Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents
February 25, 2011
Nancy Mitford is a goddess to raving Anglophiles like me. Her joined novels The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate are not only semi-autobiographical and deeply moving, but one of the funniest examinations of British eccentricity ever written. The narrator of both books is Fanny, a quiet girl who observes the lives and loves of her more madcap cousins Linda and Polly. Linda's story is covered in The Pursuit of Love when the vivacious Linda unwisely marries first a crashing bore of a conservative and then a crashing bore of a communist, and finally finds happiness with a sophisticated Casavnova of a Frenchman. Love In A Cold Climate follows Polly, a beautiful girl destined for a duke or a prince . . . until she elopes with her uncle by marriage.
These books will have you yearning for hedgerows, country houses, and fox hunters in pink coats
The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate are less about plot and more about the characters, who make themselves unforgettable every time they open their mouths. Tony the conservative, "a perfect mountain of pomposity." Uncle Matthew the explosive country squire, training his bloodhounds by having them hunt his children across the countryside or even across Hyde Park in London, despite people staring. Lady Montdore the ineffable snob, observing "Hardly any of one's friends in England had ever heard of India before we went there, you know." Linda's lover Fabrice, urban to his fingertips, a hero of the French resistance who finds time to keep his mistress updated on the latest fashion trends ("That suit has ready-made all over it; jackets are longer this year.")
If "Gosford Park" and Oscar Wilde is your idea of humor; if you have ever yearned to grow up in an English country house with fox hunting and tweeds and Oxford dons coming for long weekends - then these are the books for you.
February 22, 2011
I was expecting a baby myself, and naturally took a great interest in Linda's. "What are you going to call her - and where is she, anyway?"
"In the nurse's room - it shrieks. Moira, I believe."
"Not Moira, darling, you can't. I never heard such an awful name."
"Tony likes it, it he had a sister called Moira who died, and what d'you think I found out? She died because his other sister whacked her on the head with a hammer when she was four months old. Do you call that interesting? And then they say we have an uncontrolled family - why, even Father has never actually murdered anybody, or do you count that gamekeeper?"
Review of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love In A Cold Climate to follow this Friday.
February 18, 2011
Teenage Genevieve Pasquier might have grown up in Paris under the reign of Louis XIV, but she has no desire for the high society life at court which her beautiful sister and ambitious mother crave. Genevieve, cursed with a crippled foot and blessed with a brilliant mind, just wants to read books and discuss philosophy with her adored father. But her father's death and her family's greed tears Genevieve away from everything she knows, and into an entirely new life.
If the Sun King rules France, the Shadow Queen rules his court. The amused and amoral Madame Montvoisin has built a vast business network providing Louis XIV's jaded courtiers with love spells, good luck charms, illicit abortions, Black Masses, and anything else illegal and occult that takes their fancy. Taking Genevieve under her wing as apprentice, La Voisin grooms an aristocratic girl with a talent for telling fortunes into Versailles's most celebrated society fortune-teller: the Marquise de Morville, over one hundred years old and preserved in eternal youth. Genevieve's unconventional career brings her wealth, vengeance, perhaps even love - but what will happen when La Voisin's underground empire of Satanism and poison trading is dragged into the light of day?
"The Oracle Glass" is a rarity among historical fiction: erudite but not boring, passionate but not romance-oriented, deadly serious but also deadly funny, and maintaining a perfect balance between fictional characters and historical figures. It's astounding to see what gullible fools the Sun King's friends really were, and great fun to see the sharp little Genevieve fleecing them with such gusto. Her growth from bookish girl to vengeance-driven cynic to loving woman is real and touching, and she is surrounded by a host of marvelous side characters. Her patroness La Voisin is an enigma wrapped in a mystery; she might offer you tea and sympathy or she might poison you and bury your body in her garden, but you never fall asleep when she's on the page. And minor subplots like the housemaid possessed by the world's most snobbish demon are an absolute scream.
A fascinating look at the Sun King's court and the infamous Affair of the Poisons which almost brought it down, and a rollicking good read too.
February 15, 2011
"Tell me - you asked a question, now I get one," she said. "You speak so well, you must come from a good family. Why are you here alone? What makes you want to suffer pain and dishonor to join a world you know nothing about? You could be reading to your old father, or embroidering in one of those comfortable convents for rich girls . . ."
"Revenge," I said. "There is a man I hate. She has promised to make me strong enough to destroy him."
"Only one?" observed La Trianon. "My, you are young."
-- From The Oragle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley. Throw a crippled and intelligent young girl with a talent for fortunetelling into the snake pit of the Sun King's court, add an outrageous con job and a dash of black magic, garnish with real historical figures like Louix XIV and his various mistresses, dust with arsenic and stir to a boil . . .
Read my review on Friday!
February 10, 2011
The Meet And Greet
You meet Modern Man through Match.com, laying eyes on him for the first time after a lot of text-messaging. You meet Medieval Man through an arranged marriage, laying eyes on him for the first time at the altar. I think Medieval Man has the advantage here – at least your parents vetted him first for financial stability, healthy bloodlines, and future job prospects. Match.com leaves you no defense against a guy who described himself as a tall red-haired financier, but who turns out in person to be a 5’2 bank teller with Ronald McDonald hair.
Medieval Man: 2 Modern Man: 0
Modern Man shows up for the big Valentine’s Day date in a suit; Medieval Man shows up in a suit of armor. Sorry, but I go for a surcote and sword belt over an Armani three-piece every time.
Medieval Man: 4 Modern Man: 0
Even George Clooney at his most Ocean's Eleven elegant can't compare to this
The Personal Hygiene
Medieval Man bathes once a week if he’s fastidious, and has never heard of dental floss. Modern Man has deodorant, toothpaste, electric razor, and breath mints. No contest here – though male grooming can go too far. Manscaping is not one of the 21st century’s better innovations. No tanning salons, please.
Medieval Man: 4 Modern Man: 3 (bonus point for having all his teeth!)
Modern Man works nine-to-five at an office compiling Excel spreadsheets and filling out TPS reports. Medieval Man spends his days building up serious muscle as he hulks ninety pounds of armor and a fifteen-foot lance around on regional wars. On the other hand, Modern Man at least comes home at nights whereas Medieval Man might head off on Crusade and not come home for years. Let’s call it a draw.
Medieval Man: 6 Modern Man: 5
How many IT guys would rather do this than work in a cubicle? Thought so.
An Obama ’08 “Yes We Can!” bumper sticker for Modern Man; a solid pro-church, pro-torture, pro-witch-burning stance for Medieval Man. Hmm . . .
Medieval Man: 6 Modern Man: 7
Modern Man picks you up for the big V-Day date in a nice shiny car with air-conditioning. Medieval Man gallops up on a horse. Sorry, for me a black stallion in a flowing tabard beats even a Ferrari.
Medieval Man: 8 Modern Man: 7
Gotta go, my ride's here
The Romantic Getaway
Modern Man takes you to a three-star restaurant with candles and waiters. Medieval Man takes you to a castle in Castile with torches and troubadours. Oooh, tough one. In the end, however, I think we must come down in favor of the date locale that has flush toilets.
Medieval Man: 8 Modern Man: 9
On a date with Modern Man, you will get a pasta dinner with wine, and something chocolatey for dessert. Medieval Man will go hunting and proudly present you with a dead boar. Overseeing the skinning, butchering, spit-roasting, and serving of the boar will be entirely up to you. And chocolate hasn’t been discovered yet.
Medieval Man: 8 Modern Man: 11
Modern Man will bore you to death with the details of his golf handicap, his fantasy football league, or his latest score in World of Warcraft. Medieval Man will talk all night about his warhorse’s shoeing requirements, his last blow-by-blow tourney victory, and how to clean the rust off chain mail. I think we have another tie.
Medieval Man: 10 Modern Man: 13
"So I shank on the drive, and then I only get a birdie, but on the next hole . . ."
"So I was thinking of going with an ash hilt nailed to the tang, but now I'm thinking oak offers a better grip when blood soaks in . . ."
A modern Valentine’s Day date with Modern Man will probably net you a bouquet of flowers, a box of chocolates, and maybe a little velvet box containing tasteful diamond studs (inspired by those ubiquitous Every Kiss Begins With Kay commercials). Medieval Man will toss you a lapful of diamond necklaces and emerald rings: loot from all the plundering he did during the Hundred Years War. Just don't ask to see the sales slip.
Medieval Man: 12 Modern Man: 13
Medieval Man digs into his wallet without a word of protest when the check comes – it’s the least he can do, since you have no vote and no job. Modern Man might throw down a Black Card, ask you to go dutch, or cover the check but get offended later if you don’t offer nudity in repayment.
Medieval Man: 14 Modern Man: 13
On the way home, your date’s convertible/horse breaks down. A group of Hell’s Angels/French free-lance mercenaries start hassling you. Modern Man whips out his cell phone and hopes he has 911 on speed-dial. Medieval Man whips out his broadsword and hopes they give him a good fight before the heads start to roll and the survivors flee for their lives.
Medieval Man: 16 Modern Man: 13
When these guys show up, I'd rather have a guy with a sword at my back than a phone
Valentine’s Day sex . . . probably the most subjective category here. Has Modern Man relied on locker rooms or stolen Cosmos for his sex advice? Does Medieval Man take the priests seriously when they tell him no sex on Fridays, feast days and religious holidays, and no woman-on-top sex of any kind? Maybe the deciding issue should be birth control: Modern Man may not want to wear condoms, but at least he can't use the excuse that they haven’t been invented yet. The only thing to save you from having a yearly kid with Medieval Man is a nice long Crusade.
Medieval Man: 16 Modern Man: 15
The Day After
Will he commit on February 15th? Medieval Man: Yep. You met him at your wedding, remember? Modern Man: much more doubtful. But if he does, and things go wrong, at least you can divorce him. Medieval Man, not so much – though with the Black Plague and all those French mercenaries running around, odds are much better you’ll end up a widow. No real winner here.
The knights in shining armor take it by one point, at least in my book, but it’s a close race. And maybe in the end, Modern Man’s deodorant and full set of teeth stacks a little higher than the ability to stand off French mercenaries with a broadsword. At least in the 21st century.
But whether you will be spending this Monday with your favorite fictional medieval hunk or with your 21st century knight in shining armor – Happy Valentine’s Day.