The Beekeeper’s Daughter, by Santa Montefiore is, strictly speaking, only partially historical fiction, depending on your definition. It is set over three different eras – the 1930s (which is the historical bit), the 1970s (arguably historical for some) and the 1990s (hopefully, we’re not considering this historical yet!).
Grace is the warm and unaffected daughter of a beekeeper, who lives in a little village in Dorset. Her mother has died before the story begins, so Grace’s relationship with her father, Arthur is close and mutually dependent. I felt that the character of Arthur and the bond that he has with his daughter is one of the sweetest and most heart-warming aspects of this novel. However, when he dies suddenly, our heroine is left feeling bereft and cannot bear the idea of being on her own. Very soon after his death, Grace finds herself torn between two men who also hold very special places in her heart: the handsome aristocrat with whom she has been in love since she was a teenager, or Freddie, the faithful friend she has known all her life. Whatever decisions Grace makes, it is easy to support her. Montefiore has created a very likable and honest heroine for her novel, to whom it is easy to relate.
These decisions go on the affect the rest of Grace’s life, and that of her daughter, Trixie, whose own love story Montefiore leads us through sensitively and sensuously. The secrets that weigh heavily on the shoulders of several of the characters in this novel are intriguing and keep you guessing, so that The Beekeeper’s Daughter does not feel simply like a romance, but also like a story of mystery and suspense.
There is a spiritual side to this story that I found surprising, but moving too. The deceased continue to haunt the living throughout their lives, sometimes as images, sometimes ideas, sometimes as a tangible presence and sometimes simply as memories. Through this unusual plot device, and through the feelings and actions of her characters, Montefiore gives a clear message in this novel for the soul; love and every person’s basic need for it is unapologetically and unconstrainedly at the heart of this immersive and emotional story.
Alias Grace, By Margaret Atwood is a book I have returned to ten years after first reading it for my A-Level in English Literature. I was blessed with a teacher at the time, who allowed us to explore the novel and highlight parts that appealed to and inspired us, simply because they did, and not because they were in tune with any particular syllabus requirements. Perhaps that is the reason why I, unlike many others, have been able to recall a text I have had to study with fondness. A few thought-provoking lines and strong images had remained in my mind over the years and after spotting it still on the shelf of my childhood bedroom, I determined to visit the novel again.
It was better the second-time round for many reasons, the main one being that Atwood’s leisurely pace and attention to detail produce a narrative that is so rich, it needs to be savoured and appreciated. The novel is based on the largely untold and unknown story of Grace Marks, a Victorian girl, who at the age of sixteen was accused of the murder of her employer, Thomas Kinnear and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery in Canada. After having her sentence commuted to life imprisonment, rather than death, she spends her days in a penitentiary, and is visited by an idealistic young doctor, Simon Jordan, who hopes to awaken the memories he believes Grace has been unconsciously suppressing of the day of the murder. More importantly, he hopes that they will reveal just how involved she was. Through the conversations that pass between the two characters, we learn about Grace’s early life in Ireland, the treacherous voyage she suffered over to Canada, and her years spent in service before the fateful day. The characters are fully dimensional and layered to keep readers guessing and changing their minds about them. Grace is, in one sense, incredibly truthful about the realities of lower class Victorian life, and in another, she is wholly deceptive and we, along with Simon Jordan are never sure about how honest she is being with her audience.
This is a consuming and emotional read that has the power to completely take you in. As well as having the obvious appeal of historical fiction, it is also a very thought provoking study of psychology. But be warned that its candid subject matter means that it is entirely different from the escapism of say, a Jane Austen novel.
The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies is a beautiful book. I believe I first came to it because I had seen it on a recommended books list, and although it is slightly more modern than my usual choice, I really enjoyed this novel for its references to early 20th century fashion, to events of the time, but most of all, for its heart rending story. Apart from a prologue set in 1913, the main parts of this narrative take place in the mid-1920s to 30s. For those interested in historical fashion, there are plenty of references to the dropped waistlines and hairstyles of the 1920s, through to the butterfly sleeves and two piece suits of the 1930s.
With shadows of a gothic romance, this story concerns a young and naïve heroine, Gwendolyn, who has married a man much older than herself, and who has a dark and secretive past. The novel is set in Ceylon which is where Gwen’s husband, Laurence owns a tea plantation. Not having travelled nearly enough, I wondered whether the setting of the novel would put me off – I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to imagine what it was really like in Sri Lanka. But Dinah Jefferies does such a good – such an evocative – job of describing the scenery, the foliage, the colours, scents, sounds and the weather that whenever I took this novel out to read, I found myself utterly transported. Indeed, I think it’s made me want to travel more.
The characters in this novel are very compelling. Apart from the hero and heroine, there is Verity, Gwen’s petulant and unpleasant sister in law; Christina, a former flame of Laurence’s and Ravi – a charming and handsome Sinhalese man who remains enigmatic throughout. I have named just a few, but each one is carefully sculpted and thought out and, just like the setting, they are all very physical.
The plot to the story mainly revolves around Gwen’s introduction to her new life as a married woman in a foreign country. Having grown up in a privileged household in England, she is swept off her feet by the handsome and successful Laurence. Although it is clear from the start that the couple share a deep love, Gwen later remarks more than once that she was perhaps too young when she married him, especially in light of what has befallen her. She leaves her family and her home, and goes to live in Ceylon, where she has to get used to running her own household, dealing with new people and to the ways in which different people, races and cultures regard each other. This, on its own, provides an absorbing narrative, but it is after Gwen becomes pregnant that the plot really thickens and becomes darker, more compulsive and more affecting.
The Tea Planter’s Wife is – in places – not an easy read. It is emotional and there is a feeling when one reads it of its realism. There are certain writers whom the reader can trust not to do anything too upsetting; not to throw anything out there that is too unsettling. Not so with Dinah Jefferies. But it all fits; it is all believable and it all combines to create a truly absorbing, resonant and edifying novel.
Elizabeth of York was the first Tudor queen. When we think of the Tudors, our thoughts fly first to the notorious Henry VIII, and to another queen called Elizabeth, but Elizabeth Tudor is often overlooked.
I first became intrigued about this interesting and admirable lady when the BBC showed an adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen. This is a brilliant, engrossing series which I would recommend to anyone with an interest in historical drama but what it led me to read was something more factual and more focused: Alison Weir’s Elizabeth of York, The First Tudor Queen. Though fascinating and unbelievably dramatic, I was always felt very confused about Medieval royal history in Britain. I know there were several kings called Edward, there was someone called Elizabeth Woodville (whom I had previously supposed was the same person as Elizabeth of York), and there was a long series of wars called ‘The Wars of the Roses’, which ended with Richard III’s death, and Henry Tudor’s ascent to the throne. After that, things become clearer to me with the dawn of the Tudors. I was very thankful, therefore, to find that Alison Weir begins her biography by explaining something of the politics of the time and about Elizabeth’s parentage. It turns out that Elizabeth Woodville was Elizabeth Tudor’s mother. A young widow with two children, she married King Edward IV in 1464 and bore him several children, of whom Elizabeth of York was one, as well as two sons who went on to become those poor little princes in the Tower of dark historical fame. The marriage was a happy one and Elizabeth Plantagenet enjoyed a happy childhood, but her troubles began when her father died suddenly in 1483. This is perhaps also when Elizabeth’s true strength of character was formed. A hangover from the years before Edward IV’s relatively stable reign, as soon as he was dead, various factions began vying for the crown. His sons were probably captured and murdered; by whom remains a mystery to this day. Elizabeth Woodville kept the rest of her family safe in the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey.
In July 1483, Richard, Elizabeth’s uncle was crowned king and Elizabeth had to live not only with the devastating realisation that two of her siblings, (to whom she was allegedly very close) were probably dead, but also with resentment as, in these tragic circumstances, she should have inherited the throne. To appease matters, Richard eventually invited Elizabeth, along with her sisters to court. At this time, several rumours began to circulate that Richard in fact desired his niece and even killed his wife, Anne Neville so that he could marry her. In her biography, Weir dismisses these rumours, and clears Elizabeth of any desirous feelings herself. Instead, she had her betrothal to a young man named Henry Tudor to keep her going.
In 1485, King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Shortly afterwards, Henry Tudor, against whom he had been fighting was crowned king. One of his first actions was to inform his parliament of his intentions to marry Elizabeth of York. The wedding took place in January 1486, and resulted in widespread celebrations and jubilation all over the country.
From the very beginning, Elizabeth was a popular queen. She represented a unity between two families and an end to the bloody wars that had raged on for years. She also conducted herself exactly as a renaissance queen was expected to. In many ways, she complimented her husband, who is generally remembered as someone who could appear rather cold and harsh. Elizabeth emerges from the pages of Weir’s biography as someone who was warm, grounded, clever and loving. She enjoyed a very happy marriage to Henry Tudor, who seems genuinely to have loved her despite the arranged and political nature of their union. Together, they had several children, one of whom grew up to become King Henry VIII. He was allegedly always very fond of his mother and felt her loss acutely when she eventually died. One interesting narrative thread that Weir explores is the sense of quiet and uncomfortable unease with which both Elizabeth and Henry must have lived surrounding the legitimacy of their claims to the throne. As far as many people were concerned at the time, Elizabeth was the true royal in their marriage and it was through Henry’s marriage to her that he achieved his right to the throne. There was also the dark shadow cast over Elizabeth by the uncertainty of what had happened to her brothers all those years before when she was effectively a captive in Westminster Abbey. If it ever turned out that her brother, Edward, had not been killed, but had in fact perhaps been living abroad until it was safe for him to return, then where would that place her and her husband. More tantalising is the question of how would she have felt? In 1497, she was faced with such a dilemma when a young man named Perkin Warbeck claimed that he was Edward V and attempted to invade England. He eventually surrendered to the king’s army and was hanged on 23rd November 1499. Without wishing to trivialise the emotions that must have been felt by the husband and wife, such events must have created a significant amount of awkwardness, resentment, suspicion and maybe even guilt between the couple.
Despite their tempestuous beginnings in life, Elizabeth and Henry were successful rulers; their reign was one of stability, peace and economic growth. Their marriage was mutually supportive, fair and affectionate.
On the 11th February 1503, Elizabeth died a few days after giving birth to a daughter. Her death though the result of a short illness, was unexpected and untimely. She was widely mourned and Henry shut himself away for six weeks after the funeral, suffering mentally and physically. Indeed, Weir argues that from this point on, Henry’s health steadily declined until he died in 1509.
A couple of months ago, I visited Westminster Abbey with my brother. I had not been there since I was a little girl and so my memories were hazy, but I remembered having been very impressed by the glorious and ostentatious tomb of Elizabeth I, and that of her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. This time, it was the tomb of Elizabeth of York that arrested my walking and forced me to stop and contemplate. Standing there below her saintly carved image, it was moving to consider the gentle and romantic queen lying somewhere close by.
In recent years, I have been growing fonder and fonder of Daphne du Maurier as an author. My first encounter with her work was, I fear, a little too early, when I was too young to appreciate it and I found the long, descriptive passages that introduce her novel, Frenchman’s Creek, impossible to get past. However, in recent years, I have had another go, not with this particular novel, but with possibly her most famous work, Rebecca and then with Jamaica Inn. I loved them both, especially Jamaica Inn which I now regard as one of my favourite novels.
My Cousin Rachel has been sitting on my shelf for quite some time now. I was saving it for when I would at last have some proper time to really get stuck in to another exciting, gripping and romantic story. I took it down and skimmed the blub on the back. Certain phrases jumped out at me: ‘orphaned’, ‘resolutely single’, ‘mysterious woman’, ‘grand house’, it was already ticking all of the boxes. The actual experience of reading this novel was, however, far from what I had expected. First of all, this story is not a romance. I did suspect it might be for a few pages when the aforementioned ‘resolutely single’ and sardonic protagonist and narrator, Philip Ashley first meets his cousin Rachel after weeks of hating the thought of her. Such a plot structure is used in novels such as Pride and Prejudice, North and South, etc. I thought that was where this was going. But this idea was quickly extinguished by the rather stronger strain of mystery that runs through this book.
Just as with Rebecca, in My Cousin Rachel, we as readers are at the mercy of the narrator and the way that he perceives things. Thus, we are drawn into his claustrophobic, old fashioned, male-dominated world from the start. No matter how well we might know Florence in Italy, or how many pictures we might have seen of it looking just lovely, when we go with Philip, we want to leave as soon as possible, because there is something very sinister about it. Back in his large, lonely, dusty house in Cornwall, we breathe a sigh of relief, for we are home. Du Maurier paints a vivid picture of her settings, just as she does in her other novels, yet all the while, we feel somehow detached, perhaps because we are never told specifically when this novel is set (references to Philip’s cravat and Rachel’s dresses would suggest that it is sometime during the nineteenth century). We are never given the name of the Ashley estate or even the location. And all we have to rely on for what is happening and how people are behaving is Philip’s account. Even this is, at times such as when he becomes very ill, made blatantly untrustworthy.
Philip Ashley is a complex character and, as with Rachel, my opinion of him was tossed and turned about several times throughout the novel. In general, because he is the protagonist and seemingly harmless, I was disposed to like him, or at least to sympathise with him when it looked like things were not going his way. Rachel always seemed like a much more confident and controlled character. She did not need my support. Even in those moments of weakness that du Maurier allows her, I could never fully trust in her because of the seeds of doubt that Philip had already planted.
When one reflects on the plot of this book, not much actually happens. After Philip’s trip to Florence in the first few chapters, the rest of the action all takes place in Cornwall, in and around his house. So much of what is described is the characters’ day to day lives: their visits to church, their walks around the gardens, the occasional trip to the bank. Nevertheless, this story is just as compelling as that of Rebecca, and just as mysterious. It is the characters who engage our interest. The ways in which they speak, the expressions which Philip perceives and reads into in Rachel’s face and movements, the emotions that he describes – these are the tools that du Maurier uses to keep us hooked and to keep us guessing as to who can really be trusted in this novel.
The ending felt very abrupt to me – I think that that is what du Maurier probably intended. It was so abrupt that I had to re-read that final page at least three times before I could conjure up any emotions about what had happened. Then, of course, I tried to unpick it. Had there been any clues as to what was about to happen? Were we meant to expect this? Was it in fact an accident? But in the end, I was left to keep on guessing. Even the repetition of the opening two lines to the novel used so effectively to end it proved more to tantalise than to explain. Perhaps that is why My Cousin Rachel, first published in 1951, continues to be such a successful and widely read mystery novel. Du Maurier leaves it open to the reader to form their own opinions of Rachel, though everyone I have spoken to has come to the same conclusion as myself. It will be interesting to see what spin the upcoming film adaptation (directed by Roger Michell and due for release in 2017) will put on it.
Firstly, I would like to say that the subtitle of this book: ‘The true story of one gentleman, two orphans and an experiment to create the ideal woman’, does not do the content of this work justice. How to Create the Perfect Wife focuses on the socially awkward and eccentric Thomas Day, a gentleman who was born on 22nd June 1748 in the East end of London. After his father’s death one year after he was born, he became the heir to a substantial fortune which would ensure that he would never have to work. He was, it would seem, very intelligent and had a true desire to do good in the world. In 1773, he and his friend, John Bicknell produced one of the earliest published attacks against slavery, a poem called The Dying Negro, which opened readers’ eyes to the cruelty and injustice of slavery at a time when it was also very fashionable. Day was not afraid to be unique and to stand up for what he believed in. He did not care about fashionable clothes, or about leading a frivolous party lifestyle, though he could certainly have afforded to. Instead, he wanted nothing more than to live a quiet, frugal and self-sufficient life, far away from the bustle and materialism of London society. He took his inspiration from the popular philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and decided that to complete this idyllic dream, he would need a devoted, humble and hard-working wife by his side. And here, we have to flaw in his character; the extraordinary experiment that Day set upon, with the full knowledge of his closest friends, to adopt two young orphans and raise them to be his future wives. When one proved more suitable than the other, he would abandon the scheme for her and concentrate on the winner.
The two girls that Thomas Day chose were Ann and Dorcas, or as he later named them, Sabrina and Lucretia. Moore gives a very moving account of their early lives in the foundling hospital and of the lives of the women who had to give up their babies to such a fate at this time. She goes to great lengths to explain the status of someone with no known parentage, which was essentially non-existent in 18th century Britain. No doubt Day felt he was doing these girls a favour then, and perhaps in some ways he did. Both were provided with an education and with money as Day had promised in a contract he drew up with a friend before the scheme went ahead. The life of the girls under Day’s guardianship was extraordinary, as is the reaction of the people with whom they mixed. Moore regularly draws comparisons with modern sensibilities and invites us to question how such a man would be viewed today.
Yet this book focuses on so much more than this one social experiment. In it can be found a wealth of information about 18th century society, the lives of the rich and the poor, the laws at the time, and an insight into the lives of some very interesting characters. Day’s close friend, Richard Lovell Edgeworth should have a book all to himself. Poignantly, each chapter is named after an important woman in Day’s life, and I cannot help but feel that this is a deliberate choice of Moore’s to give status to these second-class citizens, whom Day really did not seem able to understand or empathise with. Moore delves into what their thoughts and feelings might have been. This is difficult with the likes of Ann and Dorcas, whose early experiences were overshadowed by the way in which Day wished to portray them. But Moore’s research is meticulous and they emerge from this book as full of life and as real as the men whose lives were so much more heavily documented.
The writing of this book is extremely compelling and after reading it, I felt that there was something tragic about the life of Thomas Day and indeed some of the women who featured. That is what struck me – what Day did was undeniably wrong and at the very least, selfish, yet he did not intend to be a selfish person. It was in his very nature and his province to help others. So what we have here is a comprehensive account of a complex human being – one who seems to jump out of the pages at you as if he were flesh, and forces you to ask uncomfortable questions, to feel disgust at certain behaviour and to try to understand why it took place. I think that’s all one can ask for from a biography. It is simply fascinating.