A Divine Sign?

A couple of weeks ago, the computer on which I do most of my novel-writing suddenly refused to start up properly. I consulted a local geek (that’s what computer guys seem to like to be called these days), who diagnosed it as having a corrupt profile, but had no idea why, even after consulting other geeks. Nothing like playing Stump the Geeks with one’s computer.

My computer was finally returned to me last night, but whatever caused my profile to become corrupted also made all of my Microsoft Word files disappear, including the novel I’m working on. I had a couple of chapters saved on a diskette (the humble diskette gets too little respect these days, but I’m grateful to it), but all of my latest work was lost. Rather than curse and throw small objects (all right, in addition to cursing and throwing small objects), I decided to take this as a Divine Sign that it was time to rework the chapter in question.

In the future, though, I would appreciate more subtle Divine Signs, especially as this one also requires me to do all of my income taxes over again. Just a thought.

While also restoring my website files (do you get the idea that the last day was not a delightful one for me?), I came across my oldest postings from a previous incarnation of this blog. As with my expose of James Frey, I can’t find the post in which I came up with a plan for peace in the Middle East, but here’s the others:

More on Barnes, a new P. D. James, and book-discarding regret
While I was using the Amazon listings to add some titles to my library with Library Thing, I noticed that P. D. James has a new book scheduled for November. Something else to look forward to!

I’m still reading through Barnes’s The Passionate Brood, and I’m beginning to think it should have been called The Whiny Brood. Everyone bickers and complains (sometimes in scenes that extend over two chapters), and after a while this gets quite tedious. I’ll still probably make it through this one (I have to do something while waiting for my kids, and this old mass market paperback fits snugly in my purse), but I’m actively looking around for something else. Think I’ll try Mary Lancaster’s An Endless Exile–I’ve seen excerpts from it, and it looks interesting. I’ve also been debating whether to spring for Robin Maxwell’s To the Tower Born. It looked good, but not quite good enough for me to buy the hardback, and our public library hasn’t bought a copy. Maybe if I’m feeling flush . . .

Ever suffer from book-discarding regret? I gave away some of my novels on Richard III to a person who had lost hers in Hurricane Katrina, and I soon regretted it–the person later posted some remarks on a list I belong to that made it sound as if writing historical novels was just one step up intellectually from playing Go Fish. (I resisted the temptatation to ask her why, then, she had so many of the things.) There were a couple of books in the pile that hadn’t done a thing for me, but there were a couple others that I liked in a way and disliked in other ways, and now I wish I had ’em back! In fact, I keep forgetting they aren’t in my garage anymore. And have you noticed that when you give a book away, that’s when you suddenly need to look up a quote from it? I’ve done that with some books I bought for various literature classes that I gave to the library or to Goodwill because they were just taking up space–same thing with some of my clothes, as a matter of fact (well, no, I’ve never had to look up quotes from my clothes, and I’ve never given my old clothes to the library, but you get the general idea).

Margaret Campbell Barnes
Margaret Campbell Barnes was, I gather, fairly big in the 1940’s as a writer of historical fiction. Being interested in anything on the reign of Edward II, I picked up her Isabel the Fair a couple of years ago and liked it. Since then, I’ve read a few other things by her, the latest being The Passionate Brood, mostly about Richard the Lionhearted (and about Robin Hood, who turns out to have been a foster brother to Richard). I have serious doubts about Barnes’s historical accuracy in places, and it’s a pity she chose to kill off Henry II offstage, but Barnes excels at character studies. (Though sometimes she overdoes the analysis, particularly the self-analysis–there’s a few places in Isabel the Fair, for instance, where it appears that Gaveston has taken a college psychology class.) Moreover, since she wrote in the 1940’s, she didn’t have the easy out of having her characters jump into bed together whenever they ran out of things to say to each other–something I’ve seen in a lot of modern historical novels. Pick one of her books up–they’re still pretty easy to find secondhand, some with splendidly cheesy covers evidently geared toward the romance novel readership.

Ooh, those lucky Brits, getting to see the new Bleak House miniseries! I’ve consoled myself for having to wait by paying some visits to the BBC’s website, and I’ve noticed that the director has added a new character to the book–Tulkinghorn’s clerk, a Mr. Clamb. Great name, and Tulkinghorn probably does need a clerk, so I guess I can live with that. At least other characters don’t seem to have been left out–judging from the cast list, even people like the Badgers and Mr. Turveydrop made their way in. This ought to be fun.

Gotta go work.

Fun with Library Thing
As you can see by looking to the right, I’ve added a random list of books in my library to my blog, having noticed them on a couple of other blogs and thought it would be fun to have. I’ve been enjoying entering the books and seeing what pops up on my blog! As will soon become apparent, I have my favorites–Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, and Elizabeth Gaskell are well represented in my library, as are living writers like Anne Tyler and P. D. James. I’ve yet, alas, to get my Barbie-collecting books in the system.

This list is courtesy of Library Thing, which allows people to create a database of books in their personal libraries (or books they say are in their personal libraries, no one’s checking!). It’s nowhere near complete–I’m pretty much just working from memory right now or entering the books that happen to be nearest at hand.

Now if someone will invent a program that will allow me to find a book when I’m looking for it! Dorothy Parker once said that she shelved her books by “Good” and “Crap,” but as I’ve moved a lot and am chronically short of space, I’ve long since discarded most of the crap. Right now my system is mainly hardbacks in the living room and paperbacks in the garage, but one day I hope to refine that–probably the same day I get my own little office to write in. (Dream on, sister.)

Arlene Okerlund’s book on Elizabeth Woodville
Elizabeth Woodville is one of those queens who can’t catch a break with historical novelists. Either she’s a witch (as in Rosemary Jarman’s vastly overrated We Speak No Treason–one of the few novels about the Wars of the Roses I could not bring myself to finish) or a vicious schemer (as in Sandra Worth’s sentimental novel about Richard III). Even Sharon Penman, who’s more objective than most Ricardian novelists, presents her largely unsympathetically.

That’s why it’s been refreshing to read Arlene Okerlund’s biography Elizabeth Wydeville: The Slandered Queen. It’s a sympathetic, yet objective study of the queen as well as her family (who fare even worse at the hands of novelists than Elizabeth herself). It also has the merit of being readable. Perhaps some novelist will follow suit and depict this queen as a complex human being instead of a caricature.

Edward II in Fiction
Someone on a mailing list I belong to mentioned the Alison Weir book on Queen Isabella and said that someone should write a novel about her. Naturally, I couldn’t resist pointing out that I had written a novel in which she appears, and that there’s a slew of books out there in which she is the main or a major character. Want a list of them? Wait no longer! Just check out the “Edward II in Fiction” page on my website, www.susanhigginbotham.com or www.thetraitorswife.com!

Alison Weir’s latest on Queen Isabella
[Note from 3/10/2006: Alianor in her blog has since reviewed this much more thoroughly]
Finally drove down to the bookstore yesterday in my shiny new used van (there’s nothing like a transmission going to get Mom new wheels) and picked up Alison Weir’s latest biography, Queen Isabella: Treachery, Adultery, and Murder in Medieval England. Lots going on here, as you can tell from the subtitle!

Truth be told, I had picked up a proof copy of the British version of the book a couple of months ago (Ebay is a wondrous thing), but had refrained from writing much about it in the hopes that the errors I found would have been corrected when the book was published. They weren’t.

The errors weren’t major ones by any means, but they’re bothersome, and they have the unfortunate effect of making Isabella look rather nicer than she was. For instance, Queen Isabella’s archenemy was Hugh le Despenser the younger, whom she had hung, drawn, and quartered (nasty business). Weir gets that right, of course. But her account of what happened to his family is quite wrong, even though the primary documents are there in plain English even for a nonhistorian like myself to see. Weir writes that Hugh’s eldest son was pardoned a few months after his father’s death. This is true, but what she fails to mention is that despite the pardon, he was imprisoned and stayed that way for four years, getting out only after Isabella was removed from power and her lover Roger Mortimer executed. She also writes that Hugh’s young daughters (none of the children was over 18 when their father died) were sent to stay in convents while their mother was imprisoned and that three of them later became nuns. In fact, the three girls who became nuns had no choice in the matter–Isabella forced them to take the veil just six weeks after their father’s death.

Minor details, true. But the impression one gets from Weir is that Isabella was merciful in her treatment of her enemy’s family, when in fact she was quite mean-spirited, forcing a young man into prison and little girls to become nuns because of their father’s misdeeds.

The most controversial aspect of Weir’s book, however, will probably be her agreement with the theory that Edward II was not killed by his queen and her lover, but escaped and lived the rest of his life as a hermit on the Continent. This theory has gained popularity lately, and has been argued most recently by Paul Doherty and Ian Mortimer. Weir, however, doesn’t argue her theory very convincingly, which is unfortunate, because her sympathetic assessment of Isabella hinges in great part on her belief that Isabella was not a murderess, merely an adulteress who was driven into her lover’s arms by her husband’s shortcomings.

So is this book worth reading? Definitely–it’s a thorough account of Isabella’s life; its treatment of Edward II, who’s often caricatured even by historians as a swishy misogynist, is relatively evenhanded; and it’s quite readable. Just take it with a grain of salt in places.

My minivan strikes again
I had every intention of buying Alison Weir’s new book on Queen Isabella today (the very same one who appears in The Traitor’s Wife) and blogging on that, but my minivan would have no part of it. It started letting out these screeching noises and acting most peculiar (well, more peculiar than usual). We took it to the garage where it spends much of its time and they gave us the cheery news that its transmission is going.

This is obviously its childish revenge for us looking at new minivans (well, used ones that were built within this millennium, at least) the other day. But we may just have the last laugh if we can trade it in . . .

Just ran a spellcheck and discovered that the online dictionary didn’t know the word “blogging.” Time to get with the program, folks!

P. D. James’s The Murder Room
I watched Part I of the television adaptation of P. D. James’s The Murder Room last night. When I read the novel, I didn’t find it to be P. D. James at her best–in fact, I’d forgotten whodunit! So watching the show last night was more entertaining than usual, since I didn’t remember a lot of the action or characters. (Usually when I’m watching a TV adaptation, I keep thinking, “Why did they leave that out?” “That’s not what she did,” and so forth.)

But I have a bad habit when I read novels–I peek at the ending long before I’ve gotten very far in the beginning of the novel. (I don’t know what I would have done in the days of serial publication where I would have had to wait a month for the next installment.) So having forgotten how the book ended, I naturally had to dig out my copy and find out who the murderer was. (Don’t worry. I’m not telling!) So now I know–and I probably won’t enjoy the next episode as much as I did this one.

Looking forward to the BBC Bleak House
I’ve been looking forward excitedly to the BBC’s upcoming adaptation of Bleak House, and today I was pleased to learn that it will be broadcast in the States beginning in January 2006! That’s fast, considering how long it takes some things to get over here. I don’t know which station is carrying it in the US, but I hope it’s not BBC America. When BBC America broadcast Our Mutual Friend over here a few years back, following the PBS broadcast, the BBC America version chopped the episodes quite brutally for commercial breaks.

Anyway, back to my reading blog! My husband and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to buy four books for a buck from a book club, and one of the ones I selected was Miri Rubin’s The Hollow Crown: A History of Britain in the Late Middle Ages. It’s quite readable.

Richard III
Ever go to one of those job interviews where the interviewer asked, “What is your greatest weakness?” Needless to say, no one ever answers, “Stealing from the petty cash by the coffee machine,” or “Sexually harassing my subordinates.” Instead, one comes up with, “I just tend to get too involved with my work,” or the like.

This reminds me of recent novels on Richard III, where the king’s few faults are all of this sort–not real faults, but excesses of virtue. Now, the facts we know about Richard III are open to varying interpretations, so if a writer wants to paint him as a sympathetic character, I’ve no trouble with that. But why paint him as a saint? And why villify everyone else who isn’t Richard III? In the most recent novels I’ve read about the king, he’s a brave soldier, a devoted friend, a considerate lover, a good son, and a loyal brother–while nearly everyone else around him is self-seeking, corrupt, greedy, lecherous, and scheming. But the known facts about Richard III–for example, his execution of Hastings without trial, his haste to have his brother’s children declared bastards without bothering to submit the issue to the ecclesiastical courts where it belonged–show him to be a much more complicated character. Just for once, I’d like to see a novel that reflected this reality.

Welcome to my reading blog (I hope!)
Well, I think I figured my blogging out!

I can’t imagine anyone being interested in what I eat for dinner each night (though if you are, Tuesday is usually sausage pizza night). Instead, I thought I’d post on different things that I’m reading.

As I said in an earlier post that got wiped out with my blogging experiments, since reading Sandra Gulland’s trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte, I’ve become somewhat interested in the French Revolution. Because of this, I picked up Carolly Erickson’s new novel, The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette. Though I found it very well written and (as far as I could tell) well researched, I was a little disappointed. There are a few well drawn characters, but most of the historical figures are merely sketched in, even those who were important to Marie Antoinette. This leads to some odd moments. For instance, when the Princess Lamballe’s severed head and genitals are paraded in front of the queen by the mob, this ought to be as horrifying to the reader as it is to the queen, but as the princess has appeared only a few times in the novel, and then only to say the equivalent of “Please pass the salt,” one feels only a detached sense of disgust at the mob. Erickson does a lot better at bringing these events to life in her biography To the Scaffold.

Time to see if this posts right!

Trying to figure this out
Well, I’m trying to figure out how to post my blogs! We’ll see if this works.

2 thoughts on “A Divine Sign?”

  1. Ooh goody, lots of posts to read! 🙂
    I hadn’t realised there was a novel sympathetic to Elizabeth Woodville – must check that out. I read (or at least skimmed) the Miri Rubin while at home at Christmas – it seemed pretty good.

    I agree with you about ‘We Speak No Treason’. I was only about 16 when I read it, but back then it struck me as annoyingly pretentious and dull.

    A princess’s genitals are presented to the mob?? I can’t even think how that would work! (Not sure I want to)

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    Okerlund’s a biography. It’s a pretty good one–available through Amazon.uk but not, last I heard, on Amazon.com.

    We Speak No Treason lost me in the very first chapter where the narrator goes to a fair and has a bard sing of her beauty ad nauseum. I was never hoping so much for a bear-baiting in my life–anything to stop that endless song.

    It was the poor woman’s genitals, all right–she was accused of having a lesbian relationship with Marie Antoinette, among other things, as I recall. Makes medieval times look positively genteel!

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