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In Search of Mary Shelley by Fiona Sampson

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RATING: 3.5/5

BLURB: “Mary Shelley was brought up in a house filled with radical thinkers, poets, philosophers and writers. The daughter of the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft – who died giving birth to her – and the revolutionary philosopher William Godwin, she eloped at sixteen with the notorious poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, and embarked on a passionate relationship lived on the move across Britain and Europe. Before early widowhood changed her life forever, Mary experienced debt, infidelity and the deaths of three of her children. It was against this dramatic backdrop – and while she was still a teenager – that she composed one of literature’s greatest novels, Frankenstein, creating in the process not one but two of today’s most enduring archetypes.”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Mary Shelley, and with Frankenstein being one of my favourite novels, I am eager to read many of the new publications released to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the book’s publication. This new biography of Mary is the first of these I have read, and Sampson’s premise is very interesting. She aims to try and explore more of Mary’s feelings and emotions about the famous events that take place in her lifetime (both those involving her and those surrounding her), using her journal entries and travel records, rather than looking pointedly at the actual events themselves, which she argues are already well known. This is a view I would agree with – when I studied Shelley as part of an MA module, everyone knew the story of the creation of Frankenstein at the Villa Diodati just as well as I did. In doing this, Sampson ends up presenting a very sympathetic view of Mary, one which I also tend to support. Despite the romantic idealism of her elopement with Percy Shelley, in reality things turned out to be extremely difficult for Mary and her new partner; but for Mary in particular. Some of her journal entries certainly seem to indicate that she was feeling depressed during their relationship, and considering the problems they faced, who could blame her? Their trip around Europe was ruined both by Mary’s attention-seeking stepsister Clare tagging along, and by the Shelley’s debt, which dogged them everywhere they went and led them into many filthy lodgings. The couple had little time to themselves, and Shelley often seemed to spend more time with Clare than his wife. During their marriage, both Shelley’s previous wife and Mary’s half-sister committed suicide, and Mary lost three of their children, one of which appears to have been due to Shelley’s incompetent and uncaring attitude. I was also struck by just how many affairs Shelley seems to have had during their relationship, and how public he was about them! Writing poetry about other women and then getting your wife to edit these poems seems to me to be in the poorest of taste, and surely must have hurt Mary very deeply; especially as some of these dalliances occured when she was grieving over her lost children. I had never been a fan of Shelley from what I had previously read about his treatment of Mary, and the patronising way in which he consistently tried to adapt and change Frankenstein – I am even less of a fan having read this biography, and I think anyone reading it would feel much the same.

In terms of style, this biography was written in the present tense, which I found a really interesting choice. It makes the whole thing feel more real, more relevant, and I enjoyed reading a biography written in this manner. It also discusses many of Mary’s lesser-known written works, some of which I have read and some of which I haven’t and will be adding to my TBR list. My one criticism of this biography is that, while the present tense style is good, it often makes the writing seem too fast paced. There are many points where it seems like Sampson is just spilling her thoughts onto the page, rather than carefully planning and linking them as you would expect. The fast pace also sometimes makes it difficult to keep up with what is happening, and I think I would have preferred it had this biography been less fast-paced and instead been longer.

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The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “Imprisoned by her husband, King Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of England, refuses to let him bully her into submission, even as he forces her away from her children and her birthright.

Freed only by Henry’s death, Eleanor becomes dowager Queen of England. But the competition for land and power that Henry stirred up among his sons has intensified to a dangerous rivalry.

Eleanor will need every ounce of courage and fortitude as she crosses the Alps in winter to bring Richard his bride and as she travels medieval Europe to ransom her beloved son. But even her indomitable spirit will be tested to its limits as she attempts to keep the peace between her warring sons, and find a place in the centres of power for her daughters.”

REVIEW: ‘The Autumn Throne’ is the third and final book in Elizabeth Chadwick’s trilogy following the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I have loved this whole trilogy and was so excited to read the final novel, which did not disappoint. Chadwick writes Eleanor’s story so beautifully, absorbingly and realistically that at times it feels more like a historical biography than a novel; the thoroughness of Chadwick’s research is obvious in every line, and each figure has such a depth to their personality that the reader really feels they can connect with these long-dead historical figures. Eleanor herself is an inspiration, and has been portrayed as such throughout all three novels, but even more so in this final installment. Despite her increasing fragility and descent into old age, Eleanor remains strong and firm in her resolve. She refuses to bow to Henry, declining his offer of making her a convent abbess despite the fact that this leaves her imprisoned at Sarum, kept out of the loop of court news and only rolled out to be present for important state occasions. Upon Henry’s death, Eleanor is freed by her beloved son Richard – only to be caught up in the battle for power and position taking place between him and his brother John. Richard, although devoted to his mother, is hard-headed and determined to lead a crusade that will take him away from England; leaving Eleanor in charge. Tensions continue to mount between the sly and cunning John and the bold Richard, but Eleanor continues to hold her own, despite finding such politics increasingly draining. She travels across countries to bring Richard his bride, Berenguela, and to free him from captivity. It is also heartwarming to see Eleanor reunited with many of her daughters in this novel, who had been sent away to make prestigious matches with other Royal dynasties. I enjoyed seeing Eleanor rebuild her relationship with daughters Matilda and Joanna, and loved the character of Richenza, Eleanor’s bold and intelligent granddaughter who stayed close by her grandmother until the end; their relationship reminded me a little of the close bond I had with my Nan.

Throughout the novel, Eleanor loses several of her children, and these losses are dealt with by Chadwick in a way that is both sensitive and heartfelt. I found myself feeling strongly connected to Eleanor during these scenes, and the way in which Chadwick writes makes it so easy for the reader to understand and empathise with her. I have read several works of historical fiction on Eleanor of Aquitaine, but this trilogy has to be the best I have read. Each book has been so well-researched and written with so much detail and thought; every character comes alive and the period and landscape are so well-described that you can almost imagine yourself travelling across medieval Europe. I would highly recommend these books for their accuracy and imagination, to anyone wishing to learn more about Eleanor or about medieval England.

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How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: “Tom Hazard has a dangerous secret. He may look like an ordinary 41-year-old history teacher, but he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabethan England to Jazz-Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen it all. As long as he keeps changing his identity he can stay one step ahead of his past – and stay alive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love…”

REVIEW: I picked this book up as a spur-of-the-moment purchase, and absolutely fell in love. I couldn’t put it down, and read it in just a couple of days despite the rush of returning to work after New Year. This book is perfect for history geeks like myself as we get to see some of the lifetimes that Tom has lived and the people he has met, including Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Although the book begins in the present, the chapters switch to reveal more about Tom’s background and what he has suffered throughout his almost five hundred years on earth. In the present day, Tom is a history teacher led under the guidance of the Albatross Society, who protect those with longer lives at the cost of them committing some rather unsavoury tasks every eight years. He has a dog named Abraham and a crush on the French teacher, Camille, and seems perfectly normal. However, Tom’s life began as the descendant of French aristocracy living in a small English village, where his mother was accused and killed of witchcraft due to his youthful appearance and apparent lack of ageing. When Tom finds the love of his life in Elizabethan London, she and their child also begin to be targeted due to Tom’s lack of ageing, with the superstitious Londoners of the 16th century accuse him of being a demon in disguise. Though it breaks his heart, Tom realises that he is a danger to those he loves due to his condition, and from then on resolves to live alone. And in the 19th century, when he is recruited by the Albatross Society, they agree with his conclusion, warning him not to fall in love and change identities every eight years. In the present day, however, Tom is growing increasingly wary of Hendrich, the leader of the society, who seems to be becoming more ruthless towards those who refuse to join the society and who expects Tom to either persuade or kill them on his behalf. Tom only agrees because Hendrich promises to find his long-lost daughter, Marion, who has inherited his condition; but when Hendrich wants him to kill Omai, his oldest friend, Tom is faced with an impossible choice…

This book is absolutely fantastic. There are so many twists and turns, and so many beautiful and poignant moments; I was often left with tears in my eyes. Haig manages to make every single time period that he writes about realistic and engaging – it is clear that he researched each period thoroughly. The characters, Tom in particular, are easy to connect and empathise with, and the reader finds themself warming to him almost instantly. As a dog lover, I confess I also loved the addition of the elderly dog Abraham in Tom’s present day life as his companion. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it.

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Top Ten Books of 2017

This year has gone so quickly, and I can’t believe the time has come already for me to write up my Top Ten Books of 2017! I had a hard time narrowing them down this year, as I’ve been lucky enough to read some truly incredible books. I hope you enjoy reading this post – please let me know if any of these books have also made it into your top ten!

 

10. All the Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan

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“How do I describe him now? Where do I start? How do I distill the first impression created in those few distance seconds? How do I extract his finished portrait, composed of layer upon layer of color, back into the pale, hasty pencil sketch that my eyes drew the first time they landed on him? How can I use a mere few lines to paint the whole picture with all its breadth and depth? Is it even possible to attain that sort of scrutiny, that measure of lucidity, when the hands of loss keep touching the memory, staining it with their fingerprints?”

This is a beautiful and moving love story, looking at the ups and downs of a relationship that goes against the religious, political and social beliefs of both people within it. The ending had me in tears, and I couldn’t put the book down.

Read my full review of the book here.

 

9. Wintersong by S. Jae-Jones

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“There is music in your soul. A wild and untamed sort
of music that speaks to me. It defies all the rules and laws you humans set upon it. It grows from inside you, and I have a wish to set that music free.”

This is a truly magical novel, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem Goblin Market, that really captures the fantasy, lust and danger of the piece it is inspired on.

Read my full review of the novel here.

 

8. Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

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“Reading a novel was like returning to a once-beloved holiday destination.”

This became one of the most popular novels of the year after the gripping TV adaptation aired over the summer, starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley. The book, however, is even more full of twists and turns, capturing the reader with every page.

Read my full review of the book here.

 

7. The Loving Spirit by Daphne Du Maurier

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“The child destined to be a writer is vulnerable to every wind that blows. Now warm, now chill, next joyous, then despairing, the essence of his nature is to escape the atmosphere about him, no matter how stable, even loving. No ties, no binding chains, save those he forges for himself. Or so he thinks. But escape can be delusion, and what he is running from is not the enclosing world and its inhabitants, but his own inadequate self that fears to meet the demands which life makes upon it. Therefore create. Act God. Fashion men and women as Prometheus fashioned them from clay, and, by doing this, work out the unconscious strife within and be reconciled. While in others, imbued with a desire to mold, to instruct, to spread a message that will inspire the reader and so change his world, though the motive may be humane and even noble–many great works have done just this–the source is the same dissatisfaction, a yearning to escape.”

Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors of all time, and I’ve spent much of this year collecting these beautiful editions of her books and trying to make my way through as many of them as possible. ‘The Loving Spirit’ is a brilliant novel, working its way through generations of the same family and showing how something as pure as a desire for adventure can be passed on over decades.

Read my full review of the novel here.

 

6. Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon

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“The real problem, said Mary, was not women, but how men wanted women to be.”

This is a fantastic joint biography of Mary Wollstonecraft and her daughter, Mary Shelley, looking at the parallels between their lives. Both women were geniuses of their time, Wollstonecraft as a philosopher and feminist and Shelley as the revolutionary writer of one of my favourite books, ‘Frankenstein’. This book is a thorough and fascinating explanation of these two extraordinary women, and well worth reading.

Read my full review of this biography here.

 

5. Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

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“Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.” – Jane Austen

This brilliant new biography of Jane Austen explores the life of the famous author through the places that she called home. Austen had many homes throughout her life, and each allows us to focus on a particular aspect or period of her life. This is the best biography of Austen I have read so far, and with her love of the home, I feel it is one she would approve of.

Read my full review of this biography here.

 

4. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

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“What if the puzzle of the world was a shape you didn’t fit into? And the only way to survive was to mutilate yourself, carve away your corners, sand yourself down, modify yourself to fit? How come we haven’t been able to change the puzzle instead?”

Picoult is another of my favourite authors, and this book is truly incredible. It deals with the stigma still attached to black people in the South of America today, and is truly shocking. It makes you think very deeply about your own views, and in true Picoult style presents a strong conflict between right and wrong.

Read my full review of the book here.

 

3. Milk and Honey/The Sun and her Flowers by Rupi Kaur

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“neither of us is happy/but neither of us wants to leave/so we keep breaking one another/and calling it love” – milk and honey

“i do not weep/because i’m unhappy/i weep because i have everything/yet i am unhappy”  – the sun and her flowers

I couldn’t possibly choose between these two incredible books by Rupi Kaur. I read ‘milk and honey’ for the first time this year, and bought ‘the sun and her flowers’ as soon as it was published in June. Both books address questions of feminity, masculinity, abuse, relationships, break ups, mental health and friendships, and are fantastically and beautifully written.

Read my review of ‘milk and honey’ here.

 

2. Home Going by Yaa Gyasi

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“We believe the one who has power. He is the one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there you get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

This is an absolutely incredible book, and it was very hard to choose between this and the book I eventually chose for the top place. It tells the story of women and men through generations, beginning with two mothers and continuing with their descendants throughout time. The book is incredibly moving and thought-provoking; I cried more times than I can count, and put the book down feeling truly shaken and stunned.

Read my review of the book here.

 

1. The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb

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Katherine Webb has been in my Top Ten list, even previously in the top position, every year since I started this blog; 2017 was no exception. The release of her latest novel, ‘The Hiding Places’, was one I anticipated eagerly, and once I read the book I simply couldn’t put it down. It is beautifully written, with a fantastic twist, engaging characters and true talent. I absolutely loved this book, and am hoping for another Katherine Webb release in 2018!

Read my full review of this book here.

 

 

 

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Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

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RATING: 5/5

BLURB: ‘This new telling of the story of Jane’s life shows us how and why she lived as she did, examining the places and spaces that mattered to her. It wasn’t all country houses and ballrooms, but a life that was often a painful struggle. Jane famously lived ‘a life without incident’, but with new research and insights Lucy Worsley reveals a passionate woman who fought for her freedom. A woman who far from being a lonely spinster in fact had at least five marriage prospects, but who in the end refused to settle for anything less than Mr Darcy’.

REVIEW: After a month-long summer break indulging myself by re-reading Harry Potter, I’m back, and with a book that is currently one of my favourites I’ve read this year. Lucy Worsley’s new biography of Jane Austen is one of the best biographies I’ve read in a long time, showing us a completely new side to a woman who is generally believed to have written incredible novels, but otherwise been rather dull. Worsley focuses on the places that Jane called home throughout her lifetime, and how these places inspired her novels, hindered or encouraged her writing, and to what extent they can be perceived as a true home. Despite being a big Austen fan, I had not previously realised just how many times Jane and her family moved around, often dependent on the charity of relatives – particularly her many brothers. After the death of her father, Jane, her beloved sister Cassandra and her mother moved from place to place, two spinsters and a widow with little money to call their own, until they finally settled at Chawton, one of the places most associated with Jane Austen. Between her childhood home at Steventon and her final home at Chawton, Jane moved between a great number of cities including Southampton and, most popularly, Bath. However, as Worsley explains, things could have been very different for Jane had she chosen to marry. Modern readers of Austen’s novels tend to picture her as somewhat frustrated, able to write such beautifully romantic plots into her novels because she longed for such a life herself. Although suitors of Jane’s such as Tom Lefroy and Harris Bigg-Wither are relatively well known, Worsley reveals the real story behind these two relationships, as well as revealing a further three prospective suitors for Jane’s hand in marriage. Had Jane accepted one of these offers, her life would surely have been more comfortable, and she may well have been able to provide for her sister and mother also. Yet, Jane did not settle for any of these suitors – it seems that, perhaps, she was as much in pursuit of real love as the characters in her novels were. This biography therefore shows us the real story behind many of the modern perceptions of Jane Austen, and was written in such a beautiful narrative style that it felt like a novel, making it incredibly easy to read for a work of non-fiction. The book has clearly been thoroughly researched and, despite of course knowing how Jane’s tale would end, was so well-written that I found myself very emotional at the end of the book when Jane’s story came to a close. By introducing us to this hidden side of Jane, witty, fun, sarcastic and full of imagination, Worsley allows us to feel close to Jane; she makes her so accessible that the reader actually feels grief when reading of Jane’s death, despite it having taken place exactly two hundred years ago. This is an incredible biography and I would highly recommend it.

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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RATING: 4.5/5

BLURB: “London 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Retreating to the countryside with her son, she encounters rumours of the ‘Essex Serpent’, a creature of folklore said to have returned  to roam the marshes. Cora is enthralled, believing it may be an undiscovered species. Setting out on its trail, she collides with local minister William Ransome, who thinks the cure for hysteria lies in faith, while Cora is convinced that science offers the answers. Despite disagreeing on everything, he and Cora find themselves drawn together, changing each other’s lives in unexpected ways…”

REVIEW: I was lent this book by a friend, and after hearing and reading nothing but rave reviews – as well as loving a bit of historical fiction – I was really looking forward to reading it. Although it seems a little slow to get into at first, I was soon gripped, and was disappointed that I didn’t have as much free time as I would have liked to be able to whiz through it! ‘The Essex Serpent’ tells the story of Cora Seabourne, but also a number of smaller characters who are equally fascinating – her friend the surgeon, Luke, her Socialist maid Martha, William’s wife Stella, the schoolgirl Naomi Banks, and Cora’s son, Francis. All of the characters combine to add a real depth to the story, and the reader grows to care about all of them and is eager to find out how their stories will end.

When Cora is told about the Essex Serpent after the death of her husband, she travels to the tiny village of Aldwinter and meets the vicar William Ransome, his wife Stella, and their three children, including their intelligent and curious daughter Joanna. Despite their differing ideals a strange connection blossoms between Cora and William, much to the disappointment of Luke, who has long been in love with Cora. As events within Aldwinter, particularly near the Blackwater, begin to darken, it seems more and more likely that the presence of the Essex Serpent may actually be a reality. The book continues to twist and turn right up until its end, and hooks the reader not just with the plotline of the serpent itself, but also with all of the threads leading off from this book. Perry’s writing is wonderfully descriptive, making the reader feel as though they are really there, and has a fast-paced, gripping style that nicely builds up the suspense that is so crucial to the novel. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it, particularly for the relationship between William and Cora, which develops and progresses realistically and is more believable than many of the romances that develop in the majority of historical fiction novels.

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Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession by Alison Weir

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RATING: 3/5

BLURB: “Fresh from the palaces of Burgundy and France, Anne draws attention at the English court, embracing the play of courtly love. But when the King commands, nothing is ever a game. Anne has a spirit worthy of a crown – and the crown is what she seeks. At any price”

REVIEW: I am a huge fan of Alison Weir, and have been to see her give lectures on several occasions; I even have a signed copy of my favourite one of her books, ‘The Lady in the Tower’, a non-fiction book on Anne’s downfall. I have spoken to her about my research and writing ambitions, and she is genuinely a lovely woman. I am also a big Anne Boleyn fan, having written my undergraduate dissertation on how she was portrayed by Catholics and Protestants during the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I – she is also now forming a large part of my Masters dissertation on how Henry VIII manipulated the treason laws on his descent into tyranny. My interest in Anne means that I am always on the lookout for new books about her, so I was very excited to read this book, the second in Weir’s collection of historical fiction novels from the perspective of Henry VIII’s six wives.

The book was incredibly well-written, as Weir’s always are. It was engaging and considering it amounts to over 500 pages, I read it quickly as I found it difficult to put down. I found Weir’s portrayal of Anne particularly compelling, as it very much fit with my own perspective on what Anne was like as a woman, and what her motivations were for marrying Henry. Weir has Anne marry him not for love, but for her own ambition, although her love for Henry begins to grow throughout their courtship, leading her to eventually become jealous of his relationships with other women and thereby slowly turning him against her. This is very much how I have always seen their relationship, so it was refreshing to read of a historical ficiton point of view that still paints Anne as a good person, motivated by her religious and radical beliefs just as much by ambition, and keen to do good despite lacking popular support; usually, if Anne is portrayed as ambitious, she is often also depicted cruelly. The scenes regarding Anne’s downfall, particularly the final few pages that deal with her execution, are extremely beautifully written and very emotional, allowing the reader to experience the horrific moment of the execution through Anne’s eyes. The sheer amount of historical research was evident, and where many historians tend to skim over writing about politics, for fear of losing the interest of the reader, Weir makes sure the reader is always aware of the political, religious and international context in which the events are taking place. She also uses phrases in the dialogue that have clearly been lifted and adapted from primary texts of the period, which adds an aspect of authenticity.

I loved the book for all of these reasons. I did, however, have two main issues with the novel that has caused me to give it a lower rating. Tbe more minor one of these was the idea of Anne’s secret love for Henry Norris, and even this alone would not have caused me to enjoy the book any less – I just don’t believe that this was a factor in Anne’s time as Queen or, indeed, in her downfall. But Weir explains her choice to write this in the author’s note, and I understand her use of the evidence for artistic licence and can see how, in light of writing the novel, she has shaped the evidence to fit this conclusion; it did add to the novel, and therefore I enjoyed it. My main problem was the way in which Weir chose to portray George Boleyn.

George Boleyn is one of my particular areas of interest and speciality. I am in the very slow process of writing a book on him myself; he also forms a large part of my Masters dissertation, which I am currently writing, and has been a fascination of mine for several years. I have looked at him in depth and, although I acknowledge that he had many flaws, namely his pride and ambition, I admit that as a historical figure I am attracted to him, and wish that he was more widely known. A poem by a Spanish author once accused George of being a rapist. This is a theme that Weir has chosen to use and run with, and she has George confess to Anne that he has ‘forced widows and deflowered maidens’,  a line taken directly from this poem. Yet, in her non-fiction work, Weir cites a poem by the same Spanish author, which accused Anne of being guilty in her adultery and acting as a whore with many men, and states that it is an unreliable piece of evidence. The poetry was written from a point of view which would have been extremely hostile to Anne and the Boleyn family as a whole, coming from both a Catholic perspective and one which would have supported Katherine of Aragon and the Princess Mary, seeing Anne and her daughter as nothing more than a concubine and a bastard. I have always agreed with this assessment of the poem being unreliable, and do not understand how Weir could say this herself and then use a poem by the same author as evidence for writing George as a rapist. The evidence is flimsy at best, and although I appreciate that he has been dead for several hundred years, I feel this is a strong and unfair accusation to make, and as one that has also been mistakenly portrayed in the TV drama ‘The Tudors’, may end up being all that people who focus only on popular fiction end up believing, thereby damaging George’s reputation completely. Weir also has George involved in the poisoning of Bishop Fisher, a rumour which was spread about at the time and one which, with the use of artistic licence, I can understand her using although I may not agree. What I cannot support, however, is her writing that George also poisoned Katherine of Aragon, when it is known full well that she died from cancer. Although I acknowledge the fact that I am protective of George and the way he is portrayed, and therefore am biased, I do believe it is wrong to write of someone as a rapist when the evidence is unreliable, even when taking artistic licence into consideration.

Overall, I would recommend the book very highly to fans of Anne, as I enjoyed the way she was written.