Reading progress update: I’ve read 203 out of 332 pages.

Two thirds of the way through, and even if I had had any doubt whether the guy on the cover of my edition is supposed to be Charles Moray (which I didn’t), I now have confirmation straight from the mouth of the babe (our Teenage Ingenue, aka TSTL heiress-in-peril) — except that whoever created this cover didn’t get the memo about the grey eyes:

“Charles is an explorer, but he isn’t exploring just now.  He is the handsomest.  He has grey eyes and a most frightfully romatic frown […] Charles has a lot of black eyelashes and frightfully black eyebrows.  They go all twisty when he is cross.  I shouldn’t like them to go all twisty at me.”

“I think Charles must have a most awful temper really, because he glared in the most frightful way you ever saw.  I’ve never seen anyone glare like it before, except on the films when they’re just going to murder somebody, or the girl has been carried away by Bad Pete or someone like that.  Of course Sheikhs glare nearly the whole time.  I think Charles is awfully like a Sheikh really.”

Well, idiot child, it would be hard NOT to glare at you with eyebrows all in a twist when you’ve just given the whole show away, and I strongly suspect to the one person you should have been kept away from from the start!  Except that Charles is starting to behave almost as idiotically as you, and about Margaret, no less.  Oh well.  Here’s hoping their inevitable reconciliation won’t at least be a total rush, but I have a feeling this isn’t the sort of book that allows for the gradual resolution that in real life would be the only way for them to recover a solid joint footing to build on for the future.

That being said, we’ve now also had the mandatory desks with secret drawers containing mysterious paper clues in the form of signatures and empty envelopes with meaning-laden inscriptions (two matching such mysterious desks, no less, embossed with almost identical initials); there are hints that the story’s two damsels-more-or-less-in-distress (Margaret and Margot, who really is called Margaret as well and has been cover-named Greta) just might be half-sisters; and Archie — like Lord Peter Wimsey in “Murder Must Advertise” — is working in a publishing firm (though in Wimsey’s case that was based on Dorothy L. Sayers’s own experience … still, it’s another coincidence).  Oh, and Miss Silver has pulled a Sherlock in referring to “Grey Mask” as someone who she’s come across again and again in recent years, not in person but as a secret intelligence pulling the strings behind the scenes of various daring criminal enterprises.  Moriarty, much?

Miss Silver is now clearly also exhibiting her ex-governess side, treating a silly recalcitrant client (read: Charles) essentially like she would have the ten-year-olds she used to tutor.  This may very well come across as condescending (especially since there has been no mention of this aspect of her past just yet … unless I’ve missed it, which I wouldn’t rule out at all of course); except I’m with her all the way on this one — Charles is behaving like an idiot, and he’d better get over it soon or he’ll lose my sympathy.  Especially since I very much suspect he now has all the knowledge he needs about Grey Mask’s true identity, and his first priority should be on unmasking that person (and on protecting our hapless teenage ingenue … even a brainless little minion like her doesn’t deserve to be murdered, after all)!


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The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Task the First: The Winter Wonderland; and Task the Seventh: The Christmas

Dylan Thomas Reads a Child's Christmas in Wales and Five Poems/Cd - Dylan Thomas The Nightingale Before Christmas (Meg Langslow Mysteries) - Donna Andrews

Task the First:
– Read a book that is set in a snowy place.

Dylan Thomas: A Child’s Christmas in Wales

 Thomas’s lyrical memoirs of his childhood Christmas experience, read by himself … truly magical.  One of the books (or CDs) that I revisit every single holiday season.


Task the Seventh:
– Read a book set during the Christmas holiday season.

 Donna Andrews: The Nightingale Before Christmas

 The year before last’s entry in Donna Andrews’s Meg Lanslow series: An uninhabited  Caerphilly house has been turned into a show house for the local interior designers’ pre-Christmas competition, which Meg has agreed to organize (her own mother being one of the contestants, and Meg’s involvement as an organizer having been the price for their own house not to be used as the scene of competition) — as a result of which Meg is having to constantly mediate between the contestants, who keep going at each others’ throats hammer and tongs and are, as a whole, more unruly than a bag of wriggling kittens.  It doesn’t particularly help, either, that there’s a student hanging around the place doing research for an article on the competition that she’s writing for the local university newspaper, that moreover, packages containing the contestants’ orders of items needed in their decorative arrangements keep disappearing, and that at last someone even takes to vandalizing the house and some of the half-arranged rooms, with merely a few days to go to Christmas (and to the advent of the judges).  When the most unpopular of the contestants — whom the others also hold responsible for the disappearance of their packages and for the vandalization of their rooms — is found murdered, there doesn’t seem a shortage of suspects … except that every single one of the other designers seems to have a credible alibi.

 A more than solid, tremendously enjoyable entry in the series … having read Duck the Halls just before Christmas last year, I’m seriously tempted to hunt down all of Andrews’s holiday books and read them, one at a time, before Christmas each year!  She truly has a knack for combining a hilarious storyline with fully-rounded characters (howevver unusual), a homely and comfortably-feeling small-town setting and a lot of warmth, humor, and common sense.  Highly recommended!


 Task the Seventh:
– Grab your camera and set up a Christmas bookstagram-style scene with favorite holiday reads, objects or decorations. Possibly also a cat. Post it for everyone to enjoy!

Well, the cat preferred to watch the setup from atop the half-empty box of Christmas decorations instead of being part of the picture, but anyway … here we go!  (And yes, that’s a real candle again. 🙂 )


Snow Globes: Reads
Bells: Activities


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The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Task the Tenth: The Holiday Down Under

Miss Phryne Fisher Investigates - Kerry Greenwood   

– Read a book set in Australia or by an Australian author,  or read a book you would consider a “beach read”.

Well, I can see how a screen version of this might work rather nicely, but alas, as written, it wasn’t really for me.  I liked Bert and Cec, and Dr. MacMillan, and Dot (once transformed, though her transformation was perhaps a bit of a rapid one) … but I couldn’t much bring myself to care for either Phryne herself, or the narrative voice, or the story as such.  And I’m afraid the author already lost me right at the beginning, where there is an IMHO not-very-successfully-executed attempt at an Agatha Christie / Arthur Conan Doyle supersleuth-style “instant solution” of a crime committed in Phryne’s presence (which then, even more implausibly, serves as instant motivation for one of those present at the scene, who doesn’t until then have seemed to know much about Phryne, to entrust her with the both expensive and rather delicate task of travelling all the way to Australia to look after his daughter’s wellbeing).  Moreover, both the author and Phryne seemed to share a sneering tone, talking down to the reader and half the other characters alike, which I found rather grating, particularly in a book billed as a “cozy” mystery.  Fundamentally, though, what I found fairly preposterous was the notion that a young woman, who hasn’t been to Australia since her childhood days (when she moved in quite different circles from those in which she is moving upon her return, and who therefore can’t possibly know or anticipate all the pitfalls of her commission), merely needs to show up in Melbourne and, in the space of only a couple of days, manages to solve not one but several crimes that have had the Melbourne police all up in arms for months … and all this by pushing buttons that, in the case of both of the chief criminals, should have stared any halfway competent policeman and / or the criminals’ own associates in the face within about the same amount of time it ended up taking Phryne to discover them.  (But then, Phryne has virtually no faults at all to begin with — she is Superwoman incarnate, which is one of my major pet peeves anyway.)  Add to all that the super-clumsy drop of a clue as to the final reveal fairly early on in the story — the sort of clue that, if used by Christie or Conan Doyle at all, is bound to be a means of the most skillful misdirection, not the dead giveaway it is here — and I was seriously underwhelmend all the way through.

Still, as I said, there were characters I enjoyed, and the writing, narrative voice and major plot implausibilities aside, flowed nicely — and judging by the popularity of  both the book and the TV series, I decidedly seem to be in the minority here as far as my overall opinion is concerned …


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The Twelve Tasks of the Festive Season — Task the Eleventh: The Polar Express

Murder on the Orient Express: Complete & Unabridged (Audiocd) - Agatha Christie 

– Read a book that involves train travel (such as Murder on the Orient Express).

 Well, as it happened I did pick Murder on the Orient Express for this square.  Not that I’m not intimately familiar with the story as such already — it was actually one of the first books by Agatha Christie that I ever read, not to mention watching (and owning) the screen adaptation starring Albert Finney and half of classic Hollywood’s A list.  But I’d never listened to the audio version read by David Suchet, and I am very glad to finally have remedied that now.  Not only is Suchet the obvious choice to read any of Christie’s Poirot novels because his name has practically become synonymous with that of the little Belgian himself — great character actor that he is, he was obviously also having the time of his life with all of the story’s other roles, including those of the women; and particularly so, Mrs. Hubbard, whose interpretation by Suchet also gives the listener more than a minor glance at the fun that recent London audiences must have been having watching him appear as Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest (drag and all).

 A superb reading of one of Agatha Christie’s very best mysteries and one of my all-time favorite books.  Bravo, Mr. Suchet!



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Murder and Misdirection

“Fui bailar no meu batel além do mar cruel,” sings fadista Dulce Pontes in this movie’s dramatic title song Canção do Mar: “I went dancing in my little boat, beyond the cruel sea.” And it must be just like a nutshell-sized boat dancing on a stormy ocean’s waves that nineteen-year-old Aaron Stampler (Edward Norton) feels after his arrest for the savage murder of Chicago’s saintly Archbishop Rushman. Or does it?

Certainly it doesn’t help that Aaron was caught running from the crime scene, covered in blood, and with the archbishop’s ring in his pocket. Besides, who is going to believe him anyway – a stuttering, uneducated boy from rural Kentucky who was found begging by the powerful clergyman, taken in as an altar boy and made to sing in his choir – that he was present when the murder was committed but can’t remember a single thing because he blacked out? Nobody; surely not the police and ADA Janet Venable (Laura Linney), assigned by D.A. / Rushman friend Shaughnessy (John Mahoney) personally to try the case, with the express mandate to obtain a death penalty conviction. Nobody, that is, except Aaron’s defense attorney Martin Vail (Richard Gere). Vail, of all people: the flamboyant ADA-turned-private-practitioner, the star attorney not shying away from even the shadiest client, to whom TV and magazine cover interviews are as second nature as his courtroom appearances, and who cynically quotes as his mottos a professor’s maxims on his first day in law school: “From this day forward, if your mother says she loves you, get a second opinion.” And: “If you want justice, go to a whorehouse. If you want to get fucked, go to court.”

Primal Fear was adapted from William Diehl‘s like-named bestselling novel and, like in many literary adaptations, its screenplay is a hit-and-miss affair. Not successful, in my view, are those alterations that unnecessarily make Vail an even more ethically questionable lawyer as already conceived by Diehl; such as the way he becomes Stampler’s attorney in the first place (which in the movie amounts to blatant client solicitation, not to mention that no sane lawyer would introduce himself to a potential client with the words “I’m what you call a ‘big shot’ attorney”), and the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a tape revealing the archbishop’s not-so-nice private side, which in the novel isn’t found by Vail but by his investigator Tommy Goodman (Andre Braugher): of course that doesn’t eliminate Vail’s ultimate ethical responsibility, but contrarily to the movie, at least he doesn’t “borrow” the tape from the crime scene himself, and he doesn’t know in advance what Tommy is up to. Further, in the book the tape is not shown in open court and immediately introduced into evidence but viewed in the presence of only the judge and the attorneys, which given its contents seems more realistic; even if it were later introduced into evidence after all. On the other hand, particularly regarding the main characters the movie’s alterations work well: Unethical or not, Richard Gere’s Martin Vail is even more interesting than the character devised by Diehl; moreover, an unnecessarily clichéd, ultraconservative judge nicknamed “Hangin'” Harry Shoat becomes an – although still tough – overall more multidimensional and human Judge Miriam Shoat (Alfre Woodard).  Similarly, Vail’s mafia-affiliated client Joey Pinero (Steven Bauer) gains considerably in stature; and although it actually reinforces cliché to shift the love/sex relationship from the book’s present one between Vail and psychiatrist Dr. Arrington (Frances McDormand) to the screenplay’s past one between Vail and Venable (which the ADA now derogatorily calls “a one-night-stand [that] lasted six months”), thanks to Gere’s and Linney’s considerable on-screen chemistry their characters’ personal relationship adds sparks and tension to their professional rivalry that also lend greater credibility to the final courtroom scene’s powder-keg explosion.

Outstanding as all of its actors are, however, Primal Fear rises and falls with the performance of Edward Norton, and it is his breathtaking achievement that validates the movie more than anything. Then-newcomer Norton not only had to portray a boy almost a decade younger than himself (which he manages flawlessly) but also an incredibly complex character, sometimes shifting behavioral patterns, accents and manners of speech from one sentence to the next; and he delivers supremely, deservedly garnering an Oscar nomination (which in a year of extremely tight competition he lost to Cuba Gooding Jr. for Jerry Maguire), as well as a Golden Globe and several other awards; together with his roles in People vs. Larry Flynt and Woody Allen’s Everybody Says I Love You playing himself into audience awareness once and for all.

Although Primal Fear is often cited for its final plot twist, anybody who has seen more than that occasional thriller can see its end coming somewhere halfway through the narrative; and I think that’s true for both book and film, although I admit I hadn’t read the novel when I first saw the movie. Moreover, the final twist depends on a feat on the part of Norton’s character that lawyers and psychiatrists alike will find hard to take at face value. Thus, at first viewing this movie’s end may appear a bit of a let-down. But trust me: The story grows on you the more often you watch it, and in my view it actually helps to know the end, because not only does this enable you to see the many nuances you will necessarily miss the first time around; it also frees you to think about the moral issues addressed – the most glaring ones of which, with the sexual abuse scandal that the Catholic Church in over 30 years still hasn’t seemed to be able to shake off, have long since reached real life public awareness worldwide. For those reasons, and for the entire cast’s – first and foremost Edward Norton’s – fine performances, this has long become one of my favorite courtroom thrillers.


“[I believe that] things are not always as they appear, that sometimes facts can be manipulated the way a magician manipulates an audience. He distracts you with this hand, while the other hand does the tricks. It’s called misdirection.”
Primal Fear, preface: from Martin Vail’s summation in a case entitled The State vs. Nicholas Luma.


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Paramount (1996)
  • Director: Gregory Hoblit
  • Executive Producer: Howard W. Koch Jr.
  • Producer: Gary Lucchesi
  • Screenplay: Steve Shagan / Ann Biderman
  • Based on a novel by: William Diehl
  • Music: James Newton Howard
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Michael Chapman
  • Edward Norton: Aaron Stampler
  • Richard Gere: Martin Vail
  • Laura Linney: Janet Venable
  • Frances McDormand: Dr. Molly Arrington
  • Andre Braugher: Tommy Goodman
  • John Mahoney: John Shaughnessy
  • Alfre Woodard: Judge Miriam Shoat
  • Stanley Anderson: Archbishop Rushman
  • Steven Bauer: Joey Pinero
  • Reg Rogers: Jack Connerman
  • Terry O’Quinn: Bud Yancy
  • Joe Spano: Captain Abel Stenner
  • Tony Plana: Martinez
  • Maura Tierney: Naomi Chance
  • Jon Seda: Alex
  • Kenneth Tigar: Weil


Major Awards and Honors

Golden Globes (1997)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Edward Norton
National society of Film Critics Awards (1996)
  • Best Supporting Actor, 3d Place: Edward Norton
    Also for “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996) and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996).
Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards (1996)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Edward Norton
    Also for “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996) and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996).
Boston Society of Film Critics Awards (1996)
  • Best Supporting Actor: Edward Norton
    Also for “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996) and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996).
Chicago Film Critics Association Awards (1997)
  • Most Promising Actor: Edward Norton
    Also for “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996) and “The People vs. Larry Flynt” (1996).
ASCAP Awards (1997)
  • Top Box Office Films: James Newton Howard



Agatha Christie: The Thirteen Problems

The Thirteen Problems - Agatha ChristieThe Tuesday Club Puzzles

“Miss Marple insinuated herself so quickly into my life that I hardly noticed her arrival,” Agatha Christie wrote in her posthumously-published autobiography (1977) about the elderly lady who, next to Belgian super-sleuth Hercule Poirot, quickly became one of her most beloved characters. Somewhat resembling Christie‘s own grandmother and her friends, although “far more fussy and spinsterish” and “not in any way a picture” of the author’s granny, like her, she had a certain gift for prophecy and, “though a cheerful person, she always expected the worst of everyone and everything, and was, with almost frightening accuracy, usually proved right.”

Although Christie herself considered Miss Marple her favorite creation – preferred even over the prim and proper Belgian with the many “little grey cells,” of whose exploits she occasionally tired and whom she brought back again and again chiefly because of her audience’s undying demand – there are only twelve Miss Marple novels and twenty short stories: while no small feat in any other author’s body of work, just over one tenth of the lifetime output of the writer justifiedly dubbed The Queen of Crime.

This compilation unites the twenty short stories revolving around St. Mary Mead’s elderly village sleuth, beginning with the canon of originally six and, after an expansion for republication in book form, later thirteen stories which, in addition to the novel A Murder at the Vicarage (1930) introduced Miss Marple to the world; a series of unsolved problems told by her guests one Tuesday night, to be followed by six further problems narrated during a similar gathering at the home of village squire Colonel Bantry and his wife Dolly, about a year later.

In attendance on those two nights are a number of people who make recurring appearances next to Miss Marple; first and foremost her doting nephew – thriller novelist Raymond West – and retired Scotland Yard Commissioner Sir Henry Clithering, as well as village solicitor Petherick, and of course the Bantrys (who will move center stage, much to their embarrassment, in A Body in the Library, 1942); furthermore Raymond’s new flame, artist Joyce (later reincarnated as his wife Joan), a doctor, a clergyman, and a well-known actress. Of course, all the stories also feature Christie’s usual cast of other unique characters, many of whom could just as well figure in one of Miss Marple’s “village parallels,” those seemingly unimportant events summing up her knowledge of life, on which she unfailingly draws in unmasking even the cleverest killer.

Avid Christie readers will doubtlessly, moreover, recognize individual character types, plot snippets, settings and other features here and there; for Dame Agatha was known to draw repeatedly on devices she found to have worked before, and she tended to use her short stories as mini-laboratories for elements later expanded on in novels. Caveat, lector, of premature conclusions, however, for Christie was equally known to throw in a little extra twist in such cases: what is a real clue in one instance may well be a red herring in another and vice versa, and one story’s innocent bystander may easily be the next story’s murderer.

The following are the thirteen problems recounted in this collection:

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Tuesday Night Club: Sir Henry Clithering opens the evening with the case of a woman’s mysterious poisoning by arsenic.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Idol House of Astarte: A man inexplicably dies after a costume party’s nightly excursion to a pagan temple.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon Ingots of Gold: Raymond West tells about a treasure hunt, sunken ships and murder on the Cornish coast.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Bloodstained Pavement: Joyce and the case of a drowned wife in a Cornish watering place called Rathole.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon Motive vs. Opportunity: Mr. Petherick’s tale of a will that mysteriously vanishes from its sealed envelope.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Thumb Mark of St. Peter: Miss Marple’s story how she quashed rumors about the sudden death of her niece Mabel’s husband.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Blue Geranium: Opening the second round of mysteries, Colonel Bantry’s narration about a prophecy involving death and three uncharacteristically blue flowers.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Companion: Two English ladies go on a holiday in Tenerife, but only one returns home alive.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Four Suspects: Sir Henry Clithering’s account of the murder of a retired secret agent.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon A Christmas Tragedy: Having failed to prevent a murder, Miss Marple is all the more eager to unmask the murderer.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Herb of Death: Mrs. Bantry’s gifts as a storyteller, a serving of sage and foxglove, and a charming young girl’s unexpected death.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon The Affair at the Bungalow: Double-dealings, charades and mischief on stage and off, just outside of London.

Quill-Inkpot Review Icon Death by Drowning: A village girl “in trouble” finds a desperate solution – or does she?

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The countdown has started! — Pencils and What-Not [REBLOG]

Just six days to go till publication day!Here’s a Goodreads review:Excerpt: The Sugar Planter’s Daughter by Sharon Maas is a deep and heartrending story of love and loss; betrayal and forgiveness; secrets and lies. I felt deeply involved in Winnie’s and George’s lives; the lives of George’s family and their encompassment of Winnie into their hearts. But…

via The countdown has started! — Pencils and What-Not




Samantha Wilcoxson: Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen / Faithful Traitor

                       Plantagenet Princess Tudor Queen - Samantha Wilcoxson   Faithful Traitor - Samantha Wilcoxson

 Of Loyalty, Roses and Broom Shrubs, or: A Surfeit of Royal Blood

And here I prophesy: this brawl to-day,
Grown to this faction in the Temple-garden,
Shall send between the red rose and the white
A thousand souls to death and deadly night.
William Shakespeare: King Henry VI, Part 1

It’s a resilient shrub, planta genista (the broom shrub) – does best on dry and poor soils and when left to its own devices, and spreads like wildfire unless its roots are literally swamped.  It is a common sight in the Anjou region of France, which may have been why 12th century nobleman Geoffroy d’Anjou, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy, husband to the Empress Maud and father of King Henry II of England, took to wearing a sprig in his hat.  From that habit grew his epithet, and from his epithet a name; that of the House of Plantagenet, which before long was firmly implanted not only on the English throne but had also spread like wildfire among the ranks of the English nobility.

The royal Plantagenet arms

The Plantagenets ruled England for some 300 years, but from the beginning they were not a peaceful dynasty: Henry II quarrelled bitterly (and perhaps prophetically, over the respective powers of Church and State) with the charismatic Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, whose murder he may or may not have ordered; and he quarrelled even more violently with his wife, the strong-willed Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his sons, (Young) Henry, Geoffrey, and Richard, later known as “the Lionheart.”  Richard, in turn, would see his brother John trying to take his kingdom away from him while he was in captivity in Germany; nevertheless he very generously forgave John, however, and, having no legitimate heirs of his own, named him heir to his throne upon his death.  (This was, of course, the John they nicknamed “Lackland” (Johan sanz terre) after he had lost Normandy to the king of France; the King John of Magna Carta fame (or infamy) and of Robin Hood lore.)  And just as the Plantagenets’ very ascendancy to power had already been brought on by a dynastic struggle – the so-called Anarchy, the (first) English Civil War between Stephen of Blois and Henry II’s mother, the Empress Maud, ensuing when Maud’s father Henry I of England (the last Norman king) died without leaving a son and Stephen challenged Maud’s right to the throne – so, too, the dynasty’s rule went down in the violent convulsions known as the Wars of the Roses; spurred on by a lethal mix of ambition, power grabs, greed, envy, injustice (both perceived and real), vengeance, cruelty, suffering, incompetence, and, quite simply, a vast surfeit of royal blood.  And it didn’t exactly help that the largest amounts of royal blood were not necessarily always accumulated in the veins of those who were actually occupying the throne.

Without going into a rerun of the details of the Wars of the Roses, in order to understand just how it had all gone wrong and into just what sort of royal mess (pun intended) Elizabeth of York and Margaret Pole – the heroines of Samantha Wilcoxson’s wonderful biographical novels Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen and Faithful Traitor – were born, it’s useful to contemplate for a moment the actual line(s) of succession from Henry II all the way down to Henry VII; though in truth, merely looking at the lower half of the family tree already tells a good part of the story:  Ultimately, what would turn out to be one of the major ringers of the Plantagenets’ dynastic death knell was the intermarriage of persons from the dynasty’s various lines and the resulting accumulations of royal blood and, hence, competing claims to the right to rule.

(To see a larger version of this image, click on this link
– you may actually want to keep the diagram open in a separate tab while reading on.)

For the first two centuries of Plantagenet rule, things went more or less the way they were supposed to: With the minor nastiness of Henry II’s youngest son John trying to snatch the crown from his older brother Richard while Richard was in captivity in Germany, and actually inheriting the crown from Richard legitimately later on for his troubles (see above), succession passed from father to son all the way down to Edward III, who ruled England for the better part of the 14th century. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of fun and games (of the lethal sort) during those first 200 years of Plantagenets on the English throne – particularly so, under Edward III’s father and grandfather, the first two kings named Edward Plantagenet – but dynastically, they managed to stay the course … even if Edward II did his level best to throw a spanner in the works and eventually was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Edward III.

Upon Edward III’s death in 1377, however, the situation started to get iffy, because his first-born son, the valiant Prince of Wales (Edward, “the Black Prince”) had predeceased him by a year.  The throne could now have gone to Edward III’s third-born (and eldest then-surviving) son, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, but it didn’t: In line with the notion of primogeniture (i.e., the title always passing to the first-born son and his descendants), and following the royal succession orders (“entailments”) then in place, instead of the Black Prince his young son Richard was crowned and ruled England as an ultimately rather weak and unjust King Richard II until he, in turn, was deposed by John of Gaunt’s son Henry of Bolingbroke, whom Richard II had ordered disinherited, and who took the crown by force as Henry IV in 1399.

From this moment on, the issue of legitimacy was at least tacitly on the table for each succeeding ruler once and for all. With the death of Richard II in captivity in 1399 (or 1400, as some sources have it), the Plantagenet line of primogeniture was extinct, as Richard had no children. From here on out, whoever claimed the crown had to be able to demonstrate their proximity to Edward III, the last king of the line of primogeniture to have had children – or even better, to Henry III, who had ruled England for the best part of the 13th century, and who had been the last king not to interfere with royal succession by way of testamentary succession orders (the so-called entailments).  And simply put, in that situation, the better your pedigree – the more royal blood running in your veins – the better.  While medieval and Renaissance church law frowned on a marriage of first cousins and on marrying your deceased sibling’s widowed spouse (at least, without papal dispensation), unions between persons of more remote degrees of family affiliation were not only common but, in a time of limited mobility, frequently even unavoidable.  And thus, the deadly web of intersecting blood lines, in whose tangles the dynasty’s late 15th century representatives were ultimately caught up, was slowly and inexorably woven.

Left: King Henry III (ruled 1216-1272); right: King Edward III (ruled 1327-1377)
(funeral effigies in Westminster Abbey)

Henry IV, having been advised that he’d end up holding the short end of the stick if he tried to mess with any of the entailments that Henry III’s various successors had put in place (and possibly not knowing that one of these entailments, by Edward III, actually favored him, but had likely been destroyed by Richard II), opted to argue that kings didn’t have the right to change the order of succession by way of entailments in the first place; that strict blood succession should control in all events, and that based on this principle, he now was the legitimate heir to the throne – by virtue of his direct succession from Henry III on both sides of his parentage: through Edward III on his father’s side, and through the Earls and Dukes of Lancaster on his mother’s side. This reasoning wasn’t entirely faulty: While the exact role of the matrilineal (= female) line in the English system of primogeniture was unclear and women were at the very least barred from actually attaining regency as long as a male contender with an equal or better right to kingship existed, English common law (unlike French law) did not exclude women categorically; and Henry IV’s mother Blanche had been a great-granddaughter of Henry III’s second son, Edmund “the Crouchback”, the first Earl of Lancaster.

The confluence of royal blood through both of his parents’ lines also arguably gave Henry IV a better claim to the throne  than the Mortimer clan, descendants of Edward III’s second son Lionel of Antwerp, the first Duke of Clarence, whose claim would have had seniority over Henry IV’s own claim if only blood lines going from father to son had counted.

The reliance of Henry IV’s argument on a blanket challenge to a king’s right to issue entailments at all, however (on which blanket challenge his claim to the throne chiefly depended), was fudgy at best: By the time Henry IV had come around, a king’s right to settle his succession by way of an entailment was, at the very least, part of the established customary law; and moreover, Henry III, on the bi-parental blood descendance from whom Henry IV based his claim to the throne, had himself come into his crown because his own father, King John, had been named his brother Richard the Lionheart’s successor by way of a royal order.

Yet, for all practical purposes, Henry IV initially lucked out: The only brother of his father (John of Gaunt) still alive when Henry IV deposed Richard II – Edmund of Langley, the first Duke of York, who incidentally might have inherited the throne if Richard II’s own entailment had been enforced – had joined Henry IV’s rebellion and stayed loyal to him, instead of now claiming the throne for himself and his descendants, as he might have done.  The then-current figurehead of the Mortimer family (Edmund Mortimer, 4th Earl of March) likewise supported Henry IV, instead of claiming the throne for himself or for the progeny of his predeceased elder brother Roger.

Henry IV’s right to rule was challenged, however – and repeatedly: “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown“, Shakespeare has him conclude in one of his most famous soliloquies – on dynastic as well as other grounds by the aforementioned Edmund Mortimer’s nephew, likewise called Edmund, the 5th Earl of March (the son of the 4th earl’s elder brother Roger, whose claim to the throne definitely would have superseded that of Henry IV if the blood line going through Henry IV’s mother Blanche had to be discounted), and also by other noblemen; chiefly among these Henry Percy, the first Earl of Northumberland (who supported the Mortimers, though he himself could also claim biparental descendance from Henry III), and Northumberland’s son, Henry “the Hotspur” Percy.  The grounds cited by the rebels in addition to Henry IV’s lack of royal pedigree ranged from the fact that Henry IV had forcibly deposed the rightful heir to the throne, the last scion of the line of primogeniture (and could therefore be argued to have come into his rule by an act of high treason), to dissatisfaction with Henry IV’s rule, and real or perceived sleights against their own families and other noblemen.  None of the various rebellions were ultimately successful, but they took a considerable toll on Henry IV’s powers, both as a ruler and (probably) also personally; and they also drove home, at the beginning of the 15th century, the lesson that almost every one of the last Plantagenet occupants of the throne of England would eventually come to learn again towards the same century’s end: Depose the anointed king, and, however good your reasons to find yourself in opposition to him, by the mere act of forcibly setting aside the rightful ruler you open yourself up to the same sort of rebellion that you have staged against your royal predecessor.

Left: Johhn of Gaunt (retrospective portrait, c. 1593; probably modelled on his tomb effigy); center: King Henry IV (posthumous portrait, c. 1620); right: King Henry V (c. 1520)

Yet, despite his own ultimately troubled reign, even at Henry IV’s death, things could still have gone right: He was succeeded by an adult and able heir, Henry V, who for all practical purposes disposed of the issue of his father’s (and therefore his own) somewhat questionably-gotten crown by scoring, only two years into his reign, one of England’s most important (and given the odds, most improbable) military victories at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt; at the same time also re-establishing his family’s claim to the throne of France, which had first been voiced almost a century earlier (and I promise not to drag the Hundred Years’ War into this recap as well; suffice it to say that it, too – like so many dynastic wars – started with the issue-less death of the then-French king in 1328; and if French law had allowed for matrilineal succession – which it didn’t – the English Plantagenets actually would have had a claim to the French crown, too). – For a few brief years, thanks to his grandson’s military and poliitcal prowess, John of Gaunt’s House of Lancaster looked securely established on the throne of England.

Alas, Henry V died when he was barely 36 years old. His only son and heir, Henry VI, was a year old at his father’s death.  Henry V’s surviving brothers John and Humphrey fought for the position of regent in their infant nephew’s stead (John eventually focused on solidifying the English foothold in France, as Henry V had wanted him to, while Humphrey became Lord Protector of England), but they were both content to leave the crown itself alone.  However, having reached adulthood, Henry VI proved himself a disturbinly weak king; whether he was merely extremely sensitive and indecisive or suffered from a mental illness remains a matter of debate to this very day.  Infighting among nobles was rife and notorious at his court, and there were popular uprisings as well.  In 1454, when Henry VI was found to be unfit to rule, a Council of Regency was set up, headed by Richard, Duke of York; unlike Henry descended from Edward III not merely through the paternal, but also through the maternal line and therefore, himself a more than viable contender for the crown of England: His mother was the great-granddaughter of Edward III’s son (and John of Gaunt’s predeceased elder brother) Lionel of Antwerp (the forefather of the Mortimer clan), his father the son of Edward III’s son Edmund of Langley, the first Duke of York.

Left: King Henry VI (posthumous portrait, c. 1540); center: Margaret of Anjou (Talbot Shrewsbury Book, 1444-45, British Library, Royal 15 E vi); right: Richard, Duke of York (stained glass window, St. Laurence’s Church, Ludlow)

With the House of York‘s de facto ascendancy to power, setting aside Henry VI (in all but formal title even before he was deposed outright), and the increasing infighting of rivaling noblemen at court, the outbreak of open faction warfare was a foregone conclusion: all the more since Richard, Duke of York also  found himself in continuous antagonism with Henry VI’s wife, Margaret of Anjou, by all acounts the true power behind her husband’s throne and, incidentally, a scion of the House of Valois, to which the crown of France had gone a century and a half earlier, setting aside the claims of Edward III of England (which had, in turn, sparked the Hundred Years’ War; see above).  In the Wars of the Roses, which would come to wreck England during the thirty-year period from 1455 to 1485, it was Margaret, not her husband, who put herself at the helm of the Lancastrian efforts.  And it was Margaret’s and her son, Prince Edward’s defeat in the 1471 Battle of Tewkesbury (where Prince Edward was killed) – not Henry VI’s death in captivity in the Tower the following year – which cleared the way for York rule once and for all … or, well, at least until 1485.

Because just when the Lancastrian star looked to be falling for good, on the scene arrived one Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, descendant of an obscure Welsh family whose 15 minutes of fame had come – and, it seemed, gone – decades earlier, when the untimely-deceased Henry V’s widow, French princess Catherine of Valois, had taken the current head of that Welsh family, Owen Tudor, as her lover and probably (though no marriage certificate has ever been found) as her second husband.  Owen and Catherine had a son named Edmund, who in turn married a lady named Margaret Beaufort … you guessed it, another descendant of Edward III through John of Gaunt, who in fact was her great-grandfather.  And after the demise of Henry VI (and his son), Margaret Beaufort’s and Edmund Tudor’s son, the aforementioned Henry Tudor, was the Lancastrians’ last best hope to regain the throne.  They kept him out of the York rulers’ reach; first back home in Wales, then for the longest time across the Channel in Brittany.  They waited until he had reached manhood and until Richard, Duke of York’s first-born son, who had claimed the English crown and ruled as Edward IV from 1461-1470 and then again from the Battle of Tewkesbury onwards, had died.  They watched Edward IV’s immediate family self-destruct: his brother George, Duke of Clarence had been executed for treason five years before Edward IV’s own 1483 death; and Edward IV’s sons, Princes Edward and Richard, had mysteriously vanished in the Tower, never to be seen again.  That only left Edward IV’s youngest brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who had been made Lord Protector of England upon the death of his elder brother but proceeded to secure the crown in his own right in short order, ruling as Richard III.  And while in recent decades the Lancastrian aptitude as warriors had seemed a bit wanting, Henry Tudor managed to replicate Henry V’s feat at Agincourt, by invading with an apparently seriously outmatched army and decisively beating the current occupant of the throne which he meant to claim for himself at the 1485 Battle of Bosworth Field.  Doing away with the name Plantagenet as that of the ruling dynasty, he took the crown in his own family’s name, Tudor, as Henry VII and, as a symbol of reconciliation of the two warring factions’ rose badges, created as the new Tudor dynasty’s badge the red and white Tudor rose, which combined those of the Houses of York and Lancaster.

The badges giving the Wars of the Roses their name
– the red rose of the House of Lancaster, and the white rose of the House of York  –
and the red and white Tudor rose

Now imagine you’re a girl born into the vicious tangle of Plantagenet blood lines in those final decades of the 15th century, like Elizabeth of York (born 1466; daughter of King Edward IV) and her cousin Margaret (born 1473, the daughter of Edward IV’s brother George, Duke of Clarence):

Left: 16th century portrait of Elizabeth of York. Right: Portrait of an unknown sitter, traditionally thought to be Margaret Pole (c. 1535).

Practically from the moment of your birth (or as long as you can remember, at least), you will have seen your very own extended family – and with it, ultimately the entire country – entrenched on opposing sides of a battle for the throne of England that has  begun a decade or more before you were born.  If you are Elizabeth, you’ll have seen even less of your father than any princess would ordinarily have, because he would have been absent most of the time defending his throne. (In fact, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen, Elizabeth’s story, begins while Edward IV is in temporary exile in Burgundy, thus missing the birth of his first son and heir apparent to his throne, and it then segues to King Edward IV’s return to England in order to reclaim his throne once and for all). – If you are born after the Battle of Tewkesbury like Margaret, you may initially have believed your uncle Edward firmly installed on the English throne as King Edward IV, and you may or may not have been told in your early childhood already that your father once rebelled against his brother the king before you were born – my guess would be that you would have been judged too young to understand, but then, your childhood would have been vastly different from mine, so what do I really know –; but whatever the case, I don’t want to have to begin to imagine the shock and heartbreak of experiencing your own father being arrested and, this time, being executed for treason, for yet another conspiracy against the king, when you were barely five years old.

The price paid by Margaret’s father George for the path he had chosen will also have driven home to both of you, from a very young age onwards, that even close kinship by blood is no guarantee of either loyalty or mercy.  Even less so are a “mere” kinship by marriage and a decade or more of close allegiance and friendship, as you will have learned when being told about Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick; the man they used to call “the Kingmaker” for his instrumental role in furthering the House of York’s (your immediate family’s) claim to the throne: your grandfather Richard, Duke of York’s nephew-in-law, who nevertheless, upon falling out with Elizabeth’s father and Margaret’s uncle (Edward IV), changed his allegiance from “York” to “Lancaster,” only to be killed in battle by his (and your own) Yorkist kinsmen even before the Lancasters’ decisive defeat at Tewkesbury.

Center: King Edward IV (posthumous portrait, c. 1520, from a 1470-75 original); left: George, Duke of Clarence (posthumous portrait, 16th (?) century); right: Richard Neville, “the Kingmaker” (posthumous portrait, early 17th century).

Not even halfway through your childhood, you will thus have learned that there cannot ever be any such thing as unquestioning trust even between the closest of relatives, and that the word “cousin” (particularly when used as a form of address and not merely a term of kinship) is loaded with subtext – more likely than not, hostile in the extreme.

And the lesson will be driven home even more brutally only a few short years later through the fates of your brothers, your own generation’s contenders for the throne, who will vanish behind the walls of the Tower, never to reemerge: Elizabeth’s brothers (12 and 10 years old at the time of their 1483 imprisonment) with no news of their fate whatsoever and speculation running rife to this very day; Margaret’s brother, likewise a mere 10 years old when taken, later executed on the orders of Elizabeth’s husband, king Henry VII, after having lingered in the Tower for 14 years, for very likely trumped-up charges of an attempted jail break – more probably, for the simple reason of doing away with a contender for the crown with a better claim than Henry VII’s own and that of his progeny.

Tower of London: The round building center/left is the Bloody Tower, where Elizabeth’s brothers, today known simply as “the Princes in the Tower,” are believed to have been held. (The square building center/right is the White Tower, the Tower complex’s most prominent building, diagonally across from the Bloody Tower on the other side of Tower Green. The birthing chamber where Elizabeth of York died from the complications of her final pregnancy was on the White Tower’s right side.) (photo mine)

Bloody Tower: Exhibition on the disappearance of “the Princes in the Tower.” (photos mine)

For all that, you also know that, being of royal blood, you will be expected to marry, but that the choice of your husband will not be left to your own devices; it will be made for you on strictly dynastic grounds.  In fact, you can consider yourselves lucky if your husbands are picked for you after, and not before you have reached the age of consent (ridiculously low as that used to be in those days from a modern point of view – the accepted age for girls was 12 and for boys 14 years of age): not that even technically having reached marriageable age will mean anybody will actually be interested in whether deep down inside, you consent to the match, of course.  True, if you are Elizabeth you will be aware that your own parents’ match in fact was most likely a love match (as was that of your maternal grandparents), but both matches seriously upset the plans that others had made for the respective spouses, and you cannot have any expectation whatsoever that you, too, will be allowed to get away with choosing your own partner in life.  Quite to the contrary, you being the king’s eldest daughter, this will be a matter of the highest diplomacy. – Indeed, your own royal pedigree, like your and Margaret’s fathers’, is particularly strong (much stronger than the competing one of Henry VI and his Lancastrian line), as your paternal grandmother Cicely Neville can trace her lineage back to Edward III in her own right, through none other than John of Gaunt (plus through the Neville line, also to Edward II): thus, in your fathers, no less than four dynastic Plantagenet lines accumulate – those of their paternal grandparents, plus those of their mother.  And since Margaret’s mother is also a daughter of the Neville family (the “kingmaker”‘s elder daughter Isabel), Margaret and her younger brother Edward, heir to the title of Earl of Warwick are blessed (or perhaps, rather cursed) with yet another few extra pints of Plantagenet blood.

The Wheel of Fortune
(John Lydgate: Troy Book and Siege of Thebes,
c. 1457 with later additions;
British Library E027044 Royal 18 D. ii f. 30v)

While all of this, and in Elizabeth’s case obviously also the fact that she is the reigning king’s daughter, may make both of  you highly desirable catches for some of your peers, at the same time it also poses a lethal danger to your very lives – and those of your children – if you should ever find yourselves on the wrong side of the dynastic wars.  In Margaret’s story, Faithful Traitor, as well as in several articles published on her own blog (A Tale of Two Cousins, March 2016) and that of the English Historical Fiction Authors, (Margaret Pole’s Wild Ride on Fortune’s Wheel, May 2016), Samantha Wilcoxson references the Wheel of Fortune, the medieval symbol for life’s cataclysmic ups and downs: it’s an apt reference, and indeed one of the many merits of her novels is not only to shine a spotlight, at all, on the lives of these two undeservedly-neglected women born at the tail end of Plantagenet rule, but also to show just how much Fortune’s Wheel turned for many people in those years, and that often, no amount of skillful diplomacy would be able to prevent a catastrophic turn for the worse driven by forces entirely outside one’s own control.

Both novels are told virtually exclusively from their respective protagonists’ point of view: This in and of itself makes for an interesting perspective, as the events of the time only impinge on the narrative to the extent that they directly or indirectly also impinged on Elizabeth’s and Margaret’s lives.  While many of those events obviously did, others are left out of the narrative entirely – so are, for example, the last (and most notorious) years of Henry VII’s eventful reign, which Elizabeth didn’t live through (she died in 1503), and during which Margaret for her part, impoverished after her husband’s 1504 death, had retired to a monastery.

 Both novels are, furthermore, structured strictly chronologically, which makes the course of events easy to follow: not unimportant when telling the life stories of two women who are given so much less attention in historical literature than, say, Henry VIII’s (in)famous six wives.  This is aided by the fact that in both books, chapter headlines are simply the dates of the respective chapter’s events: So whenever, taken in by the narrative, you have initially skipped over the headline of the next chapter you are beginning and just read on, only to find that this present chapter’s events are a bit further along in time than the previous one’s, all you need to do is go back to the headline and take a look. (“Wait, err, what – where are we now? … Oh, OK. June 1491.  Well, now it’s going to get really interesting then …”)

Most of all, however, in both novels, the author’s genuine sympathy with, and empathy for her protagonists shines through, and it is this in particular that makes them a joy to read: This is an author who, having thoroughly researched these two women’s lives, actually likes and appreciates them, and wants nothing so much as to share that feeling and convey to the reader that there are ample grounds to give Elizabeth and Margaret much more consideration than they have been given up to date.  And in this, she succeeds admirably.

We pick up Elizabeth’s story in November 1470, a few months before her fifth birthday, on the day her mother gives birth to Edward, the older of Elizabeth’s two brothers; his parents’ (and all the House of York’s) hope for a continued Yorkist rule.  As the young princess puzzles over events that are going not only over her own, but actually over most of her countrymen’s heads (“She had heard that the Earl of Warwick was supporting old Henry VI as King now, but didn’t understand why.  Had he not fought with her father?  Were they not cousins?  How could there be so much confusion over who was king?”), her own birthday – still sans Papa – likewise comes and goes.  A few months later, however,  King Edward IV returns to England.  He pays a whirlwind visit to his family (in refuge at Westminster Abbey for the time being) and is off again before you’ve blinked, this time to beat the Lancastrians once and for all.  When we next see Elizabeth, she is 17, her father has died, and she and her siblings are declared bastards; thus clearing the path for the regency of her uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester (originally merely appointed Lord Protector), who has also ordered Elizabeth’s brothers Edward and Richard to be taken into custody.

Richard III (c. 1520 copy
of a lost contemporary original)

Which of course brings us to the unavoidable question that each and every novelist and historian writing about these years has to confront: Who exactly is this Richard Plantagenet, Elizabeth’s uncle, who eventually succeeds his brother to the throne and rules as Richard III?  Shakespeare’s crookbacked villain or the noble soul of modern historical fiction like Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sun in Splendour?  Was Anne Neville, whom he had married after her first husband, Henry VI’s son, had died on the battlefield, his true love, or was she coaxed into matrimony by his poisonous lies (and for strictly dynastic reasons)?  Was Anne’s rapidly declining health his own greatest misfortune or brought on by yet more poison, this time of the chemical kind, in order to free his hand for that of his niece Elizabeth (a third-degree kinship marriage, which would have required the Pope’s dispensation)?  Would Elizabeth (and her mother) have truly agreed to the match eventually, or would Richard have had to take recourse to deceit once more in order to win Elizabeth’s hand?

In a January 2016 article published on the Henry Tudor Society’s blog, Unmasking the Villain, Samantha Wilcoxson tackles the issue of Richard III’s character and legacy jointly with that of the (almost) equally frequently maligned Henry VII, pointing out that there is good reason to believe both monarchs’ modern perception to be unduly lopsided, and that just as neither of them (nor many another monarch from bygone days) would be able to stand up to modern standards of a fair and just rule, neither Richard III nor Henry VII were uniformly condemned by their contemporaries, and a disinterested look at their historical record as a whole would call for a much more heterogenous assessment, also duly taking into account the many ways in which both of them proved to be prudent, far-seeing and, yes, even benevolent rulers.

In Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen – having chosen to tell Elizabeth of York’s story virtually solely from Elizabeth’s own perspective – she need not be concerned with resolving everyone of the issues occupying historians in hindsight research; she obviously had to make up her mind, however, how Elizabeth herself and her mother, the dowager queen, would have seen Richard III … and, of course, Henry VII.  And here again, her choices are absolutely plausible: Unexpected, perhaps, in Princess Elizabeth’s own case, who in the novel becomes more and more infatuated with Richard III, even as she can’t fail to wonder whether the rumors that he was responsible for her brothers’ disappearance are true after all, but certainly not wholly unlikely in a young woman experiencing courtship for the very first time, who is moreover effectively being told off by her mother (and teenage rebellion certainly wasn’t born in the 20th century), and who by this time has been so thoroughly exposed to court intrigue that she knows that solely because someone is accused of a deed (even more so, behind his back), this doesn’t necessarily mean he is guilty of it; even though she must also be aware of the fact that the, or at least one clear answer to the question cui bono? – to whose advantage [is the death or disappearance of Edward IV’s sons]? – must be “Richard III”: the man who, after all, also had Edward IV’s entire offspring swiftly declared bastards as he himself moved from being Lord Protector to being King.

Left: Elizabeth Woodville as Edward IV’s Queen Consort (c. 1471); right: Margaret Beaufort at prayer (painting by Rowland Lockey, late 16th century, St John’s College, Cambridge)

The perspective of Elizabeth of York’s mother, however – Elizabeth Woodville, the dowager queen – seems to be essentially the one we know from Shakespeare: a little less overtly  hostile than in the Bard’s rendition, perhaps, but having taken a close look at the available evidence and at the dynastic tableau, she has concluded that (1) almost certainly her beloved sons are dead (which also means that  there is no hope for the York royal blood line to be continued through a male descendant), (2) the person most probably responsible for the death of her sons is Richard III (and there is no reason to let him reap any benefits from his deed), (3) Richard III’s own son (another prince named Edward) has unexpectedly died at age 10, too, in 1484, so Richard’s own direct line is extinct, and (4) it makes both dynastic sense and may well be in the best interest of the country – as well as being just revenge on Richard III for the deaths of her sons – to promise her daughter’s hand in matrimony to Henry Tudor: that Welsh upstart, whose equally pious and calculating mother Margaret Beaufort (who had returned to court a number of years earlier as Lady Stanley, named for her fourth husband) has secretly been lobbying for precisely this union, for the obvious reason that it would add a potent dose of legitimacy to her son Henry’s own, otherwise pitifully weak claims to the English throne.

Henry VII, holding a Tudor rose (1505;
National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 416)

And thus begins the central and most interesting part of Elizabeth’s story: Her transition from Plantagenet (York) Princess to Tudor Queen.  To her (and her novelist biographer’s) credit, this transition is anything but seamless: too great has been Elizabeth’s infatuation with Richard III, too great her dismay over her mother’s strictly political choice of Henry VII as her husband, and too great also, her disdain for the “Welsh milksop” she doesn’t even know in person. And of course, from a novelist’s perspective, we wouldn’t get this beautifully-rendered internal conflict of Elizabeth’s at all if she hadn’t been so deeply in love with Richard III for starters.

But from these beginnings, Elizabeth matures into the woman that history (to the extent it bothers with her at all) has come to record – a faithful Queen Consort to Henry Tudor, with whom she will come to build a new dynasty from the ashes of the ruined and war-torn Houses of York and Lancaster.  It’s by no means an easy task, and Elizabeth has to swallow no small amount of blows to her dignity initially: The first decision that Henry VII takes is to date his reign from the day before his 1485 Bosworth Field victory over Richard III, thus making everyone of Richard’s followers a traitor, never mind that all these men had gone to war believing they were fighting for their anointed king.  He also delays his wedding with Elizabeth, and even when they are finally husband and wife, she – who, had she so chosen, would have been entitled to claim the throne of England as Queen Regnant in her own right – still has to wait until after the birth of her first son, Arthur, to even be crowned her husband’s Queen Consort.  The message in all of this is clear: Never mind how advantageous to him the union with the woman holding the strongest Plantagenet claim to the throne, Henry VII will govern by virtue of his conquest at Bosworth Field; not simply because he has married a woman about four times more entitled to his crown than he is himself.

And Elizabeth will have to swallow yet another setback when her innocent little cousin Edward, the young son of her uncle George, Duke of Clarence – like his sister Margaret a royal ward as a result of their father’s execution – is taken into custody; and although Henry VII claims that he does “not intend to make war on ten year old boys,” is sent to the Tower, where he will linger without even understanding what is happening to him, until he is executed 14 years later.  As for the fate of Elizabeth’s own brothers, Henry VII denies any and all responsibility and, like her mother, puts the blame squarely on Richard III.  (Towards the end of the novel, when describing Elizabeth’s final and erratic progress [= royal journey] through Oxfordshire, the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wales, Samantha Wilcoxson finally does reveal her own theory as to who was responsible for the disappearance and death of Elizabeth’s brothers, and I’ll bet you anything it isn’t who you thought it might have been – I, at any rate, was as surprised as Elizabeth’s fictional incarnation about the presumed culprit’s name.)

Yet, the cruel fate of their brothers also brings Elizabeth and her cousin Margaret closer together, almost as close as Elizabeth and her surviving sisters; even if we will learn later, in Faithful Traitor, that Margaret does harbor some lingering resentment over Elizabeth’s perceived failure to save Edward’s life. – Securing marriages that are not only dynastically sound but that are actually unions with men whom her sisters (and her cousin Margaret) want to marry is only one of the manifold ways we see Elizabeth exercising her growing unobtrusive influence over Henry VII; and she even learns to quietly but resolutely hold her own against the domineering Lady Stanley, My Lady the King’s Mother, who is determined that she will be second to none, not even to her son’s wife and Queen Consort. We also see Elizabeth setting the example that countless queen consorts and presidents’ wives have set over the course of the centuries, in doing good works, such as helping ease the suffering of those afflicted with the mysterious sweating sickness, the bane of the first Tudor kings’ reign.  When Henry VII’s reign is challenged by pretenders like Lambert Simnel (whose claim to be Margaret’s brother Edward, the last male York heir to the throne, is quickly quashed by dragging poor Edward from the Tower long enough to demonstrate that he is still alive, and Simnel isn’t him), and by the much more dangerous Perkin Warbeck (an impostor claiming to be Elizabeth’s own younger brother Richard), Elizabeth staunchly stands by Henry VII’s side.

Because by this point, she no longer merely tolerates the notion of having had to marry this once-despised man: by this point, she has learned to love him – and here again, the novel stays solidly on the ground of demonstrable historical evidence: The couple’s love is a matter of record, and so is Henry VII’s complete and utter breakdown over the premature death of the woman who had born him four children that reached marriageable age and three that died as infants, and who ultimately risked her life – only to die herself, on her 37th birthday, February 11, 1503 – over the futile attempt to secure another male “spare” to their budding Tudor dynasty when their first-born son and heir Arthur died, leaving behind only one brother, the future Henry VIII, as Henry and Elizabeth’s heir to the throne.

Henry VII and his children in black mourning robes and hoods after the death of Elizabeth of York; in the top left corner, a grieving Henry VIII curled up and sobbing over his mother’s empty bed. (Presentation page of the Vaux Passional, early 16th century; Peniarth 482D.)

“Elizabeth’s personal decision to choose peace and the greater good of her kingdom over personal glory and ambition was vital to England’s future and was a form of self sacrifice that few of her ancestors had been willing to make,” Samantha Wilcoxson writes in a March 2016 blog post (The Quiet Strength of Elizabeth of York), and she concludes:

“Perhaps this Plantagenet princess who became a Tudor queen deserves a bit more credit for her quiet strength that saved England from more bloody battles for supremacy.”

There is certainly something to be said for this, and having read both Samantha Wilcoxson‘s novelized biography of Elizabeth of York and that of Elizabeth’s cousin Margaret Pole, one cannot but be reminded that focusing on them some of the attention so richly lavished on Henry VIII, his six wives, and his daughters (especially Elizabeth I) is long overdue, and can only add to broadening our understanding of the era, of just what it meant to be a woman having to make her way through the poisonous web of Plantagenet and Tudor society; what challenges life would set for you (always knowing that making the wrong choice might be synonymous with instant death, not only of yourself but also of others), to what heights the Wheel of Fortune might take you, but also how deeply it might crush you.

Faithful Traitor, the story of Margaret Pole, picks up where Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen ends, with Elizabeth of York’s death.  As with Elizabeth’s own story, however, the early glimpses we gain of Margaret’s life are brief and fractured; we stay with her long enough to see her happily (though all too briefly) married to Sir Richard Pole, the Welshman to whom Henry VII had consented to see her married; as Samantha Wilcoxson would have it in Elizabeth of York’s story, chiefly with Elizabeth’s support, though it is probable that Henry’s mother Margaret Stanely (née Beaufort) also had a hand in this match: Richard Pole’s mother Edith was Margaret Beaufort-Stanley’s own half-sister, a daughter of the loyal St. John family into which the half-sisters’ joint mother had married before taking Margaret Beaufort’s father as her second husband, after her first (St. John) husband’s death. – Richard Pole had never given cause to doubt his loyalty to Henry VII, so entrusting him with a York heiress’s hand in marriage would have been considered a politically “safe” choice; much more so than marrying her to someone who might be tempted to capitalize on her potential claim to the throne.  At the same time, Pole was not of a particular high rank; even though Henry VII, who greatly appreciated him, would later elevate him and make him a Knight of the Garter, as well as Chief Gentleman of the Privy Chamber of the Tudor heir apparent, Prince Arthur.  As a result, Pole neither carried the financial nor the dynastic weight that would have made him a risk to the Tudors.  In fact, at his premature 1504 (or possibly 1505) death, his wife Margaret found herself in such financial dire straits that she had to rely on Henry VII and on friends to cover the costs of his funeral.  She also entrusted her son Reginald to the church to ease the costs of his education, and took refuge herself, until 1509, at the Bridgettine Syon Abbey near Twickenham and near the royal palace of Sheen (later: Richmond).

It would be King Henry VIII who, succeeding his father to the throne of England after the deaths of Henry VII and his first-born son Arthur, would cause Margaret Pole to leave Syon Abbey and return to court, as a companion and lady in waiting to his new wife Catherine of Aragón.  Margaret had first met Catherine when the Spanish princess had come to England nine years earlier to be betrothed to Henry VIII’s elder brother Arthur and, Samantha Wilcoxson tells us, both Margaret and her cousin Elizabeth of York had easily formed friendships with Catherine.

Well-educated, musical, intelligent, raised on principles of chivalry, a stellar champion at jousts and tournaments, and a stunningly handsome man to boot, young Henry VIII was, to many of his subjects, a ray of hope burning through the dark clouds of the final years of his father’s reign, during which Henry VII’s counselors (very likely not only with the first Tudor king’s knowledge but even with his active encouragement) had placed financial thumb screws of an unconscionable size onto many of his nobles, bleeding them bone dry, and tossing all notions of law and due process to the winds.  For Margaret Pole, like for many others, Henry VIII’s reign began with great promise; in addition to being recalled to court to resume her position with Catherine of Aragón, she also regained in her own right the title of a Countess of Salisbury, which had been forfeit from her father and his heirs (along with her father’s manifold other titles) upon his execution for treason.  Holding this title in her own right made her, once again, one of the highest peeresses in the realm.

Left: Henry VIII (c. 1520; National Portrait Gallery, London, NPG 4690); center: Catherine of Aragón (c. 1525; portrait by Lucas Hornebolte); right: Princess / future Queen Mary I in 1544 (portrait by Master John)

But, just as her family’s fate has in Plantagenet times been tied inextricably to the ups and downs of the conflicting kingships of the Houses of York and Lancaster, so now Margaret’s own fate (and, it will turn out, that of her sons) is tied to the fate of the Spanish princess turned Tudor queen who has become her friend, and that Spanish queen’s daughter Mary.

As in the story of Elizabeth of York, we are witnesses to the great (and small) events of the time only insofar as they impinge on the lives that we are intimately concerned with in this novel: those of Margaret, her own family, Catherine of Aragón, and princess Mary.  (But really, who needs yet another novel detailing the political doings of Henry VIII himself?)  Given Margaret Pole’s position, that means, of course, that we are witnesses to Catherine’s increasing heartbreak over her failed attempts to produce a male heir and over the repeated infidelities of her husband (who to add insult to injury, seems to have had no problems producing a son out of wedlock); as well as the early formative years of Catherine’s daughter, the woman who, against powerful odds, will later manage to become England’s first Queen Regnant: the very position that her grandmother Elizabeth of York had given up in favor of Henry VII and a united country, and a position which, prior to Mary, only the Empress Maud, wife of the Plantagenets’ 12th century forefather Geoffroy d’Anjou, and Queen Mary Tudor’s own cousin, the “Nine Day Queen” Lady Jane Grey, have ever even attempted to secure; and both attempts have failed spectacularly.

While attending to her duties at court, Margaret Pole also undertakes the renovation of the Salisbury manor house at Bisham and attempts to secure the futures of her own children, tasks that now, having regained the Salisbury title and income, she feels at greater financial leisure to attend to.  Her promising eldest son Henry, created Baron Montague (and thus regaining another one of his grandfather’s Neville titles) marries his distant cousin Jane Neville, a daughter of the family’s Bergavenny branch: the match looks advantageous at the time, though politically it will turn out to be less so eventually.  Margaret’s second and youngest sons, Arthur and Geoffrey, are likewise popular at court (though not quite as successful as their eldest brother).  Her third son, Reginald, enjoys the sponsorship of Henry VIII on his career path within the church.  Her daughter Ursula, finally, seems to have made the most advantageous of all her children’s matches, to the son of the powerful Edward Stafford, 3d Duke of Buckingham.

Far left: Reginald Pole (c. 1540, portrait by Sebastiano del Piombo); center left: Henry Pole, Baron Montague (late 1530s); center right: Lady, sometimes said to be Ursula Stafford née Pole (1536 portrait by Master A.W., Victoria & Albert Museum, London);  far right: Edward Stafford, 3d Duke of Bukingham (c. 1520, Magdalene College, Cambridge)

Well aware of the lessons imparted by her own family’s recent (and also more distant) history, Margaret tries to eschew all whispers of coalition-building and of any future for England other than one with a Tudor regent.  When her brother-in-law Edward Stafford (having failed to take to heart the lesson from his own father’s execution for treason, for conspiring against Richard III) fatally stumbles over his grab for power, Margaret manages to salvage at least part of, though by far not all of her family’s fortunes and position.

Yet, similar to her cousin Elizabeth of York, from early childhood on she has found her greatest strength in her faith; and that faith, of course, is seriously tested when Henry VIII decides to rid himself of his wife Catherine, marry another woman who he hopes will finally give him his long-desired male heir, and proceeds to also divorce England from the Church of Rome into the bargain, now claiming for himself not only secular but also religious supremacy.  And while Margaret even survives longer at an increasingly erratic and tyrannical Henry VIII’s court than his second wife Anne Boleyn and Henry’s chief advisor Thomas Cromwell – and this although she makes no bones of her continued loyalty to Catherine of Aragón and Catherine’s daughter Mary, whom in defiance of a royal order she continues to call the Princess, not Lady Mary – eventually her own stance, and that of her family catches up with her: On the orders of the king, who has never forgiven Margaret’s son Reginald – a Cardinal at the papal court in Rome now – for refusing to support Henry VIII in his attempts to convince the Pope to grant him a divorce from Catherine and dispensation to marry Anne, and for openly opposing the king’s creation of the Church of England, Margaret’s sons Henry and Geoffrey are arrested for treason; for being in cahoots with their brother the Cardinal. (Arthur has – happily? – died from a brief illness a few years earlier). Geoffrey is tortured into giving evidence against his own kin – an experience from which he will emerge a man broken in both body and spirit – and Henry, Baron Montague, as well as others of a similar stance, are executed after having been tried and convicted on the basis of the testimony brutally extracted from Geoffrey.

Margaret Pole herself is placed under house arrest, repeatedly questioned and eventually imprisoned in the Tower, but she is never tried. Not long before her sons’ and her own arrest, she had compared herself to “her” shrub, planta genista: “Her Plantagenet shrub continued to thrust forth tiny yellow flowers late into the year, long after the more delicate roses had gone into hibernation.  That was her, outlasting the beauties that should have enjoyed life longer.”

But now, time is up even for the last surviving Plantagenet of her generation: One fine morning in late May 1541, literally out of the blue and still without ever having seen a trial, the 67 year old Countess is told that this very morning, courtesy of an executioner’s (as it will turn out, excessively clumsy and botched) “art,” she will be joining the many members of her family who have predeceased her; very likely even dying in the same spot as Anne Boleyn, the rival of her also long-dead friend Catherine for the hand and attentions of Henry VIII.  Carved into a wall of Margaret’s cell, this poem will be found after her execution:

For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me!

Almost 3 1/2 centuries later, she will be beatified as a martyr by Pope Leo XIII.

Even more so than in the story of Elizabeth of York, it is in describing Margaret Pole’s path, overcoming the enormous trepidations brought on by the burden of her own family’s legacy to stand beside her queen, Catherine, and Catherine’s daughter Mary, that Samantha Wilcoxson comes into her own as a writer, and grabs her readers by their collective necks; only to leave us heartbroken at Margaret’s fate.  And yet, even now I can’t wait to read part 3 of her Plantagenet / Tudor trilogy, which there is reason to hope will be dealing with Margaret Pole’s erstwhile royal charge: Queen Mary.

Tower of London: Memorial for Margaret Pole, Henry VIII’s wives Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, and others executed in this sport on Tower Green near the chapel of St Peter ad Vincula, below whose flagstones most of them were buried in unmarked graves (except for the two queens, who are remembered by memorial plates near the altar). (photo mine)

Salman Rushdie: Joseph Anton – A Memoir

Joseph Anton: A Memoir - Salman RushdieDear Mr. Rushdie,

Belated Happy Birthday. I don’t know how much satisfaction there is to you, these days, in having reached an age which the Ayatollah Khomeini and his acolytes never wanted you to reach, but anyway, since I happen to have been reading your memoir of the fatwā years while you were celebrating your 69th, wishing you well on the occasion of your birthday just seemed in order.

 Now having said that, could you please enlighten me as to just what the flying f*ck is up with that third person narrative voice of Joseph Anton? The book is subtitled “a memoir,” for crying out loud, and that’s precisely what it is – the memoir of one Salman Rushdie, author, of the years when he had to deal with a death order issued against him, for having written a book allegedly offensive to Islam, issued by the supreme religious leader of Iran (notice my not putting that in caps, as a title is wont to be) and loudly propagated throughout the entire Islamic world. It is not, in other words, the would-be memoir of one Joseph Anton, like the characters of the much-maligned Satanic Verses a figment of their author’s imagination; an alias composed from the names of two of your own favorite novelists (Joseph Conrad and Anton Chekhov) and slipped on like an ill-fitting glove that you couldn’t get rid of again soon enough, or would have, if Special Branch and the Home Office had let you. It is not the memoir of “Rushdie,” the maligned author, separated in public opinion – who for obvious reasons were widely ignorant of the mere existence of Mr. Anton – from the Salman you were privately struggling to remain. It is the memoir of precisely that last person: You, Salman – Salman Rushdie –, proud bearer of a last name that your father had intentionally styled on that of the 12th century sage Ibn Rushd (Averroës) for his enlightened views on religion, and on the world in general. And that being the case, the third person narrative voice of your memoir startled the hell out of me right from the very beginning and remained the one jarringly discordant note until the very end.

 Oh, I get it:

“When a book leaves its author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. Even he, as he looks at its sentences, read them differently now that they can be read by others. They look like different sentences. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.”


Very astute: Once a book has been published it no longer belongs to its author alone, but to all of us readers, too. (I actually wish there were more authors, particularly these days, who share that feeling.) But that’s not really the point here, is it? Because the story doesn’t change. And the story isn’t that of Mr. Anton, publisher of vaguely international extraction (as his landlords in London would be told by his representatives), nor of “Rushdie,” the first-nameless author of “that terrible book,” but – pardon me for harping on it – it’s your own story. And to be told that story in the third instead of the first person just didn’t feel right, however much you may be distancing yourself in your own mind from the “Joseph Anton” as who you had to accept being addressed even by the protection officers with whom you interacted daily, so as to make it easier for them to think of you as Joe and not accidentally slip in a “Salman” when speaking of you. It seems to me that writing this book actually played a large part in your personal reconciliation with those years. Even more so would it have made sense, then, to be written in the first person: which I suspect (and conjecture from at least one instance of a perceivable slip-up in the transition from “I” to “he”) it actually has been, initially. Then why, in the name of everything that is precious (I won’t use the word “holy” around you), the switch back to a third person narrative perspective that is so clearly in discord with the narration itself?

 It’s a heartfelt book, full of the wit, sense of humor, passion and irony, and the trenchant analysis that I’ve come to love in everyone of your works, fiction and nonfiction alike. I won’t even try to imagine what daily life during those years must have been like for you, because I’m pretty sure whatever I can conjure up will still be woefully short of the real thing. (For some reason, probably because of the framework setting of The Moor’s Last Sigh, I’d always vaguely imagined your hiding place to be somewhere in Spain. Should have figured it had to be somewhere where the British authorities actually had the power to protect you, which obviously meant somewhere right in Britain.) It was also tremendously enlightening to read about the important role that some of the leading lights of the British and international literary scene have played in, variously, shielding you and supporting your cause for well over 10 years; even if I do admit to considerable envy of your ability to name-drop the likes of Paul Auster, Siri Hustvedt, Bruce Chatwin, Günter Grass, Václav Havel, Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser, Martin Amis, J.M. Coetzee, Robyn Davidson, Carlos Fuentes, Ian McEwan, John Irving and plenty of others, not merely repeatedly but sometimes even in the same sentence or paragraph. My envy is even greater, though, for the fact that you actually have read, and are able to discuss in the most everyday, matter-of-fact tone, more than half of the literary masterpieces that are still languishing on my TBR shelf, which I know I should have read ages ago, too, and am promising myself to do just that on a regular basis – without however actually making much progress in the matter.

 So yes, I certainly am glad I have read Joseph Anton: It answered a lot of questions I would have had of you if I ever had the privilege of meeting you in person, it shed light on plenty of things that wouldn’t even have occurred to me but for your discussing them, and it reinforced my belief that, albeit on the grounds of circumstances that I personally wouldn’t wish on my very own worst enemy, yours is one of the most important voices to be heard these days, on the issues of religious fundamentalism, racism, and freedom of speech, as well as the state of the world at large.

I still would have wished for your memoir to be written in the first person, however. That third-person distancing, to me, made the experience just that tiny fraction of a degree less than it could, and absolutely should have been.


Favorite Quotes:

 “Nobody ever wanted to go to war, but if a war came your way, it might as well be the right war, about the most important things in the world, and you might as well, if you were going to fight it, be called “Rushdie,” and stand where your father had placed you, in the tradition of the grand Aristotelian, Averroës, Abul Walid Muhammad ibn Ahmad ibn Rushd.”

“This was what book reviewing did.  If you loved a book, the author thought your praise no more than his rightful due, and if you didn’t like it, you made enemies.  He decided to stop doing it.  It was a mug’s game.”

“This was the literature he knew, had always known.  Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be.  Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before.  Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed toward ever-narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha’i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became the greater was the likelihood of conflict between them.  Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy, and identification with people not like oneself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, towards narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war.  There were plenty of people who didn’t want the universe opened, who would, in fact, prefer it to be shut down quite a bit, and so when artists went to the frontier and pushed they often found powerful forces pushing back.  And yet they did what they had to do, even at the price of their own ease, and, sometimes of their lives.”

“When a book leaves it’s author’s desk it changes. Even before anyone has read it, before eyes other than its creator’s have looked upon a single phrase, it is irretrievably altered. It has become a book that can be read, that no longer belongs to its maker. It has acquired, in a sense, free will. It will make its journey through the world and there is no longer anything the author can do about it. Even he, as he looks at its sentences, reads them differently now that they can be read by others. They look like different sentences. The book has gone out into the world and the world has remade it.”

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Dies Irae, Dies Doloris …

“Libera me, Domine, de vitae aeterna” – “Free me, Lord, from eternal life”: If a movie begins with a choir and a boy soprano singing these words, in a requiem’s style and overlaying the camera’s sweeping move over nightly San Francisco bay, zooming in on a Victorian building’s top-floor window after having followed the life on the street below like a hunter follows its prey – if a movie begins like this, you know you’re not looking at your average flick, whatever its subject. (And if the first thing you catch is the Latin phrase’s grammatical mistake, this is probably not your kind of movie to begin with).

Much-discussed even before its release, due not least to Anne Rice’s temporary withdrawal of support and her no less sensational subsequent 180-degree turn, Neil Jordan’s adaptation of the Vampire Chronicles‘ first part, based on Rice’s own screenplay, is a sumptuous production awash in luminous colors, magnificent period décor and costumes, rich fabrics, heavy crystal, elegant silverware and gallons of deeply scarlet blood, supremely photographed by Phillippe Rousselot, with a constant undercurrent of sensuality and seduction; an audiovisual orgy substantiated by one of recent film history’s most ingenious scores (by Elliot Goldenthal). Although the book only gained notoriety after the publication of its sequel The Vampire Lestat – followed in short order by the Chronicles‘ third installment, The Queen of the Damned –, by the time this movie was produced, Rice had acquired a large and loyal fan base, who would have been ready to tear it to shreds had it failed to meet their expectations. That this was not unanimously the case is in and of itself testimony to Neil Jordan’s considerable achievement (only underscored by the botched 2002 realization of Queen of the Damned). Sure, some decry the plot changes vis-à-vis the novel and the fact that some of the protagonists (particularly Louis and Armand) look different from Rice’s description. But others have embraced the movie wholeheartedly; praising it for remaining faithful to the fundamentalities of Rice’s story and for its production values as such. I find myself firmly in the latter corner; indeed, in some respects I consider this one of the rare movies that are superior to their literary originals – primarily because the story’s two main characters, Louis and Lestat, gain considerably in stature and complexity as compared to Rice’s book.

While both film and novel are narrated by Louis (Brad Pitt), giving an interview to a reporter (Christian Slater) in the hope of achieving some minimal atonement for 200 years of sin and guilt, and while Lestat (Tom Cruise) appears on screen barely half the movie’s total running time, Lestat is much more of a central character than in Rice’s novel; and vastly more interesting. For Anne Rice’s Lestat only comes into his own in the Chronicles‘ second part, which is named for him and where we truly learn to appreciate him as the vampire world’s aristocratic, arrogant, wicked, intelligent and unscrupulous “brat prince,” who although completely lacking regret for any of his actions nevertheless shows occasional glimpses of caring, even if he would never admit thereto. This, however, is exactly the movie’s Lestat; not the comparatively uninformed and, all things considered, even somewhat brutish creature of Rice’s first novel. It is no small feat on Tom Cruise’s part to have accomplished this; and in my mind his portrayal has completely eclipsed the character’s original conception, which was reportedly based on Rutger Hauer’s Captain Navarre in Ladyhawke.

Similarly, while every bit as guilt-ridden as the character created by Anne Rice , Brad Pitt’s Louis regains more inner strength – and more quickly so – than the narrator of Rice’s book, rendering him more of an even foil for Lestat, and equally lending greater credibility to his initial selection as Lestat’s companion, as well as to his actions to ensure his and Claudia’s escape to Europe, and his later decision not to stay with Armand. (Indeed, Louis’s and Armand’s separation after the burning of the Theatre of the Vampires makes perfect sense in the movie’s context; it would have undercut both characters’, but especially Louis’s credibility had they gone on to share years of companionship, as they do in the book.)

Kirsten Dunst’s Claudia was not only this movie’s biggest discovery – not surprisingly, in an interview given a few years later and included on the movie’s DVD, Dunst called this “the most prominent role” of her career so far –: She, too, embodies the novel’s child vampire to absolute perfection; capturing her eternally childlike features as well as her Lolitaesque seductiveness and the ruthless killer hidden under her doll-like appearance. Doubtlessly furthest from the novel’s character is Antonio Banderas’s powerful and charismatic Armand: But while I do somewhat miss Rice’s auburn-haired “Botticelli angel,” I always had a problem imagining him as the leader of the Paris coven, in control even of the quicksilverish Santiago (marvelously portrayed by Stephen Rea in one of his most overtly theatrical performances). Here, too, the movie – if anything – gives the story greater credibility; although it’s admittedly hard to reconcile with parts of the Chronicles‘ later installments, particularly Armand’s own biography.

In interviews, Neil Jordan and Brad Pitt particularly have mentioned the emotional strain that this movie put on all its participants; due its almost exclusively nightly shooting schedule, and even more so because of its incessant exploration of guilt, damnation and, literally, hell on earth. Anne Rice’s vampires truly are the ultimate outsiders; no longer part of human society, they feed on it, can neither be harmed by sickness nor by methods the world has taken for granted ever since Bram Stoker’s Dracula (which are in fact merely “the vulgar fictions of a demented Irishman,” as Louis explains, simultaneously amused and contemptuous) and are thus, if not killed by fire and/or beheading, condemned to walk the earth forever, without any hope of redemption. It is primarily this element which has given Rice’s novels their lasting appeal, and which is perfectly rendered in Jordan’s adaptation. I’m still not sure I’d ever want to meet them in person, though …


Production Credits /
Cast and Crew

Production Credits
  • Studio: Geffen Pictures (1994)
  • Director: Neil Jordan
  • Producers: David Geffen & Stephen Woolley
  • Screenplay: Anne Rice
  • Based on a novel by: Anne Rice
  • Music: Elliot Goldenthal
  • Cinematography / Director of Photography: Philippe Rousselot
  • Production Design: Dante Ferretti

Brad Pitt: Louis
Tom Cruise: Lestat
Christian Slater: Malloy
Kirsten Dunst: Claudia
Antonio Banderas: Armand
Stephen Rea: Santiago
Thandie Newton: Yvette
Indra Ové: New Orleans Whore
Helen McCrory: 2nd Whore
Roger Lloyd Pack: Piano Teacher
George Kelly: Dollmaker
Sara Stockbridge: Estelle
Domiziana Giordano: Madeleine
Louis Lewis-Smith: Mortal Boy

Major Awards and Honors

ASCAP Awards (1995)
  • Top Box Office Films: Elliot Goldenthal
BAFTA Awards (1995)
  • Best Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot
  • Best Production Design: Dante Ferretti