Friday, October 17, 2014

Catching up: a mixed bag of books

It was the Plantagenet women who played important roles, as wives, mothers, political analysts, and consorts, but most historians have focused on the men, the princes, the kings, the warriors, and the kingmakers.

Thank goodness for Sarah Gristwood's Blood Sisters (Basic Books: $29.99).  Gristwood, a British biographer and historian,  turns the attention to seven women who were forced to take sides in the war of the Cousins the War of the Roses.

The seven women were: Marguerite of Anjou, consort of Henry VI; Cecily Neville (mother of Edward IV and Richard III); Elizabeth Woodville, consort of Edward IV; Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV and consort of Henry VII; Margaret of Burgundy, daughter of Cecily Neville; Anne Neville, wife of Edward, Prince of Wales and consort of Richard III and Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII.

Each of these women had their role to play in the tapestry of that led to war between two branches of the family, ultimately brought together by the determined and forceful Margaret of Beaufort and the pragmatic former Queen Elizabeth, widow of Edward IV, arranging the marriage of their children|: Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York.

Gristwood weaves together a fascinating story that spans several generations and embraces these women's' histories.   They survived and played the political machinations games with varying degrees of success.  They were wives, mothers, lovers, friends and enemies.   These women come alive with Gristwood's delineation of their lives and the roles they played in the war of the Roses.

Blood Sisters is an excellent read.  One of best modern books on the distaff Plantagenets.   This book would make a great mini-series, far better than Showtime's trashy and historically inaccurate The White Queen.

It is a shame that most foreign language books on European royals rarely ever get translated into English.  Lothar Machtan's Prinz Max von Baden Der letze Kanzler des Kaisers  (Suhrkamp Verlag)  is a certainly a candidate for translation, perhaps by a British or American university Press.

This is a well-researched biography that covers Max's life, but Machtan is largely concerned with Max's political career.  He was the last Imperial Chancellor, who played a role in the dismantling of the Kaiser's final days.

Machtan's work must is a major accomplishment, offering a piece of an ever-increasing puzzle that was the life of Wilhelm II -- and the first world war.  In  October 1918, in the waning days of World War, as German defeat appeared certain, Wilhelm II appointed Max as chancellor, seeing an opportunity to save his throne.  But Max could not save the Germany that Wilhelm wanted to keep, and he was willing to negotiate with the socialists and others for the establishment of a republic, forcing Wilhelm II (and the other German sovereigns) to abdicate their thrones. 

Wilhelm was not expecting the final outcome.  He never believed he would lose his throne, and he blamed Max.

The collapse of the monarchy was quickly followed by the collapse of the close relationship between Max and Wilhelm II.  Max's wife, Marie Louise, was the sister of Prince Ernst August, Duke of Brunswick, who was married to the Kaiser's only daughter, Princess Viktoria Luise.

My only quibble is the limited number of photographs (which are buried in the book).  German publishers tend to economize on including photographs in books.

Professional translations are expensive, which makes foreign rights difficult for publishers, especially if the books are marked for a limited market.  This book is more than a royal biography.  It is a complex history that offers insight into the life of a prince, who tried to save Germany from itself and from the ego of a monarch whose time had long passed.

Prinz Max von Baden Der letze Kanzler des Kaiser is worth the translation.  World War I historians and scholars will appreciate the effort. The price is of the book is 29,95 Euros.


German historian Karin Feuerstein-Prasser has joined the Hannover anniversary (three hundred years since George I succeeded to the British throne) with the publication of Englands Koniginnen aus dem Hause of Hannover (1714-1901).   This slim paperback is a quick read into the lives of Sophia Dorothea Celle, Caroline of Ansbach, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, Caroline of Brunswick, Adelheid of Saxe-Meiningen and Queen Victoria. 

The first five women were consorts of the Hannover Kings (George I,II, III, IV  William IV) and Victoria, a Queen Regnant.  Victoria is included because she was the last of the Hannover queens.

This book was published by Verlag Friedrich Pustet (14.95 Euros)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Now available: Princesses on the Wards by Coryne Hall

Coryne Hall's Princesses on the Wards is now available (History Press) ... official publication date in the UK is October 22.   The book will be available in the USA in December (from Amazon.)
From  Queens and princesses have always shown care and compassion, but many went much further. They were not afraid to roll up their sleeves, work in wards or help in field hospitals and operating theatres, despite their sheltered upbringings. Through wars and revolutions across Europe, their experiences were similar to those of thousands of other nurses, but this is the first time that their involvement in nursing and the extent of their influence on the profession has been detailed in full. Beginning with two daughters of Queen Victoria – Princess Alice and Princess Helena – this book looks at the difficulties these royals faced while carving a worthwhile role in an age when the place of a well-born woman was considered to be in the home. Empress Alexandra of Russia, Queen Marie of Romania, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, and Princess Alice of Greece (mother of the Duke of Edinburgh) were just a few of Queen Victoria’s relatives who set an example of service well beyond that considered necessary for their rank. Not all of them were fully trained nurses, but each made a positive contribution towards alleviating suffering which cannot be overestimated.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Royal Letters Mystery by Janet Cowland

I received a copy of The Royal Letters Mystery (Rydings Associates) from the author, Janet Cowlard, earlier today while on a visit to Bethesda, MD.   On the Metro from Bethesda to Gallery Place, changing for the Yellow Line to King Street, where I waited for the Blue Line to Franconia-Springfield (yes, one can change for the Blue Line at Metro Center, but it is a longer ride.)

I nearly missed my stop at Gallery Place because I was so engrossed with this excellent story.

Janet Cowlard is a detective-cum-researcher par excellence.    In the 1980s, her husband purchased an "unpopular lot" of 5 letters for £2.00.  The five handwritten letters were written at some point in the early 1920s by someone who was connected to the British court.  Four of the letters were written to the letter writer's mother, and one letter to her daughter.  The stationary was from Buckingham Palace, York Cottage,  Windsor Castle and Balmoral.

The letters were unsigned.  Each of the five letters referred to other people at court, to the royals themselves, but no real in-your-face clues as to the identity of the letter writer. 
Cowlard began her search with a letter to the Royal Archives (to no avail) in the early 1990s, but due to her own work as a Disability Trainer for Arthritis Care, a British charity, her research to find the identity was put on hold for several years.

The research was painstaking, but Janet, carefully and thoughtfully, peeled away layer by layer, filling in the blanks, identifying the people mentioned in the letters (mostly royals and members of the British aristocracy), and writing a story with a very interesting story with a twist at the end.

Because of that twist,  I am not going to reveal even the name of the letter writer except to say that it was an aristocratic woman with ties to the court.  The twist comes with learning about the letter writer's descendants.

Queen Mary, the Duchess of York, Duchess of Albany, Queen Emma of the Netherlands are among the many clues that lead Janet to finally learning who wrote the letters and her own family connections .. and that little twist at the end.

No, you cannot twist my arm.  I am not going to name the person.  Think of it as a murder mystery with the denouement coming near the end.  When you read the book  -- and you will want to read this book -- you will understand why I refuse to give anything away, except to say that Janet Cowlard is to be commended for the detailed research.  (And being an academic librarian, you know I LOVE good research.)

The Royal Letters Mystery is available from, and from the author's website.   The price of the book is £5.50 (postage extra).   This book is NOT available in bookstores or any other Amazon as the book is sold by the author.

 This book deserves wider exposure because it is a very good read.

The book is illustrated with photographs of the people and places mentioned in the letters and connected to the letter writer. (Thought I was going to name her ... wrong again!)

So if you want to find out who wrote the letters (and the intriguing twist at the end) you will need to order this book and read it yourself.  I refuse to  "fess" up. 

And, when you get the  book, don't turn to the end, and read the final pages.  Start at the beginning, and join Janet on her fascinating journey as she unravels the identities of the letter writer, and those named in the letters.  It's a super trip to be on.  You won't regret a single moment of The Royal Letters Mystery.

The King's Curse by Philippa Gregory

Wow! Wow! Wow!   Philippa Gregory's The King's Curse (Touchstone: $28.99) is the best book so far in The Cousin's War series.  After the disappointment of her last historical novel, The White Princess, I was ready to be underwhelmed by The King's Curse, which focuses on Margaret Pole, the daughter of the Duke of Clarence and Isabel Neville's, whose sister, Anne, was the primary character in Gregory's last but one book, The Kingmaker's Daughter.  (The Earl of Warwick, father of Isabel and Anne, was known as the King Maker.)

I loved The King's Curse.  Got comfy on my floatie and read it in the middle of the pool.  I could not put it down. 

Margaret, a first cousin to Princess Elizabeth, daughter of Edward IV, and consort of Henry VII, is fond (and loyal) to Elizabeth.  But she remains a threat to the Tudors, at least in the eyes of Henry VII's mother,  Margaret Beaufort (whose story was told in The Red Queen). 

Her brother, Edward, the Earl of Warwick, is arrested and sent to the Tower on the orders of Henry VII, the victor at Bosworth Field.   Warwick is only 10 years old when he is sent to the Tower.  He would spend the rest of his life as a prisoner, and was executed in 1499.

Margaret Beaufort arranged for Margaret's marriage to a Tudor loyalist, Sir John Pole, a minor nobleman.  The death of her husband left Margaret and her children in poverty.  She is forced to send one son, Reginald, to become a priest.

The death of her cousin brings Margaret Pole back to court. Her estates and her title, Countess of Salisbury, are restored, and she serves as the chief lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon, the wife of Arthur, the Prince of Wales.  Margaret's loyalty to Katherine is never doubted, and she remains close to her after Katherine is widowed and marries Henry VIII.

But Margaret's loyalty would be tested (and her family, too), when Henry VIII decides that he needs a new wife because Katherine could not give him a son.   This would lead to further tensions as Margaret was chief governess to Katherine and Henry's daughter, Mary.

Philippa Gregory knows how to tell a story, and she succeeds here with a breathtaking, page turning first rate historical saga as Margaret and her family are caught up in the growing maelstrom of Henry VIII's increasing tyrannical reign. 

Religion and politics make bad bedfellows, certainly during the reign of Henry VIII.  As the king went from marriage to marriage, seeking a woman who would bear him a healthy son, his reign degenerated into paranoia.

Henry VIII proceeded to eliminate people he perceived to be his rivals, just as his father ordered the death of the Earl of Warwick.

Margaret Salisbury and her several of her children were arrested and sent to the Tower on charges largely based on their ties and correspondence with Reginald Pole, once a devoted supporter of the King.  But Reginald, a devout Catholic, was determined to save the Church.  There were reports of plots orchestrated by Reginald, safe in Rome.  His family would suffer.  His brother, Henry, and other family members, were executed.  Another brother, Geoffrey, ratted on his mother and brothers, and was pardoned. 

Margaret was stripped of her property, and her peerage.  On May 27, 1541, at the age of 67, she was executed without ever having been tried.  She was the oldest of all of Henry's victim, and her death was particularly violent as the executioner botched the job, and "hacked her head and shoulder to pieces."

This is historical fiction at its very best.  Philippa Gregory is to be commended for the magnificent The King's Curse.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Prince Harry Brother Soldier Son by Penny Junor

Penny Junor has written a new biography of Prince Harry: Brother Soldier Son.

Grand Central Publishing, a Hatchette division, will publish the book on September 9 here in the USA.  The UK publisher, Hodder & Stoughton's release date is September 11.

The Daily Mail has offered its readers several excerpts from the book, throwing the Diana-Maniacs into a frenzied tizzy, but the excerpts have offered no new information.  Everything I have read so far appears in original news reports and other books.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport

Romanov scholarship, especially on Nicholas and Alexandra and their family, has certainly taken a giant leap since 1967 when Robert Massie's Nicholas and Alexandra was published.   Massie's seminal work has stood the test of time, in terms of a competent, well-researched biography.   It was one of the first royal books I read (I was 13 in 1967), and remains one of my favorites.

Massie wrote a biographical-history with relatively limited and largely English-language sources.    Soviet archives were closed to western historians, so biographers such as Massie, had to rely on largely secondary English-language sources, apart from a selection of Nicholas' diary and his correspondence with Wilhelm II.    Massie (and others) could only offer the insight into Nicholas and his family by what others said or perceived about them.

Fast forward several decades to the 1990s, after the fall of communism and the Soviet Union, when richness of material in the Russian archives became available.   There has been a plethora of material, from the diaries of Alexandra and her daughters to family  correspondence, including letters between Alix and her brother, Ernie.

British author Helen Rappaport, a former actress who retains a bit of the dramatic flare, reminds me of Alison Weir (another British historian, albeit one who specializes in the Plantagenets and Tudors) whose early books were good and competent.  Weir moved to the stratosphere of greatness with her breakthrough biography on Eleanor of Aquitaine, which was followed by an equally impressive biography on Katherine Swynford.  Two modern and awesome royal biographies.

There is no doubt that Rappaport is a decent biographer, who understands the concept of good research (and mining source material  beyond the familiar.)  She is fluent in Russian, and has made judicious use of material in  Russian archives.  Her first Romanov themed book, The Last Days of Romanovs Tragedy at Ekaterinburg (2007), focused, with intense detail, on the final weeks before Nicholas II and his family were assassinated  by the Bolsheviks.   

That book was not perfect, as Rappaport allowed a few piddly mistakes to sneak into her text (and not caught by her editor).  Twice (and in the index) she referred to Prince Albert Victor, Duke of Clarence, as Prince Edward, Duke of Clarence.  She also stated that Alix's older sister, Ella, converted to the Orthodox faith when she married Grand Duke Serge, when, in fact, Ella abjured her Lutheran faith several years after her marriage.

Helen has decided to continue the Romanov theme with The Romanov Sisters The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra (St. Martin's Press: $27.99), a book that offers flashes of brilliance, but often falls flat.   This does not mean the book is bad or should not be read -- it should -- but one has to eschew the fandom enthusiasm that followed the publication.  I have no interest in royal or Romanov fandom.  I am a historian, with a serious interest in royal history.  The Grand Duchesses and their younger brother were among the many victims of Bolshevik aggression. 

Rappaport is to be commended for accessing new Russian sources, as without the new material,  The Romanov Sisters would be another rehashing of the tragic lives of OTMA.  But she does ignore parts of the story as she barely mentions the relationship between the four grand duchesses and their only grandparent, the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna.  It is all right to be biased toward your subjects, but the entire story also needs to be told.

It takes about a third of the book for the author to get to the meat of the story: the four girls.  I can understand the criticism toward this, but it is also important to understand that the four girls and their brother were the sum parts of their parents.

Let's just say Nicholas and Alexandra were ill-served as Emperor and consort, and as parents.  It went beyond over-protection.  As each year passed, the family grew further inward, closing themselves off from family.  Nicholas and Alexandra were very much in love, but it was a suffocating love, at times.   As with many converts to Orthodoxy,  Alix turned into a bigot and zealot.  Her view of her husband's role as Emperor was not rooted in reality.

Neither Nicholas nor Alexandra were able or willing to discern the real ills that plagued Russia, a massive, intense country, struggling to find a place in the 20th century.   Unlike western Europe, Russia never truly experienced the Reformation or the Age of Enlightenment (which can be seen even in today's Russia).

The birth of the Tsarevitch Alexey further exacerbated the family dynamics.  Alix, never a truly healthy woman, was physically and mentally worn out by five full term pregnancies.  Russia's succession was semi-Salic which meant that the four grand duchesses followed all of the eligible males in the Imperial family.  Thus, a direct male was imperative.   Unfortunately, the one son was born a hemophiliac, a then fatal disease that Alix brought to the family.  She was a carrier, as was her sister, Irene, and their mother who inherited the gene from her mother, Queen Victoria.  Alix's brother, Friedrich Wilhelm, suffered from the disease, and died as the result of a fall from a window.

Thus, Alexey's childhood was fraught with the fear that a bruise might kill him.  One can only imagine his mother's self-inflicted torture and pain knowing that she was responsible for her son's frailty.  Alix drew further inward, unable to be the consort that Nicholas (and Russia) needed. 

The four grand duchesses grew up in a largely confined atmosphere, with minimal connection with other family members, such a cousins.  There was no real opportunity for a chrysalis-like emergence into adulthood.

The girls were socially inexperienced.  When Olga and Tatiana made their first appearances at court balls, others noticed they were gauche and unable to make small talk.  Their diary entries focused on the mundane: the weather, Alix's declining health, going to religious services.

Faith certainly played a role in the lives of these four young women.  Alix reiterated over and over again that only God would save them.  (As a devout Lutheran, I could have told Alix that a strong belief in God is important, but, equally important, one has to listen to what God says.  Alix was unable to listen to anyone except perhaps Rasputin, who called himself a man of God.  He wasn't.)

In her previous book, The Last Days of the Romanovs,  Helen's painful eloquence is evident in her detailed accounting of the grand duchesses' final weeks of life.  It was must have been a pure hellacious torment to be held prisoner by brutish men whose sole intent was to kill the entire family.  I was brought to tears when I closed the book. 

The tears should have come this time, too.  It is in the final chapter where The Romanov Sisters falls flat.  The pathos, the pain and tragedy of their deaths,  even the details of Maria's discomfiture by her family should have been included here, too.  After all, this book is about Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.   The author (or anyone else) should never  assume that everyone who reads this book will have already read The Last Days of the Romanovs.   

For many, The Romanov Sisters may be a reader's first introduction to Nicholas and Alexandra and their family.  For others, it is just one of many books that we will read in our lifetimes about the Romanovs.

Rappaport is an excellent story teller.  Her writing style is fluid, never over arching. She captures the personalities of the main characters, giving OTMA voices largely ignored by others.   I think a good editor should have provided a little  massaging to have Helen introduce the girls earlier in the book. 

The book has its high points, and it will be a good source for future Romanov historians.   Largely due to the skimming of details in the final chapter, this book isn't Helen's breakthrough work.  She is certainly capable of a breakthrough biography, but she needs to move beyond the tried, true and comfortable:  Nicholas and Alexandra and their five children.    How about a new biography of Ella or see what other treasures in the Russian archives that are crying out -- I hear them -- to be translated.

Sadly, she still trips over the silly mistakes.  In the index, you will find Edward, Duke of Clarence.  You think Helen would have figured this out by now.  The eldest son of Edward VII was called Eddy by his family, but his official first name was Albert Victor.  She also writes that Prince Maurice of Teck, younger son of Princess Alice of Albany and Prince Alexander of Teck,  was a hemophiliac.  Maurice died at age 6 months, but he did not have hemophilia.  His older brother, Rupert, suffered from the disease.   In the 1980s, when I was writing the first edition of my book, Queen Victoria's Descendants,  I began a correspondence with Princess Alice's only daughter, Lady May Abel Smith, who confirmed that her younger brother, Maurice, did not have hemophilia.  He may have had an illness, or perhaps succumbed as the result of what we now call crib death.

The Romanov Sisters is a good book that will provide a stepping stone to more material coming out of Russia.  Surely, however, it is time to move on to writing biographies about other members of the dynasty. 

The Luxembourgs of Nassau Now Available from Amazon

The Luxembourgs of Nassau is published by  The authors are Kassandra and Sabrina Pollock.
If you order from my links, I earn a few pennies ...  just a few .   So the more books ordered (as well as anything else from Amazon or the more pennies I received.    Thanks.