"Mary Olivier: A Life" by May Sinclair

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So often with a memoir, or a seeming memoir, you will hear that it is “intensely personal,” as when a strong emotion affects one’s thoughts and behavior. Such does not apply to Mary Olivier: A Life. The novel evokes restrained Victorian mores, and deals with religious doubt, and propounds a variety of philosophical and scientific thought. Its treatment of these themes gives one a brush with some fairly recondite concepts, but when the potentially true shining insight finally cracks through (in the book’s last handful of paragraphs), I was worn out waiting for it.

Mary Olivier the character displays cleverness and a certain stubborn rebelliousness in matters of conscience and religion. She worries her mother when, just starting her teen years, she reads Spinoza and Kant, and annoys her by concluding that the Christian God is only a small example, and not a very good one, of the divine. Mary follows her own compass through her life, but does not behave in any outrageous way, when it comes right down to it. She stays home to care for her mother, living with her into her forties. The events of Mary’s life are relayed in fits and starts, always with the backdrop of the philosophical strands of her thought. Mary is certainly a spirited creature, and ultimately I admire her courage in facing so many people and societal strictures that worked so assiduously to shut her up.

As a reading experience I found Mary unrewarding. The philosophic milieu into which Mary thrusts herself and the reader held promise, but in the end there was precious little of it discussed. If it had been more prominent, the book would have difficulty qualifying as fiction, I guess. Mary’s ultimate insights are what set her apart as a fictional heroine: if there is happiness to be had, you will find it within yourself, not in people or objects that are outside of you. I suggest you pass.

"The Harlot's Tale" by Sam Thomas

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New author Sam Thomas has introduced Lady Bridget Hodgson, a devout and determine midwife of 17th century York, to the roster of medieval and early modern sleuths in The Midwife’s Tale and The Harlot’s Tale. More entries are sure to follow these two, and that’s a very good thing.

Mr. Thomas uses his academic background to evoke the York milieu of the middle of the 17th century. He covers: the squalor cheek-by-jowl with the posh neighborhoods, the multitude of parish churches in a city of relatively modest population, and the importance of religious observances in everyday life. In The Harlot’s Tale especially, Mr. Thomas presents the high tension between the Puritan impulse and the more traditional Protestant sects. 

This is, in fact, one quibble I have with the narrative of Harlot’s Tale: it focuses too much on peoples’ preoccupation with how to fear and cajole their God. Yes, the theme of righteousness and hypocrisy figures very large here, but there is also such things as relief, contrast, and nuance to give a book depth and variability. And I want also to address those special features of a mystery – clues, subtle indicators of guilt or innocence, the sleuth’s deductive powers – Mr. Thomas’s handling of these needs refinement.  Lady Hodgson solves crime with her small posse, her maidservant Martha (easily the series’ most appealing character) and her nephew Will. They work cooperatively toward answers and next steps, but Lady Bridget needs to take control more and start to outthink her think tank.

For my money, there can never be too many medieval mystery series.
There is a lot of potential here for Sam Thomas’s midwife. He needs, however, to tighten up his mystery processes, and make Lady Bridget smarter than your average crimebuster.

"The Winter Palace" by Eva Stachniak

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A novel featuring proximity to the historically notable from the point of view of the ordinary, complete with intrigue, a palace coup, war, and a bookbinder’s daughter made into a countess – I was attracted to this book in a major way. And yet when it was finished, I felt it still wanted something.

The Winter Palace brings us the story of Catherine the Great’s accession to the throne of all the Russias in 1762. It’s told from the point of view of Barbara (Varvara in Russian), a young girl who has immigrated with her father and mother to St. Petersburg from Poland. As this young girl reaches adolescence (circa 1749 or so) she makes herself valuable to the Empress Elizabeth’s Chancellor, for her ability to gather and keep secrets. She becomes a spy for his excellency, and a pretty reliable one. In a few years, along comes Sophie, a princess in the German ruling Anhalt family, a young maiden of fourteen, who is betrothed to Empress Elizabeth’s nephew and heir-designate, Peter. The book contains the narrative of Sophie, who will take the Russian name Catherine: she arrives at court, bravely tries to get along with Peter, finally marries him, and bears a son whom the Empress takes from her to raise herself. Six months after the old Empress dies, after Peter has ruled disastrously as her heir, Catherine’s supporters confer all power on her and her reign starts in a (nearly) bloodless coup.

The novel’s take on human nature, while I’m sure wholly accurate, remains flat – it’s a monotone of grasping, secretive jealousy, and hunger for power. While I have no doubt that the court of Empress Elizabeth was exactly this way, the story could clearly do with some relief from this miserable and all-encompassing mania. Also I could have wished for a more effective description of the architecture of the palaces and temporary quarters the principals lived in, and more especially of the international and internal issues that Elizabeth is noted for having dealt with. Yes, we witness this story through the eyes of an unimportant courtier, but Barbara is an awfully quick study, and a large thinker. She would have understood the hazards for Russia contained in the surprise Anglo-Prussian treaty from the Seven Years’ War, for instance.  

However, for anyone interested in the novelization of Catherine’s early life and rise to power, this will be a must-read. The author does an excellent job of portraying the royal family in all its jealousy, vainglory, and profligacy, and doing a fully nuanced, unblinking job on Catherine herself. I would not recommend this book to readers who lack those interests, though.