The King’s Assassin: Benjamin Woolley

★★★½

The Fatal Affair of George Villiers and James I

History is littered with stories of royal favourites who’ve clawed their way up from modest roots to dazzling heights of influence – but few did so quite as spectacularly as George Villiers. At the age of twenty, the future Duke of Buckingham had precious little going for him. He was a penniless gentleman, the second son of a second marriage, whose dead father had left everything to the children of his first marriage. In most cases this would have been a one-way ticket to obscure poverty, but George had several key advantages. He had a remarkably tenacious and ruthless mother, Mary Villiers, who recognised potential when she saw it. He had extraordinary good looks, remarkable charisma and intelligence. He (Mary decided) would be the catalyst by which his family dragged themselves to wealth and power – and there was one very obvious way to do that: to catch the king’s eye. This is one of British history’s great stories of social climbing, and Woolley delves into the detail with relish – even if I felt the book lacked the vivacity and panache that its captivating subject wielded with such ease.

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1610: A Sundial in a Grave: Mary Gentle

★★★½

I have a mixed relationship with the author Mary Gentle, having now read two of her books: Ilario, long before I started this blog, and Black Opera some years ago. 1610 has been sitting on my shelf for over a year and, in the course of a warm, sunny weekend, I decided to give it a go. A sexual assault in the first few chapters gave me pause, but I pressed on regardless and soon found myself in the midst of a very enjoyable swashbuckler, populated with spies, rogues, kings, mathematicians and cross-dressing swordsmen – and taking in the France of Marie de’ Medici, the England of James I and, unexpectedly, Japan in the years before the Sukoku Edict closed its borders. I should stress that this isn’t a fantasy, but a rollicking historical adventure with a few hints of the mystical: best described, perhaps, as The Three Musketeers with added esoterica.

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Royal Flush: Margaret Irwin

★★★½

Back in the winter, I discovered the historical fiction shelf at the Book Barn near my parents’ home in Somerset, and came away with a huge pile of novels from the 1960s and 1970s. One was this book by Margaret Irwin, who specialised in stories about the Tudor and Stuart periods, and who here focuses on the life of Charles II’s little sister Minette. Although Minette features in a number of novels, this was the first time I’d read about her and I enjoyed the novel’s old-fashioned romantic charm. Dense and detailed, it offers a sweep of the most colourful vistas of the 17th century: the lively Restoration court of Charles II and, more importantly, the glittering court of the young Louis XIV.

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The Girl in the Glass Tower: Elizabeth Fremantle

★★★★

It is 1615 and the years have not been kind to Aemilia Lanyer. Once, she and her poetry were celebrated at Court but, since the accession of James I, with his dislike of educated women, Aemilia has been forced to live a meaner existence. Now, weighed down with the debts of her dead husband, she ekes out her days in Clerkenwell with her teenage son Hal. It is Hal who offers Aemilia some unexpected distraction from her financial woes. As a young musician at Court, he happens to see the rooms of the late Arbella Stuart being cleared. Remembering that his mother once knew this unfortunate princess, he brings home a bundle of old papers destined for the fire, little realising what a treasure he has found. For this is Arbella’s account of her own life: the tale of a woman who dared to dream beyond the confines in which circumstances kept her. Faced with the words of this almost-friend, a woman she never truly understood, and one whom she inadvertently betrayed, Aemilia longs to finally learn the truth about Arbella Stuart.

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The Scandal of the Season: Sophie Gee

★★★

Hands up, anyone else who hasn’t read Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock? Not just me then. Thank heavens. Mind you, you don’t really need to have read it in order to enjoy this fictionalised account of its creation. Gee brings late Stuart London to life in all its snobbish splendour: here are the coffee houses, the levees and masquerades, the self-obsessed glittering mass of the nobility and the hungry throng of writers snapping at their heels. One of these, hungrier and more ambitious than the rest, is a young Catholic poet named Alexander Pope, who has come to London hoping to make his name.

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The Libertine: Stephen Jeffreys

The Libertine: Stephen Jeffreys

★★★★

(Theatre Royal, Haymarket, 22 September 2017)

It is the age of Restoration: of rakes, rogues and wenches, frock coats, billowing cuffs and absurdly large periwigs. Charles II has been on the throne for fifteen years and the age is at its pleasure-drunk apex. Bands of drunken young noblemen riot through taverns and theatres, shaking off the privations of their Puritan youth. Their figurehead is none other than the most lascivious, most scurrilous, most impudent nobleman of all: the Earl of Rochester. He has just been allowed back to court after a previous prank went wrong (accidentally reading out an extremely crude poem in front of the Queen’s visiting relatives), and he is determined to make up for lost time.

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Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self: Claire Tomalin

★★★★½

On 1 January 1660, a young clerk in the Exchequer in London began to keep a diary. He wasn’t the first diarist in history, far from it; but he was the first to find such potential in the form, and to make of his diary more than a dry chronicle of the times, or a self-examination of sins. This diary was different. From its very first page it showed an almost shocking candour as the young clerk recorded not only his work and social life, but also the most frank and intimate details about his marriage and his own turbulent sexual desires. This honesty sat alongside a lively intelligence which drank in all the events of the world around him. This clerk was Samuel Pepys and, from a historical point of view, he couldn’t have chosen a better moment to start such a detailed account of his life.

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Research in Action: Performing Gender on the Indoor Stage

Performing Gender: Shakespeare's Globe

(Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 7 May 2015)

We all know that in Shakespeare’s day women weren’t allowed on the stage. Recently several productions have tried to recreate the flavour of those original performances: Mark Rylance’s Twelfth Night and Richard III productions come to mind. But even these don’t give an accurate flavour of what Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences would have seen. Female roles were played by young boys aged between 12 and 22 years old, highly skilled actors who would specialise in playing women until at a certain stage they were no longer able to convince with the illusion (many ended up transitioning across the gender divide and took on male roles within the company).

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Performing for the King

Performing for the King

(Banqueting House, Whitehall, until 1 September 2013)

In the reign of Charles I, Banqueting House hosted some of the most extravagant entertainments in English history: the court masques. Combining music, song, dance, poetry and cutting-edge special effects, these remarkable plays were performed by the King, the Queen and their courtiers and, despite the eye-watering expense, held only once. This summer Banqueting House has a special display focusing on the various elements of the masque, with a special emphasis on Tempe Restored, performed in 1632.

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Restoration

Restoration

★★★

(directed by Michael Hoffmann, 1995)

I don’t usually watch a film adaptation so soon after reading the book itself, but the DVD of Restoration arrived very quickly and I couldn’t resist reacquainting myself with Robert Merivel in cinematic form. I think it helped to have read the novel so recently: it made sense of the storytelling, some of which may seem confusing if you aren’t already familiar with the plot. Also, a small note for those in the UK: the film currently seems to be available only in Region 1 format, except for a version with permanent Dutch subtitles, according to Amazon.

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