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review 2020-07-31 21:27
The Favourite by Ophelia Field
Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough: The Queen's Favourite - Ophelia Field This is an interesting biography of a woman I can’t help viewing as the Hillary Clinton of turn-of-the-18th century England: Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, was a prominent, divisive, highly political woman closely connected to her country’s leader, but not naturally suited to her supporting role. Opinionated, partisan, determined, self-righteous and stubborn, even today Sarah Churchill remains a colorful figure often portrayed in a highly negative light. Churchill is best known for having a very close relationship with Queen Anne, up until their dramatic falling-out largely due to political issues: the queen leaned conservative while Churchill was a committed Whig, and after decades of friendship Churchill seems to have assumed too much in terms of her influence once Anne ascended the throne. During the course of their friendship, Anne sent Sarah a lot of letters that today come across as highly romantic in tone and vocabulary, leading many to assume that the two were lovers. Author Ophelia Field looks at both sides of that question, but without spending too much time on speculation, preferring to focus on known facts. It’s pretty hard to figure out centuries later whether people were sexually involved, but we do know that many of the female courtiers at that time wrote each other letters like this, perhaps in part due to overheated epistolary conventions and in part because friendships were prioritized more at the time than they are now. It’s also worth noting that certain words simply had different connotations at the time (people declared their “passion” for their parents and children as well as their friends). On the other hand, while Anne dutifully got pregnant with her husband an astonishing 17 times (none of which resulted in a child surviving to adulthood), she did not have quasi-romantic relationships with male courtiers in the way other queens of England did, and Sarah evidently saw something untoward in Anne’s letters, as after falling out of favor she used them to blackmail the queen. This book though is a rather exhaustive chronicle of Sarah Churchill’s life, of which the Queen Anne episodes were only a part. There’s a lot about her relationship with her husband and his military victories, a lot about political maneuvering, and a lot about various satires and attacks against the Churchills in the press at the time. I also appreciated the final chapter dealing with the various portrayals of Churchill since her death. I don’t disagree with the reviewers who say the book goes on a little long, in perhaps too much detail, with the letters, politics and press attacks. It’s interesting stuff, but it may not need to be quite so granular and as a result the book takes a little while to get through. In my view Field does an admirable job of remaining balanced: Churchill was clearly a difficult person in a lot of ways, prone to strong opinions and long-running arguments (though perhaps not quite as contentious as some of her detractors portrayed her). She doesn’t seem to have been an attentive mother and was controlling toward her grandchildren, using the fortune she amassed through clever investments to keep them in line. At the same time, her willingness to step out of the standard role of a woman of her time is admirable, and she was clearly tough, committed, charismatic and intelligent. She wrote a lot, and was very concerned with how posterity would view her, so we get many excerpts in her own words. Overall, this is an interesting and at times dramatic biography of a strong personality, though at times it does drown a little in detail, while there were a few areas (such as Churchill’s children) that I would have liked to see fleshed out more. This book is a good choice for those interested in the topic.
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review 2020-07-28 03:43
Ingenious Pursuits by Lisa Jardine
Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution - Lisa Jardine

This is an interesting and intelligent book about the early Enlightenment, focused on England in the late 17th century. It is arranged topically and covers a number of subjects that were important to science at the time: astronomy; the invention of the microscope; architecture, relevant because of the math involved; scientific instruments and the improving of clocks so as to make meaningful measurements possible; anatomy; botany and the European craze for collecting specimens from around the world; medicine and the often dangerous remedies scientists tested on themselves (along with some experiments that were way ahead of their time, such as blood transfusion, which wasn’t particularly successful since it was attempted from animals to humans); the problem of how to measure longitude; the relationship between astronomy and cartography and consequent improvement in the accuracy of maps. It’s very readable, not as long as it appears due to a lot of illustrations, and definitely expanded my knowledge a bit.

The book is not a biography of anyone in particular (I came to it after The Age of Wonder and was a little disappointed in that at first, though admittedly, this one is appreciably shorter and probably contains more actual science history as a result). But it does spend some time with some of the biggest influences on the English science scene at the time, such as Newton, Hooke, and Halley, as well as paying attention to the context in which they worked. Discussion of some weird aspects of scientific culture at the time—such as the way some people would publish results in codes or anagrams so that they could later claim to have published first, while actually keeping their precious knowledge to themselves—was particularly interesting. The idea of scientific collaboration was new, and the German-born secretary of the Royal Society was even arrested for spying based on his scientific correspondence with foreigners.

I don’t love that this book, like most popular histories of science available in English, is very Anglo- and Eurocentric, and doesn’t acknowledge much contribution from anyone else. Also, despite being written by a woman, it has little to say about women in science—the one who is discussed, Maria Sibylla Merian, is presented as if she were an artist only. I also would have liked to see the book go more into depth on many of the topics and people discussed. That said, I learned from it and found it accessible. It is better and more comprehensive than the other books I’ve found on this time period.

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review 2020-07-28 02:47
The Clockwork Universe by Edward Dolnick
The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick

If you want an accessible history of early modern mathematics, this is the book for you. The marketing is off, as if the author changed course about a third of the way through but neglected to inform his publishers or, for that matter, alter the first third of the book. It’s presented as a history of English science in the late 17th century, and the first third focuses on fairly simplistic scene-setting. Other reviewers have rightly pointed out that the speeches of Jonathan Edwards—an 18th century New England preacher descended from people who left England due to intolerance of their extreme religious views—should not be pointed to as an articulation of “standard doctrine” in England decades earlier, and this sort of thing calls the author’s sweeping statements about religion into question.

That said, eventually Dolnick tosses aside his shackles and digs into what really interests him, which is a history of math, particularly how mathematical discoveries were viewed in a religious context and why the invention/discovery of calculus was so important. This is actually quite readable and engaging, and short chapters and diagrams make the math pretty digestible for the intelligent reader who may not remember much from school. (I actually felt like it was a little bit too simplistic. My memories of high school calculus were barely jogged.) Interestingly, the math focus means that except for Newton, the people Dolnick focuses on are largely not English: Leibniz, Kepler, Galileo, and Descartes all have their turn in the spotlight. Since English-language histories of science are so Anglocentric generally, this was both great, in that I learned a little about people I hadn’t read much about, and frustrating, in that why drag us through 100 pages of English history first if this is where we’re going? Why not get the context of these other countries, presumably less familiar to most English-speaking readers, instead?

But okay. It’s a readable history of math, with some pretty interesting details. I didn’t know, for instance, that Descartes invented the idea of plotting change on a graph in the 17th century or what a breakthrough this was. Or about the way credulity, at the time, was seen by thinkers as a sign of intelligence, apparently as contrasted with hidebound peasants who refused to believe anything they didn’t see with their own eyes. (Naturally, this resulted in the thinkers believing some wacky things.) It’s not the book I would recommend if you actually want to read about late 17th century science, since it barely touches anything non-mathematical, so for other subjects, try Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution instead. But it’s a quick read and I don’t regret reading it.

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review 2020-07-24 05:00
When artists were kings
The Holland Park Circle: Artists and Victorian Society - Caroline Dakers

In the second half of the 19th century, an informal group of artists coalesced in the northwestern London neighborhood of Kensington. Known as the Holland Park Circle, they often had different styles and subject matter but were united by geography and benefited collectively from a growing status of artists in the Victorian era. Thanks to their prosperity they built a series of houses in the neighborhood that both reflected their status and gave them opportunities to mingle with the wealthy and well-connected members of Victorian society, many of whom served as patrons and subjects.

 

Caroline Dakers’s book about the group functions on a number of different levels. In part it serves as a group biography, tracing the lives of such members as George Frederick Watts, Frederic Leighton, Hamo Thornycroft, and others, all of whom were esteemed in their day for their work. In tracing their lives and associations, though, it also serves as a biography of the neighborhood in which they lived. Carved out of the grounds surrounding Holland House, the rapidly developing community served as a crossroads of high Victorian society, where the artists socialized with both titled lords and the newly emergent class of wealthy manufacturers and upper-class professionals. Yet throughout this Dakers never loses sight of the art itself, as she uses the lives and the setting as context for her description of the artists’ works and their reception by their audience. It’s a masterful work that highlights effectively the intersection between art, commerce, and society in the Victorian world, and is rewarding reading for anyone interested in the era.

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review 2020-07-21 20:25
Mediocre regency novel
The Devil's Gift - Laura Landon

This book is intended for some people but I do not think I am one of them. I love regency historical romances so that is not the issue. The issue is in the worldbuilding and plenty of plot holes and loose ends that just leave me feeling slightly disappointed. If you can look past those issues then there is a good enough story there to at least finish the book.

I am not going to dwell too much upon this book because it didn't make me happy and it didn't make me angry, it was that middle mediocre feeling with which you know you are not going to remember this book for long and you really won't have any feelings about it few days later when it just evaporates from your mind.


The beginning is promising, there is a mystery there with the lady training some street girls to give them a chance at a better life, there is an assassination which then leads to a private investigation by the dead person's brother, there is an intrigue surrounding the household of the main female character and there is definitely enough to build the story upon. Those are all great points but from there onwards it somehow drags in certain places like the main male character's silly training in household chores and then it goes too fast skipping important details that we then just have to imagine have been explained like how her father was discovered because there was never an indication that that might happen, it happened just to propel the plot forwards and not because logic and reason were behind the event.

The writing is capable, the story is at least interesting enough for me to read to the end, the characters are just fine, nothing great but also nothing too bad. Everything feels like that honestly, everything is just fine enough to be read through but nothing stands out to make it memorable or entertaining enough to recommend to someone.

I have many issues with the plot and the missing pieces and the overall conspiracy is just too silly to be believable, also if the main villain was that easily triggered as we see in the end then there is no way he could have masterminded that ridiculous conspiracy. The characters also not fully developed. Main female lead starts off as different than other ladies because she cares about the common folk and helps the girls out but then that just disappears when it served the plot of getting the main male lead into the household in that way. There is no mention of the girls after that, it doesn't serve anything, it doesn't come back later... it's just there to give entrance to the main male lead. Speaking of him, it is also unreasonable that he as the new earl wouldn't have more people to help him with his investigation, that he would have that much time to spend playing house with the lady whilst all of his obligations are on hold and that no other woman would be interested in him and come to play as a misunderstanding or an obstacle at some point. Things seem to happen to serve the plot and are totally forgotten.

All of what I have mentioned just left me feeling meh, like shrugging my shoulders and saying ah, it was okayish enough to not consider it a waste of time. Which is not a compliment but also not the worst thing ever.

If you have the time and you just want to read a simple regency romance story then this can kill some time, but don't think too hard about the plot and the conspiracy and the female lead's father and his circumstances because the story will immediately crumble and you won't be able to immerse yourself into this world anymore.

It's good if you just don't think about it.

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