Friday, December 31, 2010

The Story of the Widow Clicquot

It's no secret that I adore champagne, and my favorite by far is Veuve Clicquot, (Although I won't say no to Laurent-Perrier Rose or Billecart-Salmon, or basically any sparkling wine!) but I never really thought about the story behind the yellow label until I was on a panel with Christine Kaculis, the US Director of Communications for Veuve Clicquot, last week at The Mistletoe Syndrome event at The National Arts Club.  Listening to Christine talk about the brand and how it got started made me eager to learn more.  Fortunately there is a short biography about Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot written by Tilar J. Mazzeo which I eagerly took out of the library. Her story is inspiring, a woman who took over her husband's business when the idea of an upper middle class woman entering into business was unheard of. With tonight being New Year's Eve, and all those corks of Veuve Clicquot being popped, I thought it would be nice to have a look at the woman who probably did more than anyone to promote Champagne to the International market.

If it weren't for two events, Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin's life would have been very different.  The first event was the French Revolution which kicked off in 1789 when Barbe-Nicole was 12 (she was born on December 16, 1777 two years after Jane Austen).  Barbe-Nicole's father Nicolas was a prosperous textile merchant who had ambitions to vault his family from the upper middle class into the nobility.  He'd already gotten a start by being voted onto the city council and being part of the committee that planned for the coronation ceremony for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the cathedral town of Reims where the Ponsardins lived. His dreams of either gaining a coat of arms for his family or marrying his two daughters into the nobility (Barbe-Nicole had a younger sister Clementine) were shattered when the Revolution came.  But Nicolas was a shrewd man, he just switched sides and became a fervant proponent of the Revolution going so far as to join the Jacobins.

Barbe-Nicole, who had been attending the royal convent of Saint-Pierre-les-Dames (Mary, Queen of Scots had once been a pupil), had to be rescued by the family dressmaker, and smuggled home dressed like a peasant, before the chanting, angry mob that was roaming the streets of Reims came to its doorstep, making it a target of public abuse.  The second event that changed her life was her marriage to Francois Clicquot when she was 20.  Like her, he came from a wealthy family who had made their money in textiles but they also had a side business as wine brokers.  Francois had ambitions to take that side business and turn into something more, not just distributing other people's wines but making their own.  He decided to concentrate on the sparkling wine that for a time had made the region famous.  Champagne had its heyday in the late 17th and the early part of the 17th century, during the reign of Lous XV, whose mistress, Madame Pompadour adored the wine, but it had fallen out of favor over the years.

Barbe-Nicole worked by his side, absorbing everything that she could about the business. At first, they concentrated on both white wines as well as champagne. After a brief initial success, the war took its toll on the business. Although Francois had hired an agent, Louis Bohne, to help sell the wine, shipping it was difficult. When they went to England to hopefully sell the champagne, they discovered that since they had no contacts amongst the aristocracy, they had little hope of making a dent in the market against the likes of Jean-Remy Moet. Discouraged and depressed, Francois died in 1805, officially from typhoid but there were rumors of suicide. Barbe-Nicole was left a widow, with a young daughter at the age of 27.

Instead of retreating into respectable widowhood, or even eventually remarrying, Barbe-Nicole decided to continue the business on her own.  Although there were women vintners most of them were lower-class, this would be new territory.  Barbe-Nicole was fortunate that her father-in-law was willing to put money into the venture, at first to the tune of 30,000 francs, but he insisted that she work together with a more experienced vintner for four years.  Showing the initiative and ambition that would see her father rise to become mayor of Reims and a close friend of Napoleon, Barbe-Nicole agreed.

Barbe-Nicole decided to focus solely on champagne.  The champagne they drank back then was different from what we drink today. For one thing, it was much sweeter, as much as 250 to 300 grams of sugar was added to the wine.  Since I failed the metric system, I'm not sure how much that is, but it sounds darn sweet. Nor was champagne the rich golden color that we associate with it. According to Tilar Mazzeo's book, champagne back then was a pinkish gray color which doesn't remotely sound appetizing. Champagne and wine in general wasn't normally even bottled. Most wine was sent abroad in casks. Bottling was expensive and shipping the bottles without them breaking was a nightmare. The first four years, she was in business were rocky, but her father-in-law believed in her, and when the apprenticeship was over, he put more money into the venture.

Barbe-Nicole's biggest market at the time turned out to be Russia, where the Imperial Court loved her champagne, and began to ask for it by name, which also a first. When Reims was taken over by the Russian army, Barbe-Nicole took advantage of it, and served her champagne to the officers. When the French recaptured Reims, she gave the officers champagne. As soon as the war was over, Barbe-Nicole managed to arrange a ship to get her wine to Russia,sending 10,500 bottles of champagne. But it was the champagne that was bottled during the year that there was a major comet in 1811, that made her reputation. It was also her idea to have the bright yellow labels on teh bottles.

Madam Clicquot today is recognized with three achievements, internationalizing the champagne market, brand identification, and developing the process of the riddling rack that made the process of what they call degorgement possible. She developed this technique with her cellar master Antoine Muller. What this does is allow the sendimentary gunk that builds up after the secondary fermentation to be removed. The rack allows a bottle of wine to be stuck upside down, an assistant every day would gntly ske and twist the bottle to encourage the gunk to settle to the bottom. When this was complete, the cork would be gently removed and the gunk ejected (thanks Wikipedia for explaining this so efficiently!). Now the wine was less cloudy, and the bubbles were smaller. Now she could accelerate production and kep her share of the marketplace. It would be years before her biggest competitor Jean-Remy Moet discovered her secret and adopted her technique. By the 1820's, she was exporting 175,000 bottles of champagne a year.

By the time Barbe-Nicole passed away in 1866 at the age of 89, she was known as the 'Grande Dame of Champagne." Ironically for a woman who had been an idependent business woman for more than half of her life, Barbe-Nicole wanted her daughter to marry well (she married the Comte de Chevigne) and live a more conventional life. Only one other woman in the 19th century also helped to run a champagne house and that was Louise Pommery who changed the way the world drank champagne when she started selling a the style that the world now knows as brut champagne. Barbe-Nicole made other innovations as well, instead of turning Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin into a family business, bringing her son-in-law who turned out to be a wastrel and a gambler, into the business, Barbe-Nicole instead took on a business partner, a young German named Edouard Werle. At the age of 64, she finally retired, but she still kept her hand in the company that bore her name. At the time of her death, Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin was one of the top sellers of chmpagne. Today her legacy lives on in the award for female owners or managers of corporations that was launched in her name in 1972.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The First Five Catherines: A Short History

Since the announcement of Prince William's engagement to his longtime girlfriend Catherine Middleton, it has come to my attention, that one day, if the monarchy in England continues past the current Queen, Catherine will be the sixth woman of that name to be Queen of England.  So, I thought for fun, I would give brief histories of the first 5 Queens of England named Catherine.

The first Catherine to marry a King of England was of course Catherine de Valois (1401-1437), younger daughter of Charles VI of France.  Catherine's older sister had already been married to a King of England, Richard II, before his untimely death.  Catherine was married off to Henry V of England as part of the treaty between the two countries, which acknowledged that Henry as heir to the throne of France.  Most of you have seen either the movie or the play HENRY V, no doubt remember the charming wooing scene between Henry and Catherine as he tries to speak French to her.  Catherine and Henry were married on June 2nd 1420.  After her arrival in England, Catherine was crowned Queen at Westminster Abbey in February of 1421.  Before long, Henry had left his new bride to continue to wage war in France, leaving Catherine several months pregnant. 

After giving birth to the future Henry VI of England in December of 1421, but Henry never saw his son.  He died during the seige of Meaux in August of 1422, leaving Catherine a widow at 20. During the years of her widowhood, there were rumors of the Queen remarrying which concerned the King's uncle, Henry Duke of Gloucester who was serving as Protector. Catherine eventually found love again in the most unlikely of places, with Owen Tudor, a handosme Welshman, who served as the keeper of the Queen's wardrobe.  The relationship apparently began while Catherine was living at Windsor Castle. Nobody knows where or when the two were married. The couple eventually went on to have at least five children, four who lived to adulthood, Edmund, future father of Henry VII, Jasper, Owen and a daughter Margaret. Catherine died at Bermondsey Abbey in early 1437 from an unknown illness. She is buried in Westminster Abbey next to Henry V. After her death, their enemies had Owen arrested for violating the law of remarriage for the Dowager Queen. Although he was acquitted of those charges, he was arrested again and his possessions seized. Eventually he was released, and was in the Household of the King at least until he was arrested and executed by the Yorkists after the Battle of Mortimer's Cross. 

I've always found the love story of Catherine and Owen to be incredibly romantic, two star-crossed lovers who marry secretly and found a dynasty!
Our next three Queen Catherines were all lucky enough or unlucky to be married to that serial monogamist Henry VIII.  Above we have his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485 - 1536). Raised to be Queen of England, widowed at 16, forced to endure years of poverty and humiliation before marrying Henry VII, this determined and pious woman finally after years of disappointment gave brith to a healthy daughter, the future Mary I. You have to admire her nerves of steel as she fought to hold onto her crown when Henry was determined to divorce her.  I always found it so harsh cruel that Henry denied her access to her daughter, keeping them apart as punishment. Poorly done Henry!

Here we have pretty, silly Catherine Howard (1524-1542) who lost her head barely two years after marrying Henry VIII after he discovered that he wasn't the first man to enjoy her charms nor the last as the case may be.  Sigh, the poor girl should have lived a long life as the wife of some minor nobleman if it hadn't been for the ambitions of her uncle Thomas, Duke of Norfolk who saw a chance of putting another niece on the throne. I've always admired the fact that she asked for the block to be brought to her at the Tower so that she could practice laying her head down with dignity. Still, 18 is too young to die.

Finally, Catherine Parr (1512-1548), the one who outlived Henry VIII. This twice-widowed, highly intelligent woman didn't want to marry the King.  She had her heart set on Thomas Seymour as her third husband, finally getting a chance to marry who she wanted, but fate stepped in and she spent 4 years playing nursemaid to a cranky old man, and giving her stepchildren a loving home. However, she did get to be the first Queen consort of Ireland, and she managed to turn things around when it looked like she might end up like wives 2 and 5. Finally with Henry's death, she was able to marry the man she loved.  Unfortunately she didn't get much of a chance to enjoy her happiness. Her husband turned out to be a jerk, spending his time playing slap and tickle with the teenage Princess Elizabeth who lived with them.  Catherine died soon after giving birth to a daughter.

And finally we come to our last Catherine of Braganza (1638 - 1705), the wife of the Merry Monarch Charles II. This Portugese Princess who could trace her lineage back to John of Gaunt, was not popular at first, being Catholic and unable to speak English. She also left a lot to be desired in the fashion stakes, arriing in England with an unfortunate hairdo like batwings.  No sooner had she set foot on English soil then she was confronted by the revelation that not only did her husband have mistress, the beautiful and sensuous Barbara Palmer, but that Catherine was forced to accept her as one of her ladies. Quelle horreur!

It can't have been easy for Catherine, she was madly in love with her husband, but she had to share him with many mistresses who seemed to give birth every few minutes, while Catherine suffered at least two miscarriages. Charles was fond of her, and insisted that she be treated with respect. Despite not being able to bear the much needed heir, he refused to divorce her. Over time, Catherine managed to win over her subjects by her quiet demeanor and her loyalty to the King. As part of her dowry, Catherine brought Tangiers and Bombay to British control. She also introduced the custom of tea-drinking to England, which had been popular in Portugal for some time, as well as introducing the use of the fork to English dining tables.  After her husband's death, Catherine initially remained in England, living at Somerset House. She tired to intervene with James II for the life of James, Duke of Monmouth, her huband's illegitimate son after his rebellion but to no avail.

She returned to Portugal in 1692, when anti-Catholic sentiment made life uncomfortable in England, where she acted as a regent for her brother Peter II. She died in 1705 and is buried in Lisbon.

Hopefully the future Princess William's life as a member of the royal family won't be quite as dramatic as the lives of these 5 women!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas with the Plantagenets: The Lion in Winter

"What should we hang? The holly or each other?" Henry II to his assembled family.

The Lion in Winter:  (1968 Avco Embassy Pictures)
Directed by Anthony Harvey.

Based on the Broadway play by James Goldman (which starred Richard Preson as Henry II, Rosemary Harris as Eleanor and a young Christopher Walken as Philip).

Katherine Hepburn (Eleanor of Aquitaine)
Peter O’Toole (Henry II)
Anthony Hopkins (Richard)
Nigel Terry (John)
John Castle (Geoffrey)
Timothy Dalton (Philip II of France)
Jane Merrow (Princess Alais of France)
Nigel Stock (William Marshall)
Some people watch A Christmas Carol at the holidays or A Christmas Story but my favorite Christmas film is The Lion in Winter. I could watch this film over and over (and I have) and never get tired of it. From the opening credits, as the music swells, and the chorus starts singing in Latin, the audience is plunged into this 12th century world, where no one can be trusted, brother is pitted against brother, husband and wives sharpen their knives, and a good time is had by all. Taking place in a twenty-four hour period, the film is full of acid wit, the audience needs a scorecard to keep up with whom is backstabbing whom in this film.  

Set in 1183 it’s just another dysfunctional family Christmas with the Plantagenets.  Henry II of England has invited his family to spend Christmas at Chinon where he has decided to announce that John is to be King after him instead of Richard. Of course, big brother is not about to let his little brother usurp him, and Eleanor is determined that her favorite son will be King as well. Geoffrey mean while plays both sides against each other, while trying to strike a deal with Philip II of France to make him King.  Philip either wants the Vexin back or his sister married since it's been 17 years since she left France to come to England to be wed. Alais, meanwhile is tired of being a pawn, promised first to one brother and then another.  She loves Henry, even though she's only his mistress. Instead of a happy family Christmas with caroling and wassail, the audience is treated to a war zone as the family fight and betray each other, picking at old wounds and creating new ones. And they get off on it!

 Peter O’Toole is the embodiment of Henry II (for a double feature watch Becket first where he plays the young king and then watch this film), the rough and gruff monarch who has held England tightly in the palm of his hand since the age of 21.  He is evenly matched by Katherine Hepburn aging glamorous but formidable Queen.  At the time, Hepburn was the same exact age that Eleanor was in the fillm.  Watching the two of them go at each other is like watching a master class in acting.  From her first entrance on the barge arriving at Chinon, she commands every scene she's in. She totally deserved the Academy Award for this film, although Peter O'Toole was again robbed of the Best Actor Oscar which went to John Wayne in True Grit. The film also won Academy Awards for John Barry's lush score and Best Adapted Screenplay for James Goldman.

Everyone is incredibly well cast in this film from Antony Hopkins as the martially inclined Richard the Lionheart and his secret passion for men, John Castle as Geoffrey outspoken in his bitterness of being unjustly neglected, and Nigel Terry as the sullen youngest son who has the personality of a turnip. And then there is Timothy Dalton, as the young Philip II, only son of St. Louis, Eleanor's ex-husband, who proves that he is no man's boy. It's hard to believe watching this film that Hopkins and Dalton were making their film debuts.

There are so many awesome and quotable lines in this film I don't know where to start. From Henry's line to Alais after they've made love and she's asked him what he would do if she stopped going along with the flow "It's going to be a jungle of a day, if I start growling now, I'll never last," to Alais's line about how John "has pimples and smells of compost." When Henry replies that he's only 16, he can't help the pimples, Alais replies "He could take a bath!" But the best lines in the whole film belong to Geoffrey who will just about betray anyone, if only to be noticed. "I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We're a knowledgeable family."

There are a few historical hiccups, There was no Christmas court at Chinon in 1183,  Christmas trees weren’t brought to England from Germany until the marriage of George III to Princess Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz in the 18th Century, and there is no historical evidence that Richard the Lionheart was gay.  But the film captures the complex dynamic and the tangled relationships of the Plantagenets. The film was remade in 2000 with Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close, but it doesn’t come close to the energy of the original film. Seriously if Showtime wants another series about dysfunctional royals, they would do well to option Sharon Kay Penman's trilogy about Eleanor and Henry and turn that into a four season series.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: American Rose

by Karen Abbott
Random House Publishing, December 28, 2010

I have been fascinated by Gypsy Rose Lee ever since I saw the movie version of Gypsy! starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood but I had no idea until I was older and knew more about musicals that it was based on a true story.  Now Karen Abbott has written a magnificent new book about the elusive, elegant and erudite practioner of the art of the striptease.

The book is not just a biography of a fascinating woman who moved beyond what must have been a troublesome and traumatic childhood, to reinvent herself into a cultural icon.  It is also a social history of era that will never be seen again except in grainy photos and old movies. Gypsy born Ellen June Hovick on January 9, 1911 wasn't even allowed to keep her original name. The minute her younger sister was born, Ellen June became Rose Louise, so her pretty blonde sister could have her name.  From the time she was a child, Gypsy was treated as an inconvenience, the older untalented sister forced to live in the shadow of her more talented adorable sibling.  The book traces the girls lives as they traipse across the country from Vaudeville house to Vaudeville house, sometimes the leading act and sometimes the bottom of the bill. Discontented with her own life, Rose married by fifteen and had two children she never wanted, she was the ultimate stage mother.  She forged birth certificates making the girls older or younger depending on the gig, cajoled more money from managers, pushing her daughter June to dance in toe shoes at the age of two.  She robbed her daughters of their childhood to fulfill her own dreams.

That Gypsy and her sister grew up to be somewhat functioning human beings is a miracle. But Gypsy's transformation from the untalented, ugly duckling sister to the toast of Burlesque is where the book really sizzles.  With the coming of the depression, the rise of radio and talking pictures, Vaudeville morphed into Burlesque, as producers pushed the envelope to keep audiences coming.  Skin sells and the idea of beautiful women taking off their clothes was born.  But Gypsy elevated it into an art form, taking 15 minutes just to take off a club, talking about Sartre and Shopenhauer on stage, talk-singing while revealing just so much, she became a sensation.  Abbott details the lifes of the Minksy brothers, in particular Billy Minksy, who made Gypsy a star and became the biggest producers of burlesque bringing it from the Lower East Side and Harlem to Broadway, battling censors and the moral majority as the Roaring Twenties brought the more sober thirties. Before Guiliani cleaned up the smut in Times Square, another mayor Fiorello LaGuardia did the same.

Abbott digs deep beneath the surface like a surgeon to get at the heart of her subject. Her writing is razor crisp, witty and insightful, a page-turner that is a worthy companion to her first book SIN IN THE SECOND CITY (If you haven't read this book I suggest that run out and buy it now from Amazon or Borders). I ate this book up like it was a hot fudge sundae with extra chocolate sauce (no nuts!).  Gypsy sold sex but in a sophisticated way that hadn't been seen before, a prudish stripper! One of my favorite parts of the book is how Gypsy deliberately chose who would be the father of her baby and why. The book also delves into her ill-fated love affair with Mike Todd. In the end, the book is a love story, not just between a mother and a daughter, but also between sisters, survivors from the boot camp of Rose Hovick. A dysfunctional love/hate relationship,  they couldn't live with or without each other.

My only quibble with the book is I felt that the relationship between Gypsy and her son Erik was given short shrift, and I would have liked to have known a bit more about the reaction of Gypsy Rose Lee to the opening of the Broadway musical. How did she feel seeing her story on stage, and that finally after all these years Mama Rose was a star. Let's face it, even though the show is called Gypsy, the character you remember is Mama Rose, it's the reason why the show has been revived so often over the years.  Actresses long to sink their teeth into that ferocious woman, by turns seductive and wily, who would literally kill for her daughters.

The story of Gypsy is just as fascinating to filmmakers as it is to biographers. HBO is planning a miniseries starring Sigourney Weaver based on the book written by Gypsy's son Erik Preminger.

Verdict:  A rollicking joy ride through the life of a daring, inventive, thrilling woman who in her lifetime ran the gamut from Vaudevillian, stripper, writer, to talk show host and cultural icon. Madonna and Lady Gaga could take lessons from Gypsy Rose Lee in how to hold the public's attention while revealing nothing of oneself. Abbott is one of the most talented biographers to come down the pike. I've very much looking forward to what she has next up her sleeve.

And the winner of Dear Cousin Jane

The winner of the December giveaway of Dear Cousin Jane as well as Jane and the Damned is


I will be emailing you shortly to get your address. Unfortunately I don't think the books will arrive in time to sit for the holidays but I will try.

Thanks to everyone who entered.  I hope that you keep following me and reading the blog. I will be posting reviews of Carol Carr's debut mystery novel, a guest post by debut author Gillian Bagwell and other goodies before The New Year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Happy Birthday Jane Austen and Giveaway!

Dearest Cousin Jane
by Jill Pitkeathly
Harper Collins, March 2010

From the back cover: In Dearest Cousin Jane, an enchanting new novel that draws on historical fact, Jill Pitkeathley paints a luminous portrait of the true-life cousin of a literary legend—from her flirtatious younger years to her profound influence on one of the world's most beloved authors.

Free-spirited and seductive—outrageous, precocious, and a well-known flirt—Countess Eliza de Feuillide has an unquenchable thirst for life and a glamorous air that captivates everyone around her. Rumored to have been born of a mad love affair between her mother and the great Warren Hastings of the East India Company, Eliza sees the world as her playground—filled with grand galas, theater, and romance—and she will let nothing hold her down. Even tragedy cannot dim her enthusiasm. Losing her only child at an early age and widowed when her husband—the dashing French count Jean de Feuillide—is claimed by Madame la Guillotine during the dark days of the Reign of Terror, Eliza is determined to remain indomitable, unpredictable, and unfettered. And it is this passionate spirit that she brings to a simple English country parsonage to influence the life, the work, and the world of her unsuspecting cousin . . . a quiet and unassuming young writer named Jane Austen.

Today is Jane Austen's 235th birthday, so one lucky winner will get a copy of Jill Pitkeathly's novel about Jane's cousin Eliza Feuillide Dearest Cousin Jane as well as a copy of Janet Mullany's paranormal novel Jane of the Damned. I have read both novels so I can assert that both are extremely enjoyable for different reasons. Dearest Cousin Jane, although it's ostensibly about Jane's cousin, is really more about the Austen family itself.  The book is told from multiple first person point of view including Eliza, Henry Austen her future husband and Jane's brother, James Austen, Jane's older brother, Cassandra, Mr. & Mrs. Austen, Eliza's mother Philadelphia Hancock and Jane's cousin Philadelphia Walters.  They all have their own take on Eliza which is fascinating but Eliza remained elusive to me. By the time the book ended, I felt I knew less about her than I did before.  Pitkeathly's assertion is that Eliza was the model for certain of Jane's characters, most notably Mary Crawford in Mansfield Park although Jane herself said that her books were not drawn from life.  However, reading this book, I could see elements of Mary Musgrove and Fanny Dashwood in Mary Austen, James's second wife, and also hints of Mrs. Bennett in Mrs. Austen.

Here are the rules for the giveaway. Sorry, this is only for Canadian and American readers! The contest runs from today through Monday, December 20th.

1. Leave your name and email in the comments. Email is very important so that I can contact you for your address.
2. If you are not a follower and become one, you get an extra entry
3. If you tweet about the giveaway, you get an extra entry.

Good luck

Monday, December 13, 2010

Book of the Month: Catherine of Aragon

The youngest child of the legendary monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536) was born to marry for dynastic gain. Endowed with English royal blood on her mother's side, she was betrothed in infancy to Arthur, Prince of Wales, eldest son of Henry VII of England, an alliance that greatly benefited both sides. Yet Arthur died weeks after their marriage in 1501, and Catherine found herself remarried to his younger brother, soon to become Henry VIII. The history of England—and indeed of Europe—was forever altered by their union.  Drawing on his deep knowledge of both Spain and England, Giles Tremlett has produced the first full biography in more than four decades of the tenacious woman whose marriage to Henry VIII lasted twice as long (twenty-four years) as his five other marriages combined. Her refusal to divorce him put her at the center of one of history's greatest power struggles, one that has resonated down through the centuries— Henry's break away from the Catholic Church as, bereft of a son, he attempted to annul his marriage to Catherine and wed Anne Boleyn. Catherine's daughter, Mary, would controversially inherit Henry's throne; briefly and bloodily, she returned England to the Catholicism of her mother's native Spain, foreshadowing the Spanish Armada some three decades later.
From Catherine's peripatetic childhood at the glittering court of Ferdinand and Isabella to the battlefield at Flodden, where she, in Henry's absence abroad, led the English forces to victory against Scotland to her determination to remain queen and her last years in almost monastic isolation, Giles Tremlett vividly re-creates the life of a giant figure in the sixteenth century. Catherine of Aragon will take its place among the best of Tudor biography.

This month is the beginning of a new feature on the blog which is the Book of the Month, a biography or novel that I feel would be particularly of interest to readers of the blog. I was excited when I opened my mailbox to see that I had received a copy of Giles Tremlett's new biography of Catherine of Aragon from Walker and Company.  Although I have been a bit Tudored out of late, this biography drew me back. I don't think it is possible to understand Mary Tudor unless you understand her mother and the forces and influences that shaped her character.  Tremlett has spent the past 20 years living in Spain and has had access to documents that other biographers have not.  I'm only in the first few chapters but the information about Isabel, her mother, and Catherine's early childhood are fascinating.  The book's appearance is timely since Catherine's birthday is in a few days.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Scandalous Women in Fiction; Susan Fraser King's QUEEN HEREAFTER

QUEEN HEREAFTER - Susan Fraser King
Crown Publishing - December 7, 2010

From the back cover: Shipwrecked on the Scottish coast, a young Saxon princess and her family—including the outlawed Edgar of England—ask sanctuary of the warrior-king Malcolm Canmore, who shrewdly sees the political advantage. He promises to aid Edgar and the Saxon cause in return for the hand of Edgar’s sister, Margaret, in marriage. A foreign queen in a strange land, Margaret adapts to life among the barbarian Scots, bears princes, and shapes the fierce warrior Malcolm into a sophisticated ruler. Yet even as the king and queen build a passionate and tempestuous partnership, the Scots distrust her. When her husband brings Eva, a Celtic bard, to court as a hostage for the good behavior of the formidable Lady Macbeth, Margaret expects trouble. Instead, an unlikely friendship grows between the queen and her bard, though one has a wild Celtic nature and the other follows the demanding path of obligation.

Torn between old and new loyalties, Eva is bound by a vow to betray the king and his Saxon queen. Soon imprisoned and charged with witchcraft and treason, Eva learns that Queen Margaret—counseled by the furious king and his powerful priests—will decide her fate and that of her kinswoman Lady Macbeth. But can the proud queen forgive such deep treachery?

My thoughts:  On my first trip to Edinburgh, when I was sixteen, the tour group that I was with went to visit the Castle and I remember entering St. Margaret's chapel and being entranced by her story, but over the years, I completely forgot about her, until I was offered the chance to review Susan Fraser King's new novel  QUEEN HEREAFTER. The novel deals only with the first few years of Margaret's long reign in Scotland, when she is just getting used to the idea of being a Queen and not the nun that she had always hoped and longed to be.  Her years at King Edward the Confessor's court and the brief reign of Harold Godwinson are told only in a few brief paragraphs at the beginning of the book. I admit that I was of two minds about that, on the one hand it would have been intriguing to see what life was like under Edward the Confessor and the jockeying for power amongst the rival claimants, but on the other hand, Margaret would have been just a passive participant at that time, so it would have just been her observations about what was going on.

In Scotland, is where Margaret's life really begins.  Fraser King paints a vivid and evocative portrait of a Scotland that is just slowly coming out of the Dark Ages.  I could smell the rushes on the floor, feel the roughness of the castle walls, and taste the hot oatcakes that the characters are constantly eating.  The book is powefully written, and a fascinating and layered story which transports the reader on a high-voltage ride to 11th century Scotland.  As a writer, she pulls the reader into this world that is rarely seen in historical fiction and makes it real and gritty.  Margaret is a woman torn between two worlds, the spiritual and the corporal. It takes a while for her to realize that she has been brought to Scotland for a purpose, but one she becomes convinced that she can do God's work in Scotland, she hits the ground running.  She completely transforms the castle keep at Drumferline, tames her shaggy warrior husband and manages to turn him almost into a more cosmopolitan monarch.  She argues theology with the Celtic priests and shows sympathy to their rituals, even though she knows that the Celtic Church needs to be brought more in line with Rome.

Although Margaret is reluctant to marry Malcolm, the two forge a partnership of mutual respect that eventually turns into a deep and abiding love. Although Malcolm is 18 years older than his bride, a widower with two small children, he completely falls under Margaret's spell. She creates a home for his two sons, bringing them to Drumferline from their foster homes, and showering them with maternal love. Malcolm is resistant at first to her changes, but then slowly realizes that his young bride has a lot to teach him about how to run a royal court. Margaret is one of those quiet rebels, able to achieve a great deal without ever having to raise her voice or shout. She just goes about her business and eventually everyone falls in line.

While I found Margaret to be an admirable character, I'm not sure that I would want her for a friend. All that peity and goodness would be a bit wearing after awhile. It can't be easy living with a Saint. It is a testament to the strength of Fraser King's writing that Margaret's faith is only one part of her character. She's also stubborn, vain, loving, and loyal. Fraser King waves fact and fiction seamlessly with the introduction of the character of Eva, the illegitimate daughter of Lulach, the son of Gruadh aka Lady MacBeth.  Eva is a reluctant hostage and spy, torn between her loyalties to the woman who raised her and the woman that she has to come to admire and respect, as well as love. It is through Eva's eyes that we see Margaret as more than just a pious goody-goody. As Eva comes to know and love Margaret, so does the reader.

I was sorry to see this book end, and I was grateful for the thoughtful Authors note at the back of the book detailing the rest of Margaret's life.  In fact, I enjoyed this book so much, that as soon as I put it down I ran out and bought her previous book Lady Macbeth. Gruadh is only a minor character in QUEEN HEREAFTER, and I'm curious to see how Fraser King interprets the woman that most of us know as the ambitious Queen with a conscience in Shakespeare's famous play.

Verdict:  QUEEN HEREAFTER is a fascinating and memorable book about a little seen aspect of Scottish history. Readers will fall in love with Eva and Margaret and the story of their friendship.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Scandalous Women in Fiction: The King's Daughter by Christie Dickason

Christie Dickason - Harper Collins
November 23, 2010

The daughter of James I, the Princess Elizabeth would not be merely her father's pawn in the royal marriage market. The court of James I is a dangerous place, with factions led by warring cousins Robert Cecil and Francis Bacon. While Europe seethes with conflict between Protestants and Catholics, James sees himself as a grand peacemaker—and wants to make his mark by trading his children for political treaties. Henry, Prince of Wales, and his sister, Elizabeth, find themselves far more popular than their distrusted father, a perilous position for a child of a jealous king. When Elizabeth is introduced to one suitor, Frederick, the Elector Palatine, she feels the unexpected possibility of happiness. But her fate is not her own to choose—and when her parents brutally withdraw their support for the union, Elizabeth must take command of her own future, with the help of an unexpected ally, the slave girl Tallie, who seeks her own, very different freedom.

My thoughts:  What a pleasure it was to get a chance to read a historical fiction novel that didn't feature either Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, or any of his wives!  I knew of James I's daughter Elizabeth also known as The Winter Queen for the short time that she and her husband were King and Queen of Bohemia, but I knew very little about her other than the Hanoverian line of Kings of England were descended from her, through her daughter Sophie.  The book details Elizabeth's life from the age of nine during the Gunpowder Plot through her marriage to Frederick, the Elector Palatine when she was sixteen.  When the book begins, James has only been on the throne for two years, and as already made himself not that popular. Elizabeth, who is living away from court in the country, is almost kidnapped.  She manages to get away and to attempt to warn her brother of the plot.  However, her actions can be considered treasonable.

The author picked an interesting time period in Elizabeth's life to write about, her pre-teen and teenage years.  Although the main character is young, this novel is not written as young adult fiction, although teenagers who enjoy historical fiction will no doubt enjoy reading about a girl their own age.  The book is written in first person, and at times I had to remind myself just how old Elizabeth was, because she seemed alot older than we would think a nine year old would act. But in Tudor and the Stuart period, children were almost minature adults.  Elizabeth is feisty, as befits her Stuart heritage, stubborn, wilful but also vulnerable.  She has been raised by other people for most of her life and has seen very little of her parents, particularly her mother. Her strongest relationships in the book, apart from her animals, are with her older brother Henry and the slave girl Tallie that she is given as a gift.

The book really began for me when Elizabeth arrives at court, and she meets Tallie. Tallie, although African, was born in Bristol, no doubt when her mother first arrived on shore.  She is sold to a brothel where she is raised and taught how to read and write and play the lute.  Just when she thinks that she is about to finally be forced to turn tricks, she is sold to the palace and given to Elizabeth who has no idea what to do with her at first.  The tentative friendship that they strike up is probably one of the most interesting that I have ever seen in a book.  Tallie is always mindful, given her experiences, that she can never really trust white people, particularly a princess. Elizabeth wants Tallie to be the one person who always tells her the truth, no matter what, a heavy burden. The adventures they experience as Elizabeth is paraded before suitors and as Tallie becomes her eyes and ears in the Palace are worth the price of the book alone. Elizabeth is not always likeable, she can be self-pitying at times, and she doesn't always think things through before she takes action, but she has a good heart.  When James I tells her that it's a pity that she was not born a boy, that she would have made a fine King, you believe him.

King James in Dickason's hands is vain, awkward, and prone to jealously, particularly towards his two oldest children who without doing anything, are more popular then he is.  Disdainful of women, he spends his time with his male favorites who fawn and flatter him and perhaps other things to earn titles and a fortune.  The King if also prone to violent rages which are terrifying and constantly keep Elizabeth off balance. The scenes wehre Elizabeth confronts her father and refuses to marry one of the many princes vying for her hand will have rooting for her to best her old man. Although she's only a girl, one gets the feeling that the King admires his daughter, although she's still not quite as clever as he thinks he is.

This is another book where politics plays an important part, who has it, what people are willing to do get it and keep it. Living at the Stuart Court was as much a minefield as living at the court of Queen Elizabeth I've read how courtiers would bankrupt themselves for a place at court but I'm amazed that more people didn't have nervous breakdowns, trying to curry favor and losing it, or never achieving it.

The weakest part of the book for me were the brief passages that were narrated by other characters such as Henry, James I, Francis Bacon, and Cecil among others. The only ones that I really felt were necessary were the passages narrated by Tallie, which gave us insight into her mind about what was going on at court and her relationship with Elizabeth. From an early age, Elizabeth is aware of her importance in the pecking order of her family.  While her older brother Henry is the heir, Elizabeth's worth lies in who her father marries her too. Amazingly Elizabeth takes matters into her own hands when she realizes the man that she wants to marry, Frederick Elector Palatine and works to achieve her aims. How she achieves that goal, and how close she almost comes to losing make up the last third of the novel.

Dickason has a background in theatre, she worked as a director with the Royal Shakespeare Company amongst others, and it is evident in her novel, the way that she stages scenes in the book as in a play.  She has a keen eye for those key moments that are the most dramatic, for example when Elizabeth finally gets the chance to have an audience with her mother after years of seperation only to end up disappointed, when Tallie takes her to Southwark after Elizabeth tells her that she wants to know what goes on between a man and a woman, and so many others. She also writes comedic scenes of genius such as the court ladies blacking up for the Queen's masque and not being able to remove the make-up. 

Verdict:  If you are suffering from Tudor fatigue, and are looking for a novel with a strong female protagonist, and an appealing and unusual cast of secondary characters, then I recommend THE KING'S DAUGHTER.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Scandalous Gifts for the Holidays

Ho Ho, everyone!  For the first time, I thought I would put together a little Scandalous Women Gift guide for the holidays.  There are so many amazing gifts out there that relate to Scandalous Women.  For instance, on the left is the limited edition Veronica Franco doll from Madame Alexander.  For anyone who has seen the film Dangerous Beauty, you know that Veronica Franco was a 16th century Venetian courtesan and poet who was eventually tried for wtichcraft.  Well now you can own your very own doll! She's available on Ebay for $79.99 or at Matilda Dolls for $110.00.  She's dressed in a typical dress for the period and she's even got on the chopines, the platform shoes they used to wear.

If your Scandalous Woman prefers books, there is a wealth of both historical and non--fiction available for holiday giving.  I've already mentioned the Chanel biography by Justine Picardie as well as the 3 books on Isabella Blow.  Giles Tremlett has come out with a recent biography on Catherine of Aragon which was published this past Wednesday.  Donald Spoto has a new biography of Joan Crawford and his previous biography of Grace Kelly just came out in paperback.  There are books on Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, a new biography of Vivien Leigh, but the book I'm most looking forward too comes out at the end of the month and that is the new biography of Gypsy Rose Lee by Karen Abbott.  Historical Tapestry has a list of all the new historical fiction books coming out in December.

If you missed the sale of The Duchess of Windsor's jewelry or couldn't have afforded it anyway, The Anne Boleyn files has a stunning array of Tudor inspired jewelry to choose from.  Many of the pieces are replicas of the jewelry worn in The Tudors. The piece on the right is a replica of the necklace that Jane Seymour wore at Christmas in one episode.  As well as stunning jewelry, there are also books, and costumes that you can order for the Tudor lover in your life. If I could afford it, I would personally own every Anne Boleyn dress in the collection!

And finally there is Etsy, if you prefer handcrafted gifts.  There were so many amazing Marie Antoinette products that I couldn't decide which one to feature, everything from postcards to bedroom slippers.  And for those who like games, Kris Waldherr, the author of Doomed Queens has two decks of playing cards based on her books, you can read about them both here.

I hope my gift guide is helpful this holiday season!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Scandalous Women in Fiction: Helen Hollick's THE FOREVER QUEEN

THE FOREVER QUEEN by Helen Hollick
Sourcebooks Landmark, November 1, 2010

From the backcover:

Saxon England, 1002. Not only is Æthelred a failure as King, but his young bride, Emma of Normandy, soon discovers he is even worse as a husband. When the Danish Vikings, led by Swein Forkbeard and his son, Cnut, cause a maelstrom of chaos, Emma, as Queen, must take control if the Kingdom-and her crown-are to be salvaged. Smarter than history remembers, and stronger than the foreign invaders who threaten England's shores, Emma risks everything on a gamble that could either fulfill her ambitions and dreams or destroy her completely. Emma, the Queen of Saxon England, comes to life through the exquisite writing of Helen Hollick, who shows in this epic tale how one of the most compelling and vivid heroines in English history stood tall through a turbulent fifty-year reign of proud determination, tragic despair, and triumph over treachery.

My thoughts:  I had planned on posting this review in November but I got way behind with looking over my page proofs and a whole host of other obligations, including working on another book proposal and trying to find a day job. Proposal is done, but the day job is proving elusive. I had started reading the novel as soon as I received it from Sourcebooks but I had to keep putting it down.  Once I finally did sit down and start reading it, I was fascinated.

Quick confession:  I'm not a bigger reader of Medieval or Dark Age novels. I much prefer the Tudor and Victorian eras.  However, having said that I really enjoyed THE FOREVER QUEEN.  At first, I found it confusing, it seems like everyone in Saxon England had the same five names, many of which started with AE, so I needed a scorecard at times to keep track of who was who.  I wish that the author or Sourcebooks had put a character list at the beginning of the book so that readers could refer to it.  I was aware slightly before I read the book of who Emma was, that she was the only woman in English history to be married to two Kings, but I didn't know much more than that.

Emma arrives in England as a thirteen year old bride, not speaking the language, to marry a much older man Aethelred who is 34.  From the beginning, she figures out that her husband is a weak, ineffectual king with a mean streak.  Frankly he's a bully.  She is suspicious of the women who surround her as her ladies, and rightly fully so.  She soon jettisons the shyness and tentativeness of her early days and starts to show that she is a stonger, more politically shrewd ruler than her husband,which doesn't go down very well.  Like most bullies, Aethelred hates to admit that he is wrong, or to take advice from those he perceives are much smarter than he is.  He treats Emma appallingly, and in response Emma is unable to bond with the children that she bears by him, among them the future Edward the Confessor.  Aethelred's children by his common-law wife are a threat not just to her children but also to their father.  Emma is probably one of the most complex female characters I have come across in historical fiction in years, she strong, feisty, vulnerable, smug, she has no qualms about saying 'I told you so,' loyal, honorable but she also has incredible flaws including her dislike of her older children.  I don't include her daughter Goda in this.  Hollick explains how Emma tries not to bond with her daughter because she knows that she will be married off at a young age and probably to a foreign husband.

I found the politics of Saxon England to be intriguing and complex.  It made me wish that I had paid attention more in class during history instead of sleeping through it until we got to the Plantagenets.  Reading this book
gave me a new appreciation for English history.  Hollick knows her stuff and she's an excellent writer, able to create prose pictures that stay with you after the book is done.  It's clear from her depiction of him why Aethelred was called the unready.  He's appalling, and I was ready :) for him to off the scene and for Cnut to come.  For me that's where the book really started to take off.  Cnut is the opposite of Aethelred, not only a strong warrior, and an able King, but a man who is able to appreciate Emma's gifts.  A marriage that started off as a political alliance becomes a love match in the end. 

The book clocks in at a whopping 650 pages and no page is wasted. Hollick is not afraid to depict how brutual Saxon England was, where people didn't live very long, and people just got on with their lives rather quickly. The book is told from multiple viewpoints, whcih is my only quibble. I enjoyed Emma so much that I kind of resented when the story moved away from her and we were in the heads of some of the minor characters like her sons Alfred and Harthacnut.  This is the first book that I've read by Hollick and it won't be my last.  I definitely want to read the last book in the trilogy and also her trilogy about Arthur.

Verdict:  If you are a fan of Elizabeth Chadwick or Sharon Kay Penman, then I urge you to pick up THE FOREVER QUEEN.  You won't be sorry.

Duchess of Windsor's Jewels on Sale at Sotheby's

The late Duchess of Windsor's jewels went on sale again at Sotheby's. The items up for grabs include this gorgeous bracelet made by Cartier.  The Duke gave his bride many beautiful gifts during their long marriage.  Rumor has it that Madonna has bid on several pieces.  She's currently directing a movie called W.E. about the Windors.  20 pieces of jewelry were sold Tuesday night for 8 million pounds which is roughly I would say almost $16 million dollars.

Here is an article from Hello Magazine regarding the sale and one from the Daily Mail in the UK about the sale itself.  Apparently the Duke didn't always pay for the jewelry that he bought for the Duchess or the jewelers had to wait for a long time for their money.  Perhaps he thought that just the fact that he bought the jewelry and the Duchess was wearing it was payment enough, instead of giving them cold hard cash!

If you had the money, would you have bid on an item from the collection?  Whose jewelry would you like to own? Personally I would love the diamond necklace that caused all the fuss during Marie Antoinette's reign.