Christ Church in Va imposing today’s politically correct values on 1790s

Quote: “If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.” (George Washington)

Without a doubt, political correctness and a “philosophy of grievance” is running rampant across the U.S. and Canada in 2017 with politicians and activists judging people who lived centuries ago by today’s values and social standards.

The latest U.S. example is the membership of Christ Church, located in Alexandria Virginia (link here and here). They represent a lovely historical church that wants to remove memorial plaques honoring both George Washington and Confederate Leader Robert E. Lee. And, that is in spite of the fact that Washington himself attended that church for twenty years!

As with the current hysteria to remove all historical monuments in the U.S., the reason the church wants to remove any reminder of both men is because they were slave owners. True, the issue of slavery is repugnant today. But, it was the norm in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In fact, as everyone knows, a civil war was fought over the issue long after Washington’s time.

In my opinion, it is fruitless to judge Washington, or even Lee, by today’s standards. Surely, people in 2017 can forgive those who came before us for their ignorance and cruelty. Remember, Washington disagreed with slavery and was the only Founding Father who freed his slaves in his Will.

Of course, the U.S. is not the only Western country going through such politically correct introspection. Canadians are supposed to be celebrating our 150th anniversary as a country. But, Aboriginals and others say they have no reason to celebrate anything. So, apart from a program in Ottawa on the lawn in front of the Parliament Buildings on July 1st, not much else has been done.

As well, many angry Canadians want to remove plaques or change school names that honoured our first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. Why? Because they say he was a racist and the architect of Aboriginal genocide.  What they don’t say is that we wouldn’t have a country without Sir John A. making sure that the 1867 British North America Act was passed. He also presided over the building of the first west to east railway. Actually, in my opinion, the real problem with Macdonald today is that he was a conservative.

Anyway, the attempt to revise the facts and reality of history is not a new phenomenon. We know, for example, that it happened in Ancient Egypt. To those living at that time, the way to remove a person’s existence after death — as though they had never lived — was to never repeat their name and remove their name and physical likenesses from monuments after they had died.

Two such attempts were made during the 18th Dynasty. First, there was Pharoah Hatshepsut (who reigned from 1479 to 1458 B.C.). Then, there was Pharoah Akhenaten (who reigned from 1351 to 1334 B.C.). That’s three and a half thousand years ago.

Hatshepsut was a woman who pretended to be a man and her descendants made sure nothing of her reign remained visible after her death. For centuries, she was, in fact, not known. It is only modern archeology that brought her memory back to life.

Similarly, Pharoah Akhenaten, husband of Nefertiti and father of Tutankhamun, abandoned the main Ancient Egyptian religion in favor of the Sun God, the Aten. He also built an entirely new capital city, called Armarna — which was totally destroyed after his death. However, as I said in the previous paragraph, thanks to modern archeology, many sculptures of both Akhenaten and Hatshepsut exist and are displayed in museums across the world today.

The crux of the matter is that, while issues surrounding history can be twisted, the facts themselves are not revisable.  The facts about George Washington are not only that he was a slave owner, but that he was also the first president of the United States and that he also arranged to free his slaves after his and his wife’s death. As such, Washington has a special place in U.S. history regardless of his upholding social practices we may find repugnant today.

Review of “The Spice Merchant’s Wife” by Charlotte Betts

Although I missed “The Spice Merchant’s Wife” by Charlotte Betts when it came out in January of 2013, it is well worth the read at any time. Categorized in the historical genre, it is also an historical romance. Moreover, there is a good deal of mystery in it as well.

The story opens in 1666 just before the great London fire and goes on for a few years until 1670. The setting is primarily London but, at times, also includes some rural locations as well and all within horse riding distance of London.

The main characters are Kate Finche and her husband Robert and Gabriel Harte and his wife Jane. Of course, there are many other secondary and important characters but these four take us through the entire book alive or dead.

Kate meets Gabriel right after the story opens in Chapter One. She sees that he is about to be run down by a coach being driven wildly down the street. Kate is momentarily confused because she can see that the young man is about to be run down and likely killed but seems frozen to the spot in the middle of the road.

However, just in time, Kate manages to push him out-of-the-way. It is when she is helping him get himself together that she realizes the reason he didn’t know what was about to happen was because he was blind. At the time of this awkward meeting, both are married to other people and they frequently meet socially. Gabriel is a famous perfumer and always seems to know when Kate is nearby.

In Chapter 3, we experience the London fire, which went on for days because of a horrendous wind. Kate and thousands of others end up in a field, where they find out they and Robert’s parents have lost everything.

What is different about this book is that the author doesn’t just gloss over the consequences of the fire. She takes us through every single day and what happened to those, like the Finche’s, who lost everything. Robert Finche’s parents, for example, end up in debtors’ prison, where his father dies, because their successful spice warehouse was burned to the ground. While Gabriel did not lose his home and studio, he did lose all the landmarks he used to get around and which everyone, previously, took for granted.

Obviously, there was no such thing as fire insurance in those days, and the hardship must have been incredible. In the book, we meet young women and girls left destitute, who had no choice but to sell their bodies as there simply weren’t any jobs until the city was rebuilt. Kate was able to do contract sewing, which of course, was all done by hand.

Yes, Kate and Gabriel do eventually realize they love each other, but even with both their spouses deceased, as with everything else in Kate’s life, happy ever after may not be possible. Readers will have to read the book to find out why.

I would highly recommend this book. Yes, it is unsettling in places, particularly when we are faced with the role of women in the 17th century and what they had to do to survive. There is also a murder and an attempt at murder. But, there are upbeat moments as well and Betts does have some surprises that will make you smile.

My rating for this novel is 4 1/2 stars out of 5.

Published by Piatkus — First printed in January 2013, Reprinted in Paperback January 2014 (381 pages)



Review of Alyson Richman’s amazing novel “The Velvet Hours”

velvet-hoursWithout a doubt, Alyson Richman’s “The Velvet Hours” is one of the best books I have ever read. The characters are so vivid and the various settings so true to life that the story draws you in from the first page and won’t let you go. In fact, I am still thinking about it several days after finishing it, which is definitely a sign of a good book.

This novel is loosely based on a true story which makes it even more intriguing. Readers may remember that, in 2010, a Paris apartment had been found that had been locked for nearly 70 years. As the video in my link  shows, that apartment had been full of priceless treasures and furnishings from the late 19th century Belle Epoque period in Paris. Reputed to be where a beautiful real life courtesan by the name of Marthe de Florian lived, Richman’s novel picks up from there.

In the novel, Marthe de Florian’s real name had been Mathilde Beaugiron. She starts her adult life as a seamstress and struggles constantly for money. She gets pregnant and has a child she names Henri who she gives up immediately after birth to a seamstress friend and her husband who are unable to have children of their own. Henri only finds out the truth of his birth when he is 18 — a fact that makes him bitter to say the least.

However, Mathilde does not remain a seamstress for long because of her beauty and grace. She becomes a dancer in a local theatre where she meets Charles de Montagne. Charles is a very rich man who falls in love with her, gets her to change her name to Marthe de Florian, and sets her up in a gorgeous Paris apartment — THE apartment as it were. In other words, Marthe becomes a mistress in order to escape poverty and considers her relationship with Charles her job.

The son, Henri, in the meantime, gets married and has a daughter named Solange. What I found particularly interesting is that Henri and Solange use the surname Beaugiron. Anyway, when Solange is 19, Henri introduces her to Marthe, her paternal grandmother. A complication, as WWII looms, is the fact that Solange’s mother, who died when she was young, was Jewish — a fact that becomes a large part of this book.

In any event, the story in The Velvet Hours goes back and forth between Marthe to Solange, from the 1880s and the early 1940s, narrated by each of the women. Both learn to love one another and to find their own stories out of the ashes of WWI, the Depression and WWII.

In fact, it is the character Solange who can connect us to the real story, because it is when a woman dies in 2010 in the United States at the age of 91 that her children and grandchildren learn about an address and a key to an apartment in Paris that had belonged to Solange’s grandmother Marthe. Of course, while Solange may not have been the real name of the relative, it does show us how many generations might have been affected by that mysterious Paris apartment.

A truly wonderful book. My rating is 5 stars out of 5.

Published by Berkley on September 6th, 2016 (374 pages including study guide)


Review of debut novel by Serena Burdick titled “Girl in the Afternoon”

girl-in-the-afternoonGirl in the Afternoon is a debut novel by Serena Burdick. It takes place in the 1870’s, in Paris, during what is referred to as the Belle Epoque. The family at the centre of the story is the wealthy Savaray family.

The main characters are Aimee Savaray, her grandmother, usually referred to simply as “Madame Savaray,” her parents Colette and Auguste and a young English fellow who moved in with the family when he was a pre-teen. Also involved in the story is Parisian impressionist painter Edouard Manet and an artist’s model, Leonie, who becomes friends with Aimee.

At this point, I would normally write a short but complete summary of this novel but I can’t do it in this case, because there are so many secrets in this story that, if I told them all, I would ruin the story for everyone else. So, I will write a partial summary instead.

As the story opens, Henri has basically left the Savaray home. Why? At this point, we don’t know. Aimee misses him greatly as, growing up together as brother and sister, they created art together for years. Aimee gets involved in studying art and in the Paris art scene and, of course, eventually finds Henri.

Aimee becomes friends with a figure drawing model named Leonie who ends up having an affair with Henri. In fact, they move in together. Aimee is extremely jealous and has a short affair with Manet as revenge. Unfortunately, Aimee gets pregnant.

To avoid any scandal, she lives with Leonie and Henry until the baby is born, a daughter named Jeanne, and then goes to England (where her family thought she was all along). So, gossip doesn’t follow her.

I found this book very depressing. Aimee and Henri, although not related by blood, grow up as bother and sister and yet love each other as they would a non-relative. In fact, throughout the book, Aimee feels that Henri has let her down by not coming back for her. Which means, that while Aimee and Henri are not related by blood, they are responsible for the incestuous thread throughout the book. On that point alone, I found the story disturbing.

Overall, the writing is good, although I question the structure as I found the Epilogue unsettling and out-of-place somehow — unless Burdick intends to write a sequel. The title is interesting as it is based on one of Henri’s paintings.

Personally, I don’t like stories that are so melancholy. Time is valuable. When I read, I want to be uplifted or inspired in some way. I was not uplifted or inspired by this story although I was engaged by the characters’ sufferings to the point that I am writing this review. Would I read a sequel? Would I seek out other work by this author? No.

My rating for this novel is 3 stars out of 5.

Published by St. Martin’s Press, July 2016 (288 pages)


Trudeau proposal at Liberal Convention vs Stephen Harper record

Justin Trudeau at Winnipeg Convention 1030After reading his very balanced analysis of former PM Stephen Harper’s ten years in power, I agree with Michael Den Tandt that history will be kind to the former PM. In fact, I believe that, since no human being is perfect, he will eventually be seen as one of Canada’s best PM’s.

Now, compare Den Tandt’s Harper record, both pro and con, to the last seven months of the Justin Trudeau Liberal Government, including what is going on at the Liberal Convention in Winnipeg this weekend.

Ah, yes, everything is now sunny ways. Except it isn’t! Elbowgate comes to mind. While I don’t want to make a big deal out of that incident, one thing was clear. When things are not going Mr. Trudeau’s way, he just might barge in to make sure everyone behaves as he thinks they should.

At the Liberal Convention in Winnipeg, for example, Mr. Trudeau is aggressively promoting a change to the federal Liberal Party Constitution that would allow anyone to become part of, at no cost, what the current PM is calling “a Liberal Movement.” Whatever that is supposed to mean. One thing is for sure, Liberal party loyalty will go by the wayside if there are no longer any grassroots “members.”

And, yes, many of those grassroots are complaining. I mean, when even liberal-friendly Joan Bryden is questioning the rate and kind of change Mr. Trudeau is recommending for his party, you have to know that Liberal leadership arrogance has already set in.

On the complaints about the Trudeau proposal, Bryden writes:

While the proposal is being touted as a way to throw open the doors of the party, it has raised hackles among rank and file Liberals who suspect it will actually turn the party into a different kind of exclusive club, one in which the leader and his cronies run the party as they see fit.

Of course, the irony is obvious. For years we heard that Stephen Harper was a controller who had a hidden agenda and, as such, was going to change the face of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC), if not all of Canada.

Well, as Den Tandt summarizes, Harper wasn’t the controller people claimed he was, he didn’t have a hidden agenda and he left both the CPC and Canada in good procedural and fiscal shape.

I wonder, will Liberals be able to say the same by 2019? I doubt it!

In my opinion, then, I believe that history will judge Stephen Harper’s leadership legacy, both to his party and his government, to be superior to that of Justin Trudeau’s.

A review of the 2006 title “A Rose for the Crown” by Anne Easter Smith

Click for author's website.

Click for author’s website.

While “A Rose for the Crown,” by Anne Easter Smith was published several years ago in the spring of 2006 by Touchstone, it is one of the best historical novels I have ever read. Superb research and writing from start to finish, Smith has a way of intertwining historical people, those who might be historical, and those who are fictional.

The time period is England between 1459 and 1491 — a very volatile period when the Houses of York and Lancaster were constantly in conflict with each other because each had reason to claim the English throne.

Once past the Prologue, which covers events immediately after King Richard III’s death, it starts when young Kate Bywood is 9 years old. Outspoken, beautiful and fearless from an early age, Kate attracted men to her like flies. However, it was her soft singing voice and her ability to play the harp that eventually helped her fit in with the upper class.

Thus it was that at age 10, Kate was sent to live with Richard Haute’s family. Being a cousin of Kate’s mother,  he was rich and had inherited an estate from his father called Ightham Mote (which apparently still exists and is open to the public) to be a companion to his similarly aged daughter Anne.

As a result, Kate is taught how to read, how to write, how to be a lady, and what to do with herbs in the care of the sick  — all skills that she would need later in life. However, it was a tough life for Kate because Anne’s mother Elinor hated her because she was of peasant stock. In any event, Anne and Kate became like sisters and their friendship lasts throughout their lives. As well as their estate, both Richard Haute & Anne are historical persons.

At some point, Kate is taken to London where she meets Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, later to become King Richard III. Their affair is a love match and goes on for many years until Richard marries Anne Neville.

Kate has three bastard children by Richard, up to the point of his marriage — although the third child, also named Richard or Dickon for short, remains a secret from the Duke for many years as Kate thought it best that he be brought up by her relatives. Eventually, however, young Dickon learns the truth, but not until after King Richard is killed in battle.

Smith does an excellent job of describing certain events, such as when Kate has to give up her first son, John, shortly after his sixth birthday and when her daughter, just married, dies in her mother’s arms from the sweating sickness.

I had tears in my eyes during the reading of both those scenes. Being a mother and grandmother, I could definitely empathize how awful that must have been for Kate.

I should mention here that both those children, Katherine the younger and John, are actual historical figures. Who their mother was may be conjecture but as Smith points out in her notes, it was recorded that an annuity was paid out of the Duke of Gloucester’s household accounts to a Katherine Haute.

In the end, Smith leaves the possibility of continuing the story in a second volume — although, apparently, she has not yet done so. However, I for one would dearly like to know what happened in Kate’s and Dickon’s later years after they moved to Eastwell in Kent. Parish records there apparently indicate someone by the name of Richard of Eastwell actually is recorded as having been a stone mason for Sir Thomas Moyle.

My rating for this book is 4 1/2 stars out of 5.

Review of “The Marriage Game,” an Elizabeth 1st novel by Alison Weir

Click for author's website.

Click for author’s website.

As a Tudor enthusiast, I enjoyed “The Marriage Game” by Alison Weir.

Of course, the story went over much of the same ground all Elizabethan novels do, particularly in relation to Lord Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester and the questionable death of his first wife Amy Robsart.

It also covered, very effectively I thought, the friction caused by Dudley’s second wife Lettice Knollys and her son from her first marriage, Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex (Dudley’s Godson and step-son).

However, what this novel does differently, while bringing in all the various palace intrigues over the entire length of the Queen’s reign, is lay bare the constant stress the Queen had to deal with regarding getting married.

The concern was always about an heir and the succession plus the fact that both her close council members, as well as parliament, just could not accept that, as a woman, she could govern effectively. Over time, of course, she wore them all down and convinced them that, as the “Virgin Queen” she was married to England and her subjects.

In other words, having Weir lay out Elizabeth the 1st entire life as a monarch shows beyond any shadow of doubt, temper tantrums and all, just how brilliant the Queen was.

Of course, the enjoyment in this novel is imagining the answer to the age old question regarding Elizabeth and Dudley — “did they or didn’t they?” Weir covers a possible answer to that question quite creatively which I will leave to the readers to find out.

Anyway, everyone who likes reading fictionalized accounts of the Tudor period will love this book. Plus, it was so well researched, it would be a good read for anyone wanting to learn about the history of the mid to the late 1500s in England, Scotland and France — particularly given the excellent factual “author end notes.”

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My rating for this book is 4 stars out of 5.

Published by Penguin Random House (397 pages) with excellent explanatory notes.


Reviewing “Odysseus: The Oath” by Valerio Massimo Manfredi

Click for Google page.

Click for Google page.

The book “Odysseus: The Oath” is the first of two volumes. Written initially in Italian by archeologist and scholar Valerio Massimo Manfredi, it has now been translated into English by Christine Feddersen-Manfredi, the author’s spouse.

The second book, “The Return” is apparently available now in Italian according to the author’s site.

As Manfredi writes in his end notes, this book and the one to follow, are “inspired by the Trojan Epic Cycle and tell the story of Odysseus, son of Laertes, King of Ithaca, from his birth to his last journey.”

So, this book is wonderful for someone like myself, who studied classical history, myths, drama, art and architecture during my undergraduate years. I could almost see, in my mind’s eye, ancient Ithaca, the blue sea, the rocky hills, the ships and the men leaving to go to war.

While there are aspects of reading this book that can become studious, such as when you have to read about the lineage of certain kings, or the many pages related to the massacre of Hercules’ family, the introduction of Odysseus is realistic and special, starting out with the sea voyage to see his mother’s father and grandfather — the man who named him — as a teenager.

I also liked the way the author brings to life Odysseus’ relationship with Penelope, their immediate personal connection, as well as their secret times together, which produced their son Telemachus.

In my opinion, the story of Odysseus is important for us all. No matter what culture we live in, there are versions of its truth that as long as we have had oral, dramatic or written traditions, people have believed in heroes and the journeys to achieving our goals, a human paradigm as it were, something Joseph Campbell recognized when he wrote about the Journey of the Hero in all our lives.

As well, an example of how capable Manfredi is in helping his readers “see,” towards the end of the story he writes: “There was no strip of land that had not been slashed or wounded, not a single building in glorious Troy that stood where it once had….Of the twelve ships I had set off with, only seven returned with me now.

In my opinion, then, what this book does, even if sometimes more detailed than an average reader would want, is weave the magic of myth and ancient history together into a story that we can relate to — something few modern classical novelists can do.

Another author I can think of, however, that can bring ancient history to life, is Steven Saylor and his Gordianus the Finder Roma Sub-Rosa mystery series.

Did I read every word of this book? No, I have to admit I did not. For the most part, I skimmed over sections that were involved with war and brutality. That said, I recommend this book to anyone who likes novels that take us back in time and place to a world that may or may not have existed.

My rating for this book is 4 stars out of 5.

Published in 2012 and translated in 2013 by MacMillan (358 pages). Page separator