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:

Monday 9 September 2013

What did Babies Wear in the Past? The gratitude of a Modern Mother.

I’m a full-time mother to two little boys, aged 3 and 1 and most of my writing gets done (or not) with them roaming about around me. Having them got me thinking about the experiences of women in the past, going through pregnancy and birth and inspired many of the books and articles I’ve written over the last two years.
Recently I received some lovely baby clothes to review from F&F at Tesco. They were soft and comfortable, in lovely colours and very reasonably priced. They washed well too. I particularly liked the soft corduroy trousers with the elasticated waist and these adorable little shoes, with flexible textured soles, just right for baby’s first steps.
It got me thinking about the difference between children’s clothing now and in the past; how these clothes were designed to allow babies to move and breathe, whilst being bright and fun, in contrast to the restrictive swaddling and mini-adult suits that we see being inflicted on infants in past decades.
For the first year of their lives, babies were immobile, bound tightly in swaddling bands and lain in cots, partly for their own safety. Unable to flail around, crawl or walk, these strips of cloth or linen were little more than torn pieces of sheet, often in white or green and bore little resemblance to the stretchy baby grows and soft suits made from cotton or towelling.

These two images from the mid fourteenth century show a small baby bound in thick blue material, with only its face visible, followed by a much older infant, perhaps aged one, literally tied into its crib with green strips. 

Depictions of the baby Jesus often show him in a loose white shift, the sort of garment that the swaddled child above appears to be wearing. which formed the basic underwear for all.

Then must have been endless laundry, in the days before washing machines, tumble driers and liquid capsules. Medieval and Tudor maps of London show sheets and clothing  spread out on the ground in fields and over bushes to dry: someone usually needed to remain with them though, as clothes were valuable commodities in the days before they were bought ready to wear and could be the target for thieves.
White clothes were treated with lye, made by running water through the ashes of a wood fire; cherry wood, apple and pear were most common but seaweed was also burned and used. Urine provided a detergent, collected from chamber post, for pre-wash soaking. Soap was very popular, enough to attract comment from foreign visitors, surprised to see it used so frequently and to such effect. It was usually made from animal fat and fragranced with flower essences.

Washing could be a dirty and dangerous business though. Laundresses carried tubs of dirty linen to the rivers and London accounts in particular list women and young girls who had slipped, fallen in and drowned.

Boys and girls often wore similar clothes until the age of seven, when boys were put into trousers or basic braies. Before that, they seem to have worn a fairly universal looking tunic, which would have at least allowed for some freedom of movement.
Perhaps one of the most useful images depicting the way boys' clothing changed over time is the 1470s Seven Ages of Man (below), where we see a baby swaddled and bound, then the infants of the next three stages are dressed in a similar loose garment, before the jerkin becomes shorter and accompanied by hose, in the figure on the right.
Even as recently as our grandmother's generation, Monday was the regular weekly wash day and it literally did take a day, scrubbing, rinsing and mangling all the household linen. Sitting behind my computer, trying to meet a number of deadlines for reviews, articles and books, with my two boys playing on the floor beside me, I am grateful for the labour saving devices and the lovely colourful modern baby clothes that make my life a little bit easier.

Here is the link to the F&F Tesco site where my clothes came from:

Wednesday 4 September 2013

Sydney and Violet Schiff: A new biography of a marginal modern marriage.

“Sydney and Violet: Their Life with T.S. Eliot, Proust, Joyce and the Excruciatingly Irascible Wyndham Lewis
Stephen Klaidman.


Published by Nan A. Talese (3 Sep 2013)  
RRP £17.99

“Modernism” is a generous umbrella, covering a breadth of groups, individuals and media. The big names of the art and literary worlds have received much critical attention in recent years but less well appreciated have been its patrons and facilitators, the hosts, friends and supporters who provided the glue between disparate artists. Stephen Klaidman’s new biography of Sydney and Violet Schiff highlights an interesting couple, who made their own contribution to literary circles of the 1920s.

Relatively overlooked until now, the Schiffs appear on the surface to be a conventional middle class couple, based in London and the South of France. However, their correspondence and friendships included figures such as Picasso, D.H.Lawrence, James Joyce and Aldous Huxley. Klaidman has written a fascinating book, using the Schiffs to reflect light on their more famous friends and has tried hard to rehabilitate their reputation as a literary couple. However, their own output is rarely read today and for the reader, one Schiff consistently emerges as rather more radiant and engaging then the other. Klaidman's style leaves little doubt where his sympathies lie, backhandedly apologising for Sydney’s clumsiness and giving the impression that the husband overshadowed his wife’s talents. This book highlights Violet’s own wasted potential as much as her gift for friendship, or what Willa Muir described as her genius for womanhood.

After establishing the circumstances under which the Schiffs met and married, Klaidman’s book really takes off when he examines their friendships in the early 1920s. Surviving letters from this period allow another window into the existing biographies of figures such as Katherine Mansfield, Wyndham Lewis and T.S. Eliot and stress the personal affection in which they held the Schiffs as a couple. Most interesting though, are the detailed letters that they sent and received from the reclusive Marcel Proust during the last part of his life. A vivid picture of Proust emerges, ensconced in his Parisian flat reading the final proofs of À la Recherche de Temps Perdu, wrapped in furs and sending his chauffeur to the Ritz for cold beers. This is perhaps the most satisfying section of the book, with the epistolary friendship developing in the reclusive writer’s dying years; I did feel though, that Klaidman did not quite convince me why Proust would select the Schiffs as his confidants during this time. Perhaps this was down to the nature of the friendship, as the trio only met in person on a handful of occasions and a portion of the letters are missing. Otherwise, Klaidman does a good job  with the remaining evidence, presenting the highs and lows of their association.
                                                        Violet by Wyndham Lewis

Proust and Sydney Schiff had a common connection in their shared craft. Writing under the pseudonym Stephen Hudson, Sydney produced a number of novels, which have not survived the test of time as well as those of his friend.  Klaidman presents his works as collaborations with Violet, whom Proust certainly found to be the more sympathetic and gifted critic. The extent to which she contributed to Sydney’s work is unclear and Klaidman is convinced by her qualities as a critical and incisive reader of her husband and friends’ work. Some even suspected her of authoring Hudson’s work but it is frustrating that little evidence survives about the extent of her involvement and whether the process of composition was shared. She comes across as the more engaging of the pair, with her intellect, empathy and musical gifts being appreciated among her friends but never finding fruition in wider circles. The book certainly left me with an appetite to discover more about Violet, almost regretting that she did not put pen to paper independently of Sydney.

The prominence of Wyndham Lewis in the book’s title is a little misleading, as he plays an equal or lesser part in the narrative than figures like Eliot and Proust. The reader is left in little doubt that this is down to the author’s own personal preference, as although Lewis’s behaviour and views do emerge as “excrutiatingly irascible” even when considered objectively, Klaidman goes much further and describes his work as “monstrous, ramblshackle… blunderbuss,” pretentious, irrelevant, banal, plotless,  prejudice, mean-spirited, humourless, self-serving and enveloping the reader like quicksand.” This forceful opinion is a little distracting and appears to emerge from Lewis’s perceived ingratitude for the Schiff’s material support, when a less colourful condemnation may have been less obtrusive.

Largely, this was a satisfying read, which sheds a useful and interesting insight on modernist circles. It was well-paced and full of the interesting details and anecdotes that remain in the mind. In certain places, the book could have supported more background material, such as when it came to Violet’s early life and the position of Jews in inter-war London. Also, particular passages ended abruptly, like the death of Katherine Mansfield and incarcertation of Vivienne Eliot but this was perhaps an indication that the author had been successful making these characters interesting. The Modernist furrow has been well ploughed by biographers but until now, the Schiffs have languished in the margins. This may well be because in terms of literary output they are, in fact, marginal figures, but this book brings their role as valued mentors and friends into the light in an anecdotal and enjoyable way.