A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray Rating: 4/5
Reading Non-Fiction, especially History books for me, always seems more daunting than it actually is. After neglecting my growing pile of history books, I decided to start with A History of Britain in 21 Women by Jenni Murray. I couldn’t have asked for a better book to get me back into non-fiction, with Jenni Murray perfectly merging the general overview of these women’s lives with her personal experiences. This helped make the book engaging and enjoyable, rather than it reading like a Wikipedia page or just dull retelling of facts like some history books. Every woman’s place in the book is justified, no matter how controversial, as well as how they helped to shape history. The book shines when Jenni Murray reveals her personal experiences with each of the women, high points I loved include her sighting of Boadicea’s statue, her relationship with Barbara Castle and her interview with Margaret Thatcher.
Jenni Murray focuses on women from every part of history, their impact on politics, literature, science, maths, and Art. I really liked how it was a mixture of well-known women such as Elizabeth I and Jane Austen, and then others I had never heard of such as Caroline Hershel, and Ada Lovelace. It makes me angry that a lot of the names in the book I had never heard of, and how their ground-breaking work into our society hasn’t been recognised, let alone taught nearly enough.
For women whose names you know and connect with immediately, for those whose names recognize but don’t know anything about, or for the women you haven’t heard of at all, this book covers all of them. If anything, this book demonstrated how and if anything, how there are still a large number of bold, brave, and brilliant women whose impact on our society still hasn’t been told.
Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe by Sarah Gristwood Rating: 4.5/5
Yes, there’s a recurring theme with my book selection this month with regards to forgotten women in history, but hey, I have no regrets. Jenni Murray’s wonderful book gave me the courage to tackle the longest book that I got for Christmas, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe.
This was not an easy read and took me longer than I would have liked, but it definitely paid off. This was a thorough and intense history book, but for me, it was the best mix of familiar women and history and those who I had never researched about before. I love Tudor History, especially Henry VIII’s wives, and so I like how the stories of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn were woven into the book with less written about Tudor women like Margaret and Mary Tudor, who I really enjoyed learning about.
All the women more or less seemed to be connected in some way, and Gristwood did a great job setting the stage beginning with the figure of Anne de Beaujeu, who helped bring up both Margaret of Austria and Louise of Savoy, who are linked to Isabella of Castile, Anne Boleyn and Marguerite of Navarre and Jeanne d’Albert, and who is quoted at the beginning of every chapter.
It is still so incredible to see all the women who exerted power and wielded such considerable influence during this period, yet are never taught about or given the praise they deserve. For me the biggest revelation was Margaret of Austria, a woman who I had heard of, but knew absolutely nothing about. Her role as regent of the Netherlands, who was at the centre of European politics, having dealings with all the political powers, governing her lands successfully, being crucial in gaining support for her nephew Charles V to be elected Holy Roman Emperor, and successfully negotiating a peace treaty on behalf of her nephew with France, in the Treaty of Cambrai in 1529, also known as the ‘Ladies peace’ as the French King’s mother, Louise of Savoy represented Francis in the treaty.
Gristwood keeps the book engaging, going through the century by switching back and forth between the various countries and their key periods. Even when the formidable figures such as Margaret of Austria pass, Gristwood proves how there were new emerging key players later on in the century, such as the rise of French Queen Catherine de Medici and Mary Queen of Scots, leading to of course Elizabeth I. This was a truly worthwhile read, and a must read for anyone who enjoys history and the 16th century.
Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis Rating: 5 Stars
I didn’t plan on reading yet another non-fiction book, but while on holiday in Dorset I spotted this book in a great independent bookshop, and so I had to buy it and read it straight away. I’d been looking for this book in bookshops near me for a while, as I’m trying to avoid getting my books online so I was surprised, yet incredibly happy to see it in a small independent bookshop.
As you may have seen in my last post, I’m incredibly interested in Anne Bronte, and I’m planning on focusing my dissertation on her and believe she is woefully underrated, writing two ground-breaking novels in her lifetime. I mentioned in my last post that Anne’s legacy had been improving with two new books being published about her this past year. Take Courage: Anne Bronte and the Art of Life by Samantha Ellis, was one of them.
Yes I’m incredibly bias when it comes to enjoying this book, but honestly it is probably the best book I’ve read so far this year, or at least tied with Ali Smith’s To Autumn. Like Jenni Murray it is not an academic book, but a mixture of the author’s life and experiences alongside the subject matter. Having only one subject to focus on made it easier to be attached to Samantha and Anne’s journey, and I can’t overstate how much I loved this book.
Samantha Ellis’s discovery of Anne Bronte’s strength is written about after she was shown Anne Bronte’s last letter at the Bronte Parsonage, and revealed what goes against Charlotte’s martyr-like portrayal of her sister, and that rather than Anne quietly and gracefully accepting her death, she didn’t want to die. Anne wanted to live, to write more and accomplish more than what she did. This courage and spirit sets off Ellis’ journey to uncover Anne’s story and what she was really like.
This book has a fantastic structure, every chapter focuses on an important figure in Anne’s life, whether real or fictional, and the role they played in Anne’s journey, such as her family, Ellis looking at not only Charlotte, Emily and Branwell, but their father Patrick, and mother Maria, as well as the two other Bronte sisters who died in childhood, Maria and Elizabeth. Haworth really comes to life in the book, and I’m visiting the Bronte Parsonage next month so Ellis’s descriptions of it has made me even more excited.
It was frustrating to read all the critical reception of Anne’s work, and how she has been so easily dismissed as the ‘other sister’, and Ellis too doesn’t hold back on her opinions on how Anne has been presented both then and now in contemporary society, looking at the portrayals of Anne not only by critics, but in media and other literature, as well as the television adaptations of her novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hal.
Ellis writes a truly brilliant book, it’s emotional, funny and heart-breaking and I felt so sad at how little we know of Anne and how so many of her letters and other works have gone, but happy to know of her determination and courage, and the wonderful works of fiction she left behind. My dissertation seems more and more daunting by the day, but reading this book reminded me why I chose Anne and how determined I am to examine the brilliance of her work, so I’m truly grateful I read it.
If you are a fan of the Bronte sisters, love Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and have never read Anne’s work, then I definitely recommend this book. Even if you haven’t read the Bronte’s, this book is worthwhile in highlighting an inspiring author that is excellently told by Ellis.
I’m hoping that after my exams finish next month I can post more, I’m planning a post on my trip to Haworth, as well as a post examining whether historical accuracy matters in Television and Film adaptations.