Review: Lady's Maid

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

London 1844, and a shy young woman has arrived to take up a new position in the grandeur of No. 50, Wimpole Street. Subtly and compellingly, Lady's Maid gives voice to Elizabeth Wilson's untold story, her complex relationship with her mistress, Elizabeth Barrett, and her dramatic role in the most famous elopement in history. (from Amazon)

I have a long, long history with this book - going back to the early 2000s when I first spotted it, tried to read it and then set it down. Fast forward to 2011 - I'm in Istanbul for work and have had to stay longer than I expected (a tragedy, I know!) but in my pre-Kindle owning days this meant that I had already run through all of my reading material. 

I stopped in one of the few English-language bookstores off of Istiklal Cadessi (one of the main streets and just recently the site of some major protests). A very kind bookseller who spoke almost no English happily showed me around his store and I ended up picking out this title. It's possible that I was distracted by Istanbul and things certainly didn't improve when I continued on from there for my first visit to London. I dragged this book around with me everywhere and could not get past the first 150 or so pages. You would think that a trip to London would have encouraged me to finish this story of two famous English poets set in 19th century London. No luck! The book got set down again. 

Recently, I read Forster's other novel Diary of an Ordinary Woman and absolutely loved it. I decided to give Lady's Maid one more chance but yet again got stuck at around the 150 page mark. I mention these struggles because I think it's important for potential readers to know. This is a novel historical fiction fans should seek out, this is a novel you will love but you have to approach it with different expectations than those raised by the cover blurb. 

Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning are almost incidental to the plot - which is a strange thing to say since the arc of the book is about Wilson, Barrett's lady's maid, and her love/hate relationship with her mistress and her eventual struggle to live her own life. But anyone looking for a detailed fictional account of Barrett and Browning's romance will be sorely disappointed. Forster stays firmly in Wilson's point of view and that means that she really doesn't know a great deal about their romance. She is an outsider and the novel is concerned with what it means to live on the periphery of greatness, to live a small life attending to mundane routines so that the poets can live big, selfish, grand lives. 

This all might be boring in the hands of a less skilled writer but Forster knows how to subtly weave in questions about class and womens' rights that remain true to the times while always remaining focused on character development. Like Diary, Forster does a beautiful job of weaving in letters and using a character's own words to tell a story. This reliance on letters gave a wonderful sense of the time and place and how people communicated with each other. No one writes the passage of time and the accumulation of small events and decisions better than Forster. You feel as though you've lived the events of the novel along with Wilson. 

So after taking a month to read the first 150 pages, I read the final 350+ pages in one day. If you have the time, I think this novel benefits from one extended read. I felt immersed in Wilson's world, angry with her when she made silly, self-interested decisions and then appreciated her growth in wisdom and maturity during the heartbreaking conclusion. After some stops and starts, I've discovered yet another great novel from Margaret Forster and am glad that I finally gave Lady's Maid the attention it deserved. 

Time, travel and little red books......

Tuesday, August 20, 2013


Since I love both travel and history, I suppose it was inevitable that I would become interested in collecting Baedeker Guidebooks.

Compact and of sturdy construction, packed with exquisite maps and pages full of tiny typeface, Baedekers were the Lonely Planet of the 19th century. But they meant much more to the first generations who traveled for leisure and who didn't have the instantaneous access to information of our day. They're also treasure troves of historical detail. I have always wanted to own an original Baedeker but they are quite the collectors' item and can be very expensive in their 19th and early 20th century editions. You can learn more about them here.

Fortunately, I received a a sizable gift certificate to a high-end DC antiquarian bookshop for my birthday. I'm glad I waited and saved my gift certificate for almost a month. After years of scouting out $2 trade paperbacks, I've found it hard to readjust my mindset and look at older books for much more substantial prices.

I walked in after work today and happened to remember that this bookshop sometimes stocks old travel books. There they were - four little red volumes for Great Britain, Paris and its Environs, Italy and Switzerland.

I spent $35 on the 1910 Great Britain and am quite happy. The book is in beautiful shape for its age - the gilt lettering still shining, all of the gorgeous maps intact and even the little green bookmark hasn't faded. What beautiful books they made back then!

The first owner of the book inscribed his initials and the date of his purchase on the title page - "July 14, 1913. I purchased this book in Leavington."

That means that almost exactly a hundred years ago, this book had a new owner - just like it does now!

Some interesting historical tidbits from the Baedeker:

  • The White Star Line runs a steamer every Thursday from New York to Queenstown and Liverpool. The Adriatic, the Oceanic and the Majestic are some of the ships available for the six to nine day Atlantic crossing. Noticeably missing? The Titanic - which has yet to built. 
  • Ladies are advised to bring a "heavy veil" on the Atlantic crossing as it can be quite cold even in summer. 
  • The current king of England is Edward VII. He will be dead by the time the book goes to press and his son, Prince George will be the new king. 
  • Britain's railways are considered quite good but it is noted that in some parts of England, the only "regular communication" is by "coaches of two to four horses that run regularly in the season." 
  • The South Kensington Museum has just been renamed "The Victoria and Albert Museum" 
  • Mr. H.A.T. Moroney of the British Automobile Club advises travelers wishing to engage in the pastime of motoring to affix "a lamp to the side of their vehicle for greater visibility!" Automobiling is not listed in the transportation section but alongside other sports and pastimes such as lawn tennis and cricket. 
  • A suggested reading list prior to one's trip to Great Britain includes "Medieval Military Architecture of Great Britain" and "Topographical Botany." 
  • According to the inner flyleaf, (if one wishes) a guidebook to Austria-Hungary or Constantinople can also be purchased. 

I passed up the "Paris and its Environs" from 1897 and am now kicking myself. That edition was much more beat up - it looked as though part of the cover had melted. But I also noticed that the owner of that book had inscribed his name and that he was an officer in the British Army. Is it possible that he carried the little book with him through one of the World Wars? Maybe that book was a sign of hope that he would eventually make his way to Paris. 

I guess I've answered my own question - I'll be making another stop at the bookstore tomorrow to use up the rest of my gift certificate! Hopefully it will still be there and I'll have a second Baedeker for my new collection. 

Fun, Free Opportunity for Historical Fiction Lovers

Monday, August 19, 2013

Recently, I was sent an e-galley by a debut historical novelist - Bruce Holsinger's A Burnable Book. Holsinger is a Medieval scholar at the University of Virginia and - I can say this having finished his book last night - a fantastic historical novelist. I can't wait for next January when his book comes out and I can post my review. He is definitely a strong new talent in the field. This book has everything - Chaucer, cryptography, murder, Katherine Swynford, the Southwark stews, English royalty, prophecy. It's that rare thing: a well-written, historically accurate thriller. It reminded me a great deal of the work of C.J. Sansom - which is pretty high praise in my estimation. 

I headed over to Holsinger's website and enjoyed his take on combining scholarship and novel writing to shed new light on life in Medieval England. Today, he sent out an exciting announcement to his blog followers that I knew I had to share with my blog readers. Starting in October, Holsinger will be teaching an online course called "Plagues, Witches and War: The Worlds of Historical Fiction." 

The course is free, will run for eight weeks and feature online discussions with top historical novelists. You can read more about it here on Holsinger's blog:

This is one of the great joys of being a book blogger - not only did I get to read a fantastic new book months ahead of its release. Now I've also discovered a great new blog and an exciting new way to share my love of historical fiction. 

Review: The Last Summer

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Clarissa is almost seventeen when the spell of her childhood is broken. It is 1914, the beginning of a blissful, golden summer - and the end of an era. Deyning Park is in its heyday, the large country house filled with the laughter and excitement of privileged youth preparing for a weekend party. When Clarissa meets Tom Cuthbert, home from university and staying with his mother, the housekeeper, she is dazzled. Tom is handsome and enigmatic; he is also an outsider. Ambitious, clever, his sights set on a career in law, Tom is an acute observer, and a man who knows what he wants. For now, that is Clarissa. As Tom and Clarissa's friendship deepens, the wider landscape of political life around them is changing, and another story unfolds: they are not the only people in love. Soon the world - and all that they know - is rocked by a war that changes their lives for ever. (from Goodreads)

I don't even know where to begin with this review. I've never shied away from writing my true feelings about a book on this blog. I try to be respectful to authors and find the good in a book but there's also not much of a point in a book review blog if I censored myself and only wrote reviews of the books I liked.

With that disclaimer, I have to say that Summer will definitely be among my most disappointing reads of 2013. I actually stayed away from the book for awhile - I was a bit put off by the "fluffy" description. But I also know from experience that a lot of good historical fiction gets saddled with some pretty ridiculous jacket copy and even worse cover art. I had a similar experience earlier this year with Phillip Rock's Passing Bells trilogy which turned out to be enormously enjoyable and well-written novels. Swayed by glowing reviews over on Goodreads, I waited until the used paperback price dropped on Amazon and then picked it up as a treat.

The first half of the book is much better than the second half and I actually enjoyed reading it. There are some lovely atmospheric (if occasionally overdone) descriptions of life on a country estate just before the outbreak of World War One and then of London during the early years of the war. Clarissa is convincingly drawn as a naïve, dreamy girl who realizes all too late the implications far-off political events will  have on her world. Her growing attachment to the housekeeper's son is sweet and truly affecting despite the obvious clichés. All of this would make for a passable novel, a kind of English Gone With The Wind.

But then the war ends and the second half of the book descends into a horrible mish-mash of over-written romance novel seemingly crossed with a pastiche of The Great Gatsby. People engage in epic misunderstandings and talk often of "forces beyond their control" although these circumstances are never clearly spelled out and seemed to occur so that the plot can go on and on while characters indulge in heated glances across the room at parties. This doesn't just happen once but again and again for about two hundred pages.

Kinghorn chose a first-person narrative that results in Clarissa telling us how and why things happen rather than the reader getting to see and experience it through well-crafted scenes. But this does mean that the narrative speeds along at a quicker pace and I was able to finish the book and get it out of my way within a day. It was a relief to reach the completely predictable ending.

There are times when I can tell I might have liked a book if I had encountered it in a different mood or I can see that the author tried something that didn't quite work. Unfortunately, this was not one of those cases. Fortunately, I've already moved on to another book that is fantastic and the whole experience has left me with an appreciation for the difficulties of writing a truly good historical novel.


Reading Updates

Friday, August 9, 2013

Historical Fiction Notebook's intern assists with the always
difficult task of choosing from the TBR pile. But which one is he choosing?
 Late summer has brought me an embarrassment of riches books! Since mid-July, I've gotten the following and don't know how I will possibly keep up, especially since I received big gift certificates to used bookstores for my birthday; another Friends of the Library bookstore near my apartment re-opened after summer renovations and one of my favorite bookstores in the DC area is holding a huge end of summer sale in two weeks!
Library Book Cart Purchases:
I haven't read any of Dunant's books and have heard good things about this latest release of hers.
Gortner always writes excellent biographical fiction.
I didn't have an urgent desire to read this one but couldn't pass by a brand new hardcover.
I've been looking for this in-depth biography of Queen Victoria's daughter for some time now.
I firmly believe that if I collect enough Russia guidebooks, I will be forced to go there someday!
I purchased each one of these for 50 cents!
Advance e-galleys
A re-telling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the Bennetts' servants.
A beautiful essay from the New Yorker is expanded into a full-length book looking at the impact the classic novel has had on one woman's life.
I just got this thriller set in Medieval England yesterday - glanced at the first chapter, looked up and realized I'd read 20% of the book! This will be an exciting release in 2014.
 Advance bound copies:
Stay tuned - I will be hosting a giveaway of this brand new release and a Q & A with the author during the first week of September.
A Story of Colonial New France - I'm hoping this is a good one because of the unusual setting.
Penguin UK did a beautiful job with the promotional materials for this release - they sent me portrait character cards of Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and Warwick along with the book!
Contest Win (Thank you to Enchanted by Josephine!)
So few novels are set in Constantinople/Istanbul - this looks like a great read.
Supposed to be a classic of the genre - I'm looking forward to reading Tremain for the first time.
I initially dismissed this title as too "fluffy" because of the cover but after looking at the author's website and Twitter feed, I was pulled in and had to have it.
I found this one at a used bookstore for $3. It has a rare setting - the Hudson River Valley during the Revolutionary War.

Review: A Half Forgotten Song

Sunday, August 4, 2013

In Half Forgotten Song, fourteen-year-old Mitzy Hatcher’s lonely life on the wild Dorset coast is changed forever when renowned artist Charles Aubrey arrives to summer there with his exotic mistress and daughters. Mitzy develops a bond with the Aubrey household, gradually becoming Charles's muse. Over the next three summers, a powerful love is kindled in her that grows from childish infatuation to something far more complex…
Years later, a young man in an art gallery looks at a hastily drawn portrait and wonders at its intensity. The questions he asks lead him to a Dorset village and to the truth about those fevered summers in the 1930s. With Sunday Times bestselling novel Half Forgotten Song, Katherine Webb spins a historical tale of long kept secrets and obsessive love that fans of Kate Morton and Susanna Kearsley are sure to love. (from Amazon)

I was lucky to find this title - a new release that was a top pick on my wish list - on a library used book sale cart for fifty cents the day before my birthday! I snatched it up immediately but it took my brain a minute to catch up and realize how lucky I was to find it. Fortunately, that feeling did not go away as I got deeper and deeper into this unusually intelligent and emotionally affecting dual-time period/gothic historical novel.

Webb has written two other dual-time period, historical gothics (we historical fiction bloggers really need to come up with a catchier name for this booming sub-genre) but this is the first time I've read her work. On the strength of this title alone, I can confidently say that she is just as good as Kate Morton, the queen of the genre. There were so many points in this novel where I found myself thinking that Webb would take the expected route and plug in the plot twists that have already been done a million times but she avoided every single cliché and came up with some pretty impressive (but believable) surprises.

The well-drawn settings and characters go hand-in-hand in this book. I could see the lonely beaches of the Dorset coast and the packed-in heat of the Moroccan desert and the dusty silence of a failing art gallery in London. The lush descriptions pulled me in so that I hardly noticed how skillfully Webb managed the revelation of information about the past storyline in the present storyline. That's truly the key to a well-done historical gothic. When it comes down to it - the "hidden secrets" are sometimes very straightforward and speak directly to human frailties. Miscarriages. Secret births. Thefts. Murders. Affairs. A really good author will understand that the fascination is in the slow uncovering of the secrets in the present, the giving and handling of the information and the way it's been turned into an entirely new story as time passes. Webb  explores all of this beautifully. When I reached the end of the book, I knew everything had fallen into place just right.

No where is this done better than in the lead character Mitzy. She is maddening - she does repellent, selfish things. She is a bit off but not so much that you dismiss her as an eccentric but rather she seems to be a very real person, an old woman you could meet in a little English village, a product of her time and place and for that reason, you can't help but feel for her. Like all of us, Mitzy's memories have changed with the passing of time. Under the force of great pain, she decides to see the story of her own life in her own way - and to a tragic, deserved and somehow perfectly right ending.

I know that the character of Mitzy will stay with me for a very long time - just like this lush, addictively paced and haunting story. If you're not lucky enough to find this one on a book sale cart, go out to the library or buy it - you won't be disappointed!

Review: Matriarch - Queen Mary and the House of Windsor

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Chronicles the life of Princess May of Teck, from her selection as bride for the Duke of Clarence to her rise to queen and mother of two kings (from Google Books). 

I'm bringing back an old favorite - so old that I couldn't find a description longer than those two lines above! This book was published in the prehistoric age of 1984 - long before e-readers and Amazon and GoodReads. 

After a week of Prince George coverage, I was in the mood for a big, comforting royal family kind of read. I've read about a million Diana biographies and quite honestly biographies of Elizabeth II don't exactly make for riveting reading. That's when I remembered one of the very first "big" books I ever read when I was only ten years old. Yes - you read that right! Going back and reading it now, I can't believe I was that young and able to comprehend all of the historical information contained here. I do remember it being one of the books I read that year (along with Elizabeth Longford's biography of Queen Victoria) that completely pulled me in and solidified my love of English and Royal history. 

Reading it now - more than twenty years later - I was struck by the vast amount of social and cultural change that Queen Mary witnessed in her life. I've always been fascinated by history from roughly about 1880-1940 and suspect that fascination is partly due to my reading this book at such a young age. Queen Mary's life (1867-1953) encompasses an epic span of royal history - her life began during the reign of her grandmother-in-law Queen Victoria and it ended during the reign of her granddaughter Queen Elizabeth II. 

Everyone thinks of Queen Mary as a stodgy old lady but she was actually a spirited woman who was passionate about art, reading, royal history and Shakespeare. She had a wry sense of humor and always tried to stay in touch with the times, even as an old lady. Edwards tells the story of her plotting with a lady in waiting in the 1920s to see if they could raise the hemlines of their skirts without King George noticing. Spoiler alert: they tried but didn't succeed. Queen Mary is also the source of one of the most poignant comments I've ever read in a biography - she once told a lady in waiting that she had only one regret - that she had lived such a restrained life that she never had a chance to jump over a fence! 

Edwards does a good job of revealing Mary's very real faults as a mother. Her almost complete inability to function as a mother directly led to her eldest son's immaturity and his eventual abdication of the crown as well as the humiliating stutter of her second son, George VI. I was a bit surprised that Edwards barely touched on Mary's relationship with her husband George V other than a few brief notes that she prepared him for kingship by tutoring him on royal and constitutional history. 

It was surprisingly hard to find a copy of this book and that's quite unfortunate. Edwards is a wonderful writer who takes the time to describe the feelings and images of the historical era in great detail. I remember consuming her biographies of famous women as a kid. Her books seemed to be everywhere back then but I had to search two major public library systems and inter-library loan it from the one library that had it available. 

If historical fiction fans can find a copy of this old classic, I would strongly encourage them to read it. You'll have a deepened appreciation for the current Queen's background and the span of English history that is so incredibly popular right now with the advent of Downton Abbey and the upcoming 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I.