Review: The Girl Puzzle by Kate Braithwaite

The cover and title of this novel are worth thinking about before one opens the book itself. The author is telling us that at one level it is historical fiction, a tale told about a past epoch and how people lived then; at another, it is a story of someone’s life but not a biography. It is a story: the author’s interpretation of what happened to Nellie Bly. Who in turn was not only Nellie Bly but Elizabeth Cochrane, a young woman shaped by the lamentable circumstances of her parents’ life – which she is determined to overcome. The puzzle starts here, but is quickly forgotten because the author’s lucid prose and excellent characterisation means that one falls into the events of Nellie Bly’s life as if they were happening for the first time now.

Braithwaite has chosen to write about a woman whose published autobiographical work is relatively well known in the USA. This story is told, however, on a dual timeline. Readers new to Nellie Bly’s life know from the start that yes, she overcame the shame and poverty of her childhood, and yes, she became the most celebrated woman in journalism of early twentieth century – and yet they can read each page anxious to know what happened next. This is sophisticated story telling.

Nellie Bly, now a wealthy woman journalist in late middle age, is living in a New York hotel suite. While she continues with her popular newspaper social commentaries, she is also writing her memoirs. Hand written chapters are given to Beatrice, one of her secretaries, to type up. In this way we see Nellie’s first-person account of her life, and also learn what a younger woman thinks about her employer.

Elizabeth/Nellie’s story begins when she is a twenty-year-old anxious to find a job on a New York newspaper and make a name for herself. Down to her last borrowed dime, she accepts a frightening challenge as the condition for obtaining a job: to become an inmate of a mental institution and report on conditions from first-hand experience. Elizabeth Cochrane/Nellie Bly then becomes Nellie Brown, a poor befuddled young woman who has lost her luggage, her family, her home, and her memory. The act is convincing enough to get her into Blackwell’s Island Lunatic Asylum. Nellie becomes trapped in the vicious treatment regime of a late nineteenth century mental institution. She is demeaned, ill-treated and controlled day and night by some appallingly cruel nurses. Readers also meet some of the other inmates: gentle but dangerous Tilly Maynard, sad and apparently quite sane Anne, and a number of other rowdier, nastier women who are also subject to the asylum’s institutionalised torture. It makes chilling reading, and I was most disappointed that the one ‘good doctor’ who could have made their lives so much more tolerable turned out to be weak-willed, and ultimately no match for our brave heroine. (More on that would be a spoiler.)

Running alongside this narrative is Beatrice’s observations on Nellie Bly’s informal adoption agency and how the woman becomes besotted with a small girl who has also been the victim of tragic family circumstances. Beatrice is fascinated by her employer, but wise enough to see her flaws – which is how the reader is left to form his/her own judgment.

As I say, this is sophisticated and accomplished story-telling. It is also a timely novel, for while it shows how one determined woman achieved success in what was then in every way a man’s world, that woman was not without her own weaknesses and blinkered vision. This novel is indeed a Discovered Diamond.

© J.G. Harlond

This review was originally written for https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com (21st May, 2019)

Book Review: ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Robert Dodds

Historical fiction / Historical biography

In the year 1490, Brother Jacomo of Seville is sent to Brabant as a Papal Inquisitor. He loses no time in condemning a man to be burned alive in the main square of Den Bosch. It is a public warning: be sure your sins will find you out.

But who is without sin in Den Bosch? Not the local abbess, nor the local artist, Jerome (known to us as Hieronymus Bosch), nor his wife and best friend, who share a mortal sin, nor his serving maid. Nor, as it turns out, the Inquisitor himself, who takes far too much pleasure in devising hideous torture devices, which he insists the local blacksmith makes against his will.

Robert Dodds has taken the creation of a triptych depicting Man’s Fall from Grace for his canvas and created in turn a compelling read. Each character is real, each has his or her good points and weaknesses. Even the foul-minded Inquisitor has a backstory to suggest how and why he has become the man to disrupt and ruin forever the convivial peace of a provincial town.

The setting is Hieronymus Bosch’s home town, but it could be any small town in Northern Europe for this is the late 15th century when ordinary folk believe utterly in heaven and hell, and that they must do all they can to lighten their burden for the Day of Judgment. The story opens and unfolds in a quiet fashion befitting the location, yet it is a page-turner, and by no means predictable. The artist’s wife and friend and servant share a not uncommon secret, but even that does not play out as one might expect. Dodds’ writing is exceptional: he draws in his reader gently, almost subtly, and I found myself reading on long after I should have put down the book down each evening. The Garden of Earthly Delights is skilfully crafted, well-written, informative and enjoyable.

This review was originally written for Discovering Diamonds Reviews: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com

To learn more about how and why Robert Dodds wrote this book go to: https://www.robertdodds.com/the-garden-of-earthly-delights.html

© J.G. Harlond

 

Review of Charlatan by Kate Braithwaite

In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of the King of France, Louis XIV. Three years later, Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year-old Angélique de Fontanges. At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Athénaïs does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin. (Amazon)

This clever novel has been skillfully crafted from seventeenth century French prison archive material and official transcripts resulting from hours and hours, years and years of interrogations into what one might loosely term ‘witchcraft’.

The story opens with a flashback to a black mass, where a priest is conducting a ceremony over the body of a naked female. The reader witnesses the scene from different points of view and from that moment we are aware that a practised charlatan is at work. We are also invited to guess the identities of an aristocratic observer and her servant, although this is called into question later. Much is called into question later as little by little we come to know the people involved in this scene; their fears and motivations, their personalities and ambitions.

The story follows three principal players in the investigation into La Voisin’s trade, for she is who is far more than a mere fortune-teller: Bezons, a young, somewhat naïve police agent; the daughter of the fortune-teller, Marie Montvoisin; and Madame de Montespan, one-time mistress of the King of France and mother to seven of his children. As the story unfolds, we learn about these three very real people and start to understand what drives them, and this is where Kate Braithwaite’s skill lies. Madame de Montespan wants – needs – far more than a simple return to the King’s favours; she has her extended family’s future to consider – as her demanding sister constantly reminds her. She also wants the King to legitimize their children. It calls into question just how far she is prepared to go to achieve all this. Marie’s situation is less complex but far sadder, something the initially innocent young policemen picks up on, to his detriment. He feels sorry for the girl, allows himself to be seduced by her then begins to doubt how far she is prepared to go to achieve her freedom. Behind the scenes and acting almost as a running commentary on the events is the self-confessed charlatan, Lesage, whose cynical world view informs on what is happening in the prison.

Chateau de Versailles

Apart from the sinister background to the trials, there is no overly-dramatic action in this novel and at times it feels rather static. Madame de Montespan moves between royal apartments and a convent; Marie and Bezons’ interaction takes place in a prison room. Initially, I wondered when the story was going to get started, but then realised that the narrative is a form of trial or examination in itself. The dialogue is handled with such finesse that as I learned certain details I simply had to read on to confirm my suspicions. The characters are complex, and there are definite turning points, but on the whole this is a quiet, contemplative novel. Kate Braithwaite has crafted a compelling and convincing piece of writing out of a real-life scandal. I look forward to reading more of her work.

(This review was originally published for Discovering Diamonds on 5th June, 2017: https://discoveringdiamonds.blogspot.com.es/p/our-reviewers.html)

An interview with Ludo da Portovenere in 1640.

Historical background to Ludo da Portovenere’s business matters:

In this first third of the seventeenth century (now coming into 1640), Europe and Great Britain are experiencing significant changes in international politics and domestic life in general. Spain and the Holy Roman Empire are still fighting to keep the Netherlands; the Portuguese are conspiring to regain their monarchy; the French at at war with Spain and conspiring with the Vatican on all manner of issues; in England there will be a civil war that could change people’s lives forever if the king does not act to avert it. The bourgeoisie in northern Europe, however, flourish; in Holland they are already calling it ‘the golden age’. But we are surrounded by the plague and the winters continue colder and longer than they should. Continue reading “An interview with Ludo da Portovenere in 1640.”

The Last Royal Rebel

by Anna Keay (Bloomsbury, 2016)

During the horrific, botched execution of James, Duke of Monmouth, in 1685, the crowd remained silent and ‘many cried’, until, incensed by the ‘barbarous usage’ of the duke, they surged forward and would have torn the executioner to pieces had soldiers not prevented it. Yet the label on Monmouth’s portrait in the National Gallery reads: ‘charming, ambitious, unprincipled’. In The Last Royal Rebel, the Life and Death of James, Duke of Monmouth, Anna Keay shows us a complex, often contradictory man: a frivolous, pampered royal bastard with an astute political mind; a gambling spendthrift who becomes a war hero; a much-maligned man brought low by his sense of what was right and fair, and his need to be loved by his father. Continue reading “The Last Royal Rebel”

Suspect Women

If my great-grandmother had lived in the 17th Century there’s a good chance she would have been named a ‘wise woman’. Great-grandmother Margaret was ‘fey’: she knew things. Take for instance the time she and her husband, who was a forester, took a few precious days holiday in a remote area of the Mountains of Mourne. Continue reading “Suspect Women”

My ‘PORRIDGE & CREAM’

Sandra Danby asked various people about their ‘comfort reads’ – which books do they always go back to? Here is my response.

DDMy ‘Porridge & Cream’ novels are in the House of Níccolò series by the late Scots author Dorothy Dunnett. I became hooked on her sixteenth century Game of Kings series featuring the exquisite Francis Crawford of Lymond in the 1970s. Continue reading “My ‘PORRIDGE & CREAM’”

The Great Game.

Roller-skating in the Hindu Kush.

(Background research for The Empress Emerald)

‘Horrible looking hills loomed nearer and nearer and then you saw some sort of crack going up through the hills – and this was the Khyber Pass; great slabs of rock towering up on either side of you.’  (Ed Brown, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, 1930s)

‘I set the defaulters to work with pick axes Continue reading “The Great Game.”