Let’s start with the title. First, the “of France”: true she was born in France, was “the daughter of the King of France and the Queen of Navarre,” and as such “a great prize in the marriage market: no queen of England before her had boasted such a pedigree.” But after her marriage she was very much the Queen of England, and there no evidence that her loyalties remained to France. On the contrary. Her father, Philip the Fair (IV) was, like the later Henry VIII of England, a brutal megalomaniac who in any other walk of life would have ended up on the scaffold or in the madhouse. Her life from the moment she arrived in England was no longer his to dictate.

And as for the words “She-Wolf”, the phrase “She-Wolf of France” was in fact, Alison Weir tells us, coined by Shakespeare (why am I not surprised?) but he used the words not of Isabella but of Margaret of Anjou, wife of Henry VI; it was not until the eighteenth century that it was first applied, by the poet Thomas Gray, to Isabella. And – very unfairly – it stuck.

Isabella, as Alison Weir makes clear, was not a simple femme fatale, “one of the fairest ladies in the world,” “the fairest of the fair,” but a good queen. If it had not been for her infidelity she would be seen as a great queen, a liberator, for Edward II and his friends the Despensers were, by the time she organised the coup d’état, running what was certainly the worst example of tyranny in the history of England. To see what life was like under Edward and the Despensers, you have only to read one of Michael Jecks’ books such as The Mad Monk of Gidleigh or A Friar’s Bloodfeud. In modern times, that infidelity would not be held against her, especially when we consider that her husband was far more interested in his “friends” (Piers Gaveston, and later Hugh le Despenser) that he was in her.

The other problem is how and why – and if – and on whose orders Edward II was murdered following his deposition. (Also dealt with at length in Paul Doherty’s book, Isabella And The Strange Death Of Edward Ii.) In the present book, “the Fieschi letter” is reproduced in full and the reader, as she considers Weir’s arguments for and against its authenticity and credibility, must make up her own mind whether Edward II in fact escaped and lived on, abroad. Personally, I am convinced that he did, and that it was not in his son’s interest to acknowledge his father’s continued – and shameful – existence when he finally learnt of it. I suspect that he felt only contempt for his father, and admiration for his mother, the lioness who had brought him up and made him king. He had to get rid of Mortimer, his mother’s lover and de facto ruler of England, but he never turned against Isabella.

Another wonderful biography from Alison Weir. I am proposing to read, next, her The Princes in the Tower – Edward IV’s sons Edward and Richard, two more who are said to have been murdered but rumoured to have survived.


THE EMPRESS THEODORA by James Allan Evans (Review)

Acasius fathered three daughters, Comito, Theodora and Anastasia, but died before the eldest, Comito, reached the age of seven. His death need not have been a calamity if he had had a grown son to take up his vocation, for the post of bear keeper for the Greens would have passed to him, but as it was, the little family faced destitution.
For women such as Theodora and her sisters, the alternatives were the stage or the convent. They chose the stage, or, perhaps to be more accurate, their mother made the choice for them.
Comito soon became a star. Theodora made her stage debut as her sister’s attendant, dressed as a slave girl. Procopius, who is our only source for Theodora’s life as an actress, claims that even at this early age she submitted to the buggery of slaves who accompanied their masters to the theatre, but once she matured into a woman she became a prostitute. The mentality of the age assumed that all actresses were trollops, and even if Theodora had not sold her favors, it would have been taken for granted that she did. Yet there is no reason to think her an exception to the rule. She had nothing to sell except a lovely body, for she could neither dance nor play an instrument, and when she did make an attempt to entertain at banquets, the only act she could offer was a striptease … …

Theodora was Empress of Byzantium, of the East, of the Roman Empire while it was still an Empire, but she did not rule, as some other empresses did “when male power faltered“: her husband, Justinian was “one of the ablest emperors in Byzantine history,” and, “except for a few brief weeks when he caught the plague, he was in charge.” Yet her influence was so great that she could be said to have been making all the decisions that mattered to her. Was it, as Procopius of Caesarea claimed, purely sexual, that Theodora was a prostitute when Justinian, already a middle-aged man, married her, and “skilled at titillating” middle-aged men?

Procopius account of Theodora is biased and flawed. He was a mysogynist, he looked down on women, but he also looked down on people with lowly origins, and origins could not get much lowlier than Theodora’s. Nevertheless, her background does seem to have been more or less as he described it. Why else her programme of leglislation designed to protect actresses (the law as it had stood when she was an actress meant they were little more than slaves) and the conversion of a disused palace into a place of refuge for women who had escaped prostitution, lavishy endowed so that “none of its inmates would want to return to her old life or have to do so for financial reasons“? She can hardly be portrayed as a reformer of penitent whores, and this was more an act of defiance than piety. “Theodora knew what it was like; respectable women had once avoided her in the marketplace.” Now she never avoided anyone. Well-known prostitutes were among the companions she brought into the Emperor’s palace, and her most intimate friend, Antonina, had a background almost identical to her own. Antonina’s father and grandfather were circus charioteers, and her mother “one of the despised strippers who displayed their charms in theatre orchestras.” And Antonina had been – and remained – an agent first and foremost (of Theodora, of Belisarius) as had Theodora herself, in Egypt and in Antioch, before meeting Justinian: indeed, that is probably how she met him – and Antonina.

The author of this biography does us proud on Theodora’s background and personal life, but he is also concerned with politics, and politics then and there meant above all else, theology – the disputes about the person of Christ which raged throughout the East between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites. Which view prevailed depended on the beliefs of the Emperor and the extent of the influence of Rome (which was uniformly pro-Chalcedonian). The differences between the two are clearly explained as are the reasons why Justinian supported the Chalcedonians – and Theodora the Monophysites. Clever politics (keeping everyone happy) or what they each sincerely believed? The author makes an interesting point about their backgrounds, one which had not previously occurred to me in this context:

The difference between them went back to their early beginnings. Justinian was born in a Latin-speaking enclave in the Balkans and as a boy learned to respect the authority of the pope and accept Rome’s right to define orthodoxy. An anathema from the pope was something to be feared. Not so Theodora. She spent her youth in the theatre, which monks and priests abominated and where they were sometimes ridiculed in return, and she was converted in Alexandria where Rome’s interdicts had little effect. She knew that if the split between the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians was to be mended, it could not be altogether on Rome’s terms, and she saw nothing wrong with compelling a pope to bend a little.

It was probably both then, clever politics and what they each believed. Though Theodora never reigned, she was quite capable of standing up to her husband – and replacing him when necessary as she did at two of the most difficult moments they faced together.

The first was during the Nika Revolt in 532, when Theodora faced down the revolutionaries while her husband was all for fleeing the capital. There is a whole chapter on this, a great chapter.

The second when the plague arrived in Europe in 542, “emptying villages except for a handful of survivors who were left to cope with the great mass of corpses […] Then the plague reached Constantinople …” Justinian fell ill. Theodora “provided what governmental direction there was,” knowing that when her husband died she was unlikely to survive the power struggle that would follow.

In the event, he survived her by seventeen years.

A great story. A great woman. After all, anyone a Catholic Cardinal compares unfavourably with Eve and Delilah and Herodias and the maidservant who tempted Peter must have something going for her: “but it is not enough to revile her with names of that sort,” the good cardinal, quoted by Evans, continues, “for she surpassed all human women in impiety. Rather let her take from the devils in Hell a designation such as that which mythology gives to the furies.” etc. etc.


DANSE MACABRE by Aubrey Burl (Review)

The world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.

The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.

But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.

Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”

Long arms and groping fingers sly,
Fine shapely shoulders, and the round
Full breasts and heaving hips that fly
Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound
Against the place where we were bound.
Above spread loins my pulsing cunt
Between its gripping thighs was crowned
With gardened curls across its front.
But this is where our beauty’s sent,
Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick,
Crooked back and shoulders bent.
My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick.
My arse the same. To tempt a dick,
My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs
Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick,
A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.

Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”

Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution”. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.

By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family. 

UNSTOPPABLE by Maria Sharapova (Review)

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalleyin exchange for an honest review.

I have to admit that I have been a fan of Maria Sharapova’s since she won Wimbledon, beating the seemingly unbeatable Serena Williams, at the age of seventeen. And why “admit”, as though there were something shameful about it? She was, and still is, a great player whom the mass-media made into an instant celebrity because not only did she look like being very soon the best tennis-player in the world but she was also one-in-a-million beautiful. And what the mass-media create they are always happy to destroy again.

All right, in a sense the mass-media are simply agents of the Wheel of Fortune. Maria Sharapova had after all begun at the bottom.

Before opening this book, I knew about her injuries, how her shoulder had to be operated on, and how hard it was for her to work her way back up through the ranks with a different and much less deadly serve. But she did come back up, and won, among other titles and grand slams, the French Open. The sneering and contempt (Maria is finished, done for) became once again jealousy, pure and simple. Much of the jealousy based on total ignorance of her family background, the assumption being that she was a spoilt brat, one of the entitled daughters of the super-rich, in this case the post-communist Russsian super-rich.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Her father was a worker without two roubles to rub together. Quite by chance, at the age of four, little Masha (her real name) was noticed by none other than Martina Navratilova – a chance meeting if ever there was one! – when she was knocking a ball about with an old unwanted racket someone had given her father in lieu of payment. Martina spotted the fire, the determination, in the small child’s eyes as she swung the huge racket. “Take her to America,” she told Masha’s father.

And astonishingly he did. They arrived without a word of English, penniless and homeless. They had no one but each other, and for the next few years he worked as a labourer to pay Masha’s fees at tennis school and maintain some kind of home for himself and her in the cheapest posssible rented rooms. They even shared a sagging sofa bed.

After a few years, her mother finally managed to get a visa to leave Russia ans she joined them in the States. Masha began winning junior tournaments, things began to look up, and Maria – yes, Maria now – got a sponsorship from Nike.

In Unstoppable you will read all about the years of struggle and the years of success – and then the sudden catastrophic scandal: Maria Sharapova had been taking drugs!

The media immediately set about destroying her. Nor did they retract their lies (do they ever?) when the authorities declared publicly that Maria had never knowingly consumed any prohibited substance, and that the medication she was using (meldonium, which she had been taking for 10 years after her doctor recommended it for health problems including an irregular heartbeat) had been placed on the list of banned substances without her knowledge and was not, anyway, “performance-enhancing”. No, the mass-media left her body lying at the side of the road where they had deposited it after they crucified her.

Alone, now, she has got back up and, in the American Open a few weeks ago, unexpectedly defeated Simona Halep, the current World Number Two, before herself being knocked out in the next round.

But she is back playing against, and defeating, top-level performers. My heart goes with her!

JAMES BOND The Authorised Biography

James Bond biography

The most successful fiction writers create the most plausible alternative universes. Or the most fascinating, or the most horrifiying, or the most desirable. Who would not rather live in Homer’s world of goddesses and heroes than in what was no doubt the nasty, ugly and sordid environment that was reality around the Aegean one millennium or so BC?

I am not here going to allow myself to get distracted into the mind-blowing possibility of the reality of all alternative universes (or as speakers of US English would have it, alternate universes). (That’s not what “alternate” means. It means this one yes, that one no, this one yes, that one no, as in alternate numbers – 1, 3, 5, 7 etc or 2, 4, 6, 8 etc, and AC, alternating electricity. We rang the bell at alternate doors – this one yes, that one no, etc.)

But back to alternative universes.

In James Bond – The Authorised Biography, John Pearson has created an alternative universe in which James Bond really exists; behind the scenes, of course, being a secret agent, but alive and facing all the existential problems that just being alive entails. The book was first published in 1973, when James Bond was in his early fifties, which means he would be in his nineties now, like the other WWII survivors we see at ceremonies such as the ones held recently in Normandy. He was in fact (according to Pearson) born on the 11th of November, 1920 – when both the Sun and the Moon were in Scorpio! (Click here for my take on Moon in Scorpio.)

It would be a spoiler of the worst kind to tell you how the book is organised, how the story is told. Simply take my word for it that it is brilliant (though it does tend to fizzle out a little at the end). And, if you are a James Bond fan – as I am, of the books, and the early Sean Connery films – you will be unable to put it down. Not only will you marvel at the way what Fleming left out and I at least always wondered about, is filled in, but you will read about other James Bond missions that Fleming never mentioned (perhaps never knew about!).

Years ago I read most of the books – they’re still on one of my grandmother’s bookshelves – and now I plan to reread a few, the ones where I now know much more about the background to the story: starting now, as soon as I have posted this, with Casino Royale, which I have not read before. It is not Bond’s first adventure by any means – it is set in 1951, and he had been an agent in the 1930s and throughout WWII – but it was the first to be recorded by Ian Fleming.

So now for an evening with James Bond! Pearson has created a viable alternative universe that I will re-enter any time with pleasure; I much prefer it to ours, the one in which James Bond was nothing more than a figment of Fleming’s imagination.

(Or was he?)


SLs SM coverSomerset Maugham was one of my grandmother’s favourite authors, and though she only ever got me to read one of his books – The Moon and Sixpence – when I was a teenager, I still remember her going on about his last years, the shame and the embarrassment to such a great man. I wasn’t really listening, didn’t really understand, and didn’t really care. Now, having read this excellent biography, the last chapter of which is reminiscent of Othello and can only be decribed as pure classical tragedy, I do understand and I do care.

I am today in the middle of reading Rain and Other South Sea Stories, and have Cakes and Ale, Of Human Bondage and The Razor’s Edge to hand, so there is going to be a lot of Somerset Maugham on this site during the next few weeks.

Back to the biography. Maugham was born in Paris, spent his early years there, and for the rest of his life felt at home in France and speaking French. But following the death of first his mother then his father, he was transferred to the care of his uncle, an Anglican vicar in Whitstable, Kent, and so grew up English, attending King’s School, Canterbury, and St Thomas’ Hospital, London, where he qualified as a medical doctor.

His heart, though, was elsewhere and he never practised medicine apart from his time as a probationer in the slums of south London, which provided him with the setting for his first novel, Liza of Lambeth. After that, he never looked back, and settled into the daily writing routine which he was to maintain for the rest of his life and which explains his prodigious output.

It was in the theatre that he had his first real success. He was never really at home in that world though, and as soon as the money started rolling in – four plays running simultaneously both in the West End and on Broadway – he began to develop the itch to travel which never subsequently left him. (An itch I, oh, so well understand!)

And from these travels all over the world came the many, many wonderful short stories for which he was, and still is, so admired. I am quoting here from the biography, where Selina Hastings herself is quoting fairly typical adulatory comments:

In the opinion of the novelist John Fowles it is as necessary for a writer to have mastered the ‘Maughamesque short sory … as it is for an artist to have mastered the art of drawing.’ […] ‘His plots are cool and deadly and his timing is absolutely flawless,’ said Raymond Chandler. […] ‘His extraordinary knowledge of human beings is like that of an experienced confessor,’ said Raymond Mortimer, and like a confessor ‘he is never shocked.

The problem was that, although married (unhappily, and later divorced) with a daughter, he was a closet gay. But then it was a time when, if you were gay, it had to be “closet”. (He was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde’s – he had met him and Robbie Ross and knew Reggie Turner well – he simply lived much, much longer.) His life revolved around the in-many-ways admirable Gerald Haxton and the totally despicable Alan Searle.

But buy or borrow the book. It is (unlike many literary biographies) compulsively readable, and if it doesn’t have you, like me, ordering his books before you are halfway through it, I shall be very surprised.

PRINCESS NEST OF WALES by Kari Maund (Review)

This is the kind of biography which, if page after page of speculation is not to become indistinguishable from fiction (and I personally would almost always prefer to read a fictitious account of the life of a historical character), it must focus as much or more on the history of the place and period as on the subject of the biography, for the simple reason that very little is known about her.

” … like the majority of women in this period, her life went largely unrecorded.Chroniclers, including her grandson Gerald, tell us of her sons and their deeds, but they record nothing of Nest’s feelings or beliefs. Her story has to be pieced together from a patchwork of sources …

But Kari Maund does this successfully. She opens with a brief history of medieval Wales (“Nest’s Wales”) which is full of details it would be virtually impossible to find elsewhere. (Anyone thinking of writing a novel set in 11th-12th century Wales should start their background reading here!)

And what is more, she is refreshingly realistic about the place of women in Celtic society. So many modern writers, all of whom should know better and some of whom surely do, create a picture of a utopian world utterly destroyed by the male chauvinist Saxons and Normans. In fact, as Kari Maund observes in her Introduction (and maintains with examples throughout the book) “Despite popular modern myth, medieval Welsh women enjoyed little respect and scant freedom. Legally lifelong minors, they remained pawns in the hands of male kin, incapable of owning land and married off to suit changing political needs. Women in Anglo-Norman England enjoyed wider privileges, and Nest, the daughter of a king, probably found herself accorded an importance she had never experienced before.”

Legally lifelong minors“: I like that.

I liked the whole book. And I liked Nest, of whom I had never even heard before. As Kari makes clear, “the seductress of the English” was quite a lady. The daughter of a Welsh king; the mistress of the Norman English King Henry I (to whom she bore a son); wife of Gerald of Windsor (one of their grandsons was Geraldus Cambriensis, the great historian /chronicler); abducted by Owain ap Cadwgan, son of another Welsh king and leader of resistance against the Normans; later married again, and again, to other Norman lords, who all sought her hand. And it can’t have been just her hand that made her so irresistible. It must have been, as George Harrison didn’t quite put it, something in the way she walked.