****Victoria: The Queen

Queen Victoria

detail of portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1859

By Julia Baird – This extensively researched biography landed in my “to read” pile at the same time the PBS series about Victoria was ready to begin. Naturally, differences in style and tone emerge, but the tv producers have hewn pretty close to the facts of Victoria’s early reign, as established by historian Baird.

Victoria was not the prudish, sexually repressed old lady we think of when we think “Victorian era.” That was Albert, actually. Victoria enjoyed her sex life and was disappointed when, after her ninth child was born, her doctor told her to have no more. She said something like, “What, no more fun in bed?” She became queen at eighteen and married at twenty-one. A youthful portrait, with a dash of the sultry, appears on the cover of Baird’s book. It’s the image of herself Victoria chose to bury with her husband.

When she became Queen, she initially relied heavily on the counsel of Her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, to whom she was greatly attached. He was a good mentor for Victoria, except in three areas, says Baird. He should have persuaded her to deal even-handedly with Britain’s political parties, not favoring one over another; he could have encouraged more concern for the poor; and he should have helped her repair relations with her mother.

By the time of her marriage, this headstrong young woman was accustomed to being queen. Yet she was deeply attached to Albert, who chafed under his limited role in British affairs of state, and they struggled to find a useful place for him. Ultimately, he worked tirelessly for the benefit of her country and its evolution into a modern society. Had he not died young, the 1800s would have been called “the Albertine era,” Baird says. But Albert did die when he and the queen were in their early 40s, and she wore black for the rest of her life. Her template became, Baird says, “weep with the women and dictate to the men, all while cushioning herself with a dramatic large grief.”

Victoria, too, worked hard. She wrote some 2,500 words a day—about 60 million words in her lifetime—letters, memoranda, diaries. Unfortunately, her voluminous papers were carefully “edited” by her family after her death. Daughter Beatrice, Victoria’s youngest child, who lived until 1944, took on the job of rewriting her mother’s diaries, turning the Queen’s interesting, quirky observations into dry prose, then burning the originals. Baird terms this “one of the greatest acts of historical censorship of the century.”

Victoria is great-great-great-great-great grandmother to the children of England’s Prince William and his wife Kate Middleton. It’s hard to believe so many generations have passed when Victoria remains so vivid in our cultural memory, for reasons this book amply justifies.

****Foundation

bayeux-tapestryBy Peter Ackroyd, narrated by Clive Chafer – Is it anxiety about the future that’s propelling me to spend much time lately thinking about the past? I’ve pulled out the family genealogy to work on a new (updated and improved!) version. And I read award-winning British biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd’s 2013 Foundation: The History of England from Its Earliest Beginnings to the Tudors: The History of England Book 1. Several subsequent volumes are planned, four of which have been published..

Foundation takes you from England’s earliest pre-history and the building of Stonehenge, through its occupation by the Romans, the Norman Conquest, the revolt of the barons, and up to the reign of Henry VIII. That’s a lot of history to cover, and to cover it takes more than 18 hours (or almost 500 pages in the print edition).

If one thing is clear from those often difficult and violent early centuries, history doesn’t move forward in a straight line. It’s full of contingencies. There are setbacks, and unexpected jogs in the path. Yet, the habits and customs of the English people, the rights they accumulated, their preoccupations, and, especially, the development of the common law and a vigorous language are part of the patrimony of Americans today. In that sense, this volume is well-named.

Starting with William the Conqueror (1066), I already knew a bit about English monarchy (enough anyway to recite the succession of  kings and queens over the past millennium, an especially lively rendition after a g&t). What fascinated me about Ackroyd’s approach is not so much the parade of often-bloody regime changes, but his parallel descriptions of the lives of everyday people. What was life actually like for those masses we don’t see much of in a BBC costume drama? Makes you glad to live in the 21st century, I can tell you.

Scholars have quibbled with bits of Ackroyd’s research and speculations and lament the lack of footnotes, maps, and documentation—a problem irrelevant in the audio version—but can’t fault him for readability. Foundation isn’t written for them.

Chafer is a fine narrator, a little stiff, but his presentation matches well with his subject matter. This is another one of those books that I wish I’d read in paper and had a physical copy to flag and refer back to. Much in it is worth rereading and remembering. In an interview with Euan Ferguson in The Guardian, Ackroyd said, “what underlines that random happenstance (of history) are the deep continuities of national life that survive, uninfluenced by surface events.” One can hope.

Richard III – at STNJ

richard-iii, Gretchen Hall, Derek Wilson

Gretchen Hall & Derek Wilson; photo: Jerry Dalia

Shakespeare’s quintessential villain erupts into being in this Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey production directed by Paul Mullins (on view through November 6). The cast is huge—16 actors playing 22 parts—but all depends on the sly malice and believability of the title character, a role Derek Wilson fulfills admirably.

Shakespeare’s Richard is more duplicitous than history supports, since in the Elizabethan era, theater was required to explain and justify the monarchy, but the play’s machinations seem perfectly plausible in Wilson’s hands. Fawning here, back-stabbing there, and slyly engaging the audience in his treachery.

The story describes the culmination of the War of the Roses, and it’s a familiar one, as most theater goers have seen one or more productions of this classic. In (very) short, Richard murders his way to the throne of England, but getting the crown isn’t keeping it. The play’s most famous lines come at the beginning  and end, but like all Shakespeare’s plays, it is filled with juicy bits. Here’s one for this political season: “And thus I clothe my naked villainy with old odd ends stolen out of holy writ; and seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

STNJ has provided a helpful Plantagenet family tree in the program, which, abbreviated though it is, is at first glance a stumper. I studied it before the show and had a few relationships sorted out, and at the intermission I gave it another go, putting everyone in place.

In addition to Wilson’s Richard, the many fine performances include those of the three principal women: Gretchen Hall (Queen Elizabeth, wife of Richard’s brother, King Edward IV), Carol Halstead (Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s “warrior queen,” who lives up to her sobriquet), and Amaia Arana (Lady Anne, widow of Margaret and Henry’s son, Edward, and later wife of Richard). In Shakespeare’s story, Richard instigated the murder of both Henry VI and Edward. For these crimes, Margaret and Anne hate him. The widowed Queen Elizabeth has reasons to both hate and fear him when her two sons “the little princes in the tower” are believed murdered at Richard’s behest.

Though lots of murder is talked about, most of it occurs off-stage. In keeping with the production’s modern dress, there is gunfire as well as swordplay. Richard III is a long play, but the energy of the cast and the direction (as well as some judicious trimming) make the story move apace.

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable from NYC by train), and until October 30 you can also see there an exhibit of Shakespeare’s First Folio, on tour from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

STNJ has prepared an excellent “Know the Show Guide.” For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit http://www.shakespearenj.org.

****The Birdwatcher

birds

photo: Alan Schmierer, public domain

By William Shaw – “There were two reasons why William South did not want to be on the murder team. The first was that it was October. The migrating birds had begun arriving on the coast.The second was that, though nobody knew, he was a murderer himself.”

Birdwatching is an avocation that instills in its practitioners the virtues of patience, keen observation, and meticulous attention to detail, traits that police sergeant South brings to his work as well. He’s a Local District lead based in Kent and generally works with neighborhood groups, drug busts, traffic accidents. A good, solid copper. Murder, by contrast, is something a person can be driven to in a moment of panic and loss of control. The murder South committed took place when he was only 13 years old, and you soon understand whom he killed—his own father—and eventually you learn why.

South was born in Northern Ireland, son of a brutal enforcer in the Ulster Volunteer Force during the Troubles, and his father’s death was blamed on internecine rivalries within the UVF. To escape the violence all around them and with the intervention of a police sergeant sweet on his mum, mother and son were safely transplanted to Kent. Though he has become a policeman, South avoids any more contact with killing.

However, a new murder case changes all that, and South has been assigned to it, like it or not. The victim is South’s neighbor, retired school teacher Robert Rayner, a nice man living in a quiet place who’s been viciously beaten to death. The two bachelors have spent many hours together birding along the coast where they live. Despite the many hours spent and the friendship South thought they shared, it soon emerges that he actually knew very little about Rayner, and what he knows is faulty.

The rage that would produce a death such as Rayner’s is terrifyingly familiar to South, and in this well constructed plot, you understand it is destined to reverberate in unexpected ways. Overall, Shaw’s writing is clean and unlabored. The banter among members of the police team also are good, and much of it is funny. The characters are ones you come to care about, too.