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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Willy Brandt: Erinnerungen (My Life in Politics)



Visionär und Architekt /
A Visionary and an Architect

Note to the English Speakers out there: I’ve read the book in German, and not least because of its author and its topic it seemed logical to me for once to write a review in both German and English, and to put the German version first. You’ll find the English version of this review if you scroll to the bottom of the German text and the two photos. Also, all quotes rendered in English are my own translations – they may not be identical with the translations of the same quotes in the English edition of Brandt’s memoirs, which is entitled My Life in Politics. (Lastly, apologies for the length of this review: This is, however, the sort of book that merits some in-depth consideration if you’re going to tackle it at all.)


Als fast auf den Tag genau vor 40 Jahren Beamte des deutschen Verfassungsschutzes an der Tür einer Wohnung im gehobenen Bonner Stadtteil Bad Godesberg klingelten und sich, nachdem ihnen der Wohnungsinhaber geöffnet hatte, in ihrer dienstlichen Eigenschaft auswiesen, entgegnete ihnen der vor ihnen Stehende: “Ich bin Bürger der DDR und ihr Offizier. Respektieren Sie das!” Der Mann hieß Günter Guillaume und war einer der politischen Referenten des damaligen Kanzlers Willy Brandt; mit seinen Namen verbindet sich bis heute der vor- und unzeitige Rücktritt eines der führenden deutschen Politiker der zweiten Hälfte des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts.

1913 unehelich unter dem Namen Herbert Frahm in bescheidenste Lübecker Verhältnisse geboren, wuchs Brandt von klein auf in die Arbeiterbewegung hinein, in der sein die Vaterstelle vertretender Großvater aktiv war. Das Abitur gerade hinter sich und nicht einmal zwanzig Jahre alt, floh der engagierte Links-Sozialist anlässlich der nationalsozialistischen Machtergreifung nach Norwegen, wo er bis zum Ende des Zweiten Weltkrieges eine zweite Heimat fand (und, von den Nazis ausgebürgert, auch die norwegische Staatsangehörigkeit annahm), als Journalist arbeitete, und von wo aus er auch in zahlreiche Widerstandsbewegungen eingebunden war; in sozialdemokratische ebenso wie Heinrich Manns “Deutsche Volksfront” gegen Hitler. Auch zu den Widerständlern des 20. Juli 1944 hatte er Kontakt. Das im norwegischen Exil zunächst zu Tarnzwecken angenommene Alias Willy Brandt wurde später zu seinem legalen Namen.

Nach dem Krieg zunächst als Journalist und schließlich norwegischer Presseattaché nach Deutschland zurückgekehrt, ließ Brandt sich – wohl nicht ungern – von sozialdemokratischen Freunden überzeugen, in Deutschland zu bleiben und sich nunmehr wieder dort politisch zu engagieren und am Wiederaufbau des Landes zu beteiligen: Hiervon handeln denn auch schwerpunktmäßig seine Erinnerungen, denen im Englischen (deskriptiver und zugleich bedeutungsschwangerer) nich von ungefähr der Titel My Life in Politics gegeben worden ist. Brandt erzählt die Geschichte seines politischen Lebens geradeheraus, ohne Umwege, oftmals auch ohne sich selbst zu schonen; dabei aber immer engagiert (und engagierend) – selbst sein langjähriger politischer Widersacher Rainer Barzel, CDU-Oppositionsführer während der Brandt-Regierungsjahre, sollte später über dieses Buch sagen, Brandt selbst habe “das bisher beste Porträt Willy Brandts” geschrieben.

Das Manuskript zu seinem im Jahr 1989 erstmals erschienene Buch hatte Brandt im Sommer jenes Jahres vollendet – offensichtlich noch vor Hochschwallen der Bürgerbewegung, die im Spätsommer und Herbst innerhalb weniger Monate das politische System der DDR zum Wanken und schließlich zum Einsturz brachte; eine Würdigung dieser Ereignisse musste einem Nachwort aus dem Monat November vorbehalten bleiben. Dass Brandt sein ansonsten mehr oder weniger chronologisch aufgebautes Buch gleichwohl mit dem Kapitel über seine Jahre in Berlin beginnt (zuerst an der Seite des charismatischen Regierenden Bürgermeisters Ernst Reuter, vier Jahre nach Reuters Tod schließlich als dessen Nachfolger im Amt), mag man angesichts des Veröffentlichkeitsdatums als mehr oder weniger prophetisch betrachten; jedenfalls aber zeugt es von der fundamentalen Bedeutung, die die Berliner Erfahrung für Brandts politisches Denken hatte, ebenso wie das Ringen der 50er Jahre um die künftige politische Ausrichtung Nachkriegsdeutschlands (sehr stark vereinfacht ausgedrückt, Zweistaatenlösung und Wiederbewaffnung mit politischer und militärischer Einbindung in NATO einerseits und Warschauer Pakt andererseits, oder Vereinigung der vier deutschen Besatzungszonen in einen militärisch neutralen Staat). Die Errichtung der Berliner Mauer am 13. August 1961 fiel in Brandts Amtszeit als Regierender Bürgermeister; schon die “Luftbrücke” des Jahres 1949 nach Abriegelung der Berliner West-Bezirke auf Geheiß Chruschtschows sowie den gescheiterten Volksaufstand in der zwischenzeitlich ausgerufenen DDR vom 17. Juni 1953 hatte er als Berliner Politiker miterlebt. Vom ersten Kapitel seiner Erinnerungen an lässt Brandt keinen Zweifel daran aufkommen, dass die in diesen Jahren gewonnenen Einsichten die später von ihm als Außenminister (ab 1966) und Bundeskanzler (ab 1969) verfolgte Politik der Annäherung gegenüber der DDR und dem Warschauer Pakt entscheidend mitbestimmten.

Brandt hatte zu denjenigen gehört, die in einer allzufrüh als “alternativlos” proklamierten Teilung Deutschlands mit rasch nachfolgender Block-Einbindung der beiden Staatengebilde eine vertane Chance sahen; mit der Errichtung der Berliner Mauer bezahlten die Stadt, und Deutschland insgesamt, aus seiner Sicht den Preis für die im ersten Nachkriegsjahrzehnt nicht ernstlich verfolgten alternativen Wege. Der Historiker fragt nicht, “was wäre gewesen wenn?” sagte mir während meiner Studienzeit einmal ein Professor, sondern nur “warum ist es so gekommen, wie es tatsächlich gekommen ist?” – und in der Tat scheint es, zumindest an dieser Stelle, müßig, zu fragen, ob der von Brandt bevorzugte Weg eine Erfolgschance gehabt hätte, und wie die weitere Entwicklung in diesem Falle gewesen wäre. Unverkennbar ist jedenfalls, dass Brandt nicht erst 1966, 1969 oder gar 1970/71 die Leitlinien dessen entwickelte, was als seine “Ostpolitik” in die Geschichte eingegangen ist und ihm 1971 den Friedensnobelpreis einbrachte.

Dabei nimmt der Moment, welcher wie kein anderer bildlich mit der Nobelpreisverleihung und dem politischen Erbe Brandts verbunden ist – der Kniefall am Monument der Warschauer Ghetto-Opfer – wohltuend, ja sogar erstaunlich wenig Raum ein: Eingebettet in eine (bereits für sich faszinierende) detaillierte Schilderung der Verhandlungsgeschichte der vier Verträge, welche die wesentlichen Früchte der unter dem Motto “Wandel durch Annäherung” stehenden Brandt’schen Ostpolitik darstellten – Moskauer Vertrag und Warschauer Vertrag 1970, Grundlagenvertrag mit der DDR 1972 und Prager Vertrag 1973, flankiert durch das Viermächteabkommen zwischen den USA, Großbritannien, Frankreich und der Sovietunion von 1971 – finden sich zu diesem so zentralen Moment nur wenige Absätze, zu deren Ende sich Brandt selbst vollkommen aus der Erzählerrolle herausnimmt und das Wort stattdessen einem journalistischen Zeitzeugen überlässt:

“Es war eine ungewöhnliche Last, die ich auf meinem Weg nach Warschau mitnahm. Nirgends hatte das Volk, hatten die Menschen so gelitten wie in Polen. Die maschinelle Vernichtung der polnischen Judenheit stellte eine Steigerung der Mordlust dar, die niemand für möglich gehalten hatte. […]

Ich hatte nichts geplant, aber Schloß Wilanow, wo ich untergebracht war, in dem Gefühl verlassen, die Besonderheit des Gedenkens am Ghetto-Monument zum Ausdruck bringen zu müssen. Am Abgrund der deutschen Geschichte und unter der Last der Millionen Ermordeten tat ich, was Menschen tun, wenn die Sprache versagt.

Ich weiß es auch nach zwanzig Jahren nicht besser als jener Berichterstatter, der festhielt: ‘Dann kniet er, der das nicht nötig hat, für alle, die es nötig haben, aber nicht knien – weil sie es nicht wagen oder nicht können oder nicht wagen können.'”

(Anmerkung: Das von Brandt verwendete Zitat entstammt dem durchaus auch in seiner Gesamtheit als Zeitzeugnis lesenswerten Artikel Ein Stück Heimkehr (Hermann Schreiber/ Der Spiegel 14.12.1970, Heft 51/1970.)

So bahnbrechend und richtig die Brandt’sche Ostpolitik sich rückblickend erwiesen hat, so umstritten war sie damals im eigenen Land: Brandt musste zu ihrer Durchsetzung nicht nur im April 1972 im Bundestag ein von der Opposition angestrengtes konstruktives Misstrauensvotum überstehen (was, wenn auch denkbar knapp, gelang), sondern auch vorgezogene Neuwahlen im Herbst 1972, welche seiner Regierungskoalition einen noch deutlicheren Wahlsieg einbrachten als die Wahlen 1969. Obwohl ich damals erst in der Grundschule war, gehört die auf den simplen Slogan “Willy wählen” zugespitzte Wahlkampagne der SPD zu meinen ersten prägenden politischen Erinnerungen; auch in meiner Schule (keine 10 km von Konrad Adenauers Rhöndorf entfernt!) trug, wer auf sich hielt, einen “Willy wählen”-Button am Revers, sehr zum Amüsement übrigens unserer Eltern, die ganz und gar nicht unbedingt alle der SPD nahestanden.

Hatte Brandt mit den Ost-Verträgen seinen Zenit als Gestalter der deutschen Politik erreicht? Er selbst bezeichnet dies als “billige Lesart”, auch wenn er nicht abstreitet, dass sich seine Regierung in dem Moment, als die Guillaume-Affäre über ihn hereinbrach, in zahllosen ermüdenden innenpolitischen Grabenkämpfen verstrickt hatte. Bitter muss jedoch stimmen – und sicher nicht nur Brandt selbst, der die Abrechnnung mit den seinerzeit unmittelbar Beteiligten in den Erinnerungen auf wenige, verhältnismäßig obskure Andeutungen beschränkt, deren Bedeutung sich erst durch die Lektüre seiner dem Buch als Annex beigefügten, wahrscheinlich aus dem Sommer/ Herbst 1974 stammenden “Notizen zum Fall G” erschließt – bitter muss stimmen, dass sich in den gegen Günter Guillaume und seine Frau angestrengten Ermittlungen nie der Verdacht erhärten ließ, dass sie überhaupt nennenswerte Geheimnisse an ihre Herren und Meister in der DDR weitergegeben hatten. Tatsächlich war Guillaumes eingangs zitiertes spontanes Geständnis gegenüber den Verfassungsschutzbeamten, als diese am Morgen des 24. April 1974 in seiner Wohnungstür vor ihm standen, der “härteste” Nachweis, auf den die Verurteilung gestützt wurde, und dass er und seine Frau auf der Grundlage solcher Ermittlungsergebnisse überhaupt wegen geheimdienstlicher Agententätigkeit zu mehrjährigen Gefängnisstrafen verurteilt wurden, war eher eine Frage bundesrepublikanischer Selbstachtung: Gemessen an den dünnen seinerzeitigen Ermittlungsergebnissen hätte – jedenfalls wenn man den Enthüllungen von Edward Snowden glauben kann – jeder jüngst an der allem Anschein nach wesentlich tiefer greifenden Handy-Ausspähung von Frau Merkel beteiligte NSA-Agent, wenn das deutsche Strafrecht dies zuließe (was nicht der Fall ist), eine mehrfach lebenslängliche Freiheitsstrafe verdient. Brandt selbst jedenfalls unterschätzte die Angelegenheit zunächst vollkommen; er begründete seinen schließlich doch erklärten Rücktritt zwar damit, dass er für die im Zusammenhang mit Guillaume stehenden “Fahrlässigkeiten” (wie es in seinem Rücktrittsschreiben hieß) die Verantwortung übernehme; tatsächlich gab er aber wohl eher dem Drängen von Parteifreunden nach, die ihm, zutreffend oder nicht, den Eindruck vermittelt hatten, er sei durch die Affäre und durch das, was Guillaume angeblich über sein Privatleben erfahren habe, erpressbar geworden.

Dass Brandts Rücktritt als Kanzler nicht gleichzeitig seinen vollkommenen Rückzug aus der Politik bedeutete, erwies sich nicht zuletzt international gesehen als Glücksfall; auch in der Funktion als SPD-Parteichef, die er bereits seit 1964 innehatte und noch bis 1987 weiter behielt, sowie als Europa-Abgeordneter (1979-82) und Vorsitzender diverser internationaler Kommissionen, insbesondere der Unabhängigen Kommission für internationale Entwicklungsfragen (“Nord-Süd-Kommission”, 1977-80) wirkte er weiter, sowohl vor als auch hinter den Kulissen. Besonders am Herzen lagen ihm dabei die europäische Einigung (auch diesbezüglich gehörte er zu den Visionären: Erste konkrete Ansätze zur Umwandlung der damaligen EWG in die Wirtschafts- und Währungsunion, welche erst mit dem Vertrag von Maastricht 1993 Gestalt annahm, hatte er bereits über 20 Jahre zuvor in Verhandlungen mit den anderen europäischen Regierungschefs entwickelt) sowie der Umweltschutz und die Verständigung zwischen der nördlichen und der südlichen Erdhalbkugel, getragen von der Erkenntnis, dass das Überleben der Menschheit nur zu sichern ist, wenn wir mit den Ressourcen der Erde verantwortungsbewusst umgehen und auf eine möglichst gleichmäßige Wohlstandsverteilung bedacht sind – ohne allerdings den Verlockungen eines von Staats wegen verordneten Sozialismus oder gar Kommunismus zu verfallen: Brandt war schon frühzeitig zu der Überzeugung gelangt, dass nur die Marktwirtschaft, wenn auch, soweit möglich, in der Ausprägung einer sozialen Marktwirtschaft nach dem von ihm mitgestalteten deutschem Vorbild, die Instrumentarien zur Verfügung stellt, welche weltweit zur Verbreitung von Wohlstand beitragen.

Im Laufe seines annähernd lebenslangen Politiker-Daseins, insbesondere aber in der zweiten Hälfte des 20. Jahrhunderts, gab es so gut wie keinen wesentlichen Staatsmann im In- und Ausland, den er nicht persönlich kennenlernte; die Portraits amerikanischer und französischer Präsidenten (insbesondere Kennedy, Carter, Nixon und Reagan in den USA sowie De Gaulle und Pompidou in Frankreich), britischer Premierminister (Harold Wilson, Edward Heath), sovietischer Partei- und Staatschefs (Chruschtschow, Breschnew, Kossygin, Gorbatschow), ihrer Außenminister (Kissinger, Couve de Murville, Gromyko), DDR-Politiker wie Walter Ulbricht und Erich Honecker, sowie zahlreicher anderer Persönlichkeiten der Weltpolitik sind zweifelsohne eines der Highlights dieses Buchs, angefangen bei innerdeutschen polititschen Gegnern und Weggefährten (Adenauer, Erhard, Kiesinger, Barzel, Strauß, Schumacher, Reuter, Schiller, Heinemann, Wehner, Schmidt, Bahr, Scheel, Genscher: das komplette “Who is Who” der westdeutschen Politik bis zur Jahrtausendwende) bis hin zu Partei- und Staatschefs wie Deng Xiaoping, Fidel Castro, Felipe González, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir und Bruno Kreisky. Brandts Urteil über sie alle ist differenziert, ehrlich und oftmals auch überraschend; dass ihn mit Kennedy viel verband, kann man noch erwarten, weniger dagegen, dass er (und auch sein Amtsnachfolger Helmut Schmidt) offenbar über Partei- bzw. Lagergrenzen hinweg mit Republikanern wie Nixon, Kissinger und Reagan europa- und weltpolitisch mehr Gemeinsamkeiten entdeckten als mit dem Demokraten Jimmy Carter. Eine besondere Würdigung wird zum Ende des Buches dem 1986 ermordeten Schweden Olof Palme zuteil, mit dem Brandt seit den 50er Jahren eng befreundet war, und mit dem ihn auch politisch besonders Vieles verband.

Für mich war die Lektüre von Brandts Memoiren einerseits faszinierender Einblick in die Gedankenwelt eines der führenden deutschen Politiker der jüngeren Vergangenheit schlechthin, andererseits aber auch eine Reise in meine eigene Kindheit und Jugend; mehr und mehr wird mir klar, wie sehr gerade die Jahre, in denen Willy Brandt und sein Nachfolger Helmut Schmidt an der Spitze der deutschen Regierung standen – und in denen die deutsche Wirklichkeit (noch bis 1989) durch Mauer und Teilung bestimmt wurde – auch mein eigenes politisches Denken und Erleben geprägt haben. Willy Brandt hat die deutsche Wiedervereinigung gerade so eben noch miterlebt; er mag ihr Kommen erahnt haben, als er gegen Ende seines Manuskripts im Sommer 1989 formulierte:

“Warum, mit welchem Recht und aufgrund welcher Erfahrung ausschließen, daß eines Tages in Leipzig und Dresden, in Magdeburg und Schwerin – und in Ostberlin – nicht Hunderte, sondern Hunderttausende auf den Beinen sind und ihre staatsbürgerlichen Rechte einfordern? Einschließlich des Rechts, von einem Teil Deutschlands in den anderen überzusiedeln?”


“Und Berlin? Und die Mauer? Die Stadt wird leben, und die Mauer wird fallen. Aber eine isolierte Berlin-Lösung, eine, die nicht mit weiterreichenden Veränderungen in Europa und zwischen den Teilen Deutschlands einhergeht, ist immer illusionär gewesen und im Laufe der Jahre nicht wahrscheinlich geworden.”

Auch Brandt verfügte indessen nicht über hellseherische Fähigkeiten: Die Ost-Erweiterung, welche die Europäische Union in den Jahren seit 1990 erfahren hat, hielt er noch 1989 für undenkbar; nicht zuletzt deshalb, weil sie dem Sicherheitsbedürfnis Russlands, so wie es sich ungeachtet aller Abrüstungsverträge auch unter Gorbatschow weiter manifestierte, diametral entgegenzustehen schien. Tatsächlich haben Gorbatschow und Yeltsin die ehemaligen Verbündeten der Sovietunion ziehen und (was Brandt sicher als noch utopischer angesehen hätte) sogar Mitglieder der NATO werden lassen; selbst ehemalige Sovietrepubliken (Estland, Lettland und Litauen) sind heute Mitglieder des westlichen Verteidigungsbündnisses. Aber bereits vor den beunruhigenden Ereignissen, die seit einiger Zeit die Ukraine bis aufs Mark erschüttern, hat der russische Bär in “Anrainerstaaten” wie Georgien unter Einsatz von Kriegsgerät und Menschenleben die Muskeln spielen lassen, und Vladimir Putin ist kein zweiter Michail Gorbatschow. Willy Brandt stand der Aussicht auf eine tiefgreifende Demokratisierung Russlands bis zum Ende seines Lebens skeptisch gegenüber, und die jüngere Geschichte scheint ihm jedenfalls insoweit Recht zu geben. Er jedenfalls gehörte nicht zu denjenigen, die die Bereitschaft Moskaus zum Einsatz der eigenen Waffenarsenale jemals unterschätzt haben: Die von ihm maßgeblich mitgeprägte Entspannungspolitik war deshalb erfolgreich, weil sie diesseits und jenseits des Eisernen Vorhangs gleichermaßen die Einsicht beförderte, dass beim Zündeln an atomaren Pulverfässern notwendigerweise alle Beteiligten gleichermaßen zerstörerisch auf der Verliererstraße landen müssen, und weil sie gleichzeitig eine realistische Zukunftsperspektive aufzeigte, die ein friedliches Nebeneinander tatsächlich möglich erscheinen ließ. Wie auch immer man die gegenwärtige Politikerkaste im Vergleich zu den Generationen ihrer Vorgänger einschätzt; es wäre zu wünschen, dass auch sie jedenfalls zum Blick über den tagespolitischen Tellerrand in der Lage sind, der letztlich immer nur zur Reaktion, nicht zum gezielten vorausschauenden Handeln verhilft. Und im Hinblick auf die größte Bedrohung des Weltfriedens und des Überlebens der Menschheit ist die Einschätzung, mit der Brandt seine Erinnerungen 1989 beschloss, noch so aktuell wie eh’ und je:

“Seit Jahr und Tag ist notorisch, daß unsere Erde das vorausberechenbare Wachstum der Bevölkerung, die Erschöpfung der natürlichen Ressourcen und die Auszehrung der Umwelt nicht lange erträgt. Wir leben seit geraumer Zeit auf Kosten kommender Generationen. […] Die Gefahr, daß die Menschheit sich selbst zerstört, ist auch dann nicht gebannt, wenn der Atomkrieg ausbleibt.”

Brandt und Guillaume
Links: Der Kniefall von Warschau; rechts: Brandt mit Günter Guillaume (im Hintergrund)
Left: Brandt kneeling at the Warsaw Ghetto Monument; right: Brandt and Günter Guillaume (in the background).




When, almost exactly 40 years ago to this day, a team of agents of the German secret service rang the door bell of an apartment in Bonn’s well-off neighborhood of Bad Godesberg and identified themselves to the tenant in their official capacity, the man facing them at the apartment door responded: “I am a citizen and an officer of the German Democratic Republic. I want you to respect that!” He was one of then-chancellor Willy Brandt’s assistants; his name, Günter Guillaume, has come to be associated, ever since, with the untimely resignation from office of one of Germany’s leading politicians in the second half of the twentieth century.

Born in 1913 Lübeck, out of wedlock, into extremely modest circumstances, and originally named Herbert Frahm, Brandt was raised from his earliest years in the tradition of the labour movement in which his grandfather, who came to take his father’s place, was an active participant. He had barely graduated from high school and was not yet twenty years old at the time of the national socialist seizure of power, but, already a vigorous left-leaning activist, was compelled to flee to Norway, where he found a second home until the end of WWII (as well as citizenship, after having seen his German citizenship revoked by the Nazis); where he worked as a journalist, and from where he was involved with numerous resistance movements, Social Democrat efforts as well as Heinrich Mann’s “Deutsche Volksfront” (“German Popular Front”) against Hitler. He also entertained contacts with the group that planned the failed July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate the German dictator. His alias Willy Brandt, initially assumed for covert purposes during the years of his Norwegian exile, eventually became his legal name.

Returning to Germany after the war as a journalist and, later, as Norwegian press attaché, Brandt was persuaded by friends – not however unwillingly, it would appear – to remain in the country, become involved in its politics and help Germany get back on its feet after the war: and it is this part of his life which is at the core of his memoirs, whose English translation is consequently entitled, more descriptively and weightier than the German title Erinnerungen (“memories”), My Life in Politics. Brandt tells the story of his political life straightforwardly, without any ado, often also without much mercy towards himself; always, however, in a manner illustrating his unbroken commitment, and therefore always equally compelling. Even his long-lasting Christian Democratic opponent Rainer Barzel, parliamentary opposition leader during Brandt’s tenure as German chancellor, would come to assess Brandt’s own memoirs as “the best portrait of Willy Brandt published to date.”

Brandt completed the manuscript of his book, which was first published in 1989, in the summer of that year; apparently somewhat prior to the swelling of the popular protest movement which, in late summer and fall of the same year, would come to cause the East German political system to topple over and collapse: an appraisal of these events is left to an afterword to the book’s main body of text. In light of the book’s publication date, it may seem prophetic for Brandt to have chosen to begin his narration, which is otherwise structured essentially chronologically, with the chapter addressing his years in Berlin (first at the side of the city’s charismatic Mayor Ernst Reuter, four years after Reuter’s 1953 death as his successor in office). In any event, his choice of opening chapter evidences the fundamental impact that his Berlin experience would come to have on Brandt’s political thinking, along with the 1950s’ struggle for post-war Germany’s future political direction (the options then on the table being, in grossly simplified terms, either two separate states, both of which were to be rearmed and integrated politically and militarily into NATO on the one hand and the Warsaw Pact on the other hand, or the unification of the four German occupied zones in one neutral state without any military allegiance whatsoever). The August 13, 1961 erection of the Berlin Wall occurred during Brandt’s tenure as Mayor of Berlin; so, too, as a politician active in Berlin he had already witnessed the 1949 Berlin Airlift occasioned by the Khrushchev-initiated blocking of supply routes to and from West Berlin, and the unsuccessful June 17, 1953 popular uprising in the territory which had, by that time, been proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Germany. From his memoirs’ very first chapter, Brandt leaves no doubt that the insights that he had gained during those years in Berlin were instrumental in determining the policy of rapprochement which he would come to pursue vis-à-vis East Germany and the Warsaw Pact States later on, as West Germany’s foreign minister (from 1966) and as its chancellor (from 1969).

Brandt had been one of those who had mourned the quick declaration of Germany’s split in two parts as allegedly “without alternative”, followed by a speedy integration of its two halves into opposing military alliances, as a lost chance for a different path: the Berlin Wall, from his perspective, was the price that the city and indeed all of Germany had to pay for the first postwar decade’s decision not to explore any alternate routes. A historian, one of my own professors once told me in university, does not ask “what would have happened if” but only “why did things actually happen the way they did?” – and indeed it arguably would seem beside the point, at least for present purposes, to wonder whether the path preferred by Brandt would have stood any chance of being successful, and if so, how things would have progressed from there. It is undeniable, in any event, that Brandt did not come to formulate only in 1966, 1969 or even 1970-71, but indeed much earlier, the basic tenets of what later made history as his “Ostpolitik” (“Eastern politics” or “Eastern policy”) and earned him the 1971 Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, for all that, the one moment – the one image – which encapsulates, like no other, Brandt’s political legacy and his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize; namely, his kneeling down spontaneously at the monument to the victims of the Warsaw ghetto, is given gratifyingly moderate space: Embedded in a detailed (and in and of itself, fascinating) description of the negotiations concerning the four treaties that make up the major harvest reaped from Brandt’s politcal dealings with the Soviet Union and its allies under the motto “Change by Rapprochement” – the 1970 treaties of Moscow and Warsaw, the 1972 treaty with East Germany and the 1973 treaty of Prague, all of these accompanied by the 1971 “Four Powers’ Agreement on Berlin” between the U.S., Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union – ony a few short paragraphs are dedicated to this pivotal moment, and at the end of the passage in question, Brandt even relinquishes the role of the narrator entirely and passes it on to a journalist who witnessed the events:

“I took an extraordinary burden to Warsaw. Nowhere else had a people suffered as much as in Poland. The robotic mass annihilation of the Polish Jews had brought human blood lust to a climax which nobody had considered possible. […]

Although I had made no plans, I left my accommodations at Wilanow Castle feeling that I was called upon to mark in some way the special moment of commemoration at the Ghetto Monument. At the abyss of German history and burdened by millions of murdered humans, I acted in the way of those whom language fails.

Even twenty years later, I wouldn’t know better than the journalist who recorded the moment by saying, ‘Then he, who would not need to do this, kneels down in lieu of all those who should, but who do not kneel down – because they do not dare, cannot kneel, or cannot dare to kneel.'”

(Note: The quotation used by Brandt is from the article Ein Stück Heimkehr [A Partial Homecoming] (Hermann Schreiber/ Der Spiegel No. 51/1970, Dec. 14, 1970), which, at least to those who read German, also makes for interesting reading in its entirety as a piece of reporting on this crucial moment in German and European history.)

Groundbreaking and common sense as Brandt’s policies seem to us in hindsight, they were nevertheless highly disputed in the West Germany of those years: In order to realize them at all, Brandt did not only have to withstand an April 1972 parliamentary vote of no confidence (which he survived just barely), but also had to call for early elections in the fall of 1972, which his coalition government ended up winning even more convincingly than those of 1969. Though I was only in elementary school at the time, the Social Democratic Party’s electoral campaign, summed up in the simple motto “Willy wählen” (“Vote for Willy”) is one of my earliest formative political memories; even in my school (just barely over 6 miles from Konrad Adenauer’s home!), whoever was or wanted to be part of the “in crowd”, proudly wore a “Willy wählen” button on their lapel; much to the amusement of our parents, incidentally, by far not all of whom voted Social Democrat themselves.

Did the treaties concluded with East Germany, Russia, and their Polish and Czechoslovakian allies mark the high point in Brandt’s career as an architect of German politics? He himself castigates this notion as a “cheapskate interpretation,” even though he is far from denying that by the time the Guillaume scandal broke, his government was entrenched in numerous exhausting internal battles. What, however, must necessarily leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste – and certainly not only in the mouth of Brandt himself, who in his memoirs confines the settling of scores to comparatively few and obscure comments, whose full meaning only becomes transparent after one has also read Brandt’s “Notes on the Matter of G” (dating probably from the summer or fall of 1974), included in the book’s annex – what must leave a somewhat bitter aftertaste is the fact that the investigation of Günter Guillaume’s and his wife’s activities never yielded any evidence to the effect that they had actually ever reported any substantial state secrets to their East German masters. In fact, Guillaume’s spontaneous admission to the secret service agents facing him at his apartment door on the morning of April 24, 1974 (quoted at the beginning of this review) constituted the “hardest” piece of evidence on which his criminal conviction came to rest at all, and the fact that the Guillaumes were sentenced to several years of prison for spying at the time principally was a matter of West German self-respect: If Edward Snowden is to be believed, and measured by the scant evidence on which the Guillaumes were convicted, each and every NSA agent involved in the recent, by all appearances much more incisive wire-tapping operation concerning Mrs. Merkel’s official cell phone would have to be looking at several lifetimes’ worth of prison sentences, if German criminal law would allow for this (which it doesn’t). Brandt himself, in any event, initially completely underestimated the matter. When he finally did resign, although in his letter of resignation he said he was doing so in order to take responsibility for the “negligence” associated with the Guillaume matter, actually he may well simply have given in to the pressure brought onto him by members of his own party, who, correctly or incorrectly, conveyed to him that the scandal as such, as well as certain alleged facts that Guillaume had (again allegedly) learned about his private affairs had made him an easy target for blackmail.

Not least from an international perspective, it would come to turn out as a stroke of luck that Brandt’s resignation from the office of chancellor did not, at the same time, also signal his complete retirement from politics. He continued to work to great effect, both on and off stage, in his capacity as head of the German Social Democratic Party (which he had become in 1964 and remained until 1987), and also as a Member of the European Parliament (1979-82) and chairman of several international committees, chiefly among those, the Independent Commission for International Development (aka “North South Commission”, 1977-80). His primary focus in those efforts was, on the one hand, a unified Europe (where again, his policies had proved visionary insofar as in his negotiations with other European heads of state he had, as early as in 1971, taken first steps to transform the European Economic Community of the 1970s into the Economic and Monetary Union that would only come to take shape 20 years later in the 1993 Treaty of Maastricht), as well as the protection of the environment and the dialogue and reconciliation between the Northern and the Southern Hemispheres, recognizing that the survival of humanity requires a responsible use of the earth’s natural resources and as equal a distribution of wealth as possible – without, however, falling into the trap of state-mandated socialism or communism: Brandt had come to the conclusion early on that only a market economy, albeit preferably one tempered by social security, such as he had helped forge in Germany, provides the requisite tools to spread worldwide prosperity.

In the course of his almost lifelong career as a politician, particularly however in the second half of the 20th century, there was virtually no important state leader whom he did not meet; the portraits of American and French Presidents (especially Kennedy, Carter, Nixon and Reagan in the U.S.; De Gaulle und Pompidou in France), British Prime Ministers (Harold Wilson, Edward Heath), Soviet leaders (Khrushchev, Breshnev, Kossygin, Gorbachev), their respective Foreign Ministers (Kissinger, Couve de Murville, Gromyko), East German politicians such as Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker, as well as numerous other politicians worldwide are, without doubt, one of this book’s highlights; from German domestic friends and foes (Adenauer, Erhard, Kiesinger, Barzel, Strauß, Schumacher, Reuter, Schiller, Heinemann, Wehner, Schmidt, Bahr, Scheel, Genscher: the entire “Who is Who” of West German politics until the beginning of the new millennium) to foreign leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Fidel Castro, Felipe González, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir and Bruno Kreisky. Brandt’s appraisal of all of them is as discriminating as it is honest and, frequently, also surprising; as such, while the strong ties connecting him with President Kennedy are hardly astonishing, a tidbit decidedly less naturally to be expected must surely consist in the fact that he (and also his successor Helmut Schmidt) found more common ground in terms of European and international politics with Republicans such as Nixon, Kissinger and Reagan than with the Democrat Jimmy Carter. Towards the end of the book, a particular appreciation is given to Swedish leader Olof Palme, who was murdered in 1986, and with whom Brandt had shared both a close personal friendship and particularly close political ties since the 1950s.

To me, reading Brandt’s memoirs did not only offer fascinating insights into the thought processes of one of the leading German politicians of the recent past, but also a trip down memory lane back to my own childhood and youth: I have come to realize more and more how much the years of Willy Brandt’s and his successor Helmut Schmidt’s chancellorships in particular – and of a German day-to-day reality controlled, until 1989, by the Berlin Wall, and the separation of the nation into two parts – have impacted my own political thought and experience. Willy Brandt barely lived long enough to witness the German reunification; he may, however, well already have divined it, when towards the end of his narration he wrote, in the summer of 1989:

“Why, from what right and based on what experience exclude the possibility that one day in Leipzig and Dresden, in Magdeburg and Schwerin – and in East Berlin – not merely hundreds but hundreds of thousands will take to the streets and demand their rights as citizens? Including the right to move from one part of Germany to the other?”


“And Berlin? And the Wall? The city will remain alive, and the Wall is going to come down. But an isolated solution for Berlin, one that does not go hand in hand with the broader changes in Europe and between the two parts of Germany, has always been illusionary and has not become any more probable over the course of the years.”

Yet, Brandt was not clairvoyant: The European Union’s Eastern expansion that we have seen in the years since 1990 still seemed unthinkable to him as late as 1989; not least because it seemed diametrically opposed to Russia’s security interests, such as they continued to manifest themselves even under Gorbachev, and despite all disarmement treaties.  As a matter of fact, Gorbachev and Yeltsin did end up letting the Soviet Union’s former allies go, and (something that Brandt would probably have considered even more utopian) even permitted them to become members of NATO; even some former Soviet republics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) today are members of the Western military alliance. However, even before the disquieting events that for some time now have been shaking Ukraine to its core, the Russian bear had already employed its military machinery (at the cost of human lives) to flex its muscles in neighboring states such as Georgia, and Vladimir Putin is certainly not another Mikhail Gorbachev. Willy Brandt held a lifelong skepticism for the notion of a profound democratization of Russia, and the more recent past would seem to prove him right. He, in any event, never was among those who underestimated Moscow’s readiness to actually employ its own weaponry: the path towards a military disarmement and détente that he helped forge was successful because it was built, on the one hand, on the realization, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, that playing with fire next to nuclear powder kegs will land all parties to the conflict on an equally disastrous path towards ruin, and on the other hand on a feasible perspective of a peaceful coexistence. Whichever one’s assessment of today’s politicians in comparison to the generation of their predecessors, the world would undoubtedly be better off if they likewise would prove capable of at least the measure of vision necessary to enable them to act with foresight, instead of merely reacting to events. And with regard to what constitues the greatest threat to world peace, and to the survival of humanity as such, Brandt’s concluding remarks to his memoirs are as timely as ever:

“It has been an obvious fact for the longest time that our earth will not be able to sustain for long the foreseeable growth of its population, the exhaustion of its natural resources, and the emaciation of its natural environment. We have been living for quite a while at the expense of our future generations. […] The absence of a nuclear war does not, by itself, diminish the danger of humanity’s self-destruction.”



Pat McIntosh: The Harper’s Quine

Enjoyable storytelling marred by major irritants

I had been contemplating a long rant setting forth in detail how and why this book trespasses into several of my pet peeve areas at once, but as I won’t be rushing to read the next books from the series even though I enjoyed it from a mere storytelling point of view, here’s the expedited version:


  • The main character, Gil Cunningham; sort of a nice-guy-from-next-door, not-superhuman guy who comes across as by and large very believable, albeit at times a bit too goodie-two-shoes for someone who has just spent several years at a foreign university and has traveled a considerable distance to get there and back home, and therefore would have to be expected to have seen his fair share of the world and gained his fair share of experience.
  •  Ditto Gil’s new best friend and (as is not hard to guess virtually from the get-go) father-in-law-to-be, Pierre, who joins Gil in investigating the murder. Ditto also some of the secondary characters, such as Gil’s uncle (and professional tutor/benefactor), Canon Cunningham – in fact, I’m not sure that Maistre Pierre and Canon Cuningham aren’t the characters I like best overall here – as well as the titular harper (the victim’s lover) and his sister.
  • The setting, medieval Glasgow, with plenty of period detail, most of which sounds well-researched and believable (for the period detail aspects that I found less convincing, see below).
  • The storytelling, which was engaging enough to keep me going even though I’d run into my first pet peeve before I’d even read the book’s very first sentence, which in turn swiftly proceeded to run afoul of the next one, and I ran into several others within a very short time thereafter.
  • The first sentence: “At the May Day dancing at Glasgow Cross, Gilbert Cunningham saw not only the woman who was going to be murdered, but her murderer as well” … Oh, did he now? Granted, in real life (and especially in a major modern city), this might be rather a stunning coincidence. But, let’s face it, in a mystery this sort of situation is not an unusual premise at all, and even less so in a mystery that more or less falls into the “cozy” mold, at least insofar as it is clear from the start that we will only be dealing with a narrowly circumscribed cast of characters – and in a setting that, although “urban” by medieval standards, is a far cry from modern-day Glasgow, or indeed from any modern city. So, big yawn right then and there, and if it hadn’t been for the setting, I wouldn’t even have bothered to read on at all.
  • Manifold pointless displays of the author’s own erudition, which don’t do anything to further the story; including in the book’s dedication, which sets forth in Latin (!) that the author dedicates the book to her loved ones with much love, and in joyful memory of her parents. Even the dedication aside, though, there were several instances that had me wondering “… and I need to know this because …??”
  • In addition to substantial pointless infodump, also major “technical” (in this instance, legalese) infodump, which considerably bogs down the narrative flow; unless you choose to ignore it entirely, at the risk of then not being able to understand the solution to the murder. This was supposed to be a leisure read, for crying out loud, not a treatise on medieval Scottish marriage and property law. I realize of course that if such issues have a bearing on the outcome of your story, you must explain them somehow, but (a) for one thing I’m not sure they really were all that indispensable here, and (b) even if they were, having them come out of a conversation between two lawyers (who might as well be speaking Chinese, or Martian, or Klingon, to anyone not likewise of their profession) is hardly the most appropriate way, even if the conversation in question is still a bit less technical than it might have been in real life. (Being of said profession myself, I did manage to make sense of the issues, but I couldn’t help thinking “thank God they’re talking about the law and not about medicine or engineering.”) Personally, I vastly prefer the way this is handled by C.J. Sansom, whose main character (Matthew Shardlake) is a lawyer as well, and who typically introduces the legal concepts relevant to his books either by way of Shardlake’s explanations to clients and other non-lawyers in laymen’s terms, or by eschewing “show, don’t tell” entirely and giving a straightforward explanation in the narrative, albeit in Shardlake’s voice – and who typically also appends an explanatory note to his books, setting forth their real-life period background, including any relevant legal concepts. I can’t help but feel that such a note would have been highly beneficial to this present book as well.
  • An imbalance of infodump on the one hand and insufficient background information on the other hand. E.g., Gil’s big conflict is having to (and not wanting to) join the clergy in order to be able to practice as a lawyer at all, because he doesn’t have sufficient means to set up shop on his own. – Now, I happen to be at least marginally familiar with the interplay of the clerical and the legal world in the Middle Ages, because legal history happens to be an area I am interested in, so I could just about make sense of what was supposed to be going on there. But anyone wholly unfamiliar with Gil’s professional background certainly wouldn’t be able to glean as much from the pages of this book alone, or understand how having studied law in Paris would make you fit to become a clergyman in Scotland to begin with.
  • Sloppiness either in writing or in research (can’t tell and frankly don’t care which it is), e.g. in mentioning a book title that would be commensurate with today’s legal literature, but entirely untypical of the titles of medieval law books (indeed, not even in keeping with the medieval concept of legal compendiums to begin with). This, moreover, for a book which in and of itself is wholly irrelevant to the story and whose title is merely one of a myriad “show, don’t tell” details that could easily be dropped or replaced by something more convincing.
  • Cardboard characters, especially in the description of the rich and powerful, as well as the one representative of bourgh (city) law enforcement.
  • Being able to guess the murderer way too early in the story. I had a suspicion early on (just hoped for it to be a red herring), was almost certain less than halfway through, and my last doubts were removed two thirds of the way into the book; by an incident, moreover, whose central clue (an exclamation in Italian) the author only partially even bothers to unravel in the final wind-up: and the part that she doesn’t unravel is not only precisely the part that clinched the solution for me once and for all – much more importantly, it is also an exclamation that Pierre, who is present on the occasion and speaks Italian (he even translates for Gil) would have had to be blind, deaf and dumb not to put into context immediately himself.
  • A cop-out on the main character’s central conflict, which isn’t actually resolved by his struggles with his own conscience (even though he does even have a somewhat pedestrianly-executed epiphany-esque moment), but by the beneficient interference of third parties.
  • And lastly, biggest and most important pet peeve, and my main deterrent from reading any further books from this series: A completely unbelievable female main character; namely, Gil’s love interest and (as is likewise clear virtually from the get-go) bride-to-be, Pierre’s daughter Alys. That kid, at age 16 mind you and never mind that upwards of 75% of all women in the Middle Ages couldn’t read to begin with, has an erudition not only matching but arguably greater than Gil’s (although he comes from a more scholarly background), is – without any formal schooling whatsoever – able to argue, off hand and in three different languages (including Latin), fine points of law and theology that Gil just spent several years at Paris University studying, advances views that not even forward-thinking and powerful real-life medieval women such as Christine de Pizan, Hildegard of Bingen or Eleanor of Aquitaine dared to express this openly (moreover, at the beginning of the book, to a young man whom she has only just met and knows to be destined for the clergy, at a time in history when anything making a woman “troublesome” in male (or female competitive) eyes – certainly excessive learning and self-assurance – could have ended up branding her a witch and landing her on a pyre, based on a trial conducted by exactly the sort of Canon lawyer Gil Cunningham is destined to become, and guided by the infamous “Hammer Against Witches” published a mere ten years before this book’s action takes place) … while at the same time also merrily and competently running her widowed father’s household and besting even women twice or three times her age, and multiple mothers at that, in various tricky situations involving babies and small children. She is, in other words, Superwoman (or rather, Supergirl) writ large. In fact, with all of her manifold accomplishments, I would have had trouble buying her as a character even in a book set in more modern times, but for the Middle Ages, she is totally unbelievable and off the mark. And as she is destined to feature largely in the series’s subsequent books as well, she is the main reason why I won’t be rushing to read any of them. (Just as an aside and for related reasons, the attitudes that the book’s “good guys”, not only Gil, Alys and Pierre, but also Canon Cunningham take towards the victim and her back story, are neither commensurate with medieval clerical and legal doctrine nor certainly with medieval popular opinion, either. That, too, I found rather an irritant.)

As I enjoyed the book from a mere storytelling point of view, as well as the “period details” relating to medieval Scotland as a setting, my rating is overall higher than the room given to the above “dislikes” would suggest. Also, undoubtedly these are personal dislikes, so to a certain extent it’s a question of “this is just me.” (Although since I said at the beginning of this review that the above is the expedited version, you can probably imagine what the full rant would have been like …) Be that as it may:

Someone said in a “pro” review somewhere that where Brother Cadfael left off, this series picks up: I would beg to differ; and not only because Ellis Peters unfailingly had her facts right down to every single detail, and created characters whose attitudes, prejudices and other makeup were actually in synch with the times about which she wrote. Indeed, Brother Cadfael’s often different attitudes and opinions (which he has reached after a lifetime of, literally, having seen the world as it was then known) frequently are a challenge to his contemporaries precisely because they are highly unorthodox from those contemporaries’ point of view, and for the very same reason, Cadfael often gets in trouble. Perhaps most importantly, none of Ellis Peters‘s characters, certainly neither Cadfael himself nor any of the women he encounters, are anywhere near infallible, nor do any of the women transcend (at all, let alone as egregiously as Alys does here) the historically verifiable boundaries of women’s life in the Middle Ages. – In short, Mrs. McIntosh knows how to spin a story, and she also seems to know a fair bit about medieval Glasgow, but she has a long way to go yet if she even wants to get anywhere near the league of Ellis Peters (or, for that matter, C.J. Sansom).


The Medieval Murderers: King Arthur’s Bones

King Arthur's Bones - The Medieval MurderersPicking Over Royal Bones

Royal births, weddings and burials have fascinated us ordinary humans since time immemorial; and while people’s proprietary interest in the fate of the world’s rulers is easily understandable in societies where those rulers wield supreme power – including the Europe of yesteryear – the fascination is no less noticeable in today’s world, where the discovery of royal remains such as those of Richard III, Alfred the Great or the last Romanov Tsar and his family are still apt to make considerable headlines.

But while in today’s world the identity of the august personage who may or may not have left behind the earthly remains uncovered under a Leicester parking lot, in a clearing in the midst of a Russian wood, or in a forgotten storage box in a Winchester museum can be determined (or at least narrowed down) by science, tools such as those of forensic anthropology and DNA analysis were not available to those making comparable discoveries in centuries and millennia past.

Enter, thus, the Rosetta Stone of all British historical lore: King Arthur himself and the fate of his bones – assuming, that is, that he ever lived at all. If William of Malmesbury’s history of Glastonbury (ca. 1130) and Chronicle of the Kings of England (1125), Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1136) and Gerald of Wales’s book On the Instruction of Princes (ca. 1193) are to be believed, Avalon – the place of Arthur’s burial – is modern-day Glastonbury; and indeed, an 1191 excavation in the cemetery of Glastonbury Abbey uncovered an oaken coffin as well as, below a stone, a leaden cross with the inscription “His iacet inclitus Arturius in insula Avalonia” (commonly translated as “Here lies King Arthur buried in Avalon” or “on the island of Avalon”). The coffin contained the bodies of a large man and of a woman with golden hair, which was still intact, but crumbled away upon being until touched.

Arthur and Guinevere?

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Arthur’s Tomb (1855)

The fifth entry in the Medieval Murderers mystery “round robin” series, King Arthur’s Bones, takes the 1191 Glastonbury discovery as its premise and from there embarks on a wild ride, at the heart of which is a story that shows its authors to be conversant not only with the major elements of Arthurian lore but also with the recurrent elements of all historical conspiracy theories: A (truly or apparently) at least partially unexplained fact, event, or series of events, and two or more factions with opposing interests, one or all of whom stand to gain from suppressing or manipulating the truth. Indeed, to a certain extent all of this series’s books are based on this sort of premise: it is therefore probably only logical that the authors should eventually also have tackled the Arthurian legend, even if Philip Gooden, in his entry for this book, has William Shakespeare ponder the same topic and come to a contrary decision. – As in virtually all books based on such a premise, a historically-minded reader’s enjoyment depends as much on the respective writers’ skill as it does on the reader’s own ability to suspend his or her disbelief (or willingness to regard the back story as fiction from the outset). That said, as in previous installments of the series, the authors nevertheless also prove themselves to be sound enough medievalists and historical writers to go to great lengths to document the demonstrably existing historical bases of the book’s individual episodes, down to the recorded names of localities, streets, persons, and major events used as the various episodes’ backdrop.

Like all of the Medieval Murderers “round robins,” the book follows its eponymous titular object from the Middle Ages to the present day; in this instance, from Glastonbury to medieval Wales (which predates even Glastonbury and Tintagel as the root of Arthurian lore and where King Arthur was / is hailed as mythical protector, believed never to have died at all but merely to be asleep in a mountain cave), then to Abbey Dore in Herefordshire (just east of the Welsh border), then to Devon and Cornish Trevenna / Tintagel (though the latter “off stage,” as it were) and finally to London: Shakespeare’s city, then the 19th century territory of spies, Bow Street Runners, Resurrection Men (bodysnatchers) and self-declared Egyptologists, and finally the modern day excavation site of Bermondsey Abbey, where a previous installment of the series (House of Shadows) had already featured one rather gruesome discovery, and where the team of archeologists working on the site now discovers the bones of a large man who must have died in the 6th century, inside a wooden box likely dating from the late 12th century, which itself is locked inside a 19th century metal coffin. (Yet, even taking all the rest of the story for granted, whether or not the very bones that were excavated in Glastonbury are the same bones that also make an appearance in the chapter set during Shakespeare’s time is left somewhat ambiguous; based on the information given in the chapters immediately preceding and succeeding, this is at the very least doubtful: a conspiracy theory loop within a conspiracy theory narration, thus.) Along the way, there is plenty of murder and mayhem; medieval battles, accusations of fratricide, blackmail, treachery, as well as the Knights Templar, King James I’s (in)famous Beasts in the Tower, and a mysterious sect of “Guardians” charged with the protection of the bones.

The Medieval Murderers series is a joint effort of Susanna Gregory, Bernard Knight, Michael Jecks, Ian Morson and Philip Gooden, with Karen Maitland joining the group from the sixth installment on (The Sacred Stone). While the books frequently, though not always, involve the main characters from the respective authors’ individual series, in King Arthur’s Bones the only series characters featured are Michael Jecks’s ex-Knight Templar Sir Baldwin Furnshall (Keeper of the King’s Peace) and Philip Gooden’s Nick Revill, a junior player in the King’s Men, William Shakespeare’s company. In some instances, for me this worked to the book’s advantage – while I like the doses of medieval forensics usually presented by Bernard Knight, overall I could get into the chapter authored by him here much quicker and, to me, it read more fluently and with greater variety than those in previous Medieval Murderers books; the absence of recurring characters who continually seem to be growling or otherwise ill-humored, while displaying few other distinguishing traits, doubtlessly had something to do with this. On the other hand, I have a particular fondness for Susanna Gregory’s 14th century Cambridge physician Matthew Bartholomew and his sidekick, Michaelhouse College’s Senior Proctor William, and I missed them in this book; even though given the book’s storyline as a whole, I’ll grant the authors that the omission makes sense. Ian Morson, finally, seems to be at home in whatever period and milieu he touches – the episodes authored by him are almost always among my favorites, and that was definitely the case here, too.

Overall, this is one of the series’s stronger installments, eminently readable – and an enjoyable twist on Arthurian lore and historical conspiracy theories.

Feasting at King Arthur’s Court (British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.)
Feasting at King Arthur’s Court (British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.)




William Shakespeare: The Sonnets

Shakespeare's SonnetsLord of my love, to whom in vassalage …

Thy merit hath my duty strongly knit,
To thee I send this written embassage,
To witness duty, not to show my wit.
(Sonnet No. 26)

How to do justice to the legacy of literary history’s greatest mind – moreover in such a limited review? Forget Goethe’s “universal genius” and his rebel contemporary Schiller; forget the 19th century masters; forget contemporary literature: with the possible (!) exception of three Greek gentlemen named Aischylos, Sophocles and Euripides, a certain Frenchman called Poquelin (a/k/a Moliere), and that infamous Irishman Oscar Wilde, there’s more wit in a single line of Shakespeare‘s than in an entire page of most other, even great, authors’ works. And I’m not saying this in ignorance of, or in order to slight any other writer: it’s precisely my admiration of the world’s literary giants, past and present, that makes me appreciate Shakespeare even more – and that although I’m aware that he repeatedly borrowed from pre-existing material and that even the (sole) authorship of the works published under his name isn’t established beyond doubt. For ultimately, the only thing that matters to me is the brilliance of those works themselves; and quite honestly, the mysteries continuing to enshroud his person, to me, only enhance his larger-than-life stature.

The precise dating of Shakespeare‘s sonnets – like other poets’, a response to the 1591 publication of Sir Philip Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella – is an even greater guessing game than that of his plays: although Nos. 138 and 144 (slightly modified) appeared in 1599’s Passionate Pilgrim, most were probably circulated privately, and written years before their first – unauthorized, though still authoritative – 1609 publication; possibly beginning in 1592-1593.

Format-wise, they adopt the Elizabethan fourteen-line-structure of three quatrains of iambic pentameters expressing a series of increasingly intense ideas, resolved in a closing couplet; with an abab-cdcd-efef-gg rhyme form. (Sole exceptions: No. 99 – first quatrain amplified by one line –, No. 126 – six couplets & only twelve lines total –, No. 145 – written in tetrameter –, and No. 146 – omission of the second line’s beginning; the subject of a lasting debate.) Their order is thematic rather than chronological, although beyond the fact that the first 126 are addressed to a young man – maybe the Earl of Pembroke or Southampton, maybe Sir Robert Dudley, the natural son of Queen Elizabeth’s “Sweet Robin,” the Earl of Leicester – (the first seventeen, possibly commissioned by the addressee’s family, pressing his marriage and production of an heir), and Nos. 127-152 (or 127-133 and 147-152) to an exotic woman of questionable virtues only known as “The Dark Lady,” even in that respect much remains unclear; including the nature of Shakespeare‘s relationship with the two main addressees, regarding which the sonnets’ often ambiguous metaphors invoke much speculation. No. 145 is probably addressed to Shakespeare‘s wife; the closing couplet plays on her maiden name (“[‘I hate’ from] hate away she threw And saved my life, [saying ‘not you’]:” “Hathaway – Anne saved my life”), several others contain puns on the name Will and its double meaning(s) (exactly fourteen in the naughty No. 135: “Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will;” and seven in the similarly mischievous No. 136), and the last two draw on the then-popular Cupid theme. Sometimes, placement seems linked to contents, e.g., in No. 8 (music: an octave has eight notes), Nos. 12 and 60 (time: twelve hours to both day and night; sixty minutes to an hour); and in the famous No. 55, which praises poetry’s everlasting power and as whose never-expressly-named subject Shakespeare himself emerges in a comparison with Horace’s Ode 3.30 – in turn written in first person singular and thus, denoting its own author as the builder of its “monument more lasting than bronze” (“Exegi monumentum aere perennius”) – as well as through the number “5”‘s optical similarity to the letter “S,” making the sonnet’s number a shorthand reference for “5hake5peare” or “5hakespeare’s 5onnets,” echoed by numerous words containing an “S” in the text.

Of indescribable linguistic beauty, elegance and complexity, Shakespeare‘s sonnets owe their timeless appeal to their supreme compositional values, the universality of their themes, and their keen insights into the human heart and soul; as much as their transcendence of the era’s poetic conventions which, following Petrarch, heavily idealized the addressee’s qualities: a form new and exciting twohundred years earlier, but encrusted in cliché in the late 1500s. Indeed, Shakespeare‘s “Dark Lady” Sonnet No. 130 owes its particular fame to its clever puns on that very style, which went overboard with references to its golden-haired, starry- (beamy-, sparkling, sunny-) eyed, cherry- (strawberry-, vermilion-, coral-) lipped, rosy- (crimson-, purple-, dawn-) cheeked, ivory- (lily-, carnation-, crystal-, silver-, snowy-, swan-white) skinned, pearl-teethed, honey- (nectar-, music-) tongued, goddess-like objects. “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;” the Bard countered, proceeded to describe her breasts as “dun,” her hair as “black wires,” and her breath as “reek[ing],” and denied her any divine or angelic attributes. “And yet,” he concluded: “by heaven, I think my love as rare As any she belied with false compare.”

Arguably, Shakespeare‘s very choice of addressees (a young man – also the subject of the famously romantic No. 18: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day;” the first of several sonnets promising his immortalization in poetry – as well as the “Dark Lady,” in turn introduced under the notion “black is beautiful” in No. 127) itself suggests a break with tradition; and compared to his contemporaries’ poetry, even the equally-famous No. 116’s on its face rather conventional praise of love’s constancy (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments”), echoed in the poet’s vow to vanquish time in No. 123, sounds fairly restrained. But ultimately, Shakespeare‘s sonnets – like his entire work – simply defy categorization. They are, as rival Ben Jonson acknowledged, written “for all time,” just as the Bard himself immodestly claimed:

‘Gainst death and all oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
(Sonnet 55)

A Favorite:

Sonnet 130:
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.”


One-page edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets (photo mine)

William Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Folger Library Edition)

Hamlet - William ShakespeareTo thine own self be true …

William Shakespeare‘s Hamlet is arguably the most famous play ever written in the English language; it presents the world with questions and characters that have been the subject of thespian and scholarly debate ever since the Prince of Denmark’s first appearance on the stage of London’s Globe Theatre. Probably written and first performed in 1601 (estimates vary between 1600 and 1602), the play draws on Saxo Grammaticus’s late 12th/early 13th century chronicle Gesta Danorum, which includes a popular legend with a similar plot centering around a prince named Amleth; as well as several more contemporaneous sources, primarily Francois de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques, Extraicts des Oeuvres Italiennes de Bandel (1559-1580), which expands on the story told in the Gesta Danorum, and a lost play known as the Ur-Hamlet (i.e., original Hamlet), sometimes also attributed to Shakespeare, but equally likely written by a different author a few decades earlier. Another work frequently cited in this context is 16th century playwright Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedie.

Pursuant to Shakespeare‘s wishes and like all of his works, Hamlet was not immediately published, and the original manuscript did not survive. However, in the absence of copyright laws or other forms of protection of what today would be called the playwright’s intellectual property rights, first bootleg copies (so-called quartos) based on transcripts made during or after performances began to appear in 1603. Yet, it would not be until 1623 – seven years after Shakespeare‘s 1616 death – that his former fellow actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell published 36 of his plays (including this one) in a collection known as the First Folio.

As no print version of any of Shakespeare‘s plays has a bona fide claim to its author’s first-hand blessings, ever since the Bard‘s death the world is left with numerous questions about his characters’ motivations and psychological makeup; first and foremost, in this particular case: who is this Prince of Denmark anyway, and what’s driving him – is he a reluctant suicide or reluctant avenger? A Renaissance man? Wrecked by Freudian guilt? Genuinely mad, or merely putting on a clever act of deception? Or is he someone else entirely? – Indeed, we’re even left in doubt as to what exactly it was that Shakespeare meant his characters to say, with all attendant interpretative consequences: Does the Prince wish for his “too too sullied” or his “too too solid” flesh to “melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew” in his first major soliloquy (Act I, Scene 2)? Does he really contemplate “the stamp of [that] one defect” which may fatally taint the perception of a man’s other virtues, “be they as pure as grace,” before meeting his father’s ghost (I, 4)? Does Polonius, when sending Reynaldo on a spying mission after Laertes, refer to his scheme as “a fetch of wit” or “a fetch of warrant” (II, 1)? Do Hamlet’s musings in “To be, or not to be” (III, 1) concern “enterprises of great pith and moment” or “of great pitch and moment,” whose “currents turn awry and lose the name of action” by his doubts? Does or doesn’t the sight of the Norwegian army while Hamlet is on his way to England (IV, 4) prompt him, who has so far failed to carry out his purpose, to reflect “How all occasions do inform against me,” and conclude his soliloquy with the vow “from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”?

How you answer any of these questions, and how you consequently view the play’s characters, depends in no small part on the text you read. Like all Folger Shakespeare editions, this one is based on what the editors have deemed the “best early printed version,” while allowing the reader a unique direct comparison of the principal reliable versions by including a text essentially combining these versions, with unobtrusive markers characterizing those passages appearing only in one particular version. For Hamlet, the editors eschewed the play’s very first (1603) quarto, which was possibly compiled by a journeyman actor and whose inconsistencies with all subsequent versions (textually as well as plot-wise and even regarding character names) have caused it to be generally considered a “bad” quarto, in favor of the 1604 Second Quarto, which some even believe to be based on Shakespeare‘s own first draft of the play and which, in any event, while more extensive than the 1623 First Folio (in turn, thought to be closest to the version(s) actually produced on the Globe Theatre stage), boasts about as secure a claim of authenticity as the latter. In some instances, the text follows the Second Quarto (Q2) without visually alerting the reader to the differences vis-a-vis the First Folio (F1), thus compelling those more used to the latter version to seek out the extensive end notes to reassure themselves that (in the examples given above) it might indeed be “solid flesh,” “warrant,” and “pith and moment” (F1) instead of “sullied flesh,” “wit,” and “pitch and moment” (Q2). In other instances, however, the First Folio’s language (clearly marked as such) is given preference over that of the Second Quarto; while crucially, the text also includes all those passages *only* contained in the latter, including the “stamp of one defect” and “bloody thoughts” monologues, whose interpretation has such a direct bearing on many a reader’s understanding of Hamlet’s character.

The text is amplified by illustrations and annotations for those unfamiliar with 16th century English, scene-by-scene plot summaries, a short biography of Shakespeare, and introductory and concluding essays on this and the Bard‘s other plays and on Shakespearean theatre, as well as extensive suggestions for further reading, and a key to the play’s most famous lines. While it is unlikely that after 400 years of debate any one version, be it in print, on stage or on screen, will be able to generate unanimous acceptance as the “definitive” rendition of this complex play, this is an excellent starting point for an in-depth excursion into the Prince of Denmark’s world.

Hamlet and Horatio in the cemetery - Delacroix EugeneEugène Delacroix: Hamlet and Horatio in the Cemetery
(1839, Musée du Louvre, Paris, France)


Favorite Quotes:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

“What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused.”

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.”

“Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”

“Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.”

“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”


One-page edition of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (photo mine)


The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works (gen. eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor)

All the World’s A Stage

The 1598 loss of their theater’s lease should have been a major blow to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of Elizabethan England’s premier acting troupes, who had gained even more popularity by teaming up with one Will Shakespeare, a Warwickshire glover’s son come to London some six years earlier in pursuit of his Muse, leaving behind a wife and three children; daughter Susanna, born but seven months into his marriage, and twins Hamnet and Judith, who’d followed two years later. Yet, what to another company might have spelled “present death” only brought greater fame and fortune to the one boasting, in addition to Master Shakespeare‘s talents, those of Richard Burbage: not only a superb tragedian but also his troupe’s financier and, together with brother Cuthbert, happily able to afford the construction of a new theater in Bankside, on the opposite side of the River Thames. Prophetically, the company named their new home “The Globe” and endowed it with a motto which, in approximate translation, audiences of one of the first plays produced there – As You Like It  – would soon also hear pronounced from the stage, and which sums up the essence of the Bard’s plays better than anything else: “Totus mundus agit histrionem” – “All the world’s a stage.”

The new playhouse’s name and motto were apposite not only because the era did indeed consider a stage a model of the world (the area above was referred to as heaven, the area below as hell, and characters would often appear accordingly: as such, Hamlet’s father is heard crying “below [stage]” after his encounter with the Prince), but first and foremost because Shakespeare‘s plays themselves, individually as well as collectively, represent a microcosm of human relationships and behavior virtually unparalleled to this day: Laced with murderous schemes, revenge, and the search for justice, love, and peace of mind, but also comedy, all-too-human fallibility and great nobility of spirit, they delve into the human mind’s darkest recesses and soar to its greatest heights; exploring greed, envy, ambition, guilt, remorse and pure evil, next to compassion, generosity, humility, innocence, fidelity, cleverness, boundless cheers and optimism; all interwoven in timeless plots unmatched in wit, variety, construction, and richness of characters.

Yet, for all this, the biggest difficulty remaining to modern editors and readers alike is that while Shakespeare himself didn’t seek the publication of his plays, in the absence of anything approximating modern copyright laws, he was unable to prevent their publication by others, in so-called “quarto” editions, often based on unreliable transcripts made during or after a performance. Only after his death, in 1623, his former fellow-actors John Hemmings and Henry Condell published 37 of his plays “cured and perfect of their limbs” – i.e., restored to their author’s true intentions – in a volume since referred to as the “First Folio.”

Alas, authoritative weight though it has, even the latter doesn’t conclusively answer what the Bard intended as the final version of these 37 plays. For one thing, research shows that even some of the Folio texts were edited by others; most prominently so Macbeth, where Thomas Middleton inserted, inter alia, the witch queen Hecate as an additional character. Secondly, quarto editions of several plays published prior to the First Folio (especially of Henry IV Part 2, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, Othello, and King Lear) are widely believed to represent earlier (or rival) drafts written by Shakespeare himself, and thus accorded considerable authoritative weight of their own. Often, these plays are therefore presented (both in print and on stage) by “conflating” both versions’ texts. In the interest of purity, the editors of this particular volume have eschewed that approach, choosing instead to reproduce the Folio text throughout (with gently modernized spelling), because this was probably the text originally used on stage, and appending the passages most frequently added from the rivaling quartos at the end of the respective plays. Thus, this edition’s reader will find Hamlet musing in “To be, or not to be” about “enterprises of great pith and moment” whose currents “turn awry and lose the name of action” (not “of great pitch and moment,” as in the 1604 “Second Quarto”); (s)he will, however, have to consult the appendix to find the Prince’s reflections on that “stamp of one defect” so prominently featuring in Sir Laurence Olivier’s movie, or his vows of “bloody thoughts” after encountering Fortinbras. Only in the case of Lear, the editors chose to fully include both rivaling versions – that of the First Folio and that of the 1608 quarto – because here, the omission of entire scenes and reassignment of numerous pieces of dialogue essentially transforms the Folio text into a new play vis-a-vis the 1608 quarto.

Painstakingly researched and an obvious labor of love, this volume moreover restores the plays’ original titles (All Is True instead of Henry VIII, etc.), and also contains Shakespeare‘s long poems and sonnets, brief accounts on the lost plays (Cardenio, Love’s Labour’s Won), and – with appropriate caveats – the texts of works of only partial/uncertain attribution, such as The Two Noble Kinsmen, sundry poetry, and (for the first time) Edward III, as well as the editorially and topically so problematic Book of Sir Thomas More. Background and supplemental materials include introductions to Shakespeare‘s life, career and language and on the Elizabethan theater, a user’s guide, a list of contemporary references to the Bard, commendatory poems and prefaces of his works (including those of the First Folio), a glossary, an ample reading list, as well as a short introduction to each work. At well over 1000 pages a brick even in paperback format, this isn’t the place to turn for a complete scholarly review of any given play – for that, the reader is well-advised to consult this volume’s Textual Companion or one of the many excellent editions of the individual plays – but a marvelously-presented one-volume resource on the legacy of the playwright whose works, as already friendly rival Ben Jonson rightly prophesied, would last “for all time.”

Favorite Quotes:

“This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

“Brevity is the soul of wit.”

“What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and god-like reason to fust in us unused.”

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledg’d comrade.”

“Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.”

“Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.”

“Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?”

As You Like It

“All the world’s a stage.”

“Love is merely a madness.”

“Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.”

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.”

Much Ado About Nothing

“I had rather hear my dog bark at a crow, than a man swear he loves me.”

“If [God] send me no husband, for the which blessing I am at him upon my knees every morning and evening …”

“Thou and I are too wise to woo peaceably.”

“LEONATO: Well, then, go you into hell?
BEATRICE: No, but to the gate; and there will the devil meet me, like an old cuckold, with horns on his head, and say ‘Get you to heaven, Beatrice, get you to heaven; here’s no place for you maids:’ so deliver I up my apes, and away to Saint Peter for the heavens; he shows me where the bachelors sit, and there live we as merry as the day is long.”

“LEONATO: Well, niece, I hope to see you one day fitted with a husband.
BEATRICE: Not till God make men of some other metal than earth. Would it not grieve a woman to be overmastered with a pierce of valiant dust? to make an account of her life to a clod of wayward marl? No, uncle, I’ll none: Adam’s sons are my brethren; and, truly, I hold it a sin to match in my kindred.”

“DON PEDRO: Come, lady, come; you have lost the heart of Signior Benedick.
BEATRICE: Indeed, my lord, he lent it me awhile; and I gave him use for it, a double heart for his single one: marry, once before he won it of me with false dice, therefore your grace may well say I have lost it.
DON PEDRO: You have put him down, lady, you have put him down.
BEATRICE: So I would not he should do me, my lord, lest I should prove the mother of fools.”

“Yes, faith; it is my cousin’s duty to make curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please you.’ But yet for all that, cousin, let him be a handsome fellow, or else make another curtsy and say ‘Father, as it please me.”

“Wooing, wedding, and repenting is as a Scotch jig, a measure, and a cinque-pace: the first suit is hot and hasty like a Scotch jig – and full as fantastical; the wedding, mannerly modest, as a measure, full of state and ancientry; and then comes repentance and with his bad legs falls into the cinque-pace faster and faster, till he sink into his grave.”

“Time goes on crutches till love have all his rites.”

“For it falls out
That what we have we prize not to the worth
Whiles we enjoy it, but being lacked and lost,
Why, then we rack the value, then we find
The virtue that possession would not show us
While it was ours.”

“To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

“Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

“The course of true love never did run smooth.”

“Though she be but little, she is fierce!”

The Taming of the Shrew

“If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”


“Let every man be master of his time.”

“Things without all remedy should be without regard: what’s done is done.”

“What’s done cannot be undone.”

Henry V

“Men of few words are the best men.”

“All things are ready, if our mind be so.”

“O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play.”

“What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
And what have kings, that privates have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy being fear’d
Than they in fearing.
What drink’st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison’d flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think’st thou the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Canst thou, when thou command’st the beggar’s knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream,
That play’st so subtly with a king’s repose;
I am a king that find thee, and I know
‘Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running ‘fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill’d and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm’d with distressful bread;
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell,
But, like a lackey, from the rise to set
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year,
With profitable labour, to his grave:
And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country’s peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.”

“WESTMORELAND: O that we now had here
But one ten thousand of those men in England
That do no work to-day!
KING: What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin;
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words –
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester –
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.”

Twelfth Night

“If music be the food of love, play on.”

The Tempest

“What’s past is prologue.”

“Thought is free.”

The Winter’s Tale

“Though I am not naturally honest, I am sometimes so by chance.”

“Exit pursued by a bear.”
[Stage direction (III, iii)]”

“I have drunk and seen the spider.”

Henry IV, Part 2

“Enter RUMOUR, painted full of tongues.”
[Stage direction, Induction]

“RUMOUR: Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.”

“Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it.”

Henry VI, Part 3

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”

The Merchant of Venice

“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

“If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do, chapels had been churches, and poor men’s cottages princes’ palaces. It is a good divine that follows his own instructions: I can easier teach twenty what were good to be done, than be one of the twenty to follow mine own teaching.”

“So may the outward shows be least themselves:
The world is still deceived with ornament.
In law, what plea so tainted and corrupt,
But, being seasoned with a gracious voice,
Obscures the show of evil? In religion,
What damned error, but some sober brow
Will bless it and approve it with a text,
Hiding the grossness with fair ornament?
There is no vice so simple but assumes
Some mark of virtue on his outward parts.”

“Look on beauty,
And you shall see ’tis purchased by the weight;
Which therein works a miracle in nature,
Making them lightest that wear most of it:
So are those crisped snaky golden locks
Which make such wanton gambols with the wind,
Upon supposed fairness, often known
To be the dowry of a second head,
The skull that bred them in the sepulchre.
Thus ornament is but the guiled shore
To a most dangerous sea; the beauteous scarf
Veiling an Indian beauty; in a word,
The seeming truth which cunning times put on
To entrap the wisest.”

“All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.”

Julius Caesar

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Antony and Cleopatra

“In time we hate that which we often fear.”

King Lear

“Fortune love you.”

Romeo and Juliet

“There is thy gold, worse poison to men’s souls,
Doing more murder in this loathsome world,
Than these poor compounds that thou mayst not sell.”


“O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on.”

Measure for Measure

“Our doubts are traitors,
and make us lose the good we oft might win,
by fearing to attempt.”

Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Sonnet 55:
“Not marble nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme,
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone, besmeared with sluttish time.
When wasteful war shall statues overturn
And broils roots out the work of masonry,
Nor mars his sword nor war’s quick fire shall burn
The living record of your memory.
‘Gainst death and all-oblivious enmity
Shall you pace forth; your praise shall still find room
Even in the eyes of all posterity
That wear this world out to the ending doom.
So, till judgement that yourself arise,
You in this, and dwell in lovers eyes.”

Sonnet 130:
“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red, than her lips red:
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go,
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet by heaven, I think my love as rare,
As any she belied with false compare.”

The Rape of Lucrece

“Beauty itself doth of itself persuade
The eyes of men without orator.”

“Those that much covet are with gain so fond,
For what they have not, that which they possess
They scatter and unloose it from their bond,
And so, by hoping more, they have but less;
Or, gaining more, the profit of excess
Is but to surfeit, and such griefs sustain,
That they prove bankrupt in this poor-rich gain.”






Vladislav Tamarov: Afghanistan – A Russian Soldier’s Story

Afghanistan: A Russian Soldier's Story - Vladislav TamarovBoy soldiers in a war that turned out to be a “mistake”

Growing up in Germany and learning about World War II in school and from my parents and grandparents, among the things that impressed me most – that I just couldn’t get out of my mind – were the pictures of those boys drafted into Adolf Hitler’s “Volkssturm” (literally: “People’s Storm”); the pictures of those 16-, 18- and 19-year-old boys torn out of school before they had even had a chance to graduate, and turned into cannon fodder; the pictures of those eyes staring out of faces grown old long before their time. I have seen those same eyes and those same faces again in Vladislav Tamarov’s photo-journalistic report on his experiences as a Russian soldier in Afghanistan, subtitled simply “A Russian Soldier’s Story.”

There is, for example, Sergei, the author’s best friend in Afghanistan, who had his leg shattered by an exploding bullet – and so much more than just his leg was shattered with it. Then there is Sasha, who wanted to be a pilot and asked his friend Vlad, who was from Leningrad (St. Petersburg), whether his parents could enquire for him about the application procedures for the city’s flight school – and who didn’t even live to receive his answer. There is Aleksei, who walked into a minefield because somebody misread a map. There is Aleksandr, who got killed covering his commanding officer’s body with his chest and who was posthumously awarded the Soviet Union’s highest medal – which was given to his mother, to take the place of her dead son. There is Kravchenko, who went out to check a road with a couple of newcomers and was blown up by a mine – only weeks before he was scheduled to return home. There is Volodya, who couldn’t look into the eyes of other minesweepers returning to camp if he hadn’t gone out with them – and who was also killed only months before his time in Afghanistan was supposed to be over. There is the group picture of Oleg, Renat, Aleksandr, Vladimir and Sergei, taken while they are resting somewhere under a tree – only 14 hours before one of them would be killed by an ambush, 46 days before two more of them would be seriously injured and another one killed, and one year before the last of them would also be killed. And there is Vladislav Tamarov himself, who in 1984, like so many others, suddenly found himself in a boot camp, being trained for a two-year turn of duty in Afghanistan because the Supreme Soviet had proclaimed seven years earlier in the country’s revised constitution that “[t]o serve in the Soviet army is the honorable duty of Soviet citizens” – and ever since the Communist party leaders’ 1979 decision to yield to the “call for help” issued by the communist satellite government in Kabul, that “honorable duty” consisted in “supporting the Afghan revolution.” And so Tamarov was pulled out of university, learned to put on a parachute and jump into the abyss below his plane (a completely useless skill in Afghanistan), learned to kill boys as young as himself in order to survive, was made a minesweeper without any prior training at all; and as a minesweeper, quickly learned that you make a mistake only once – it’s between you and that mine, and there is no second chance. Not ever.

“Afghanistan – A Russian Soldier’s Story” is Vladislav Tamarov’s intensely personal report of his two-year turn of duty in Afghanistan; not a journalist’s or a professional writer’s detached account but the story of one who was there, experienced “what it was like” and came back alive: the human side of the inhumanity of war. The book very much has the feeling of a conversation with the author – in the form of letters, perhaps, or excerpts from a diary shared with the book’s readers. Divided into chapters entitled for the main components of the author’s experience (Boot Camp, Combat Missions, Minesweepers, the Base, etc.), the narrative structure nevertheless frequently alternates between the report of events in Afghanistan and the sensation of being back home again afterwards; thus introducing the reader to the confusing feeling of conflicting audiovisual and sensory associations; and of waking up in the morning and not knowing for a few seconds where you are. Most impressive, however, are Tamarov’s black and white photographs, processed by the author himself (primarily while still “in country”), which convey a darkly acute and poignant sense of Afghanistan, of the Russian soldiers’ scarce encounters with its people, and again and again, of the dangers and desolation of a minesweeper’s life, and his loneliness even in a group of fellow soldiers. The author’s comparisons of his experience with that of American VietNam veterans further add to the complexity of his account, and deepen the understanding that the terror of war is the same, regardless on which side you are fighting. “When you live next to death … you don’t think about it anymore, you just try to encounter it as seldom as possible,” Tamarov writes, and: “We didn’t believe in tomorrow. And we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.” Like too many others, Tamarov had to learn to live with this experience for the rest of his life – and it was certainly not made easier by the Soviet Union’s belated admission that the war in Afghanistan was “a mistake.” His story is a powerful reminder that regardless of its motivation, war is never, ever a glorious thing – at least not for those who are sent to fight it; even if they are not as young as the boys who made up the largest contingent of the Soviet Union’s troops in Afghanistan.


A Selection of Quotes and Photos:

“When I was drafted into the army in April 1984, I was a nineteen-year-old  boy. The club where they took us was a distribution centre. Officers came there from various military units and picked out the soldiers they wanted. My fate was decided in one minute. A young officer came up to me and asked, “Do you want to serve in the commandos, the Blue Berets?”  Of course I agreed. Two hours later I was on a plane to Uzbekistan (a Soviet republic in Central Asia), where our training base was located.

During the flight, I learned most of the soldiers from this base were sent to Afghanistan. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t surprised. At that point I didn’t care anymore because I understood that it is impossible to change anything. ‘To serve in the Soviet army is the honourable duty of Soviet citizens” – as it’s written in our Constitution. And no one gives a damn whether you want to fulfil this “honourable duty” or not. But then I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan. Up until 1985, in the press and on television, they told us that Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan were planting trees and building schools and hospitals. And only a few knew that more and more cemeteries were being filled with the graves of eighteen- to twenty-year-old boys. Without the dates of their death, without inscriptions. Only their names on black stone …

At the base we were trained and taught to shoot. We were told that we were being sent to Afghanistan not to plant trees. And as to building schools, we simply wouldn’t have the time …

Three and a half months later, my plane was landing in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan … We were taken to a club on base. A few minutes later, officers started to come by and choose soldiers. Suddenly, an officer with a smiling face and sad eyes burst in noisily. He looked us over with an appraising glance and pointed his finger at me: “Ah ha! I see a minesweeper!” That’s how I became a minesweeper. Ten days later, I went on my first combat mission.”


“On August 10, 1984, my plane landed in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. There were no skyscrapers here. The blue domes of the mosques and the faded mountains were the only things rising above the adobe duvals (the houses). The mosques came alive in the evening with multivoiced wailing: the mullahs were calling the faithful to evening prayer. It was such an unusual spectacle that, in the beginning, I used to leave the barracks to listen – the same way that, in Russia, on spring nights, people go outside to listen to the nightingales sing. For me, a nineteen-year-old boy who had lived his whole life in Leningrad, everything about Kabul was exotic: enormous skies – uncommonly starry – occasionally punctured by the blazing lines of tracers. And spread out before you, the mysterious Asian capital where strange people were bustling about like ants on an anthill: bearded men, faces darkend by the sun, in solid-colored wide cotton trousers and long shirts. Their modern jackets, worn over those outfits, looked completely unnatural. And women, hidden under plain dull garments that covered them from head to toe: only their hands visible, holding bulging shopping bags, and their feet, in worn-out shoes or sneakers, sticking out from under the hems.

And somewhere between this odd city and the deep black southern sky, the wailing, beautifully incomprehensible songs of the mullahs. The sounds didn’t contradict each other, but rather, in a polyphonic echo, melted away among the narrow streets. The only thing missing was Scheherazade with her tales of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights … A few days later I saw my first missile attack on Kabul. This country was at war.”


“October 1984, Macedonian Column: The column was built by the troops of Alexander the Great many centuries ago. By the same Alexander the Great who said, ‘One can occupy Afghanistan, but one cannot vanquish her.’  This column, visible from Kabul, stood in this same place when Alexander the Great and his troops left Afghanistan; it stood there where our troops came into Afghanistan, and it remained standing even after our troops left Afghanistan.”


“This is a page from my Afghan notebook. Here, I wrote down each of my combat missions. First, I wrote down the mission number. If I’d been in the mountains, I circled the number. Then I wrote the last name of the place where we’d been and how many days we were there. Last, I wrote the month and the year. That was my system.”


    “Someone once said that a minesweeper makes only two mistakes: the first is when he decides to be one. The second …”


May 1985, Djalalabad, from left to right: Oleg (3 shell shocks from explosions) Renat (over 200 days in combat) Alexandr (killed in action 11 hours later) Vladimir (killed in action in June 1986) Sergej (killed in action in June 1985, 6 weeks after this picture was taken).

“We stayed here for only a few hours. We rested and went on.  But the camera snatched this fraction of a second from the eternal flow of time and froze it forever.  At this moment we didn’t know that in a few hours we would fall into an ambush. At this moment, while we were filling our canteens from the stream, we didn’t yet know that we would stay in the mountains for three days without a drop of water.  We didn’t yet know anything …”


“There’s nothing I can do to erase the shadow of misery and despair from the eyes looking back at me from the photos.”


“Sasha was my friend … Like me, he was 19. But he didn’t come home. He was killed 12 hours after this photo was taken.”


“Autumn 1985  Kabul Airfield, Afghanistan: These two soldiers are from my platoon:  A few minutes from this moment, they’ll be flying in helicopters toward the mountains. In forty minutes, people will be shooting at these 19 year old boys. And they will shoot back, and they will kill. That is the law of war: if you don’t kill first, they’ll kill you.  We didn’t invent this law.

But having landed in a war, we have to live by its rules. And the quicker you learn the rules, the longer you have to live by them.  You don’t think about whether you are defending someone’s revolution or defending the ‘southern borders of the motherland’. You simply shoot at those who are shooting at you and at your friend behind you – you shoot at the guys whose mines blew away your friend yesterday.”


“I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember where he was from. I remember that our climb into the mountains was grueling, and we were exhausted. He was new. This was one of his first battles and I wanted to encourage him, to cheer him up.”


“September 1985, Charikar: These are prisoners. A few hours ago, they were free men in the mountains but now they are here in our camp.  Now they are silently looking us over, while we are silently looking them over.  But it wasn’t always like this …”


“I saw houses burned by the Mujahadeen, as well as disfigured bodies of prisoners they’d taken. But I saw other things too: villages destroyed by our shelling and bodies of women, killed by mistake. When you shoot at every rustling in the bushes, there’s no time to think about who’s there. But for an Afghan, it didn’t matter if his wife had been killed intentionally or accidentally. He went into the mountains to see revenge.”


“He was holding his right leg, but the blood soaked through his fingers and flowed over his hand onto his sleeve. Intuition had served me again this time: my kick had knocked his automatic out of his grasp a fraction of a second before he could press the trigger.  The second kick was to his face.  It sent him flying about six feet. I set my sights on his head, but something stopped me, one of our guys let out a yelp behind me.  Another bullet whistled by right next to me.  Apparently, this Mujahadeen was not the only one here. Again, I aimed at his head, but something again stopped me.  I saw how his hands were trembling.  I noticed the horror in his eyes.  “He is only a boy!” I thought and pressed the trigger.”


 “I never sat like this, in such an open and vulnerable position. I just liked the view from this cliff, and I decided to take this shot especially for my parents: to show how peaceful it was in Afghanistan … but within two seconds I wasn’t anywhere near that rock.”


“The photos I took in Afghanistan are lying in front of me. I peer into the faces of those who were with me there and who are so far away from me now, into the faces of those who were dying right next to me and those who were hiding behind my back. I can make these photos larger or smaller, darker or lighter. But what I can’t do is bring back those who are gone forever.”

“We didn’t believe in tomorrow. We we couldn’t forget what had happened yesterday.”

“When you live next to death … you don’t think about it anymore, you just try to encounter it as seldom as possible.”


“Once, back home, I decided to count how many days out of my twenty months in Afghanistan I’d been on combat missions. 217 days. And I’m still paying the price for every one of those days.”

“When I came home, I was asked to put my pictures in a photo exhibit at the Cinematography College … my pictures won first prize.  I began to ask myself what I was doing, and why.  A few months after the exhibit, I dropped out of college, left my wife and began to write this book.”


“This picture – me standing with an arm around an Afghan government soldier – was one of three photos I gave them for the exhibit. For the exhibit, I gave this photo a short, bogus title: They Defend the Revolution.”


“I am asked if I think the war was a just war…how can I answer?  I was a boy born and raised in beautiful Leningrad, a boy who loved his parents and went obediently to school.  A boy who was yanked out of that life and dumped in a strange land where life followed different rules.”

“By 1989, the total number of Vietnam veterans who had died  in violent accidents or by suicide after the war exceeded the total number of American soldiers who died during the war.”


Michael Cox: The Meaning of Night

The Meaning of Night - Michael Cox“For Death is the meaning of night, the eternal shadow into which all lives must fall, all hopes expire.”

Phoebus Rainsford Daunt, we learn from this book’s alleged editor (one J.J. Antrobus,* who claims to have discovered the collection of quarto-leaf pages making up the “confession” reproduced herein amidst a series of papers recently left to Cambridge University Library), was a 19th century poet who, though fashionable in life, quickly vanished into oblivion after his untimely demise one snowy 1854 December night. Under the glittering surface of the celebrated poet and man of society, however, Daunt was also – if this “confession”‘s author is to be believed – an unscrupulous villain who would stop at nothing to satisfy his near-unsatiable desires, and with whom death caught up as the ultimate retribution for a series of increasingly grave wrongs brought upon his erstwhile schoolfellow Edward Glyver a/k/a Glapthorn.

Told from the perspective of Daunt’s murderer – that same Edward Glyver – “The Meaning of Night” takes the reader into the world of Victorian England: from the “Great Leviathan,” as Glyver calls London, with its ale houses and opium dens, shady recesses and dark courtyards, the murky waters of the Thames, the splendor of Belgravia and the green expanse of Hyde Park, to the Channel coast’s windswept cliffs and beaches, then on to the hallowed halls of Eton and Cambridge, and finally to Evenwood, the Northamptonshire residence of Daunt’s patron Lord Tansor and symbol of Glyver’s own hopes and desires; a serene, Eden-like place of beauty, tranquility and … learning. For Evenwood also contains one of the country’s finest libraries of rare prints and manuscripts; and to Glyver, an incurable bibliophile who once harbored aspirations of an academic career, this in itself provides the place with an attraction every bit as strong as the charms exuded by its architecture, its setting and landscape, and by Emily Carteret (the daughter of Lord Tansor’s first cousin and secretary), with whom our narrator falls irredeemably in love.

In spinning his tale, author Michael Cox carefully avoids the pitfalls of a strictly chronological account, and the skillfully layered narrative tiers – Glyver’s “confession” itself, his oral accounts to select associates and confidants (as then detailed in the “confession”), various pieces of correspondence and diary entries, as well as a lengthy written deposition – greatly augment the story’s inherent tension. Thus, we don’t make Edward Glyver’s acquaintance in his childhood home of Sandchurch, Dorset, but rather in London, where the novel opens with the stunning declaration: “After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.” Such a beginning must needs evoke overtones of Edgar Allan Poe (“The Tell-Tale Heart,” 1834); and indeed, like so many tales by the American master of horror, “The Meaning of Night” – which takes its title from a line from one of Daunt’s poems – is the story of one man’s descent into an obsession ultimately as destructive for himself as for his adversary: an adversary, moreover, whom we meet in person but fleetingly, which in turn again underscores our reluctance to place exclusive trust in Glyver’s judgment. Given that the latter even admits instantly that the “the red-haired man”‘s, a complete stranger’s killing was only a practice run for the murder of Daunt – and that we therefore anticipate that murder as his narration’s conclusion virtually from page one – it is all the more to Cox’s credit that he succeeds in maintaining the reader’s interest in and, despite all misgivings, sympathy for Glyver throughout, while also increasing the story’s tension until it reaches its dramatic finale.

Any novel embarking on a trip into 19th century England will court comparisons not only with Poe but, first and foremost, with Charles Dickens, whom Cox does acknowledge as a direct influence. And colorful characters such as Glyver and Daunt, Glyver’s employer Tredgold (Senior Partner at the lawfirm of Tredgold, Tredgold & Orr), Fordyce Jukes (head clerk at the aforementioned firm) and Josiah Pluckrose (a formidable representative of London’s underworld) could – names and all – easily populate the worlds of “Oliver Twist,” “David Copperfield,” or, for that matter, “Bleak House” or “Nicholas Nickelby.” But Dickens was a social reformer who actually walked the streets he described, whereas Cox – editor of several volumes of Victorian ghost and mystery stories – is necessarily guided by research and hindsight. And while his knowledge of the era is certainly vast, there are aspects which, to me, don’t quite ring true; particularly so, the transformation of Glyver’s friend Isabella Gallini from a well-bred, honorable young lady into a lady of pleasure: in Victorian society, with its inseparable link of female chastity and good repute, for a woman of Isabella’s background and learning the ultimate downfall; yet, suffered by her with way too good cheer and quick adaptability. For all of Cox’s knowledge of the writing world, this does seem to betray the first-time fiction author after all, as does the somewhat tentative execution of two extremely significant, epiphany-like moments, and the author’s occasional linguistic slips (“Riddle me this,” which modern-day moviegoers may recognize from “Batman Forever”) and unattributed quotes: While Shakespeare’s manifold epigrams (e.g., “A palpable hit” – Hamlet, V, 2) even in the 19th century had long passed into the collective conscience and an express attibution might arguably even have sounded jarring, I was a little surprised to find a book otherwise so scrupulous about these issues quoting Poe (“a dream within a dream,” 1827) – in the bibliophile narrator’s, Glyver’s voice, at that – without any acknowledgment.

This notwithstanding: It took the tragedy of Michael Cox’s having to undergo surgery for a cancer threateing his eyesight and his life to transform an unfinished manuscript begun thirty years earlier into a novel finally and deservedly now making its way into print. It is a pity the self-same cancer  could claim its victim before Cox had the opportunity to complete the trilogy begun with this book, and continued with “The Glass of Time” (set 20 years later).


* Allusion to the family allegorizing the history of the world in Thornton Wilder’s “Skin of Our Teeth” (1942)? Or to the J. Antrobus who authored several books on the interpretation of dreams published in the 1990s?


Favorite Quotes:

“For Death is the meaning of night;
The eternal shadow
Into which all lives must fall,
All hopes expire.”

“After killing the red-haired man, I took myself off to Quinn’s for an oyster supper.”

“I had retained little of what is generally called religion, except for a visceral conviction that our lives are controlled by some universal mechanism that is greater than ourselves. Perhaps that was what others called God. Perhaps not.”

“It is trite to speak of a broken heart. Hearts are not broken; they continue to beat, the blood still courses, even in the bitter after-days of betrayal. but something is broken when pain beyond words is suffered; some connection that formerly existed with light and hope and bright mornings is severed, and can never be restored.”

“The summer passed quietly. I busied myself as best I could, reading a good deal.”

“But greater than all these delights would be the possession of this wondrous library for my own use and pleasure. What more could my bibliophile’s soul ask for? Here were marvels without end, treasures beyond knowing. You have seen the worst of me in these confessions. Here, then, let me throw into the opposite side of the balance, what I truly believe is the best of me: my devotion to the mental life, to those divine faculties of intellect and imagination which, when exercised to the utmost, can make gods of us all.”