Thursday, August 30, 2012

The King's Concubine

Anne O'Brien is the author of The King's Concubine A Novel of Alice Perrers. 
Summary of book:
Alice Perrers was born in the year of 1345 when plague was rampant in England.  Not much was known of her actual beginnings or parentage, but in the book she lives in a convent St Mary's.  She was constantly reminded how lucky she was to have been taken in when she had no parents to speak of.  While there, she came into contact with the beautiful widowed Countess Joan.  Alice found an opportunity and took the chance at helping serve as tiring maid for the Countess while there at the abbey.  She found her quite fascinating how she bathed and spoke, even though she did seem cruel.  When she left, Alice dared to ask her to take her with her and the Countess just smirked.  Some time later another royal visitor came to the abbey.  The Queen of England!  Queen Phillipa came with her daughter Isabella and looked quite ill.  She was suffering from dropsy, swelling of the body.  The Queen almost tripped when walking down the aisle and Alice took the opportunity to help her when no one else did.  She was rewarded with a rosary but could not accept it because of her vow of poverty.  The Queen took notice of her and asked for her as well to help her. 

Alice came to know the kindly Queen and her not as kind daughter Isabella.  Alice had become aware at this point through the Countess Joan's help that she was not beautiful.  She was quite plain and the princess noted it.  This seems to be the time that Alice's ambitions started growing and she wanted out of the convent.  Once the Queen left, Alice was sad and once again felt enclosed.  But there was another surprise in store for her- a local pawnbroker had paid the abbess for her services.  So Alice joined the household of Janyn Perrers at the age of 15 and helped around the house, but soon he asked for her hand in marriage.  Since he was so old she was more there to keep his hounding sister from pushing him towards a more advantageous marriage.  Janyn was kindly to her and taught her numbers and accounting.  He was soon struck down with the plague and she tended him to his dying day.  Left with nothing because of his evil sister, she was soon with no choice but to return to the convent.  Greseley approached her, he had worked for Janyn as well.  He helped Alice buy some property with her wedding money and from that day forth became her broker and agent.  Now not totally without anything, she returned to the convent again to await a better opportunity.  A courier named Wykeham came to her at the convent with a rosary from the Queen and said her services had been asked for.  Alice gladly went with him to the palace Havering-atte-Bower. 

Her beginnings at court were not easy- the princess Isabella contrived to have her work in the kitchens instead of where she was supposed to, with the Queen.  Weeks later and some of the kitchen workers discovered she had a rosary of the Queen's on her.  They accused her of stealing even when she told them the story, and she was brought before Wykeham and the princess.  Fortunately, the King and Queen were nearby and the Queen saved her.  She promptly brought her into her services as one of her damsels.  The princess did not agree but there Alice was- her own bed, freshly washed with new clothes of her own.  The Queen was very kind to her and took her under her wing.  Soon the Queen disclosed to Alice her real reason for bringing her to Court- she was ailing and needed a companion for the King.  She was no longer able to be touched without extreme pain and would rather have him a lover of her own choosing than some other ambitious or conniving woman.  Alice was shocked at the suggestion and the obvious pain it caused the Queen.  Alice could not deny the Queen and so did what she asked.  The King had noticed her through the court events and hunts and her sharp tongue.  Although not beautiful, he grew to like her sound advice and wisdom.  They became lovers in secret long before the court knew.  Wykeham, her first friend at court, was quite angry with her for betraying the Queen like that.  He was a priest and builder for the King.  Poor Alice had to keep it a secret that the Queen desired this of her, and so many thought ill of her.

At age 17 Alice was the mistress of the King, and was for over 13 years.  She bore him four children- two boys and two girls.  Upon the death of Queen Phillipa she became recognized as the King's Concubine.  She was able to travel back and forth to her children and buy more manors.  Many she bought with her own money, but some with the crown's that she paid back.  Alice understood all along that while she was his mistress she should take full advantage, even if it made her look worse, and secure means for her future and her children's security.  She was well aware of the enemies all around her, especially once the Queen died, and knew that once the King passed as well she would be left to the wolves.  One of the King's sons John of Gaunt was somewhat of an ally at some point because he needed her help when the King was desolate over the Queen's death.  Alice was the only one able to bring him back.  Alice also met a diplomat William Windsor that helped the King and his son in Ireland.  They became unlikely friends and he warned her to be careful.  The King slowly and painfully declined over eight years after his wife's death, and Alice prepared herself.  She married Will Windsor for protection and because he proposed to her.  When the court found out they issued a warrant for her banishment.  The King was too out of it to protect or defend her and so she left court.  Awhile later John of Gaunt sent a letter stating she could come back.  So many twists and turns at the end- her enemies conspiring against her for fraud, treason, even witchcraft.  When the King died she was barely able to be at his bedside and was not allowed to his funeral.  The Countess Joan of course ordered her to leave, as her son Richard II was heir to the throne.

Through stripping of her lands and manors, properties and belongings she was almost left with nothing.  Through Windsor's cunning and smarts he was able, as Alice's husband, to get most of her properties back and the order of banishment once again lifted.  He told John of Gaunt he would serve them in Ireland if they did this.  Alice at one point owned over 50 manors or properties, which would have made her an earl if she were a man.  She lived out the rest of her days in the country at Upminster with her husband and daughters.

My Thoughts:
I loved this book, it was thoroughly engrossing from the beginning to end.  The writing was smooth and so easy to read.  I wasn't stuck in facts and details but rather the characters.  I admire Alice Perrers for all that she went through and her rise.  While many tried to bring her down, in the end they couldn't.  I am glad she had Windsor there to support and marry her and protect her.  I admire her courage, her pluck and ambition.  Many hated her for having the king's ear, and even the Queen's jewels after her death.  She was there to care for the King, not just as a lover but his nurse.  She protected him and cared for him and ordered the household. She bore him four children, the eldest which was knighted.  Alice was obviously a smart businesswoman and very patient.  There is no record how she came to the attention of the Queen, and the novelist did a beautiful job of filling in the gaps.  I am sure it was hard for Alice in many ways, with no female companionship, basically alone at court and mocked and ridiculed for her actions.  Ambition was mistaken for greed and her duty to the Queen was taken for a whore.  I am sure to see the King, her lover, so in love with his wife was hard also.  Queen Phillipa always came first in the King's mind.  I would highly recommend this book, it was absolutely a wonderful read.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Second Empress A Novel of Napoleon's Court

Michelle Moran's fifth published novel was about the second wife of Emperor Napoleon.  Following the deaths of Marie Antoinette and the bloody revolution comes Napoleon, a young general from Corsica.  He puts aside his first wife Josephine, also known as Rose de Beauharnais, who has been unfaithful to him and not provided an heir.  He requests for the hand of 18 year old Marie-Lucia, daughter of the king of Austria and great niece to Marie Antoinette.  Marie knows she really doesn't have a choice- to deny him would be to plunge their countries into civil war.  He is known to be short, demanding of his wives by changing their names and requesting their specific items of clothing.  Not at all excited at the prospect of being empress with Napoleon, she leaves behind her lover Adam and her beloved father and stepmother and embarks on the journey.  She meets his sister Caroline along the way, and they all meet at Fontainebleau Palace.  She is forced to leave behind her puppy Sigi (seems reminiscent of Marie Antoinette having to leave behind her puppy too when she wed the dauphin).

Immediately you are plunged into meeting this horrific, little ambitious man.  Napoleon is cruel and demanding of her and changes her name to Marie-Louise.  She meets the equally horrid second sister Pauline and her man servant Paul, a Haitian man she took to France with her.  Through the perspectives of these three people you get the choppy and short version of events.  Napoleon marched in with 40,000 soldiers into Egypt about 11 years prior to take control of the Indian Empire.  He wanted to be another Alexander the Great and wanted it all for glory.  He cared not for deaths or money but just simply the glory.  The Hapsburg-Lorraines had ruled for almost 800 years and here came along Napoleon and his Bonaparte family with his ambitions.  His sister Pauline is the Princess of Borghese, her second husband gave her the name, and she is obsessed with all things Egypt.  She has more lovers than she can remember and cares nothing for slavery or anything besides her own complexion.  When Napoleon marries Marie-Louise and puts aside Josephine, Pauline is not at all happy.  When you read her point of view she wishes to be like the old rulers of Egypt and rule beside her brother.  It was said they were incestuous together and their love as siblings was abnormal.  She suffers throughout the book with a venereal disease from all her escapades.

You will also read from the point of view of Paul Moreau, Pauline's servant and good friend.  He has a complicated relationship with Pauline- they met in Haiti and he followed her to France.  Never a lover but a companion and friend, he serves her faithfully amidst her cruelty to others.  Marie-Louise does not seem a strong character to me and just talks about her son who she has named Franz.  She has accomplished in one year what the first empress Josephine has not.  Scattered throughout the book are also letters from Napoleon and Josephine, his first wife.  He obviously still had feelings for her and loved her very much.  The Napoleonic wars involving every major European power took place.  He soon had a dominant position in central Europe.  With the invasion of Russia hundreds of thousands died and so much money was spent in waste.  Instead of spending money for good he used it for his wars.  The following year the Coalition invaded France and forced Napoleon in exile to the island of Elba.  With the help of Pauline his sister, who sold much of her jewels and collections for his return, helped him escape and return to power.  But he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo and was sent to Saint Helena with his mother and sister. Six years later he died of stomach cancer.  His sister Pauline also died of stomach cancer.

Napoleon was a military genius, taking a country devastated by war and built an empire.  He was known for the Napoleonic code which dealt with the civil system.  But he was known for being harsh to women and not respectful.  Marie-Louise is able to escape with her son during his adbidcation and returns to her home of Austria and her lover Adam.  Upon the death of Napoleon they wed and had children together.  Paul Moreau returned to Haiti, finally abandoning Pauline to her selfishness.  I personally did not like this book for a few reasons.  I did not like the characters- Napoleon because of his bloodthirsty ambition and cruelty to women, Pauline for her selfishness and treatment of people and her relationship with her brother, and Marie-Louise because she seemed weak.  I think I liked Michelle Moran's other books better because the women seemed in control, powerful and memorable.  It seemed a little short; the three different view points were hard to switch between, and the random love letters from Napoleon to Josephine seemed to disrupt the dialogue.  Also I am curious why the two Marie's (the empress and her stepmother) are on the front cover when Napoleon and his sister Pauline were more key figures in this book.  Not my favorite so far, but it was still an entertaining read.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Queen's Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile

C.W. Gortner is a friend of mine on Facebook and I was pleased to make his acquaintance.  I have already reviewed The Last Queen and The Tudor Secret.  He also wrote The Confessions of Catherine de Medici which is also fabulous.  It has been a little bit since my last entry, I was re reading Madame Tussuad by Michelle Moran.  This book is a novel about Isabella of Castile; I was first familiar with her because of her daughter Catelina who married Arthur and then King Henry VIII.  Since I am quite familiar with The Tudor period I first heard of her and Fernando of Aragon.  My first impression of her was a warrior queen, which isn't far off. 

The book starts out with the death of her father, King John II of Castile.  Her mother, the Queen Isabella of Portugal, takes her two children Isabella and Alfonso with her to Arevalo.  They live there in seclusion and peace while their half brother Enrique is king.  They know one day their peace will be shattered and he will come for them.  Their mother has to be cared for as she is prone to despair and depression and often goes into a deep melancholy that only Isabella can get her out of.  Archbishop Carrillo of Toledo helped her mother escape with the children and has worked for them tirelessly.  Isabella's friend and lady in waiting Beatriz is with her all the time.  Soon a letter comes announcing the birth of a daughter to King Enrique and his wife Queen Juana.  They were invited without their mother to be at the babe's baptism.  While at court, Isabella quickly realizes how her whole world has changed.  She was used to just one woman waiting on her and the privacy and seclusion of her old home.  There she runs into Fernando from Aragon.  Both families shared Trastamara blood, but as enemies Castile and Aragon waged war against one another.  The hope was one day to put an Aragonese prince on Castile's throne.

Enrique is painfully obvious that he is not as good a king as his father was, and soon rumors are spread about that his sole child is illegitimate.  Soon Castile is involved in civil war between her brother Alfonso who has disappeared, and her half brother Enrique.  Isabella is watched closely while the war goes on.  Queen Juana is so hateful towards her believing she knew about this and was helping her brother.  Carrillo had gone with Alfonso, and Isabella had no doubt he put him up to this.  Forced to grow up fast, Isabella realizes during these times that she will have to take her destiny into her own hands.  Enrique is being poisoned by those around him and she worries for her brother's life should he be found and her own.  They try marrying her off to Queen Juana's brother King Afonso to get her out of the way and basically deserted.  Her father had put in his will that her marriage had to be approved by the Cortes before her marriage, and this is what saved her momentarily.  A proposed alliance between the heir Joanna and Alfonso fell apart, while Alfonso's supporters seized numerous provinces.  The King didn't have much left; the land was devastated and the people suffering.  Alfonso's army is spotted  and he is victorious.  They return to Arevalo to see their mother first before doing anything else.  On their way back to Segovia, Alfonso dies they believe from poisoning.

Isabella is now the heir to the throne.  She hides in a convent to process everything that is going on while the grandees wait to approach her.  She wishes for peace and desires for her half brother Enrique to still rule and would be content to be named his heir until his death.  Then she would be queen of Castile.  In the meantime she had been in correspondence with Fernando and set in motions their betrothal.  This way she could unite the two countries and claim her right to Castile.  It is not long before Enrique tries to betray her again and goes against his word.  Isabella is taken to Ocana where she is armed with 200 men to keep her from escaping.  She gave her word to Enrique that she wouldn't.  With the help of Beatriz, Carrillo among others she is able to escape to Valladolid.  While waiting for Fernando to come Isabella tried to keep her wits about her.  Their dispensation arrives from the pope just in time for them to wed as they are second cousins.  After giving birth to a daughter, Enrique disinherits her.  The people everywhere were in an uproar.  By 1472 more than half of Castile's fourteen major townships were in their grasp, thanks to Fernando; by now most the grandees were in support of Isabella and Fernando.  Isabel is four years old when she finally meets with Enrique again.

The king's lover had passed away and it looked like he wasn't faring too well himself.  Not long after their meeting he dies of a stomach pain.  Isabella still has to contend with the dead king's latest lover, who was also the son of Villena.  Joanna she will also have to contend with as well one day, the child still believed she was her father's true daughter.  Juana was put in a convent with another bastard child where she could no longer wreak her havoc.  Together Isabella and Fernando rule and are best known for helping the cause of Christopher Columbus.  Isabella was known for being deeply religious and believing she did the work of God.  As Christians, she tried to purge Spain of conversos that weren't true to the faith.  A converso is one that pretended obedience to Christianity when they really were Jews. The Spanish Inquisition came and many were killed.  She was also responsible for expelling the Jews unless they converted.  Her goal was to expel the infidels and bring Spain under one crown, one country and one faith.  They were at war for over 10 years and finally captured Granada.

Queen Isabella had five children- Isabel, much later her only son Juan, Joanna, then Maria and Catelina or Catherine.  In Castile she made her husband Fernando equal to her; they just recognized her as queen and him as consort.  It would haunt her husband after her death that he was not equal to his wife, if you read The Last Queen.  They were very much in love and together made a kind of Renaissance state.  She believed in education even of women; female scholars in Spain were allowed to teach.  When she came to the throne, which was not expected being the third child, it was impoverished and divided.  Some of her actions such as expelling the Jews she is widely criticized for having done so.  It is said she didn't attend a single burning of a heretic.  Being so religious no doubt led her to her actions, believing she was God's annointed and therefore owed him her very best.

As usual it is hard for me to review a book with so much depth and information.  I think the author did a good job but it almost seemed to fall short or end too quickly.  When I don't personally feel like I like the main character it can also be hard to get really into it.  I wasn't particularly drawn to this character because of her religious beliefs and how she persecuted so many because of it.  The book did show her trying to go back and forth so it makes you wonder if she made those decisions lightly or was persuaded to.  Her daughter 'Juana the Mad' can be read about in The Last Queen.  I recommend if you are a fan of the author and/or this time period.