My Lady of Cleves: Margaret Campbell Barnes

★★★★

Margaret Campbell Barnes’s works have often cropped up in historical fiction lists, but this is the first book of hers that I’ve read and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised. Although My Lady of Cleves was first published in 1946, it doesn’t feel remotely prim or dated: only a certain elegant restraint hints at its age. It feels very much like a Norah Lofts story in that sense. Yes, it’s yet another Tudor historical novel, but Barnes rings the changes by focusing in on the least familiar and most appealing of Henry VIII’s many mistreated wives: Anne of Cleves. With grace, generosity and gentle humour, she gives this much-maligned woman her moment in the spotlight and pays tribute to the quiet pragmatism that allowed Anne to do what none of her five sister-queens managed: to keep both Henry’s affection and, more crucially, her head.

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The Alchemist of Souls: Anne Lyle

★★★½

Night’s Masque: Book I

Larry Rostant’s Renaissance cover art has once again persuaded me to take a punt on a novel: a compelling blend of fantasy and gritty historical fiction, populated by players, spies, noblemen, and swordsmen who are down on their luck. This is London, in the fading days of Elizabeth I’s reign, but not as you know it. The queen tarries at Nonsuch, mourning her late husband Robert Dudley, while the reins of power are in the hands of her elder son Prince Robert. The capital seethes not only with religious strife, but also racial tension, for the discovery of the New World has brought Europe into contact with the skraylings: human-like and yet not human; great craftsmen, traders and warriors. And the imminent arrival of the first skrayling ambassador to the Court of St James may well be the spark that ignites the blaze. Imagine Shakespeare in Love seasoned with grit, intrigue and more than a hint of otherworldly magic.

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The Aviary Gate: Katie Hickman

★★★

The Pindar Trilogy: Book I

This appealed for two reasons. You may remember that some months ago I read the third book in this trilogy, The House at Bishopsgate (not realising at the time that it was a third book). Impressed by its quality, I was keen to read the earlier novels. Secondly, Hickman’s insight into the world of 16th-century Constantinople promised to reveal the answer to a question that intrigues me. What exactly happens in a harem? Yes, that, obviously, but what about the rest of the time? Surely it can’t be all about lying on a chaise longue while eunuchs fan you and feed you grapes? Well, according to this book, it’s also about poison, vaunting ambition, intrigue and the gradual erosion of everything you know beyond the walls of the ironically-named House of Felicity.

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Dark Lady: Charlene Ball

★★★½

A Novel of Emilia Bassano Lanyer

After reading The Girl in the Glass Tower, I was keen to learn more about the poetess and musician Aemilia Lanyer, and so was thrilled when I was offered this book to review. It takes a much broader view of Aemilia’s life (or Emilia’s, as she’s called here), following her from childhood to middle age. It explores the challenges faced by well-educated, independent women, even in the age of Elizabeth I, who was surely the paragon of such virtues. Unlike The Girl in the Glass Tower, there is little mention of Arbella Stuart here: this isn’t a book about court intrigue so much as the simpler human desire for self-expression, and the limits placed upon that. Accompanied by an engaging cast of secondary characters, Emilia is brought to appealingly vivid life and the book teems with the sights, sounds and scents of Tudor England.

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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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Thomas More: John Guy

★★★★

A very brief history

I’ve always wanted to like Thomas More, largely thanks to Hans Holbein’s magnificent portrait. It offers such an appealingly naturalistic image of the man. More is intense, slightly homely with that overlarge nose, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his mouth quirked benevolently at the corner. He hasn’t shaved: his jaw is scattered with soft grey bristles. The red velvet and fur-trimmed cloak look incongruous: you get the impression he’s indifferent to worldly finery, his mind resolutely fixed on higher things. We almost forget the artist’s craft: we treat the portrait as a photograph, a direct record of the man. But art isn’t like that. And nor is history. The problem is that history has left us so many Mores – the principled objector; the humanist; the saint; the idealistic author of Utopia; the burner of heretics. How can we find our way through the mire? Fortunately this short, lucid and lively book offers a crash course in all things More – and our guide is one of the world’s foremost Tudor historians.

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A Princely Knave: Philip Lindsay

★★½

In the past year, Endeavour Press have republished at least seven historical novels by the Australian author Philip Lindsay (1906-1958). A Princely Knave, which follows the fortunes of Perkin Warbeck, pretender to the English throne in 1497, is the only one I’ve read, but Helen has reviewed two of the others, Here Comes the King and The Devil and King JohnJust to make matters more confusing, Endeavour are also publishing A Princely Knave as an ebook under its original title They Have Their Dreams, so be warned. First published in 1956, it’s very much of a novel of its time, in which some beautiful writing is ultimately stymied by stiffly two-dimensional characterisation.

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The King’s Pleasure: Norah Lofts

★★★★

I thought twice about buying this, mainly because of the title, which implied an historical romance full of heaving bosoms and ripped bodices. Plus, did I really need another take on the overly familiar tale of Henry VIII, Katharine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn? But I’ve heard a lot about Norah Lofts over the years and so did buy it, and to my relief it was a very pleasant surprise. Thoughtful and intelligent, it was grounded in the period mindset in such a way that I never felt myself sinking into a quagmire of historical exposition.

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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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The First Blast of the Trumpet: Marie Macpherson

John Knox made a brief cameo appearance in my GCSE History course, mainly to demonstrate that many people in the 16th century thought female monarchs were A Bad Thing. As part of a monstrous regiment of my own, in my girls’ school, I never had the chance to learn much more about him than the title of his most famous work, which naturally made me regard him with slight disapproval; and now, fifteen years later, it’s time to finally redress the balance. Marie Macpherson’s novel – the first in a proposed trilogy – turns him from merely a name on a history syllabus into a much more rounded and appealing figure, set firmly in his time.

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