Monday, January 30, 2006

More book reviews

Blenheim: the battle for Europe - Charles Spencer
I hadn't realised, when I first picked up this book, that the author was the Charles Spencer who is Earl Spencer and brother of Princess Diana. However, he has written a very entertaining and informative account of the events leading up to, and about the battle of Blenheim itself. Having become interested in this period of history (and the character of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough) through Neal Stephenson's monumental Baroque Trilogy (which is mostly fiction), I found the pace of the writing almost as entertaining as fiction: this is certainly not a stuffy, academic book, though Spencer quotes liberally from many sources. In Britain, Marlborough is almost a forgotten figure, as Spencer claims, but the I found the most fascinating character to be Marlborough's co-general, Prince Eugene of Savoy, whom I had not heard of before, and who seems, from this account, to have been just as instrumental in winning the battle. Spencer argues that the outcome of Blenheim, and the surrender of several crack French battalions, demoralised the French, and was the main turning point in saving Europe from the expansionist ambitions of Louis XIV.

The book puts the background to the wars, and the battle itself, into its historical context, explaining the variable loyalties and intrigues of the leaders of the states involved. Spencer also comments on the increasing professionalism of military life, and attributes this largely to Marlborough's reforms, partly in imitation of the French reforms, and partly to match the Dutch troops which William III had brought to England on his accession. There are interesting details about the appalling standards of medical care, the difficulties in feeding an army on the march, and the problems of politics at home and diplomacy abroad. I'd recommend this to anyone interested in history, not just military history.

Indiscretion - Jude Morgan
I found this book at Heathrow airport, and read it on the flight to Cairo. It's a Regency set novel, featuring as heroine, the wonderfully named Caroline Fortune, who is inevitably known as Miss Fortune. Her father, a former military man, and to whom she is attached, loses what little money remains to him, and Caroline takes a place as a companion to a wealthy widow, Mrs Catling. Life with this lady is not unpleasant, though Caroline has to endure Mrs Catling's bouts of ill-temper, and her cruel behaviour towards her nephew and niece, the Downeys, who have expectations of their aunt.

I won't talk too much of the plot, which takes sudden turns which would spoil your enjoyment of the book if I mentioned them. However, Caroline is a witty, wonderful character, who copes realistically with her problems, and her relationships with her aunt and uncle. The book is witty, well-written, and there is a beautiful sense of period infusing but not overpowering the story. There is some sense of inevitability in the plot, but everything is tied up in a very satisfying way at the end.

My Lord John - Georgette Heyer
Georgette Heyer's last, and unfinished novel, telling the story of John, Duke of Bedford, Henry IV's third son. At times, the book is confusing, with titles changing, and people being referred to by more than one sobriquet, but sheds a great deal of light on a forgotten character of English history. John's achievements probably rank alongside those of his brother, the more famous Henry V - however, Heyer never managed to write about Agincourt or the subsequent battles in France under John's generalship.

Although better known for her Regency novels, Heyer is equally at home in the Middle Ages, and her use of authentic, archaic words and phrases gives a great sense of the period. In the early part of the book, she manages to convey the uncertainty and fear which even great men would live with, given the rule of Richard II, who saw rivals and traitors everywhere, and whose rule, or lack of it, encouraged such jockeying for position. She also describes Henry IV's change in personality from when he was merely Henry of Bolingbroke, to when he had deposed his cousin and assumed the throne himself, and found that kingship was not as easy as he'd thought.

If you don't like unfinished works, this is not the book for you, as the recent re-issue stops midway through a sentence. If you can cope with that, however, read it in conjunction with Anya Seton's Katharine, set at a slightly earlier time, for a contrasting viewpoint of this period.



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