If Queen Victoria had a scrapbook…

I just found this lovely website: an online scrapbook of Queen Victoria. The site was created by the British Monarchy website (click here for the main site), and it designed to look just like an actual scrapbook. It has images, letters, maps and even some actual film footage from her Diamond Jubilee in 1897! I was astonished to see that there was film footage – it boggles the mind to realize that she was crowned in the middle of the 19th century, before the American Civil War, and lived through until the beginning of the last century. And here we are, in our living rooms and bedrooms learning about her on the internet at the dawn of the our century. It’s weird to realize that while the world was such a different place then, we are not really that far away from it. I wonder what Victoria would make of the world today?
Thanks to Two Nerdy History Girls for the link to the site!

Book Review: London: The Novel

London: The NovelLondon: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wish we could choose half stars, for I would actually rate this 2 1/2 stars. Better than OK, but I wouldn’t go full on with an “I liked it.” The idea behind the book (following the history of London through the experiences of a few particular families) was an interesting one in the early part of the book, but I found I was less interested as it went on. I felt that Rutherfurd worked too hard to explain some aspect of London’s history (for example, cockney rhyming slang) and that made the book awkward at moments. I also found that I was distracted by who all the families were – by the end of the book there were so many different families who were all somehow interconnected, but it was hard to figure out who was who and to which branch of what family they were related. It became repetitive after a while, although I do feel as if there were some parts of the story that got too much attention while others got short shrift. I was also hoping for a greater story arc – one that followed the characters from the beginning all the way through until the end, and it was not there at all. It was almost as if each different period were its own separate novella that had been incorporated into this mammoth book.

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Review: “Catherine, Called Birdy”

This morning, I finished reading “Catherine, Called Birdy” by Karen Cushman.  It was recommended to me by some of my favorite people: the librarians in my school.  I’m so glad they did, because there was an awful lot to enjoy about the book.

Catherine, or rather, Birdy begins a years worth of journaling by telling the reader: “I am commanded to write an account of my days: I am bit by fleas and plagued by family. That is all there is to say.” (1)

Birdy is intelligent, witty and genuinely fourteen.  Birdy also lives in the late 13th century.  This is one of my favorite time periods, and I love how Cushman portrayed every day life in this book.  Naturally, since Birdy can read and write, she is part of the gentry (her father is a minor knight), but we still get a taste of the life of villagers, monks, sons, and of course, young women in the Middle Ages (remember my earlier post? Maybe if I’d been the daughter of a knight…).

Historically, there are lots of lovely tidbits sprinkled throughout the books – telling the tale of a year in the life allows for an awful lot of saints days (noted at the beginning of most of the entries), daily life and special occasions to pass by the reader’s eyes.  So the reader gets to enjoy (vicariously, of course) Christmas feasting, Lenten fasting, the gaiety of May Day and there’s even a glimpse of the harvest.  There are so many wonderful touches throughout.  One notable event was the passage of recently expelled Jews through Birdy’s home.  Birdy, who is possibly as curious as a certain eponymous monkey, “plan[s] to hide in the shadows of the hall in order to see their horns and tails.” (11)  She learns, of course, that the Jews have neither, and befriends one of them.

This episode and a few other (her nonchalant way of mentioning being beaten by her father, for example) give the history teacher in me pause.  There is some background information given about most of what happens to Birdy (including the 1290 expulsion of the Jews by King Edward I) in the narrative, but there are limits to what the story and the narrator can tell.  We can only know what a 14-year-old girl knows.  As a history teacher, I wish there were more background on this and other aspects of medieval life.  I would love to be able to use this in my classroom as a starting point for a discussion on medieval life, although I do not see that many boys would enjoy the book as much as the girls would.  I worry that any 6th – 9th grader reading this would not read the author’s note (which doesn’t mention the expulsion of the Jews at all, and focuses more on the social and cultural aspects of medieval life).  Cushman does give the titles of several other history books and historical fiction novels, however I don’t know that it is enough to fill in the gaps.

In the end, whether a young adult chooses only to read this book and no other, it will at the least, give that reader of life in the Middle Ages (eel pie, anyone?).  One can only hope that the young reader will ask questions that would lead her (or him!) to additional books that touch on similar topics.

Go see this movie! Now!

I went to see The King’s Speech this morning.  If you haven’t yet had the chance to see it, you absolutely should, especially if British history is something you enjoy.  If not, then go for the performances.  Colin Firth, Guy Pearce, Helena Bonham-Carter and Geoffrey Rush are all wonderful.  It’s a great pleasure to watch them at work, and it’s a nice break to see HB-C do something other than barking mad Death Eater.

Whenever I see historical films like this one, I immediately want to know more about the topic (good habit for a history teacher to have, no?).  When I saw The Queen, I read up as much as I could on Elizabeth II (and found much about her to admire).  It was the same with Young Victoria, and with Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan.  (All of these films were wonderful, and if you haven’t seen these either, you should.)  The King’s Speech was no exception.

Rather than reading up more about George VI (which I will do later, I assure you), I was actually more interested in learning about Edward VIII and his abdication.  The film does a fair job at explaining why the abdication had to happen, but I wanted to know more.  What intrigued me was this:  What was the problem with Wallis Simpson?

It didn’t seem to be that she was an American (although that can’t have been in her favor, either).  Nor was it that she was a commoner (the wife of George VI and the future Queen Mum of Elizabeth II was a commoner, as was one of Henry VIII’s wives).

No, the problem seemed to be her divorces.  If the King married someone who had been divorced, it would raise questions about his relationship with the Church of England.  Remember that the king was also head of the Church.  Interesting, though, isn’t it?  If you go way, way, way back in history, you’ll find that Henry II’s wife Eleanor of Aquitaine was a divorcee.  So it’s not as if it were without precedent.  And of course, it brings to mind this question:

Isn’t this a tad hypocritical? Really?  Wasn’t the Church of England created because the King himself (old Henry VIII) wanted a divorce?  He ended up being twice divorced, not to mention thrice widowed (although, I suppose technically, only two of those were his fault.  Poor Jane Seymour died because doctors never washed their hands.  Yeeeccch.)

It does seem to me that perhaps this issue of Wallis Simpson (and on another note, really, Wallis?  What a horrid name.  The poor woman.) was about more than just the fact that she was a divorcee.

The biggest problem, of course, was how Mrs. Simpson was perceived by the people.  She was still married when she began seeing the future Edward VIII (called David by family), and therefore was considered an adulteress.  More importantly, should Edward insist upon marrying her, it was likely that the government would resign.  They had the power to approve who the king would marry, and they most certainly did not approve.

In America, I know that the entire episode is looked upon as being terribly romantic.  He gave up the throne for her, after all.  That he would give up so much to be with her is quite the gesture.   In Britain, I’m not sure how it was perceived after the fact, though most likely their attention was diverted by the looming presence of World War II.  Interesting to note, by the way, that Edward was quite the Nazi sympathizer, which makes one wonder if perhaps there was not a deeper, more political reason for his abdication.  A Britain under the rule of a king who had visited Germany as a personal guest of Adolf Hitler and apparently did not believe that the war against Hitler could be won would be a very different place today, indeed*.

I leave you with a video from YouTube of the audio Edward’s abdication speech with static images of the former king.

 

*See Erickson, Carolly. Royal Panoply: Brief Lives of the English Monarchs. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006.

 

The family knew him…

I’m currently reading (nearly finished) Christopher Hibbert’s biography of Queen Victoria.  Victoria was Queen of England from 1837 until 1901, making her (as of this writing) the longest reigning monarch in British history.  (If you’re interested, the second runner-up is George III (apparently the Brits had fewer issues with him than we did), and the current third runner-up (but closing fast!) is Elizabeth II.)*

Victoria had nine children and 37 grandchildren, several of whom became (or married) kings and queens of Europe.  One of those grandchildren was Kaiser Wilhem II, he who ruled Germany during the First World War.  In a footnote in Hibbert’s book, I was tickled to find the following:

He [Wilhelm] had never made any secret of his dislike of the English.  As a twenty-year-old lieutenant in the Guards, he had declared after a heavy nosebleed that it was ‘good to be rid of this damned English blood’.  The antagonism was, no doubt, exacerbated by his mother [Victoria’s eldest child] who, yearning for her ‘own beloved England’, thanking God that she was a ‘regular John Bull’ and hating her ‘odious’ life in Berlin, had urged him to remember that her own country was ‘the most progressive, advanced, & liberal & the most developed race in the world, also the richest’, as well as the greatest naval power with the ‘largest & most powerful Empire in the world in which the sun never sets’, obviously more ‘suited than any other to civilize other countries’.  As General Count Alfred von Waldersee observed, this constant praise of England and belittling of Germany was counter-productive.  ‘If his parents intended to bring up a constitutional monarch who would obediently bow before the sovereignty of a parliamentary majority, they have been disappointed,’ Count Waldersee said.  ‘It looks as if precisely the opposite has come about … It is quite amazing that the Prince bears such a prejudice against England; to a great extent this is a very natural reaction to his mother’s endeavours to make anglomaniacs out of the children.’  The Crown Princess [Victoria’s daughter, Wilhelm’s mother] was eventually forced to recognize this herself  and decided to ‘keep silent on such issues’.  ‘Willy’, she concluded, ‘is chauvinistic and ultra Prussian to a degree & with a violence wh[ich] is often very painful to me … Prussian princes have a certain “genre” & it runs in the blood’ (John C. G. Röhl, Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser’s Early Life, 1859-1888, Cambridge, 1998, 115, 267, 395, 409, 441).†

A hint of things to come, no?

* Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_longest-reigning_British_monarchs August 29, 2010.

† Hibbert, Christopher, Queen Victoria: A Personal History (Da Capo Press, 2000), 389-390.