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The Story of Alice by Robert Douglas Fairhurst

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “This is the secret history of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Wonderland is part of our cultural heritage. But beneath the fairytale lies the complex history of the author and his subject. Charles Dodgson was a quiet academic but his second self, Lewis Carroll, was a storyteller, innovator and avid collector of ‘child-friends’. Carroll’s imagination was to give Alice Liddell, his ‘dream-child’, a fictional alter ego that would never let her grow up.

This is a biography that beautifully unravels the magic of Alice. It is a history of love and loss, innocence and ambiguity. It is the story of one man’s need to make a Wonderland in a changing world.”

REVIEW: I have wanted to read this book since its release, and was very excited to receive it for my birthday last month. I am a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland and have read the book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, many times. Although I knew a little, as many of do, about the story behind Carroll’s creation of this famous tale – his close friendship with a little girl named Alice Liddell, whom he one day took a boat ride with and, to amuse her, told her the story which would eventually become Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – I learnt a great deal more through reading this biography. Douglas-Fairhurst writes beautifully, and the book reads almost like a novel itself, truly capturing the magic surrounding both the creation and dissemination of Alice. A great deal of time is spent discussing one of the great mysteries of Lewis Carroll; how close was he to Alice Liddell and the other little girls he befriended and photographed? As an amateur photographer, the majority of Carroll’s portraits involved young girls, many of them named Alice and some either nude or barely dressed. Douglas-Fairhurst discusses the problems this poses for us in the modern day, looking back on Carroll and his life; realistically, many of us might apply the term of paedophile to Carroll, in light of what we can see from his photographs and the letters he wrote to these young girls. However, Carroll – when he was busy being Charles Dodgson – was a reverend, a religious man, and often condemned those who viewed the purity and innocence of children through a ‘sinful’ eye. I would concur with the conclusion that Douglas-Fairhurst makes: that Carroll was, in fact, simply captivated by the innocence and beauty of youth, a period of life which he saw as carefree and creative. Carroll maintained a close relationship with children because he loved youth and wished to reconnect with his own lost years, and I think you can see that childish and youthful imagination shining through in both of the Alice books. I really enjoyed learning more about Carroll and the story behind the creation of Alice, and would highly recommend this book.

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Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley by Charlotte Gordon

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and author Mary Shelley were mother and daughter, yet these two extraordinary women never knew one another. Nevertheless, their passionate and pioneering lives remained closely intertwined, their choices, aspirations and tragedies eerily similar. Both women became famous writers and wrote books that changed literary history, had passionate relationships with several men, were single mothers out of wedlock; both lived in exile, fought for their poisition in society, and interrogated ideas of how we should live.”

REVIEW: I have counted both Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley among my historical idols¬† since I was introduced to them both by my fantastic English teacher during my AS level year: Wollstonecraft for her feminist tract A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which addresses many areas that feminists such as myself still identify as areas that require change to this day; and Shelley for her novel Frankenstein, one of my favourite books of all time, as well as her tumultuous personal life. Until now, I have never before had the opportunity to read a biography covering this exceptional mother and daughter in one go. I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Gordon chose to structure this biography; it can be difficult, initially, to understand how Wollstonecraft and Shelley can have led such similar lives, and how Wollstonecraft had such an influence on her daughter, when the two only shared the same earth for a matter of days. In structuring it so that the chapters alternate between Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Gordon makes it easier for the reader to map out the parallels in the lives of these two women, looking at what they were each experiencing during the different stages of their lives. Gordon’s writing style itself is fantastic – the book flows almost like a novel, and is engaging from start to finish, with keen speculation and vivid description adding to the enjoyment of the reader, who may feel daunted by such a large non-fiction text without such additional flourishes. Gordon made me feel much closer to these two women, whom I have long considered as role models, and I feel I gained so much more understanding and sympathy from knowing more about their lives. It has also given me a new way to look at things when reading their written works, as I can now apply my knowledge of their backgrounds and the events occuring in their lives when writing to enhance my understanding of their novels, letters, diaries and tracts. I found it difficult to put this book down, something of a rarity with me and non-fiction, and would highly recommend it to anyone interested in literature, the women themselves or even those interested in the period from a historical perspective, as the lives of these women tell us much about the political climate and social expectations of the period.

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Katherine Howard by Josephine Wilkinson

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Katherine Howard was the fifth wife of Henry VIII and cousin to the executed Anne Boleyn. She first came to court as a young girl of fourteen, but even prior to that her fate had been sealed and she was doomed to die. She was beheaded in 1542 for crimes of adultery and treason, in one of the most sensational scandals of the Tudor age. The traditional story of Henry VIII’s fifth queen dwells on her sexual exploits before she married the king, and her execution is seen as her just dessert for having led an abominable life. However, the true story of Katherine Howard could not be more different. Far from being a dark tale of court factionalism and conspiracy, Katherine’s story is one of child abuse, family ambition, religious conflict and political and sexual intrigue. It is also a tragic love story. A bright, kind and intelligent young woman, Katherine was fond of clothes and dancing, yet she also had a strong sense of duty and tried to be a good wife to Henry. She handled herself with grace and queenly dignity to the end, even as the barge carrying her on her final journey drew up at the Tower of London, where she was to be executed for high treason. Little more than a child in a man’s world, she was the tragic victim of those who held positions of authority over her, and from whose influence she was never able to escape.”

REVIEW: There a very few biographies out there on Katherine Howard, and, more importantly, of the ones that are out there very few of them are actually very good. Wilkinson has done extensive research into Katherine Howard and interpreted the sources in a new and different way, uncovering new findings and creating a fascinating, sensitive and insightful biography that gives the reader a real sense of connection to Katherine herself. Wilkinson’s findings show Katherine to be a young girl whose naivety led to her being used and abused by older and more experienced men, chiefly her childhood music teacher, Henry Mannock, and her famed lover Francis Dereham. Both of these men, in Wilkinson’s eyes, used the pretty and vulnerable Katherine as a kind of plaything, and Dereham at least seems to have held their intimacy over her for her entire life, possibly using it as a form of blackmail when she became Queen, as did many of the women whom she had viewed as her girlhood friends. Wilkinson also shows that although Katherine is believed to have taken Thomas Culpepper as her lover, and indeed this is what it is often believed she and Culpepper were executed for, this may not neccessarily be the case. Wilkinson presents and compelling and believable case, using primary documentation, that suggests that instead Katherine was merely cultivating Culpepper’s friendship and loyalty so that he could report back to her when the King was unwell and unable to see his wife. This would, in turn, extend her influence when apart from the King and, although Wilkinson believes (as did many contemporaries involved in the building of evidence against Katherine) there may have been a intention or desire between Katherine and Culpepper, she does not suggest that the two of them actually engaged in any intimate sexual act; simply that they exchanged letters, were close friends, and held long conversations with Lady Rochford as their chaperone. I found this biography to provide a fascinating and somewhat heartbreaking insight into Katherine’s life and found myself fully convinced by Wilkinson’s presentation of the evidence; the only slight thing in which our opnions differ, however, is that Wilkinson suggests Katherine herself encouraged flirtateousness with the King and was glad to be even considered for the position of Queen – I personally, however, believe that Katherine was instead encouraged by her ambitious family, perhaps even pushed forward, to become Henry’s next Queen. I do believe, however, that Katherine was a good, kind-hearted queen who used her influence to help others and tried to be a good wife to her king. As such, she suffered a tragic fate, and the evidence put forward by Wilkinson which shows how she was used and then later accused of crimes she may not have even committed makes her an even more tragic victim of the tyranny of Henry VIII.

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Mary Shelley by Martin Garrett

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RATING: 4/5

BLURB: “Mary Shelley’s authorship of the novel Frankenstein guaranteed her widespread renown, but her turbulent life and other literary works are equally fascinating. Born in 1797 to the writers Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, she inherited her parents’ passion for literature, social justice and women’s rights. At the age of just sixteen she ran away with Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and was widowed by twenty-four. During their eight years together (living mainly in Italy), she was estranged from her family and sometimes from her husband, suffered periods of depression, and saw three of their four children die in infancy. Despite her troubles, Mary Shelley maintained a busy social life, including a complicated friendship with the poet Lord Byron. She also wrote journals, short stories, mythical dramas, and several novels including Frankenstein. After her husband’s death in 1822 she returned to England with her surviving son. She continued to write, both in order to earn a living and to satisfy her literary ambitions. She also produced major editions of her husband’s poetry and prose.”

REVIEW: Mary Shelley is both one of my favourite authors and one of my favourite historical figures; as such, I always enjoy reading new biographies or fictionalised accounts of her life. This biography is extremely engaging and made even more fascinating by the use of images, including photos, paintings and portraits. It also contained some facts that I had previously had no awareness of – one of my favourites of these was the rumour that Mary and Percy Shelley first consummated their relationship in St. Pancras graveyard, not far from the grave of Mary’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft! It was a great read with a good balance of information and speculation, and I would recommend it highly to fans of Shelley.