May 2024
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Review: The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed

The Hemings family as slaves are most famous for their connection with Thomas Jefferson, of course, because while he owned the family he also had a long-term affair with Sally Hemings after the death of his wife. That affair was made public while Jefferson was a very visible figure, leaving an impression of Sally that lasts up until the present day. Gordon-Reed views the Hemings family as a whole, covering multiple generations to explore who they were, how slavery affected them, and thus to look more in depth at this relationship between Jefferson and Hemings.

I’m no scholar of American history; my interests have been firmly European for a good few years now. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate an excellent work of American history and that is precisely what The Hemingses of Monticello is. It is very detailed and long, so not for the faint of heart, but I felt it unearthed a ton of truth in its portrayal of this family so affected by slavery. Gordon-Reed in many respects returns agency to Sally and the rest of her family, looking at how they may have been as people rather than as objects or simply as enslaved people who, despite the pain of their condition, were not all the same in other fundamental respects.

One of my favorite sections of the book took place before Jefferson was president, while he and Sally and one of her brothers were together in France. This was fascinating because, in France, they could have become free. It was a recognized possibility and Jefferson did not follow the law while they were there; instead he paid them wages and seems to have treated them more like free servants instead of the slaves they were. What does it mean that both of them returned with him, seemingly voluntarily, to the world of slavery? Or that Sally had already conceived at that point? Evidence is slim but Gordon-Reed’s case is convincing, and I did believe that she went with him because he promised her children would be free (and they were). A risky decision given that he could have died before that, and indeed his death was disastrous for the Hemings family, but not in that way.

Tied up in that is the notion of their relationship, naturally, and the fact that Jefferson clearly slept with a woman who was his slave and had a relationship with her. He could have forced her for all we know – but if he did why didn’t she flee? Slave women did flee from their rapists, as the author demonstrates. They did cry out for help. Gordon-Reed continues by questioning what options were open to them – why do we dismiss the possibility of love if there is no option for marriage? Jefferson never married again and didn’t father children (that we know of) with any others of his slave women. He treated her family and her in particular very differently than he did the rest of his slaves. It’s something we don’t want to touch because slavery is so horrific but I felt Gordon-Reed did very well in considering what was happening from all angles, not just one.

Overall I felt Gordon-Reed did an excellent job probing into many of the thorny issues surrounding history, slavery, and our ideas of the two, taking a deeper look at individuals without treating the subject of slavery like it was anything but wrong. The Hemingses of Monticello was wordy and very carefully considered but well argued and, for me, worth the week I spent reading it. Recommended.

All book links to external sites are affiliate links. I borrowed this book from my local library.


Review: Heretics, Jonathan Wright

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church is precisely what it says on the cover; Wright describes how heresy has helped to shape the Western Christian church and delves into the history of individual heretics and how their treatment has varied across history. In many ways, heretics forced Christian thinking in certain directions, causing them to explain a bit more clearly what were appropriate beliefs and how Christians should worship their God. Wright examines the stories of all of the well-known heretics, including those that inspired the break to Protestantism, and how heresy became a crime, up to today, when heretics may not be burned at the stake but exist nevertheless.

I loved this book so much that there is no way I will ever be able to do justice to it in a review. Wright is precisely the sort of historian that I completely adore. He doesn’t dumb down his subject, but explains it in ways that everyone can understand, complete with asides that made me laugh and had the people around me doubting I was actually reading non-fiction about religion.Theological issues are almost always very complex, and often boring for many (he isn’t afraid to say so outright), but I always felt like Wright explained them well and I could actually understand the development of the religion as the book went on. It never felt disrespectful, just completely open, and often the little humorous bits felt aimed at people who just love history, like me. I adore books that feel like they were written just for me and this is certainly one of those.

Wright starts us off with the actual original definition of heresy – it’s derived from a Greek word meaning ‘to choose’. In essence, heretics chose to believe something other than the mainstream, and still do. They haven’t always been persecuted for their beliefs, especially in early Christianity, as they more nudged the consensus in a general direction and forced people to actually clarify what they believed in. Sometimes people who had been greatly respected in Christianity became heretics for various reasons, but there is never much of a logic to it; in the Middle Ages one man was condemned as a heretic and the other as a saint for doing the same thing. It was all very circumstantial.  In many cases, heresy became a tool for rulers to use in order to cow their subjects and demonstrate what a great job they were doing, for example. Wright also takes care to emphasize and demonstrate that usually, the Church wanted to reform heretics, not condemn and kill them. They did die in horrendous and gruesome ways, but that was not the idea, it’s just the part that sticks in modern heads the most (and the part that made an example to their contemporaries).

One of my very favorite aspects of this book was how Wright clearly delineates that historical societies were fundamentally different from ours. Many people did not have a concept of rights or freedoms that we take for granted; that doesn’t mean that no one ever thought of them, or even wrote about them, but quite simply things were different. We have a level of tolerance that we never had before (though he does probe at this as well – imagine a US President that isn’t a Christian). We can feel sorry for heretics and we can acknowledge that what was done to them was very often wrong, but we can never fully step into the shoes of a Puritan in Massachusetts persecuting a witch. He also takes particular care to note that this is his viewpoint, in the context of the twenty-first century, and that someone fifty or a hundred years from now will probably view these earlier times (and our own) in a completely different light.

Regardless, I found his text convincingly and logically argued; it does seem clear that heretics had a large role in shaping the present church and it’s certainly true that they’ve existed throughout history. I’m afraid I won’t be providing the violent disagreement he declares he craves! Instead I want to push Heretics in the hands of everyone I know now. It was such a fascinating read, such a wide scope of history, on such a difficult subject without any hint of judgement, and on an issue that still remains with us today. I adored this book and it will unquestionably be one of my favorite reads of 2011.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from Netgalley.


Review: A World on Fire, Amanda Foreman

The US Civil War is a topic that more or less everyone on both sides of the pond has learned at least a little something about. For us Americans, this is almost certainly more; I know in my school we covered the big battles and perhaps more importantly the many issues underpinning the war’s start and continuation. A World on Fire isn’t just a summary of those things. Instead, it is a history of the Civil War and at the same time a reflection of British and American relations during the war from the perspective of the people who lived through it. Foreman quotes extensively from personal records, letters, and other correspondence in her massive effort to tell the story of the war from different sides.

My edition of this book is subtitled “An Epic History of Two Nations Divided” and it is certainly epic. Coming in at over 800 pages long, in hardcover, reading this book is an undertaking (not least because it’s hard to hold!), but I at least found it a worthy one. Foreman is known very well for her earlier book, Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, which I read and enjoyed well before blogging, so before I even knew what her next book would be about I already suspected I’d be reading it. This is a total change of pace, but it stands up very well in its own right. American history has never been my favorite subject, but I enjoyed reading this and felt like I got a ton out of it, as well as another perspective on a war that still persists strongly in our culture.

Depicting just how closely relations between America and Britain still were is incredibly complex. British men fought for both sides in the war, British ships were involved in blockades, and both sides remained convinced that Britain would play a big part in determining the outcome of the war. All this despite the British government’s continued attempts at neutrality. It is epic in its scope, covering all events of the time in equal measure – Foreman can tell the story of a battle costing thousands of lives alongside a drawing room conversation or dinner that could have as much or as little effect on the war.

To write this book, Foreman draws from an unbelievable amount of sources and quotes from a variety of people. Some of them stick in the mind a bit better than others; Frank Vizetelly was one of my personal favorites. Even though he’s generally on the Confederate side, I loved that his pictures of the war were sprinkled liberally throughout the book. It made him a bit more human, especially when the images of the time are simply stiffly posed photographs. I was saddened to discover the poor guy doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, but his drawings are around on the internet. Here’s one of the Federal retreat from Bull Run:

frank vizetelly - bull run retreatSource

Of course, Foreman also includes the big names who ran the governments in all of the countries concerned, as well as the generals and a huge host of lesser soldiers whose letters have survived. We get the perspective of men in England, like Charles Francis Adams, who was ambassador to London during the war, and men in Parliament who were split between the North and the South. I’d learned nothing about this ever previously, aside from the fact that the lack of southern cotton was bad for England, so I was completely fascinated by this side of the story. Canada also plays a part I’d never suspected; at the time it was British North America and thus an obvious front for England. I didn’t even know that anyone in the US had ever hoped to annex Canada, although that should have been obvious. To top it off, the book doesn’t just focus on the men; there are women here, too, both the women loved by the men fighting and women who were passionate about their causes themselves.

In short, this was a book fascinating on many fronts, full of information, both on a small and wide scale. In terms of its mission to depict the the truth of the relations between two countries and how the people of the time felt about them, it succeeds hugely, depicting the events of the war with depth, thought, and consideration. Those who are not history buffs may find it dry and lengthy at times, but those who are obsessed like me will undoubtedly adore A World on Fire. Highly recommended.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from Amazon Vine.


Review: She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, Helen Castor

Elizabeth I is one of England’s best known reigning queens. Though she was not the first, she set the standard and is widely regarded as a successful ruling monarch. But there were women who ruled, or attempted to rule, England before Elizabeth. There was Matilda, daughter of Henry I, whose cousin got to the throne first; there was Eleanor of Aquitaine, who had plenty of power in her own domains but in many respects is best known for her husbands and sons; there was Isabella, wife of Edward II, who seized a throne for herself in the name of her son; there was Margaret of Anjou, who fought ferociously to maintain her son’s right to the throne; and there were Jane and Mary, Elizabeth’s immediate predecessors. Castor looks at these women and how they ruled and examines the pattern of English thought and how it changed over more than 400 years of history.

I loved this book. I didn’t expect anything less; I gushed about Helen Castor’s Blood and Roses a couple of years ago, so it’s no surprise that I couldn’t wait a second to get my hands on this one. None of these women were new to me as a person obsessed with medieval history, but Castor puts their stories together in a way that makes perfect sense. She looks not only at what happened to each woman and how successful she was at ruling, but what people thought about it and how England became a country that could accept a female monarch.

It’s no surprise that they have almost universally been vilified at one point or another. The medieval interpretation of what it meant to be female and the medieval interpretation of what it meant to be king were completely incompatible. As Castor says in the first section, focusing on Matilda, she just could not win. If she exercised the right of a king, the power necessary to be successful, she was an unnatural woman, but if she didn’t, there was simply no way for her to rule. She could not be a success in her contemporaries’ eyes, no matter what she did – at least, not until she started to fight on behalf of her son, Henry.

And the story is the same for many of the women, with incremental changes. Attitudes do take hundreds of years to change, and while the kingdom was changing, the status of women didn’t go very far towards changing with it. All of the royal power women were actually able to hold in England had to be in the name of a man, even if that man was actually a baby. It’s a fascinating exploration of the very different challenges each women faced while at the same time putting together the universality of their condition.

And it’s perfectly appropriate that they lead up to Elizabeth, because she was the game changer, who ruled in her own name, with her own wisdom, and did a fantastic job. There’s no question that women continued to struggle for rights, and they suffered considerably for centuries, in some respects still doing so. But a number of factors contributed towards her doing so, and she must have felt a kinship towards the women who came before and the strides they made to earn power for women in the English kingdom.

Castor treats all of the women with an even hand, taking a steady look at what was expected of them as women rulers, why they got treated the way they did, and even whether or not they deserved it. Isabella, for example, can easily be dismissed as a poor ruler, but we can also understand why she acted the way she did (at least as far as overthrowing her husband) and the results of those actions in a wider context. While there is still a lot about the men in these women’s lives, they were the actual monarchs and thus had a very large role to play in defining the positions of their mothers, daughters, and wives, so it doesn’t feel as though the women have vanished inside the shadows of the better-recorded lives of the men.

In short, She-Wolves is exceptional, inspirational, and endlessly fascinating. If you’re interested in history, especially that of women, this book is unquestionably for you.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review (and then bought a copy so I could have it in hardcover!).


Review: The Garden of Invention, Jane S. Smith

the garden of inventionIn his own time, Luther Burbank was a living legend, as well known in his own field as Henry Ford was for automobiles.  Starting out with hardly any land and even less money bar what he’d earned breeding a new kind of potato, Burbank headed west for greener, California pastures, where he could make his name. There he could work his magic, combining varieties of plants to create perfect specimens, which have now become so ubiquitous that we would no longer recognize the originals he tampered with.  But due to the nature of the botanical market, Burbank could never be assured of his position, and his eccentricity ensured that he would struggle to be accepted amongst scientists. Regardless, he changed the nature of plant breeding and introduced new ideas about plants that continue to resonate in the American psyche today.

I’d only ever heard of vague echoes about Luther Burbank before winning this book on Twitter from the publisher, at least a year ago now. I had no idea that he was regarded as such a great man or that his name could sell plants just by being attached to them. It’s a bit of a joke amongst those who know me that I have a “black thumb” – everything I’ve ever tried to grow has, unfortunately, died pretty quickly no matter what I do. So, I was purely interested in this book from a historical perspective; whatever information about gardening I took from it would surely never be put to good use. It was fortunately very satisfying from that historical perspective.

Smith takes us through a journey of Burbank’s life, from his relatively lowly origins to his path to fame and stardom. Quite a few of his own problems reflected the problems of the day; for example, none of his plants could ever be patented. As a result, men who “invented” things and were in the same class as him became wildly wealthy without needing to do much else, while Burbank had to continually innovate throughout his life in order to achieve results and deliver the next best thing. Tossed into the mix were bits about early twentieth century marketing, which was also quite interesting to me now that I work in marketing, and plenty about Burbank’s personal life and his various attempts to expand into other markets depending on how he felt at the time.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book was Burbank himself, which shouldn’t really have been a surprise. Such an eccentric man must have been a delight to write about. No one knows how to replicate some of his creations because he hardly ever documented what he did and he stymied every attempt to follow him and write about his methods. Instead he’d say it all depended on emotions and visitors to the farm would catch him talking to his plants as he went about the day’s work.

I didn’t really know what to expect from The Garden of Invention but I got an interesting little book about gardens, history, and a US that was rapidly legalizing. If any of those subjects interest you, give this one a try.

I am an Amazon Associate. I won this book in a giveaway.


Review: Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra is a legend.  Her name is synonymous with sex appeal, with beauty, with Egyptian history.  But we know so little about who she was and what she was like – the only verifiable image we have of her is on coins.  So much of Egyptian history has been overlaid with Roman interpretations, with medieval interpretations, and even with Victorian and twentieth century interpretations that it’s nearly impossible to tell how things might actually have happened.  With her new biography of this historical icon, Stacy Schiff attempts to peel back the layers – not to pass judgement or say decisively how things may have been, but to give us an idea of what Cleopatra’s world was like without our many different lenses of bias.

Like many people, I’ve known for my entire life it seems who Cleopatra was and who she slept with.  I’ve read books about her, about Julius Caesar, and even one about her children, who never attained her level of incredible fame and renown.  But Schiff is right in that all of those have layers upon layers of bias stacked on top of them.  It is nearly an impossible task for a modern person to separate out who Cleopatra genuinely was from who we believe her to be.  There are so many alternate stories and, as with all history, nothing is set in stone anyway.  Schiff uses contemporary sources to tease out the truth in many cases and to explain where we don’t actually know the truth (quite a frequent occurrence) in others.  We don’t know what she looks like.  We have virtually nothing she wrote.  As a person, Cleopatra is all smoke and mirrors, especially when you consider that many of the people who wrote about her were judgemental Romans.

What I’d have to say I most liked was that Schiff confidently dispelled the notion that Cleopatra got all of her power, wealth, and fame from pure sex appeal.  It’s common to dismiss Cleopatra; we are far too quick to assume that she was simply a phenomenal lover, to ignore her own deeds in favor of those of the men she associated with.  It’s true that she seems to have been charismatic and people were drawn to her; Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are only the two most famous examples.  But she was powerful and she did rule over a largely peaceful kingdom.  She may well have had feminine appeal, but just because she used that to her advantage in many cases didn’t mean she cold-heartedly seduced men.  She killed her brothers, but virtually all of the Egyptian pharaohs before her killed parents, siblings, and even children.  Why is it different for a woman, particularly such a famous one?

I also genuinely loved the historical background that Schiff included. In order to elucidate parts of Cleopatra’s life that are undocumented, she inserts historical facts to provide incredibly descriptive pictures that brought Rome, Egypt, and particularly Alexandria to vivid, brilliant life.  I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of ancient history, but Schiff made me doubt myself and wonder why I didn’t like it before.  More than anything I was amazed by how much was the  same then as now; we tend to think that people in history lacked so much that we presently have but this book proves that it just isn’t true.

For those who aren’t quite as excited by history as I am, I think this book may move quite slowly.  I read it for an online book club and I don’t think many of the other members were loving it as much as I was while I was reading it (we haven’t discussed it yet, so I may be wrong).  Since Cleopatra has left so few remnants of herself, it’s hard to empathize with her and feel for the woman she was, which may make this a difficult choice for those who are used to biographies full of quotes and intimate details.  However, as someone who simply can’t get enough of history, I can say that Cleopatra was a wonderful book and I devoured it.  If you’re at all interested in Cleopatra, I highly recommend this book to you.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free to review from Amazon Vine.


Review: Katherine Swynford, Alison Weir

Katherine Swynford is one of English history’s best known mistresses.  Her attractions were clearly so strong to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, that he eventually broke all tradition and gave up the prospect of marital advance in order to marry her, a knight’s daughter who offered very little at that point in her life.  But who was Katherine and what do we know about her?

As it turns out, the answer is not much, and this effort by Alison Weir ended up as a disappointment for me.  I’ve never really enjoyed the history that is virtually all speculation.  I understand some of it is necessary in many pursuits, but I went through this book feeling that Weir didn’t really need to write an entire book on Katherine’s life when she had so little to work with.  As always, it ended up being a book about the men in Katherine’s life and bits about her more illustrious relations and children.  Large sections are devoted to Chaucer, who had an absolutely tiny role in Katherine’s life, but because he’s a well known figure in history and was married to Katherine’s sister, he gets a role, even after Katherine’s sister dies.  I have to say I was disappointed in that; I thought a book based solely on John of Gaunt or Geoffrey Chaucer would have been far more interesting, as Weir could have dug deeper into their lives and drawn a few more relevant conclusions.  It’s a sad reality that medieval women’s lives are so little documented, something we all wish we could fix, but that’s not a case to make a book out of something.

I was also disappointed with the level of scholarship I found in the book.  Weir’s analysis of her sources seems very uneven.  Virtually all first hand medieval sources are unreliable to a degree – you have to take into account bias, propaganda, and so on, just like you would when deciding whether to believe someone today – and she seems to use this when it suits her and ignore it when it doesn’t.  This is especially true in the case of Froissart – I thought she should have addressed his unreliability from the start, so readers had a solid background going in.  I like that she uses so many primary sources, but I would prefer a bit more depth of analysis, even in popular history like this.

I also really disliked how she drew conclusions from what may have been and then just went with them, without considering other options as the text went on, as it severely limited the depths of her continual analysis throughout the book.  It also led to flimsy conclusions built on flimsy assumptions, which all historians should do their best to avoid.  There genuinely isn’t enough here for a book, which is what’s caused this problem.  Some of the assumptions are necessary to keep the history going as a fairly steady narrative, and possibly helps for people who are unfamiliar with the Middle Ages, but I just wanted more from it.  I remember enjoying Weir’s earlier books a great deal more than I liked this one.

That all said, I do think Katherine Swynford is a decent choice for getting a nice, reasonably accurate picture of fourteenth century England.  Weir’s work is very readable, although at times devolves into lists and dates. For the most part she paints a nice picture of the time in which Katherine lived and how she might have thought or felt.  Sadly, it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about Katherine herself, and despite Weir’s flimsy guesses we end up with little picture about the woman herself.  I ended up feeling like the book was lacking, even though I liked it while reading it, and would only really recommend it to someone interested in these few years of English history and not necessarily looking for much detail about Katherine herself.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.


Review: Bess of Hardwick, Mary S. Lovell

Bess of Hardwick wasn’t born to privilege.  The daughter of a relatively small landlord, she rose to high status slowly and purposefully.  Placed in high status houses, she married four men and outlived all of them.  She also outlived three monarchs and built a number of houses, the most prestigious of which is Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.  She became one of the richest and most powerful women in Elizabethan and early Stuart England, a time when women were still chattel, and died wealthy, in a house that she herself had constructed, after a long and productive life.

My first encounter with Bess of Hardwick was in the novel A Woman of Passion by Virginia Henley.  I was still in my initial romance novel stage of reading, and much of that particular novel is romantic, but it really led me to be curious about the woman behind the fiction, the actual Bess of Hardwick.  It also ends when she marries Shrewsbury, or so I recall, which leaves plenty of interesting years completely without mention.  Then just recently I visited Hardwick Hall myself and was reminded of why I was so interested in her.  The house itself is ridiculously impressive, with its huge windows, imposing winding staircases, and immense visiting halls.  I wanted to know more, and so when I saw this book in the library, I decided it was time.

On first impression, I was actually amazed at how easy this was to read.  I love history, but it does take longer to read and naturally provokes more thought than an average fiction novel, at least for me.  This, though, was so interesting and enjoyable that I actually found myself going well beyond my daily page targets because I just was so curious about what happened next.  Bess’s childhood is mostly skimmed over, of necessity really since very little information is available about her specifically.  Instead, the author regales us with all sorts of interesting information about Tudor childhoods in general and Bess’s family in particular.  I knew some of it, but not all of it, and I was completely fascinated, as I was with most of the book.

Lovell then goes on to talk about Bess’s various marriages, her children, and her gradual rise to power and prominence.  She quotes from plenty of letters, although mostly from others to Bess, and keeps everything in a neat and tidy timeline so that it’s easy to trace Bess’s life from start to finish.  There are plenty of details and documentation, and she does argue with the generally accepted historical record sometimes – including denouncing some of my favorites, those pesky historical “facts” which seem to have no basis in actual documentation.  These are generally started by a historian somewhere along the way (usually in the 19th century) who of course did not name his sources and probably just made up that particular fact.  There is no way of actually knowing if it’s true or not, so it’s best to stick with what we actually do know.  So the book was not just an entertaining biography, but intellectually stimulating as well.

Bess of Hardwick brought home to me how much I miss history with its fascinating portrait of a woman who proved her worth over and over again.  Undoubtedly Bess would have been the CEO of some humongous corporation these days, but in her own time she was a clever, enchanting woman who made her money work for her, loved her husbands and children, and generally proves everyone who denounces Tudor women wrong.  I would enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone who enjoys history, especially Tudor history.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library.


Review: Wu, Jonathan Clements

Empress Wu was the first woman in Chinese history to become a reigning empress.  Getting there wasn’t easy; as a lower concubine, which she became at the age of 13, Wu was little more than a servant, and would have been banished to a convent forever on the death of Emperor Taizong.  Luckily for her, she encountered his son Gaozong before his death, and Gaozong became enamored with her, taking her from the convent and eventually replacing his current empress with her.  With that mission accomplished, Wu set forth on her goal to achieve recognition for herself and, in some ways, for all Chinese women; her methods may have been brutal, but so was the time in which she lived.

Anyone who thinks the Tudors are exciting and scandalous should try on the 7th century Chinese for a change!  I was frankly amazed at all the drama, scandal, and murder that went on in this court and over the course of the book.  It’s fairly well documented but even so, I’m quite shocked that other people can treat each other so badly and not really seem to notice.  This book was nothing short of exciting, especially for non-fiction; it’s no wonder that Wu’s life has been depicted in writing and in film a number of times over the years.

I didn’t know too much about Wu to start with; I had never read anything about her, but after I finished Under Heaven I set out looking for non-fiction about the same time period.  This is set a number of years before, but the events herein had a large impact on the following history, so I just went with this book.  Let me tell you, my interest in Chinese history is properly rewarding.  Wu was a completely fascinating woman and I’m surprised that we have so much information on someone who lived so long ago.  I can place her nicely in the context of Europe and I’m amazed at how different the cultures are.

I was also surprised at how many things were the same in China as they would be in the late nineteenth century.  Now, I haven’t read any non-fiction about that period yet, but just from reading Empress Orchid I recognized the huge palaces, the tropes of different levels of concubines with different names brought in purposely to please the emperor, the huge amount of ceremonial events, and of course the endless intrigue.

What I loved most about this book, however, was easily Clements’s even-handed treatment of Wu and all of her cronies.  Yes, she did some pretty terrible things; there were some more terrible things she might have done or her relatives might have done under her name; and then there were good things that she did.  For example, she murdered the Empress before her and a rival concubine by drowning them in wine after dismembering them.  She also may have conveniently offed her kids.  That’s pretty bad, and I don’t think anyone is going to absolve her of those crimes.  But she also raised the profile of women by increasing the mourning time for mothers and insisting on incorporating female halves of traditionally male ceremonies.  Yes, she was ruthless and furthered her own ambitions, but she also did her part to make women important, too.

I also loved at the end how Clements stepped back and looked at Wu’s behavior in light of other, male emperors, and came to the conclusion that she behaved similarly to them.  She had lots of lovers, she killed her enemies, but China prospered under her rule.  Men who behaved just like that were regarded as heroes, while she has been regularly vilified throughout history.  Is it just because a woman had the daring to act like a man?

I don’t know, but I like historians who question prejudice about women.  Murder is never a good thing, but should a woman be condemned for it more than a man?  I don’t think so.

Anyway, I’ll just conclude by highly recommending Wu. I think the subtitle (the Chinese empress who schemed, seduced, and murdered her way to become a living God) isn’t so good, but the book itself is just excellent.

I am an Amazon Associate. I borrowed this book from my local library – but you can bet I’ll be buying this guy’s other books.


Review: Wild Romance, Chloe Schama

A single steamer ride threw Theresa Longworth and Charles Yelverton together in 1852.  They didn’t begin to correspond immediately, but Theresa soon found reason to write a letter to Yelverton, starting off a haphazard courtship and irregular marriage that would change the course of her life forever.  Theresa’s fight for recognition as Yelverton’s wife highlight the serious issues with Victorian marriage laws in Great Britain, while her sojourn and writings later on in her life demonstrated her will to retain independence and support herself no matter the cost.

This was a truly fascinating book.  Theresa and Yelverton’s courtship is carried on almost completely in letters, and while there were not nearly enough excerpts for me, Schama’s narrative was enough to keep me curious and wondering about Yelverton’s motives in particular.  I particularly enjoyed the sections where Theresa was a nurse in the Crimean war; they were disturbing but illuminating, and I appreciated the references to the better-known Florence Nightingale.  I was astonished at the fact that a couple could essentially get married twice, have it certified as legal in both Scotland and Ireland, yet allow the man to marry again and acknowledge the second marriage over the first in England, more or less because he chose that marriage.

Just the various court battles provide for surprisingly good reading, especially the first one.  There’s a curious dichotomy between Theresa’s somewhat obvious “promiscuity” – staying with Yelverton as his wife despite the questionable legality of their marriage, surely a Victorian no-no – and the courtroom portrayal of her as a virtuous innocent used by a man.

The second half of the book covers the end of the court battle, with Theresa continuing to use Yelverton’s name but going off to live her own life.  At times, the book definitely suffered from having a less coherent narrative here.  Schama sometimes has to delve into various backstories of history to explain why Theresa does things and goes places, which was necessary but dragged.  Without the love letters, the book had a less personal feel and I felt like I couldn’t relate to the older Theresa as much as the younger one.

But what she accomplished was fantastic – making herself a living off of her writings and traveling the world.  She traveled throughout Europe, the Americas, and Asia, documenting it all in a series of fictional retellings.  I wish these books were still in print.  I loved that Theresa’s writings to defend herself early on in her life lent her the voice and independence to make it on her own at a time when women had few rights.  The rest of her life almost reads like defiance; if the courtroom couldn’t recognize her right to her marriage and a husband’s protection, she was going to prove that she didn’t need it anyway.

I’ve seen a few reviews around that suggest the book was written in too scholarly a tone, so I think it is important to note here that it’s non-fiction and reads like a non-fiction book.  I didn’t have a problem with this at all and in fact enjoyed the more factual tone – the book never slips in sensationalism as it so easily could have done – but it’s worth briefly noting.  The entire thing is less than 300 pages long, so even when parts do drag they’re usually over in 10 pages and something more interesting has happened again.

I also totally loved the literary references sprinkled throughout the book.  Schama especially notes how the courtship and later court battle between Yelverton and Theresa gave rise to numerous fictional stories around similar subjects; she actually discovered the story through a literary footnote.  I think these little tidbits perfectly tied the book into its historical and literary context, reminding me of what I’d read before and what I really should read again.

Overall, Wild Romance was an excellent book.  It’s a fascinating historical account of an extraordinary Victorian woman, poking at the society’s flaws – not just in England, but worldwide – while demonstrating how a truly motivated woman could go about making a life for herself in nontraditional ways. The first half was better than the second half, but it’s all worth reading.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.