Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Pledge of Better Times (Book Review)

Title: A Pledge of Better Times
Author: Margaret Porter
Publication: Gallica Press, 2015, paperback
Genre: Historical Fiction
Plot: A compelling historical novel set in the late 17th century about two interconnected families: the Stuarts and the de Veres, loyal servants to their monarch. Charles II, restored to his throne after years of exile, reigned merrily, yielding numerous attractive bastards but no legitimate child. Charles’ brother James, a controversial Catholic, and his daughters, reliable Protestants, Mary and Anne, are heirs to the throne. The Earl of Oxford, Aubrey de Vere, is a high ranking courtier loyal to the Stuarts. The story is primarily about his daughter, Lady Diana, first a girl and then a beautiful and intelligent young woman, who serves Mary and pledges her love to the Duke of Albans, son of Charles II and the notorious orange seller Nell Gwyn.

Audience: Fans of quality historical fiction and historical romance; Anglophiles and fans of the Stuarts.

What I liked: This time frame is much neglected: there is historical fiction set during the English Civil War and during Charles II’s exile and plenty depicting Bonnie Prince Charlie’s but not much set around the time of Charles’ death in 1685. You won’t be surprised to hear that two of my childhood favorites take place during this period: Princess of Orange, about Mary’s childhood and marriage to William of Orange, and Shattered Summer, about the Duke of Monmouth’s misguided attempt to seize the throne.  You can see how handsome he was and he had his share of Stuart charm.
Duke of Monmouth (1678) by Sir Godfrey Kneller

A Pledge of Better Times is thoroughly researched yet written with a light touch: Porter delicately balances the need for historical accuracy without sacrificing her vivid storytelling and provides a touching romance as well. I am a long time fan of her books, back to her Walker days, and this is by far her best. Her enthusiasm for even the most minor character shines through. I loved Diana de Vere and her father, a courtier who wants to be loyal to his monarch without renouncing his religion (of course, as a Catholic, I wish James II had been more tolerant of religious freedom and avoided being deposed – and if his father had been smarter and more tolerant, perhaps he could have kept his head and kingdom – pigheaded Stuarts!). Even minor characters such as Nell Gwyn and Prince Eugene of Savoy are well depicted while the calculating Sarah Churchill shows her true colors (why doesn’t PBS bring back its wonderful miniseries about Sarah and her soldier husband?). My mother will appreciate mentions of her favorite Henry Purcell. One of the portraits of Lady Diana by Sir Godfrey Kneller graces the cover of the book, making me want to research and visit his paintings in person. I think I have seen this one he painted of the first Duke of Marlborough in person but not the one above of Monmouth.
John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough by Sir Godfrey Kneller
What I disliked: The one bad thing about historical fiction based on history one knows well is knowing what is going to happen, and in this era it was usually bad. Oh well, at least William and Mary are preserved as a great university.

Source: I purchased a trade paperback but it is also available in Kindle. Highly recommended!

Images of the Dukes of Monmouth and Marlborough used by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Indian Summers – Season 1, Episode 8 – Recap

In the last episode, the authorities decided that Ramu Sood killed Adam’s mother, Jaya. They don’t know that Ralph had a stronger motive: avoiding disgrace that exposure of his youthful liaison with Jaya would reveal. A small but growing group of people know that Ralph is Adam’s father but none of the authorities want to think anyone British is involved in something as sordid as murder. Much better to blame it on poor Mr. Sood!
Sooni Dalal, lawyer in training
A fancy British barrister comes to Simla to prosecute Mr. Sood’s trial (which takes place unrealistically soon) and at least there is a lawyer for the defense (and the lawyer has an assistant – Aafrin Dalal’s sister, Sooni, who wants to go to law school – she should talk to me first). The policeman testifies that Mr. Sood had a motive to kill Jaya because she stole his deceased wife’s wedding dress. He explains that when he tried to interview Mr. Sood, the man had disappeared – clearly, not the sign of an innocent man, everyone agrees. (Unless it’s the sign of someone who doesn’t think he’ll get a fair trial.) The prosecutor also tries to discredit Ian, who saw Mr. Sood on the veranda of his house and says he could not have committed the murder.

Gandhi is still fasting, and Ralph pretends dealing with that fallout requires all his time but really he can’t concentrate on anything because he’s terrified about what might come out in the court room. Ian goes to visit Mr. Sood in prison, who basically says he’s doomed and Ian shouldn’t jeopardize his standing by testifying.

Alice is wearing the most fetching hat; doesn't everyone get dressed up to sit in a hot courtroom all day? She, her future sister-in-law Madeleine, the whiny Sarah, and the other British ladies are attending the trial for entertainment. I told you not much happens in Simla! Mr. Sood was disliked by the British because of his rivalry with Mr. Armitage (Ian’s uncle) and the jostling accident that sort of caused Mr. Armitage’s heart attack/stroke. On the stand, Cynthia asserts with calculated spite that Mr. Sood is lucky he’s only being charged with one murder.

Leena visits Mr. Sood’s lawyer (against Dougie Raworth the Missionary’s wishes – he is aware that Ralph might be implicated in some way but is also very conscious he has spent half the money Ralph secured for the Mission School, so tells her to leave it alone) and she takes the stand when Ian doesn’t show up for court. She testifies that Jaya had a son, Adam, thinking this introduces another motive. The prosecutor asks who the father is and Leena hesitates but says she does not know. She reveals that Adam called his father “demon.” If you remember, that is what Ralph’s would-be assassin called him; I guess that guy was Adam’s grandfather.

Mr. Sood’s lawyer takes an unexpected approach and practically accuses Leena of killing Jaya to protect Adam or out of thwarted maternal instincts. Dougie, looking agonized, shouts from the audience to leave Leena alone. This evidence of Dougie’s affection for Leena makes his wife, Sarah, sick to her stomach and she has to run from the court room, humiliated. She thinks he has ruined her new social standing and doesn’t realize the British were just tolerating her for Alice’s sake. Leena is also extremely bitter, angry that the legal system is not trustworthy.

Aafrin accompanies Sooni to find Ian (so depressed he got drunk). Aafrin asks her again about the letter he gave Alice for Sita (warning the family to hide the stolen evidence) and finally believes her when she says she never got it. Aafrin realizes it was Sita, not Alice, who lied to him.
Ian McLeod
All Sooni needed was to be around people with integrity or at least less wishy-washy than her brother. She is unwillingly impressed with Ian’s commitment to fairness. For the first time, she has encountered a British man she doesn’t despise (technically, of course, he is Scottish).

Aafrin apologizes to Alice for doubting her, and she asks angrily why he doesn’t leave Sita. Alice points out that she left her husband, carrying a baby. “She doesn’t have India to run to,” Aafrin points out, which Alice, never having been destitute, cannot understand. Then Aafrin and Sita rendezvous in a cemetery and he tells her he knows she lied about giving the note to Sooni. She denies it at first but then admits the truth, although pretends she didn’t know it was important (absurd – the fact that Alice sought her out to hand deliver the note had to have made it clear it was an emergency). Sita slaps Aafrin’s face and begs him not to leave her but he walks away coldly. He’s really not very loyal to either woman; why not be kinder to Sita? Plus, it’s stupid to make her angry – who knows what she’ll do? No one in this show ever plans ahead except sneaky Cynthia.

The prosecutor destroys Ian’s character during cross-examination and Ian loses his temper, destroying all the good his honest testimony had provided (the judge had seemed like a decent guy until this point). Later, Ralph asks Cynthia if she thinks Mr. Sood really did it and she says, “Of course.” Is this an elaborate double bluff by Ralph? However, the judge finds Mr. Sood guilty and sentences him to be hanged.

Belatedly, Dougie sends back the generous check Ralph arranged for the school with a note saying he and the children are not for sale and tells Ralph not to return to the school (so much for Sarah’s social climbing). There is a meaningful shot of Ralph’s sandals at the episode end – a witness during the trial found a sandal near the crime scene and everyone in the court laughed merrily at the idea of an Englishman wearing an Indian sandal but Ralph does sometimes dress in casual Indian clothes.

Images copyright to PBS