Book Review: A Right Royal Face-Off

 

“A man wants his own face on the wall, not to remind himself how he looks – a looking-glass would serve just as well for that – but to tell the world that he is the kind of man who has his face painted, and his wife’s face, and his children’s. Once they are on the wall, he can rest in the knowledge that he is that sort of fellow, and the world knows it, and the world will also remember him and his wife and his children when their physical bodies are long departed.”

A Right Royal Face-Off, by Simon Edge, tells the story of an artistic feud between Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Both artists made their living painting portraits commissioned by those who could afford such vanities in the eighteenth century. Thus, despite humble origins, they mixed with the aristocracy. Viewed through the eyes of Gainsborough’s footman – a young man working in a household receiving esteemed visitors but employing few servants – the story offers a social history laced with humour.

Interspersed with the the goings on in Georgian times is a contemporary tale. A television production company is creating a series for daytime viewers’ consumption. Britain’s Got Treasures invites members of the public to bring their valuables for experts to assess. Budget constraints have affected both the quality of the presenters and the experts. When an elderly lady brings a grotesque and vandalised painting, claiming it is a Gainsborough, she is roundly mocked on camera.  Taking umbrage at her treatment she marches off set but not before someone with a little more knowledge starts to question if she could be correct.

The stories told are of ambition and pretentiousness. The behaviour of celebrities and their coteries across both timelines is gently mocked along with members of the public who are complicit in their willingness to offer the requisite attention. The role of a partisan media in whipping up interest is shown to be no modern invention.

In Gainsborough’s day members of the public would pay to view portraits and other paintings at The Royal Academy – a sort of celebrity magazine of its time. Unlike today such art was not regarded as a highbrow pursuit and the faces of actresses and mistresses were of as much interest as royalty. Artists submitted their best work for display to maintain their standing and thereby draw in further clientele. The annual exhibitions were critiqued in the newspapers, providing valuable publicity. Linked to these were stories of the sitters – the gossip and intrigues lapped up by all and sundry.

At one time in more recent history Gainsboroughs were the most highly valued paintings in the world. Nowadays they are not so sought after – the market has moved on. It is this fickle nature of value – people as well as things – that is expertly lampooned throughout the tale. Cultural snobbery and its capriciousness along with the fixation of the masses on anyone deemed famous is, it seems, ageless.

The writing is engaging once the first few chapters have established the structure employed to progress each thread. Alternating chapters offer in turn: a scene from Gainsborough’s home life; the latest letter from Gainsborough’s footman to the young man’s mother; an episode from the making of the TV series. I particularly enjoyed the footman’s droll letters as these provide a window into the life of ordinary people living outside of London in Georgian times as well as unadorned commentary on the private and public behaviour of Gainsborough and his contemporaries. The TV series thread illustrates how little has changed. It is refreshing that the artistic elements of the story may be appreciated without either obsequiousness or expertise.

An entertaining social history replete with candid observations and witticisms. A reminder of the commerce required if artists are expected to continue to create. A deft and exuberant satire that is pointed whilst avoiding cruelty – enjoyable and well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Lightning Books.

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Book Review: Red Dog

Coenraad de Buys was the great grandson of French immigrants who farmed in the Cape area of South Africa from the seventeenth century. His grandfather and then father married Cape Dutch women and had numerous children. When his father died of suspected poisoning, the seven year old boy chose to live with his sister, Geertruy, raising livestock he received from his father’s estate on her husband’s farm. By the early 1780s Coenraad had his own farm and had taken a common law wife of slave descent. He became one of a number of white and coloured people who were on the Xhosa side in the frontier wars against the Boers and then the British. Due to his stature and self-confidence his antics became legend.

Willem Anker has taken the known facts about this larger than life historical figure and woven a tale of day to day living on the raw and brutal South African frontier. As well as Europeans trying to force their ideas of civilisation onto the native population, the warring tribes of indigenous hunters and pastoralists are seeking alliances that they believe will prove advantageous. Cattle rustling is common. Ivory is bartered for guns and ammunition. Women are commodities to be given or taken.

From an early age Coenraad values his freedom. He nurses a hatred for his mother who he blames for his father’s death. He also hates his brother-in-law who regularly beats him until the boy leaves to live elsewhere. By taking a coloured woman as his wife, Coenraad ostracises himself from much of the white community, including his wider family. He struggles to settle to farming with its government mandated laws and expectation of submission.

“A bureaucracy understands maps, not land. A company does not understand war, it flourishes in meetings.”

“The commission does not succeed in persuading the Caffres of the principle of private property”

When farmers mistreat the natives who work for them, complaints can reach tribal leaders who may then have the farm burned to the ground. With the wars in Europe at this time, including the French revolution, there are changes to deal with and growing resentment. Farmers cannot rely on central support so take matters into their own hands.

“all news is half a year old here. It is uncertain who is ruling us”

“The devil take equality and fraternity. But liberty sounds like a good idea.”

Coenraad lives a savage lifestyle and his ruthless treatment of, particularly, the bushmen he encounters is described in distressing detail. Written as his own account of his life, there is occasional acknowledgement that some of the scenes depicted may have been embellished, perhaps to ensure other vicious men remain wary.

“Everybody wants to rule and nobody wants to follow”

“revolutions end up making bureaucrats of the most hardened rebels”

Coenraad befriends a local chieftain and crosses the border to live amongst natives taking multiple wives including the chieftain’s mother. During this period he befriends a missionary to whom he acts as interpreter. He tries settling to farming again but is forced to leave after he testifies against a white women who has been torturing and murdering her slaves.

With no wish to return to the Cape colony, Coenraad, once again, packs up his by now large and complicated family and heads north.

“If the law says a man can no longer be what he is, then it’s time to clear out”

“If you want to start behaving like a free human being, your boss must make you less than human”

Coenraad, not for the first time, has a price on his head. As a result he struggles to trade for ammunition. Empty guns prevent him from defending his cattle. After a lifetime of fighting and periods of feral existence, his aging body is failing.

The story is lengthy and brutal.  Coenraad travels around the country, murdering and thieving, taking whatever pretty woman catches his eye whilst expecting his wives to remain loyal. He is base yet a fine orator. He seeks learning whilst meting out death without apparent empathy. His attempts to settle in one place offer him the chance of wealth but his refusal to bow to authority, including that of society and the church, leads to periods when he must fight alongside whoever rules the land he has moved on to.

The narrative pulls no punches in evoking the cruelty and violence of the time and place. The natural beauty of Africa barely merits a mention. Coenraad’s sexual urges are described in detail. All of this adds to the portrayal of a man whose reputation became a part of his currency – a cloak he wears with pride and alacrity.

The structure and writing style work well in bringing to vivid life a torrid country and its vying people. It is not easy to accept how humans and animals were treated but this is a part of South African history and an aid to understanding subsequent issues that still reverberate. Coenraad’s story offers a perspective on complex aspects of European empire building. It is a fascinating if at times gruelling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.

Book Review: In the Blink of an Eye

In the Blink of an Eye, by Ali Bacon, is set in 19th century Edinburgh. A breakaway group of 400 ministers have left the established Kirk to form a free church. David Octavius Hill, a respected and lauded artist in the city, offers to paint a portrait of these men of faith. His commission is to commemorate what is being referred to as the Great Disruption. It becomes the bane of his career.

Capturing likenesses in sketches would be a time consuming process for all so Hill accepts the help of a man newly arrived in Edinburgh. Robert Adamson uses his camera to capture images quickly on specially treated paper. The skills required to produce these calotypes fascinate Hill who recognises the potential for artistry. The two men become friends as well as colleagues and their work is soon sought after by many of Edinburgh’s high society.

The story told covers the period from just before the Disruption, in 1843, to the first public display of the painting 23 years later. Although many details of lives and interactions are imagined by the author, they are based around known facts about Hill and those in his circle. Only two of the large cast of characters are entirely fictitious. All the paintings and calotypes referred to exist.

Adamson was born and raised in St Andrews, suffering regular bouts of ill health. His family are concerned when he moves to Edinburgh – Auld Reekie for the sake of his career. His part in the tale provides a fascinating insight into early photographic techniques and its growth in popularity – calotypes purchased become valued family mementos.

Hill is a widower with a young child, Charlotte. He is portrayed as a charismatic man, a favourite with the ladies. These ladies include a family friend who is curious about how things work and assists Adamson, an aspiring artist who takes up sculpture, and an art critic who divides her time between Edinburgh and London. At a time when women were expected to marry, these characters live remarkably independently. They are potential love interests but also rounded people.

Also referenced in the story is George Meikle Kemp, the architect of Edinburgh’s Scott Monument which was under construction at the time of the Disruption.

The structure of the story allows the reader to drop in on the lives of key characters and watch how they develop over two decades. Friendships wax and wane. There are marriages and deaths. Art in its many forms is a key influence but rarely provides the desired fulfilment. Love in its many forms is underrated until a loved one departs.

The story brought to life many landmarks in the city as well as the lives of the historic residents featured. I was saddened to read that one grand house mentioned, Rockville, was demolished in 1966.

While cities evolve, certain attitudes remain. The views of the privileged towards those living in the overcrowded old town tenements, especially when compared to the fishwives of Leith, offer a picture of moral concern with little understanding. This felt timely given the many homeless in the city today.

The writing is adroit and taut, the storytelling subtle and affecting. The reader will become invested in Hill’s predicaments as he ages. Characters who appear briefly add to the depth and interest, there is much in their inclusion that will linger. This is a tale that is well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author.

Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Anna of Kleve

Six Tudor Queens: Anna of Kleve – Queen of Secrets, by Alison Weir, is the fourth in a series of specially commissioned books which together tell the tales of Henry VIII’s wives, from their point of view. Each instalment is a highly detailed, fictionalised account based on known and researched facts, with literary licence taken to aid storytelling. The author is a well regarded historian and explains at the end of each book why she presented key moments in her subjects’ lives the way she did.

Anna of Kleve opens in 1530 when the young lady is fourteen years old. She has been raised by her wealthy and aristocratic family to put duty before her own desires. Anna’s upbringing has been strict but loving. Betrothed to the eldest son of the Duke of Lorraine since she was eleven, her wedding – to a boy she has yet to meet – is expected to take place later in the current year. Anna’s acceptance of the life she has been raised for is threatened when her cousin by marriage visits and she is smitten.

The fallout from this encounter could have been personally devastating but, with the advice and support of her devoted nurse, events are managed and defused.

Anna’s life resumes its quiet monotony. Years pass during which her betrothal is annulled. Then, in 1538, England seeks an alliance with Kleve. King Henry requires a new bride and his Principal Secretary, Cromwell, recommends Anna.

The section of the book during which Anna is prepared for and then travels to England are fascinating. Her family value modesty and simplicity in women so the fashions and accomplishments of the English court ladies make Anna appear odd and lacking interest. She does her best to fit in but struggles to please her new husband, not understanding why.

As a foreigner, Anna had known about Henry from talk abroad of his religious reforms and controversial marriages. By the time she meets him he is already aged and temperamental. She is required to bear him a child yet he makes this impossible.

Anna and Henry’s marriage lasts a mere six months. Aged twenty-five, Anna finds herself in a position where she must carve a place for herself in England or return to the strictures of Kleve. So long as she acquiesces to his every wish, she is offered Henry’s continued patronage. Over the years factions at court vying for personal betterment put Anna in danger with their intrigues. She must act quickly and with great delicacy to diffuse situations not of her making.

Anna outlives both King Henry and Queen Mary. It is interesting to view the machinations and religious turmoil of the Tudor court through the eyes of someone with inner contacts but living apart. Anna takes risks to make her life more pleasurable but, due to her reliance on their finance, is never free of royal obligation. She suffers when gossip or rivalry threaten to tarnish her name.

The strength of this series is that it portrays the same, well known era from differing perspectives. In this book we are also offered a window into the life of a wealthy, peripatetic household and the difficulties associated with maintaining expected standards of comfortable living. Anna’s later years are spent outside of London. Although highly privileged, her autonomy is stymied by the need to preserve an unsullied reputation within an ever changing political landscape.

The writing is fluid and engaging. As well as being of historical interest it is a captivating story with subplots weaving convincingly around the known headlines. Anna is developed with sympathy but also realism. An enjoyable and refreshingly accessible read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Casanova and the Faceless Woman

“However scientific our cast of mind, it always comes down to this, does it not? […] How to get rich and remain forever young. The universal dream of mankind.”

Casanova and the Faceless Woman, by Olivier Barde-Cabuçon (translated by Louise Rogers LaLaurie), is crime fiction set in and around Paris and the Palace of Versailles a few decades before the French Revolution. Its protagonist is Volnay, a serious young man living in frivolous, dangerous times. Granted the title, Inspector of Strange and Unexplained Deaths, after he saved the life of King Louis XV, the local police chief does not appreciate Volnay’s incursion into what he regards as his territory.

Volnay works with a disgraced monk who has an interest in and keen knowledge of the latest scientific thinking. He examines the bodies of the dead in an attempt to uncover clues as to how they met their end. This is the age of enlightenment, although there is wider interest in associated gossip, along with wild exaggeration, than in deduction and proof.

The story opens with the discovery of a body – a mutilated young woman. The skin on her face, palms and fingertips has been removed. When Volnay arrives at the crime scene he is dismayed to find it was the renowned philanderer, Casanova, who first came across the victim. Casanova watches as Volnay removes a letter from the woman’s clothing and is then intrigued when the policeman claims it fell from his sleeve.

This letter proves key to the investigation. Influential and shadowy figures are eager to read what it contains as it affects the dissolute and capricious King. His Majesty’s detractors are seeking ways to bring down the monarchy. Others advise caution until those who would grasp power after such a revolution may be put in place.

Casanova regards his involvement in the investigation as another entertainment, especially when a beautiful young aristocrat, Chiara, shows an interest. Volnay is also drawn to the girl and this unlikely trio find they must share secrets if the case is to be solved and the reason the letter is so sought after understood.

Then another young woman is found dead, with her face removed, this time outside a property used by the King to meet with the young girls he favours. Despite the similarities in the victims’ demises, Volnay is perplexed by the differences. With his life endangered from multiple sources, he discovers that trusting Chiara may have been a mistake.

Although this is crime fiction it will appeal to those who enjoy vividly depicted historical fiction. There are sumptuous descriptions of dress and setting, of food consumed and the decadent lifestyles of those who found favour within the Palace of Versailles at this time. Their wealth and privilege may be contrasted with the dangers lurking in the dark and dirty streets of Paris where penury is widespread. Small coins are earned by whatever means necessary to survive, with little loyalty. Death is common and rarely investigated. Punishments are brutal, meted out to those who would not assist powerful figures whose spies are everywhere.

Volnay is an interesting character although I regarded the romantic element of his story an unnecessary distraction. Casanova’s role is well developed – the reasoning behind his behaviour credible even if his performance abilities are overplayed. As I have little interest in dress and lavish furnishings I found the pace unduly slow due to the many details. It also disheartened me to consider the risks people take with their health in order to achieve what is widely accepted as beauty.

“Nothing of all this was real, or true. It was all a carefully maintained illusion.”

Although well written and structured there were too many elements within the story that personally irritated. I grew tired of the lily white skin, rustling silk and gleam of gilt furnishings. I was curious about the science until the unlikely denouement – again, this flight of imagination felt unnecessary (authors are, of course, free to write as they choose).

For those with an interest in the lifestyles of the wealthy the tale offers a colourful portrayal. Centuries later plutocrats are still seeking personal advantage over the greater good of scientific discovery. Aging is rarely regarded as a privilege with outward beauty highly valued. I may well be taking an entertainment too seriously, but I found this tale depressing.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Vertigo.

 

Book Review: A Perfect Explanation

“It was the starting that was the joy when no mistakes had been made, when the world was free and open, when nothing was said that needed to be unsaid”

Eleanor Anstruther grew up knowing the family story of how her father, as a boy, was sold by his mother to his aunt for five hundred pounds. These forebears were an aristocratic family whose wealth included large properties in Scotland and London. Children were important as heirs; the family inheritance to be managed and passed on. Although A Perfect Explanation is a work of fiction it was built around facts found in letters, court papers, medical reports and photographs. It offers a fascinating picture of a family bound by gendered tradition, in which truths deemed unpalatable, including parental favouritism, silently festered to the detriment of all.

The tale is told across two timelines – a day in 1964 and the years between the two world wars. The protagonist is Enid Campbell, a society beauty who later eschews company. Although pampered and selfish she regards herself as hard done by. The coldness of parents and their favouring of certain offspring repeat across the three generations featured. Mothers love their sons more than their daughters who are expected to do their duty without unseemly fuss.

Enid is one of three siblings. They were born and raised in the fairy-tale castle of Inveraray in Argyllshire. When her uncle, the ninth Duke of Argyll and husband of Princess Louise, died, Enid’s family had to move to a smaller property on the estate, thereby freeing the castle for her cousin’s occupancy. Enid regarded this as her first lesson in how anything she loved could be taken away. The next lessons were when her beloved brother, her parents’ heir, was killed in the war, and her father, who had always favoured her, died of illness. Enid was left with her domineering mother who she believed preferred her sister, Joan. Enid had married Douglas to spite her mother, an act she was told contributed to her father’s demise. She regretted that Douglas rather than her brother returned from the war.

Enid and Douglas have a son, Fagus, and a daughter, Finetta. Enid struggles with the demands of motherhood and grows to despise her husband while still expecting his support. Their son was born with hydrocephalus but the obvious signs are neither discussed nor treated. The condition makes him clumsy and he suffers a life changing fall while under Enid’s care. As well as the guilt she feels there is resentment as she believes she is being unfairly blamed.

With the young heir now damaged and therefore the inheritance Enid had expected to come her way in jeopardy she decides she must produce another son to prevent Joan being bequeathed their mother’s sizeable estate. The responsibility of providing care for a disabled child and a newborn baby – her daughter is largely ignored – tips Enid over the edge.

The book opens on a day in 1964 with Finetta preparing to make one of her regular visits to Enid who now lives in a nursing home in Hampstead run by Christian Scientists, a belief she turned to in an attempt to cure Fagus. We learn that Finetta has a son and a daughter but the same skewed parenting preferences as her mother and grandmother.

“She’d fed and bathed them both, divorced their father and sent them away to school as soon as possible. They had grown up.”

“Her daughter was a stranger who moved with a stranger’s mood; a thing that passed and left little trace, unlike her son, for whom she felt a love so crushing she could only watch him, constantly, whether he was there or not.”

Finetta is doing her duty towards her mother but takes pleasure in observing the limitations of the life of the ‘almost dead but not dead enough’. She regards any suffering Enid must endure as her just deserts. This visit though will be different as her younger brother, Ian, is to join her – the first time he will have seen their mother in twenty-five years.

Enid feels no gratitude at her daughter’s willingness to visit each Tuesday.

“Enid had done nothing to deserve such loyalty and she resented it. She wanted to be left alone. She didn’t want to have it pointed out that she was still a mother. It was as if Finetta did it on purpose, shoving the reminder of her existence as a punishment from which Enid could not escape, a revenge dripped week by week”

Now an old woman waiting to die, cut off from the wider family she scorned yet craved attention and sympathy from, Enid cannot still the memories of her past actions which caused the breach and led to suffering for all.

The interwar timeline takes the reader through these actions, when Enid had her babies and failed to meet her own and her family’s expectations. Despite the appalling way in which she treats everyone her story is told with a degree of sympathy.

There is darkness and tension in Enid’s perceptions and yearnings. She appears childlike in her jealousies, incapable of loving selflessly. Her feelings of entitlement and perceived lack of understanding lead to her wishing to hurt her mother and sister. She cannot cope with the demands made by her children. Always she wants without being able to give.

I have read many stories of minor historical figures and the troubles they encounter despite their privileged existences. This tale offers much more depth and nuance than is typical. The writing pulls the reader under the skin of each character from where they may view the pain of selfish frustrations. There are truly shocking moments yet they are never sensationalised. Rather there is a balance in the telling that allows the reader to form their own opinions. The complexities of family relationships and the pressures these create offer much to consider.

A riveting tale of grown children damaged by the relentless actions of their entitled parents. Well paced and skilfully written, this is a haunting, recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.

Book Review: The Devil’s Half Mile

The Devil’s Half Mile, by Paddy Hirsch, is a crime thriller set in a burgeoning New York in 1799. At this time there were few laws and fewer law enforcement employees. The city was managed by racqueteers who kept a fragile peace through violence and intimidation. A recent state ruling had resulted in the freeing of a large number of slaves who vied with the Irish community for whatever low paid work they could find. The racqueteers ran brothels, collected protection money and guarded their turf through a network of spies and thuggery. Those residents with capital tried to increase their holdings via investments and scams operating through the unregulated stock market which met in busy coffee shops around Wall Street – the devil’s half mile.

Into this powder keg of risk and resentment arrives our protagonist, Justy Flanagan, fresh out of university in Ireland where he learned the law, alongside more practical skills fighting English oppressors. Justy’s uncle, The Bull, is a feared overlord in New York who took the boy in following his father’s suicide. Justy no longer believes that his father took his own life. He suspects murder and has returned seeking justice and revenge.

Justy sails into New York aboard a ship on which his good friend and former comrade in arms, Lars Hokkanssen, is working. On arrival in port he meets an old friend from his childhood, Kerry O’Toole, who has turned to a life of crime. Justy feels a degree of guilt for leaving Kerry to cope while he sought to better himself. He refuses to blame her for what she has become.

Justy locates and questions his father’s old acquaintances to discover for himself who the partners were in the financial scheme blamed for his death. He is aided by Lars but is watched by those who wish to protect their secrets. Violence follows, the death count rises and ideals are compromised. Justy becomes embroiled in sickening plans.

The squalor and brutality of a fast growing settlement are well evoked. The resentments felt by those whose jobs are threatened by a sudden influx of new workers is familiar, as is the timeless greed of those eager to make money by whatever means, including feeding abhorrent appetites. Justy is something of a trope with his high mindedness, skills in killing and moral ambiguity. Threads are set up that suggest a possible sequel.

The author offers plenty of twists as the plot progresses along with an ongoing quandary over who can be trusted. There are rather too many crises and serious injuries fought through as Justy interacts with his enemies. The historical setting is of interest but as a crime thriller I struggled to maintain engagement. A violent story built on a plausible premise but not one for me.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Corvus.