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That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor
That Woman: The Life of Wallis Simpson, Duchess of Windsor
by Anne Sebba
Edition: Hardcover

15 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Biography and Genuine New Research. Hurray. Gold Dust., 21 Aug 2011
I've read every biography of Wallis Simpson and Anne Sebba's is the best modern account you can get.

Here is the only book to quote Wallis's letters to her ex-husband during and after the Abdication Crisis - what gold dust! Wallis went on writing love letters to her ex-husband even on her honeymoon! And unlike the baby language she is forced to use to her new husband, they are ordinary, adult letters of bitter regret.

She is revealed either as unsure of herself and wishing to go back in time - OR you might think, this man-eater will never let go of a man, even an ex, especially as she hilariously and selfishly blames her best friend Mary for causing the whole crisis by 'comforting' her cast-off husband and marrying him! Simpson's replies are not quoted but one wonders what he made of her jealousy of his new wife, poor woman, who died a few years later of cancer leaving a 2-year-old son.

The complexity of the human drama comes to life in a way that older biographies, with their reliance on reticent upper class witnesses, can't capture. Wallis was trapped by her own amibition and materialism and she knew it. Didn't stop her carrying on in later life with Jimmy Donahue, a gay Woolworth's heir - see Dance with the Devil for an eye-popping account of that episode!

PS. For the sheer ghastliness of this 'tasteful' woman, all of whose clothes I've stared at in pictures and can't work out why they are considered so stylish, you need Prince Edward's DVD, Whatever Happened to the Windsors? There is footage of Wallis looking like a mad Queen from Alice in Wonderland and an interview in which both the Windsors are put on the spot and asked if they regret the Abdication. Their body language is a psychologist's feast but the short answer is 'Yes'.

Read the book, see the DVD, and wonder how she got so far!


Becoming Queen
Becoming Queen
by Kate Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.19

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars So you think Victoria was a prude? Think again!, 6 Jun 2011
This review is from: Becoming Queen (Paperback)
Kate Williams has written an entertaining and fascinating account of Charlotte, our 'lost' queen, who died in childbirth. She brings to life the limitations and constraints on both Charlotte and the young Victoria from very young ages - both experienced extraordinary cruelty from parents who should have been loving and supportive. What dysfunctional families both belonged to, and yet they overcame the lot and it is a pleasure to read of their triumphs - Kate includes PLENTY of fresh quotations from their own writings.

Charlotte had a lucky escape from her mother, who allowed her house to be used as a 'safe' place where she could meet her first boyfriend; then pushed the pair into a bedroom with the words, 'Enjoy yourselves'. Scandalabra. Fortunately, the boy in question respected Charlotte's virtue, but her father blew his top when he heard of it - then used the threat of revealing the story, and destroying Charlotte's credibility and good name, to control Charlotte in a most unpleasant way. The Prince Regent comes across as a thoroughly unpleasant man. Before this, I thought he was just a roue with an interest in his own magnificent breeches and big-bosomed women.

I ended up seeing Victoria as a typical teenager - 'I am very modern,' she wrote - longing to travel, yearning for romance, having her hair done to match that of her fave singer, preferring 'modern' Donizetti to Mozart!

She was a remarkably liberal girl; she hated racism or discrimination on grounds of religion, and when Albert - rather a prude, though I adore him for his romantic Puss in Boots-style suede boots - complained that she could not have bridesmaids whose mothers weren't of good reputation, Victoria put him down firmly, saying basically, there but for the grace of God go we both.

Two small niggles. The phrase is 'bored WITH' not 'bored OF' and it crops up regularly. Can't some editor quietly correct that tiny slip and a couple of other repetitive sentences which show she was writing quickly to meet a deadline?

Secondly, Kate suggests that Albert was not a virgin on his wedding night, supposing that HIS teenage travels included a quiet visit to some courtesan. Albert - whose parents' marriage had gone sexually off the rails and who reacted to this by being quiet and bookish - was famously a virgin on his wedding night, as celebrated in the clubs of London who said that there hadn't been such a royal wedding, where both partners were virgins, for centuries if ever.


King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard
King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard
by Tracy Borman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.69

4.0 out of 5 stars The charmed life of a charming woman - or a triumph over tragedy? You decide..., 17 Mar 2011
In a world where any Thomasina, Dick or Harriet thinks they can write a book merely because they have a job giving them access to behind-the-scenes historical material, Tracy Borman is a breath of fresh air. She actually can write and understands how to tell a story.

She arranges her swathe of royal material as neatly as a duchess unfurls the Queen's train from a carriage.

Deadly duels, political events, marriage-bed secrets, legal cases and family rows are all there, told in a lovely flowing way that is refreshingly easy to read, and entertaining.

I love her descriptions of the autistic King George who nursed a sexual passion for his buxom blonde Queen but felt the need to take a mistress, just for show - a situation that wouldn't be out of place in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Poor Henrietta was the mistress whose job was to chat for hours each day with the king about the same old military campaigns, until the autistic king retired to his wife's bed. Meanwhile wifey took her revenge on Henrietta by making her do menial tasks in her job as woman of the bedchamber.

What a rum bunch the Georges were and how mind-numbing to have to serve them. I adore the story of George 2nd, woken to hear the news of his accession, spluttering, 'Dat is vun big lie!' and prancing away crossly. I got a real sense of life's precariousness, even for those on the top rung of society. From making a hasty marriage to a ghastly wife-beating alcoholic, Henrietta ended with a nice little home in Marble Park, a London pad and all mod cons including, we note, a flushing loo. Good for her.

What I missed in this wonderful cast of characters - apart from some colour pictures, shame on the publisher for putting in black and white! - is a sense of Henrietta Howard herself as a personality. We hear that she was loved, respected, with loads of friends who were satirists like Pope; she was good, kind and clever, but I do like to read a few more extracts from letters that explain why, how she saw things herself - I want a bit more of her. If she's in love, show me the passionate letters! If in flight from her first husband, I want to know a lot more about it from her lips.

One a small point, I can't agree that Walpole was a minor writer. His Castle of Otranto was a blockbuster of its time and he pretty much invented gothic gloomth, as he called it, which became a huge fashion, so brilliantly satirised later by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey.


Count Arthur Strong - The Musical? (DVD)
Count Arthur Strong - The Musical? (DVD)
Dvd ~ Count Arthur Strong
Price: 13.99

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Funny how the stage show isn't as funny as the radio., 23 Nov 2010
Not as sharp, funny or endearing as the radio series, which are sublime. This stage performance is a bit slow and lacks the joie de vivre of vintage Count Arthur, with his eternal self-belief, hilarious scheming and gullible kind friends. A few good moments but you need patience.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 7, 2010 1:42 PM GMT


Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford
Jane Boleyn: The Infamous Lady Rochford
by Julia Fox
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A wasted opportunity, 22 July 2010
I was intrigued to find this book, about the shadowy Jane Boleyn. As the blurb said, the author - who is married to the excellent historian John Guy - had an opportunity to explore the conflicts this woman faced. Did she testify against her husband, George, and his sister Anne Boleyn, because she was threatened with death herself as an accessory? What did she say? Why, four years later, did she help Queen Katherine Howard to meet her lover, Thomas Culpeper, knowing this was certain death? Was she mentally ill?

What a shame that the author gives us little or no answer, not even gossip and speculation. I get no sense of Jane Boleyn as a personality, merely a kind of innocent nothing, watching events unfold.

How can Julia Fox believe that Jane was innocent of making a deal with Cromwell, to bring the Boleyns down, when afterwards, Cromwell looked after Jane's finances so carefully and the King even signed a private Act of Parliament to secure a property deal for Jane? It stinks...whether or not Jane had much choice in the matter, I'd like to know. But I'm none the wiser here.

Then there's Jane's husband George Boleyn...or was he gay or bisexual? Instead, she pads the book by re-telling the Boleyn story and justifies it by saying words to the effect of 'Jane would have been there when...'. This is ok, competent and readable, but many books tell this story.

I cannot stand history books which don't give you basic names, and facts like who the person is married to. Julia Fox makes occasional irritating omissions - Henry the Eighth's sister is Mary and to call her merely 'The French Queen' when she was at the time in question, widowed and married to Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, is not giving us enough information. Julia Fox has been a history teacher. I'd say, Must Try Harder next time.


Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart
Death and the Virgin: Elizabeth, Dudley and the Mysterious Fate of Amy Robsart
by Chris Skidmore
Edition: Hardcover

23 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fresh and fascinating., 4 Mar 2010
A fresh voice in Tudor history who gives us nice, long quotes from the movers and shakers, bringing them to life beautifully! And who quotes key documents in full at the back of the book! Great! I look forward to his next book.

Chris Skidmore has written a fascinating book. He has NOT 'solved' the mystery of Amy Dudley's death, however. I didn't read any solution here. He's a historian, not a detective. They don't make cut-and-dried statements.

Refreshingly, he has gone outside the academic box to talk to experts on 'death caused by tumbles down staircases' about likely wounds. He has added a lot of detail to the story, including an old sketch of the staircase in question, which shows how unlikely it is that Amy could fall down it and break her neck especially as there was a landing. He quotes local gossip - always interesting, with its chance details.

Then he meanders off into a long discussion about Elizabeth 1st's various suitors, a topic which occupies most of the book actually. I kept wondering when he would return to Amy's death.

What he should have done - perhaps for a second edition please? - is to talk to forensic experts about the significance of what the coroner's report reveals - two mysterious deep wounds in Amy Dudley's skull.

The staircase expert says that falling downstairs can create wounds like a cheese-grater. But that doesn't tackle the problem of what caused two DEEP wounds. Forensic people would probably supply interesting theories.

With a Miss Marple hat on, it seems obvious to me that a wound half an inch deep followed by one two inches deep could be caused by an assassin's knife as he approached from behind her. It's common for a killer to be hesitant the first time he strikes, making a deeper wound the second time as testosterone kicks in - you get that a lot in Tudor executions; then maybe he grabbed Amy and broke her neck to make sure, arranging her at the bottom of the stairs - with her headdress famously intact, revealing this was a man as a woman would note that kind of detail! - and he made his getaway, as Chris describes, through another exit and out.

Chris, I feel, allows himself to fall in love a little with his real subject, Amy's husband Dudley. It is clear that Dudley was a nasty 'love 'em and leave 'em' type. Cecil, Elizabeth's right-hand man, wrote a note to himself that he was likely to 'prove unkind' if married to the Queen.

Dudley married Amy too young, got bored, treated her abysmally - she never had a home of her own in ten years and he rarely saw her - and then saw his chance of marrying Elizabeth if he could get her out of the way.

She was clearly depressed, from what her servant says, and with good reason. Nervous of being poisoned - Chris brings up some interesting stuff about a doctor who was approached covertly, and refused to treat her, as he suspected 'they' would add poison to his medicine and he'd pay the penalty.

Dudley then had an affair with Lady Douglas Sheffield who bore his son - ironically, the only son who lived to adulthood, and a good egg, whom he bastardised. He married Douglas Sheffield secretly, saw her rarely - what's new? - and then, bored and in love with Lettice, Countess of Essex, offered her 700 to deny the marriage. If, as Chris Skidmore rather casually asserts, Douglas Sheffield was lying, I wonder why he offered her any money at all. She took the money after reviewing her options, and married someone else, then shot her mouth off about Dudley over dinner years later - only to be mortified when her dining companion wrote it all down in an entertaining scandalsheet called Leicester's Commonwealth.

Chris makes a couple of small howlers. The picture of Elizabeth 1st is not young, but middle-aged. And the carter who says 'Now I know the Queen is a woman, like my wife' did NOT say that after glimpsing her naked at her window, as he asserts, but because he was standing by with a loaded cart and she was changing her mind about when and where to go on to, during a progress round the country. Elizabeth is said to have laughed and thrown him a coin out of her window. She would hardly do that if he had seen her naked.

Never mind; Chris, you're going to be up there with the great historians if you go on like this.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 4, 2011 11:31 PM GMT


The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art
The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art
by Don Thompson
Edition: Paperback

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eye-opener., 19 Feb 2010
I have bought this book for SO many friends. It is entertaining, as well as a revelation. I love Don's account of rich couples who only attend evening auctions, air-kiss the prime dealers - who they don't know but want to be SEEN to know - and leave before the end of the auction. Here is people-watching - even better, a window into the behaviour of that fascinating group, the super-rich - mixed with ace research and a lot of good investigative stuff.


Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII's Mistress
Mary Boleyn: The True Story of Henry VIII's Mistress
by Josephine Wilkinson
Edition: Hardcover

30 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I would have enjoyed it more, if there had been more to enjoy., 5 Jan 2010
I asked for this for Christmas and spent most of the Day buried in it. Unfortunately, as it's short, I soon finished it...and felt I'd had an insubstantial feast for quite a lot of money, as books go.

I enjoyed it - but I would have enjoyed it more, if there had been more of it.

Josephine Wilkinson suggests that Mary Boleyn's two children, Henry and Katharine Carey, were really Henry 8th's. She offers no new evidence to back this up, that I could see, or maybe too many mince pies made me nod off during that bit. She starts to go through conception dates, so you get interested - hmm, maybe she has a point, were Mary and Henry lovers during this time? - then she stops.

There has got to be more on this somewhere, surely. Come on, comb those obscure sources, please someone! Where is the comment of a Venetian ambassador - the Daily Mail of their time when it came to a good royal gossip?

Back to the book! She could also have explored in more detail, the fact that Anne Boleyn became the Carey children's guardian. You'd think those Boleyn sisters were one big happy family from this account, but still, I'd be wild if my sis stole my posh lover, adopted my children, and I had to curtsey to her.

Mary comes over as a warm-hearted person who valued love, from her last surviving letter about why she eloped with a man who was her social inferior on the grounds that he loved her when no one else did, really. What did poor Mary do, to become so rejected by the Boleyns after her first husband died? Whatever it was, it saved Mary's neck later, so she won out.

Josephine Wilkinson writes quite a lot in the passive tense. It is a common mistake that academics make, I think. I wish she would revise and enlarge her book. It is a pretty book to have on the shelf and there is a need for more work on Mary Boleyn.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 19, 2011 10:27 AM GMT


Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen
Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen
by Tracy Borman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 16.32

16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compulsive! A feast of feisty women., 4 Jan 2010
You may think you've read everything about Elizabeth 1st. But this book shows there are new things to say.

This is a feast of feisty women, usually with Tudor red hair. Many of these stories show other women who dared to tangle with Elizabeth, coming off considerably worse. You wonder why they bothered to try - and marvel at their bravery, or desperation.

Here you can read all about their power-lusts and love-struggles, the secret marriages and the inevitable traumatic discoveries through their pregnancies.

Tracy Borman highlights the alternative female informal intelligence service which meant that the Queen often knew facts that male politicians tried to keep from her, through her ladies and the all-important servants' gossip.

She reveals how similar Elizabeth was to Anne Boleyn - in her intelligence, strong will, arrogance, and terrible temper at times - and explores Elizabeth's emotional links to her dead mother. as when in subtle homage, she based her coronation clothes and format on Anne's.

Tracy Borman tells interesting tales, which books with a wider remit don't have space for. I loved the story of the Swedish princess who journeyed for a year to see Elizabeth, only to find that a pretty young teenager in her retinue was snapped up by Katharine Parr's brother - in his fifties! Meanwhile, the princess's husband was arrested, trying to sneak away without paying their debts...Compulsive stuff!


JournoLISTS: 201 Ways to Improve Your Journalism
JournoLISTS: 201 Ways to Improve Your Journalism
by Cedric Pulford
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.45

5.0 out of 5 stars Easy-to-read handbook with essential advice for would-be writers, 11 Nov 2009
I came across this book just after I had bought Cedric Pulford's new book Byliners, 101 Ways to be a Freelance Journalist, for my godson, who is just starting as a journalist. I've now bought both books.

This is a a quick and easy-to-digest guide for anyone wanting to write, with a forward by Keith Waterhouse. It's a nice little handbook to keep around if you ever have to publish anything, including a local club newsletter, as its advice on page design and captions is invaluable and makes everything like that into a no-brainer, whereas in my experience you can fuss about those kind of things for ages if you don't know the established usages.


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