George Eliot – Felix Holt: The Radical

thFelix Holt has all the challenge of Middlemarch but very little of the enjoyment.  This was disappointing as I have always loved George Eliot; the Mill on the Floss is one of my favourite books.  Adam Bede and Silas Marner were also very readable but Felix Holt remains one of Eliot’s least known novels with good reason.

Set in context of the 1832 Reform Act, the extremely annoying Harold Transome has returned from abroad to take control of Transome Court.  To the surprise of the local landowners he intends to stand as a Radical in the forthcoming elections despite not being very radical at all .  Esther Lyon, the heroine, finds herself drawn to Felix Holt the serious, genuine, radical who unintentionally attracts her over by telling her how shallow she is and other such lines.

The novel is very slow, the politics is very long-winded and hard to understand even if you know about the 1832 Reform Act.   It  becomes mildly enjoyable towards end with more emphasis on Esther and Felix.  The problem with this book  is that Felix not developed character, he just seems stuck up and annoying.  Choose another George Eliot instead.


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So many books, so little time – is it possible to read for pleasure as a new parent part II

Apologies for the longest gap ever between posts on this blog.  So I seem to have  to a degree, answered my previous question regarding whether a new parent can read for pleasure.   The answer according to myself, is probably not in the first six months, and definitely not if you are studying for a Masters at the same time.  I have actually been reading some books over this last year (32 to be exact according to my goodreads account) but I lost that urge to blog.  My solution to this problem is now to do some more detailed reviews about the books that I feel strongly about and to sum up the others in one or two sentences.  This is obviously not a brilliant solution but at least my brief reviews will save you lots of time.

If you are one of those people like myself, who no longer has time to waste time reading average books my recommendation for the year is The Good Children by Roopa Farooki, the best book I have read in a really long time.

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Novel Notion: Reflections on History and Fiction

Not having much time to do much reading of historical fiction at the moment due to writing my dissertation, although I have read a lot of histories of Mary Tudor and books on history and film,  I have actually just read Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. Unlike Wolf Hall, I really enjoyed this, although there are some valid questions about how much actual ‘history’ is in the novel, considering we know little personal information about Cromwell. Anyway, the last paragraph of this concerning historical fiction being terrifying to academic historians is exactly the kind of comment I have been reading when it comes to researching historical film. Am yet to decide how far I agree with it, but an interesting point, I completely disagree about the Interpretaion of Murder though, I hated it!

The Dustbin of History

The historical novel is one of the most significant literary trends of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. I am an avid reader of historical fiction, particularly those set usually in Victorian British or American contexts, which revolve around a mysterious murder. History as a source of literature has been around as long history has; one needs only to remember that Homer’s Iliad, as well as being literary, is historical; or think of Shakespeare’s great historical plays from Julius Caesar to Henry V. In the case of a historian like Edward Gibbon, writing before the novel as a form had really taken hold, to write history was to entertain as well as enlighten.

gregorys other boleynThe historical novel is a rather new phenomenon; its proliferation is driven largely by the success of female authors like Philippa Gregory,  who has been writing historical novels since the late 1980s, but more particularly…

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So many books, so little time – is it possible to read for pleasure as a new parent?

Alicante-82I remember as a child my mum falling asleep on the sofa whilst trying to read a book and wondering how anyone could not be subsumed in a novel or fail to finish it.  Anyone who has been following my blog may have noticed that I there was a huge empty gap from June to September, this has been due to the arrival of my brilliant baby daughter in June.  I was definitely not prepared for how much disruption a baby causes to your ability to think, let alone read.  Combined with studying for my Masters in History I had been wondering if reading for pleasure was a thing of the past.

During the holiday I started and failed to finish Ahdaf  Soueif’s The Book of Love and Isabel Allende’s Island beneath the Sea.  The problem was that when anything came up involving tragic storylines with babies I could not carry on reading.  The good news is that now that she is a bit older, life is becoming a bit more manageable. I have finally managed to actually read something that isn’t a crime novel and I have  finished  John Guy’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, My Heart is my Own.

Still, I am wondering how it is possible to combine all my different roles and  if anyone else in my position has found  a solution to this.  A friend mentioned how he knew someone who started blogging about children’s books, but I am not sure I am ready to go down that route, especially as there isn’t much to say about  VR’s books being as they are normally about eight pages long and consist of pictures of animals.  I can see that my blog is definitely going to become even more history orientated than it is already as I carry on my research for the Masters – if I can manage to stay awake long enough.


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Mary, Queen of Scots – Tragic or stupid? John Guy – My Heart is my Own


I have always been fascinated by the figure of Mary, Queen of Scots, so much so, that I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on her.  At the time I was very much influenced by Jenny Wormald’s A study in Failure which led me to be very critical of Mary and to view her as a bit of an idiot (obviously I wrote this conclusion up in more academic language).  John Guy’s Tudor England was my bible during my degree, so I was interested to read this biography of Mary.

Mary is a fascinating character for historians;  she has been alternatively viewed as a Catholic martyr, who was  an innocent pawn in the hands of alternatively, the French, the Scottish and  the English,  or a foolish, evil adulteress who murdered her husband.

This book has led me to completely revise my opinion of Mary, this could be because I am susceptible to whatever opinion I read.  Guy has gone back to the archives to re-assess the character and actions of Mary and has discovered important documents that he believes discredit the Casket Letters and acquit Mary of the murder of her husband Darnley, and show the complicity of the Scottish Lords in discrediting  Mary, by forging the evidence.  In this book Mary does appear to be  tragic  but instead of this being due to her own stupidity, Guy argues that it was partly due to naïvety, but also a political situation in Scotland that made her reign doomed from the start.  Mary’s policy of pragmatic acceptance of Protestantism and her attempts to balance the factions of the Scottish nobles, ultimately failed.

Mary Stuart, Queen Maria I. of Scotland, and h...

A fictitious portrait of Mary Stuart,and her son James,later King James I of England, 1583. Mary last saw her son when he was nine months old.

I had always loved William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister, but in this book he is presented as Mary’s nemesis, and  s intent on Mary’s destruction  from as early as 1559 when Mary was declared Queen of England by the French.  Elizabeth comes across as petty and vindictive; Mary made many overtures to Elizabeth,  Guy claims that Elizabeth’s vanity meant she refused to meet with Mary,  fearing that Mary would would possibly outmaneuver her due to her superior intelligence and beauty.   Guy argues that the evidence against Mary was so obviously contradictory and  fake, but Cecil ignored this as he was intent on her execution.  Elizabeth’s vacillation about Mary’s execution was due less to their kinship than fears over the precedent it would set if Parliament was given the authority to execute an anointed monarch ( and this certainly was a problem for Charles I, just over sixty years later).  In fact Elizabeth favoured a discreet assassination of Mary.

Mary is portrayed as loyal and likeable, but it cannot be denied that some of her choices were catastrophic such as marrying Bothwell who was certainly involved in the murder of Darnley and the decision to flee to England (although it is difficult to see what else she could have done).

English: Tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots in Westm...

Tomb of Mary, Queen of Scots in Westminster Abbey, London, commissioned by James, no doubt feeling a bit guilty so he made her tomb bigger than Elizabeth’s.

It is easy to understand why she became involved in plotting against Elizabeth, as she had been in captivity for eighteen years and was becoming increasingly isolated and desperate,  betrayed even by her own son. Guy skips the gory account of her execution (the number of times it took the executioner to behead her, her head falling on the floor due to wearing a wig, the dog under her dress, etc.), which I was extremely glad about as by this time I had become extremely sympathetic to Mary.   Guy simply describes it as Mary taking her last walk to “her most compelling act of theatre” that settled her place as “a truly tragic heroine”.  Every British ruler since James I has been descended from Mary not Elizabeth, so her motto of “In my end is my beginning” seems highly apt.


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What was the Long 18th Century anyway?


Politicians kissing the Prime Minister Walpole’s bottom

Certain periods of history are extremely popular and much-studied, such as the Tudors or Nazi Germany.  As part of my masters course I had to teach myself about  a period of history that I was less familiar with, so I chose political history during the period known as the long 18th century.  You may (or may not) be wondering why it is called the long 18th century, now the traditional explanation is that it a more homogeneous historical period than the simple use of the standard century definition.  Historians expand the century, typically running from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 to the battle of Waterloo in 1815.  My own theory however as to why it is the Long 18th Century  is that maybe it is because it  seems extremely tedious when studying it.   This is a seriously complicated topic which might explain why nobody learns much about it at school anymore, but after lots of headaches I have found the best books on this topic.

gorman 18My recommendation is Frank O’Gorman’s  The Long 18th Century and  Paul Langford’s The 18th century, as many other books on the topic are seriously dated.  O’Gorman is very readable, whereas Langford is short!  Despite the extremely complex political history I have enjoyed learning more on facts on the Glorious Revolution, the Jacobites, Walpole, Pitt and Fox.

 To really enjoy studying this period is to study the political cartoons of this period, especially the extremely clever cartoons of James Gillray about whom a fellow student and I wrote an article for  the Historical Association’s Cunning Plan.  For social satire on the period  Hogarth’s cartoons are also excellent.  So start with these and it might get you inspired.

Gillray's interpretation of the supporters of the French Revolution, the asns-culottes

Gillray’s interpretation of the supporters of the French Revolution, the sans-culottes


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The New Spaniards – John Hooper

spanIf anyone out there is interested in Spanish history and culture or enjoyed Giles Tremlett’s  The Ghosts of Spain,  this is a good choice.  Hooper, like Tremlett was a Guardian correspondent in Spain.  This book is meticulously researched and covers all aspects of Spanish life from  society,  such as education, crime, bull fighting, and  women, as well as the politics of the country detailing the transition from dictatorship to democracy, nationalist movements, and the role of the royal family.

It is full of interesting little facts about the country.  It is clear how traditional areas of the country still are,  such as the town of Pardamaza  that had no electricity until 1996 despite the fact it is only  20 miles from a motorway.  Also, the so-called French, Coquilles Saint-Jacques is actually originally Spanish, it is a  traditional food in Santiago de Compostella, where the scallop shell is  the traditional symbol of the pilgrims on their way to visit the shrine of St James.  I  had one while I was there and it was delicious.

If I was Hooper I might have been a bit upset about Tremlett writing the Ghosts of Spain, as it is a very similar type of book, but I noticed that Tremlett gets an acknowledgment, so I suspect they are mates.  It is a shame that this updated edition of the book was written before the financial crisis as obviously this means it is dated.   This edition was written during the economic boom so is  presents a much more positive view of the Spanish economy than  proved to be the case.

My only criticism would be that it seems rather long and a little repetitive. I read the first part super-speedily but started to find the second half a bit ‘samey’ so  I would recommend not trying to read all this in a short space of time and reading maybe a few chapters a week.   This however, is a really informative and illuminating read about Spain and recommended for anyone who wants to know more about this fantastic country.

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