Saturday, 27 April 2019

Review: 'The Tragic Daughters of Charles I: Mary, Elizabeth & Henrietta-Anne' by Sarah-Beth Watkins

I love history, but reading about history is often more of a chore than a pleasure. History can't be changed, the outcome is set, and, depending on how old the history is, history isn't surprising. Or is it? What the best history books do, in my opinion, is show us the humanity behind the shadowy figures of history. And The Tragic Daughters of Charles I does just that. Thanks to John Hunt Publishing and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 4/26/2019
Publisher: John Hunt Publishing; Chronos Books

Mary, Elizabeth and Henrietta Anne, the daughters of King Charles I and his queen, Henrietta Maria, would be brought up against the background of the English Civil War. Mary would marry William, Prince of Orange, and be sent to live in the Netherlands. Elizabeth would remain in England under Parliamentary control. Henrietta Anne would escape to France and be the darling of the French Court. Yet none of the Stuart princesses would live to reach thirty. The Tragic Daughters of Charles I is their story. 
One of the things that fascinated me about The Tragic Daughters of Charles I was the sheer amount of letters that Sarah-Beth Watkins showed and quoted in her novels. History can become dry very quickly when it is recounted coldly and impersonally. By quoting the princesses' letters to their brother Charles and others, we as the readers get a real sense of who they might have been, what their internal, emotional lives look like. For me personally, I loved seeing how smart these women were in how they handled the fraught times in which they lived. Both Mary and Henrietta-Anne were crucial in their brother's attempts to bring Britain back after its Civil War, juggling their responsibilities to their old and new homes. Mary consistently used her power to provide her brother with money and ships, while Henrietta-Anne used her considerable influence in the French Court to barter for peace. Reading the words these women wrote brings them to life in a way no amount of details and facts could.

The Tragic Daughters of Charles I focuses on Mary (1631-1660), Elizabeth (1635-1650) and Henrietta-Anne (1644-1670). There were two other daughters, yet neither survived childhood. Sadly none of Charles' daughters made it to thirty. Although I lived in the UK for a good few years, a lot of British royal history is actually a bit of a mystery to me, especially its Civil War. Much of Britain's history is contextualized in The Tragic Daughters which definitely helped me. Sarah-Beth Waters starts her book with the execution of Charles I as a defining moment in all of his children's lives, before backtracking a few years to describe each child's birth and first few years. Although his daughters are the main focus of the novel, his sons also play key roles. Perhaps the fewest pages are dedicated to Elizabeth, who spends most of her short life under control of Parliament and far away from her family. Mary, Charles I's oldest daughter, takes up the central part of the book, as Watkins describes her move to the Netherlands and her troubles as she tries to fit in. Although both Protestant countries, the Dutch monarchy is very different from the British monarchy, and Watkins describes Mary trying to find an even ground between helping her brother's attempts to regain his crown and settling into her new country. The final part of the book looks at Henrietta-Anne, who was smuggled out of Britain at age 2 by her nurse while dressed as a little boy. Rejoining her mother in France, she becomes an elemental part of the French Court of the Sun King. She is perhaps the most fascinating of the daughters, simply because she becomes crucial to the peace efforts between Britain and France.

Sarah-Beth Watkins infuses her historical protagonists with a lot of life. Whether it is the sibling love shared between them or their own separate trials and tribulations, they feel like real people. I think many of us still hold on to the idea of the princess as being mainly a bartering good for kings, whose sole goal is to provide heirs and then retire to convents when they become inconvenient. Watkins doesn't shy away from these truths, showing the unhappiness many of the princesses felt at being displaced and removed from their homes and families. She also shows how erudite, sharp and powerful these women could be, however, and how much the course of history relies on their behind-the-scenes work. In the end what Watkins really describes is a family torn apart by political strife, scattered across Northern Europe, but united by a common goal. The Tragic Daughters also drives home just how close and connected European countries are, just how entwined their histories really are. In the time of Brexit this is a very important message to bring back.

I give this book...

4 Universes!

Although I went into The Tragic Daughters of Charles I not knowing who these women were, I came out of it feeling strangely connected to them. Watkins brings these women to life without burdening the reader with too much extraneous detail. Anyone interested in British history and women in history should absolutely pick up this book!

Stacking the Shelves #1

I haven’t participated in any weekly blogging posts in what feels like eons, but Stacking the Shelves has always been one of my favourites because I get so many awesome book recommendations out of it! Hosted by Tynga’s Reviews and Reading Reality, Stacking the Shelves is easy as could be. Throw together a post of what books have made their way to you this week and then go see what other bloggers have been stacking up!

This week my books have come from Netgalley, so below is just a short overview of each:

The First Girl Child by Amy Harmon, to be published by 47North in August
m the New York Times bestselling author comes a breathtaking fantasy of a cursed kingdom, warring clans, and unexpected salvation. 
Bayr of Saylok, bastard son of a powerful and jealous chieftain, is haunted by the curse once leveled by his dying mother. Bartered, abandoned, and rarely loved, she plagued the land with her words: From this day forward, there will be no daughters in Saylok. 
Raised among the Keepers at Temple Hill, Bayr is gifted with inhuman strength. But he’s also blessed with an all-too-human heart that beats with one purpose: to protect Alba, the first girl child born in nearly two decades and the salvation for a country at risk. 
Now the fate of Saylok lies with Alba and Bayr, whose bond grows deeper with every whisper of coming chaos. Charged with battling the enemies of their people, both within and without, Bayr is fueled further by the love of a girl who has defied the scourge of Saylok. 
What Bayr and Alba don’t know is that they each threaten the king, a greedy man who built his throne on lies, murder, and betrayal. There is only one way to defend their land from the corruption that has overtaken it. By breaking the curse, they could defeat the king…but they could also destroy themselves.
The Man in the Next Bed by David K. Shipler, to be published by Knopf Doubleday’s impress Vintage in May.

In this heartbreaking and extraordinary first foray into fiction by Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Arab and the Jew and The Working Poor, David K. Shipler has delivered a miniature masterpiece.
Gibson has learned to keep his spirits up as he receives care from his many doctors, nurses, and attendants. He likes to watch the bustling goings on in the ward from his hospital bed, crack witticisms, and make his caretakers smile—even the news isn’t good. 
Gibson is an engineer, and he likes to understand how people work. When a young man gets placed in the bed beside his, hidden behind a paisley curtain, Gibson becomes privy to the intimate, private pains of his young neighbor’s life and forms with him the kind of fleeting human connection that will reverberate to the depths his memory and soul. 

And finally there’s, Klotsvog by Margaret Khemlin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden. To be published by Columbia University Press in August.

Klotsvog is a novel about being Jewish in the Soviet Union and the historical trauma of World War II—and it’s a novel about the petty dramas and demons of one wonderfully vain woman. Maya Abramovna Klotsvog has had quite a life, and she wants you to know all about it. Selfish, garrulous, and thoroughly entertaining, she tells us where she came from, who she didn’t get along with, and what became of all her husbands and lovers.
In Klotsvog, Margarita Khemlin creates a first-person narrator who is both deeply self-absorbed and deeply compelling. From Maya’s perspective, Khemlin unfurls a retelling of the Soviet Jewish experience that integrates the historical and the personal into her protagonist’s vividly drawn inner and outer lives. Maya’s life story flows as a long monologue, told in unfussy language dense with Khemlin’s magnificently manipulated Soviet clichés and matter-of-fact descriptions of Soviet life. Born in a center of Jewish life in Ukraine, she spent the war in evacuation in Kazakhstan. She has few friends but several husbands, and her relationships with her relatives are strained at best. The war looms over Klotsvog, and the trauma runs deep, as do the ambiguities and ambivalences of Jewish identity. Lisa Hayden’s masterful translation brings this compelling character study full of dark, sly humor and new perspectives on Jewish heritage and survival to an English-speaking audience.
I also ordered Sally Rooney's Ordinary People, but it hasn't come through yet so I'll feature it as soon as it's made its way to me in China! 

So not a whole lot of books for me this week, but definitely some variety there! I'm quite intrigued b The First Girl Child, mainly because I feel like diving into some fantasy soon! What do you think of these books? Any of them draw your eye?