had been through the wheely bin.

Some of the visual humour and gags based on what’s happening in the world were very funny but, I think, don’t translate to the written page.

I also really liked the way this version of the play ends.  Sometimes the ending feels spiteful and is an uncomfortable end to a comedy.  In this version Falstaff gets his comeuppance but it is done with sympathy and not spite, leaving everyone in a jolly mood to go home.

I thoroughly enjoyed this play and I’d recommend going to see it.

Click here to find out more about RSC and to book tickets

Click here to find out more about the plot of the play

The Bugatti Queen: in search of a motor racing legend – Miranda Seymour

This is a book about Helene Delangle, aka Helle Nice, provincial child, exotic dancer in 1920s Paris and pre-WWII racing driver.

Helene Delangle was born at the end of the 19th century, the daughter of a rural French postmaster who died when she was young.

As a young woman she went to Paris to pursue a career as a dancer, changed her name to Helle Nice and seems to have existed on the seedier edges of the glamorous roaring 20s although she gradually rose through the ranks to become a headline dancer until she damaged her knee.

Her second career was as a racing driver, entering all the main races and competing against male drivers as well as in women’s races.  Although the book is entitled “The Bugatti Queen” she wasn’t exclusively a Bugatti driver and left to Ettore she may not have driven Bugattis at all.  Fortunately for her Jean Bugatti took an interest and she went onto set a speed record for them.

Helle had a talent for publicity, probably from the highly competitive dance world, and went on a tour of USA, successfully racing on dirt tracks as well as racing ovals until she had a serious accident in South America which stalled her career.

She remained in France during WWII and afterwards expected to take up racing again.  Unfortunately, Louis Chiron (the man the new Bugatti Chiron is named after) publically accused her of working for the Gestapo during the war and this finished her career although the author of this book notes that she could not find any documentary evidence to support Chiron’s claim.

Helle Nice lived until 1975, forgotten in the increasing male dominated world of motor racing and increasingly living in poverty.

I really enjoyed reading this book as it brought together several things I’m interested in: the jazz age, motor racing and the part played by women in motor sport during the 1920s and 30s.

Helle Nice is colourful character and, along with the other serious women drivers between the wars, does not deserve to languish in oblivion.

I think the author does a good job of pulling together the strands of a life shrouded in the mist of time and also subject to several revisions by the subject over her lifetime.

More and more I think it’s more than time that the motor sport fraternity gave due recognition to the women drivers who more than held their own during the inter-war years.  If you want more women in motor sport, start celebrating those who were successful at it in an era where gender roles were supposedly much more rigidly defined than they are today.

I am, I am, I am: Seventeen brushes with death – Maggie O’Farrell

This isn’t a book I would have chosen to buy but when a friend recommended it and left his copy of the book with me it seemed churlish not to read it.

The book is made up of 17 chapters, each about a near death experience mostly by the author but the final chapter about her daughter.

Some of the chapters are enough to give you nightmares if you stop and think about them too much; an encounter with a creepy man who is later arrested for the murder of another young woman, a plane nearly crashing when you’re a passenger, being held up by a machete wielding man in Chile.  Other chapters tell of difficult periods in O’Farrell’s life with a down to earth matter of factness.

As a memoir it gives one an insight into the author that a more traditional autobiography might not.  I feel I have learned something about her from the way she writes of her reactions to the memory of these events.  It would, however, be good to know how she reacts to the more positive events in her life.

The most harrowing chapter of the book is that about her daughter and the horrible things the family go through with the daughters severe allergies, eczema and anaphylaxia.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have to watch a beloved child suffer in this way.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book.  I prefer a full, more in-depth biography and, preferably, one about someone I’ve heard of.  I still wouldn’t choose to buy a book like this.  But it was an interesting experience and I believe we should always try something different one in a while.

The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich – RSC

My first trip to the theatre in what seems like forever and the first production I’ve seen of the RSC Spring/Summer season.

The play is a comedy from around 1700 and was originally called The Beau Defeated and is about women making their own choices and wielding their own power. The play is written by Mary Rix, an almost forgotten contemporary of Aphra Benn.  In fact she is so forgotten that I can’t find any more information about her on-line so am relying on the programme notes.

Mrs Rich is wealthy but wants to improve her social standing.  Lady Landsworth has social standing but wants love.  Sir John Roverhead, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset have social standing but want money.  Sir John, Mrs Trickwell and Lady La Basset think they are using Mrs Rich.  Mrs Rich knows she is being used and is allowing it to go on for her own ends.  The play ends with Mrs Rich having married a title and Lady Landsworth having found her love.

I loved the costumes designs for the play.  They immediately tell you what you need to know about the character without anyone having to spell it out.  The set design also did a great job of setting the scene too – simply and without too much faffing.

Sophie Stanton was a wonderful Mrs Rich; a restoration version of Hyacinth Bucket.  She showed her character as being both shrewd and human.

Leo Wringer and Amanda Hadingue were also well cast as the funny country bumpkins Elder Carimont and Toni, a hard act to pull off as they were almost always overshadowed by the gorgeous Lossie and Theia, Elder Carimont’s dogs!

I can’t think of anything I particularly disliked or didn’t enjoy about the play, which I think says quite a lot about it; on the whole is washed over me rather than really engaging me.  It has a good point to make about ambition being a good thing for women to have and it made that point, it just doesn’t really have anything in it that lingers in the imagination and nags to be brought out and chewed over.

If you like a colourful, fun and enjoyable night out at the theatre go to see it.  If you like something to make you think this probably isn’t for you.

But well done to the RSC for rescuing more playwrites from oblivion.  We need more Companies to do this.

Click here to find out what’s on at RSC


Whisper of the Moon Moth – Lindsay Jayne Ashford

The latest of my 99p Amazon Daily Deals I actually started reading this some time ago and got sidetracked, which I think says something about the beginning of this book.  The book’s start is pleasant but doesn’t really grab you, making it easy to put to one side if something more interesting turns up.  This is a shame as the middle part of the book was interesting.

I should probably let you know at this stage that the book is a fictionalised biography of the life of the film star Merle Oberon from her time as a young woman in Calcutta to the point she marries the director Alexander Korda.

Before reading this I didn’t know much about who Merle Oberon was.  I vaguely remembered that she was in the film of Wuthering Heights, which I loathe because it is given a happy ending.

What I have learned from this book is that whilst she was alive Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson made sure her background was entirely fictional to hide the fact she was Anglo-Indian, which would have made her persona non grata in Hollywood.

The book takes what facts have been discovered about her and turns them into a reasonably plausible story of her life in the 1920s and 1930s.

The book gives a good flavour of the lives of Anglo-Indian people trying to be accepted as more English than Indian to improve their lot in life.  This is interesting from a sociology perspective but the least interesting part of Estelle’s story.  And I think that because I read this section in dribs and drabs I kept forgetting who Estelle was going to become.

The parts about the young girl and her mother working out how to survive in cold, dreary London are really interesting.  This is where the story starts to come more alive as Estelle moves into the film industry and moves up the ladder, changing her name and history to facilitate it.

The book doesn’t sidestep the numerous people Merle had affaires with although it does edit some of them out and cleans them up into “love affaires” rather than rungs on the career ladder, which I suspect they were.

The most annoying parts of the book are where it casts certain people as villains of the story when there is no evidence they were, for example the part where Vivian Leigh blackmails Merle into not taking a screen test for the part of Scarlett O’Hara.  This doesn’t seem very fair to me.  It’s ok to cast villains when they are wholly fictional but not when they were once living, breathing people and there is no evidence of it.

The true end of the book occurs around the death of Oberon’s mother when she learns that her mother was actually her grandmother and her sister, long estranged from their mother, was her birth mother…and her father was still her father!  This must have been a shocking revelation, assuming Estelle grew up without knowing the truth.

The actual end of the book is a summary of what happened after this revelation and Oberon’s marriage to Alexander Korda.  This is simply a list of facts and spoiled the book for me.  I would have much preferred a suggested further reading list or a link to an online biography.

Overall, this was an interesting book but I think I would have preferred a genuine biography to this fictionalised one.

The Kindness of Strangers; The Autobiography – Kate Adie

I probably wouldn’t have bought this book but a friend left it when he’d finished reading it whilst staying with us and I happened to pick it up and start reading it without thinking much about it.  I’m so pleased I did.

I am familiar with who Kate Adie is.  She was the war journalist du jour when I was in my early 20s and famous for always wearing her pearl earrings no matter how dire the situation she found herself in.  I hadn’t given much thought to who she is and how she ended up as a war journalist.  If I had I think I would have expected her to have begun her career as a journalist on a local paper, graduated to a national and then moved into television.

The truth is more interesting and, I think, not a path open to people nowadays.

The book starts by giving an overview of growing up in Sunderland in the 1950s/60s, in a reasonably affluent household.  It really gets into its stride when Adie finishes her degree and joins the embryonic Radio Durham as a producer.  The whole experience sounds utterly chaotic, totally exhausting and a whole lot of fun.

The transition from Radio Durham to Radio Bristol to television and from producer to reporter appears to have been a matter of pure chance and of being in the right place at the right time when someone needed someone to do something and there wasn’t the time of budget to find a person with experience.  There is a strong sense of “everyone is in this together” and “we’ll find a way to make it work” ethos when Adie is talking about the BBC in the early parts of the book.

Adie herself comes across as likable and fun.  There were several laugh out loud moments in book – a bit disconcerting for fellow train passengers! – which was unexpected.  Having mainly seen Adie report from war zones I have always had the impression that she is a very serious woman.  Looks like I was much mistaken.

My main criticism of the book though is that I really don’t feel I know much about Kate Adie as a person; the “what makes her tick”, what does she enjoy doing when she isn’t reporting, who are her family.  I think this is fairly typical of an autobiography where an individual is more likely to draw boundaries between what they are happy for people to know and what remains private.  I understand the desire to do this but it does lead to an incomplete picture of the person.

However, if you want to know more about life at the Beeb when local radio was new and there were fewer rules and regulations this is an interesting place to start.

Eleanor the secret Queen; the woman who put Richard III on the throne – John Ashdown-Hill

A biography of Eleanor Talbot, the woman whose alleged marriage to Edward IV meant his children by Elizabeth Woodville were illegitimate and allowed Richard III to depose his nephews.

This book tells what little is known, or can be inferred about Eleanor Talbot.

Talbot was the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury by his second wife.  Her first husband was Sir Thomas Butler, son of Lord Sudebury.  her second husband may, or may not have been the man who became Edward IV.

As is often the case with medieval woman, Eleanor is a shadowy figure and doesn’t come across as particularly interesting so it’s hard to imagine what Edward might have seen in her other than a challenge.  Her younger sister comes across as much better company!

What was interesting was understanding more about how solemnly medieval England viewed pre-contract marriages and understanding more of life in Plantagenet Britain.

Ultimately though I found the book frustrating.  I want to understand, as far as I can, just how it came about that Richard III came to his throne.  I want to understand the Court’s response to the allegations of  Edward and Eleanor’s pre-contract.  This book just doesn’t do it.  It takes too many leaps of faith and presents them as fact to cast any real illumination onto the subject.