7

2016 TBR Pile Challenge: In Triumph’s Wake

Yesterday was a holiday in most of Canada. In 2016 we still have a holiday dedicated to Queen Victoria.

In my world, anything celebrating the Royals is a-ok but most people probably don’t share my enthusiasm. Except when it means a day off.

To keep up with my unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge, I’m trying to ensure that I read one book off the list every month. With Victoria Day looming, this seemed like an excellent time to finally read In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory by Julia P. Gelardi.

This book looks at the reigns and lives of Queen Isabella of Castille, her daughter Catherine of Aragon; Empress Maria Theresa and her daughter, the ill-fated Marie Antoinette; and Queen Victoria and her equally unlucky daughter Empress Frederick of Prussia.

And it was SO GOOD. For real – I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, without reservation.

triump

First of all, Gelardi is one of the very best biographers. She knows her stuff, she clearly cares for her subjects but manages to write about these august persons in such a real way. She knows they were flawed humans and she doesn’t try to gloss over those flaws but she also understands the burdens placed on them. Her books are such accessible reading, even for those who don’t flex their non-fiction muscles that often.

I think In Triumph’s Wake is actually a perfect introduction to biography reading for those of you that are intimidated by the genre.

This book is only 343 pages and that ably covers the lives of these six incredible women. It more or less breaks down to about 50 pages per Queen. This means that Gelardi had to really pare down the times in which these women lived –you will not find long, meandering, complicated passages about the politics or military exploits of the times.

There are some good tidbits in this one as well. For example, Isabella of Castille basically ran away from home to marry Ferdinand of Aragon and then asked for forgiveness afterwards. Queen Victoria was called Gangan by her great-grandkids – just like Queen Elizabeth II is now. And Maria Theresa’s marriage was a love match that produced 16 children. All of her daughters were Maria-something.

Before I read this, I was familiar with the lives of Catherine of Aragon, Marie Antoinette and Queen Victoria but I knew next to nothing about Isabella, Maria-Theresa and the Empress Frederick. I’m glad that it was Julia P. Gelardi who introduced me. I sincerely hope she is working on something new and that I can read it soon because her work always brings me such joy.

I leave you with this quote from the end of the book, which I think really shows you where Gelardi is coming from when she writes about these women:

In the end, what is most fascinating and moving from the storied past of these unique sets of royal mothers and daughters is that the three daughters, though left in their mothers’ triumphant wake, faced their tragic fates with heroism. […] These courageous, dignified responses were the ultimate legacies of their august mothers. In that respect, Catherine, Marie Antoinette and Vicky prevailed in a manner that would have made Queen Isabella, Empress Maria Theresa and Queen Victoria ultimately proud – and should qualify the daughters to be placed  beside their mothers in history’s pantheon of valiant, noteworthy figures.

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15

A List of Biographies You Should Read

Last month I posted about a biography of Princess Charlotte and Prince Leopold, noting that it had closed a gap that I had in my knowledge of English Royals. Soon thereafter I read Ambition and Desire, a biography of Josephine Bonaparte and told you that it was one of the most perfect biographies that I had ever read.

Both posts garnered a number of comments asking me for recommendations of this sort. There seems to be an idea out there that reading biographies is slow, that most biographies are boring.

I would disagree. Wholeheartedly. Since it’s the holiday season and you may be looking for titles for the biography lover on your list, or you are looking for books to add to your own list, I offer you a list of some of my very favourite biographies.

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about biographies that I loved about famous women. I still stand by those so there’s no need to rehash them here.

For those looking for an unusual Royal, I would recommend Lucinda Hawksley’s The Mystery of Princess Louise. One of Queen Victoria’s daughters, she was the first to receive an education away from palace tutors, travelled all over the world and made friends in unlikely places through her work as a sculptor. She agitated for women’s rights, became the first royal to marry a “commoner” and may have had an illegitimate child. Princess Louise was ahead of her time in many many ways and Hawksley’s adept handling of the story makes for an entertaining read.

If you are looking to cover a gaggle of royals in one go, try Flora Fraser’s Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III. Their brothers and their niece, one Princess Victoria that was, have long overshadowed them but Fraser brings Charlotte, Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia and Amelia back out of the shadows. Born at at time when daughters were only as good as the princes you could marry them to, these women suffered because of their father’s madness. None of them married young, living fairly sheltered lives under their parents. Which doesn’t sound like a very interesting read but it is. It’s more of a personal story of the life of these women at court, at a time when their brothers were the only children worth anything. I took this book out of the library when I read it and I’ve always regretted not owning a copy.

If living under the strict rules that govern a King’s court, isn’t your jam, perhaps you will enjoy Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia by James Fox more. It’s the story of the beautiful Langhorne sisters, who were the creme de la creme of society from the end of the Civil War through WWII. Lizzie, Irene, Nancy, Phyllis and Nora were born to a Virginian family who’s fortunes were destroyed by the Civil War and ended up making their way across two continents, leaving fame, husbands and massive fortunes in their wake. One married Waldorf Astor and became Britain’s first female MP; another was the model for the Gibson Girl. Their lives spanned an incredible time in history and they were in the middle of it all.

Maybe a fashion biography is more your thing. If so, I would recommend Axel Madsen’s Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. I have very fond memories of reading this in the sunshine at my in-laws’. Coco Chanel did things her own way. She marketed herself as an orphan but actually she was raised by her aunt with her sister. At a young age she went to the big city to make her fortune, but it wasn’t until she got a capital infusion from a wealthy young man that she was able to become the Chanel that we are familiar with today. Chanel created her own legend but Madsen is able to show you what really happened.

I don’t usually read biographies about men but there are, of course, exceptions to prove the rule. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock was one of the exceptions. I adored Dahl’s books as a kid (Matilda was my favourite but I remember being blown away by Boy when I realized it was more than just a story, these things had really happened to him) but I never knew much about him. Sturrock told me everything and it’s not always a pretty picture. The man responsible for some of your favourite childhood tales hated that he found success writing for children – he always felt his adult work to be superior. In his lifetime he was called a racist, a misogynist and an anti-Semite. His romances were numerous, his marriage was turbulent, he was a pilot in the RAF and worked in intelligence. In short, he was everything you never could have expected from the mind that brought you Willy Wonka.

If stars of the silver screen are what you’re after, I’d recommend J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Elizabeth or Marilyn (he’s also written a book each about the Kennedys and the Hiltons – I haven’t read them but I want to!). Both are exquisitely rendered portraits of some the most famous women in the world. I also loved Ava Gardner: Love is Nothing by Lee Server. Ava Gardner was something else. I remember reading this, knowing very little going in, and coming away feeling like I knew her. She was irreverent, sexy and didn’t suffer fools gladly. Delightful.

I have a number of biography type books that are on my own Christmas list this year. A.N. Wilson’s Victoria: A Life; The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport; In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory by Julia P. Gelardi; and Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick. There’s also a book about the servants of Queen Victoria that I need to get my hands on!

OK that went on a lot longer than I meant for it to! If you read all the way to here, thanks for sticking it out. Now, what’s your favourite biography?

 

8

Why I love reading books by Julia P. Gelardi

I am a disciple of the brilliant Lainey Gossip and she always says that girl sh*t is the best sh*t. What she means is that the kind of gossip that goes down between girls is always the most interesting/fun/hilarious.

(Incidentally Lainey, or Elaine Lui to use her actual name, has a book coming out! Listen to the Squawking Chicken arrives in Canada on April 1st and the US on April 21st. Don’t worry, I already ordered my copy!)

This is true in Hollywood today and 60 years ago (Elizabeth Taylor and Debbie Fisher anyone?) and it was true at the Russian court in the 1800s.

I just finished reading From Splendor to Revolution: Romanov Women 1847-1928 and it was full of girl sh*t.

Julia P. Gelardi has got to be one of the best biographers of famous women. I’ve mentioned it loads of times before, but her book about the five granddaughters of Queen Victoria who all went on to become Queens in their own right, is among my favourite biographies. From Splendor to Revolution is another excellent example of the talent of this woman to take the incredible lives of four women and the times they lived in and break them down into a 389 page book. That’s a tall order.

splendor

The book follows the lives and loves of the Empress Marie Feodorovna (who had been Princess Dagmar of Denmark), and her sisters-in-law Marie Pavlovna (a German princess who married a Russian Grand Duke, also known as Miechen), Marie Alexandrovna (daughter of Alexander II who married Albert, the Duke of Edinburgh and became the Duchess of Coburg), and Olga Constantinovna (a Russian Grand Duchess who married Marie Feodorovna’s brother George who became King George I of Greece, making his wife Queen Olga of Greece).

Did you get all that?

Aside from all the Maries (and Olgas and Alexanders) to keep track of, this book was full of gossip. The Russian court loved to gossip and compete with each other. Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna did not like each other and things only got worse as Russia headed ever faster towards Revolution. Meanwhile, Marie Alexandrovna, used to the level of status she had in Russia as the daughter of Alexander II, fought her English relations for her level of precedence in their society.

Of course their lives weren’t all about gossip and fighting and the most exquisite jewels; Russia’s Imperial family were living on borrowed time and their Greek relations were no better off. By the time the 1920s rolled around, most Russian royals were living in exile (if they were living at all) while the Greeks made one last attempt at maintaining the throne.

One of the reasons why Gelardi is so adept at making these sprawling biographies of hers so accessible is that she is able to show the human side of history’s personalities. If you look at portraits or photos of these women, you see them covered in the garb of their position, dripping in jewels that don’t seem like they could be real. But when you get the chance to read their letters to each other during one of the most tumultuous epochs of human history, you get to meet the person beneath the crown. Queen Olga was an affectionate and empathetic woman, writing adoring letters to her nephew, the future George V; Marie Alexandrovna was a proud Russian and an involved mother, looking out for the interests of all her daughtes, especially Missy who became Queen Marie of Romania; Marie Pavolvna was an excellent hostess who loved to surround herself with the most glamourous people and in the end was a most loyal mistress; and Empress Marie Feodorovna was incredibly devoted to her husband and her children, and adored by Russia while she shared the throne with Alexander III.

I learned a lot from this one. The period of time covered seems so available because their lives bled into the 20th century – their descendants still exist! They’re not that far removed either. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, is a grandson of Queen Olga after all.

So that’s another fantastic book about woman from Julia P. Gelardi. Now I just need to get my hands on In Triumph’s Wake: Royal Mothers, Tragic Daughters and the Price They Paid for Glory!

8

The (Temporary) End of My Library Run

For the first time in months, I have no library books in my possession.

This isn’t because I’ve fallen out of love with the library or anything like that. No, no. It’s because I’ve been so caught up in the library and all of the reading treasures housed within that I’ve been neglecting all of the beautiful books awaiting my attention in my own library!

As some of you may know, I’m currently under a self-imposed (and flexible) book ban. It’s not a permanent thing. I haven’t lost my mind and decided not to buy books ever again. I haven’t decided to categorize books as clutter. Nothing like that; I have a wedding to pay for and books ain’t cheap. So I started going to the library to save money. And instead of exercising anything remotely resembling bookish self restraint, I started taking home 7 or 8 books every few weeks.

But they have to be back at the library in a few weeks. So even though I could renew them (and occasionally I have), more often than not I just neglect all other books and read the library books.

Result: my own books are screaming for my attention.

I’m taking a hiatus from the library until I make a dent in some of my own book piles.

So what is awaiting my attention? Read on!

For Christmas I got four beautiful books and I’ve only read one of them so far (Burial Rites). Night Film by Marisha Pessl, The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial That Shocked A Country by Charlotte Gray and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt are all still waiting to be read (and hopefully loved). And yes, I realize that all the books I asked for for Christmas had to do with death. I’m probably less disturbed by that than I should be.

I buy classics because I love them and usually they are on some kind of sale. Mostly love but if I can get more books for the same amount of money, so much the better. But reading classics can be a commitment and I get distracted by shiny new reads a lot. War and Peace is still sitting on my shelf, waiting for round two. I’ve made an attempt at Nicholas Nickleby once as well (but as travel reading when it was so not appropriate travel reading) so that needs another go. And The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. I loved The Age of Innocence and I know I will likely enjoy this one too but again – new and shiny.

Last year I read quite a lot of non-fiction. And yet? I didn’t get to all the non- fiction books that I bought. After I saw Lincoln last year, I meant to read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals but I have yet to do so. I also have a book about Amsterdam that I impulsively bought because I always buy books about Amsterdam or the Netherlands when I see them as they are so rare. I’m in the middle of The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel so that’s progress (so far it’s also insanely interesting and horrifying) but I have yet to crack From Splendor to Revolution, Julia P. Gelardi’s account of the Romanov women from 1847-1928. By all accounts, I will love this book. One of my very favourite biographies was Gelardi’s Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria.

So for now, although the library calls out to me with the promise of all kinds of undiscovered riches, I’m going to try and resist so that I can make my way through my own books.

But like I say, I’m pretty flexible with these things.

11

Famous Women

I’ve finally cracked Catherine the Great: Portait of a Woman and, 150 pages in, it is living up to every single expectation. It is terrific and well written and wonderful and educational and there are pictures! Who doesn’t love shiny pictures?

Exactly.

Anyway starting this book got me reflecting on all the other bios of awesome women that I have read. I have a weakness for bios about fantastic ahead-of-their-time women, as any quick perusal of my bookshelves will tell you. I have an especial weakness for royal women. And we’re not even talking about my girl crush on the new Duchess of Cambridge here (although if you have a few hours and you live near me, maybe you want to watch the Royal Wedding again? I have it on DVD. Apparently I feel like watching it 8 times over the wedding weekend wasn’t enough).

I digress.

I’ve put together a modest collection of my very favourite bios of awesome women in the hopes that at least one will strike a note with you. Because women are awesome and sometimes it behooves us to remember that.

The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann was a souvenir book I picked up over my weekend in Vienna. I kept seeing pictures of this woman in an incredible gown with diamond stars in her hair and I needed to know more. So when I saw that same picture on the cover of this book – I had to have it. The Reluctant Empress is Empress Elisabeth of Austria who was incredibly beautiful and mysterious and really did not like being the Empress. She wanted to be free and struggled against the rigid formalities of the Austrian court. It was a wonderful, slightly heartbreaking, thoroughly modern read and I loved it.

Another woman struggling against the expectations and conformities of life in the spotlight was Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire. Amanda Foreman’s sympathetic and meticulously researched book about this ancestor of Princess Diana will leave you wanting more. I’m not ashamed to say that I picked this book up after seeing previews for the movie The Duchess with Keira Knightley. The movie is good, the book is better. Even Keira Knightley fails to do justice to this woman who was ahead of her time politically, romantically, even fashionably, and ended up paying a very high price for it all.

If you want to talk about high prices women have paid in history, Marie-Antoinette probably comes to mind, seeing as she lost her life for living a frivolous life at court while the French people starved in the streets. Still, Antonia Fraser’s biography paints a more sympathetic and realistic portrait of the woman who has been wrongly accused of uttering “Let them eat cake.” She was married young to a boy who ignored her for the first years of their marriage and was reviled by the people for the rest of her time. Fraser’s account takes you back through the golden days of Versailles, right through to the ignominious end of the French monarchy.

What’s better than the biography of one royal woman? Julia P. Gelardi’s book that covers five of them. Born to Rule: Five Reigning Consorts, Granddaughters of Queen Victoria ably covers the incredible lives of the 5 granddaughters of Queen Victoria who each became Queens in their own right. Alexandra who married the Russian Tsar and met her tragic end in squalor, her body riddled with bullets; Marie, the beautiful flamboyant Queen of Romania who was the mother of 2 more Balkan Queens; Victoria Eugenie who was almost bombed on the parade route on her wedding day, having married the heir to the Spanish throne, passing on the haemophilia gene that so tormented her grandmother and cousin, Alexandra; Maud, who in becoming independent Norway’s Queen, spent the rest of her days pining for England; and Sophie, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s sister, daughter of an emperor and the mother of three kings and a queen who ended her life in exile. I mean come on,  you can’t make up more incredible lives than that!

My last choice is not a royal woman, but one who had a huge influence on my own young life: L.M. Montgomery. I suspect that she had a pretty important impact on Mary Henley Rubio’s life as well which is probably at least part of the reason for the exquisite Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings. Here’s what I knew about L.M. Montgomery before: she was the brilliant author of the Anne of Green Gables series which I will love for always. After finishing this book, I know that she loved the island she made famous, but hated that her work destroyed the world she loved; that she struggled with mental illness in a marriage based on convenience rather than love or respect; and that having so brilliantly captured childhood in the form of her most enduring heroine, she had nothing but trouble trying to connect with her own young sons.

I could go on but I won’t. This time. If you have another book about a famous woman you think I would love, leave it in the comments!