Book Review: “A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain” by Michael Paterson

After reading countless books about the murder and mayhem of the Wars of the Roses, I was ready for something completely different. This book happened to catch my eye on my bookshelf. The subtitle of the book is “A Social History of Queen Victoria’s Reign”. It is a part of a “brief history” series by the publisher Running Press.

After medieval history, the Victorian era is one of my favorites and social history is always of interest. Not only is the life of the Queen and her family appealing but all of the changes in society as well as the advances in industry, transportation, communication, fashion, literature and the history of the empire are interesting. The first chapter of this book covers the life of the Queen, Prince Albert and their children. The author calls her the “symbol of an age” and indeed, she gave her name to an entire era.

There is lots of good information in this book. Chapters cover things like what Victorians ate, their taste in art, architecture, how they furnished their homes and what the houses were like, household management, arts and crafts, and landscaping. The Victorians crossed over from using candles for interior lighting to gas. The subject of cholera is discussed, along with child labor, crime, the life of servants in the Victorian home and also the role of workhouses in society.

The chapter on transportation explains how Victorians went from walking and riding horse and carriage to the building of railroads and how this transformed society in countless ways. The introduction of the bicycle changed not only how people got around but how they dressed and how it liberated women. Ships went from being wind propelled to steam. Even the Underground got started during the Victorian era.

Other chapters cover religion, etiquette and fashion, office work, how Victorians spent their leisure time, the press and literature, arms and the world. The description of the work of clerks is fascinating and brings to mind Bob Cratchit in Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. He briefly covers the Indian Empire and how it related to trade and the Boer Wars. The book has some photos of regular Victorians demonstrating how they dressed, a lengthy introduction and recommendations for further reading. If you are looking for an introduction into the era, this is the book.

Book Review: “Lucy Walter: Wife or Mistress” by Lord George Scott

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I was looking into the life of the woman who was the mistress of King Charles II before he became king with the Restoration of the Monarchy in England in 1660. Her name was Lucy Walter and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on her written by Robin Clifton, this book is listed as one of the sources for the article. I knew there was no contemporary biography of her so I thought I would check it out. I happened to find a cheap used copy of the book on the internet.

It turns out that Lord George Scott is a descendant of Lucy Walter’s family and this book was published in 1947. Scott passed way in February of that year, before the proofs of the book came back from the printer. The task of reading the proofs and readying the book for publishing was taken up by Scott’s son and an assistant. The author’s intention in writing this book is to prove that Lucy Walter was in fact married to Charles.

Lucy became Charles’ mistress early on during his exile after the execution of his father King Charles I. She gave birth to a son, James Crofts, later called James Scott in April of 1649. Charles at all times acknowledged James was his natural, illegitimate son. Charles also insisted he never married Lucy Walter. He never faltered in this assertion and swore to it in front of his councilors twice. There is no existing written evidence that he married Lucy.

Scott uses this book to present many arguments that Lucy was married. He insists she came from a good family and would not have turned into a fallen woman. He cites many sources. He especially mentions the letters from Charles’ sister the Princess of Orange who refers to Lucy as Charles’ wife. He talks about witnesses to the marriage itself. He says Lucy had paperwork showing her marriage was legal and she turned this over to John Cosin, later bishop of Durham when she was on her deathbed. The papers were supposedly kept in a black box which later disappeared.

The book has some wonderful illustrations and a family tree for Lucy. It also gives some good biographical information on her life. But Scott’s convoluted arguments are presented in a jumbled order. Characters come and go in the story and it’s all very confusing. In the end, I’m afraid he is not very convincing. All of his contentions just don’t add up. In looking at other evidence, there is no doubt Lucy was a woman of loose morals and caused a lot of trouble for Charles. He son James also didn’t come to a good end during the reign of his uncle King James II. While the basic premise of the story is of interest, Scott does not succeed in his mission of clearing Lucy’s name.

Book Review: “France in the Sixteenth Century” by Frederic J. Baumgartner

france in the sixteenth century book cover

I’ve been reading a lot of French history since the first of the year. The selections included a general survey, a secret history of Paris, medieval Paris and the Norman Conquest among others. But I have to say, sixteenth century France really intrigues me the most for several reasons. The characters of this period are really compelling and they are contemporaries of Tudor England, another of my favorite eras.

The author made a concerted choice to cover the era from the calling of the Estates General in 1484 after the death of King Louis XI up until the meeting of the Estates General in 1614, the era of the Renaissance and Reformation. Themes for the chapters of the book include the fundamental components of the Estates General: the monarch, the clergy, the nobles and the commoners. The chapters on the monarch cover the personalities of the kings, the organization of the court, the collection and spending of revenues and a summary of political events during the monarch’s reign.

The chapters on the clergy cover the challenges created by the spread of Calvinism in France and the Catholic response. For the nobility, he examines the developments in the military and under the commoner chapters, he discusses economics in the cities and the countryside. There is extensive information about the judicial system in France. He also gives an overview of cultural and intellectual changes during the century. This book really covers a great deal of social history.

Baumgartner is a professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. He states in the introduction that this book is intended for upper level undergraduate and graduate students and advanced scholars looking for detailed information about the era. While the book is intended for academics, I really found it to be a fun read. There were a few sections that were dry and uninteresting but for the most part it was completely absorbing. Information I enjoyed included how revenues were collected, how food was distributed, how the judicial system worked, the lives of the nobles and the clergy and the monarchs, and the rise of Calvinism in France. Perhaps the best section for me was a succinct description of the Wars of Religion. I always wondered why there were so many petty nobles in France. I learned from this book that people could buy their way into the nobility!

The sections on intellectual and cultural pursuits were fascinating too. Baumgartner convincingly includes a lot of information on women during this era which I find refreshing. There are photos, maps and genealogical tables in the book as well as a glossary of terms which I will definitely refer to again. This book really delivers on its topic and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Golden Age Ladies” by Sylvia Barbara Soberton

Golden Age ladies book cover

The subtitle of this book is “Women Who Shaped the Courts of Henry VIII and Francis I”. Since I’m interested in women and Tudor and French history, I had to read it! England and France have a significantly entwined history. The book doesn’t disappoint as it has a panoply of women, explaining how their stories are all interrelated.

All the important women of these two courts make an appearance. Soberton gives us a list of characters for France and England along with genealogical tables. Interestingly, she starts out with Louise of Savoy, mother of King Francis I who learned statecraft from the formidable Anne de Beaujeu. Now here is a woman who witnessed so much history. The devoted mother of King Francis and his sister Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, Louise virtually ran the government of France while her son whiled away his time pursuing pleasures such as the hunt, women and warfare. Louise’s shining moment came when the Ladies Peace of Cambrai was negotiated in 1529 between her and her sister-in-law Margaret of Savoy, Regent of the Netherlands. The two women single-handedly brokered peace between France and the Habsburg Empire and Louise secured the release of her grandsons who had been held hostage. A marriage between King Francis and the Holy Roman Emperor’s sister Eleanor was part of the Ladies Peace. Her sad story is also included here.

Along with Louise and her daughter, we meet Queen Anne of Brittany and Claude de Valois and her many daughters, some of whom died and some who became Queen’s themselves, such as Madeleine de Valois. Interwoven with the lives of these French women are those from the court of King Henry VIII of England. Henry’s sister Mary married King Louis XII of France. Although she was queen for a few months, she went on to make a love match with her brother’s best friend, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk.

Soberton gives us a description of the grand summit of The Field of the Cloth of Gold where Queen Catherine of Aragon met Queen Claude. Of course Anne Boleyn plays a significant role in the book as she spent time with Margaret of Savoy at her court in Mechelen and also worked as a lady-in-waiting for Queen Claude. In fact, Soberton gives us an economical description of all of Henry’s wives.

Soberton gives us many descriptions and small glimpses of personal moments in these women’s lives. This is what I liked best about the book. She has obviously done her research. There are photographs and a nice select bibliography if you are interested in more information. I found this book fun to read and enjoyed all the interconnecting stories. I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “The Cambridge Illustrated History of France” by Colin Jones

illustrated history of France book cover

Based on the recommendation of a friend, I found a used copy of this book and ordered it. In my quest to read as much French history as possible before my trip to France, I had read “La Belle France”, another overall survey and wondered if this book would cover the same ground. I was pleased this author takes an entirely different course.

Jones writes more from a social history standpoint in this book. I very much enjoyed the chapters on France before the Romans and Roman Gaul. His chapters on the Franks and the Middle Ages cover a lot more ground than the other histories I’ve read so far. The later chapters covering the Revolution, Enlightenment, World Wars I and II and modern times have less detail but are still erudite and interesting. Occasionally Jones gets a little technical and wandering when discussing certain political situations. One thing I admire in his writing is his attention to the status of women in France throughout the ages.

I can’t say enough about the illustrations. This is what the Cambridge Illustrated Histories are known for. There are numerous maps illustrating different elements of France and its history. The maps clarify countless aspects such as where French dialects were spoken, delineating where Roman law and customary law were practiced, gene pools, agricultural and urban areas, different political boundaries, kingdoms and regions of France, where barbarian tribes invaded, etc.

There are photos of art and architecture, illuminated manuscripts, engravings, paintings, drawings and photographs of key points in French history, all with excellent, well written captions. In every chapter there are also insets with more details about select people and events. Some examples are on Blanche of Castile, the troubadours, the court of the Dukes of Burgundy and so on. All of these images really enhance the text. This is another well-written, informative history of France and I highly recommend it.

Book Review: “Paris: The Secret History” by Andrew Hussey

Paris the Secret History book cover

This title really intrigued me. Paris is a magnetic city just in its own right. To imagine there was a secret history was too tempting to pass up. In my ongoing effort to refresh my French history knowledge before my trip to France, I began reading.

Hussey mentions in the introduction his intention in writing this book is to emulate the work of Peter Ackroyd’s “London: A Biography”. Ackroyd’s book is splendid so this was a good sign. The first chapter covers Prehistory to the year 987 AD. I found this section most interesting. Paris was started basically on the small, swampy islands in the Seine. He talks about how the city, then known as Lutetia, was inhabited by the Franks and the Romans. The Romans built a wall around the city and it became a trading center. Next, in this chapter and in every one after, Hussey gives small tidbits of history that might not be as well known by the average reader, the so-called secrets of the city. One of the highlights in this first chapter is the death by beheading of St. Denis on Montmartre, making the name of the hill self-explanatory.

In the medieval section, Hussey give us a colorful array of characters, talking about the ordinary people. Sections include, lovers and scholars, students and streetfighters, poets, saints and thieves. In fact, the entire book is filled with details about average everyday people down to the present day. The history of Paris is filled with robbers, gypsies, drunkards, beggars as well as the nobility, merchants and the bourgeoisie. There’s a lot of information on artists, writers, poets and students and how they shaped the politics of the city over the millennia. If social history is your cup of tea, you will enjoy this aspect of the book.

Hussey obviously knows and loves the city well. He gives us details about many of the neighborhoods, even down to who and what kind of people lived on certain streets. The book has many drawings, maps and photos showing us the boundaries of the city over the years. One of the first things that struck me as I began reading this book is that it is really well written. Everything he writes is very clear with no grammatical or typographical errors. It was just a joy to read. If you are interested in French history and Paris in particular, I can heartily recommend this book.

Book Review: “La Belle France: A Short History” by Alistair Horne

La Belle France book cover

In my quest to read as much French history as possible before my trip later this summer, I picked up this book with the express purpose of having an overview. I wasn’t disappointed. The book starts with the invasion and conquest of Julius Caesar and ends with the presidency of Francois Mitterrand.

The book was published in 2004 and written by a British historian who specializes in early modern French history. He has written books on topics ranging from the age of Napoleon to the war in Algeria in the 1960’s. “La Belle France” is a sweeping narrative where Horne gives an overall view of the history along with a special look at particular details which I assume he finds to be of noteworthy interest. The early chapters are a little dismissive. He doesn’t tell us a lot about the Franks and the chapters on medieval history are sparse on detail. By the time of the Renaissance he gets into full swing.

I was a little disappointed in Horne’s attitude toward women in this book. He calls Eleanor of Aquitaine “oversexed” and refers to Marie de ’Medici as fat, blond and stupid. However, a little later he does give some examples of important women in French history so I’m not really sure where he is coming from in regards to this topic.

I really enjoyed the sections on King Henri IV and his extended siege of Paris, Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII, the age of Napoleon, the reign of Napoleon III and the First World War. Horne’s writing really shines here. He also has insightful comments in the section on WWII with the occupation of France by the Nazis and Vichy France, the collaborators and the Resistance and also on the modern era under the presidents Pompidou and Mitterrand.

Nothing really is black and white about French history and this book illustrates that very well. Other than the comments on women, Horne is really balanced in his approach to the subject and well versed on the sections where he has expertise. I sought a review of two thousand years of French history and this book delivered. I recommend it.