July 7th, 2012


July Books 5) Risk Assessment, by James Goss

As usual, I very much enjoyed this Torchwood novel by James Goss. Unusually, it has a very strong comedic element, not something that Torchwood always managed successfully and not something I'd seen Goss try at all. The beautiful concept is that Agnes Havisham, a stern and sarcastic Victorian lady, emerges from decades of suspended animation to do an official assessment of Torchwood, at the same moment as two separate alien threats emerge to torment the innocent citizens of Cardiff. Unlike his first book, Almost Perfect, we get a pretty satisfying exploration of Jack's character from another perspective, and decent page time for Ianto, Gwen and Rhys too. Rhys gets a couple of particularly glorious moments. I felt the pacing of the plot a little uneven but the style very entertaining..

Elizabeth I / The Elizabeth Quartet, by Alison Plowden

I'd had this big book on Elizabeth I sitting on the shelves looking at me for some time, but when I eventually picked it up at the end of last month I realised that it is actually four separate books inside a single cover - Young Elizabeth (1971), Danger to Elizabeth (1973), Marriage with My Kingdom: The Courtships of Queen Elizabeth I (1977) and Elizabeth Regina (1980), all slightly updated in 2004 (so references to the horrors of the twentieth century have been updated to the horrors of the twenty-first).

The standout book for me, with a lot of material I hadn't really considered before, was the second, Danger to Elizabeth, which looked mainly at the relationship between Elizabeth and English Catholics, and gives quite a substantial and detailed description of Catholic operations inside England - largely a matter of attempting to service the spiritual needs of the recusant community, though of course often tangled up with the high politics of attempted regime change and foreign sponsorship. Plowden makes what seems to me an honest effort to disentangle these strands and to tell it from the perspective of both Catholics and the government; it also of course is a very important element of the Elizabethan approach to Ireland, where religion became integral to the conflict during Elizabeth's reign in a way that had not been the case before.

The first and fourth books, Young Elizabeth and Elizabeth Regina, cover the start and end of Elizabeth's life; decent enough retellings, but I've read better elsewhere, and I was a bit shocked that Plowden assigns some blame to Elizabeth for the abuse she suffered from her stepfather as a teenager. I guess attitudes were different in 1970.

The third book, Marriage with My Kingdom, is an interesting example of writing about something that never happened, Elizabeth's marriage. Plowden takes a decently comprehensive approach to the various suitors proposed for her, starting from her childhood as a marriageable princess (or alternatively a bastard daughter of Henry VIII depending on the year) and going right through to the Duke of Alençon in her late 40s. As noted above, Plowden doesn't quite take on board the importance of Elizabeth's teenage experiences in shaping her attitude toward sexuality and relationships, preferring to concentrate on what had happened to her mother and sister (one executed, the other trapped into a loveless and unsuccessful dynastic match). Sexuality is a complex thing and one can hardly blame Elizabeth for rejecting the narrow options which were made available to her if they were not right for her.

I also found myself wondering was why no foreign Protestant suitors ever got a look-in - Eric XIV of Sweden seems to have been a serious contender at one point, but Plowden minimises this, and there were surely other eligible Scandinavian, German or Central European princes who were the right age and religion. Yet it seems to have been only Hapsburgs or French princes who were under consideration. (And Robert Dudley of course.)

Anyway, good background reading, particularly the second book.

July Books 8) The Bible: The Biography, by Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong's books about religion have not always worked for me, but this one did the trick - a fairly intense account of how we think the books of the Bible came to be written, and how they have then been used by Jewish and Christian believers over the centuries. Most of it was material with which I was already familiar, but presented in quite and intense and engaging format. I had not previously considered Wycliffe's links with the scholastic philosophers (which perhaps shows how little I had previously thought about him at all). Not really a book for beginners but an interesting perspective for readers who already know a bit about the subject.

July Books 9) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Ann Jacobs

This is a first-person narrative published in 1861 by an author who was herself born into slavery in North Carolina; having endured continual sexual harassment from her owner, and borne two children by his neighbour (who meantime got elected to the House of Representatives), she eventually managed to escape into hiding locally, and took refuge in a cramped space in her grandmother's attic for seven years before finally fleeing to New York, where she eventually became freed and a campaigner for education and emancipation. (It's interesting that women were so visible in the Abolitionist movement - cf Harriet Beecher Stowe, Fanny Kemble.)

It's powerful stuff - Jacobs describes the violence inflicted on slaves in detail, and gives a broad enough account of their sexual exploitation by the white population to appall the northern women who were her primary target. The key point, that she comes back to over and over again, is that slavery acted to destroy families; and unlike Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was constrained to give closure to Uncle Tom's Cabin by the constraints of the novel format, she can tell it like it is and also has the luxury of a narrative that stretches over decades, so it is all the more effective.

Despite her being deprived of formal education, Jacobs' style is fluent and eloquent; and any suspicion that there was a ghost-writer involved is laid to rest by reading her other writings available on-line - for instance her reply to a frankly awful piece by former First Lady Julia Tyler; here several of her letters to Harriet Beecher Stowe and others. Of the various slave narratives I have read over the last few years, I think this is the best.

July Books 10) The Russian Phoenix, by Francis House

A pretty short history of the Russian Orthodox Church from 988 to 1988, written of course just before the world changed; it's fasinating to remember the context of the Cold War and of those who attempted what we would now call Track Two diplomacy across the Iron Curtain.

The first half of the book is pre-revolutionary history, so a bit less controversial; House rather charmingly tries to draw parallels between Russian and English church history (it's pretty clear that his audience is the liberal English churchgoer), such as the fact that Henry VIII and his contemporary Ivan the Terrible were married several times and reformed the church. Er, yes.

The second half of the book reflects House's own experiences in outreach from the Anglican community and the World Council of Churches (for whom he worked) to the Soviet Union. He has to be a little guarded in what he says about those still living - who could know for sure what the outcome of перестройка would be? - but he is quite clear about the extent to which the Church was alternatively oppressed by and then forced into collusion with the Communist system.

It's not a complete account, as House admits in the foreword; the Armenian, Georgian, Baltic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist stories of religion in the USSR would all be a bit different (not to mention the complexities of Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova). And like most of us he has no inkling of the revival of the Orthodox church in the 1990s, and its unsavoury links with nationalism and closeness to the new regime. But you can't expect that from 130 pages written in 1988.