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Non-Fiction November: Be the Expert

This week as part of Non-fiction November, we’re thinking like experts. We’re either being the expert, asking the experts or becoming an expert.

I have been most looking forward to this week, hosted by Julz @ Julz Reads.

For as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve been obsessed with Royals, mainly female Royals. I’ve read about Tudors and Yorks, Romanovs, Stuarts, Windsors, even a Bernadotte or two. I’ve read about minor German duchies, Spanish Infantas, French Queens, and Austrian Empresses. I’ve read about Elizabethans, Georgians, Edwardians, and the Restoration.

I will forever be drawn to Royals.

Here are some of my favourite  books about Royal women (in no particular order):

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport. I’d read a lot about Nicholas and Alexandra by the time I read this one. Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were always mentioned as their lives intersected with their parents’. Their deaths at such young ages meant that they were never really known as their own people. Rappaport’s book was the first time I was introduced to the sisters as individuals. The whole thing is of course, totally sad, because ultimately you know how their story ends.

The Mystery of Princess Louise by Lucinda Hawksley. Princess Louise, was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. She was unusual in that she convinced her parents to let her have an artistic education. She was quite a talented sculptor, married a commoner (as much a commoner as the era would allow anyway, he was still in line to a Dukedom), and spent part of her life in Canada when her husband was appointed Governor-General. The province of Alberta is named for her.

Anything by Julia P. Gelardi. She is, hands down, my favourite Royals biographer. She has written three books looking at multiple Royals. Five Granddaughters, which looks at the lives of the Queens of Norway, Russia, Spain, Romania and Greece, each of whom was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria; In Triumph’s Wake, which looks at the lives of incredibly successful Queens (Victoria, Maria-Theresa and Isabella of Spain) and their very tragic daughters (Vicky, Marie-Antoinette, Katherine of Aragon); and From Splendour to Revolution, which takes on some of the Romanov women, from 1847-1928. Anyone of them is so very worth your time – I can’t even pick a favourite.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. Catherine was Empress of Russia but she was also a woman. Massie’s portrait of her manages to do justice to both sides of this august historical figure.

Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte by Kate Williams. Before reading this, my knowledge of Josephine was that she was always really well dressed. Williams introduced me to a completely different person, a woman who was born on a remote island, who kicked and scratched her way through life. It was exquisitely researched and I loved every page. (Williams is actually a prolific author. She has many books about royal woman, as well as fiction books like the WWI series that starts with The Storms of War. I totally read it – also quite good)

The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann. The first time I ever became aware of Empress Elisabeth of Austria was when I was actually in Austria. Her portrait, the Winterhalter one of her in a white dress with diamond stars in her hair, is everywhere. I bought this biography of her while I was there. Empress Elisabeth wasn’t supposed to marry Franz-Joseph, her sister was. But he fell in love with Elisabeth and she with him. Life at the very formal Austrian court turned out to be a lot to handle for a young woman raised in an informal Bavarian household. She spent the rest of her life searching for ways to avoid court life, to live as free as possible away from the gossip and the rules that otherwise governed her life.

Well those should get you started should you feel the need to better acquaint yourself with some of these Royals. If you know of a good one, please let me know. I’m always looking for more.

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19

2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Matriarch

We’re getting pretty close to the end of the year! Which means holidays, darker days, lots of eating scheduled, and that I’m running out of time to complete the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge.

I’m not quite throwing in the towel, but I’m starting to resign myself to the fact that it might not happen this year.

But the year isn’t quite over, so I dug into Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor by Anne Edwards.

So Queen Mary was the real deal. She was born a Princess, but was one of those impoverished relatives who spent her youth putting off creditors and relying on other, more well-off relatives for extended visits.

queen-mary

At some point, Queen Victoria decided that lovely, clever, dignified Princess May (she was born Victoria Mary Augusta Louisa Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes but was called May after the month of her birth) would be the perfect wife for second-heir Prince Eddy (eldest son of heir Bertie, who would become King Edward VII). But then Eddy had to go and die (he was an odd duck, a possible homosexual and rumoured to have been Jack the Ripper) and after a suitable period of mourning, her “affections” were transferred to Prince Eddy’s younger brother, Prince George (who would go on to become King George V).

Here’s the number one thing I learned about Queen Mary: she believed in the power of Monarchy. She was dignified, a core of strength for her family during some dark days and she revered the position of Monarch.

“Queen Mary had lived her life with dedication to the principle of Monarchy, and she died as she had lived, as her Sovereign’s most devoted subject.”

Seriously – Queen Mary is the reason Queen Elizabeth II is as dedicated as she is. She was the role model for duty before everything else. Also, early pictures of Princess May show a remarkable resemblance to QEII, and now to Princess Charlotte.

She wasn’t a warm mother and most of her children had a distant relationship with her. But everyone agrees that in any capacity (as Princess May, Princess of Wales, Queen Consort or Queen Mother) she was always the very personification of dignity. She loved to dress well and because of her incredibly regal bearing, she was able to wear an insane amount of jewels (ropes of pearls, diamond necklaces stacked all up her neck, tiaras, jewelled stomachers, bracelets, rings and any number of jewel encrusted orders) and look just right.

Queen Mary’s life covered an incredible amount of history: born in the Victorian era, she lived through the reigns of Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI. She died just before the coronation of her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

And while Anne Edwards’ book is very thorough and clearly well researched, the whole time I couldn’t help but think “but this is Queen Mary’s book.”

A lot of this book looks at the reigns and troubles of the men in her life: her father-in-law, husband and later, her sons. And while there’s no way to tell Queen Mary’s story without also talking about the wars, relationships with various Royal relatives (she never got over the fact that they weren’t able to save their cousin Tsar Nicholas II and his family), and her son’s Abdication, their stories aren’t hers. I found myself frustrated  by all the time spent talking about the education of her sons , their loves and travels.

I wanted Queen Mary only.

That said, I’m glad to have finally read this book. It’d been on my list for ages.

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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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Jennie Churchill

Mary S. Lovell wrote an incredible biography of The Churchills as a whole. It ably covered Sunny and Winston and Randolph and Clemmie and Winston’s kids and Consuela but it was Jennie that I wanted to know more about.

(Lovell also wrote an equally fantastic book about The Mitford sisters that is absolutely worth reading)

I accidentally found myself in the library again last week and came across Anne Sebba’s Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother. I’d read Sebba’s That Woman about Wallis Warfield Simpson and really liked it so I was confident that her handling of Jennie’s story would be just as good.

Jennie Churchill, like Wallis after her, was a bit of a controversial figure in her time. It wasn’t until much later, years after her death in fact, when her son became The Winston Churchill, that she underwent a kind of makeover, to show her to be some kind of saintly mother who believed in and loved her son above all else. After all,

In 1921 [when Jennie died] the scale of Winston’s importance could only be guessed at by most. He himself feared that his career might already be over. It took another thirty years before he was hailed as ‘The Greatest Briton’. Jennie already knew it.

jennie

Jennie Jerome was beautiful, clever and rich. Her father, Leonard, had a gift of making money but he was equally adept at losing large amounts of it. Eventually his wife Clara and their daughters, Clara, Jennie and Leonie, decamped to Paris where the cost of living was lower. It was also easier for upstart Americans to be admitted into the right society in Paris – society was so much stricter in England.

Still, eventually the Jeromes found themselves at Crewe, which is where Jennie met Randolph Churchill, second son of the Duke of Marlborough. By now we’re all familiar with the scores of rich American women that married into the British aristocracy as an attempt to finance and save their properties. But when Jennie met Randolph, this wasn’t yet common; Jennie was actually one of the first to do it.

This book is only 331 pages but Jennie (and Randolph and Winston) lived a LIFE. So a lot went on. In an effort to pique your interest but not have your eyes glaze over from details, here are some of the more interesting points:

  • Jennie was married three times. First to Randolph, with whom she had two children. The second and third times to men MUCH younger than her. One was said to have been the handsomest man of his generation (although to look at his picture, of a balding man with a moustache who looks at least 15 years older than his age, we have very different standards of beauty now)
  • She is said to have had around 200 lovers. Sebba doesn’t think it was that high but for a woman of her generation she definitely had more than the average. Probably at least 30, including Prince Albert Edward, later King Edward VII.
  • She was always poor. Her father ended up losing all his money and from then the Jerome sisters have to kind of shift for themselves. Not so easy when you think about the confines society placed on women at the time. And yet, they still managed to go to Paris, to go to house parties for fancy dress, to rent incredible homes that were fully staffed…
  • She was an incredibly horrible mother to Winston and Jack when they were kids. In later years, yes she became devoted to her boys, especially Winston. But when they were small and needed the attentions of their mother, when Winston was having the sh*t beaten out of him by his teachers at school and BEGGED for a visit or a letter, she completely ignored them.
  • She travelled all around the world. She organized for a hospital ship to go to South Africa during the Boer War and ended up going on it to help out. And when her husband, Randolph, was dying in 1894, she went on a round the world trip with him.
  • Before she died she had her leg amputated above the knee. She loved high heels and was wearing a pair when she hurried into dinner and slipped and fell down some stairs. It was quite a bad fracture and two weeks later, although the swelling had gone down, her skin had gone black from gangrene. She hemorrhaged to death as a result of the amputation.

Oh yes, Jennie Jerome was quite the woman. I appreciate that Sebba looked at her as her own woman, not as the wife of Randolph or the mother of Winston, despite the title. She lived and loved on her own terms and I suspect that she was really quite ok with the way her life turned out.

8

Royal Women: The Romanov Sisters

You guys know that I LOVE reading about Royals. Royal women are probably my favourite non-fiction subject to read about. For Christmas, you may remember I asked Santa to bring me The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport.

My letter must have missed him because, no dice.

But then for my birthday, my friend got it for me! I actually shrieked with delight when I unwrapped it because a) I really wanted to read this book and b) it was the only book I got for my birthday if you can believe that. I meant to savour it, I tried really hard to hold off reading it, just enjoy the having. But I couldn’t.

I posted about this on instagram but every time I read about the last Romanovs I’m just so sad the whole time. No matter how glamorous or beautiful or wonderful their lives might have seemed at the time, you know that it won’t last, that their end will be horrific. And it makes me sad.

This one was harder to read than anything previously because Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were so young. They paid the ultimate price for things that really they had nothing to do with. I’ve read a lot about Nicholas and Alexandra, how their marriage was a true love match, how Alexandra’s debilitating shyness made her seem like a snob, their complete reliance on Rasputin, how they both hated the bureaucracy of governance and would have preferred the life of the landed gentry in England. But before this book I’d only read about the girls as their lives related to their parents’ – their births, some of the illnesses. But they were never fully formed people.

romanovs

The Romanov Sisters finally introduced me to the daughters as people in their own right. Olga, serious and intelligent, a worthy successor to her father if only the rules hadn’t favoured male offspring; beautiful Tatiana who found her calling as a nurse during the Great War, taking charge when her mother’s illnesses kept her in bed; charming, sweet, self-effacing Maria, the girl that boys who met her wanted to marry – Louis Mountbatten kept a picture of her in his room until the day he died; and mischievous Anastasia,who didn’t have a great love for the classroom but loved military parades and acting in plays for her family. Their lives were short and extremely sheltered – for years their biggest outing was a weekly trip to their aunt’s house for tea – but by all accounts they were polite, charming and totally devoted to each other.

There were a lot of mistakes that were made in the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra. There’s no way to know if anything done differently would have actually changed anything. I suspect that if some major things had been different (for example had they been honest with the Russian people about Alexei’s hemophaelia, they wouldn’t have needed Rasputin) their end might have been different too. They would have at least been able to escape. Rappaport has written other books about the last Romanovs where she follows them to the very end. In The Romanov Sisters she chooses to leave them right before the end. She writes that it was an emotional experience writing about them, spending so much time with them over the months that she was writing. I totally understand the decision. I’ve read about the ending – I prefer to think of the sisters as they were: in lovely white dresses with big white hats, laughing together.

One of the last letters that Olga wrote from Ekaterinburg really had me choking up. It was true then and it’s true today:

“…that they should remember that the evil there now is in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil that will conquer evil – only love.”

27

Seriously, I’m Having Book Troubles.

There seems to be a theme on the interwebs today: book abandonment.

Tanya at 52 Books or Bust had to give up on a book that she really wanted to love; over at Another Book Blog, we discussed how many pages you gave a book before ultimately walking away; and Lindsey from Reeder Reads did some scientific (twitter) research to find out what makes people break up with their books.

If you’ve been kicking around here for a while, you know that I love biographies about women, especially royal women. They are my cat nip. Marie Antoinette, Catherine the Great, Queen Victoria, the Duchess of Devonshire,  the six wives of Henry VIII, the five granddaughters of Queen Victoria – these ladies are my jam. I can’t get enough.

A couple of weeks ago I turned my attention to a biography of Lucrezia Borgia. I thought it would be right up my alley: beautiful, powerful family, some intrigue and scandal. This should have been my thing. And it just was not. I struggled to get through 150 pages and then realized that it wasn’t going to get any better and I needed to stop. Note to self: biographies of women from the 1400s will tell their story based on the men in their lives.

queen anne

On the same library trip when I picked up the Borgia biography, I carried out Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion. The portrait that they used for the cover is beautiful and with a title like that, one that held all the promise of scandal…well I was pretty sure that this was going to be a delicious read.

It started out that way. Queen Anne’s father, James II, caused a scandal by marrying beneath him in secret and then when his new wife was pregnant with his child and they had to come clean about the secret marriage, he thought he could get out of it and denied she was his wife. So those were her parents.

This time the problem is not one of a lack of researchable materials. Anne Somerset has done an impeccably thorough job of putting together the life of Queen Anne. The problem is that Queen Anne was kind of an asshole. And not in a good way. She picked fights, she was sulky, she could barely walk before she was 40 because she was so fat, and she was not well educated. She was pregnant 17 times and none of her children survived past the age of 10. Actually only one of them even made it past the age of 2 or 3.

I’m also finding myself wandering off when I read because so much has to be explained about the time and the politics that were causing such upheaval. In trying to describe Queen Anne’s reign, we have to understand the political climates and ruling personalities in Spain, France and the Netherlands. Entire books can be written about the politics of any one of these nations – it’s too much.

I really want to finish this book but I’ve been working on it for days and I’m only just into the 200s of a 500+ page book. I would probably have fewer reservations about walking out on Queen Anne if I hadn’t already done it to Lucrezia Borgia a couple of weeks ago.

My bad book luck is apparently not quite through with me.

Would you keep going or walk away?