Book Review: Six Tudor Queens – Katheryn Howard

“she had been in her tender youth, too frail to resist her wanton appetites, too greedy for carnal delights. How blind the young can be!”

Katheryn Howard: The Tainted Queen, by Alison Weir, is the fifth installment in the author’s Six Tudor Queens series. Like its predecessors, it is a fictionalised biography of one of Henry VIII’s wives based on extensive factual research. Written as a story, it offers a window into the life of a young woman raised in privileged households. Katheryn is always aware that she is a Howard and that her family are both wealthy and influential. She was regarded as very beautiful but is not portrayed as particularly bright.

Opening in 1528, when Katheryn was seven years old, the tale begins with the death of her mother in childbirth. Katheryn is sent to stay with a kindly aunt, along with her half-sister, Isabel, who will become a lifelong friend. Katheryn’s father lives beyond his means and goes on to marry wealthy widows. He is not well regarded by the wider family but they are still willing to help raise his children.

In 1531, Katheryn is sent to live with her father’s stepmother, the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk. Unhappy with this change, Katheryn’s stepmother comforts her by explaining why.

“It is quite usual for noble children to be reared in great households, and you are now of an age for that. Under the Duchess’s rule, you will learn the skills and graces that will help you to make a good marriage or even obtain a place at court.”

Being a Howard, Katheryn is given her own room, unlike the other young ladies placed in the Duchess’s care. They must sleep in a dormitory where they get up to all sorts of shenanigans, including sexual antics with the young men of the household. By the time Katheryn is a teenager, she is joining in.

This activity is preceded by a crush Katheryn has on her music master. The sections describing their affair – when they would ‘pleasure’ each other in secret – were disturbing to read.

Katheryn’s regular fumblings and tumblings during the years she lived in the Duchess’s house grew tiresome to read due to repetition. There was little attempt at discretion during lascivious activity, much to the chagrin of some of the young ladies who were forced to bear witness. There is risk but this only adds to the frisson.

In 1539, Katheryn’s father dies. Following this, she is finally found a place at court serving the King’s latest wife, the Lady Anne of Cleves. Although basking in the opulence of the royal palaces, and enjoying the sumptuous gowns she is given, Katheryn grows bored by the quiet manner in which the new Queen mostly lives.

When it becomes clear that the King no longer wishes to be married to Anne, Katheryn’s powerful uncles concoct a plan to place her on the throne. She must present herself as virtuous, keeping secret the life she led while under the care of the Dowager Duchess. The King is smitten by her youth and beauty, and she grows fond of him.

Once again, Katheryn’s sex life is described in repetitive detail – key to her role as Queen is that she produce a royal heir. When she rekindles an affair with one of her previous lovers, it is frustrating to read of the foolish risks she takes. Yes, she is young and vivacious, but her actions were always bound to lead where they did.

Portrayed as an admired young woman who has been offered little moral guidance growing up, Katheryn’s behaviour can be understood despite its repercussions. In this marriage at least, Henry appears the victim.

I enjoyed the historical aspects of the novel – the lives led by the noble families of the time and those who served them. Political maneuvering was ruthless and added interest. It is a shame that, while understanding it was Katheryn’s sexual antics that led to her undoing and therefore they had to be included, the many pages devoted to describing them became tedious.

Katheryn was young, fell easily in love, and was used by those looking for preferment. That she couldn’t control her urges, despite being adored by her aging husband, makes it harder to sympathise. Nevertheless, the author does a good job of presenting choices made through the lens of desire – which has, after all, caused regret in many.

An author’s note at the end explains the facts she used as the basis for the story and where she chose to use her imagination. Having read each of the books in this series, I am glad to have read this one for completeness. I do, however, hope that the final installment will contain less carnal content. I look forward to learning more about Henry’s final Queen.

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

Book Review: The Blackbird

Liverpool Cathedral was built over the course of the 20th century. As may be expected for such an impressive structure, it took many decades to complete. Progress stalled during both World Wars due to shortages of manpower and materials. The cathedral now ranks as the fifth-largest in the world. Built on St James’s Mount, the shape of the site required that the nave be oriented north to south rather than, as is traditional, west to east. Some believed this would bring bad luck.

The principle characters in The Blackbird certainly suffer their share of misfortune. Across alternating chapters, the story has two main timelines. It opens in 1941 with an accident on a building site where a much reduced team of masons are constructing the tall, central tower of a cathedral. As a result of the incident, a young man is grievously injured. Will Jenner, the on-site manager, blames himself for being persuaded to set the men to work.

Will is married to Mary and they have an eight year old daughter, Hope. The family moved to the city, away from family in rural Derbyshire, when offered the prestigious job opportunity. Will expects his wife to share with him every detail of how she spends her days. When she takes an interest in the hospitalised worker, Will grows suspicious of her motives. He requires that she be quietly obedient, becoming angry if she acts in any other way.

The growing cathedral, and Will’s behaviour, cast a shadow over his family. This is exacerbated by regular, night time aerial bombing raids. Homes have been razed and many killed. People must continue to function despite fear and sleep deprivation.

Moving to 2014, a young mother, Louise, has recently moved into a new flat with her toddler son, Jake. It is a fresh start and one she is content with. Jake’s father, Benny, broke her heart when he left them. Now she is in a relationship with an old friend, Carl, although still relishes her independence. When Benny shows up on her doorstep expecting to be taken back, Louise rejects him. Angered by her reaction, Benny refuses to leave them be.

There is a linking character across the two timelines – Hope – who in 2014 is struggling to care for her elderly husband; Robert has dementia and his behaviour is deteriorating. Through Hope’s thoughts and recollections the reader gains a different perspective on the events her father had to deal with through the war years and beyond.

Undercurrents of male violence percolate along with the limitations in agency women suffer due to their circumstances. The veracity of memory and perceived impact on subsequent decisions is explored and queried. Characters’ choices not to share their reasoning and personal justifications with those around them have damaging consequences. Jealousy and blame pervade.

It took a few chapters before the quality of the writing gripped me. What at first appeared an unremarkable if smoothly told tale established pleasing depth. The plot, whilst engaging, became secondary to my interest in character development. The impact of experience and situation are used to particularly impressive effect.

The structure is well balanced between detail and flow. This was a story I was eager to get back to each time I had to break away. Layered and nuanced yet never heavy, a good read that I am happy to recommend.

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

This review is a stop on The Blackbird Blog Tour 2020. Do check out the other fine posts, detailed above.


Giveaway time!

The publisher has kindly offered to send a copy of this book to one lucky reader who enters my Twitter giveaway. Follow me here and RT the relevant tweet (from around 8am today) to be in with a chance to win (UK only, ends 5pm BST 31/7/2020).

Book Review: The Pull of the Stars

This review was written for and first published by Bookmunch.

The Pull of the Stars is set in 1918 Dublin. The World War has killed or scarred a generation of young men from all over Ireland. Memories of the Easter Uprising – a step towards independence for the country – remain divisive and raw. Meanwhile, in a large city centre hospital, Nurse Julia Power is working tirelessly to quarantine and treat expectant mothers who show signs of an unfamiliar and exceptionally deadly flu virus. As well as taking out large numbers of the wider population, the contagion has affected many of the hospital’s healthcare workers. Those who remain must cope with the overcrowding as best they can.

Over the course of three days, Nurse Power works with two women whose influence will linger. Doctor Kathleen Lynn (based on a real person) has ambitions to help the poor and destitute – including ‘unwanted’ children – but is on the run from the police. Bridie Sweeney, a volunteer helper on Julia’s small, makeshift ward, will open the nurse’s eyes to the horrors of the Catholic Church’s treatment of those who have no choice but to turn to it for succour.

Let’s pause a moment. This is historical fiction with a compassionate and talented nurse as protagonist. It includes a love story. There are obvious good characters and bad. On the face of it I would have little interest in reading such a tale. I picked it up as the author wrote Room. From that remarkable novel I was aware she could bring depth and grace to an unimaginably dark situation. Her characters thrum with the essence of all it means to live.

Nurse Power works the twelve hour daytime shift, handing over to a nun from a local motherhouse to see patients through the night. Unlike many of the nurses, Julia does not live in the hospital dormitories. Her brother returned from the war damaged but well enough that they may share a house, taking on mutually beneficial roles.

Thus we have a female, educated professional. She is unmarried but not alone. Her life does not revolve around a coterie of friends requiring her time and support. She is independent, practical and portrayed without recourse to her looks. She focuses on her job rather than a search for a partner. I found this refreshing, so rare is it to find such a character in fiction.

Given her background, Julia has had little social contact with someone such as Bridie, yet finds herself drawn to the vivacious positivity of her new assistant. Both must take on roles that would not be countenanced in more normal times – acting decisively rather than seeking permission from superiors. There are deaths among their patients, with beds filled again as soon as they are vacated. Births are as dramatic and potentially dangerous as ever with the added challenge of flu complications.

The narrative exposition brought time and place to vivid and exigent life. It was inevitable that I would compare this Dublin to our current times. The author states that her final manuscript – started at the centenary of a flu epidemic that killed an estimated 3 to 6 percent of the human race – was delivered to her publisher just as Covid 19 restrictions were imposed.

Yet it was not this timeliness that drew me in. I found myself intrigued by the treatment of women during birth as much as by the attempted management of a deadly and virulent contagion. It was clear that married women at the time were expected to produce babies with damaging regularity. Meanwhile, the unmarried were punished severely if they dared reproduce. The Catholic Church guarded its influence – the evils perpetuated not yet widely acknowledged. Women were at the mercy of their families, with shame falling on them if they dared admit abuse. The small ward on which Julia works becomes a microcosm of Dublin society. Here, though, there is no favouritism, although outcome varies by wider privilege.

All this is skilfully woven into a story of people and those charged with their care. Many social issues are touched upon – the writing style remaining engaging throughout. The denouement left me with questions but was made to seem plausible enough. There is much to chew over in the expectations of women – their choices (or lack of) and priorities.

Any Cop?: An enjoyable and well structured tale that has lingered beyond the final page. Although interesting to read of a pandemic during a pandemic, it is the character studies that provide depth. My expectations of the author’s storytelling talents were not disappointed. Perhaps best avoided, though, by the primigravida.


Jackie Law


Book Review: The Silken Rose

Hilary Mantel raised the bar for historical fiction when she wrote Wolf Hall. For readers who do not get on with her style of prose there are respected writers such as Alison Weir telling immersive stories of monarchy from times of old. And there are many other fine authors – it is a popular genre. The intrigues and extravagances of courtly life, along with the challenges faced by those living beyond palace walls, offer a window into times it would otherwise be hard to imagine given contemporary culture.

The Silken Rose, by Carol McGrath, focuses on Ailenor of Provence. In 1236, aged just thirteen years of age, she travelled to England where she married King Henry III. In this tale they fall in love and she gains power through her carefully managed influence on her husband and several of his courtiers. She is described as a beauty and produces healthy children. Henry is often fickle but she mostly handles his tempers. The English aristocracy of the time resent the royal couple’s nepotism. Perceived changes of allegiance can prove dangerous.

The portrayal of these medieval monarchs is one of vanity and entitlement. Both King and Queen believe they hold office by the will of God. They resent any argument or interference from powerful and rich lords, yet require these men’s monetary support to maintain their lifestyle and settle disputes. The church is also a factor as favours need to be bought.

All of this, along with the day to day habits of those living within and serving the royal household as it moves from palace to palace throughout the land and abroad is well portrayed in the story. There are nuggets of interest in the accepted customs. And yet the telling came across as a roll call of significant events populated by two dimensional characters. Ailenor, as the central figure, evoked little emotion. It is mentioned in places that she cried or was happy but her actions rarely reflect feeling other than a desire to keep Henry on side.

A merchants daughter, Rosalind, gains favour from the Queen for her exquisite embroidery. This friendship, and its repercussions, seemed far removed from other portrayals of ruthless, historic rulers.

The Silken Rose offers harmony with only brief mentions of potentially unhappy marriages or fickle friendship. At a time when positions were brokered for power or money, when marriages were forged to produce heirs and alliances, I struggled to believe there would be so much lasting loyalty over decades of lived experience and resulting change. When characters face difficulties, reasoning is skimmed over in the prose.

Dialogue provides exposition but offers little depth. Much is mentioned but little explored.

For readers looking for a nice story with added historical interest this may well be enjoyed. I found it bland and should probably have stopped reading when it became obvious the writing style wasn’t for me.

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

Robyn Reviews: The Sin Eater

The Sin Eater is dark, gripping historical fiction. Set in an alternative Elizabethan world, it follows the story of May, who – for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread – is sentenced to be a Sin Eater, a woman who takes on the sin of others when they die so that they can ascend to Heaven. Sin Eaters are curses made flesh – they may not speak, except when listening to the sins of the dying, and no-one may look at them or touch them. Completely cast out, May has to navigate her new reality – along with the burden of being the only person who could unravel everyone’s secrets.

I loved the idea of sin eaters – a real concept taken from history but beautifully twisted and elevated here. Campisi wove sin eating into every thread of the novel, making regular interjections about the foods eaten for specific sins which worked brilliantly and gave the narrative a real sense of voice. She also painted a very interesting picture about belief in Elizabethan times – a contentious issue given the switch from one Church to another and back again.

The picture painted of this alternative Elizabethan era was visceral. May was an outcast living amongst outcasts, and Campisi didn’t shy away from the horrors of that life. I also loved how she played with the idea of being an outcast and the freedoms, as well as restrictions, that could give you. The scenes where May used her status to give herself liberty were some of my favourites.

May was a fascinating narrator. She read exactly like her fourteen years, with growing maturity throughout the novel as she learnt more of the world and its secrets. She also fitted seamlessly into her time. Some historical fiction struggles to make its narrators feel authentic – their views or words are too modern – but there was no such difficulty here. May also kept the darkness of the book from being overwhelming by occasionally acting her age – being overjoyed by small things, like dipping her toes into a fountain. Moments of teenage melodrama brought a smile to my face.

There were many supporting characters, but as May could not speak to them, none felt as real as May. Instead, they were viewed through her lens – given names like Fair Hair, or Willow Tree, or Mush Face, labels she could use to identify them as she couldn’t ask their names. Again, this retained a sense of childishness but also painted a clearer picture of them than any name could. Willow Tree couldn’t be anything but a wizened elderly physician. Fair Hair couldn’t be anything other than the beautiful maid.

There were elements I disliked – a couple of phrases threw me out of the story, feeling out of place, and one scene between May and another character felt entirely unnecessary and discomfiting – but those are minor quibbles in an otherwise excellent book.

Anyone who likes historical fiction or historical fantasy will likely enjoy this – especially those who enjoy books that really embody their narrators voice. Highly recommended.


Published by Mantle (Pan MacMillan)
Hardback: 23 July 2020

Robyn Reviews: The Story of Silence

The Story of Silence is based on a thirteenth century poem about Silence, the only child of the Earl of Cador. The Earl was promised the fiefdom of Cornwall – but only if he had a son who could inherit. Desperate, the Earl decided that his firstborn child, regardless what sex they were born, would be raised a boy – and thus Silence, by nature female, was raised as a man. The author, Alex Myers, is a transgender writer and teacher, and this book functions as both a fascinating history and an examination of what gender is.

The protagonist, Silence, is a highly compelling individual. They’re one of the genuinely nicest characters I’ve ever read about, and their struggle with their gender identity is poignant and compelling. Silence dreams of being a knight, but their father is terrified of being found out and tries to hide them away with only their dreams, their nanny, and a priest to guide them. I was rooting for Silence throughout – and whilst it’s always obvious that the reveal is coming, plenty happened in between to surprise me, and the ending took a very different direction to what I expected – one that I greatly appreciated.

This is marketed as a fantasy novel, but I’d call it pure historical fiction. There are elements of magic – with Merlin making cameo appearances – but this is essentially a bard’s tale about a famous Knight who happened to have been born in a typically feminine body. The writing is period-appropriate and chronicles the story well. The primary setting of Cornwall is beautifully described, but the writing doesn’t wax lyrical, focusing on Silence and their life rather than anything happening around them. None of the characters, save Silence, are particularly three-dimensional, but this doesn’t detract – it’s Silence’s story, and the others are simply props. Delving deeper into characters like Albert would have changed this from a bard’s tale into something else, and I don’t know that it would have worked so well.

As a cisgender person, I don’t want to comment too much on Myers’s portrayal of gender here, but it was certainly fascinating to read and seemed from an outsider’s perspective to be very well done. Gender divergence is not a new phenomenon, but historical accounts of it are rarely discussed – how Myers presented it here was excellent and, albeit fictional, very believable. I would be interested to now read the original poem and see how much artistic license the author took in his portrayal.

Overall, this is a recommended read. It’s a very easy to read book, weaving an enjoyable tale of quests and minstrels and jousting, with an undercurrent of an issue that’s rarely portrayed in fiction. Everyone who enjoys historical fiction should appreciate this, and hopefully it’ll give them something to think about too.


Published by Harper Voyager
Hardback: 9 July 2020
Paperback: 18 March 2021

Book Review: Broken Angels

The following was my intriguing introduction to Broken Angels, an account of morally dubious happenings at Glastonbury Abbey in the 15th Century.

“Broken Angels is a true story. 

‘True’ in the sense that by the early C15, Glastonbury Abbey, one of the wealthiest and most important monasteries in Britain, had become a hotbed of gossip and rumour. There were tales of internal feuds and lax discipline, illicit sex, and several questionable ‘business’ deals. Even worse, there were numerous complaints about the abbot, John Chinnock.  

At last, King Henry IV and the Church hierarchy decided to act. In September 1408, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundel, visited Glastonbury with an entourage of influential men to resolve the situation.

The Archbishop’s visitation report still exists, but for the most part, it’s a list of punishments meted out, not the actual crimes. ‘Broken Angels’ uses that report and many of the people mentioned in it to imagine what was going on. Our story will take you back six hundred years to a time that’s often over-spiritualised and romanticised, but in reality was cruel and brutal, especially for the ordinary working people. “

The book is a short novella, written by Beth Webb and Mark Hutchinson, that brings to life the people who lived in, and worked around, Glastonbury Abbey during the late medieval period. It offers an evocative account of the times. 

Told from the point of view of Brother Bernard, an idealistic but still ambitious young Oxford graduate whose new master, the Archbishop of Canterbury, tasks him with seeking out those responsible for the degeneracy at Glastonbury Abbey. Despite personal misgivings, Brother Bernard is ordered to visit taverns and kitchens, to converse with those he encounters. He is to be his master’s spy and report back on findings.

The story brings to the fore the differences in circumstances of those born into privilege and those who struggle to survive. From differences in lighting – wax candles rather than rush lights – to fine food and wine, the abbey is shown to look after its own before serving the wider community. It was a time when tithes were demanded of the local population and the best produce taken. The poor could seek alms but were given the dregs.

“most abbeys – not just this one – are filled with greedy men who like to live comfortably and help themselves to the best of everything”

Brother Bernard is unhappy to discover that many of the monks habitually use women for sex. The offering of such ‘favours’ is necessary for survival, especially when husbands die.

“Most of us are good girls, we don’t want to sin, but what’re we to do? We all got babies and grannies at home, all wailing for food and firewood.” 

Some of these women are treated well by the monks they service; others are taken advantage of and then discarded. 

The abbey hierarchy turns a blind eye, benefiting from the deals that are done alongside the carnal goings on. When someone from within Glastonbury speaks out, leading to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s visit and investigation, they are more eager to weed out whoever has broken ranks than to put a stop to the iniquitous activity.

It is interesting to note that there were similar visitations to other abbeys. In considering the much vaunted social support that was lost due to the dissolution of the monasteries, it is worth remembering that religious orders are not immune to the corruption of power and desire for personal comforts. 

The writing is styled to appeal to those with an interest in the history of the abbey but who may not wish to dig deep into the canon. The book is aimed at tourists passing through – it will be available to buy in the abbey shop when it reopens – but will also appeal to those seeking accessible chronicles of the place and period. 

Broken Angels offers an interesting story wound around the wider challenges of poverty and a powerful church eager to retain its veneer of moral superiority. It is a reminder of the timeless hypocrisy of those who deign to tell others how they should behave.  

Book Review: The Book of Longings

“I am Ana. I was the wife of Jesus”

Sue Monk Kidd was inspired to write a novel about the fictional wife of Jesus after reading an article in National Geographic magazine. A newly discovered fragment of ancient manuscript contained a reference in which Jesus spoke of ‘my wife’. It is now thought by scholars that the fragment is a masterful forgery but Monk Kidd’s imagination was ignited. It matters little if a wife existed – although this may have changed the western world’s religious and cultural inheritance. What the author wished to explore was the life and times such a woman would have experienced.

The novel grew out of extensive research. It is written from the point of view of Ana, beginning when she is fourteen years old and about to be betrothed to a much older man in order to further her father’s ambitions. Eighteen year old Jesus is portrayed as fully human, still finding his own way following the death of his father. It is a fascinating premise from which to develop a story.

The first section of the book made me feel sad and angry. Ana is living with her wealthy parents in Sepphoris – a town in the central Galilee region. Unusually for a girl at that time, she has been permitted literacy, learning several languages. She reads and writes extensively much to her mother’s chagrin. On a fateful morning she is dressed to impress and taken to visit a local market where she discovers the plan for her future. Distraught, she makes a fuss – considered disgraceful behaviour – and draws the attention of a young man named Jesus.

Women at the time were chattels – belonging to father, husband or brother. They had few rights and could be traded, discarded, or worse, for misbehaviour. Ana rails against her fate. She is comforted by her disgraced aunt, Yaltha, but neither can change what has been decided. The author evokes well the actions women of this time were required to accept – especially within marriage.

Ana would be regarded as privileged. Her father benefits from his role as advisor to the local tetrarch, Herod Antipas. Nevertheless, the reader is shown how dangerous noncompliance can be when a friend of Ana’s is raped. Even Antipas’s wife has little agency.

The second section of the book is set in Nazareth. Events have enabled Ana to marry Jesus and she enters his household. With his father dead, Jesus and his brothers support their mother, wives, unmarried sisters, and children. Ana must learn to perform daily chores that her parents’ servants would have carried out. There is no money for writing materials.

The marriage is presented as a rare love story but both Jesus and Ana have ambitions – longings. When Ana intervenes to help a friend she puts her life in danger. Although not as emotive as the first section, the story continues apace.

The third section takes Ana and her aunt to Alexandria where they seek shelter with Yaltha’s older brother, Haran. This is an act of desperation but the women require a man’s protection. Haran is wealthy but ruthless with a strong vindictive streak. Ana and Yaltha are well housed but also imprisoned. Ana can write her stories again but misses her beloved husband desperately.

I found this the least compelling section. The author weaves Yaltha’s tale into Ana’s well to enable the years of Jesus’s peripatetic ministry to pass but the pace felt slower than previously.

The final two sections of the book are fairly short and offer a satisfying conclusion. The reader learns of Jesus’s death and what becomes of Ana. This is her story rather than her husband’s but the role he plays is well presented. Being a messiah is all well and good but comes at a cost to his family. In giving Ana drive and her own aspirations, the author makes plausible her acceptance of this. The risks Ana took appeared foolish in places but enabled the various threads being woven to progress.

Monk Kidd succeeds in portraying the difficulties of being female in ancient times. The writing is smooth and each character introduced adds to understanding of options and dangers. Much is covered with varied characters and mostly convincing development. An enjoyable if somewhat lengthy read.

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

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.

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.