Sister Queens by Julia Fox

Genre: Non Fiction
Time and place: 15th and 16th century Europe
First sentence:The snow-covered mountains of the Sierra Nevada were clearly visible from the high, castellated red walls of the citadel as the slight figure of Boabdil, the last king of Granada, slipped out of its gates for the final time.
Verdict: Very interesting :)

They lived in a turbulent age. It was one of religious warfare, of heroism, of family honor, of vast wealth and grinding poverty, of suffering, of ambition, of romance, of beauty, of ideas, of Machiavellian intrigue.

The book narrates the intertwined biographies of Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile. They both left their native Spain pursuing politically advantageous marriages; later on each of them became queen in her own right. However, their lives have been anything but easy, and each of them was a broken woman when she died. What happened to the young, hopeful princesses of yore to bring them to such a state? This book has the answer.

General impression
I didn’t know all that much about Juana, but I find Katherine and Isabella‘s lives quite interesting in general, which is why I requested this book from NetGalley. I expected it to be a fiction book, perhaps a novel having as main characters the two queens, and I was a bit deflated upon noticing it was actually non-fiction. My disappointment did not last though, as the book turned out to be anything than dry. I ended up quite happy to have it this way, because at least in a non-fiction book I don’t have to spend time wondering which parts are true and which of them come straight from the author’s imagination.

I come from a country that formed in the 20th century (why yes, in this sense it’s younger than America :) ). Prior to that there were three principalities, each of them facing outward threats and with sometimes limited independence. We never had a ‘dynasty’ to rule for centuries, like Britain and Spain had, and still have. Which is perhaps why I find royal houses fascinating, and which is also why, while reading, I was utterly amazed to see how many documents (letter and the likes) are still extant from 500 years ago.

This is one of the things I have liked most about this book: the fact that the author tries hard not to impose on her own version of events, what she thinks might have happened. Instead, she offers the reader a glimpse at the writings of the people of the day; most often than not the accounts used are written by people that have witnessed the described events first hand. As for the two great mysteries of that time (Was Katherine’s marriage to Arthur actually consummated? Was the woman who entered history as Joanna the Mad really mad?), the author strives to explore both sides of each story, leaving the reader to form his/her own opinion after seeing the facts.

Politically, the Europe at the time felt very much like a chessboard: strategies being conceived all the time, alliances being formed and broken, wars being fought. The book does not dwell too much on that, yet it does something a bit more interesting: tries to acquaint us with the way people at the time thought, and what they found important. For example, I didn’t know religion was that important then — one of the ways Juana sometimes chooses to protest against her treatment is refusing to hear Mass, which scandalizes everyone who hears of it. Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise me — after all, these are the years when the Inquisition runs rampant — and yet it does.

Another thing I sort of knew but never stopped to consider was how unfortunate the royals of the time were, family-wise. Princesses were raised inoculated with the idea that their purpose in life is to marry as advantageously for their homeland as possible, and have a lot of children to ensure dynastic continuity. I found particularly touching the way that, whenever she sent one of her daughters abroad to be married, Isabella was aware that there is a high probability she will never see her estranged child again. If I remember correctly, Katherine and Juana have met one single time after Juana left Spain, and then for a few hours. Isabella never got to see Katherine at all after the wedding to Arthur, and neither did Ferdinand, Katherine’s father, although he lived over a decade more than Isabella did. Can you imagine not seeing your child or parent for decades?

Early in the beginning of the book the author paints a picture of Katherine and Juana’s parents: The Catholic Monarchs, who spent many years waging wars against the infidels. Isabella herself was tough as nails; I would have been disappointed to see her daughters turn out to be any different. The author seems to have read my thoughts, as the book points out time and again just how similar to their mother one of the other daughter was, and I liked that.

“Like her formidable mother, Katherine would not flinch from her duty. It is romantic nonsense to imagine her a patient Griselda, a saintly being quietly waiting for her husband to come to his senses while she stoically endured mental torment and anguish. It is also grossly to underestimate her. Katherine was brave, feisty, a ferocious and tenacious warrior for what she believed to be right.”

The part of the book dedicated to Juana is smaller than Katherine’s, which I am guessing is due to the fact that her daily life in Tordesillas was far less documented than Katherine’s. The fact that some of the accounts about her are contradictory — some claim she’s mad, some claim she’s sensible and sane — doesn’t particularly help form an opinion about her personality. I feel very sorry for her though — as the author puts it, “the crux of Juana’s predicament was that the two men who should have been her most devoted supporters were in fact her most deadly opponents. Both wanted what was by right hers“. Which is how she ended up confined within the Santa Clara convent in 1509, where she spent almost fifty years(!!) of her life, until her death in 1555. Poor thing, even if she was completely sane at first, it is a wonder she did not go completely bonkers by the end, especially considering that, although a queen, she had little to no control regarding what happened with her and around her. My mind draws a blank when I try to imagine what that must have felt.

What I liked most
The fact that it’s written almost like a fiction book :)
And let’s not forget the fact that as much as I could tell (which admittedly isn’t all that much) it was very well documented. A pleasure for me to read, on both counts.

What I did not like
I noticed that there’s usually a downside when it comes to well researched books: it is hard for an author to decide to keep stuff back, making at least parts of said books bogged down with too much detail. Luckily, for the most part this particular author has managed to avoid this temptation, however I must admit that there were times I could have done with less description of the ceremonies organized and of the clothing of people involved. Not that I hold it against the book — I bet there are people who will find those particular parts the most interesting ones — but those were the only parts I skimmed, while I devoured the rest.

Thoughts on the title
The full title (“Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives Of Katherine Of Aragon And Juana, Queen Of Castile“) is the very element that caught my attention and made me request this book. Enough said :)

Thoughts on the ending
After discussing Katherine and Juana’s deaths, the book goes on to give an idea about what happened in England and Spain in the next few decades. Its very ending mentioned the creation of the Spanish Armada, and its setting sail towards the British shore. Just like, decades before, some Spanish ships set sail towards England, carrying with them a young princess dreaming of a happy future. Quite a nice touch, and I loved it :)

Recommend it to?
Anyone curious about the lives of Catherine and/or Joanna. I found it a fast, captivating read, so if you’re interested in the topic I encourage you to pick it up. Oh, and it’s also shorter than it seems, I read it on a Kindle and it ended at about 80%, the rest being bibliographies and indexes and the likes.

Buy this from | Buy this from | Julia Fox’s website

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford

Genre: Non-fiction
Main characters: Charles Dickens
Time and place: 19th century England
First sentence:In London, in 1824, it was the custom to treat a debtor little differently from a man who had reached into a purse and stolen a similar sum.
Verdict:Interesting :)

Book read as part of Charles Dickens month over at Fig and Thistle. The occasion? Charles Dickens’ Bicentennial anniversary! (he was born in February 1812)

Faced with bankruptcy, he was contemplating giving up on writing fiction altogether. Instead, he pulled himself together and, in six short weeks, wrote a book that not only restored him in the eyes of the public but began the transformation of what was then a second-tier holiday into the most significant celebration of the Christian calendar.

This is a short book (a little over 200 pages) focusing on the part of Charles Dickens’ life related to A Christmas Carol. What has inspired him to write it, his plans for his little Christmas volume, the problems he had with it, and, not the least, the effect the book had on Christmas then, and ever since.

No individual can claim credit for the creation of Christmas, of course–except, perhaps, the figure that the day is named for. But Charles Dickens, given his immense and lasting influence and his association with all things Victorian, played a major role in transforming a celebration dating back to pre-Christian times, revitalizing forgotten customs and introducing new ones that now define the holiday.

General impression
This is just the “little did he know that he was changing the world” kind of story that I very much enjoy. At 31, Charles Dickens has already published a handful of novels, yet he was on a path seemingly going downward, rather than up. His once record-breaking readership levels were decreasing, and he was getting deeper in debt. He had doubts on his value as a writer, and even seriously considered leaving England for good. And then, during a visit to Manchester, an idea struck: he will write the story of a man that learns the true value of Christmas. It was already late autumn, so Dickens set to work straightaway, in order to finish his book in time for the holiday. He had so much faith in this new endeavor, that he chose to self-publish the book; he expected to make thus enough money to cover all his expenses and pay off his debts. The book was a success, and sold really well, but the costs were so high that he was left with only about a couple hundred pounds.

We are also treated to a few pages from the history of Christmas itself. Those were the most interesting ones for me, as I realized I knew little to nothing about the matter. It seems that not only the birth of Jesus was not celebrated for centuries, but later, after being established, it was even banned at one time by the puritans, who considered it a Catholic invention. Even after the ban ended, various religious people still discouraged the observance of the said holiday, so the sentiments people regarded it with were pretty mixed. The fact that it was considered mainly a religious event did not particularly help. Enter Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is this book that introduced a whole new idea of Christmas: a secular holiday to be spent with one’s family, a time of goodwill, generosity, and compassion. Even the phrase ‘Merry Christmas!’ entered common usage after being used in the book.

Back to our own volume, the thing I have liked most about it is that the book is chock-full of trivia tidbits, offering me a glimpse of things as yet unknown. A few of the things I learned:

  • as a young man, Dickens was apprenticed as a law clerk; he hated it and “he quickly came to loathe the hypocrisy of a labyrinthine and self-serving legal system–he formed a lifelong commitment to the distinction between “justice” and “the law.”” ;
  • I already knew that piracy was a problem for the writers of the times, and Dickens was one of those that insisted on a worldwide copyright agreement being instituted. What I didn’t know was that there actually were copyright laws at the time, yet they were valid only in one’s own country. American laws protected American author’s books, everything else was fair game; likewise, British laws only protected its citizen’s rights, and anyone could pirate a book by a non-British author whichever way one pleased;
  • Dickens’ serialized book The Old Curiosity Shop was selling 100 000 copies per issue, which is a huge number considering that the number of readers was considered to be somewhere around 300 000 and 500 000; comparing the 2 million people Dickens had access to with the hundreds of millions any US author can reach, and taking into consideration that even today 100 000 of books sold is considered a huge success,  Dickens’ 100 000 is positively mind blowing;
  • over the (rather recent) centuries there was no Santa Claus but a figure called Father Christmas, represented as “typically fat, with his backside and belly stuffed with straw, and, though old and bearded, nonetheless vigorous“, yet also carrying a sword and having a tail (which, according to the author, suggests the character’s roots in the image of the Devil and also the image of Pan);
  • scrooge was a verb used in Dickens’s day, meaning “to squeeze, or crush” and derived from the Old English scruze;
  • the impact of A Christmas Carol was said to have sent the nation’s goose-raising industry to near ruin“, as prior to the book the bird that was usually cooked for Christmas dinner was the goose, which was later replaced with the turkey (the bird sent by a repentant Scrooge to the Cratchits);
  • I was surprised that most people, on meeting Dickens for the first time, noted his unkempt hair (I only remembered the painted portraits of him, which naturally had perfect hair, and older photos of him, where his hair seemed rather normal-looking). Looking at the below picture (from Wikipedia), taken in 1850, a few years after the Carol, kinda cleared out the matter:
The man did not care a whit about his hair, did he? Reading about his later life I had the impression he was quite vain, and he cared a lot about keeping appearances. Perhaps he will grow to be so, later on. More interesting, his face seems very familiar to me in this picture (has felt so ever since I first saw it) — can anyone pinpoint who he resembles?
… Back to the book now.

Thoughts on the title
Intriguing. I wonder what one would have made of it if the subtitle (“How Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived our Holiday Spirits“) was not present. Although A Christmas Carol is one of my favorite books, I never would have associated the idea of Christmas with Dickens prior of reading this book.

Thoughts on the ending
“Eliminate ignorance, Dickens dreamed in his Carol. Eliminate want. A tall order then, and a tall order now. But one does not need to be a social scientist to know that he identifies the true sources of misery in this world.”

I consider these last few lines eye opening. Of course things are actually more complicated than that (wars are being fought over various people’s wanting more than they will even know what to do with), but if one sits and thinks about it, eliminating ignorance and want would set us well on the way of a perfect world. A note though: I say that thinking about the kind of want Dickens met with, starving children with ragged clothes, not the kind of ‘I am mad because my parents didn’t get me an iPhone for Christmas’ want we see around us today. Alas, the ignorance levels are dropping fast enough in some places (including Europe, my own Europe) to be well on the way of reaching the same threshold Dickens met with one day prior to writing his little book.

A few more (earlier) lines on the matter:

He proclaimed his belief that with the pursuit and accumulation of knowledge, man had the capacity to change himself and his lot in life. With learning, said Dickens, a man “acquires for himself that property of soul which has in all times upheld struggling men of every degree.” The more a man learns, Dickens said, “the better, gentler, kinder man he must become. When he knows how much great minds have suffered for the truth in every age and time…he will become more tolerant of other men’s belief in all matters, and will incline more leniently to their sentiments when they chance to differ from his own.”

I cannot agree enough.

Recommend it to?
Everyone interested in knowing a bit more about Christmas, Charles Dickens, and/or A Christmas Carol.

Buy this from | Buy this from | Les Standiford’s website | Dickens’ life in 4 minutes (via Becky’s Book Reviews)