Category Archives: reading

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace

Having read and loved The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House a few years ago, I jumped at the chance to read an advance copy of Kate Summerscale’s new book, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady.

The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a fascinating account of a murder which took place in England in 1860. In a well-to-do house, a little boy is taken from his bed in the middle of the night and brutally murdered. The book details the investigation which followed and illustrates the development of Scotland Yard’s new detective branch, and the increasing (and often ghoulish) public interest in and the sensationalism of murder. I was hooked from the start. Summerscale’s weaving of the story of the murder itself and that of the much wider issues which it illustrates is masterful. Most of the poor reviews on Amazon seem to come from people who fail to understand the difference between non-fiction and a novel.

Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace is about a scandalous divorce trial from the late 1850s. The eponymous Mrs Robinson kept a diary, as did many ladies of the time, but what was unusual about hers is that in it she recorded details of her unhappy marriage and infatuations with male friends. Inevitably, her husband discovers the journal and sued for divorce.

As with Suspicions, the central story is compelling. Isabella Robinson is fascinating. She is not immediately likeable, but her unhappy situation and the impossibility of escaping it engages the reader’s sympathy. Summerscale uses the story to explore the wider historical issues. The Robinsons’s case was one of the first heard before the newly-established divorce court which was not controlled by the church. The book also tackles some of the issues surrounding the fundamental inequalities of marriage and divorce of the time. For example, a man would usually be successful in procuring a divorce if he could prove his wife’s adultery. A woman, on the other hand, would not have been able to get a divorce from her philandering husband on the basis of his infidelity. Indeed, Mr Robinson himself not only had a mistress, but had two children with her- these facts were not considered relevant at the time.

This may sound like a dry subject. I can’t say that I would have thought that nineteenth century divorce an inspiring subject, but I’d have been wrong. In Summerscale’s hands, it’s gripping. The diary in question is now lost, but much of the content was reported in newspapers and a legal journal and from these the author has pieced much of Isabella Robinson’s inner life back together. She has also drawn out fully fleshed personalities for all the main protagonists. Modern audiences will find the inherent, unashamed double standard of the legal system pause for thought, an insight into what life was like for even well-to-do women of not all that long ago.

But most importantly, it’s a thoroughly good read. I read it on my Kindle and was glued to it at every chance I could steal to read a little more- on the bus, on my lunch break. It’s utterly compelling and highly recommended. Isabella Robinson may have been all but forgotten before Summerscale’s book, but she’s been restored to her place in the annals of infamous women now.

My Favourite Fiction of 2011

Following on from the previous post, I thought I’d do a short round up of some of my 2011 fiction highlights.

First off, I should say that I am a rampant abandoner of books which I’m not enjoying. I know a lot of people will plough on to the end no matter how much they dislike a book but I’m not one of them. Life’s too short. If I’ve got to the end of a novel, that in itself indicates that I liked it. Having a Kindle makes that even easier- I can abandon a book on my way to work and have another to read on the way home. 🙂

Fiction-wise, I tend to read historical novels- a wide genre covering some wonderful depictions of the past and a whole lot of trash too. I also quite like a bit of European crime.

The Ground Is Burning, Samuel Black

My favourite novel of last year was Samuel Black’s The Ground is Burning: Seduction, Betrayal, Murder, a novel with multiple points of view telling the story of Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli and Leonardo da Vinci in the early sixteenth century. Another point of view is that of Dorotea Caracciolo, a young woman who was kidnapped on her way to her marriage, thought to have been abducted by Cesare. Her uniquely female point of view is an interesting contrast to the various voices of the male characters. Black does a fantastic job of making these larger than life characters multi-dimensional, flawed and fascinating. There are battles, sex, betrayal and complex Italian politics. This is how historical fiction should be!

Another highlight featured the notorious Cesare: Sarah Bower’s Book of Love (entitled Sins of the House of Borgia in the USA). It’s mostly set in the much neglected Este court in Ferrara. Although enjoyable and clearly well researched, the central romantic relationship of the novel (though it’s by no means a romance), I found somewhat unbelievable. It was a bit rushed- the heroine falls in love within about 2 minutes of having met the man in question and the reader can’t quite understand why. If you can get past that (and I did), it’s a great read.

Secret of the Sands, Sara Sheridan

Veering away from my typical literary haunts of fifteenth and sixteenth century Europe, I read Sara Sheridan’s new book Secret of the Sands which is set in the Arabian Peninsula in the nineteenth century. The novel is a seamless blend of the factual (the story’s hero and heroine both existed) and the imagined (beyond her name, almost everything about Zena is invented). It’s a gripping account of slavery, cultural clash and adventure in the Arabian desert. Sara’s previous novel, The Secret Mandarin is a similarly engrossing tale of westerners in China just after the Opium War.

My non-historical favourites were Sarah Dunant’s Mapping the Edge, an account of a woman who goes on holiday to Florence and doesn’t come home. Dunant’s my favourite historical fiction author but her contemporary novels, though often neglected, are well worth a look too. This one is unsettling and disturbing but absolutely addictive. Fred Vargas’s most recent novel was translated into English in 2011 too. An Uncertain Place is another outing for Commissaire Adamsberg. A good novel though let down by poor translation. I was, for example, surprised to find out that the translator is a native English speaker.

I’m currently back in the fifteenth century, Venice specifically, with Michelle Lovric’s The Floating Book.

Michelle Lovric, The Floating Book

The Best Non-Fiction I Read In 2011

Happy New Year everyone. One of my resolutions is to update this blog far more often. I thought I’d start with some of my reading highlights of the past year, starting with non-fiction.

My non-fiction star of 2011 was Lost Girls, which I’ve written about before so won’t do again. I love it though.

My other non-fiction highlights have included Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence by Gene Brucker which I found second hand. It was first published in the 1970s after the author experienced one of those strokes of luck historians dream about: he uncovered previously unpublished records. Buried in the extensive Florentine archives were records of a marriage trial from the 15th century. His book is a fascinating account of the case brought by a widow against the young nobleman she claimed had married her. He did not acknowledge the alleged marriage and had married another woman. It may not have quite as exciting as Martin Guerre but it is a wonderful insight into marriage and sexual politics in the Renaissance.

I am currently reading Paul Strathern’s new book, Death in Florence: the Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City. I was thrilled that this one is available on Kindle (none of his others are). The book looks at Florence, the Medici and the radical Dominican preacher Savonarola. Strathern depicts Lorenzo and Piero de’ Medici and Savonarola as complex individuals when it is easy to portray them as caricatures- Lorenzo the Magnificent, Piero the Unfortunate and Savonarola as the “mad monk.” Despite knowing where this story is leading, I’m hooked.< Christmas presents have also added to my already long list of books to be read, including Lauro Martines’s Scourge and Fire: Savonarola and Renaissance Italy which might be a good follow up to Death in Florence. As a leaving present from my old job, I was given a lot of book tokens and have so far bought Italy in the Age of the Renaissance (john Najemy, ed.) which is an academic introduction to the period. I am eying up Nuns and Nunneries in Renaissance Florence by Sharon T. Strocchia

St Catherine of Siena


As is probably obvious, my interested have swerved sharply towards the Florenitine and Italian Renaissance! This is in no small part due to visiting Florence for the first time last April.

Summer Reading

History Today has recently made a few blog posts on summer reading so I thought I’d list some of mine.

On Wednesday, I treked half-way across Edinburgh to pick up packages of books from the Royal Mail depot inconveniently located in the middle of nowhere. As well as a box set of American crime drama (Law & Order Special Victims Unit, as it happens- I’m addicted to that and CSI), were two books I’ve been very excited about getting.

Cover imageThe first is Nicholas Terpstra’s Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence (2010), about the mysteriously high mortatlity rate in the Casa della Pieta, a shelter for homeless or orphaned girls in sixteenth century Florence. Terpstra claims that of the 526 girls who stayed there during its 14 year life, only 202 left alive. I imagine it’s going to be something of a Magdalen laundry of the Early Modern period. More than that, it looks like an exciting piece of historical detective work. There’s a review of it on the IHR website here which is what first attracted me. Assuming I like it, I’ll doubtlessly get a copy of Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna by the same author.

Cover imageIn addition, I got Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith (2011) which takes a fresh look at an old story. Those who have seen Brotherhood of The Wolf (and if you haven’t, I strongly recommend you do) will be at least vaguely familiar with the legendary Beast of Gevaudin which terrorised the French countryside in the 18th century. It claimed over 100 victims but the real mystery was exactly what the beast was. Witnesses were certain that it was not a wolf, although the authorities eventually claimed that it was. Smith looks at the story in the context of French life at the end of the ancien regime, the Revolution only a few years away. There’s a website for the book here.

Other than that, my reading will be focused on the Roman Empire.

More Reading

Well, the end of Classical Greece is only a few pages away (more of that in another post soon). However, a good two weeks ahead of schedule, Amazon have sent me this.Anne Boleyn - Fatal Attractions I’ve had this on pre-order since January.

There have been numerous new books published in the last few years about the Tudors, Anne Boleyn in particular. With the popularity of the US t.v. show, a lot of authors seem to have leapt on the bandwagon and churned out a biography, few saying anything that hasn’t been said before (and better). Many of them have dug out old myths, discredited for years by more able historians, and regurgitated them for audiences who don’t know the field well enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Some make grand, if misleading, promises to break new ground on the subject (for example, Alison Weir’s recent The Lady In The Tower may well be the first book focused solely on Anne Boleyn’s downfall; it is not, however, the first book to tackle it, or by far the best).

Bernard’s book is different. For one thing, the man’s actually studied history (which puts him in a minority for historical biographers, your history graduate author grumbles). For another, he’s genuinely got something controversial to say.

Bernard is unique among Anne’s recent biographers (the good and the less so) because not only does he claim that it was Henry, not Anne, who insisted on their long celibacy, but that the charges of adultery she faced in 1536 were not a vicious fabrication, the result of court faction, but were, at least in part, true.

He has written about this in the past, though in less detail. Part of his theory, as I understand it, relies on his interpretation of remarks in Henry’s love letters to Anne. Bernard believes that a line in which Henry tells his love that he hopes to soon be her lover physically as well as emotionally (I paraphrase) indicates that it is he who has decreed that there will be no premarital sex between the two of them and that this line is intended to pacify (the insatiable?) Anne with a promise that his injunction will soon be lifted.

To me this reads more as a frustrated lover trying to wheedle and persuade his mistress that their marriage is all but a done deal so what harm could there be to granting him those final favours?

Bernard suggests that Henry’s uncharacteristic moderation is due to his determination that his children with Anne will be of definite legitimacy and so refuses to sleep with her in order to avoid any inconvenient illegitimate pregnancies wrecking his plans. I’d almost buy this if Henry hadn’t made some provisions for their illegitimate children when he promoted Anne to Marquess of Pemboke: in the letters patent, it is stated that Anne’s children will inherit the lands and title but the clause “lawfully begotten” is notable by its absence. By 1532 he is considering the possibility that he may not have “lawfully begotten,” that is legitimate, children with her.

I haven’t delved into Bernard’s new book yet so have summarised his arguments in his book The King’s Reformation. He will have to come up with some pretty good evidence to convince me of his claims as Eric Ives has done a thorough job of demonstrating the improbability of Anne’s guilt. I will certainly be posting about this when I can get stuck into this book. It’s the first Anne Boleyn book I’ve looked forward to for a long time.

Classical Greece by Robin Osborne

Cover of "Classical Greece" by Robin Osborne

Book 1 for the Short Oxford Histories project arrived today. It was a welcome distraction from the horrible weather (pouring rain and snow in Scotland at the moment), leaking roof and the cold that has overstayed its welcome.

I’m excited about starting and now wondering if I should stick to my arbitrary starting date of Thursday or take advantage of some train travel I’ll be undertaking for work tomorrow and the couple of hours of good reading time it will provide. Perhaps 31st March is a more auspicious start date than 1st April anyway.

Reading Project

As a result of working on the Cleopatra research, I’ve remembered how much I enjoyed Ancient History at uni and how much I’ve forgotten. Consequently, I’m now reading The Classical World by Robin Lane Fox. It’s had a few Amazon reviews saying it’s dull but I’m not finding it so. This may, of course, be because I am particularly interested and after some of the course books we used at uni, my standards for interesting are low. It’s a shame though as ancient history, more than any other period IMO, is crammed with fantastic stories and amazing characters.

really want to go through and refresh my knowledge of all the history I did at uni. This means the Dark Age of Greece to the 1950s. I have, therefore, made a plan to achieve this by reading all the relevant Short Oxford Histories: SOH of Europe, the British Isles, France and Italy. I’ve now got a list of 33 books. There’s a series on Germany too but I’m leaving that one for the time being- Italy on got in by virtue of it being so important for the Renaissance and thus the Early Modern period.

I was thinking of adding in another few non-SOH as I go, like the one above; Alexander the Great by the same author as I love Alexander the Great; Caesar: Life of A Colossus, maybe Antony and Cleopatra by the same author if Caesar is any good; and possibly a good biography of Augustus. However, I think that will distract more than anything so I might not put them on the “official” list.

The SOHs list:

  1. Classical Greece 500-323 BCE, Robin Osborne
  2. Roman Europe 1000BC- AD 400, Edward Bispham
  3. The Roman Era: The British Isles: 55 BC – AD 410, Peter Salway (BI)
  4. After Rome: C.400-c.800, Thomas Charles-Edwards (BI)
  5. The Early Middle Ages 400-1000 AD, Rosamond McKitterick
  6. Italy in the Early Middle Ages: 476-1000, Cristina La Rocca (It)
  7. From the Vikings to the Normans, Wendy Davies (BI)
  8. France in the Central Middle Ages 900-1200, Marcus Bull (Fr)
  9. The Central Middle Ages 950-1320, Daniel Power
  10. Italy in the Central Middle Ages, David Abulafia (It)
  11. The Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries: 1066- c. 1280, Barbara Harvey (BI)
  12. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, Ralph Griffiths (BI)
  13. France in the Later Middle Ages 1200-1500, David Potter (Fr)
  14. Italy in the Age of the Renaissance: 1300-1550, John M. Najemy (It)
  15. The Sixteenth Century, Euan Cameron
  16. The Sixteenth Century: 1485-1603, Patrick Collinson (BI)
  17. Renaissance and Reformation France: 1500-1648, Mack P. Holt (Fr)
  18. Early Modern Italy: 1550-1796, John A. Marino (It)
  19. The Seventeenth Century: Europe 1598-1715, Joseph Bergin
  20. The Seventeenth Century: 1603-1688,Jenny Wormald (BI)
  21. Old Regime France 1648-1788, William Doyle (Fr)
  22. The Eighteenth Century: 1688-1815, Paul Langford (BI)
  23. The Eighteenth Century: Europe 1688-1815, T. C. W. Blanning
  24. Revolutionary France: 1788-1880, Malcolm Crook (Fr)
  25. The Nineteenth Century: Europe 1789-1914, T. C. W. Blanning
  26. Italy in the Nineteenth Century: 1796-1900, , John A. Davies (It)
  27. The Nineteenth Century: The British Isles 1815-1901, Colin Matthew (BI)
  28. Europe 1900-1945, Julian Jackson
  29. Liberal and Fascist Italy, Adrian Lyttleton
  30. The British Isles 1901-1951, Keith Robbins (BI)
  31. Modern France: 1880-2002, James McMillan (Fr)
  32. Europe Since 1945, Mary Fulbrook
  33. The British Isles Since 1945, Kathleen Burk (BI)
  34. NB: BI indicates SOH of the British Isles; Fr = SOH of France; It = SOH of Italy; otherwise SOH of Europe. Bold are titles I already own.

    I’m not an especially fast reader but factoring in the fact that I need to keep on with the research for my book, I think 18 months is a reasonably achievable target. 78 weeks means just under 2.5 weeks per SOH book, which is quite doable. The first book has been ordered and is due to arrive by 31st March so I’ll start the project on 1st April (how auspicious).
    If anyone feels generous (and it is my birthday in a few weeks), I’ve set up an Amazon Wishlist for all the titles as yet unpurchased here, with the date I’m due to start reading each title.

    Despite intending to blog about this, I somehow suspect that unlike Belle du Jour, Julie Powell et al, I will not come home at any point to find 65 messages on the answering machine from literary agents and publishers desperate to see this project made into books and films. Lack of imagination, I call it.

    I’ll blog any wicked women finds from the books and anything else that it particularly relevant or interesting as well as general things that arise from a project like this. Before I even start, there are a couple of things that spring to mind, in particular Spartan marriage practices, which I hope the first book covers.