I received this as a review copy via NetGalley.
I love a story about reclaiming women – whether it’s in history or fiction. Turns out I’ve read a few of these recently: Wendy, Darling and Forces of Nature for example. And The Good Wife of Bath fits into that space: yes, it’s that Wife of Bath, perhaps Chaucer’s most contested character (from The Canterbury Tales anyway).
I have to admit it’s a long, long time since I studied Chaucer at university, and I’m not sure I read all of the Wife’s Prologue and Tale even then (I found the language really hard going, not going to lie). Which means that people who’ve never read any Chaucer (like, most of the population, surely) will be just fine with reading this. If you do know the Wife’s original story I guess you get that extra frisson when a name is dropped, but it’s not essential to the story. Honestly I got more of that from the fact Chaucer is a character in the book and I know bits and pieces about his life courtesy of Who Murdered Chaucer? which I recently re-read.
Anyway. The story is Eleanor’s biography, basically beginning with her marriage at age 12 to a stranger several decades older than she is. Which is a deeply unpleasant thought, but it wasn’t until I got to the Author’s Note that it occurred to me that many people would find this shocking – the shocking-ness of not knowing this was at least sometimes a reality in the 14th century, I mean. 12 was the legal age of marriage in much of Europe for much of the Middle Ages, a fact I already knew and so I guess I’ve already dealt with being shocked by that. (I still don’t find it a pleasant idea, don’t worry.) In Chaucer’s recounting, the Wife talks of having had five husbands, and how she has tried to have mastery over them. Two thirds of the book is Eleanor as wife: who she marries, why, and what her life is like in each circumstance. In many ways it’s an exploration of the possibilities for a woman in the late 14th century: a good life or hard, a loving husband or abusive, allowed by her husband to participate in decision making or treated like a child, and the fact that her property becomes his property at marriage. And then the last third is Eleanor attempting to live as a feme sole, or sole woman – not connected to a man – which basically translates to “target”.
What Eleanor doesn’t personally experience, the women within her circle do. And overall that means that this book has some hard parts to read. Life for everyone in the Middle Ages had its brutality, especially compared to many of the things I take for granted in 21st century urban Australia; and the mid 14th century has the added bonus (?) of the Botch – what we call the Black Death. Life for women had its particular brutalities, and Brooks presents these as a part of life. Eleanor is at times very poor, and at times relatively wealthy; living on a farm or in town; respectable and not, surrounded by family and not. Brooks explores the lot. And by including Chaucer as a character, with as accurate a biography as is available, Brooks also includes bits of the contemporary politics (Lollards, John of Gaunt, 1381…).
The one thing I was left feeling a bit… confused by is the subtitle: A (Mostly) True Story. I love an unreliable narrator, and Eleanor certainly has the potential to be one. But nowhere is there a clear suggestion that she is being slippery, or fiddling with facts to make herself look better, or do anything other than present her story as she experienced it. So the suggestion that she is somehow being crafty in presenting her story doesn’t make sense. I actually forgot it was the subtitle while reading, because it’s just not relevant.
Overall, this is a great addition to the reclaiming of women’s voices within fiction. It’s fairly long; that’s balanced by being very readable, and smartly paced: it’s certainly not a trial to read. Definitely recommended to the historical fiction crowd, or if you were compelled to read any of Chaucer at any stage.
I received this book to review via NetGalley.
The good things:
- The very concept. I love the idea of a book that covers all the Plantagenet fellas from Henry II to Richard III. Seeing their wildly varying careers one after the other points up just how outrageous and sometimes amazing and sometimes dreadful this lot could be. So great.
- Some of the context given. I appreciated the broader comments about the Crusades, for instance – and this lot were involved right up to Crusade #8, which I didn’t know before this. The book starts with a very general intro to the concept of being a knight, and then gives an overview of the first couple generations after the Conqueror. I didn’t need these, but for a reader less familiar with the era I’m sure it would be very welcome.
- Eleanor of Aquitaine. Any time I get to read about her, it’s a good day.
- It’s pretty straightforward to read.
The less good things:
- The author mentions an historian who claims the Bayeux Tapestry must have been designed by a man because there are penises embroidered on it. And just… leaves that comment sitting there.
- The author repeats that old saw about spices being used to cover the taste of rotting meat. Pretty sure that’s been debunked.
- The editing. Most significantly, the editing. First, there’s some odd things going on here with the structure. Clearly I read a review copy so I don’t know whether it’s still got some editing to go. But there were bits where I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or deliberately presenting variant spellings (Saladdin, and then Saladin); and there were several occasions where it felt like sentences were in completely the wrong place. Like, he would have a paragraph about an event; then the next event in the next paragraph, but suddenly the first event is mentioned completely out of context. And this got more frequent as the book progressed. Really quite confusing. And then additionally, several times there would be two men mentioned as being involved in something, and then “he” made some final gesture… and it was often unclear which “he” was being referenced.
Overall, I did enjoy this as a history of the family. It presents the princes in their context, shows how they’re connected and how they variously win and lose bits of their empire-not-an-empire. I suspect it would be a bit hard for someone with absolutely zero knowledge of the early Middle Ages, but then again if you’re picking this up you must have at least an ember of a passion for that time. The editing problems came close to killing the enjoyment a couple times, but I was able to bull past it.
I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.
I am ambivalent about this book.
The good things:
- Reclaim the women! I am always in favour of a book that highlights a woman who has either been forgotten, or whom history has portrayed in an unfavourable-because-patriarchy light. This book largely does that, going into details about Marie’s life, highlighting the reasons for the decisions that she made as well as the importance of those actions, not just her womb. These are really important things.
- It’s accessible. This is intended for a general readership: there are no footnotes, it opens with a list of people the reader can refer back to when the titles etc get to be too much, and it usually balances complex foreign policy decision-making with ease of reading.
The slightly uncomfortable things:
- The lack of footnotes etc means it’s not the most detailed of historical research: there’s not that many primary sources directly used, and no other historians are referenced, which makes me a bit queasy.
- There are some editing mistakes. Sentences that lack of a primary verb, probably because there are so many clauses that it’s easy to get lost; sentences where it’s unclear whether one person with multiple titles, or several different people, are being discussed.
- Marie’s apparently deliberately decision to remain single after James V’s death is lamented as sad for a woman in her 30s. But… she’s a widow twice over, she has the disastrous example of her mother-in-law to show how badly things can go for a widowed queen with an infant monarch. Why couldn’t this be a sensible political choice? Why couldn’t this be a relief to a woman whose life has been tied to the idea of marriage for more than two decades, usually not at her own decision? No evidence to suggest that she regretted this, and so… attributing emotions is a fraught business. It shouldn’t be done.
The negative things:
- At one point, Clegg describes Marie’s daughter Mary as having various ailments, and suggests they may be dismissed as nothing more than an anxiety related disorder. Uh. That’s… not good.
- The way Marie’s whole life is framed around men. Now I understand that to some extent, with the biography of a powerful woman in the sixteenth century this is unavoidable; her male relations were always going to play a huge part, especially early on, and any husband likewise. However, it felt like a lot of space was spent on men and their doings, sometimes only tangentially connected to Marie’s life. Perhaps this was for added context, but it just served to detract from making Marie the focus. The greatest example of this is the title. In a book of nearly 220 pages, Henry VIII dies on p140. Marie was on a list of possible wives but got away; she got in his way to some extent around the issue of young Mary marrying Prince Edward… but to call her the Scourge of Henry VIII is ridiculous. I guess it made a good title? But I was expecting to discover that she had actively, and over a long period, skewered Henry’s ambitions in the north. Yeh not so much.
Look, overall, for people wanting to find out more about Marie of Guise, this isn’t a bad option – not bad at all, in fact. Just beware that it’s by no means perfect.
This is the April book for the Women in SF Book Club. I’ve been trying to read each book a month ahead of time, here at the start of the year, because I just know I’ll fall behind at some point… and those who know me know that I am nothing if not a completionist and a perfectionist. It’s a failing. Eh.
I’ve never read a Connie Willis. I know, I know; another failing. Anyway, I picked this up from the library without knowing anything about it. The first thing I thought was OMG THIS IS HUGE (669 pages, to be exact). The second was HEY, this is actually a medieval book! I didn’t realise that… and it made me a bit wary, to be honest. I’ve just finished a masters in medieval history, and while that by no means makes me an expert in the time, it does make me wary when I don’t know how expert authors are, and whether I can trust them or not. I knew a few of my friends – especially Tansy – thought she was a wonderful author, so I wasn’t entirely dubious, but… you know…
So, I began. And to be honest, the first chapter did not work for me. I don’t mind being thrown into a world headfirst, but this was a bit nuts. And I’m not sure why, but none of the characters were immediately engaging, so I neither knew who they were nor (immediately) cared to find out. I was worried that this was going to be another book to struggle through so that I could an informed and scathing commentary when the Book Club came around (which is what will happen with Darkship Thieves tonight…ETA: now!).
But I kept reading.
At the end of the first chapter, Mr Dunworthy has seen his star pupil, Kivrin, sent off to the Middle Ages via a time machine (basically). In the second chapter, Dunworthy and his friends go off to the pub, concerned but trying to be positive about Kivrin’s chances; there’s some worry over how the whole event has been organised. And all of a sudden… I cared. I don’t know why. I can’t pinpoint a moment when the people began to matter, or when I began to be engaged with the individuals and their concerns. But I think it was in this second chapter, with the minutiae of life in Oxford; and then the third chapter, with Kivrin recalling how she got the gig to be sent back in time and then waking up in the Middle Ages. And the description of the environment, Kivrin’s reactions to it… it grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and forced me to keep reading. And keep reading. And I read the 669 pages in two days.
I really, really enjoyed the book. Obviously.
I initially expected that after the sending-back-in-time experience, there would be occasional flash-forwards to Dunworthy, but that mostly the book would be focussed on the medieval. I was wrong, of course. I’m not positive, but I think the book is almost evenly split between the near-future (from our perspective; it’s set in 2055, or so) and the past. I think I may actually have enjoyed the near-future section more than the medieval. It is riveting because there’s an illness – an influenza, perhaps the most obvious modern corollary of plague – rapidly taking hold of Oxford. When I first read the book I thought it was a much more recent publication than it actually is (1992) because of the way it imagines a population dealing with disease; it feels exactly like a book written post-swine flu. At any rate, it’s fascinating because although the disease is taking over the city, Willis is most interested in a couple of individuals and how they go about trying to ignore the disease and carry on with life – and, particularly, trying to figure out what has happened to Kivrin 700 years in the past. I enjoyed Dunworthy, and sympathised with his attempts at dealing with bureaucracy, and his concern for his student – although quite why he was just so concerned was unclear, and in fact a couple of times it made me a leedle uncomfortable, because it almost skirted the bounds of propriety. (Maybe that’s just me….)
The other reason I liked the near-future sections was for their utterly normal feel. The futuristic elements were quite muted: “the net”, whereby Kivrin was sent back in time (and others, too – it’s regarded as nearly normal); some aspects of government, such as the quarantine measures; and a few medical things that hardly warrant much attention. But it would be easy enough to ignore those, and read it as set in our contemporary world. It’s very believable and enjoyable.
Of the medieval sections I was, as mentioned above, more suspicious. I was beyond annoyed, by the way, with my copy of the book, which says on the front “Kivrin wanted to study the Black Death, not live it…” because actually NO, she was not interested in the Black Death, and by the way SPOILER!! since she only realises that she’s in the 1340s – twenty-odd years off the time she was expecting – MORE THAN HALFWAY THROUGH. Gah.
Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised with the medieval village Willis created. She didn’t try to do too much: staying in one village, with a fairly small number of people, and not really getting into the politics or anything was sensible on many levels, not least of which was allowing the reader to get to know and care about a smaller number of characters. I liked that Kivrin’s interpreting software didn’t work perfectly and that there were many surprises, large and small, about the realities of medieval life – things that historians do squabble about. Kivrin as a character didn’t really do much for me; she was likeable, and I sympathised when things went badly, but I didn’t ever entirely identify with her. Of the others, the only one for whom I felt much sympathy was the priest, Roche. The others were not developed enough for me to desperately want to understand. Perhaps the most telling part of my reading experience was that when the book flicked to the 21st century, I wasn’t that impatient to return to the 14th.
Tansy warned me that I would cry because of this book (actually, she told me to buy a box of tissues). I understand why she said this. However, I did not cry. There are probably a few reasons for this. The first might be that I was warned; the second may be that I am cold-hearted, as several people suggested! But third, and perhaps most to the point: I am a medieval historian. I know the reality of the Black Death. Nothing that happened to Kivrin, nothing that she experienced, was a revelation to me; there was no surprise in any of the events nor in people’s attitudes. I felt most sadness at some of the events in the near future. And fourth, I was also prevented from bawling because I read it too fast. I had to read it fast because I had to know what happened, but it meant that I didn’t form the emotional bond with the characters that I might have with a more leisurely read-through. Not that I’m regretting it; I thoroughly enjoyed the book and had enough of an emotional connection that I certainly regretted deaths and rejoiced at survivals. It’s also possible there’s a fifth reason that I didn’t cry: that Willis didn’t give me enough of the characters to make me want to cry. I think this is probably most true of the medieval characters; at least, they’re the ones I felt least attached to. I was closest to tears when I found that Dr Mary had died; that it happened while Dunworthy was unconscious, and that young nephew Colin has been so stoic through it all, was closest to being heart-breaking.
I think I understand why people rave about Willis. I have Blackout/All Clear on my to-read list, and it will definitely stay there… but it won’t get bumped up to must-read-or-will-cry level.