Tuesday, July 9, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal by Richard Wightman Fox

Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal by Richard Wightman Fox is another nonfiction work concerning a late nineteenth century scandal that played out in the press. (See also my review of Bringing Down the Colonel by Patricia Miller.)

In the 1870s, the renowned preacher Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher-Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) was accused by his longtime friend, protégé, and one-time parishioner, Theodore Tilton, of committing adultery. Tilton claimed Beecher had seduced his wife, Elizabeth, and he sued for damages.

Because Beecher and Tilton were such prominent moral leaders of the time (they had both been fervent abolitionists), the nation was enthralled and appalled by the charge, which was, of course, denied by Beecher and by Elizabeth. A six-month-long trial followed, which was reported in minute detail in the press, along with letters and explanations by the principals. It was such a hopeless, confusing mess of accusation and counter-accusation that the jury could not reach a verdict. Even when Elizabeth Tilton changed her story three years after the trial, now admitting the adultery, the truth remained murky. Her story had changed so many times during the trial and before it that no one placed much weight on what she said after it.

The author takes the unusual tack of presenting the story backwards, from end to beginning, to help deconstruct the arguments made by scholars, contemporaries, and the primary actors themselves. Although this leads to some repetitiveness, it is a very effective way to show just how difficult it is to get at "truth," when those involved may not have a firm grip themselves on what the truth was.

Beecher and Theodore Tilton had been extraordinarily close early on in their relationship, both personally and professionally. Beecher presided at the wedding between Theodore and Elizabeth, both members of his congregation. The Tiltons had grown up together and were teenagers when they fell in love. Beecher was old enough to be their father. But as the Tiltons grew and matured, the relationships among the three changed. This was partly a result of the men’s changing world-views and religious beliefs after the Civil War. But the interwoven rivalries and jealousies played a significant role as well. As Theodore and Beecher grew apart, Beecher and Elizabeth grew closer. How close? Close enough to deepen the wedge between the two men. By the time they were denouncing one another in court and in the press, the physical nature of the bond between Beecher and Elizabeth seems almost moot.

This is an excellent book that delves deep into the social, religious, and political culture of the times. Highly recommended for those interested in post-Civil War U.S. history.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bethlehem by Karen Kelly

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

I love multi-generational historical sagas. Bethlehem by Karen Kelly is a perfect example of the genre. Alternating between a current day (early 1960s) storyline and that of a past generation (40-50 years earlier), the reader meets two very different women whose lives converge around family and scandalous secrets.

Joanna is a young woman from a working class background who marries into a fantastically wealthy Bethlehem Steel family, the Colliers. She and her husband, Frank, have two young children. They have been building a life for themselves when the death of Frank’s father leads to a change. Frank’s work hours with the family business increase astronomically. His mother and grandmother, alone in the ancestral home, need support. Nothing makes more sense than for Joanna and Frank to move into the mansion. Joanna is now a fish-out-of-water. The older Collier women are courteous, but aloof. Joanna feels isolated and bullied into conforming to a lifestyle she doesn’t want. Frank dismisses her complaints as unreasonable. She feels her identity melting away. Her only refuge is, unfortunately, the handsome young caretaker of the family cemetery, a man who seems to be a kindred spirit.

Joanna’s mother-in-law, Susannah Collier, is the most closed-off person Joanna has ever met. She seems to live in her own private world. Grief is understandable, she just lost her husband of many years, but Susannah’s cold shoulder goes beyond grief.

The reader is also cast back in time to Susannah’s childhood and young adulthood. Susannah Parrish, her sister India, and brother Kit, are the children of Bethlehem Steel’s chief engineer, Hollins Parrish. Kit is best friends with Chap Collier (the elder son of Bethlehem Steel’s owner) and close as well to Wyatt Collier (the younger son.) The children play together and get into all manner of mischief. For as long as anyone can remember, Wyatt has been desperately in love with Susannah and India has been infatuated with Chap.

We watch the Parrish and Collier children grow up and we follow Susannah’s successes and disappointments. She and Wyatt are the closest of friends, childhood sweethearts destined for marriage and happily-ever-after. But things don’t always go according to plan.

Meanwhile, in the current-day storyline, as Joanna’s life spirals out of control, the person who reaches out to her is Susannah, the mother-in-law with secrets of her own.

The story is lovely, full of warmth, love, and familial support. While not brimful of historical context, the period details set the scene well. The love stories are complex, realistic, and satisfying. This novel is recommended for fans of emotionally gripping multi-generational fiction.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Honor by Mary Balogh

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

The Westcotts are back in Someone to Honor! I’ve been compulsively following Mary Balogh’s Someone to... series, watching all the members of the convoluted Westcott family (legitimate and illegitimate) fall in love and marry in Regency England.

Abigail Westcott is the younger daughter of the deceased Earl of Riverdale. When he died six years earlier, the world learned his secret: the earl was still married to his first wife when the wedding to Abigail’s mother took place. He had a daughter, Anna. His will left everything to her except the title and entailed property.

At a stroke, Abigail, her siblings, and her mother were rendered penniless. Her mother’s marriage was invalid. Abigail and her siblings were illegitimate. The scandalized ton shut them out. But that was Anna’s story (see Someone to Love.) Now it’s Abigail’s turn.

Abigail was born to take her place in society and never gave much thought to alternatives. The catastrophe following her father’s death not only showed the depth of her family’s love and unconditional support for each other, it also frees Abigail to discover who she is. She doesn’t have to define herself by society’s expectations any longer.

Lieutenant Colonel Gil Bennington is also illegitimate. He’s the son of a blacksmith’s daughter and a man he doesn’t know and doesn’t wish to know (a viscount, of course.) He grew up in extreme poverty but made his own way in the military. Unfortunately, he married the wrong woman. They had a daughter. His wife abandoned them while he was away at war. Then she died. The grandparents took the child and refuse to return her. Gil has engaged a lawyer but is terrified he won’t win.

Gil was in France with Abigail’s brother, Harry. (Harry would have been the new earl, but when disinherited, he went into the army.) He was wounded and has been trapped in France, withering away rather than recovering, for two years. Gil escorts him home, where Harry’s family descends, ecstatic to have him back.

Abigail comes to visit and decides to stay rather than accompany her family to London and another season, which she has been dreading.

Phew. So that’s the set-up.

Abigail and Gil meet cute. They immediately take a dislike to one another. But, when the family departs, they both stay on to help Harry and to lick their own wounds. Before long, their initial impressions change. When Abigail and Harry learn of Gil’s dilemma, Harry suggests they marry. It would help Gil’s case immensely to have a wife (and the backing of their cousin, the powerful Duke of Neverby). But Gil has been burned before and doesn’t want to wed again. And Abigail worries Gil’s lowly background will prove a stumbling block to gaining her family’s acceptance. Plus, is this really a reason to marry?

With her usual aplomb, Mary Balogh draws the reader along as the protagonists work through their conflicting emotions and face the trials before them. Once again, the carefully crafted storyline (with some familiar-feeling plotting and a comfortably predictable outcome) is enlivened by wonderful characters who pull at the heartstrings. Balogh’s characters are what keep drawing me back. I eagerly await what’s in store for the next of the Westcotts.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Elizabeth of Bohemia: A Novel about Elizabeth Stuart, The Winter Queen by David Elias

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James (VI of Scotland and I of England) and his queen, Anne of Denmark, is one of those obscure but fascinating women of the Middle Ages/Renaissance whose lives provide material for historical novels that inform while they entertain.

Elizabeth of Bohemia: A Novel about Elizabeth Stuart, The Winter Queen by David Elias begins in October 1612 when the young princess is about to meet the man who will become her husband, Frederick V of the Palatine. Elizabeth is tired of being paraded in front of potential suitors. Beautiful, clever, and stubborn, she has strong opinions about everything, including her extravagant parents for whom she feels mostly contempt. The only person she cares for is her older brother Henry, who she believes would be a much better king.

Frederick woos her persistently, befriending Henry in the process. Unfortunately, Henry suffers from a recurrent illness that seems suspiciously like chronic poisoning. During Frederick’s visit, Henry dies. Elizabeth accepts Frederick’s proposal while in a deep depression. This is more than simply mourning; it appears Elizabeth suffers from bipolar disease, which influences her later behavior.

Frederick’s primary appeal, aside from his devotion to her, is his potential claim to the throne of Bohemia. In the novel, Elias portrays Frederick as a sensible, sensitive man content with the title and riches he possesses. Elizabeth, on the other hand, finds an outlet for her discontent: ambition. She bullies her husband into pursuing the throne against the advice of his counselors.

The novel closely follows the historical timeline. Frederick obtains the crown but cannot hold it for more than a couple of months. (Hence Elizabeth’s nickname, the Winter Queen). They are driven from the castle into exile. Frederick spends the rest of his life fighting a war he cannot win. Elizabeth falls from being a pampered, wealthy daughter of a king to being an impoverished exile, living on the charity of sympathetic nobles.

The historical detail is superb, bringing this woman out of the shadows. However, Elizabeth is not a warm protagonist. She does not love her husband. (She never really loves anyone but her dead brother.) She takes no interest in her many, many children until they are adults. She has no qualms about using men who fall for her to help her achieve largely selfish aims. Her political acumen is lacking. It’s difficult to root for her success.

Nevertheless, despite a somewhat unlikeable protagonist, the story itself is compelling enough to make this an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Bringing Down the Colonel. A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington by Patricia Miller

Bringing Down the Colonel. A Sex Scandal of the Gilded Age, and the "Powerless" Woman Who Took on Washington by Patricia Miller is interesting reading (but the title is way too long.)

Colonel W. C. P. (Willie) Breckinridge was a colonel in the Confederate Army from Kentucky who, following the war, entered politics and was elected to Congress. He was from an old, socially prominent, politically active Kentucky family. In 1893, he became embroiled in a sex scandal when his mistress of nine years, Madeline Pollard, sued him for breach of promise. He had promised to marry her if he ever became free, but a year after his wife died, he married a widow with a better pedigree. That woman was more than likely already pregnant with his child, as was Madeline.

Madeline had been a student at the Wesleyan Female College (presumably 17 years old but she may have been as old as 20) when the famous, middle-aged, married-with-children Breckinridge approached her on a train and flattered her with his attention. Soon after, he called on her at her school, took her out riding in a closed carriage after dark, and then, days later, seduced her at a house of assignation.

Breckinridge was one of those church-going, moralizing politicians who lived a lie and continued to lie even when caught out. He was so convinced his privilege and power would protect him from any consequences that he barely prepared any defense – except to slander Madeline. His excuse was simply that if Madeline slept with him, she was immoral and her suit should have no validity. He may have promised to marry her, but he could not be held to that promise because no one would seriously expect him to marry a woman who was compromised, even if he was the one who compromised her.

The book does a good job of describing the sexual mores of the time. Women had to be chaste. Any woman who allowed herself to be seduced, or even one who was raped, was at fault. (Apparently the fact that a woman survived the rape meant she did not fight her attacker strenuously enough to convince anyone the act was not consensual.)

Breckinridge attempted to malign Madeline’s character by claiming she’d been with numerous other men. He tried to say she seduced him and he was powerless to resist or to end the affair. He denied knowing about the babies he fathered with her and forced her to abandon. He showed no remorse, even knowing that they had been sent to infant asylums where the death rates were essentially 100%.

The author does present a balanced picture of Madeline’s difficult life. She was not, by the standards of the day, a sheltered, well-behaved southern daughter. Her father died when she was young. She grew up poor. And she was extremely intelligent and ambitious. So she was "forward" compared to the ideal, all of which was held against her during the trial.

Madeline was unique in that she did not shrink from pressing her suit, admitting her fault, and insisting that all she wanted was for Breckinridge to take his share of the blame. The injustice of a system where the guilty woman was ruined (truly ruined – socially and economically) while the equally guilty man would not even receive a slap on the wrist, was recognized by women and exploited by men. Breckinridge and his cronies were shocked to learn that anyone would even listen to a "fallen woman," let alone take her side in a dispute.

Parallel to Madeline’s story, the reader is presented with the story of Jennie Tucker. Jennie was born to wealth, but after her father’s death her family started slipping down the social ladder. Jennie had to go to work in one of the low-paying, back-breaking office jobs available to women at the time. However, she made an impression on one employer who, it turned out, was one of Breckinridge’s most steadfast supporters. Charles Stoll convinced Breckinridge to hire Jennie to spy on Madeline. He wanted her to "befriend" Madeline and dig up whatever dirt she could. She failed in that endeavor, despite giving it her all. (Her willingness, even eagerness, to take up Breckinridge’s cause makes her a less than sympathetic character.) And then, Breckinridge failed to pay her for her work.

Miller rounds out the narrative with the stories of other involved women, primarily Breckinridge’s politically active sister-in-law and his long-suffering daughter.

It’s a fascinating book to read in this #MeToo era. Women today (as a whole, though not necessarily in individual cases) have a great deal more social freedom and economic security than they did in the 1890s. And yet, privileged men still get away with sexual exploitation. Women who try to hold them to account are still slandered, shamed, and dismissed. This book was about events more than one hundred years ago! It’s depressing to see how far we still have to go.

Monday, May 27, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Earl Next Door by Amelia Grey

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

The Earl Next Door by Amelia Grey is an enjoyable Regency Romance that ticks all the boxes for current trends in Regency.

Adeline, the Dowager Countess of Wake, is a fiery, feisty, very young widow whose previous marriage was a disaster, leading her to swear off marriage for good. Being left financially secure, she decides to endow a school for girls – girls of lower social standing who will be taught marketable skills. (She’s supported in this endeavor by two friends, also young widows, to set up the next books in the series.) Adeline’s mission gets off to a shaky start. The new home she purchased in front of the new school is next door to the home of Lyon Marksworth, the Earl of Lyonwood.

Lyon made the mistake of listening to ill-informed gossip. He believes his new neighbor is a madam and the house will be used as a brothel. He marches over to confront the owner and insults Adeline with his behavior and suspicions. She’s furious, mortified, and attracted to Lyon.

They spar for a while, then make peace, then fall in love.

It took a little while to be drawn into the story. Lyon is a sensitive if impulsive hero. Adeline is a generous and bold heroine. Once the plot settled into the two resolving their difficulties it was a pleasant read. The ending was a little too simple. It was what I expected, but the story could have been more original and impressive had it refused to conform to Regency conventions, letting the characters forge on with the relationship despite the obstacle, rather than having the obstacle simply disappear.

Nevertheless, the characters grew on me throughout the course of the novel. Their growing love for each other was believable. And the plot was sweet.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: Early Riser by Jasper Fforde

I read a review of Jasper Fforde’s novel Early Riser in the New York Times and, although it isn’t my usual fare, it sounded like a fun read. I’d never read anything by Fforde before, so I thought I’d start here.

Set in Wales, in a mash-up of future and present day, the novel depicts a world undergoing a post-climate-change Ice Age, or something like that. For sixteen weeks each year, temperatures plummet into the lethal below-zero degrees range. Fortunately, people have evolved to be hibernating creatures. They bulk up beforehand, sleep away the winter months, and, hopefully, emerge in the spring. But surviving hibernation is risky. Deaths in sleep were significantly reduced by the invention of a wonder drug, Morphenox, which prevents dreams. Dreaming apparently sucks away calories.

The Morphenox supply is limited, so access to it has to be purchased or earned. Access is highly coveted despite the well-known side effect of the drug. About 1 in 3000 users wakes up "dead." The body still moves about, but the people are zombie-like. If well-fed, these "Nightwalkers" are not dangerous but, when hungry, they become cannibals, a significant threat to a sleeping population.

Not everyone sleeps. In addition to Nightwalkers, there are Villains, RealSleep activists, Wintervolk, and Sleep Researchers, all dangerous to varying degrees. And there are the providers of Winter law and order, the Consuls.

Fforde does an extraordinary job building the world for the reader, letting it all unfold through the eyes of Novice Winter Consul Charlie Worthing. Chosen for his outstanding memory, Charlie is not the usual Consul material, not winter-hardened or tough. He’s far too honest, empathetic, and nice.

When Charlie’s mentor is summoned to Sector Twelve to investigate an outbreak of viral dreams, Charlie reluctantly follows. He finds himself stranded in a situation too bizarre to be summarized. The reader watches him blunder along, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing, guided only by an innate need to do the right thing, even if it’s the wrong thing.

The story is original, cleverly plotted, and very, very funny. The characters are quirky with wordplay that sometimes made me laugh out loud. Pop culture references pop up in unexpected places in delightfully absurd ways.

Part of the fun of the book is the way the plot zigs and zags, so I won’t give anything else away. But if you’re looking for something entertaining and different, this novel is highly recommended.