I can’t quite kick the habit of reading royal biographies, but at least I’m coming to terms with the fact that English princess led boring lives, largely devoid of intellectual challenge. The bored looks on the cover photos of Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll, and Queen Elizabeth II as a girl pretty much make the case that there lives were neither interesting nor fun. As depicted in their respective biographies, Queen Victoria’s Mysterious Daughter – a Biography of Princess Louise, by Lucinda Hawksley, and Young Elizabeth, the Making of the Queen, by Kate Williams, both Princesses Louise and Elizabeth had some intelligence and potential, but their parents pretty much squeezed it out of them.
Queen Victoria couldn’t see beyond her own excessively demanding personal needs and generally regarded her children as her slaves throughout their lives. Princess Louise apparently had some artistic talent and was provided with some opportunities to sculpt, but her personal life and interests were consistently disregarded by her mother. Queen Victoria never got over thinking that her daughter Louise was difficult and needed to be watched. Lucinda Hawksley, the author of Louise’s biography, takes some imaginative leaps and provides Louise with a scandalous love story. If true, it makes her story all the sadder, given her subsequent marriage.
Queen Victoria at least had the excuse of being a widow and having nine children, although it’s card to imagine her being a loving and caring mother under any circumstances. Queen Elizabeth’s parents, George VI and his Consort Queen Elizabeth, should have had it a bit easier. They were a loving couple, and they only had two children. There seems to have been a decent amount of love and affection to go around. It is true they were traumatized by George’s sudden ascent to the throne after his brother Edward VIII abdicated to “marry the woman he loved.” Still, Elizabeth’s parents spent time with her. Unfortunately they completely short-changed her when it came to education. They were so determined that their daughters have a carefree life, that they didn’t bother to give them an education. They seemed to think that education was a loathsome thing to be avoided. Trivial pursuits and playtime pretty much ruled the day. One will never know if Elizabeth could have become an intellectual, but it certainly seems possible that she might have expanded her interests between horses and dogs had she been given a broader education. The one lesson Elizabeth seems to have learned very well was to fulfill her responsibilities as a monarch. That she has done. She has also picked up a certain amount of political acumen and appreciation for other cultures along the way. Her life hasn’t been a tragedy, but so much of it has seemed boring and useless waste.
Both of these women suffered from being born into impossible and ridiculous lives of privilege, but their parents certainly made things worse. Victoria crushed and disdained her Louise, as she did her other children. Elizabeth’s parents just abdicated their responsibility to educate her. In a way, that seems the saddest deficit of all. If nothing else, these books made me think quite a lot about what it means to be a good parent and what we really owe our children.
Ever since the hot summer day many years ago that I spent my lunch hour traveling to Shamokin, Pennsylvania, to see the miracle of Shamokin — supposedly the image of Christ’s face lurking in the drapery of an altar cloth — I’ve been weirdly interested in the whole concept of religious relics and assorted miracles. As I recall, one we got to the church we were admonished to stare at the cloth without blinking until we witnessed the miracle. All we saw was some wishful fakery and a cloth that needed ironing. Our cynicism remained intact. On the ride back from Shamokin, an old coal town that had seen better days, we all expressed a certain relief that we hadn’t witnessed any sort of miracle, because that would have not only bewildered us but would also have thrown a highly complicating curve into our lives.
Christopher Buckley’s new novel The Relic Master provides a very funny riff on the whole subject of religious relics and miracles. More importantly, Buckley gleefully exposes all the fakery and big business that supported the trade. The story is set in the very competitive trade in religious relics that was a hallmark of Medieval Europe. The relic master himself is highly doubtful and even feels a bit guilty about the tawdry fakes, but he is surrounded by greedy customers desperate to score the next big coup. To quote Donald Trump, these customers are determined to lay their hands on something “yuge.” Thus, they are untroubled by the entirely fictional provenance of their religious trinkets. They don’t really care whether something is actually the finger of a saint or a shroud that covered Jesus. Why should they bother about such niceties? All they really seem to want is to acquire more religious stuff than their competitors and — no small point — make a ton of money off them? It is all glitz and dollars!
One of the hallmarks of a Buckley novel seems to be the presence of a corrupt yet highly likable hero. Dismas, a former mercenary and monk turned relic salesman, happily fits this bill in The Relic Master. There’s something oddly heroic about how Dismas, an entirely fictional character, goes about his trade. He is surrounded by a wonderful assortment of characters, many of them based on real historical figures, in this comic salute to the historical novel. There’s a lot of greed, violence and cynicism throughout the book, but what I remember most is Dismas and his motley crew as they set out on a ridiculous quest.
This book is a lot of fun, particularly since it features a wonderful array of historic dukes and clerics behaving badly. If you like funny religious satires, I also highly recommend Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, a true classic.
If you like English murder mysteries, you need to know about Cyril Hare. Hare was a London barrister who spent much of his long legal career in a chambers known for handling high profile criminal cases. Throughout his long legal career, which culminated in a judgeship, Hare also wrote murder mysteries. In Death Among Friends, a short story compilation, Hare proves the point that it never hurts to look at events from a completely different and somewhat skewed angle.
Hare’s murder mysteries, many of them written in the years between the wars, frequently turn on some arcane legal point. In Death Among Friends, Hare offers both short and longish detective stories where the precise reason for a murder is often as obscure as the manner in which the murder is accomplished. Greed is the overwhelming motive in most of these stories, and of course by itself that is not so unusual. What makes these stories so interesting and fun to dissect, however, is the care and imagination Hare employs to develop and justify the basis and manifestation of his characters’ greed and expectations.
Hare’s legal bent is highly entertaining for lawyers, but these stories and his longer books engage anyone hooked on unexpected and clever plot lines. Hare doesn’t spend a lot of time developing characters, except to the extent that he creates some very selfish, single-minded people. I do prefer novel-length murder mysteries and highly recommend Cyril Hare’s longer books. Even if they are out of print, they can generally be found as used books on line or in your favorite used book store. To have a complete background in the English murder mystery you really need to read Cyril Hare.