Monday 9 December 2013

Holbein and a Tudor World in Miniature: A Marriage Made in Heaven.

Holbein, miniature painting, identity and wealth: a guest post by L B Hathaway

I was lucky enough recently to find myself quite alone in gallery 643 of the Metropolitan Museum (the Met) in New York.
As crowds rushed past on their way to ogle the deserved glory that is the Rembrandts, the palm-sized portrait of an Official from the Court of Henry VIII (the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap), sat unnoticed in its display-case. But to its now-unknown sitter, it may have represented the most costly investment of his life.
It was painted in 1534 by Hans Holbein, the German artist whose growing reputation and unnervingly-brilliant talent meant that by 1534, on his second stay in England, he was the hottest painter in town. He was much in demand, being taken up especially by the Boleyn faction at Court. Holbein started to paint miniatures (or ‘limning,’ as it was known) in around 1532, quickly surpassing Lucas Horenbout, the ‘Kings Own Painter,’ in artistic genius.
The Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap is bigger than a miniature, but is still tiny, and it is painted in ‘miniature’ style. Stylistically, it is closest to a pair of paintings of Court Officials by Holbein now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. Traditionally, historians have argued that the pair in Vienna represent Susanna Horenbout and her English husband, John Parker, and that the man in the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap is in fact Susanna’s brother, the famous ‘King’s Painter’ himself, Lucas Horenbout. Whilst this opinion has been advanced over the last hundred years, recent publications have now thrown doubt on all three of these sitter’s identities. It is safe to say there is a lack of any corroborating evidence for Lucas Horenbout to be identified as the sitter of the painting in the Met with any degree of certainty. All that can be said for certain is that the sitter of a Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap is a man who worked for Henry VIII in some capacity at Court.

Assuming the portrait is not of Horenbout, I wondered at the possible motivation for commissioning the exquisite and expensive portrait. Tudor portraits famously contain all manner of contemporary symbolism to convey messages, most lost on us today. But we do know that Tudor portraits were commissioned for delicate negotiations such as engagements, as in the case of Holbein’s Jane Small in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, or to advertise wealth.  Often, miniatures were used to broker and seal marriage deals, most famously of course in the case of Holbein’s gorgeous miniature of Anne of Cleves of 1539. Despite the image’s appeal, Henry VIII later dubbed its unfortunate sitter the ‘Flanders Mare’, stating he had been misled by the painting.
The portability of a painting, usually in an integrated frame, was therefore crucial, and the painting in the Met is thought to have originally had a protective fitted ‘cover’ for preserving the painting and aiding its transport.

Conjecture and a sheer absence of any facts in this case allows me to guess at the possibility that this young Court Official was announcing in the costliest, showiest terms that he had available to him that he had ‘made it’ at Court; that he was a ‘good catch.’ As indeed he may have been; King Henry VIII famously rewarded his officials handsomely, far more than other noblemen would have paid to their retainers. To an official who worked hard, and well, there was also the promise of promotion, lodgings, ‘bouche’ of Court, and the right to receive tips or perks (unused food or clothing, for which there was always an eager market.) To hold a job at Court was seen as prestigious, and secure. There was even a certain expectation of a pension in old age.

If this Official was doing well enough to engage Holbein to capture his likeness, then he would indeed have made a promising marriage-match for some hopeful family. We can imagine the painting being sent out, carefully wrapped, to Kent or Surrey perhaps, or even further afield.
If, in the unlikely event that this was commissioned by the Official for himself, then he commissioned well. For, unless he was attached permanently to one of Henry VIII’s great palaces, he would have found himself on the move a great deal; Henry VIII’s Court was famously an itinerant one, and in the 1530s the Court was averaging thirty moves to different houses and palaces per year. One can only imagine the repacking and packing the Court Officials found themselves involved in, a staggering feat that sometimes saw up to 3,000 people on the move at once; a truly portable Court. Such a painting (with its clever size and protective cover) would have been handy, when, at a  moment’s notice (as could happen in times of political unease or plague,) a Courtier found himself having to throw his belongings into his knapsack or trunk, ready for another journey.

This painting is of course too large to be listed among the tiny miniatures painted by Holbein to be worn as a type of jewel, given as a sign of love. Legend has it that an irate Anne Boleyn tore a jewel from the neck of her supplanter, Jane Seymour, and found within it a miniature of the King, given to Jane by the King himself. And while it does not have the pathos of Horenbout’s tiny painting of a declining, night-cap-wearing Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, or the mystery and intrigue of any of the miniatures of Henry VIII’s wives (the identity of some of which are still the subject of debate), I am sure that to the man who commissioned it, and possibly to the person who received it, the Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap was a rare jewel indeed.

LB Hathaway is a Cambridge-educated  British writer. Her Tudor thrillers, Cape Scarlett and The Night Crow (set at the Court of Henry VIII) will be released in 2014 as the first two novels of a Trilogy.
Her non-fiction book Henry VIII: The Roaming King – the Tudor Court on the Move will be released at the end of 2014.  For questions or quotations in support of the above, please contact her on: or follow her on twitter- @LBHathaway

Thursday 21 November 2013

Aspiring Historians: Be a Guest Blogger.

 This coming December, I'm going to be offering a few guest slots on my blog. If you are an unpublished, aspiring historian or simply have a passion for history and would like to write a piece on a topic of your choice, it could published here and shared for a wide audience.

The topic is up to you, whatever you find fascinating: it can be an article or review, about a person, place, event, book, or theme, with the focus on women's history. I'm looking for pieces around 500-1,000 words but will consider longer ones too. If you're interested, send me a reply telling me in a sentence or two what you'd like to write about and why.

Alternatively, you can contact me via facebook on my In Bed with the Tudors page, or via twitter @PrufrocksPeach

I look forward to hearing your ideas.

Monday 18 November 2013

A Modernist Voice from the Warsaw Ghetto

Everyday Jews: Scenes from a Vanished Life
Yehoshue Perle

The New Yiddish Library, October 15 2013

Hailed as a modern Yiddish masterpiece and dismissed as too bleak to be possible, this new translation of Perle’s 1935 autobiographical novel Everyday Jews belongs in the same tradition as Gorky’s My Childhood and Joyce’s Dubliners.

Exploring the harsh reality of life for a poor family in a provincial Polish town around the year 1900, this story’s focus and subject certainly place it within the remit of literary modernism but not at its heart. Direct and unblinking, it looks the conditions of poverty and abuse in the eye; the terrible snow storm in which the adolescent narrator passes out, his parents’ dysfunctional relationship and the older women who seduce him. It is bleak and shocking. Like Dubliners it captures a dying way of life, wrapping up family occasions and customs in a sort of breathless stasis that some readers may find suffocating.

And yet it is compelling, in a grim sort of way. The writing is lucid and accessible and Perle carries the reader through the various miserable scenes of his early existence with ease. Dostoevskian in places, its imagery and description are simply yet powerfully constructed, building symbolic landscapes of misery.  In the Joycean model, though, it is more a collection of still lifes than a progressive narrative. There is little development beyond the passage of time; the dumb mute peasant figure stumbles on, little understanding his destiny or actions. We see the family constrained by customs, such as the day permitted for house removals or oppressed by the pictures hung in the house they have rented from Christians. Only at the end, very briefly, does Perle suddenly open a door, telling us that something had changed for his narrator, some rite of passage had been reached. Yet this remains unclarified and signals the book’s abrupt end.

The characters may not undergo much of a developmental arc but they are vividly depicted, perhaps mostly so in the case of his mother, with her nostalgia for her first marriage and civilised city life, her soft double chin and ebony wigs with a curl on the forehead. Her spirit continues to reassert itself, fighting against the conditions into which she considers she has fallen and the aspirations she still entertains. Easily the most compelling figure of the book, she is exceptional amongst the other characters in the depth of her portrayal, as we see her pragmatism when faced by her step-daughter’s miscarriage, then dancing with pride at the girl’s wedding. The continual struggle between husband and wife, the ongoing battle of man and woman, does not descend into a simple gender battle but is delineated as one part of a complicated and compelling marriage. Among their extended family, what emerges here is a sense of shared destiny, through good and bad.

As an insight, a mirror held up to a lost way of life, this book is fascinating and does have real literary merit but read it as a series of vignettes of poverty in early Twentieth century Poland, a reflection of life and character rather than an analysis. It works best as a series of sketches rather than as a novel. Perhaps in this element of its style, as well as its subject matter, it comes closest to being a Modernist text.

Perle was a fascinating figure, born in 1888 and dying in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. He published Everyday Jews in 1935, looking back to memories of his childhood as Europe's decade was darkening. Those early criticisms, that the book was too bleak to be psychologically believable are unfounded; placed in the Modernist tradition it fits like a missing jigsaw piece. This new translation captures a bleakness and constant struggle for survival that will be like a slap in the face for the twenty-first century reader.

Buy the book here:

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Virginia Woolf missed a trick with Shakespeare's Mother: Juggling Babies and Books

A shorter edition of this piece was published in the New Statesman on 5/10/13

Eighty-five years have passed since Virginia Woolf delivered a series of lectures to young women students at Cambridge, which formed the basis of her famous feminist essay “A Room of One’s Own.” To aid her argument that women required a distinct physical space in order to write fiction, to attain distance from the demands of the patriarchal family unit, she created the character of Judith Shakespeare. The bard’s fictional sister was just as innately talented as the famous playwright but restricted by a lack of education and the social expectations of her day. Even though it is still not a level playing field, the twenty-first century has witnessed the proliferation of many talented Judiths in all fields of the arts. Examination statistics indicate that young women today are consistently outperforming their male peers at school, in a reversal of the conditions that saw Woolf herself denied a formal education. However, what if Woolf had chosen not to focus upon Shakespeare’s sister, but looked instead at his mother? What if Mary Arden had been an unfulfilled creative genius, her mind brimming with characters and storylines as she went about the business of raising her family?

It may seem anachronistic today to resurrect the old debate about female creativity and motherhood. No one now doubts the abilities of women to achieve the highest accolades in literary and artistic fields. Since Woolf illustrated the extremes of the debate in her 1927 novel To The Lighthouse, women know they don’t have to belong to one camp or the other. They do not need to choose between being the “artist” (Lily Briscoe) or the “mother” (Mrs Ramsay.) In fact, many push themselves to do both simultaneously, succumbing to expectations that women will achieve at every level in their professional and private lives. Luckily though, the pressure to accomplish this effortlessly, without complaint or hiccup or smudged mascara, is being challenged. Feminist writer Debora Spar’s new book attacks the myth of the superwoman, saying that women can’t have it all and shouldn’t expect to. Of course this is something of a first world problem. I’m not trying to claim writing mothers as a persecuted minority, or overlook the fathers that write and raise healthy, happy children on their own. Likewise, I’m aware that there are many more significant discussions to be had regarding literacy, class, ethnicity and expectations. I’m simply interested in returning to the scenario presented by Woolf in the 1920s and widening it a little to examine whether this debate is ever really redundant.

Woolf attempts a compromise by suggesting her heroine, Mrs Ramsay, is an artist by dint of her creative nature. As a mother, nurse, wife and hostess, she constantly brings people together and forms the glue of family life. She personifies the Angel in the House as Woolf’s own mother did, before her premature death at forty-nine, worn out by caring for others. Post-Impressionist Mark Gertler said a similar thing about his own mother, Golda, a warm East End Jewess whom he described as the only “modern artist.” Yet while there is an art to living, a real value in creating a warm, nurturing home, it isn’t really a substitute for producing the discernible “works” that the literary or artistic mind craves. Thus, it is incumbent for writing mothers today to find their own personal balance, through the careful allocation of resources and the support of partners, family and friends. Woolf didn’t have children and her arguments didn’t include the dilemma of the creative mother with several young ones to care for. The descendants of her Cambridge audience may have absorbed her message but they are still treading a fine line between meeting the needs of their families and seeking artistic fulfilment. Back in 1898, the promising young artist Edna Clarke Hall, commented on her struggle to carry on painting after her marriage, that “a women’s responsibilities lie equally with their children and in the development of the powers in herself which are her true expression.” This is just as true, in 2013, as it was then.

So how do women do it? Having written and published four books, plus a number of articles, reviews and running a blog since the birth of my first son in 2010, this is a question I am often asked. My answer is that I have become a very focused, opportunistic writer; I compose on the kitchen table whilst my toddlers rampage about me, writing a paragraph here and there before I head off to change a nappy or play a game of Thomas the Tank Engine. (Ironically, I always have to be Emily, never Thomas.) I don’t have the luxury a room of my own but somehow I have managed to find a writing “compartment” inside my head. Things get stored in there and ripen, until the time that I can dash to the keyboard and bang out a few hundred words. It isn’t easy and it wouldn’t be possible without the support of my husband, who will take the boys out for a few hours on the weekend or over to the park when he gets back from work. I think I’m very lucky in this respect and it made me wonder about the decisions other writing mothers make; the sacrifices, allocating and balancing time, the ambition and possibly, the guilt. Managing the transition from Judith Shakespeare to Mary Arden is not easy; I asked some other women how they’d gone about it.

Almost unanimously, the twenty-first century mothers did not find that juggling their writing with their family life came easily. Many were able to achieve it only with the support of others or by reorganising their lives. Joanne St Clair, author and founder of Naked Raver, found that following a tight timetable helped, which prioritised different people at different times, according to need. Before that, she says, “it seemed that childcare naturally came as my responsibility, hence my writing got pushed to the side.” By working with a series of short time slots, she and her family have found the “best balance with all the resources we have.” Features writer, blogger and PR consultant, Fiona Scott, ensures that she and her family do at least one thing together a day that gets them out of the house, such as a walk or trip to the park. It is maintaining this family closeness whilst your mind rapidly races through your next chapter that can prove difficult. Of course, writing can take months, even years and does not yield instant result. “Overnight success” is never an overnight phenomenon. Fiona rightly stresses the need for planning and hard slog, which sometimes necessitates working for free to establish an author’s name, as I've done on many occasions. While the difficulties facing writing mothers are very similar to those experienced by all working parents, even the established writer must expend considerable time on work that does not result in a pay packet.

Writing mothers have to take the long-term view. Historical biographer Debra sometimes notices that her mind wanders into the fifteenth century when she is with her children but she knows they are happy and healthy and will benefit in the future from their mother being fulfilled. Royalty blogger Samantha felt the same but balanced this with a sense of responsibility to herself. Likewise Emma, a fantasy and horror novelist, suspects she is not the same dedicated mother before she started writing but takes a pragmatic approach to family life, wisely realising that her children won’t remember the house being untidy or their mum being tired but will recall a house full of “magical stories” and proudly tell their friends and teachers that “mummy writes books.” Katharine, who used to be a university lecturer and now writes historical fiction for young adults, made a conscious choice not to spend time on the traditional female obligations of cleaning, grooming or shopping, in favour of making her daughter proud. She is able to discuss her characters and plot lines with her eight year old, who plans to illustrate her mother’s books one day.

Ultimately, writing mothers have made a choice and they know it. Their dilemmas are very similar to those of all working mothers, yet as Rebecca, a TV writer and PhD student acknowledges, she is “lucky to be paid to do something I enjoy” and believes it important that she has a creative outlet. Even when this choice can lead to financial difficulties, writing mothers want their children to benefit from their talent and the example they set provides the family with a sense of hope, a vision of hard work and high aspiration. Samantha sees writing as providing something that fulfils her creativity and will leave a legacy for two sons. She feels a “sense of responsibility” given the misogynistic presentation of women’s roles in the media and hopes to break this cycle by example. These women are driven by passion and a compulsion to write; as Katharine admits, “I find myself doing it when I’m not looking.” Amid all the struggles it necessitates, we persist because, in the words of blogger and businesswoman Helen, we “love it!” It is this drive that connects female artists and writers of all eras.

The lives of Woolf and her sister, the post-modern artist Vanessa Bell, provide an answer to the comment “women can’t write, women can’t paint,” voiced in To The Lighthouse. Still rightly revered as a giant of modernism, Woolf’s reputation is still stronger than Bell’s, whose life encompassed motherhood as well as art. Even though Vanessa’s life was made easier by the presence of nannies, she was a devoted parent and this necessitated some juggling when her three children were small. A century ago, childcare was shared between the mother and hired help, in varying proportions from the middle classes upwards. Today, child minders and nurseries play invaluable roles in the lives of working mothers, particularly for those who are single. Also, the nature of writing, the flexible, freelance aspect to it, means that it is often relegated to the status of “a hobby that pays well” and squeezed in around the shared workload of partners. Most of the women I spoke to fitted their writing around their children’s routine, before they woke in the morning and after they had gone to sleep at night. Others fitted it in whenever and wherever they could; Kerry writes on the train to work and in their lunch hour, Joanne uses a walk as an opportunity and piles of notebooks can be found all round blogger Vicky’s house.

Woolf’s writing evokes the image of her and her sister as young women, dressed in their late Victorian gowns, standing at an easel or desk in their converted Bloomsbury nursery. Woolf, a major figure of literary modernism, was first published by her brother-in-law’s firm, Duckworth and company, before beginning the Hogarth Press with her husband Leonard. The changing nature of self-publishing and cheap, widespread access to the internet has facilitated women’s writing in a way that was unthinkable to Woolf’s contemporaries. Katharine draws support from online groups and for historical researchers, like myself, social networking sites and electronic texts provide an interface without which our work would not be possible. Still, the publicity alone requires commitment and time; Kerry describes herself as “taken aback by the amount of self-publicity required.” However, the lack of career opportunities for arts graduates makes freelance writing a really valuable alternative for working mothers and even those wishing to return to established careers can find their post-child lives are no longer compatible. Helen had worked as an analyst but having small children just didn’t make it a feasible career. Those who can write are increasingly adapting their lives and taking to their keyboards. My career wouldn’t have been possible without the internet; Woolf’s room of one’s own is now unquestionably a virtual one.
Women’s determination to carve out spaces to write also springs from a conviction that female fulfilment is important, and significantly different from work for work’s sake. I know exactly what Joanne means when she describes writing as her “medicine,” of the need to do “what burns within” and give expression to “an essential part of who I am.” This isn’t to be confused with selfishness. Writing has a place in these women’s lives which is often flexible according to the needs of their children; it brings them the benefits of a mother who has found a creative outlet, as well as setting the examples of dedication and hard work. In Helen’s words: “writing has given me the freedom to be the mother I wanted to be.” Woolf’s debate of 1928 focused on the Judith Shakespeares of her world; the women like her who strove to write and paint in the face of opposition from those wishing them to fill more conventional roles. Factor children into this equation and it remains relevant even when we may think this battle should already have been won.
Many thanks go to the busy mothers who took time to share their thoughts with me:
Helen Neale of
Kerry Barrett, author of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” (October 2013)
Joanne St Claire, author and founder of
Fiona Scott of 
Vicky of
Samantha Arbisi of
Rebecca Ellis
Debra Bayani, biographer of Jasper Tudor

Sunday 6 October 2013

"Tudor", a new Family Saga.

“Tudor: The Family Story.”
Leanda de Lisle
Chatto and Windus
29 August 2013
978 0701185886
Having read de Lisle’s “The Sisters Who Would be Queen,” I was keen to read her version of the Tudor story and I wasn’t disappointed. This new book is a must for all enthusiasts of the era, a sweeping family saga that takes us from the arrival of Owen Tudor at court in the 1420s, all the way through to the end of the dynasty. It is, as it says, the account of a family’s fortunes, detailing their fluctuating position over two centuries. There is a lot of material to cover here but de Lisle does not allow the reader to lose focus. She sweeps us through with crisp prose, whilst finding opportunities for the memorable anecdotes and colourful details that such a wide-ranging work requires to prevent it spreading too thinly. De Lisle’s style is very accessible and balances clear explanation with a commentary aimed at that those already familiar with the era, so would appeal to those already well-read in the area as well as those coming to the subject afresh. It is popular and scholarly at the same time.

I particularly enjoyed the section on Owen Tudor’s history, as this was an area I knew less about and is not usually included in studies of the Tudors as a ruling dynasty; they are sometimes presented as springing into existence in 1485 and it is interesting to see the role they played during the wars of the roses. In fact, I would have been happy if De Lisle had pushed her research back even further and given us more detail about their Welsh origins. I was also interested to learn more about the illegitimate son Owen fathered later in life, David Tudor, and his support of Henry VII. It is also refreshing to see the story of the family told with a positive emphasis on the role played by Margaret Beaufort, who has all too often been a recent casualty of fictional and non-fictional portrayals, reduced to a caricature of the pious and meddling woman. Here, she is very much a driving force, sympathetically drawn as a mother influencing her only son.

The book also explores the way the family tree branches out, including information on the less well studied members of the Tudor clan and where they fit into the story. De Lisle has made it something of a speciality of hers to illuminate the lives of those family members on whom the spotlight of history did not fall, reminding the reader that birth, inheritance and gender are matters of accident and that being part of this illustrious family was not just difficult for those whom it propelled on to the throne. The portrayal of Mary I can also sometimes descend into oversimplification but this book gives the context in which her character was shaped and the process by which she became the woman and queen known to us as “Bloody Mary.” The final chapters on Elizabeth were also vivid and memorable, concluding the work with her deathbed scene.


Sin on the South Bank: A Review of "Bankside."

Bankside: London’s Original District of Sin
David Brandon and Alan Brooke
Amberley, paperback 2013
987 1445613840


Flowing through the heart of the capital, the history of the river Thames offers a powerful symbol for the lives of Londoners through the centuries. In fact, there have been people living on the site since before Roman times, washing there, catching fish and watching the horizon for signs of invaders. It was their livelihood, their transport and a symbol of the dependency of its people, shaped as they were by its moods and tides. From Elizabethan boatmen dashed against the arches of London Bridge, to the magical Frost Fairs, and the Victorian Lightermen steering their way through Dickensian fog, the river remains central to the city’s story. David Brandon and Alan Brooke’s Bankside: London’s Original District of Sin focuses on the way it has defined London, by carving it in two parts. Their story of life on the south bank tells a colourful and entrancing tale of Londoners through the ages.

With chapters divided thematically, Bankside offers a glimpse into the inns and taverns that first grew up south of the river to house travellers. Perhaps the most famous of these was Chaucer’s Tabard Inn, where the pilgrims of The Canterbury Tales feasted and planned their storytelling contest. Brandon and Brooke have tracked down the details of its neighbouring inns; The Bear at the Bridge, which opened around 1318 following a great flood, the Boar’s Head of 1459, the White Hart of 1406 and others. They appear as backdrops in the lives of famous men and women; the scenery for wooing and rebellion. At The Bear, in 1665, diarist Samuel Pepys snacked on ‘a biscuit and a piece of cheese and gill of sacke,’ and was entranced by the beauty of Frances Stuart, mistress of Charles II. Later that century, the landlord played host to the raucous drinking sessions of the Restoration dramatists, who were reputed to drink their canary wine filtered through their mistress’s underclothing. The pub is also mentioned by Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist. By contrast, The White Hart was used by Jack Cade as his headquarters during the peasants’ revolt of 1450. Despite having rallied up to 45,000 men in his name, Cade was hunted down and killed and his complaints about oppression and misgovernment were crushed. But they did not go away. The Wars of the Roses broke out five years later, fermented by similar concerns. The pub struggled on into the Victorian era, being occupied by a railway company before being pulled down in 1889.

Bankside is full of glorious detail. London-based readers will find it a full and helpful guide to the city they know but residency is not essential for the enjoyment of this book. Drawing on history, literature, myths and popular culture, the authors’ wealth of knowledge masquerades under a gossipy style, making it accessible and interesting. There is bound to be something new to discover here and something to appeal to all tastes, with chapters covering markets, prisons, worship, hospitals and theatres. A huge span is included too, ranging from the very first settlements all the way through to the twenty-first century, with its reinvention of the area, in popular culture and literature. This section is of particular interest, not just for its relevance but its almost encyclopaedic guidebook nature, documenting the uses of various streets in recent films. If you wished to visit the area today, this book contains useful information that would help you plan your trip, detailing information like what can be found in the Tate Modern and the relevant distances between places, which all seem “a short walk” from each other.

I found the chapter on literary and theatrical bankside to be one of the most interesting sections. The location of the theatres and taverns here, outside the city’s jurisdiction make it uniquely placed as a venue for showcasing new and controversial drama. As Brandon and Brooke explain, playwrights like Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and their contemporaries were drawn south, where the Globe theatre was constructed under cover of darkness. It was designed as a wooden “O”, a representation of the world with its paintings of stars and clouds overhead and ghosts rising from the bowels of hell, under the stage. A flag would fly to signify that a performance was about to begin, usually at two in the afternoon, to utilise the daylight. However, a performance of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII reached a more dramatic conclusion than even the Bard had predicted, when a theatrical cannon ball lodged in the straw roof, which burst out in flames. The sight and smell must have been visible from the opposite bank, right to the northern boundaries of the city. This section provides a nice contrast to some of the grisly details of the history of the Clink prison and the bug-infested hospitals.

Bankside has a lot to offer the reader. There are two really good picture sections, featuring a range of well-chosen images which really compliment the text.  The only quibble I have is that the writing is uneven; it does take a little while to get going but soon warms to its theme. The style does vary between sections, with some written fairly dryly and others being rather colloquial in tone for my taste. This may be the result of co-authorship and does not detract from the material itself. Brandon and Brooke have done an admirable job of delving into London’s original district of sin, making its history accessible and exciting.



In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn.

In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn
Sarah Morris and Natalie Grueninger
Amberley Publishing
15 September, 2013
ISBN 978-1-4456-0782-6


Anne Boleyn remains one of the most controversial and thought-provoking figures of Henry VIII’s court. As a sophisticated beauty, her rise to fame ruffled many feathers amongst the supporters of Catherine of Aragon and challenged the expectations of queenship. The tempestuous marriage that followed, the birth of her daughter and her shocking death at the hands of her husband, on blatantly trumped-up charges, have rightly earned her a following dedicated to studying her life and defending her name. Many good books have been published on Anne in recent years; biographies, novels and studies of the way she has been portrayed in popular culture but this is the practical guide that the Queen’s devotees have been waiting for. With Morris’s and Grueninger’s meticulous research in your hands, it is possible to step even closer to the real Anne Boleyn.

Taking a biographical approach, this book walks the reader gently through the differing locations of Anne’s life. Following the authors’ lead, it allows you to become fully immersed in what survives of the England she knew as well as recreating a sense of it in the past. Including maps and visitors’ information, it is easy to plan your own itinerary from these pages, as the authors literally tell you where to park and how far to walk, what to see and where to go next. They share their own experiences of meeting people along the way; what to see, where to eat and where to stay; and they prove to be considerate, informed and dedicated guides. Plus, the authors repeatedly go off the beaten track to explore less well known locations, beyond the usual Castles associated with Anne and Henry. Their own extensive travels give the text an immediacy and accessibility often lacking in more academic studies, all the more remarkable for Grueninger being based in Australia. Most of all, this book sings with the passion of its writers; just within the first few pages you can feel how much they both enjoyed researching and writing it.

If you can’t get to England or undertake the full Anne experience, this book also allows you to travel from the comfort of your armchair. The level of detail given of the buildings, surroundings and objects is vivid enough to be pictured, and provokes the reader to want to find out more. The very useful section on the Boleyn treasures includes websites and information about how to access these manuscripts and images; it would form an excellent basis for readers to take their enjoyment of Anne further. The authors use a wealth of primary sources to vividly recreate Anne’s world through the eyes of her contemporaries, in letters, records and accounts as well as drawing on the work of more recent historians. Plus there are two very full sections of images, many previously unpublished, from the authors’ own collections. It is usefully divided into small sections, with easily navigable headings, making it an ideal book to dip in and out of, a veritable Aladdin’s cave of gems about Anne. I particularly enjoyed the section about the progress of 1535, as an area often explored in less detail.

It is hard to find anything new on Anne these days, however In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn fills a definite gap in the market. It provides the reader with a different kind of Anne experience, facilitating a greater sense of ownership of the Queen and her life, making more of a direct personal connection between reader and subject. And you couldn’t hope for better guides than Morris and Grueninger. If you have any interest in Anne Boleyn at all, you will not regret buying this stunning new book.


If you enjoyed In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, you may also enjoy these other new additions:

The Anne Boleyn Papers
Elizabeth Norton
Amberley, August 2013

The Anne Boleyn Collection II: Anne Boleyn and the Boleyn Family.
 Claire Ridgeway
Createspace, September 2013

The Creation of Anne Boleyn.
Susan Bordo
UK edition, Oneworld, January 2014


Thursday 3 October 2013

Shakespeare's Secret Love for Richard III: Elizabethan Textual Politics.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been disturbed by online questions I’ve seen posed about Shakespeare’s 1592 play, Richard III. These have ranged from wondering why the playwright was a liar, to a complete rejection of all of his plays by devoted Ricardians. In which case, they’d be missing out, not just on a piece of spellbinding drama but also on the bard’s unconcealed affection for the dead King. Yes, that’s right: Shakespeare actually loved Richard but he couldn’t change the course of history or challenge what he did not know.
                                                     Sir Ian McKellen as Richard in 1995

No political motivation underpins the charisma of Shakespeare’s Richard at the start of this play. If the bard was simply using the dead King as a villain, following the lead of Rous, More, Vergil and Holinshed, he need not have gone to such lengths to create an engaging, charismatic figure. Rather, it seems, Shakespeare infused his Richard with a life force that went against the historical grain, compelling an audience to connect with him as an individual and drawing on the very British sympathy for the underdog that underpins much of Richard’s following today. The character’s tone is expansive, confiding, he draws us in with soliloquy and confidences. By speaking directly to the audience he makes us complicit in his exclusion from life and love; he “must prove a villain” and invites us to share his journey. And he does it with such destructive energy, such personal allure in spite of his outward deformities that we cannot help but be charmed.

No writer can escape from the times in which they lived and worked. By definition, they are a composite of the mores of the day, of cultural constructs and received wisdom. Over a century after Richard’s death, Shakespeare could no more think of questioning his “deformity” and villainy that he might have questioned the sun rising in the morning and setting at night. Equally, we wouldn’t expect him to be able to step outside the Elizabethan perception of “Moors” while exploiting them to justify the character of his Othello. He wasn’t the unwitting dupe or co-conspirator of Tudor politics, he was exploiting the popular perception of recent history for purposes of entertainment and didacticism. It doesn’t mean he didn’t believe in the popular portrayals of Richard’s appearance but he did not invent them and their robust tradition scarcely needed his endorsement by that point. In them, he saw the seeds of inevitability that he could juxtapose with a personal magnetism in order to create compelling drama. He was not a politician or a liar, he was an artist of genius.

Shakespeare’s portrayal of Richard’s physical deformity needs to be recognised as dramatic rhetoric, an ideological distortion, a piece of neo-Platonic determinism, in the same way that Shakespeare had to make Othello black. It is an essential part of the Elizabethan rhetoric that encodes villainy in physicality. In fact, it illuminates for us just how far history itself had been deformed. The juxtaposition of attraction and repulsion was a moral lesson for the Elizabethans and regardless of hindsight, they all knew how it was going to end. So Richard must prove himself a villain in order to justify the inevitability of fate and the re-establishment of calm. He transgresses the boundaries established by the Tudors’ ancestors therefore he has to pay the price. Shakespeare’s message is not a political one here; Richard is merely his vehicle for the confirmation of the Elizabethan moral code. This is a literary device in line with centuries of defamation of monarchs, politicians and public figures. It just happens to have been a more successful one.

As the play progresses, Richard gradually alienates all the other characters, even his family. He interacts less and less with the audience, so our initial bond is weakened, in a process of detachment which is necessary for us to be able to accept his death. He is not our Richard by the end, he has undergone a process of transformation; under increasing pressure, the audience see him closing down. He speaks to us less, confides less and his responses impart information rather than confiding his inner landscape. Increasingly, though, we are privy to the discussion of those who oppose him; we hear fear, hatred, criticism and sense his inevitable fall, so by increments, we transfer our interest and connection to Tudor. Even when we resist this, Shakespeare forces our attention on to Richard’s adversary by the use ennobling imagery and literally, letting Tudor take centre stage. An Elizabethan audience were wired to feel gratitude and relief for the persona of the Revenger, the genre’s answer to chaos, by which order would be restored. As Francis Bacon wrote, a few years after the first performance of Richard III, man may offend laws but “the revenge of that wrong putteth the law out of office.”

Where modern Ricardians may have fallen out of love with Shakespeare’s play is the discrepancy between our sense of morality and that of the Elizabethans. We don’t just require the victory of the abstract personification of Revenge; we have a far more sophisticated sense of personal merit and Shakespeare’s sympathetic development of Richard’s character means we bridle more when the playwright conforms to structural convention. In fact, Shakespeare makes his audience’s relationship with Richard into something of a love affair. First we are attracted, compelled, committed even, then after the initial flush of connection, we feel our hero has begun to lose faith with us, to withdraw, to disconnect and we lose ownership of him. Richard was our guide, our conduit into the mise-en-scène of the play but as the action develops, he steps back inside it and the divide between character and audience widens. He turns from hero to anti-hero, protagonist to antagonist, in order to become the sacrifice that the fates demand. It is essential for the arc of the plot that we lose sympathy with Richard by the end, even if we don’t fully side with the Lancastrian Henry Tudor, whose character is barely developed. He is merely the dramatic instrument of fate. This doesn’t mean we dislike Shakespeare’s Richard, we can still think of him with compassion, even fondly. Ultimately though, the dramatist has a higher intent. We are touched by the pathos of Richard’s death and learn the moral lesson that was a requirement of Elizabethan literature.

Shakespeare’s context compelled him to create a Richard in the model that he understood. That was his job and exposes the limits of his era. He can’t be criticised for not rehabilitating the King when he did not understand that there was a wrong that needed righting. However, there was no compulsion to develop his character along the lines that the playwright chose. It was Shakespeare’s own decision to present us with the charismatic, captivating character which, for a perceptive and informed audience, is the play’s most lasting legacy.

 This piece first appeared in the Huffington Post on 3/10/13


Thursday 19 September 2013

Ricardian Shorts: Reviews of two new guides to Richard III.

Matthew Lewis “A Glimpse of King Richard III”


Annette Carson “A Small Guide to the Great Debate”
Who was Richard III? Why is he such a controversial king and what are there so many unanswered questions regarding his reign? As his bones await reburial and the dying credits of The White Queen fade from our television screens, a new fan base emerges to face the challenges posed by fifteenth century history. Two new short books by Matthew Lewis and Annette Carson attempt to give the reader some answers. For those fresh to the field, these would be an invaluable place to start, to establish a narrative of events and an understanding of how Richard’s reputation has been handled through the intervening centuries. Lewis has a law degree but his passion for the Wars of the Roses period led him to pen the novel “Loyalty” (CreateSpace, 2012) and Annette Carson is the author of a full-length study of Richard III, “The Maligned King.” (The History Press, 2009)

Lewis and Carson are upfront about their loyalties. As Ricardians, these books have been written out of a long-standing fascination with Richard and desire to locate the real man amid the controversy. Both are presented in digestible and accessible sections, chronologically and logically. It is the length of their books lies at the heart of this review. Richard III is such a complex topic, that it may actually be easier to write a long book about him than a short one; writers of shorter guides are forced to make difficult decisions about what to prioritise. The choices that Lewis and Carson made make it easy to recommend these to slightly different audiences.

Lewis’s book does exactly what it says on the tin. It provides a clear narrative of the events of Richard’s life and accession to the throne. Before the narrative gets underway, Lewis starts by defining the “A Glimpse of…” series (of which there is another, The Wars of the Roses) as “a concise view” of history which leaves out fascinating details from necessity. This should immediately signal his intended audience; the book is a good stepping stone to the more complex issues discussed in longer texts, ideal for those coming to the topic afresh. Part of the book’s bridging nature is to facilitate further study, for which purpose Lewis does provide bibliography at the end. However it is a little brief, with only five texts and a fuller bibliography would have been a very valuable addition to this book, as it works so well as an introduction to stimulate interest.

Lewis’s long-standing fascination with Richard is very clear. In fact, it drives the work: he certainly does inhabit his subject and bridges the gap between him and the reader with inclusive pronouns, inviting us to participate in the imperatives “we must” and “our collective memory,” reminding us that the reputation of this much maligned Yorkist king is a construct which we can all interpret. This accessibility is a key strength of the work.

Lewis uses unanswered questions to provoke his readers to consider a variety of possibilities. In most cases this is a successful device, a way of preventing a closed response. It is probable too, that most of his readers will be able to use these to form their own opinions. The narrative choices though, particularly the exclusion of the detail and linear fact-focus, implies an audience of beginners, without the cultural context in which to search for answers. Some may be using the text as a complete starting point, so may wish to chew the questions over until they have read on. Lewis does this best when his questions are related to human emotion, prompting his readers to consider the dynamics of human nature or predict their own responses. Academic historians might twitch a little at this technique, seeing it as the application of the modern mindset to people from the past. But Lewis has amply demonstrated his ability to consider the medieval mentality elsewhere and this would be to overlook the book’s purpose. With a short guide, designed to stimulate interest and provide facts, literally, as Lewis has described, to give us a glimpse, these initial connections must be made personal. It is through that connection that people will be enticed to read more widely.

The book does attempts to separate out some legends/myths from facts, such as the disguise of Anne Neville as a kitchen maid and the possibility of her marriage to Richard being a love match. Yet this isn’t always consistent, for example, the declaration as an absolute that Edward IV was illegitimate, followed  by the qualifier that it is unproven, also that even Richard’s detractors are in agreement on certain things like his good law making, which isn’t always the case. There is also the repetition of the myth of Richard’s mother, Cecily, standing at the cross in Ludlow to face her enemies; a stirring dramatic image, but unsubstantiated outside the biography where it first appeared in the 1950s. With space such a premium too, a beginner doesn’t need quite so much information on the Harrington family feud when other key areas are dealt with far more quickly. It could have been substituted for a section on the aftermath of Bosworth as exposed by the recent Leicester dig, as it is difficult to see how a guide to Richard adds to the debate if this evidence isn’t explored fully.

On the whole, this is a very successful “glimpse” of Richard that provides an excellent introduction to the subject. Lewis has taken on a difficult challenge in streamlining the material on Richard and has handled his subject matter admirably, making it informative and enjoyable. Writing a short book does necessitate reducing some of the more complex arguments into soundbites, so more experienced readers in the period should recognise this and appreciate this guide for standing at the gateway of Ricardian studies, to welcome more boars to the fold.

Annette Carson’s guide is more than a glimpse. With ambitious detail, she embeds a clear narrative of events amid five centuries of debate. The title is good; this really is a small guide to the great debate; the reader does get a sense that we are glimpsing into a wider world of scholarship. Really thorough for such a short book, it is informative and interesting, raising key questions of historical interpretation, such as the nature of medieval credulity, the need for the pious to draw moral lessons, the imperfect information network. There’s no doubt, though, that this is a Ricardian book. Like Lewis, Carson declares her own viewpoint from the start and, for the most part, allows for the possibility of other conclusions being drawn whilst maintaining a realistic tone about the facts. Primary sources are presented in a way that is not intimidating to those who may be meeting them for the first time.

Carson’s presentation of the debate surrounding the Princes in the Tower is particularly thorough. Initially, all the related theories and possibilities can seem confusing but this guide is very well organised and uses sub-headings and bullet points to help orientate the reader and anticipate their questions. Carson does present all sides, exploring the nature of the boys’ incarceration and the people who would have access to the vital knowledge. After this, she arrives at the optimistic, almost babes-in-the-wood theory that “they simply packed up and left as part of a pre-planned departure for some alternative location.” I personally disagree with this, as I don’t feel it could have been achieved without any record or witness to what Carson calls a “completely normal, unremarkable and unmemorable departure” and that those sworn to silence “kept their word ever after”. However, this did not detract from my appreciation of her attempts to explore the topic and rationalise the situation.

Carson did try to approach the uncomfortable topic of the Princes with imagination and empathy but the application of this was uneven, being far more liberal in the interpretation of Richard’s actions than those of his contemporaries. With Carson’s self-declared loyalties, it is to be expected that her depiction would cast Richard’s adversary, Henry Tudor as something of a foil to her subject. However, I did find it “uncomfortable reading,” as Carson herself suggested, that if the twelve-year-old Edward V considered himself old enough to be crowned king, he “was old enough to understand that intrinsic to this role was a king’s task to defend and fight for his crown, perhaps dying in the process.” Even given the brutal times, this was, I felt, an unnecessarily harsh sentiment to be applied to the young king, resonant with implications that the boy should somehow have fought back against his uncle, or anticipated and almost deserved his death for his passivity. I didn’t feel this was a necessary inclusion and could serve to alienate a number of readers.

Carson also lays blame for the failure to protect Edward V at the door of his parents- his dead father and mother in sanctuary- in her desire to exonerate Richard III. As Protector, she claims, he was responsible for the realm rather than the fate of its children. After finding the majority of the book an interesting and sincere read, the author lost my sympathy with these final comments. This had nothing to do with the difference in our beliefs, rather at the coldness of tone and lack of generosity applied to those who suddenly become pawns in her narrative, distorted in order to prop up a whiter-than-white Richard that owes little to the brutal realities of medieval kingship. Other historians do not believe that Richard killed the princes but have not sought to blame the boys themselves or their mother for their possible fates. It seems that Carson has gone too far the other way to redress the arguments of those “who see Richard only through the veil of his black legends.” Ricardian studies have moved well beyond such stereotypes but the princes have fallen victim here to an oversimplification.

Carson’s guide is definitely worth a read, as an introduction to the key issues of the debate and the problems of historical interpretation. By prefacing her section on the Princes, she does facilitate the reader to form their own conclusions, which is essential for her controversial final chapter. Her good overview won’t particularly extend the debate if you are already steeped in Ricardian literature but for those coming afresh to the period, perhaps inspired by the discovery of Richard’s bones or the recent White Queen TV series, these two books will give you much food for thought; read Lewis first to establish the narrative of events, then Carson for an overview of the controversy.
Both books can be found on Amazon.
Lewis also has a book on the Wars of the Roses in the "A Glimpse of..." series, which provides a good clear overview to the personalities and events of the period:

Friday 13 September 2013

An Unpredictable Riot? 1913 and Stravinsky's Rites of Spring.

100 years ago, on a May evening, the audience were taking their seats at Paris’s Theatre Champs-Élysées. It had only been open a few weeks. A new ballet was being staged that night, composed by the young, relatively unknown Igor Stravinsky. It had been commissioned by the great choreographer Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, although that night the sequences had been arranged by his colleague Nijinsky. The costumes were bright, colourful and reminiscent of Russian folk art. The whole work had a raw, primitive feel.

 Yet Stravinsky’s piece was fused in a modernist crucible. Its participants were at the vanguard of all that was modern in the pre-war world. The city’s art world had been swept by a wave of incredible innovation, with the experiments of post-Impressionism resolving into a number of significant movements, from the colourful Fauvism and Orphism, to Picasso’s synthetic and abstract Cubism. In England, their works had caused a sensation at two Bloomsbury-run exhibitions at the Grafton Galleries and in Italy, motion and machine were celebrated in Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto. That year had also seem Parisian poet Guillaume Apollinaire publish Alcools, his cubist musings on the city, past and present, often called the great Modernist poem.

                                                                 experiment from Alcools

 1913 was an exciting year, with the old mores and methods thrown out in favour of the complete destruction of the rules governing structure, colour, subject matter and style. Stravinsky was also an iconoclast. His work challenged existing tastes in rhythm, metre and tonality, achieving a captivating dissonance that was completely new.

                                                         Composition by Picasso, 1913
Coming amid these innovations, the Parisian audience should have been accustomed to the shock of the new. But the work of the artistic vanguard had permeated a relatively small geographical location, encompassing Montmartre and Montparnasse, outside the academic hegemony that favoured the traditional, classical and harmonic. The audience comprised many lead artists and thinkers of the day, spilt among the modernists and members of the wealthy middle classes. Some were receptive, most were not. The performance prompted hissing, jeers, boos and the auditorium almost erupted in a riot. It was too shocking for many of its critics in 1913 but hindsight has vindicated Stravinsky’s masterpiece. Critic have referred to it as the single most significant moment in music history in the twentieth century. It broke the rules of musical composition as significantly as Picasso’s Cubism did with the human form and still life.

It is impossible to consider 1913 now without the benefit of hindsight; the looming conflict in the Balkans would escalate into one of the worst examples of senseless loss and destruction of the century. The outbreak of the First World War, fifteen months after Stravinsky's premier, would permanently derail the hot house of European modernism. This ballet, along with the poems and art of the period are the relics of a revolutionary flower that was nipped in the bud too soon.

Here is a section of the ballet, reconstructed from Stravinsky’s notes, danced by the Joffrey Company of Chicago, see what you think: