Queen Victoria’s Cousins – Christina Croft

1533353794-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_I was familiar with the fact that most of Europe’s royalty is descended from Queen Victoria and her numerous children. And I knew she came from a background that linked her to other royalty (her uncle became the King of Belgium, and her consort, her own first cousin, was a German prince), but I had not realized how extensive that network was. And that’s just her maternal relatives. It’s easy to forget that there were several other royal uncles, sons of George III, still kicking around, and that they had children of their own

This book charts those relationships. Each chapter covers a particular theme (usually relating to a certain smaller family within the family), and they’re roughly chronological. It’s an interesting survey of 19th century history, and how a few extended families influenced quite a bit of it. Probably be fun for anyone that’s recently watched Victoria on Masterpiece.

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The Edge of the World – Michael Pye

86d2bc492b77da0596f366d6a77434f414f4141There’s long been a belief that the period of time between the Roman Empire and the Renaissance in Europe was a dark period in time – it’s often called the Dark Ages. When I was still in school, history textbooks had a dim view of that time – there were other cultures making significant discoveries, and Europe was written off as a backwater not doing all that much.

There’s been a lot of scholarship since then that refutes that, and this book goes over some of themes, with a particular focus on the countries around the North Sea. They probably get the worst reputation of all – since they’re associated with ravaging German tribes and Vikings hordes. The author sets out to show that this supposed edge of the world was actually fairly sophisticated, and contributed quite a bit to the medieval world.

I can’t promise this is the most exciting book ever written about history, but it is interesting – the author discusses things like how money became important for trade, and how women’s lives could be more independent because of trade (and their husbands being away). I also enjoyed how much detail about non-English speaking people was in the book – I think it’s easy for English speaking people to get stuck on English history, since we speak that language, and there’s that much more scholarship available because of it. But there were other people and countries, like the Vikings, or the forerunners of the Netherlands and Belgium, doing important things.

The Medieval Underworld – Andrew McCall

22dded172de0c8c59354f585277434f414f4141I honestly don’t remember what added this book to my reading pile – it’s a scholarly work. It’s also very readable, and has some great information.

Sadly, I was a little disappointed, because most of the crime in this book was against the church, and I guess I was expecting something a little more interesting than various forms of heresy. Which is to say, I am a child of the twentieth century, and far enough out of school that I just wasn’t in the right mood to appreciate this book on its scholarly merits.

The World of Laura Ingalls Wilder – Marta McDowell

b06xppyh47-01-_sx142_sy224_sclzzzzzzz_I distinctly remember my mother reading the Little House books to my sister and me before bed, over a longish period of time, as we got them from the library. It was before fourth grade, because it was in our original Portland house. There are only a few books I remember from that bedtime reading series- they had to have something fairly special about them to stick in my mind.

This book talks about Wilder’s connection to the natural world, and how she’d portrayed it in her books. I’d never thought very much about it, but that was definitely one of the things I loved so much about those books – the incredible sense of place she conveys throughout them. I’ve never been to a prairie – but I feel like I’ve experienced it through her eyes in her books.

McDowell breaks down the different landscapes covered by the books, and even certain intervals in the real Ingalls family life that didn’t make it into the more fictionalized version of their life in the book series. (If you want to see the difference – I highly recommend the annotated Pioneer Girl.) She talks about the actual plants and animals Wilder may have encountered, and gives ideas for doing a modern day pilgrimage to those sites. (You can visit the historic sites, but accurate representations of the landscapes are harder to find.) It’s a great book – very interesting for fans of the Little House series, but also an interesting tracing of the natural landscape over the life of a single person, and the wide variety of places she saw, and how much has changed since then. The book ships out at the end of August – I definitely recommend it.

A Distant Mirror – Barbara W. Tuchman

7617437604fec0959354c325667434f414f4141This is a serious, scholarly book about the 14th century, but written in such an approachable manner that anyone interested in this time period should be able to read it.

To illustrate the time period, the author settles on one man to trace how his life was impacted by all the changes of this century. That man is Enguerrand de Coucy VII – the last of a dynasty of grand seigneurs of France in the Picardy region. Enguerrand’s first wife was Isabella of England, daughter of King Edward III. As a peer of France, this put him in an extremely interesting position through the Hundred Year’s War.

But really, this story is about the Black Death, and how that influenced (or killed, take your pick) chivalry, and how that created the conditions that made the Hundred Year’s war. It’s really a fascinating story. This is the end of the Middle Ages, and having everything that unfolds channeled through the lens of this single life is such a perfect way to understand everything that was happening in that time.

Coucy is such a fascinating man. He did so much, and had connections all over Europe, to the Holy Land. I had a much narrower vision of the breadth of the Medieval world – I guess I didn’t think that they could possibility be so cosmopolitan. This book was an eye opener for me there.

The funny thing too is that this was first published in 1978, but it is such a brilliant work, it still holds up. Kudos to the author for thinking of this brilliant way to present this work, and the careful research she put into it.

The Mistresses of Cliveden – Natalie Livingstone

LibraryThing Early Reviewers book.

I’ll admit, I was a little worried about this book based on the preview write up – they’re definitely trying to market this to the Downtown Abbey fan crowd, and have decided to market it accordingly.     I was a afraid it was going to go for a slightly sensationalist bent, but it’s actually a well researched book about this house – built in the 17th century, and five of the women that managed it (the first is a bit of a stretch – Anna Maria Talbot never lived there, but she was definitely an inspiration for the Duke of Buckingham to build it).     Still, these women all have interesting stories, and the history here is an interesting read.

I think my favorite was Harriet, Duchess of Sutherland, who was a very good friend of Queen Victoria, and a political activist in her own right.     (She’s a granddaughter of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire, and continued in that Whig tradition.)     She’s an interesting person to be so influential in Victoria’s life, and I found that section fascinating.

I do think this is a good book for Downtown Abbey fans, and fortunately, it’s well written and informative.

Sounds and Sweet Airs – Anna Beer

Librarything Early Reviewers book

This book tells the stories of eight women composers, all the way back to the Renaissance Medici court.    I had previously only heard of two of them, which is one of the points of the book, and is also sad.

I minored in music in college (something I am using even less today than I am my Zoology major, but I digress).     I’d found a lot of new composers I’d never heard of through the courses I took for my minor, but you would definitely get the sense from them that women just didn’t compose up until the Romantic period.     Which isn’t at all true, but there were definite barriers to women getting noticed in musical circles, which you can imagine, based on women’s restricted roles in past times.

I think the most disappointing thing I learned is that the marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann was not the romantic musical partnership you get from the quick gloss in a history of music overview course.     Not that I should be  at all surprised, but it’s a little sad that she was more famous than her husband while alive (and more talented), but she’s mostly remembered in the literature more as his wife, and keeper of his legacy, than as a musician and composer in her own right.

This was a fascinating read – it was nice to see some stories of composers going back further in time than I had knowledge of before, and I do hope this is the start of these (and other) women getting wider exposure.