The Sunday Review: Getting Up to Speed on the Tudor Court

After Friday’s Travel Diary post, I’ve had several requests for the quintessential book about the Tudor Court. Clearly, I cannot name just one. Impossible. I can, however, give you a glimpse into a reader’s history and how I developed a passion for Anne Boleyn’s story.

Yes, that’s me inserted into the Queen Elizabeth I painting. My son gave me this for my birthday last year!

I came into my obsession through a couple of different avenues, but we’ll start with my childhood reading. As a precocious reader, my parents let me run amok in my hometown library, and I devoured everything I could find about the Tudor Court. I was fascinated with how a man, even if he was a king, could somehow get away with having six wives and killing two of them — remember the old saying, Divorced Beheaded Died Divorced Beheaded Lived? I was entranced with how Elizabeth I got to the throne and at some point, I figured out why the current Queen of England was Elizabeth II. I was hooked.

When I began to teach American history, I realized that my students had no idea why the early English colonists left to start over in what they called the New World. The idea of religious freedom had little meaning if not compared to the religious situation the colonists left. Teaching my students about settlements in what we now call the United States made me want to know more at an adult level about the English Civil Wars and the Reformation in Europe.

Click into this family tree for more resources on the War of the Roses between the Lancasters and the Yorks and how a Tudor got to be king!

Learning about how the Tudors got to the throne made me finally realize why Henry VIII was willing to do just about anything to get a legitimate male heir. After all that his ancestors went through to get that throne, he was pretty determined to keep it — and why Elizabeth I was just as determined to not let marriage undermine her authority.

Click into this family tree to find out even more information about what happened to the Tudor line.

Enter current historical fiction and its magic. Most historical fiction being produced today is well-researched and written by fine writers who do a great job of creating compelling stories that are reasonably accurate. There are myriad resources available to the HF writer today; primary sources are collected and shared in great libraries and on the internet. The body of “domestic” documents (diaries, recipe books, household accounts written by women) that have been collected give the authors a much better view into their characters’ lives and it shows in the books they write. I read historical fiction with my internet browser at the ready so that I can either verify or expand on the material presented. It’s a good time to be a writer of historical fiction and an even better time to be a reader. There truly is magic in these books for the adventurous reader.

So what do I recommend? Let’s start with three female writers who are well-known for their work in historical fiction about this time period. I’ve read “quite a bit” of their work . 🙂

Phillipa Gregory is a well-regarded historian and author who has written many novels about the York/Lancaster/Tudor saga and her books are probably the most accessible of the three authors I have chosen for this post.  Her web site has a nice feature with her books set against a historical timeline. Personally, if I were starting my reading today, I would follow her timeline and start with The White Queen, the story of Elizabeth Woodville. This book helps set the stage for the rivalries to follow. Next is  The Kingmaker’s Daughters, which is followed by her newest and unreleased book about Elizabeth of York, who married Henry VII, thus starting the Tudor line. The Constant Princess depicts a fictionalized version of the life of Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife. The Other Boleyn Girl is loosely based on the life of Mary Boleyn, Anne’s sister, who was Henry VIII’s mistress and that relationship was one of the reasons used to declare the marriage between Anne and Henry null and void. The Other Boleyn Girl was also made into a movie starring Scarlett Johanssen. The Boleyn Inheritance covers the time period of Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, with Jane Boleyn finally getting consequences for her actions. The Queen’s Fool takes the reader into the problem of Mary Tudor, the forgotten heir to the Tudor throne. The Virgin’s Lover features Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley, and finally, The Other Queen is the story of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Hilary Mantel is the author of two highly-acclaimed novels about the Tudor Court, written from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have won the Man Booker Prize in England and are extraordinary extensions for people who already know something about Henry VIII and the political shenanigans that went on during his reign. The third book in the Cromwell trilogy is due to be published in 2015. I loved both of these books and am eagerly awaiting the third of the set.

Last but certainly not least is Alison Weir, also a renowned historian and novelist. She has written so many books about this period that I have just linked up the Alison Weir book list on for you to look at. In checking out her online personna, I discovered that she actually leads British history tours. I AM INTRIGUED.

Although none of these ladies wrote a book about Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr, there are a number of authors that have. I read one of them and was not impressed, but just in case, here’s a link that gives you some options.

More than you wanted to know? I hope not. After all, writers are readers and readers make better writers. I hope you will read some of these books and let me know how you liked them. Want to recommend something else? Go for it — I’m always ready for something new in this genre, and thanks for spending time with my great obsession today!

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The Sunday Review: I Want to Dance with the Man Who Danced with the Girl Who Danced with the Prince of Wales

Somehow I just can’t get enough of “the 20th century’s greatest love story,” which is apparently what Madonna called the romance of the man who was on his way to being king and his American girlfriend.

You probably already know the story about how the future king of England fell in love with the already-divorced-American who was still married to her second husband. Despite which film-maker’s version of the story you accept, it’s fact that Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David Windsor became Edward VIII with the death of his father and eleven months later abdicated his throne in order to be able to marry Wallis Simpson. His brother Bertie became George VI and was the father of Britain’s current monarch, Elizabeth II.

I was excited when Netflix finally had Madonna’s film, W/E, available for streaming. I missed it in the theater (perhaps because it was here and gone in a box-office failure flash), but really wanted to see it. Madonna chose to tell Wallis and Edward’s romance as a story-in-a-story with a modern-day heroine providing opportunity for flashbacks to a companion story about the Windsors. It was only somewhat successful, as reviewed here and here, but I loved the costume drama elements and it piqued my appetite for more about Wally and David.

When the Netflix gods found out I was interested in Wallis and David’s story, they started sending me suggested movies as companion pieces to W/E, and from there comes today’s Sunday Review post. I got hooked on watching a seven-part imagination of the lives of Wallis, David, and the people around them. Whoever wrote these scripts wasn’t quite as sure about “the 20th century’s greatest love story.”

As this article from The Guardian states,

If you want a less sugar-coated take on it all, try Edward and Mrs Simpson, the classic Thames TV series from 1978. The seven-parter offers a fascinating look at an extraordinary chapter in British history. Even if we do know how it all ended, it still makes for compelling drama. Love? Barely mentioned. Ambition, duty, jealousy, selfishness? Got them in droves.

Once I started watching the hour-long segments, I couldn’t stop, and they increased my understanding of a situation that I knew only as a person fascinated with human behavior and its historical impact.  Armed with my greater knowledge, I fully intend to watch W/E again,  and last night I watched The King’s Speech (also available on Netflix) again.

In The King’s Speech, we see Colin Firth’s take on Bertie and the struggle to become king (while having a speech impediment) in the wake of his brother’s romantic tidal wave. Firth won a Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of George VI.

And then there’s Hyde Park on Hudson, the newest entry into the Bertie-on-film category. This film brings George VI and Queen Elizabeth to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Hyde Park in New York state, where the two discuss the United States’s possible support of Britain in World War II. (That’s a simplified version of the issue, but you get the point.) The story’s not really about Bertie, but is written cleverly and is reminiscent of Downton Abbey and the social clashes between American and British ways in the early 20th century. Although not well-reviewed, I fully enjoyed it and so did my viewing partners. This photo is the only one I could find that showed the main cast, because the film is a tour-de-force for Bill Murray as Roosevelt, although he was denied an Oscar nomination AGAIN.

If you are intrigued by this story, I encourage you to put these movies in your instant queue and settle down for a historical love fest. And, if you’re desperate for even more, here are IMDb’s lists of portrayals of Edward VIII and George VI in film versions. Ahhhh… Thank goodness I’m retired.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to revel in the charms of Maggie Smith and the rest of the rascals at Downton Abbey. Just in case you were wondering, it wasn’t just in English country homes where dinner jackets were considered to be inappropriate for a formal evening. You’ll find the bit about the wearing of a dinner jacket over tails to be part of the wry humor of Hyde Park on Hudson, too.

P.S. The theme song for Edward and Mrs. Simpson is a popular tune from 1927 and you will not be able to get it out of your head. I’m just warning you.


Book Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Historical fiction or historical romance? Which is it?

Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel is set in Tudor England, with Sir Thomas More at its center. The story line, which has a number of subplots, is based on Hans Holbein‘s visit to the Chelsea home of More and his family to paint a family portrait. The author, Vanora Bennett, has used Holbein’s 1527 portrait as a jumping off point for her intriguing tale of religious wars, political intrigue, and family secrets.

The narrator of Portrait of an Unknown Woman: A Novel is Meg Giggs, the real-life adopted daughter of Thomas More. She is a typical 21st century heroine, and is smart, well-read, and well-loved despite her behavior which is out of synch with her times. Still, the reader is engaged and cheerfully fights her battles along with her. In the portrait, Meg is the woman on the left — the “plain Jane” of this Renaissance family. As a historical romance, this book has lots of disclosures about the love lives of its characters that are likely to keep you guessing.

As historical fiction, Bennett has deftly woven together the intersecting lives of a number of famous names in Renaissance history, including Martin Luther, Erasmus, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, and of course Thomas More’s family and their relationships with Hans Holbein and Henry VIII. Her attention to historical and court detail is beautifully researched, even if the facts are sometimes well- embroidered. She also has a clear understanding of Holbein’s painting techniques and the subtle details about his artistic messages are very interesting and made me want to study these works of art again.

It’s definitely historical fiction if you are a member of the Richard III Society. I’m not going to go any farther than that; those who love reading about this time period and the fate of the Plantagenet princes will either love or hate this book.

This is a book for the Tudor historical fiction lovers among you, and it’s important that you know who the players are in this sadly tangled web of lust in all of its incarnations.  It starts a little slowly, and if you are not familiar with the painting, I suggest doing a little research about Holbein before you begin. Also, part of the poignancy of the book is that it is assumed that the reader knows what is going to happen to Sir Thomas More before you start and the dramatic irony is important to the telling of More’s story.

All in all, Portrait of an Unknown Woman is a good book for a lovely day on the couch or on audiobook in your car, as I did. Have fun with this one; I promise it will get your brain working!

This post contains Amazon Affiliate links, but I wouldn’t tell you to buy or read something if I didn’t believe in it. I’m just keeping it real.

The Irony of the Lady at the Piano

Readers, beware! This post is one of those where I can’t help but teach some art and architecture history. If you really hate that stuff, just look at the pictures. I’ll understand and won’t fault you for it.

My conversation with my mother and my niece about the Impressionist copies that I grew up with prompted me to find out if the original of Lady at the Piano (1875) by Pierre Auguste Renoir was  in the MusĂ©e d’Orsay where I could visit it this summer.

I have been wanting to visit the MusĂ©e d’Orsay for at least twelve years, ever since my daughter came back from her Grandtravel trip to Paris and couldn’t stop talking about the museum’s glories.

It’s such a romantic old-world story. The museum sits in the center of Paris on the banks of the Seine, opposite the Tuileries Gardens, and was the site of royal promenades, a boat dock, cavalry barracks and the Palais d’Orsay, a government building that was burned down during the Paris Commune in 1871, along with the entire neighborhood. For thirty years, the ruins of the Palais d’Orsay served as reminders of the horrors of civil war.

The French government gave the land to the railroad company, and the Gare d’Orsay train station and a hotel were built on the site for the Universal Exposition of 1900. Designed in the Art Nouveau style, the Exposition celebrated the achievements of the past century and encouraged new development for the future. The Second Olympic Games were part of the Exposition, and both the Exposition and the Olympics were revolutionary in their inclusion of African American (ExposĂ© nègre) contributions as well as being the first time female athletes participated in the Olympics.

Following the Exposition, the train station became unusable because its platforms were too short and it served a number of other functions. By 1975, the building was threatened with demolition, but it was given landmark designation and a new museum was to be installed in the train station, in which all of the arts from the second half of the 19th century would be represented. As a prime example of Art Nouveau architecture, the building itself could be seen as the first “work of art” in the Musee d’Orsay, which now displays collections of art from the period 1848 to 1914, including an impressive group of Impressionists. Ironically, it took many years for the now iconic Impressionists and Realists to be exhibited in state-sponsored museums. When the museum opened to the public in 1986, a carefully organized acquisitional plan had allowed the museum to gather art from other museums where it had been housed and to also buy and display art from private collectors. In its short history, the museum has been visited by well over 65 million art lovers.

And it doesn’t house the painting I was looking for.

So where is my lady at the piano? She’s right here in Chicago, at the Art Institute, and I don’t have to fly across the Atlantic Ocean to visit her. Isn’t it ironic?

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