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Joanna Hickson – The Agincourt Bride

Book Cover

Metaphorical swings and roundabouts.

Publisher: Harper (HarperCollins)
Pages: 406
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-007-44697-1
First Published: 3rd January 2013
Date Reviewed: 20th June 2017
Rating: 3.5/5

Mette entered Princess Catherine of Valois’s household when she miscarried her own baby and took the job of wet nurse. Now, many years later, she looks back at her time with Catherine as she became the princess’s friend and confident through years of childhood neglect, the back and forth of negotiations with the English King Henry V for Catherine’s hand, and the surrounding issues of civil war.

The Agincourt Bride is the first in a duo of books about Catherine de Valois. Focused on the princess who, during this retelling, becomes Queen of England, the book sports a lot more politics than the cover might have you believe.

Hickson combines the overall atmosphere of historical romance, but not romance itself, with the social and political discussions and wars of the day. Catherine’s marriage to England’s Henry V was something that started to come into being since her early double digit years, a part of the agreements that were decided between the ‘guardians’ of the French crown – the Queen and the Duke of Burgundy, who effectively took over proceedings due to the King’s failing mental health – and the English monarchy. What this amounts to is a lot of good political detail of events that relate in some way to Catherine. Due to the female point of view there is no opportunity for Hickson to detail the war in the first person – in particular, of course, Agincourt – but she brings in messengers to relay what happened. The author balances it well, towing the line neatly between cluing you in and including too much research, effectively providing you with a fair run down of the battle and how it went down.

To look at the narrative, it could be said that a book told from Catherine’s point of view would have been better. As a narrator, Mette has her moments of goodness but she is a bit of a bumbler and overly enthusiastic. Catherine is rendered somewhat distant to the reader so you have to be okay with this idea (you get to read several letters written by the princess, dotted about the narrative, that aid your comprehension of her thoughts, but it’s not a narrative in itself). However Catherine has been well-written and presented. She stands out boldly and Hickson is always careful, rightly having her overshadow Mette.

But if Catherine had been the narrator you would have missed a lot of the content that Hickson wanted to explore. The most obvious element is that of a report, a chronicle, that by Mette’s presenting the story you get to hear a lot more about Catherine, albeit from afar, than you would otherwise. (Mette does end up in a lot of convenient places, Catherine promoting her and taking her everywhere with her, which helps the author tell the story, however there are sections that are missed when Mette cannot accompany the princess.) The presentation from someone older is good, particularly in the case of Hickson’s exploration of the potential child abuse Catherine and her siblings suffered from their mother and the Duke of Burgundy. The current thought is that there was no abuse but in years gone by it has been a prominent suggestion that the children were neglected. Hickson uses this idea in her book, effectively covering two bases at once – the fact that abuse was treated very differently in older times and thus there is a need to explore it, and the way our mindset has changed over time; the author looks at attitudes both then and now, subtly including – for of course it is never stated by our medieval narrator – what appeals to us today in terms of discussion, study, and general discourse of morality. Mette’s narration, beginning just before her introduction to newborn Catherine, allows for a mature assessment of the possibility of abuse, and if history so far is anything to go by, we know that thoughts do chop and change so Hickson’s research may well be of use in this way later on.

There is sexual abuse in this book that many readers may find difficult on both a literary and historical level. Its inclusion asks that you stray from the usual narrative of royalty in the period and it would be difficult to point to specific value in terms of the story.

This is a book well set in its time. It takes a while to get somewhere in terms of plot because it is hampered by historical indecision, the person at the heart of the story bound by limitations and others’ decisions. It is a book that shows how little power women had in the 1400s, how much they would take when they could to good effect, but how it could be for little or nought. Hickson has made Catherine strong in spirit and her personality is winsome, so whilst you know there’s only so far she will be able to carry the story herself before someone with power comes in and decides to change her fate because they didn’t win a battle and she’s the prize they’re dangling, you’ll find some happy moments wherein she’s able to carefully manipulate a situation through all she’s learned.

Very much about Agincourt in terms of the plot’s time scale, The Agincourt Bride is a book that sets the stage for the next but is a story in its own right, shining light on the woman who in time would be at the heart of the beginnings of the Tudor dynasty. And whilst Mette is not the strongest character she does provides a good, solid story of politics and historical possibilities, Hickson’s use of research blending beautifully with the overall story.

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How Soon Can You Trust The Author?

A photograph of a copy of Sara Taylor's The Lauras laying on pebbles in the sun

I’ve recently discovered something interesting of the sort I expect you can relate to. It’s something I reckon is always there, particularly the more we read, but it’s taken until now for me to have that light bulb moment where it all comes together as a full concept.

I’m finding that I can generally tell within a couple of pages, sometimes sentences, whether I can trust the author I’m currently reading to tell a good, well-written, story.

I expect it comes down to two things, both subjective: 1) I’m increasingly knowledgeable of what, to me, constitutes a good book, and 2) some authors are just too good at pulling you in from the start. The kind of writing and voice is often very similar in a basic way and the feeling oof trust is that lovely feeling of knowing what you’re getting into, where you start a book and it just feels right and you settle down into your seat because you’ve – definitely now – every intention of staying there a few hours.

Sometimes I’m wrong about trust but it’s generally on a sliding scale. The more the initial trust, the more likely the trust wil turn out to be warranted. There’s probably a mathematical formula out there…

A lack of feeling of trust doesn’t mean a book will be bad, often far from it, but it does more often than not to books I think are great but profound. (This is related to my year round up five stars and ‘best of the best’.)

I do believe we all feel this, just in different ways, our preferences creating differences.

What elements of a book cause your ‘I’m going to love this’ feeling and how often do you find books meeting your initial expectations?

 
Hay Festival 2017: Olivia Sudjic, Peter Ho Davis, And Madeleine Thien

A photograph of Georgina Godwin, Peter Ho Davis, and Olivia Sudjic at the Hay Festival

In the small, dark tent called The Cube, where some of the most interesting conversations are held with lesser-known authors, Georgina Godwin introduced Peter Ho Davis and Pushkin Press début writer, Olivia Sudjic. Ho Davis’s newest book, The Fortunes, looks, in a fictional manner, at the life of Chinese American actress Anna May Wong of the black and white era. Sudjic’s book, Sympathy, is a look at the way social media can create obsession and fictional identities. They are two very different works but the questions about ancestry and ethnicity, using these and other forms of identity in fiction, made for a fairly unified conversation.

Godwin asked about identities, the different types there are. Ho Davis brought in the academic angle, thinking in terms of how we show ourselves to others. He said that to choose either ethnicity or nation is to deny the other, or at least it feels like it. What interests him is the way we struggle against imposed identities. “All writers are interested in outsiders,” he said. He looks to write characters like that; a yearning for ‘place’ drives the main character of his book.

Sudjic, who said she pronounces her own surname in the wrong way but has come to learn the correct way, didn’t want to take the microphone from someone who had the mixed race experience; she let identity unfold throughout the novel to “lure the reader into identifying her”. The lure of social media for Sudjic’s character came from wanting connection; the obsession of ‘making it’ makes the character more isolated. A reader who distances themselves from her will see the creation of her online identity.

Ho Davis said that Anna May Wong’s acting stereotypes worked for her in America but she was hated in China for it. The writer reclaims racist jokes in the book. He also spoke of the Chinese immigrants who worked on the American rail road, how they were different to other immigrants in that they had planned to go home, and how we are identifying how many people worked based on bones – bones of those who died were kept, all pieces in individual bags.

A photograph of Madeleine Thien and Jemimah Steinfield at the Hay Festival

Photo © 2017, Liam Webb.

There were a great many events happening whilst Madeleine Thien stepped onto the Starlight Stage, a lot of competition for audience numbers, but from the feeling in the room it would be hard not to say that those not there to listen to the writer talk about Do Not Say We Have Nothing did not miss out. It begun quietly, a short discussion of present day China away from the context of the book, and grew to something very special. In conversation with Thien was Jemimah Steinfield who has worked as a journalist in China for many years.

Steinfield wanted to look at language in the context of Thien’s book. She noted that music is a kind of language and asked ‘are there any safe languages?’
‘The private self,’ replied Thien, after a pause. “It’s astonishing what people risked their lives to hide… music, a book, a diary…. If you could hide it away you could come back later and retrieve it.” She continued, saying that revolutionary language has its own register – slogans, for example. It becomes the way of thinking and restriction; permissible language and thinking become the same thing and old words are considered to hold things that need to be removed. You learn to speak the public language so that you can hold on to your space in it.

Thien said that on a student level, people believed the revolution was good – the Red Guard, for example. It was said Mao was being compromised by the older generation, and as much as the older generation were good they were carrying around ‘old stuff’ and that had to be changed. It was therefore up to the youth to take the revolution and be the ones to change things. The appeal was to their goodness, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. Thien wanted to look at not just the oppression but at that desire to make the world a better place. She said that it was seen as a politic that would finally put things in action. She spoke of watching the events of 1989 on TV and the way the feeling she had then contributed to the book.

I have not yet read Thien’s book but from my pre-event position as a person who had read one of her books and very much disliked it… well, at the end of this talk I joined the crowd on their way to the bookshop and bought a copy of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Those of you who’ve read it may see that as the obvious conclusion; certainly I’ve already started to see why many said it should have won the Man Booker.

 
Author Biographies In Books

A photograph of four books: Shan Sa's Empress, Kieran Shield's The Truth Of All Things, Nichole Bernier's The Unfinished Work Of Elizabeth D, and Sarah Pekkanen's Skipping A Beat

Many hardbacks nowadays have dedicated biographies on the jacket cover, providing brief information about the author and often a photograph. Education details, social media links, family. When paperbacks sport biographies they’re generally more limited, on the front pages, less information, and photographs don’t tend to be included. Biographies are something I consider often because I’ve a default primary action, particularly in the case of hardbacks, whereupon if I’m browsing shop shelves or about to pick up a book I already own to read, one of the first things I do is decide whether or not to read the biography.

If I’m wanting to stay in the dark about the plot of the story I’ll generally skip the biography just in case, especially if I don’t already know anything about the author; in reading the biography first you are unable to read the book without those slight threads of influence the biography may supply.

But because a biography often provides details that enable you to roughly gauge how informed the book might be, for example Kit de Waal’s work history shows that My Name Is Leon will most likely be trustworthy and full of knowledge (she’s worked in the social care system for years and has adopted children) it sometimes pays to read it if you’re undecided about the book.

Sometimes I do want to know more about a book and so I will read the biography to get a better sense of it when the blurb on the back is lacking (think hardbacks and the favouring of praises over summaries – I know in those cases summaries can be found on the jacket flap but they tend to give too much away). Sometimes I want to know as much as the book will tell me through all the various snippets provided.

Meaty biographies have spoiled brief ones for me. The short ‘X lives in location with her X family members and dog, this is her first novel’ disappoints me even though it means there’s little to influence you, not much to make you consider the author whilst reading. They often do not include photographs.

Photographs – good or bad idea? Seeing a smiley face can influence your decision to buy or borrow, just as a poker face might. I sometimes wonder about those poker faces – presumably they help keep away bias but they can bring a feeling of negativity. A biography without a photograph, whilst it keeps the mystery, often makes me want to look the author up to complete the picture – having seen so many biographies include them, those that lack them are surely… lacking.

Can biographies sway opinion? I think so. A person whose biography does not suggest any links to the content of the book might cause pause for thought, especially in non-fiction – why would something, anything, related, not have been included? For example (and made up), ‘Shelley has lived her life on the south coast where she works on a farm’, as a biography in a book about the city of Manchester – Shelley’s likely, hopefully, spent some time there or read a lot about it, so it should be included. It’s not absolutely necessary but, again, consider Kit de Waal, whose biography that shows very clearly why her book deals with all the subjects it does and why you can trust her.

I’m a fan of the biography when it isn’t too brief. A line or two just makes me wonder why it’s so short.

What do you think of biographies in books?

 
Tender Is The Night And ‘Do You Mind If I Pull Back The Curtain?’

Book cover

As I’ve stated a few times recently (so I will spare you repeated details) I’ve had trouble with Tender Is The Night but I’m currently giving it another go and it’s started to ‘work’, a bit; after a few dozen pages of good, linear, writing, that started around page 100 (a lot of people say that’s when it gets better and they’re right), it has unfortunately gone backwards towards relative incoherence.

I’ve noticed a repetition of a couple of lines that I want to explore, however I’m going to keep it brief; I think it has the potential to be fascinating but in acknowledging my lack of full attention to the text I feel it’s only right for me to stay away from my usual brainstorming of ideas and reasons. Anything too detailed and I know I will be running the risk of getting it horribly wrong.

The repetition is this: about a third of the way through there are a couple of times when the following is said:

-Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?
-Please do it’s too light in here.

Leaving the question of whether this is where the spurning of quotation marks first began (it seems Fitzgerald uses them to denote flashbacks), where these two lines become important is in their next repetition just after the halfway mark.

The first time the lines are used is during ‘book one’ (the ‘books’ are Fitzgerald’s designations within the ~300 page novel), a time when Dick is spending time with the young actress Rosemary Hoyt. Collis Clay, a friend of Rosemary’s tells Dick a story about Rosemary’s relationship with a young man. This makes Dick jealous. I have paraphrased this summary from a blog about reading Fitzgerald’s work; the writer says:

Throughout the novel this quote has practically haunted Dick. When he first heard the story Dick became extremely jealous because he was just beginning to fall in love with Rosemary. In the book whenever Dick is with Rosemary or thinking about her this quote is often repeated. It reveals Dick’s concealed love that he has for Rosemary.

The idea of haunting is a strong one. ‘Book two’ details Nicole’s time in a sanatorium – this plotline is based on Fitzgerald’s relationship with Zelda – before reverting back to the present day. It’s when Fitzgerald reverts back that we see that despite Rosemary’s moving on (in location) and Dick’s outward show of relative contentment with it, he’s been set adrift.

But whether rightly or wrongly, in context with what I’ve said above, I saw a possible other reason for the lines being used. As I made my way along the page and the quote cropped up as a repetition, I considered it a dialogue between Nicole and Dick, with Nicole asking the question, and that it was a show of Dick’s relationships in general.

I wonder if the reality is somewhere between the two, with more weight given to the idea of haunting. I wonder if Nicole did ask and that Fitzgerald’s usage of the extract same words is to ask you to consider Dick’s time with Rosemary, both for Dick as a flashback, and for the reader as a way of making them question and consider it in a literary way, perhaps as a device, in the way I am now, I suppose!

Dick is definitely in a situation. He became involved with Nicole whilst he was her doctor (or one of her doctors – I couldn’t quite make that out) and whilst Fitzgerald takes a peek at the questions of morality, more so simple appropriateness and Dick’s general interest, Dick feels some pressure due to the fact that Nicole’s family is openly looking for a rich suitor for her, to match her own wealth. He’s not exactly out of love with Nicole by the time he meets Rosemary, in fact in many ways he’s very loyal, but Rosemary’s fun and really likes him and so by book two we’re seeing that this new affair echoes the beginnings of his marriage and that he’s fallen in love with Rosemary, far beyond the feelings it appeared he had for her in book one.

I wonder if there isn’t a comparison we’re supposed to make; the age gap between Dick and Rosemary and the care/carer giver ‘gap’ between Dick and Nicole is obvious, but the journey of Dick’s feelings aren’t so obvious, rendering it necessary for Fitzgerald to reuse a quotation.

Speaking of obviousness, it’s obvious why I like this thought by Happy Antipodean:

It’s not clear what he wants us to think when he repeats “— Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?” but it is clearly a refrain that relates to Dick’s predicament while, in Paris, he negotiates his feelings. But this unsuccessful ploy underlines, as much as the historical references that are opaque now, the period of the book’s inception. A conscious effort on the part of the author to elicit modernity.

But I think the ‘it’s not clear’ is very much… it. To move on to my thoughts whilst reading the book in general, part of the problem with analysing the book is that you have to take into account the fact that the chapters have been re-ordered over time. The Wikipedia page says this (accessed 12th June 2017), unfortunately without a source, though it seems well-known:

Two versions of the novel are in print. The first version, published in 1934, uses flashbacks; the second, revised version, prepared by Fitzgerald’s friend and noted critic Malcolm Cowley on the basis of notes for a revision left by Fitzgerald, is ordered chronologically and was first published posthumously in 1948. Critics have suggested that Cowley’s revision was undertaken due to negative reviews of the temporal structure of the first version of the book.

The version I’m reading is the first edition – it says so at the end, and it also says that that is the one now in use with the caveat that some revisions have been incorporated. I expect this is one of the noted-in-a-few-places 17 versions.

Whichever it is, the chapter order is a large part of why it’s hard to concentrate on this novel. You never know where you are and sometimes you don’t know who you’re reading about. Even when you know who, you can’t form an opinion because there’s not nearly enough to work with. Perhaps this adds a literary element to the fact the novel is steeped in Fitzgerald’s own life and experiences, but it makes it difficult. The next line following the above extract is incredibly interesting though again sadly uncredited:

Fitzgerald considered Tender Is the Night to be his greatest work.

Why – personally I can only suppose the melding of true life and fiction seems very good in some contexts. Perhaps those with in depth knowledge of Scott and Zelda can appreciate the nuances, but I do wonder if the chronological version of the book works better.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think of the structure, or, if not, are you planning to read it?

 

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