November 7: Ten Characters Who Would Make Great Leaders (Leaders of what? That’s your decision. Who could lead a country, an army, a book club, a classroom, etc. Or maybe characters that would be trendsetters?)
This week I decided to make things difficult for myself and go for ten fictional books about real life leaders.
1. Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George– This novel, told in Cleopatra’s own voice, begins with a memory of the three year old Cleopatra witnessed her mother’s death. But the story really starts when the twenty year old Queen of the Nile, sets her sights on Julius Caesar; the most powerful man in the world. She survives his loss, and the defeat of Mark Antony, the only other man she loves. What destroys her, is not these losses. Rather it’s her own pride. She’d rather die by her own hand that be a symbol of someone else’s victory over her. This book combines history with legend so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell which is which. Some of the more outrageous events are factual!
“I realized then how odd it must seem to them to be summoned by a woman. Roman women were at home quietly minding their business or else doing what wives were known to do in joke and song: boss, nag, forbid. As a foreign queen I was the only woman who was their equal and had the power to summon them, question them, and advise them on matters other than domestic details. I thought that a pity; there should be others.”
2. Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross– Did she really exist? I have no clue. But she certainly makes a great story! Joan rebels against medieval society’s prohibition against educating women. Following her brother’s death, Joan takes on his identity and takes his place at a monastery. As “John”, Joan distinguishes herself as a scholar and healer, and eventually, is drawn to Rome. As I said, I have no idea if there is any truth to the “Pope Joan” legend, but the novel is definitely historical fiction. There are several scenes in this one, where Joan is about to be discovered and is saved from discovery just in the nick of time, in true soap opera fashion. But if you can overlook that, it’s a really fun read.
“As for will, woman should be considered superior to man for Eve ate of the apple for love of knowledge and learning, but Adam ate of it merely because she asked him.”
3. Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund- As many of us know, Marie Antoinette was only 14 when she left her home in Austria to become the wife of the Dauphin of France (who was all of 15 at the time). She came of age in a very public environment and had a seemingly good relationship with her husband, though his inability (or unwillingness) to consummate their marriage made what both Marie Antoinette, and the people of France most wanted; an heir to the throne. This book shows her disappointment, eventually leading to isolation. Thus she remains ignorant of the many problems that plague her country. Marie Antoinette comes off as frivolous in the early portions of the book, but as things take a darker turn, and tragedy nears, the use of foreshadowing (and the fact that the story is based on historical events and the reader knows what’s to come) the book instills a strong sense of dread in the reader. It’s a tension that’s only really resolved when the inevitable finally comes to pass.
“I feel only sorrow that I have failed to please. Sorrow-and not resentment-for my mother says that resentment is the most readily visible of all the sinful emotions, but sorrow can enhance one’s sweetness and appeal. Resentment, the empress says, is like a snake that nests in the bosom, and it can turn and strike her who harbors it.”
4. The Sunne in Splendor by Sharon Kay Penman– Shakespeare (who wrote under a Tudor monarch) portrayed Richard III as a bitter, twisted, hunchback who murdered his nephews to secure his throne. Five centuries later, Sharon Kay Penman portrays a very different King Richard. Her Richard was raised in the shadow of his older brother, King Edward IV. When Edward dies at 40, Richard is put in the position of Protector, and he is the target of various conspiracies from those he trusts and those he doesn’t. He “usurps” the throne from his nephews because he believes it to be the best course of action for England as well as the best way to protect the boys. Much is made of the fact that Richard had nothing to gain and much to lose from their murders. In Penman’s eyes, Richard III is a man born into a world of lies, betrayal and manipulation for which his was never suited. He was a man who tried to live honorably while surrounded by deception, and ultimately loved too deeply to survive its loss.
“Richard, might I ask you something? We’ve talked tonight of what you must do, of what you can do, of what you ought to do.But we’ve said nothing of what you want to do.Richard, do you want to be King?”
At first, she thought he wasn’t going to answer her. But as she studied his face, she saw he was turning her question over in his mind, seeking to answer it as honestly as he could.
“Yes,” he said at last. “Yes…I do.”
5. Katherine by Anya Seton– This book introduces us to several “leaders”. Some are obvious. John of Gaunt is the Duke of Lancaster, son of King Edward III and uncle to Richard III. There are appearances by Geoffrey Chaucer (Katherine’s brother in law) and a fictional encounter with the saint Julian of Norwich. But I see Katherine herself as leader in a way. An orphan, Katherine finds herself in a loveless marriage to Hugh Swynford, a knight. She bore him two children and helped him to run his estate. After Swynford’s death, Katherine’s path crosses that of John of Gaunt. John falls deeply in love with Katherine and she with him. He cannot marry her for reasons of state, but their affair produced four children who were later legitimized. Their descendants went on to found the houses of York, Lancaster, and Tudor. Even Queen Elizabeth II is one of their many descendants. In Seton’s novel, Katherine herself is a leader with an independent will. She breaks societies strictest taboos to follow her heart, and gives up all she loves when that threatens her conscience.
“Presently comfort came to him, and he thought the she had always given him of her strength though he had never quite realised it until now.
Glory had passed him by; fame too perhaps would not endure; it might well be that the incalculable goddess would decree ill fame as his due. Perhaps there might not be included in his epitah the one tribute to his knighthood the he knew he deserved “Ii fut toujours bon et loyal chevalier” (He was always good and loyal knight)
But whatever the shadowed years might bring, as long as life should last, he knew that he had here at his side one sure recompense and one abiding loyalty.”
6. The King’s Curse by Philippa Gregory– I have mixed feelings about Gregory as an author. I’ve really enjoyed many of her books, but there have been many I’ve disliked too. I decided to forgo the more popular ones like The Other Boleyn Girl or The White Queen (though I do like both of them) because this fuses together the Plantagenet and Tudor series. We all know that Henry VIII changed a great deal over the course of his life. In his youth, he was a handsome, charismatic, intelligent, athletic young king. As he aged, he became paranoid, tyrannical, and homicidal. Many historians believe that this change was due to the Kells blood group antigen, inherited by his maternal great grandmother, Jaquetta Woodville, (the main character in Gregory’s The Lady of the Rivers. In this book, Jaquetta, who is a bit of a witch, cursed the Tudor line) which caused impaired fertility. This paired with McLeod syndrome both caused infertility (or at least very limited fertility) and eventually psychotic changes in personality. The way that Jaquetta’s curse plays into contemporary historical speculation is discussed in this blog. This novel deals with Margaret de la Pole, a deposed royal with a unique view of the deteriorating Tudor court, that eventually led to the toxic, paranoiac atmosphere of the court we see in Gregory’s later installments in the series such as The Boleyn Inheritance and The Taming of the Queen.
“Life is a risk, who knows this better than me? Who knows more surely that babies die easily, that children fall ill from the least cause, that royal blood is fatally weak, that death walks behind my family like a faithful black hound?”
7. The Dark Mirror by Juliet Marillier– Yes this book is definitely fantasy. But like many of Marillier’s books, it’s got a basis in fact. This book opens Marillier’s Bridei trilogy (followed by Blade of Fortriu and Well of Shades). It deals with the young Bridei, who was king of the Picts for about 30 years in the sixth century. The first novel in the series tells of Bridei’s education under Broichan, the king’s druid. One night, when he is still a small boy, Bridei discovers a baby, left by the Fair Folk (that much is likely fantasy!) whom he names Tuala. As they grow together, Bridei and Tuala form a bond that is threatened as they both come to terms with the destinies.
“Tales within tales. Dreams within dreams. Pattern on pattern and path beyond path. For such short-lived folks, the human kind seem determined to make things as complicated as possible for themselves.”
8. The Master of All Desires by Judith Merkle Riley– This is another historical novel, dealing with real leaders that ventures into the realm of fantasy. In 1556, Queen Catherine de Medici is trying to obtain an ancient, cursed object, known as the Master of All Desires, rumored to have the power to grant any wish. The Queen has a few wishes, but first and foremost is getting rid of her husband’s mistress. However, Sybille Artaud de la Roque, a young poet, has recently come into possession of it, and is tempted to us it for herself. Only Nostradamus, the Queen’s seer knows that terrible things happen to those who use it. With France on the verge of civil war, he must stop both women, before they inadvertently destroy all of France!
“Poverty is the curse of ancient but numerous lineages.”
9. The Borgia Bride by Jeanne Kalogridis– Most of us have heard of the poison-happy Borgia family. As screwed up as they were, they were certainly influential. The family patriarch was the pope! Sancha of Aragon was also pretty powerful; a princess of the royal house of Naples. She married Jofre Borgia for political reasons, and soon begins an affair with her brother in law, Caesare Borgia. But as far as this family goes, Adultery is pretty tame! Sancha’s bigger problem is that her sister in law Lucrezia has a thing for Caseare (yes, her brother), and has a tendency to poison her rivals. So Sancha will have to be sneaky enough to outwit this family at their own games.
“How could you ever have loved a man so cruel?’
Trusia lifted her chin at that, and regarded me intensely; her voice held a trace of indignance, and I understood that the depth of her love for my father transcended all else. ‘You speak as though I had a choice,’ she said.”
10. The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B by Sandra Gulland– I’ve never thought of Napoleon as much of a romantic lead. A leader, yes, but not very romantic! In this book (the first in a trilogy) we meet Josephine, born in Martinique, as a Creole girl named Marie-Josephe-Rose Tascher. An arranged marriage brings her to France, where she and her children managed to survive the Reign of Terror. She is widowed, and then meets Napoleon, who she marries as a favor to a friend.. This book ends with their marriage, but the trilogy continues through the years of their marriage and their eventual divorce. Rose, whose name is later changed to Josephine, is a character who we like. And we end up liking Napoleon more than we might expect to!
“He calls me Josephine. He says I’m an angel, a saint, his good lucky star. I know I’m no angel, but in truth I have begun to like this Josephine he sees. She is intelligent; she amuses; she is pleasing. She is grace and charm and heart. Unlike Rose; scared, haunted and needy. Unlike Rose with her sad life.”