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Saturday, June 23, 2007

One of the Best Historical Novels: Katherine by Anya Seton

In spite of my fiance calling them 'hysterical novels' I love to read good historical novels. I read that Alison Weir, the historian, was actually inspired by this one when she was young which justified my liking for them!

Anya Seton used to be one of my favourite authors and I read all of her books a long time ago. Katherine is one of her best and I still enjoyed it very much when I re-read it recently. Set in medieval times, it is a moving love story based on the true story of Katherine Swynford and John of Gaunt. It is thoroughly researched and well-written and although I am not a medieval history expert I couldn't find any glaring historical mistakes. The descriptions of the settings and clothes are incredibly detailed and Anya Seton's writing really does take the reader into the world of medieval England. The fact that Chaucer is one of the main characters makes the book more interesting. There are also no jarring modern expressions. (I read a historical novel once in which one character told another to 'get a grip!' This was set in the eighteenth century!)

There are a few flaws in this book for modern readers. The writing is fairly old-fashioned and the main characters, although well-drawn, are just a little bit too beautiful to be true! Feminists may also take issue with Katherine becoming John of Gaunt's mistress and passively waiting around for him to show up in much of the book!
This book created a scandal when it was written because it was thought to be promoting adultery. Katherine is a very likeable character, however, and she does have quite a lot of determination and inner strength which eventually helps her.

If you like historical novels set in England then this is well-worth reading.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Excellent Wife: Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy

NB: I haven't been giving this blog much attention recently and must apologise. My mother's ill so it's difficult at the moment.

SONYA: THE LIFE OF COUNTESS TOLSTOY BY ANNE EDWARDS

This is a warm and sympathetic biography of Tolstoy's wife and it is also wonderfully interesting. Those who love Russian history will especially enjoy it.
It is certainly an indictment of Tolstoy himself, however. I doubt that I would have read the great classics: War and Peace and Anna Karenina if I'd read this first!
He was an extremely unlikeable character, according to this book.

When the book begins Tolstoy is reasonably charming and Sonya falls in love with him when she is only 12. He courts her sister, Lisa, at first, but finds her cold and stiff, whereas the much younger Sonya is warm, emotional and passionate. Impressed by this beautiful young woman, Tolstoy changes his mind and proposes to Sonya. Needless to say, Lisa is pretty upset!

The marriage doesn't start off well because Tolstoy writes a confessional letter to Sonya detailing his visits to brothels and his affair with a gypsy servant on his estate with whom he has an illegitimate child. Sonya is very sheltered and becomes quite horrified by this letter, but she marries him anyway.

Sonya comes from a reasonably wealthy, cultured family and she is used to the best of everything. She is also used to a large and happy family with lots of visitors and living in the middle of the city (Moscow). When she marries Tolstoy she has to go to a sparsely furnished villa in the middle of the countryside, which is quite lonely. She copes very well, and works very hard at managing the finances and transcribing Tolstoy's great novels late at night. She helps him very much in his work. She also has to endure having lots of children with very little help from him.

Tolstoy has an underlying hatred of women, in fact. Sonya tries to breastfeed her babies because he doesn't believe in wet-nurses, and suffers terrible pain. He is quite unsympathetic.

The main trouble occurs, however, when Tolstoy develops his weird philosophy which is like a cult, and he attracts lots of followers. He doesn't believe in sex even within marriage, becomes a vegetarian, and is generally quite crazy. Poor Sonya understandably starts to suffer from depression herself.

This is a harrowing book to read but it is well-written and captures the atmosphere of Russia in the nineteenth century with its wonderful descriptions. It is written like a novel which I found difficult to get used to, at first, but I grew to like it.
I bought it second-hand so it may be hard to find now, but it is worth buying!