Step right this way, step inside, and see the greatest show ever to amaze your senses and baffle your mind. Watch! As a budding friendship is slowly but completely transformed before your very eyes! Marvel! At how stupid four very intelligent young people can actually be when confronted with life’s mysteries! Gasp! With indignation at the skullduggery and bad manners brought in the pursuits of love, fame, wealth, and let’s be honest, a lot more wealth. Blush! At some of the language! Laugh! Primarily at some of those waistcoats! Tremble! At the revelation of worlds beyond worlds and compacts most rare and Faustian!
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What’s it about? What’s it about? You’ve heard all this and you still need to know more? Allow me:
The year is 1900. An Earl, an engineer, a suburban philosopher, and an enigma meet at University and make a pact to learn the art of conjuring.
But nothing among the friends is quite as it seems, and soon the happy four are plunged into worlds of political activism, crime, despair, sordid trysts, and a Faustian compact which seems set to threaten their very lives, one by one…
One of the side-effects of Having an Aspergers and mainlining every single one of the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters has been an increased interest in the period of history they’re set in, The Anarchy. It’s a bit of a misleading name, since there’s no uprising and the chaotic nature of life within the struggle for power seems to be ascribed to them long after by Victorian historians.
Ellis Peters goes into some (whimsical) depth about the personality and characteristics of the battling monarchs, casting Stephen of Blois as a good man but indecisive king prone to abandoning his projects if they did not give up fruit almost immediately (in which Stephen and I have an embarrassing amount in common), and the Empress Maud/Matilda as a great general but too given to arrogance and alienating her allies by not knowing when to forgive them. Stephen gets the accolade of being “extremely wealthy, well-mannered, modest and liked by his peers” on Wikipedia, which is probably about as reliable as the novels: Maud receives “less popular with contemporary chroniclers than Stephen; in many ways she took after her father, being prepared to loudly demand compliance of her court, when necessary issuing threats and generally appearing arrogant”. The third party in this scuffle – after Stephen was taken captive in Lincoln in 1141 – was Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda also known as Maud. So far little has been said of her in the books, beyond an aside of the effect that the Queen is a more ruthless leader or at least better general than her imprisoned husband. Obviously this is Ellis Peters’ character’s opinion, and the actual character of monarchs from nearly 900 years ago must remain to some extent a mystery, but it was enough to pique my interest in the two Mauds.
Women characters in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books tend to hold a surprisingly good position: constrained by a lack of legally recognised social power, they still manage to assert themselves in every other area of their lives, often possessing as much drive, deviousness, or physical stamina as their male counterparts. They come in a full and fruitful variety of personalities, each of them with their own motive, however venal or misguided, and even the meekest and most withdrawn of them can be roused to action. The question of why Brother Cadfael was not Sister Magdalen (who has a certain amount of influence in the books even as it is) can only be answered with “because she wouldn’t have been able to range as freely”: I feel sure that Ellis Peters could just as well have had a detective heroine.
The Empress was betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor before she turned ten, and was crowned Queen of the Romans while only eight or nine: continuing her eventful early life, she was married at twelve, and had already done a measure of her growing up in a foreign court with none of her father’s family in attendance. One could perhaps forgive her from developing a somewhat abrasive personality in order to protect herself, and perhaps parallels can be drawn with the equally ambitious and married-in-early-life Margaret Beaufort (Countess of Richmond and Derby), who gave the world Henry Tudor (and later acted as regent for Henry VIII). Certainly the Empress was determined to win as much as humanly possible for both herself and her son, who succeeded from Stephen under the terms of the Treaty of Winchester. Unfortunately while this tendency to behave in a haughty and imperious manner may have been a useful survival tactic at first, it seems to have become entrenched and later proved detrimental, driving away potential allies: this attitude may have gone down better during her time as regent to her first husband, Henry V (the Holy Roman Emperor) in Italy, or she may just have been growing impatient with being denied the throne she perceived as rightfully hers, having been named as her father’s successor.
It should be noted here that Stephen was not exactly an exemplar of biddability, and both seized the crown from an absent woman to whom he had previously sworn allegiance, and imprisoned Archbishop Theobald towards the end of the civil war, for refusing to anoint his son Eustace as king while Stephen was still living (this was the practice in France, where Eustace already held land, but Pope Celestine II had banned its adoption in England).
The Queen, on the other hand, seems to have had a better turn at diplomacy (negotiating the exchange of prisoners Robert of Gloucester – the Empress’s half-brother and supposedly her most effective military figure – and the King), and a less enormously turbulent early life. The two Mauds were of roughly the same age, but while the Empress excelled in gathering the power-hungry under her banner, the Queen managed to rally the turncoat friends of Stephen – the war produced an unflattering number of about-faces from many, including Stephen’s own brother Henry – and with William of Ypres turned the tide of the war while Stephen was still imprisoned. One gets the impression that while the Empress was the more imposing figure, she was too unyielding to be able to manage the progression of her campaign as effectively as the Queen might.
Although history and the demands of power struggles in Europe pitted these women briefly against each other, I do not mean to hold them up as adversaries and play a puerile game of “who was better”. Far from it: I have something entirely more puerile in mind. Having read a little about both of these capable, ambitious, interesting, and clearly very intelligent women (although the Empress clearly needs to work on her humility), I’m quite keen on the idea of, as the title of this post even more puerilely suggests, some kind of historical romance alternate universe story in which the vagrancies of the civil war bring them into contact first as opponents and then as lovers. It could be quite a moving and plausible invention in the hands of anyone who does slightly more research than, say, Terry Deary.
Hello chums (oh good lord never let me say that again), I have just returned from a jaunt to Walthamstow, better known to fans of early 90s pop music as E17. My purpose in that neck of the woods was to investigate the William Morris Gallery, which has recently reopened after an extended period of renovation. Much to my annoyance I’d apparently failed to discover that Michael Rosen was doing a reading there, and therefore to buy tickets before they sold out.
This isn’t a museum review, so I shall say little except that it was rather lovely and that the chance to have a go at weaving was hugely appreciated. William Morris seems to have been largely what I expected him to be, but with an unexpected sense of humour:
Which made him all the more palatable, as did his later-life commentary on his earlier antics, deeming himself “arrogant” but clearly amused by them. He put a lifetime of work into pursuing his passions and making them profitable enough to raise his family on (which of course he would have been unable to do without the background he had etc.), and had a keen and long-lasting obsession with beauty which I find is mirrored in my current object of obsession and admirer of Morris, Lawrence. Other similarities stand out, and it’s them I was moved to talk about.
They are both men of conviction, and I envy them wildly for this. No doubt it was a combination of the era and their position in life, tempered with the fact that both were very intelligent polymaths inspired by the same period of history to invent their own personal notions of chivalry. But beyond Morris’s youthful ideals he continued to believe in his old convictions: beautiful things were important, the world could be changed, consigning people to the hell-hole of industrialised London was wrong, and the old skills of medieval craftsmanship could be brought into his modern era. He remained faithful to and energetic about his ideals and his visions without, as one of the VTs in the museum said, “being ugly and preachy”. He combined beautiful artefacts with his politics and allowed his rigorous belief in the worth of the aesthetic to breed with his later-life rigorous belief in the value of socialism. This made the trip to learn about him a little sad for me, as I’ve long since given up the majority of my ideals and while my beliefs remain my convictions and optimism do not. Morris’s fierce later-life optimism is untenable to me, as it was untenable to the Lawrence broken by the peace talks of Paris and subsequent media nonsense. What caused Morris not to succumb to the cynicism of later adulthood?
In an odd way the exhibition demonstrated how despite both being inspired by the past – the age of chivalry and the legends of Arthur – Lawrence and Morris were each very much men created by their time. Just as Blake would not have been inspired to visions of a glittering and utopian London had the London he dwelt in not been so abhorrent and grim, so Morris and his philosophy of beautiful things and the need for pastoral skills and the later-life embrace of socialism could not have come to pass without the repellent working conditions of Victorian London and the changes to society and technology that lead to his reactive position. Lawrence, likewise, would have no grounding for his passionate beliefs about assisting the united Arab peoples out from imperial rule by the Turks if he did not live in a culture in which the Imperial was so favoured and his hunger for the freedom of empty places and the comparative classlessness of Bedouin society must surely have been fuelled to a degree by the very restrictive moral codes and class practices of the society in which he had grown up, especially as his family specifically suffered from it (cross-class relationship and absence of legal marriage).
For an exhibition chronicling the life and work of a craftsman and political agitator it did a great deal of service in providing me with something to chew over in terms of introspection (how does one refrain from becoming excessively cynical and losing all hope/sense of worth in one’s own convictions?) and also to once more create a sense of historical context not only to the past but to present events as well: what I believe and what other people around me believe are also products of our time, and we can only be as good or as bad as the era we are in will permit. We can’t know what is going to happen next, we can only guess at it.