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Jill Meyer (United States)
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Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House
Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House
by Susan Law
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.90

5.0 out of 5 stars Lords and ladies behaving badly..., 4 July 2015
In 1830, the first Earl Ellenborough was granted a divorce from his wife, the former Lady Jane Digby, in a private Parliamentary action. Ellenborough, who was many years older than his wife, sued for divorce on grounds that Lady Jane had indulged in quite a few affairs and indiscretions with other men. The fact that Ellenborough had, himself, carried on many affairs was not really brought up, and the trial was chock-full of testimony by the family's servants. One of the men accused of having enjoyed Lady Jane's bed was the Austrian diplomat Prince Felix Schwartzenberg. After the divorce, Jane and Schwartzenberg eloped to Paris, where she bore him two illegitimate children. They never married - Schwartzenberg couldn't marry a divorced woman - and Jane continued her life of searching for love, eventually marrying a Bedouin chief 20 years her junior and living out her long life in Syria.

All this background is important because British author Susan Law has written a fascinating book, "Through the Keyhole: Sex, Scandal and the Secret Life of the Country House" about the aristocratic infidelity in the Georgian and Regency periods, when lords and ladies, barons and baronesses, and, indeed, many members of the British peerage, were acting with sexual abandonment.

The idea of marriage among the aristocracy was often a financial arrangement at this time. Love - or the idea of love - was hoped to evolve by the married couple, but often times it didn't and the marriages failed. However, divorce in the 1700's was definitely frowned upon and very few were granted. Basically, they were expensive and were generally sought by the wealthy. The middle class and poor had to grin and bear it when marital discord flared between spouses. For the wealthy, discreet infidelity was often engaged in by both partners. But here and there, husbands began to sue for divorce, using the devise of "crim-con", which as short for "criminal conversation", or adultery to make the "other man" pay up to the cuckolded husband. And newspaper articles and magazine pieces were appearing in the press of the time giving details that were often embarrassing in the extreme.

Okay, who among us doesn't read gossip columns, even "on the sly"? Don't we get a strange sense of satisfaction in reading about the bad behavior of those who supposedly are our "betters"? And since these "betters" were wealthy and had country houses and city houses and acted with impunity where ever they were, there was a lot of "looking through the keyhole", to gain evidence.

Susan Law's book is full of cases of infidelity of the period and the price those indulging in a tickle in the bed often paid. For women, because the law at the time considered the couple's children as solely the possession of the husband, most lost custody of their children. For the wife's lover, because the basis of "crim-con" was compensation for the breach of fidelity with the other's wife, large sums were often paid to the cheated-on husbands. (Curiously, there was little going the other way; women suing their husband's lovers...)

Law has written a lively book about an interesting subject. She gives many examples of these members of the peerage acting very, very badly. Looking back two hundred or so years, we can see that people haven't changed.

(For readers interested in Lady Jane Digby and her fascinating life as she searched for love, there are two excellent biographies. One is "A Scandalous Life: The Story of Jane Digby", by Mary Lovell, is still in print. However, "Passion's Child: The Extraordinary Life of Jane Digby" by Margaret Fox Schmidt is no longer in print but is worth buying from a used book dealer. I think the Schmidt book is slightly better than the Lovell book, but both are well-worth reading.)


The Angel and the Cad: Love, Loss and Scandal in Regency England
The Angel and the Cad: Love, Loss and Scandal in Regency England
by Geraldine Roberts
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Reprobates can be found in the finest families..., 1 July 2015
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British author Geraldine Roberts, in her book, "The Angel and the Cad: Love, Loss and Scandal in Regency England", gives the story and repercussions of a marriage-from-hell. The man in the tale, William Wellesley Pole, the nephew of the Duke of Wellington, was a rotten person in every part of his life and was married to one of England's cherished heiresses, Catherine Tylney Long. Roberts' book dissects both families; their wealth, positions in society, and family ties. She also looks at the legal system in England at the time, which almost always gave full rights of a couple's children to the father.

William Wellesley was a true scoundrel. Born into one of the most accomplished families in England, Wellesley was a charming weasel who cheated and lied his way through life, always bailed out by his family. He was, I guess, "amoral", spending money and running up huge debts which he never took responsibility for paying. He married Catherine Tylney Long, the heiress of several huge estates who was known through out London society as a smart young woman who handled her own business affairs from an early age and was known for her kindness. She had been courted by the Duke of Clarence, son of George III, who eventually came to the throne as William IV. Unfortunately, Catherine fell in love with William Wellesley and married him and setting herself up for years of pain as William ran through her money like a drunken sailor and through her love and regard for him by his constant philandering.

Catherine and William's marriage produced two sons and one daughter. William spent money, depleting both his and much of his wife's fortunes. (Fortunately, she was in control of a certain amount of money that William could not get his hands on.) The exquisite Palladian estate Wanstead House, which had been in Catherine's family, was ultimately torn down and its art and treasures sold to pay William's debts. But Catherine stuck with William, through debts and philandering, because leaving William meant leaving her children to his custody. The couple spent years in exile in France and Italy; they could not live in England because of William's financial dealings.

While in Naples, William began an affair with the wife of a British army officer. Finally, after enduring years of unhappiness at her husband's hands, Catherine returned to England and filed for divorce. She lined up her support but unfortunately died before the divorce case was heard. The case turned into a custody case and William lost custody of his three children, which also exacerbated his financial woes because Catherine's money devolved onto her oldest son upon her death.

The trials - both the divorce case of William's lover from her husband, and William's custody case - were played out in the press in the mid 1820's. Seats at the trials were coveted and everybody seemed to have an opinion on the cases. William Wellesley lived until 1857. His foul reputation in society was justly earned by his despicable deeds. Geraldine Roberts is a lively writer and she does an excellent job in looking at Regency society - both high and low - and at a bad, bad marriage.

Another excellent book about a reprobate from the same time period is "The Profligate Son: Or a True Story of Family Conflict, Fashionable Vice, and Financial Ruin in Regency Britain", by Nicola Phillips.


Being Nixon: A Man Divided
Being Nixon: A Man Divided
Price: £12.34

5.0 out of 5 stars Non-ideological..., 19 Jun. 2015
I am not reviewing Richard Nixon, but rather the biography of him by Evan Thomas, "Being Nixon: A Man Divided".

There are two kind of political biographies. The first are those that are written with an "agenda" - either partisan or personal - and the second are those written to be non-partisan. The first kind of biographies may be more "fun" to read - particularly if you agree with the "agenda" - than the second, but "Being Nixon" is an excellent example of a fact-based, opinion-free book. I recently read and reviewed "Mormon Rivals: The Romneys, the Huntsmans, and the Pursuit of Power", and found it to also be free of political ideology.

Evan Thomas - an author with an impeccable East Coast/Ivy League pedigree - would be the kind of person Richard Nixon would find very little kinship with. Nixon was raised in a small rural town - Whittier - outside Los Angeles, the son of struggling parents. His father was an unsuccessful business man but his mother, Hannah, urged her sons to succeed in life. She was a fervent Quaker, and was a life-long inspiration to Richard. After graduating from Whittier College, Nixon was offered a free ride in law school from Duke University. After law school, Nixon applied to "white shoe" law firms but was turned down. He joined the US Navy after Pearl Harbor and was sent to the South Pacific. When he returned to California, he was "noted" by the local Republican power broker and offered a chance to run for US Congress. He campaigned hard, won the election, and then four years later to the US Senate, after a fairly dirty campaign. He joined Dwight Eisenhower on the national ticket for Vice-President in 1952, but was laid low by rumors of a slush fund. Most everyone reading this review will have heard of Nixon's famous "Checkers" speech, which saved his place on the ticket. The book - and Nixon's life - continue from there.

Evan Thomas writes about Richard Nixon with a good mix of the private and public man. He doesn't shirk in pointing out Nixon's weaknesses, but also talks about his strengths. Thomas looks at those people who surrounded Nixon - from his wife and daughters who faithfully supported him in his public life - to his political friend and cronies who Nixon leaned on for advice and support. But what Evan Thomas does so well in his biography of Richard Nixon is to define the man and give context to his decisions. "Being Nixon" is well-worth reading.


Tightrope
Tightrope
by Simon Mawer
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "Core" issues?, 17 Jun. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Tightrope (Hardcover)
"Tightrope", by Simon Mawer, is a sequel to his previous novel, "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky". I don't think you have had to have read "Girl" to understand "Tightrope", but you might as well. "Girl" ends where "Tightrope" begins. (Mawer is also the author of "The Glass Room" and other novels.)

The main character in "Tightrope" is Marian Sutro, a half-British, half-French, woman who is hired by the British secret service in WW2 and trained as a spy. Her training includes how to kill, how to break into buildings, and how to blow up trains - all worthy things to know when you're going into German-occupied France to cause mischief and mayhem. And Marian Sutro - who had plenty of aliases - did just that and was finally caught by the Germans after she was betrayed by an associate. She spent time in Ravensbruck after having been tortured in Paris. "Tightrope" begins when Marian returns home after escaping from Ravensbruck, to begin her post-war life. The title refers to the high-wire act Marian was forced to walk as the war year turned into the Cold War.

But the post-war era was different than the WW2 years. The Allied coalition of the US, Great Britain, and the USSR changed as the fear in the west changed from Nazism to Communism. Our "good friend" - the USSR - evolved into our enemy, and the development (and supposed secrecy) of the atomic bomb was kept secret from the Soviets. (Actually, Stalin had known about the bomb as spies from Los Alamos gave information to Soviet agents. But that's a different story and a different book.) Where did Marian Sutro fit in to the new reality in England? She and her brother - an atomic physicist had "sympathies" for the Soviets and Marian worked at an organisation set up in London to foster "cross cultural" ties between the British and the Soviets in the post-war years.

Marian Sutro's story in the late 1940's and early 1950's involved spies and agents for both Soviet and British security agencies. As usual, identities and allegiances were fluid and double/triple spies seemed to be everywhere. Marian enjoyed a healthy love life - perhaps because she was married to maybe the dullest man in Christendom - and her bed partners were also part of her work/spy life. She seemed to me to be a woman with no "core identity"; her many aliases and fractured allegiances seemed to make having a "core" difficult. As a reader, I was never really caught up with Marian Sutro. I found her interesting in a cool, distant way and enjoyed reading about her, but I never really "liked" her. Now, this is not a huge problem for me; I often enjoy reading about characters who are incredibly unlikable but most "unlikable" characters have an interest to them. I just didn't find Marian Sutro terribly interesting. What happened to her, yes, I found interesting, but not the character herself.

Author Simon Mawer is an excellent writer and "Tightrope" is a good book. It' not as good as "The Glass Room", but then very few books are as good as "Room". I can advise you to read "Tightrope" as it is well-written. I just wish I cared about Marian Sutro more than I did.
Comment Comments (3) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 17, 2015 9:52 PM BST


A Complex Fate
A Complex Fate
by Ken Cuthbertson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £23.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent bio of William Shirer and his times..., 15 Jun. 2015
This review is from: A Complex Fate (Hardcover)
Why should you read "A Complex Fate: William L Shirer and the American Century", by Ken Cuthbertson? Well, beside the fact that Cuthbertson is a very good writer, the subject - war correspondent and author William Shirer - was a recorder of his times, both in oral and written form. As one of "Murrow's Boys", Shirer was one of the radio broadcasters who brought the pre-war and war-years "home" to listeners in the United States in their "World News Roundup". In his first book, "Berlin Diary". published in 1941, and "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich", published in 1960 , Shirer explained the events of the 1930s and 1940s in both historic and personal terms.

William Shirer was born in 1904 in Chicago to upward-striving parents, who had moved from Iowa to the big city. His father was an up-and-coming lawyer whose death in 1913 prompted his widow and three children to move back to Cedar Rapids, Iowa and Shirer had a small town up-bringing. He left for Paris upon graduating from college, one of the many Americans who were fleeing American provincialism in the 1920s. He managed to be hired by the Chicago Tribune's Paris paper and made his way up the ladder of print journalism in the European bureaus of American newspapers. His chance for the big-time came when he was asked by CBS and Edward Murrow to become part of a radio team who were to broadcast the political and military moves of Hitler's Germany and the reactions of other European countries as war became more and more probable.

Ken Cuthbertson's writing is first-rate as he looks at Shirer's life and how he influenced public opinion with both his broadcasts and his post-war writing. Even if you're not familiar with William Shirer, he and his work was so integrated with the history of the time. He was one of those who were "there", broadcasting from Berlin and Vienna and Paris. Edward Murrow might be more famous - with his "THIS is London" sign-on in Blitz-bombed London and his post-war programs on CBS Television - but William Shirer's books continued the explanation of those troubled years. Ken Cuthbertson's bio of William Shirer, in a way, continues that explanation


Hitler's Last Day: Minute by Minute
Hitler's Last Day: Minute by Minute
by Jonathan Mayo
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £10.49

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent look at April 30, 1945..., 13 Jun. 2015
The title of Emma Craigie and Jonathan Mayo's excellent history, "Hitler's Last Day: Minute by Minute", is actually a misnomer. This book is not only the story of Adolf Hitler's final day of life, but the authors include many others, from Winston Churchill to a young reporter, John Kennedy, and many others whose lives were affected by Adolf Hitler and his war. He committed suicide in Berlin as the Russian troops were fighting in the city's streets, hours away from taking over his bunker. Hitler's death cannot be told as a singular event and Craigie and Mayo bring plenty of others into the story.

Wednesday, April 30, 1945 - ten days after Hitler's 56th birthday - was a busy day around the world. Harry Truman was just settling into an uneasy seat as president of the US. He had not been "used" by Franklin Roosevelt who seemed to see little reason to confide in his fourth vice-president. In fact, Truman was not told about the atomic bomb until 10 days after he assumed office on Roosevelt's death! In England, Winston Churchill and his advisers - both political and military - were winding down as the war itself wound down. Allied troops were invading Germany like a pincher movement and talk of the coming peace in Europe was centered on Germany's surrender and the threat of the Soviet Union in eastern Europe. The Pacific war was on and the 6-week Battle of Okinawa was still raging. However, in the Burmese capital of Rangoon - under Japanese control since 1942 - the Japanese surrendered the city to Allied forces. The nascent UN was meeting in San Francisco, trying to put together a post-WW2 world. These are just a few of the world-wide events Craigie and Mayo cover in their book. Also included are the Germans who were in the Berlin bunker or acting on Hitler's orders - and orders of those who saw the end of the Third Reich a bit more clearly.

Basically, Craigie and Mayo look at this date in one hour spans. They have used primary sources such as letters and personal interviews, as well as an extensive bibliography. My only complaint about the book is the lack of pictures. There were a few random ones, but no picture section that I could find in my ebook, though they do include a section at the end, giving updates on many of the people mentioned in the book. The authors write much of the book in the present tense - which some readers may not like - but I thought it worked well. "Hitler's Last Day" is extremely well-written and was a treat to read.


The Fateful Year: England 1914
The Fateful Year: England 1914
by Mark Bostridge
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb look at Britain in 1914..., 10 Jun. 2015
We are now in the 100th year anniversary of the Great War, and some excellent books have been published. Some look at the war in total, but some concentrates on parts of the war, usually divided by the year. Mark Bostridge has written a superb book about the first year of the war, "The Fateful Year: England 1914".

The year 1914 was noteworthy even before the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in late June. Britain was awash with suffragettes protesting for the vote-for-women. These women were not afraid to destroy public property - particularly in the nation's art galleries - or go to jail for their crimes. While there, they often starved themselves and the authorities force-fed these women. The "Irish Question" was a hot topic, both politically and militarily, and it seemed everybody had a "solution". The Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry Asquith, was in love with a young woman who was not his wife, Margot, and he spent hours a day pouring out his heart to her in letters. (If you'd like to read more about Asquith and his "in love with love", look for the book, "Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street", by Anne de Courcy.)

With war declared in early August, Bostridge looks at the military enlistments and how different events either spurred on enlistments or hindered them. Certainly being presented with a "White Feather" by a young woman who taunts a man she doesn't think is in the military was a tactless way of accusing that man of cowardice without knowing all the facts. Bostridge also writes about the "Pals Divisions"; the practice of encouraging enlistments by having men from a village or work place serve together. Men might end up serving with their friends and family members, but the effect on a town when so many are lost in battle is often stunning.

The reason Bostridge's book is so good is what he has chosen to cover. Rather than concentrating on the military and political events of the year, he includes societal events such as crimes, artistic and literary endeavours, and affairs of the heart, which combine to make a look at 1914 England so complete. Mark Bostridge is a lively writer, and the book is one of the best I've read on such an important subject. (Mark Bostridge is also the author of several books on the British author, Vera Brittain.)


Dewey Defeats Truman
Dewey Defeats Truman
by Thomas Mallon
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.56

5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful look at a small town..., 7 Jun. 2015
This review is from: Dewey Defeats Truman (Paperback)
Thomas Mallon's novel, "Dewey Defeats Truman", is a marvelous look at a small town in the throes of change. Set in 1948 in Owosso, Michigan - the real hometown of Thomas Dewey - the townspeople are transitioning from the war years to the Cold War years. Politically, the small town is basically populated by Republicans - other than a few furtive Democrats - and the summer of 1948 seems to be the ending of the Democrats' hold on the White House. Dewey, nominated in the convention in Philadelphia is expected to sweep Harry S Truman out of office. Sure thing...put your money down on it.

But politics are not the only thing happening in Owosso. Love is blooming between all sorts of couples and the pain of the war years and the losses endured by some townspeople are coming to a head. One woman - a widow - cannot accept the loss of her oldest son, gunned down at Malmedy during the Battle of the Bulge by German forces, and she copes by attending funerals of soldiers' whose bodies have been returned to the US. Her remaining son, a teenager, is of little interest to her and he is stifling in the unquiet household. A young woman, Anne Macmurray, has settled in the town after graduating from near-by University of Michigan; she's hoping to write a novel and a small town seems to offer her the best setting. Anne is being courted by two men - one a Democrat and the other Republican - and she's having a hard time making up her mind which to accept. Other events that summer include a sharkster coming to town, hoping to set up Owosso as a tourist destination after Thomas Dewey's inevitable electoral win ("win", hell, it'll be a landslide!) in November. But those plans are upsetting town residents who don't want their peaceful town turned upside down in an attempt to grab onto the Dewey coattails. Some secrets will also be literally unearthed if the tourist project goes ahead...as well as other secrets of doomed relationships.

Thomas Mallon has written a novel that begs for a sequel. I'd love to find out what happened to the characters Mallon has so skillfully developed. But since this book was published in 1997, I suppose Mallon won't revisit Owosso, Michigan. Too bad...


Vera Brittain and the First World War: The Story of Testament of Youth
Vera Brittain and the First World War: The Story of Testament of Youth
by Mark Bostridge
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.88

5.0 out of 5 stars Vera Brittain and her book..., 6 Jun. 2015
Vera Brittain was the author of "Testament of Youth", an autobiographical work about her life in the Great War and the lives and deaths of four men in battle. The four men were her brother, Edward; her fiance Roland; and two close friends. They were the War Generation; a generation of men killed or wounded in battle. "Testament" was published to great acclaim in 1933 and is still in print. It is one of the first books on the Great War written by a woman. The book was made into a 5 part BBC miniseries in 1979 and a filmed version has just been released.

And now a look at Vera Brittain, her life and those of the four men featured in the book, and on the making of the movie version, has been written by British author Mark Bostridge. The book, "Vera Brittain and the First World War: The Story of Testament of Youth", is a masterful work, drawing on his larger, earlier biography of Brittain, and incorporating the logistics of the film-making.

Vera Brittain was born into an upper middle class family in 1893. She had one younger brother, Edward, to whom she was very close. She valued education in a family where, typically, only the male members were considered to be worth university educating. She eventually went to Oxford, but dropped out to do war work when Britain went to war. Edward and three friends all joined up and all ended up dying either in battle or as a result of wounds suffered in battle. One of the four was her fiance, poet Roland Leighton, whose love she cherished. (Curiously, Leighton's last letter to Vera before he was killed, seemed a bit ambivalent about their future together. Did he love her or was he trying to break off the relationship?)

Mark Bostridge's book is an excellent look at Vera Brittain and the War Generation, as depicted in print and on film. He's an easy and smooth writer and the book is good addition to the Great War books being published during these 100th anniversary years.


Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker
Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of the New Yorker
by Thomas Kunkel
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.05

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A well-written bio of one of the best writers I'd never heard of..., 5 Jun. 2015
A couple of months ago, I read a novel by Jami Attenberg, called "Saint Mazie". It was the fictional account of a real woman - Mazie Phillips - who helped down-and-out men in New York's poorer areas during the Depression. The bare facts of the book were taken from an article, written in 1940 for The New Yorker magazine, by a staff writer named Joseph Mitchell. Who was Joseph Mitchell? The answer is in a very well-written biography, "Man in Profile: Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker", by Thomas Kunkel.

Joseph Mitchell was a country-boy from a prosperous North Carolina farming family. He knew he didn't want to follow his father into the growing of tobacco and cotton, and realising he was an excellent writer, he went to New York in October, 1929, to try his luck at the newspaper business. His talent was recognised by the New York World-Telegram and he spent a few years there, honing his craft. But in the 1930's, he was hired on at The New Yorker as a staff writer. The magazine, by then renowned under the editorship of Harold Ross, had a staff that produced some of the most important journalism of the time. Mitchell, who wrote "Profile", which were longish looks at people who made New York tick. One of those profiled was Mazie Phillips but there were many more in the next 20 or so years.

Some of Joseph Mitchell's profiles were questioned as to the "truthiness" behind the writing. Some were not real people, but rather composites of a few individuals. Today, in the age of Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, readers and journalists are much more critical about how a story or a real character is portrayed.

Author Thomas Kunkel is a pretty good writer himself. His biography of Joseph Mitchell looks at both the personal and working sides of the man, as well as others in the New York literary world.


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