Ripper: The Secret Life of Walter Sickert, by Patricia Cornwell

Eight stars

Biographies come in all shapes and sizes, as has been exemplified throughout my binge over these past few months. Patricia Cornwell’s re-release of this biographical piece about Jack the Ripper offers not only a view into the horrible crimes that were committed in London’s East End, but also posits that Walter Sickert is the most likely suspect, providing ample proof. Cornwell offers a strong biographical sketch of both Sickert and the killings, while extrapolating the killing spree outside of the known five prostitutes. She pushes hard to substantiate her argument and uses some biographical data to show how Sickert cannot be discounted as one of the most likely suspects, even though he was a respected artist. Wonderfully detailed and presented in such a way that a novice such as myself could easily follow, Cornwell is sure to garner more interest in this updated version of this non-fiction book, though doubters and trolls are sure to remain active.

Jack the Ripper is arguably one of the most elusive and notorious serial killers of modern time. While the Ripper’s crimes hit London by storm in 1888, the inability to catch the killer soon brought the crimes to international prominence. That no killer has been found almost 130 years later offers an added level of mystery. Cornwell provides some backstory as it relates to Sickert in the early chapters, hinting at his troubled childhood marred with an apparently horrific penile deformity that required numerous invasive (and destructive) surgeries. This early ‘maiming’ might have fuelled his desire to exact revenge on those within the sex trade who were most vulnerable. Soon thereafter, Cornwell presents the murders of five female prostitutes and suggests a likely narrative, based on the police reports and media depictions. With what is known about the aforementioned deformities, the reader is left to choose which path they choose to take. Could Sickert have chosen these early women to exemplify that he was still virile or turned to those who would not necessarily judge him, as long as he had the money to pay? Cornwell also explores Sickert’s roaming nature, as he followed a path all his own, both to fulfil his artistic abilities and his interest in some of the stage work that he undertook. From there, she is able to provide the reader with some possibilities surrounding Walter Sickert’s involvement, based on his known location at the time. There were scores of mocking letters received by the police and newspapers attributed to the Ripper, allowing Cornwell to posit that Sickert may have posted these letters while he was touring with a troupe or had numerous letters sent from different destinations to dilute his guilt. Cornwell uses some of Sickert’s own personal correspondence to match up with the anonymous letters sent by the Ripper, as well as some of the other pseudonyms used by both the Ripper and Sickert. Of greatest interest to the reader might be that Cornwell is convinced that Met Police focussed only on the five prostitutes, which was likely only a small snapshot of the murder spree undertaken by Jack the Ripper. Cornwell offers up some proof, pairing murders into the 20th century with both Sickert geographic pairings or hints of the murders within Sickert’s own artwork. Sickert’s fame within the English art world proved strong as he was known to have taught a young Winston Churchill. While nothing is definitive, Cornwell provides readers with a strong case, admitting that she is focussed on a single suspect, for Walter Sickert’s guilt. All those involved are long dead and names have all but disappeared in the ether, though Cornwell, like the popular protagonist in her long-running series, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, seeks to bring the families some peace of mind. A well-researched and compelling book, those with an interest in Jack the Ripper may find it highly informative and entertaining in equal measure.

I will admit that I am not well-versed in the crimes of Jack the Ripper, so I came into this piece seeking information and to be persuaded over trying to dissect the arguments made. Cornwell does a wonderful job in laying the groundwork for Walter Sickert being Jack the Ripper, as well as showing that the killing spree was monumental, through it is impossible to offer up any confirmed tally. Cornwell juggles two biographies here while also trying to lay out a criminal argument, doing so effectively. She offered both a biography of Sickert and a history of the crimes, superimposing them to show that motive and opportunity presented themselves. Cornwell’s approach was, in my mind, less an attack than a collection of facts to strengthen her argument, which she openly admits not wanting to do. While she was attacked after the original version of this book for destruction of expensive artwork to prove her point, Cornwell tries to rebut those sentiments and assures the reader of her forensic approach to crime work. The latter portion of the book spends much time debunking the rumours that surfaced during her work and from the original edition. With haphazard attention paid to crime scenes at the time, Cornwell is stuck using the limited narratives offered at the time and can only explore some of the papers and pieces of art leftover now to push for Sickert’s guilt. Splices of DNA and analysis of paper could prove impossible to substantiate without ruining the original documents, thereby nullifying any further exploration on the subject. The reader is treated to strong arguments based in fact and will leave this book with a stronger knowledge of Jack the Ripper, Walter Sickert, and East-End London. A perfect addition for those who love true crime in an era where even Sherlock Holmes would likely have struggled to come up with a convincing suspect.

Kudos, Madam Cornwell for this compelling piece. While I am so used to your Scarpetta work, this was a refreshing look into your non-fiction mind. I am highly impressed and can only hope your search for justice is far from over.

My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor

Nine stars

As the biography journey begins its final days, I returned to yet another female Justice of the US Supreme Court. I sought not only to learn about a strong woman, but also one who will lay out a strong memoir to shape her rise to judicial prominence. While some will remember my reviews of pieces by Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg during this biography binge, they proved highly informative, but lacked a true chronological build-up and left me wanting more. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has written a strong historical piece that does what I have been seeking all along, tapping into her youth and the hurdles she faced growing up, both proving to be highly useful for the reader to better understand the woman who currently sits on the Court. With a strong pre-judicial focus, the biography presents her arguments in a clear fashion that the curious reader may find useful to better understand Sonia Sotomayor as a woman and a legal heavyweight alike.

Born in the South Bronx, Sotomayor opens by tackling two major struggles she faced as a young girl, a diagnosis of Type 1 (juvenile) diabetes and a less that calm home life. Her close-knit family showered her with love, even when money was scarce, but an alcoholic father added strain to an already troublesome home. Her Catholic school upbringing brought the fear of God and the nuns into the early narrative, peppered with Sotomayor’s passion to learn, an obvious escape from the fighting at home. It was only when she reached high school that Sotomayor found her niche through a teacher that took an academic interest in her. This scholastic passion grew as Sotomayor gained admission into Princeton and eventually Yale Law School, where she continued to excel. These were the early 1970s and affirmative action was being bandied around Admission Offices across universities. Sotomayor addresses this, but makes a strong argument that her grades propelled her, even if certain doors may have been left open a crack. Of particular interest, Sotomayor seems never too have forgotten her roots, even during her Ivy League education. Her continued success baffled her at times, though she never forgot from whence she came, reminding the reader of her extended family and treks back to the Bronx whenever she could. Sotomayor also talks about a Hispanic Civil Rights Movement and how universities were a hotbed to begin cultivating new and exciting opportunities to foster respect for her cultural roots, first within academic circles and then at a government level. After graduation, Sotomayor began a new round of struggles and adventures as she had to make a career out of her extensive education. She turned to life as a trial lawyer, where she was able to prosecute criminals of all types, but also had epiphanies about the disparities of the legal system as a whole. Sotomayor used this as another building block in her creation of a legal and judicial foundation, striving to bring balance to a jaded and money-fuelled system. Tackling many cases, Sotomayor had a larger goal, to reach the bench and chose to enrich her life in private practice, where she might be able to hone some of her strong civil law skills. Many saw great possibilities for Sotomayor, pushing her towards applying for consideration of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee for a Federal District Court post. In the waning chapters, Sotomayor offers the reader some of the process involved therein and quickly ties up her narrative soon after her appointment. A strong first piece in a well-grounded memoir, Sotomayor is sure to garner much interest by any who take the time to read what she has to offer.

Sotomayor provides a strong foundation for the reader in this memoir, by pulling on her upbringing, education, and personal struggles. The narrative is not only clear and concise, but flavoured with the power of hindsight and recollection, synthesising events and ideas that might have been lost at the time of their emergence. Presenting herself humbly, Sotomayor allows the reader to judge for themselves as to what they think about this most accomplished woman. While I would have liked a section dedicated to her ongoing judicial work, Sotomayor admits in the forward that this would not be included. One can speculate that she wanted to remain impartial while sitting on the bench, but leaving the reader to wonder what might be in store in the second half of this telling memoir. Honest and told from the heart without turning into a tell-all, Sotomayor invites the reader into some of her most personal struggles, while staying true to all those who have helped her along the way. Truly a woman of much power who has seen much in her life, Sonia Sotomayor is a role model for many who know the power of determination.

Kudos, Justice Sotomayor for sharing so much about yourself. I came into this with such little knowledge about you and the life you led, but leave with much respect and a list of questions.

Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III

Eight stars

On my biographical journey, I have come across a number of interesting characters, as many who have been following my reviews will surely know. Those who have made their mark on history are of particular interest, as it allows me to delve into curious parts of their past and determine how their choices eventually helped shape the world in which I live today. While many will know some rudimentary events surrounding George III (both fact and fiction), Flora Fraser seeks not only to shed some light on his life, but the role his daughters played at Court and throughout Europe. Fraser presents a strong biographical piece to exemplify what these six ladies of the House of Hanover did during their lives. With three who never married and only one who bore a legitimate child, their impact proved somewhat buried in historical tomes, eluding the amateur history buff. Curious and attentive readers will applaud the detailed analysis offered by Fraser in this unique piece, which explores their lives, sandwiched between two long-reigning English monarchs.

George III, whose Hanovarian bloodline had ruled England for much of the 18th century, proves to be the central character in this biographical piece, or at least his impact is felt throughout. George III and his wife, Princess Charlotte, began building their familial empire by having children soon after they wed, producing a few princes, which would eventually total nine male heirs. The six princesses, peppered amongst their brothers in order of birth, could be used to fortify the bloodline and expand the king’s control into foreign lands. Princesses Charlotte (called Royal), Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, Sophia, and Amelia all found their lives woven into the larger narrative of their father’s reign. As Fraser shows throughout, George III loved his daughters deeply, though they came in such succession and became so numerous that he was not able to have strong individual relationships with any of his children. George III had Parliament pass the Royal Marriages Act, which required the sovereign’s approval of any marriage before it could be permitted, to stave off marriages that would bring no lasting power to the English Throne or might dissipate control, should a female offspring be married off. This proved a strong attempt to curb less than useful marriages amongst some of the older princes, but did not negate them, as Fraser recounts that many married in secret. Without their father’s sanction, the princes could not have their marriages approved and therefore left any offspring out of the line of succession, thereby leaving it up to the princesses to marry well and potentially bear a future king. 

George III’s brood eventually totalled fifteen(!), throughout much unrest, particularly through the American colonial upheaval. Fraser shows that the Sovereign’s focus was firmly rooted in quelling these issues and the princesses matured without a strong paternal figure. Maternally, Queen Charlotte was constantly with child, leaving her a less than powerful influence over her own daughters as well. It was expected that the princesses would remain at Court and act in accordance with their station, attending parties and balls, where many princes and men of influence might attend. However, then aforementioned Royal Marriages Act proved daunting as well, leaving the princesses to choose from a small group of men approved by George III. Looking to his Hanovarian past, Princesses Charlotte and Elizabeth were sent to the German states to marry and strengthen relations with England, the former having a child who died while Elizabeth remained childless. Princess Mary eventually married the Duke of Gloucester, though bore no children. The other three never did marry, therefore their role in the line of succession was nil and their personal exploits proved to be minimal, even as Fraser seeks to sketch out some of their time at Court. 

George III’s madness also played into the princesses lives quite significantly, as they were forced to watch their father’s acuity deteriorate over time. Fraser mentions that this mental fog could, on occasion, keep the king from realising that one of his daughters had died, further questioning his ability to rule and instigating a panic in the line of succession. During a period of regency rule by the Prince of Wales, the princesses were forced to curry favour with their brother in order to find matches or live at Court that would appeal to everyone. Fraser mentions that this period proved a strain on the princesses and left the English Court in some disarray. A quick domino effect left the princesses to watch George III die, and the Prince of Wales become George IV. This was short-lived and soon William IV ascended to the Throne, but he was also struck dead. The only remaining legitimate heir was the daughter of Edward, the Duke of Kent. Queen Victoria thereby emerged and began her lengthy reign. Fraser uses the latter chapters to tie off the lives of the five princesses who lasted into adulthood and reflects their waning years against the early time of Queen Victoria. While the queen was able to foster strong relationship with her aunts, Fraser hints at the fact that these women, whose lives began during the lengthy reign of their father would end with another royal juggernaut pushing the monarchy through the 19th century. Fascinating to extract some historical context to these women, whose footprint is barely felt in history.

Fraser’s approach proves to be highly unique and very interesting. Subtle arguments that the lives of these six princesses were significantly influenced by the life of their father cannot be lost on the attentive reader. Fraser seeks to individualise the lives of each, though the chapters that discuss them are superimposed with the progress (or regression) of George III’s time as king. Equally strong in the arguments presented is the premise that with so many children, one might have suspected that a larger reach might have been procured for the English or that several monarchs could trace back to George III. The narrative remains crisp nonetheless and allows the reader to delve into a significant amount of history while not getting too bogged down by events. It is quite difficult to obtain a thorough and all-encompassing biography of the six princesses in one narrative, though Fraser offers a wonderful overview and weaves the impact each played alongside George III’s reign. Surely this piece serves as a wonderful springboard to other works that might exist for the curious reader, though little is to be said that Fraser did not coax out of her diligent background research. A worthy investment by any reader who wishes to expand horizons and knowledge of the European scene at the time.
Kudos, Madam Fraser for this well-researched piece that introduces readers to some of the great advances women in the House of Hanover would make in decades to come. I will be sure to keep my eyes out for more of your work, which proves educational and entertaining in equal order. 

Victoria: The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman who Ruled an Empire, by Julia Baird

Nine stars

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday, I felt it high time to look back and explore the life and times of our first monarch, Queen Victoria. Much of the country was either shaped or influenced by this British monarch, whose reign was only recently surpassed by Queen Elizabeth II. Julia Baird offers a thorough and thought-provoking biography of Victoria, exploring and dispelling many of the key events and stories that history have attributed to this 19th century wonder. Baird’s presentation sheds Victoria in three distinct lights that the reader will notice throughout the narrative: Victoria the woman, the politician, and the monarch. Striving to provide a clear understanding of Victoria and the influence she had over much of the world, Baird provides the reader with a stellar piece that opens the door to further exploration.

While her enduring reign over Britain and the British Empire may have made Victoria seem super-human, she proved to have common concerns, like many of her subjects. Born in 1819, Victoria arrived amidst an ascendency crisis in Britain. Fifth in the line of succession after the recent death of her grandfather, George III, Victoria was vilified by some of her uncles, all aged and without legitimate heirs to the Throne. Baird attributes this to George III’s Royal Marriages Act, which required the monarch to approve of all unions before they could be officially accepted by Parliament. A few deaths and no heirs to take their place left Victoria in a position to rule at a young age. Victoria ascended to the Throne at nineteen, without a husband or significant love interest. Enter Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, who boldly presented himself to his cousin and determined to convince her that they should wed. Hesitant at first, Victoria soon acquiesced and they married, beginning what some have called the strongest romantic relationship of any English monarch. Victoria soon began a period of almost constant pregnancy, giving birth to nine children in total while still running the country (and Empire). Interestingly enough, while she held much power Victoria willingly handed the reins of power to Albert, as women of the time might have done, without a second thought. Baird amply illustrates the long and devoted marriage that Victoria and Albert shared, growing stronger with each passing year, during which time Albert was able to make many of the household (and monarchical) decisions without Victoria’s protest. Equally shocking, as Baird presents it, Victoria remained a devoted mother as well, tending to the nine children and her subjects as effectively as possible. To bestow so much onto the shoulders of one woman is, in my opinion, more than can be expected, but Victoria did it all masterfully. When Albert fell ill and eventually died in 1861, Victoria was beside herself with grief. Baird supports what many have said that Victoria continued to reign, but never passed out of her period of mourning. Much speculation arose as John Brown soon appeared on the scene, Victoria’s manservant, which Baird addresses as being rumoured to be her lover for the years before his death. (The reader can make their own decision after reading Baird’s curious discovery surrounding Victoria’s requirements during her preparation for burial.) Surely the friend and support that Victoria needed in her time of despair, Brown, too, succumbed earlier than one might have expected, dealing Victoria another blow. As a mother with grown children, Victoria sought to ensure her daughters married well and history proves that this was surely the case. With her son ‘Bertie’ (the future Edward VII) in the wings, Victoria offered as much affection to her family as possible, while remaining in a state of grief for the loss of Albert all those years before. Even when the Crown bore heavily upon her, Victoria emerged as a woman of power and significance throughout her life. At her death in 1901, Victoria had lived a life full of remarkable joy and dreadful sorrows, the weight of the latter at times self-imposed. Interestingly enough, while Victoria did little at the time to bolster the role of female emancipation or women in a position of authority, the world looked to her after her death and lauded much praise and ceremonial titles that had otherworldly connotations. While a remarkable queen, Victoria’s qualities as as a woman cannot be forgotten. 

While surely not a member of either of Britain’s Houses of Parliament, Queen Victoria played a significant role in the political machinations throughout her reign. Soon after she ascended to the Throne, Victoria forged a strong friendship with her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne. Baird presents him as a father figure that Victoria lacked in her formative years, though some may also speculate a strong affinity or ‘crush’ on Victoria’s part.Needless to say, Victoria did not hide her sentiments and tried all she could to keep him and the Whigs in power. From this point forward, Baird presents Victoria as having a strong and lasting influence over her prime ministers and their cabinet choices, as well as messages she presented in the numerous Openings of Parliament. Victoria’s strong-headedness becomes apparent as she clashed greatly with William Gladstone, Prime Minister on four occasions. Baird illustrates the dynamic between these two and how they could not find common ground on much. These were formative years for England and the British Empire, a time in which Victoria sought to have her voice heard. Issues of Irish famine, steep grain tariffs, Irish Home Rule, and imperial expansions into Africa fill the narrative, areas in which Victoria offered her own opinions, though she was happy to help shape solutions through her actions as a part of the political machine throughout the time all ten of her British prime ministers led governments. In exploring Victoria’s hands-on approach, Baird discusses something that is taken for granted in Canada, the role of a constitutional monarch in the larger process. Baird refers to writings by Walter Bagehot, who sought to explain the loose English Constitution and the place in which the monarch rests. Advice differs from influence and acceptance from determination, though much of the process was steeped in precedent and not firm law. Victoria played a much more active and quasi-partisan role than might have been expected (or allowed?) today, on either side of the Atlantic, though it was surely interesting to see her interpret and play such a transparent role in her choice of engagement at the top of the parliamentary process. Victoria may never have faced the ever-growing electorate at the ballot box, but her political influence could surely be felt throughout her time on the Throne.

Until recently, Victoria held the record for the longest-serving monarch in English history, surpassed by the current Elizabeth II. During that long period on the Throne, Victoria saw not only the Empire transform, but also her own family, as well as herself. From the early years as a young queen, Victoria was more apt to get in the middle of things, playing the role of innocent monarch, ignorant of her larger ceremonial role. However, as mentioned above, Victoria soon became a monarch that sought to steer England in a specific direction, at least to the best of her ability without facing a parliamentary election. The Empire grew significantly during her time, turning her from English monarch to that of numerous countries all over the world. For as regal as she was, Baird presents Victoria as a monarch who took her own family life to heart and did not espouse the stoic nature to which many are accustomed with today’s queen. Victoria’s decades-long mourning for Albert and reclusiveness for a significant period may, for some, lessen the impact of her reign. However, using her Jubilee celebrations as any measurement for her support, Victoria was loved by many and adored by her subjects. Longevity cannot be the sole factor in the praise she received for her Golden Jubilee, nor the deference paid to her around the world and especially throughout Europe. Truth be told, she had her bloodline running through many of the significant monarchies of Europe, but even still, she was not one to hold back her opinions when it suited her. The British Empire expanded and many could feel the Victorian impact, a legacy that has long outlived her reign. Victoria kept the Empire together, which was surely no small feat, and left England ready to face the 20th century by the time she died. Influential without being dictatorial, Victoria’s influence as a monarch lasted throughout her long life.

Baird has taught us much in this biography, though many questions remain. Through her powerful narrative abilities, Baird takes the reader on a winding journey through the life of Victoria and the creation of a firm Empire, which continues in the form of the British Commonwealth. Born at a time when the English Throne was still seen as as despotic seat, Victoria sought to soften the blow in her own way. Baird effectively argues numerous points of contention in the book, which may leave some readers somewhat distraught, though the supporting arguments are strong and prove convincing. While I might show some bias, I would have liked to have seen a little more on some of the monumental aspects of the Empire’s growth, particularly the formal addition of Canada as a country in 1867 or Australia’s lobby and eventual inclusion in 1901. True, Victoria remained in mourning during the Canadian build-up, which might limits Baird’s ability to track down sentiments and strengthen the narrative, but as the largest Dominion in the Empire, one might have expected it receive some place in this biography. On the flip side, Victoria’s waning years occurred as Australia set to formally distinguish itself as an independent country, leaving little Victorian influence. Tackling such a large project may have been daunting, though Bard synthesises Victoria powerfully, getting detailed when needed but not drowning in the minutiae that was surely tempting over such a long reign. The reader can sail through the biography with ease, seeing Victoria as an influential (and influenced) woman whose love for family trumped all else. Any who are curious about this wonderful woman ought to give Baird a chance to offer formal introductions in this stellar piece of writing.

Kudos, Madam Baird for such a powerful biography. I did learn a great deal about Canada’s first queen. I can only hope to find more of your work and marvel at the detail you add to the narrative.

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg (with Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams)

Eight stars

Biographies of strong women are greatly appealing to me, which led me to acquire and commence this book by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, supported (and likely guided) by Mary Hartnett and Wendy W. Williams. It was only after I began reading that I realised that I was again not receiving a memoir or biography, but a compendium of thoughts and reflections by a female Justice of the US Supreme Court, known in the vernacular as the Notorious RBG. The reader attentive to my reviews will likely shake a shameful finger at me for not checking ahead of time, as I fell into the same pit when I tried a recently read by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Still, in pushing through this collection by Justice Ginsburg, I found myself pleasantly surprised and felt that these entries did provide a biographical account of her life, as well as some key moments in her judicial career. Hartnett and Williams did a masterful job of pulling things together and have, as is pledged in the preface, commenced work on an actual biography of Justice Ginsburg. A great piece to complement my earlier read of the aforementioned Justice O’Connor book, which provides strong arguments for equality and gender parity in America, as well as showing how legal matters are a quintessential part of the everyday lives of whose who live in democratic countries. Curious and legal-minded readers will likely enjoy this piece as they take Justice Ginsburg’s own words to portray the state of American (and world) jurisprudence into account.

Born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, Ruth Bader became highly interested in the law at an early age, or perhaps the idea of equality, watching news of the Second World War fill headlines on a daily basis. The book offers a brief biographical background before presenting some public school publications the precocious Bader prepared, discussing the importance of the Rule of Law and how it promotes equality for all. Moving onto university and into law school, Bader (who would marry and become Ginsburg) showed her aptitude not only for equality, but promoted the idea of sex and gender parity in the United States. Attending law school at a time when she was still in the significant minority (both for her being a woman and Jewish), Ginsburg forged onwards and left with no job offers, even though she achieved high marks and showed great promise. Serving as an academic, Ginsburg fought tirelessly to put women on the map and promoted their equal protection under the law, as guaranteed in the US Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, though she was sometimes forced to wage war against the Almighty Congress and its many laws. Hartnell and Williams exemplify Ginsburg’s views in many speeches and summaries of key cases she fought, some reaching the Supreme Court, while never giving up in her attempt to push for complete equality amongst those who sought remedy. When elevated to the US Court of Appeal for the DC Circuit, Ginsburg took a different approach, defending the rights rather than advocating for them in numerous decisions (and dissents) from the bench. It was here that she met and fostered an early friendship with Judge Antonin Scalia (Nino), who may have been diametrically opposed to her ideological stance, but respected her a great deal. Their friendship continued through the years and the ideological clash resumed when Ginsburg became a Supreme Court Justice in 1993. The authors show how Ginsburg supports the varied sentiments of Justices on the Court, but remains firm of the collegial nature of the nine on a daily basis. Dipping into the appointment process to become a Justice of the Court, Ginsburg recounts the nervousness she felt and the smooth sailing she received at the hands of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Once on the bench, she began the role as junior Justice, guided by Justice O’Connor, who had paved the way for much success and injected that fresh perspective on the bench and in chambers. From there, Ginsburg schools the reader on some of the many quirks of the Court, including its procedures and its place in the larger international realm of judicial interpretation. Ginsburg does not seek to knife anyone in the back, but she does not deny the ideological divisions on the Court throughout her tenure that have pushed interpretations in many directions, including in the areas of abortion, affirmative action, campaign spending, and healthcare. The latter portion of the book focusses on some key dissenting opinions, particularly since the Roberts Court came to fruition, and she, Ginsburg, became the senior ‘liberal’ justice. Ideal for those who want a sneak peek into what might be to come in the biography, Hartnett and Williams provide the reader with a highly comprehensive piece that offers a wonderful examination of the life and legal thoughts of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

I feel that I can justify this piece as part of the biography marathon I am undertaking, as there is a degree of wholeness to its narrative. Using speeches and comments made directly by the Justice, Hartnett and Williams paint the most honest and comprehensive view of the legal flavour of Ginsburg’s thought processes. While it is impossible to offer a complete view, the cross-section on offer and the variety of topics provide the reader with a great insight into this most interesting woman. However, as some others have brought to my attention, while the book is well constructed, repetition occurs and proves somewhat of a thorn in the side of effective flow. Speeches from an early chapter prove to have the same ideas and quotes embedded in later narratives. Some cases receive the same stress throughout the book, leaving the reader to ponder skimming to get to new and meatier subjects. That said, the impact is felt and the overall presentation is thoroughly captivating and sound in its foundational approach.

While I do not usually do this, I could not deny myself the right to comment on the different formats of the book. I listened to the audio version and thoroughly enjoyed it. What added to the experience was that the speeches and actual verbal delivery moments were captured, where possible, within the recording. Justice Ginsburg speaking to a group, delivering a dissent, or even offering a bench opinion. These ‘real life’ moments thickened the delivery and made it all the more powerful. I suspect that simply reading them on the written page might lessen the impact or leave the reader feeling out of touch with the delivery. The book is called MY OWN WORDS, so why not capture that by listening and hearing them as they came to pass?

Kudos, Madams Hartnett and Williams (alongside Justice Ginsburg herself) for this insightful piece. I cannot wait for the full biography to see more of your sentiments. Recent clashes with certain candidates and eventual victors will certainly add more spice and flavour to what you have already said.

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, by Raza Aslan

Nine stars

Finding Rena Aslam’s biography of Jesus of Nazareth was timely, this being the holiest of weeks for many Christians around the world. Some readers are likely familiar with the key events in Jesus’ life: family discussions, Sunday School classes, or even sermons at a weekly gathering spot. Taking those repetitive moments in mind when the same stories and lessons were rehashed, Aslam wrestles the story of Jesus away from the documented Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and applies historical fact, thereby developing a strong and documented biography. While some may call this blasphemy, the curious and patient reader will surely be captivated by some of the clarity Aslam offers in his presentation. Eye opening and very educational in this week’s lead-up to the death of the man known as Jesus of Nazareth, a book that is sure to stir up many emotions.

Aslan lays some of the strong groundwork at the outset by explaining to the reader that the four Gospels best known for depicting the inculcated biography of Jesus do so from the ‘Christ’ perspective rather than that of his manliness. By this, Aslan explains that the four authors documented their tales to highlight the glorified depiction of events, rather than those founded in fact. Additionally, the reader must accept that the Gospel writers published accounts well after events took place, in locations and languages other than that which was spoken at the time. This delayed and biased lens ensures that Jesus the Man was lost and outshone by his ‘Christ’ persona, though no one thought to tell those who read these chapters for centuries thereafter. This should not pose a problem for anyone other than the evangelical Christian (of whom the author was once a member), who feel that the written Word is entirely truthful and literal (Aslan’s words, not mine). There are also a number of historical inaccuracies that arise in the Gospel tellings, which Aslan is clear to discuss throughout, alongside rectifying them with any documentation he has been able to ascertain. Armed with these building blocks, Aslan takes the reader along the journey of Jesus the Man for a biography that offers much inspiration and entertainment. 

Jesus was likely born to Joseph and Mary, as has been depicted, though there is much dispute about why they were in Bethlehem at the time of the baby’s birth. Roman taxation rationale was not to have individuals travel back to their place of birth, but where they were employed, so Aslan is left to wonder why the Gospel authors thought to add this interesting tidbit. Raised in the poor community of Nazareth, Jesus had a plain childhood, surely free some any formal education, leaving him illiterate and surely unable to have read from any scroll in the Temple (a place that never existed in Nazareth). When he was old enough to earn a living, Jesus likely left Nazareth to work as a carpenter, as his father had, in the provincial capital of Sepphoris, making the day-long walk home regularly. Sepphoris had been destroyed by recent insurrections that were quelled by the Jewish leaders and, if necessary, Roman centurions, though fire gutted large portions of the city. A youth free from conflict or much excitement, this would contrast greatly with the life that Jesus could expect when it took up his next profession.

With a gap in time in the life of Jesus and nothing to report, let us take a minute to explore the historical view into the region and its political scene. The Roman Empire ruled with an iron fist, using Jewish regional leaders to handle many of the day to day skirmishes of the people. It is here that we find the likes of ‘King’ Herod, who was anything but a king. He came from a lineage known to oversee Jews in the region and worked to stack the temples and positions of High Priests to stand in line with his own views. However, at the time, there were many who claimed to be messiahs and King of the Jews, forcing Herod and even the Roman Governor to quell rebellions and gather up the rabble rousers before putting them to death (as mentioned above in Sepphoris). There were literally scores of men who claimed to be messianic in nature, many listed by Aslan throughout the text. John the Baptist proves to be the most recognisable and served to pave the way for this Jesus, acting as a prophet. Many will know that Herod sought to quell John’s rankings by beheading him, one of the most common means of silencing Jewish unrest. 

While Jesus did consider John a mentor, the former began his own ministry and found a strong collection of followers. As an itinerant preacher, Jesus quoted the Hebrew Bible and spoke of what was to come. Aslan discusses many nuances in the Gospel texts that exemplify the fact that Jesus never proclaimed himself as Messiah, but it was attributed to him by others, both the followers and the writers (decades or a century later). Interestingly enough, Jesus was not one to self-aggrandise, even when others thought it important to do so. Walking on water? Healing the lame? Aslan offers interesting perspectives on these events, based less in miracles and more along the lines of linguistic interpretation and author bias. Jesus travelled around Judaea, preaching and piquing the interest of many, but not causing many issues for the Jewish elders or priests. All that changed after he rode into Jerusalem and crossed paths with the High Priests: stormed into the Temple, overturned the tables, and upset the money changers. Plots to bring this Jesus before the Sanhedrin, a quasi-religious court, to account for his actions began, culminating on the eve of Passover. Aslan pokes many holes into the entire Sanhedrin trial, taking the rules of the court and applying them to the depictions in the Gospels. This was surely inserted to appease an unsuspecting readership who would not have understood the specifics. Jesus then headed to the Roman Governor, Pontius Pilate, a ruthless man who hated the Jews and was known for ordering so many executions that official complaints made their way back to Rome. Aslan questions the apparent ‘Passover release’ that is well known to Christians, whereby Jesus could have been released as a peace offering, finding no record of this practice in the Roman books anywhere or at any time. Sentenced to die by Pilate, Jesus was led out to be crucified, where the public could watch and be deterred from repeating the rabble rousing that brought about this sentence. The death and burial of Jesus seemed to go by somewhat normally, though there are key elements of hyperbole to exacerbate the importance. 

The aforementioned ‘biographers’ of Jesus took their time and eventually penned versions of events, though it was one man, Saul (Paul) who takes up the charge and begins turning this man into a Messiah through his own writings and speaking. Aslan does not try to justify or vilify any of these actions or writings, but simply tries to put them into context for the curious reader. Jesus of Nazareth had an interesting life, even if it was likely sanitized and glorified for Bibles around the world. Anyone who has a life worth knowing makes for a wonderful biography subject and Aslan effectively weaves a superior narrative.

In looking back on some of the content I wrote above, one might presume that I am sitting on the fence of blasphemy. I prefer to see it as opening my mind to new possibilities based on fact. I will not enter into (or even entertain) a debate on fact versus faith, but it is interesting to revisit some of the stories or foundational beliefs that I held, influenced by time, language and interpretation. History is that childhood game of ‘Telephone’, whereby the message is bastardised over time. This is no fault of any person, it simply happens. Open-mindedness can sometimes prove difficult, though it is the most liberating feeling!

How a man such as Jesus could not only receive so much attention at the time but been singled out as any different than any of the other messianic men who preceded him is truly baffling. Aslan presents these queries in a way that invites discussion, but does not deride anyone. I have not read any of his past work, so I cannot compare it, though the clarity and attention to detail is second to none. I was completely enthralled to learn many of the nuances found within the book and how they differ greatly with the events that I had been led to believe happened those two thousand years ago. Aslan offers up his sources and acknowledges that there are many interpretations, which I will do as well. I am drinking no one’s Kool-Aid (Flavor-Aid actually, but that is another biography entirely) in having completed this, but am impressed with the alternate opinions that have been accentuated herein. I hope others will take the time to read this and synthesise it. I know some have found it too dense or too ‘much’. This is a highly academic subject and does lead itself to some convoluted and somewhat analytical narratives, which makes its presentation somewhat daunting. Patience and dedication should help any reader interested in learning more, if only to have something interesting to offer at Easter Dinner when the potatoes are done and the hot cross buns are still baking.

Kudos, Mr. Aslam for opening my mind and eyes to so much in this book. I am pleased to have found something so comprehensive and digestible for my layman mind. I shall surely keep my eyes open to see what else you have to offer.

A Journey to Waco: Autobiography of a Branch Davidian, by Clive Doyle, with Catherine Wessinger and Matthew Wittmer

Seven stars

As I have said before, (auto)biographies of those involved in offshoot religious movements are perhaps some of the most baffling, yet interesting pieces that I have come across during this two-month project. To see those within the movement and how they think, as well as how the cohesiveness of the group is kept by a single leader, proves educational as well as somewhat entertaining. I have read a number of these during these forty-two days, though this is the first that speaks from within and does not dispute the group’s ways. Clive Doyle lived through the 1993 raid by agents of the US Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) and FBI on the Mount Carmel community (the Branch Davidians), best known for its location in Waco, Texas. Doyle offers the reader a brief, yet thorough, explanation of his life up to publication and the core values of the Branch Davidians, before exploring those fifty-one fateful days in 1993 that led to many casualties and numerous questions from both sides. Told honestly and succinctly, Doyle provides the curious reader with the other side of the argument, not widely publicised at that time or since. A must-read for those who want to better understand the inner workings of the group and its leader, David Koresh.

Doyle opens the book laying the groundwork that he will be speaking as a current member of the Branch Davidians, still holding firm to their beliefs and that 1993 was an indelible mark for which no clear answers have yet been provided. Thereafter, he begins the chronological story of how he arrived at that fateful day, April 19, 1993. Doyle tells of his youth growing up in Australia, where his family worshiped as Seventh Day Adventists. Seemingly evangelical in nature (Doyle expects that the reader understands this denomination), Doyle found himself spreading the Word to the far-reaches of the country when he was not attending the Adventist school. After a schism with the Adventist Church in 1955, Victor Houteff created the Davidians, a group that soon arrived in the area and convinced Doyle to join them. Brining his mother along after studying Houteff’s The Shepherd’s Rod, Doyle tried to convince other Adventists to join. Understandably, the Adventist community saw Davidians as a scourge and kept them from services, though Doyle recounts of how he was able to work around those restrictions. As Doyle grew and tried to spread the Word, he was enticed to head to California, where the core of the Davidians found themselves. Working and helping to spread the Davidian message, Doyle found himself involved in a splinter group, headed by Ben Roden; the Branch Davidians. Roden’s death led his wife, Lois, to become the new prophet and lead the group through the early part of the 1980s. Land long-ago purchased by the Rodens on the outskirts of Waco, Texas became one of the group’s bases, named Mount Carmel. Doyle speaks of the struggles within the Church, where he met his wife, Debbie, and they had two children. There were those who were not as committed to the cause and who left of their own free will. (It is worth noting that this is the sole group about which I have read where voluntary departure was not questioned, discouraged, or impeded!) Doyle recounts the horrendous struggle he had to secure his daughters, Karen and Shari, from his wife who refused to stay with the Church. With Doyle a strong member and dedicated to service, he moved around wherever he was needed to further the cause and make money for the group. Vernon Howell arrived on the scene by 1981 and proved a pillar of the Branch Davidians, soon changing his name to David Koresh. The ability to shepherd others was not lost on Doyle, who saw much promise in this man, someone who would eventually take over leadership of the Branch Davidians after a confrontation with the Rodens’ son, George. Mount Carmel became the central home of Branch Davidians, who engaged in long and thorough explorations of the Bible under Koresh’s guidance, until February 28, 1993.

Doyle takes an entire chapter to explore some of the theological beliefs of the Branch Davidians, perhaps to dispel some of the falsehoods espoused by media and those who had little interest in understanding. As best as I can ascertain, the crux relates to the Book of Revelations and the opening of the Seven Seals. While Koresh would have his followers understand the entire Bible, it was essential that everyone comprehend that Koresh saw himself as the Second Coming of the Lord, in human form, set to open the Seven Seals and prepare for the End Times. He openly admitted that there would be hardship and that evils surrounded them, pitting the United States and the United Nations as two of the great evils that had to be conquered. Interpretation of chapter and verse surely fuels any religious group, though Koresh seemed to be able to pull each comma from Revelations and apply it to current times. Doyle’s strong belief in Koresh and the message presented makes it harder for the reader to ascertain the full effect of what was being said, as there were no published tracts or recorded sermons quoted here. By the time ATF agents arrived on February 28th, 1993, the battle lines were drawn and Koresh had the ‘living version’ of his Gospel taking place, as the government agents surrounded Mount Carmel and prepared to act, apparently related to a number of gun possession queries, but were rebuffed by the Branch Davidians.

Doyle uses another single chapter to inform the reader about the fifty-one day standoff between ATF/FBI agents and the members of the Branch Davidians, though the narrative quickly turns generic and without a strong description of the day to day events. Doyle lists many of those who found themselves inside Mount Carmel, listing their nationalities and how they found themselves in Texas, as well as some loose memories of events during the stand-off. Koresh, who had been shot on Day 1, remained somewhat isolated and quiet, though he did call for Bible studies on a regular basis. By the time April 19th arrived, gas flew into the building and fires started, leading to the death of many members of the Branch Davidians. Only nine survived, Doyle being one, though is daughter (Shari) perished in the flames. Arrested and detained, Doyle was forced to sit through a trial for the deaths of government agents and guns found on the premises, before being exonerated. To this day, Doyle remains a follower of the Branch Davidians and remembers those who lived alongside him, as well as the strong religious beliefs they shared.

When I sought out a biography of David Koresh or a better understanding of the Branch Davidian Compound and events in Waco from 1993, I was not sure what I would find. After discovering Doyle’s piece, I expected it to be from the perspective of all other pieces I had read about religious splinter groups and their followers; trying to explain how they got pulled in and were eventually able to get out. Instead, Doyle presents a cogent piece on the Branch Davidians and why he felt they were in the right, while vilifying the decisions to raid Mount Carmel and the havoc caused during the stand-off before the fires that are etched onto my mind. Doyle’s opening chapters serve as a wonderful autobiography, explaining his beliefs and rationale. By the time things get to the Koresh theology and the fifty-one days, a generic sentiment seeps into the story and the reader loses the strength of the argument. Surely trauma and age-related mental acuity could have something to do with it, but there lacked a sense of struggle and thorough exploration of those events that led to the fires and the gassing. Perhaps because the author relies on his own accounts and not those pulled from other friends or documents, there lacks a degree of dramatic flair, though I got the gist. Koresh’s control and godliness was diluted in the narrative and I am left thinking of him only as a man with a belief in the End Times (contrasted greatly with the power of Jesus or even Jim Jones to sway their followers). I will openly admit that the book read in a very academic manner, full of footnotes and citations (which took away from the flow of a personal story) and the writing proved somewhat dense at times, though the message was not lost amongst all the information on offer. Doyle promised a personal perspective and for that we can be pleased. However, I would not call this the earth shattering piece that offers the detailed account of the other side, able to sway vast segments of the population.  

Kudos, Mr. Doyle for all you have done in this piece. I can see a little better through the fog of Branch Davidian struggles and the horrors that befell you in 1993. I trust you have found solace in the loss of your daughter and know that those who remain are there to support you. Thank you for this book!

Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte, by Kate Williams

Eight stars

It cannot be said enough; strong women come in all shapes and forms. Kate Williams proves this in her thorough biography of Josephine Bonaparte, who is the latest in my list of subjects as I continue my journey over this two month period. Married to the (in)famous French general and Emperor, Josephine’s life proved to be packed full of interesting stories, offset with much angst and derision. Williams brings much of this to life in this piece that touches on a number of historic events, which provides a firm backdrop for the reader to better understand this life. Williams keeps the reader engaged and offers enough tidbits that the narrative flows with ease until the climax of Bonaparte’s life, letting the story tell itself at key moments. Curious readers will surely find something herein to keep them engaged, if only to shake their heads at Josephine’s choices.

Born Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie on the island of Martinique, she found herself a member of a rich and highly prosperous white Creole family. The price and plentifulness of sugarcane in the region helped elevate their wealth, which was eventually dashed by numerous strong and destructive hurricanes. Marie found herself growing up with all the luxuries that life could provide on this small island, though the ability to forge a lasting aristocracy amongst such a small population soon left the family to look elsewhere. An aunt had arranged the marriage of Marie’s sister, Catherine, to the son of the Vicomte de Beauharnais, which would take the young girl to France and place her in a position of some esteem. However, Catherine’s death at the age of twelve left a vacancy and Marie saw her chance to leave the island and enter French aristocracy. Marie sailed for France, where she would meet and soon marry Alexandre. As with many aristocratic unions, it was good on paper, but the marriage saw Marie abused and troubled. The two children she bore Alexandre, Eugène and Hortense, proved to be the happiest part of her union, which was further troubled as the Revolution gained momentum and the de Beauharnais name became part of the old aristocracy that the people sought to abolish. Williams explores how Marie was able to see the classes crumble around her while the people sought to remove the aristocratic hierarchy and bring those accountable to bear for their crimes. Alexandre was taken into custody by the Committee of Public Safety during the infamous Reign of Terror. Marie was subsequently jailed as well, finding herself isolated from her children and left to fend for herself. Alexandre’s execution left Marie without a husband and forced to raise two children alone. Williams assures the reader that Marie did not pine too long. She was known for her romantic and sexual dalliances with men of power, having had affairs with those who found themselves on the right side of the revolutionary forces. These affairs helped portray Marie as a woman willing to do what it took to rise above the fray, which she did, leaving her more than ready when she encountered the young Napoléon Bonaparte, six years her junior. 

Already a man of much military prowess before meeting Josephine (who changed her name to something more regal than Marie by this time), Napoléon Bonaparte was said to be her one true love. As Williams explores this couple, their pairing seemed anything but smooth or filled with romance. The narrative explores the vignette of Napoléon refusing a formal and religious ceremony, turning instead to a civil union that might not even have been legal. Napoléon reminded his wife repeatedly of how he could dissolve their union as simply as it came together, a telltale sign that this was a power move more than anything else. Both Josephine and Napoléon had countless affairs and turned to specific lovers for periods of time, as if to compete with one another for the honour. Additionally, Josephine’s two children were at an age when they could consciously judge their step-father, who was brutal and focussed on his territorial acquisitions rather than fostering a cohesive unit. With the French Revolution complete and a power vacuum present, Napoléon sought to fill it and lead the country into the 19th century. He took the French military to the far reaches of Europe to create an empire all his own and drummed up support to do so. Josephine stayed behind and showed her support by turning to lovers, one of whom almost cost Josephine her marriage. Still, as Napoléon gained in power, Joisephine basked in it and gladly became Empress of France when the chance arose. Thinking back to her youth and the premonitions of a fortune teller on Martinique, Josephine prepared for the luxuries bestowed upon her. This fame and relative fortune did not quell the ongoing love triangle (or even trapezoid) with Napoléon, as Williams recounts the continual strain of Josephine not bearing her husband a child. Napoléon was determined to have an heir and sought his step-daughter, Hortense, to agree to a union ‘for France’. What muddied the waters even more was Hortense’s marriage to Louis Bonaparte, brother to Napoléon. As Emperor and Empress continued to live in ever-distancing spheres, an heir was not forthcoming (rumours abounded as to the father of Hortense’s son) and Napoléon continued to see the affections of others. Finally, in 1810, the Bonapartes divorced and Napoléon turned to a member of the Austrian Royal Family. Josephine remained an anchor for the Emperor, who wrote to her and kept her safely supported with money and lodging. When she entered the waning weeks of life, medical doctors diagnosed it as pneumonia but others wondered if Josephine might have succumbed to the angst and pain of losing her husband forever. Her death touched many and while Napoléon was eventually banished from France, he continued to hold her close to his heart. A woman whose power came more from her husband than her own doing, Josephine’s lasting impression might offer historians an out to promote her to a position of ongoing importance.

I chose Josephine Bonaparte not only because it was a buddy read, but also because I wanted to learn a great deal about this woman, whose past remained a mystery. Kate Williams does a wonderful job in laying the groundwork for this most interesting woman, from a childhood in the far off islands and capturing a perspective during the French Revolution. Williams’ attention to detail was great and her development of Josephine’s character was superb, though towards the latter half of the book, things became too diluted. I found the narrative straying into a history of Napoléon and his conquests, rather than life through the eyes of his wife. While I agree that there are times that women become secondary to their husbands in history’s documentation (and it is for this reason that it takes a special woman to shake off said shackles and rise above), it seemed as though Williams wanted to regale the reader with aspects that did not directly involve Josephine. Additionally, even in the epilogue, Williams refers to the Napoléon-Josephine relationship as one of the great loves in history. I found it to be stilted and more in line with two teenagers who continually toss themselves at one another, commit some relationship faux pas, and then dash off in the other direction until the next cycle commences. It is true that Josephine’s ancestry proved to be rich in European leaders, though her own power seemed to have been muted. Williams chose well to offer up a strong narrative, though I might have been wrong to call her a ‘powerful woman in history’ in the sense of control and independent victory. 

Kudos, Madam Williams for an enthralling piece about a woman whose life might have been defined by her choice of spouses. I learned much and am happy to come away with a deeper knowledge of the woman, the era, and all there is to know about the Bonaparte dynasty. 

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie

Nine stars

My ongoing exploration of biographies has pushed into yet another realm; women of power. What better way to begin than with a woman who held much power in her time and about whom I know very little? Bring on Catherine the Great of Russia! Robert K. Massie does a sensational job of pulling out a strong and well-rounded story of this most interesting Empress of Russia. She faced hurdles and impediments throughout her life, but always found a way to succeed. While Massie offers the reader numerous parts to the biography, for the purposes of review, the reader can see her upbringing, marriage, and eventual reign as three key areas worthy of discussion below, all of which interconnect to make her the woman remembered by many in history. Massie’s effective arguments and thorough research are a treat for the curious reader, even if little is known about this woman before beginning the journey.

Born into a somewhat noble (though by no means powerful) family, Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst was the first-born and yet shunned by her parents. In an era when male heirs were prized, Sophia was forced to live in the shadow of her younger brother, whose health was precarious at the best of times. Sophia was deemed plain and on the verge of ugly by her mother, something that Massie does not refute strongly in his narrative. As was the norm in the era, she would have to be married off in order to bring some wealth and prominence to her family, as Anhalt-Zerbst was by no means significant. Answering a call from Empress Elizabeth in Russia, Sophia and her mother traveled to court. There, negotiations began to join Sophia to the Grand Duke Peter, himself a teenager. While at court, Sophia tried her best to fit in and studied Russian, as well as commencing a conversion from the Lutheran Church to Orthodoxy, the state religion of Russia and long practiced by the Romanovs. While this would surely dilute her ancestral roots, Sophia was willing to do all she could to earn favour with the Empress and Grand Duke. After her conversion, Sophia became Catherine and her future as Empress Consort began.

Marrying Peter, a man whom she did not love or even particularly care about, was the least of her worries. Catherine’s husband had little interest in bringing forth is own heir, as Massie explores, choosing instead to have little Prussian toy soldiers brought to the bed after he and Catherine retired (I cannot refrain from saying that it brings a whole new meaning to ‘toys in the bedroom’). Catherine suffered both physical and emotional pains at this flagrant insult to her person, a matrimonial virginity that lasted upwards of nine years. Such rejection took its toll, as well as a number of miscarriages after Peter did consummate the marriage. Both the Grand Duke and Duchess turned elsewhere for their physical needs, with Catherine having at least three men in her life who proved to be significant lovers. Massie goes so far as to stress the depth of these affairs by presenting the reader with the fact that Catherine eventually had children with all three. When Catherine finally bore Peter an heir, they named him Paul and the little one received all the protection due someone in the line of succession. An interesting fact in Russia, the Throne was not passed along by a firm family tree (the tradition of primogeniture). The reigning sovereign was able to choose their successor, as Peter the Great had established when he negated past rules of succession. Elizabeth had chosen her nephew, though she did deeply admire Catherine as well. When Elizabeth died, Peter ascended to the Throne, though he was little known and even less liked by the people. Massie describes Peter III as being belligerent and highly pompous, poor traits for an emperor. He would not engage in conversations and sought to overturn all the major decisions within the state that had been established by Elizabeth. Catherine saw this and knew that she could not remain subservient to a man who treated her so poorly. Massie lays the groundwork for the proverbial last straw when Peter tried to shame his wife at a public banquet. Thereafter, Catherine took matters into her own hands.

Catherine’s formal ascension to the Russian Throne proved interesting and is in line with her hold on power for the length of her reign. Catherine, still stinging from the rebuke in front of so many, organized a coup that overthrew Peter III and saw her take his place. Massie offers a strong narrative for the reader to understand the nuances of this and how Catherine was able to sway the support of the military to her favour before assuming power. Peter III was banished and lost his fight to regain his position, leaving Catherine to begin her lengthy reign. Peter III had only reigned a few months, which made the coup all the more surprising to the outside world. Catherine wasted no time in solidifying her strength both within Russia and on an international scale. Moves to secularise the Church and make priests bureaucrats of the state proved to be a means of lessening the control (and deflating competition) over the population, without banishing religion entirely. Some speculate this was Catherine seeking to give Protestantism a new strength in the country, though this is not entirely supported. She revisited the idea of serfs and the nobility, in an era when slavery remained rampant around the world (especially in the soon to be created United States), though these were not subjugated people of a different culture or ethnicity. On a grander scale, Massie speaks of Catherine’s desire to continue ruling as an autocrat, but still have the input of the people who so loved her. Catherine formed a loose advisory board, where representatives could meet and debate various issues of importance to Russia. However, when representatives got caught up in the minutiae, nothing was forthcoming and the collective dissolved with little to show for itself. (It was at this gathering that Catherine was given the title ‘The Great’, which might indicate that they did something that pleased the Empress!) Surely concerned with her subjects, Massie explores how Catherine handled many health crises within Russia, from smallpox to the plague and many other situations in between. She was by no means wanting to ignore those under her, but did remain isolated so as not to catch what was in the air. On the international front, Catherine returned to her roots and solidified an alliance with Prussia and its monarchy, as Massie seems to insinuate that Anhalt-Zerbst falls under or close to the Prussian lands. Europe was still teetering between a number of alliances, which could turn a single fallen domino into a full-blown war. Russia kept things peaceable and forged ahead with Prussia, turning to small Poland and carving out chunks to strengthen their respective empires. Catherine remained ruler in all but name of Poland, choosing its kings and keeping a close eye on the situation there. While she kept Russian land interests in mind and the military strong, Catherine made sure her people did not forget other Romanov rulers who had helped make Mother Russia strong, erecting monuments and statues of those who came before her. The waning years of Catherine’s reign seemed to be a time to remember others and prepare for the end of her own life. It had surely been a full and remarkable reign, which Massie asserts was by no means bland. 

As I entered this biography, I could not have told you much about Catherine or what she did for Russia. Massie helps with his attention to detail and significant research on both the region and its ruler. While I remain flummoxed by the number of names, geographic regions, military campaigns, and even historical alliances, Massie uses a detailed narrative to navigate through all this and help me see Catherine’s place. That this Empress was a significant figure in Russian history is not lost on me, nor is that she was the last female ruler of the country (after her son, Paul, reinstated primogeniture). Much like some of the other strong females I hope to discover in my biography journey, Catherine leaves an indelible mark on history. Massie is also a biographer to which I will surely return, as his interest in Russia is one that will prove very telling in these trying political times.

Kudos, Mr. Massie for bringing Sophia Augusta Fredericka of Anhalt-Zerbst to life for me. You have a wonderful way with words and prove that European history is full of intricate details that can be compared effectively to the modern political scene. This book solidifies that Catherine surely earned her moniker, while the current autocratic ruler of the country is anything but formidable.

Roald Dahl: A Biography, by Jeremy Treglown

Eight stars

The joy of undertaking this two month stint of biographies is that I am able to learn a great deal about many people across the vast expanse of history. One other advantage is that I am able to peel back the onion of knowledge as it relates to anyone and discover just how little I knew beforehand. Roald Dahl is one such person, though I went into this book feeling I had a handle on his early life, having read both short pieces the man wrote about himself. Jonathan Treglown chose to delve deeper into the life of a man best known for his scores of children’s stories, many of whom played a significant role in my early years. Treglown is first to acknowledged that there was a significant gap in Dahl’s life story after the publication of both BOY and GOING SOLO in the early 1980s. However, Dahl’s death and some argument with publishers left the majority of the man’s life without a substantial biography all his own. Treglown solves that problem with his wonderful attention to detail and thorough analysis. The curious reader will find themselves surrounded with new information not gleaned from reading any of Dahl’s work for children or the aforementioned mini-autobiographies. I am left with a significantly different image of the man and his life now, a mixed bag of emotions indeed.

In early chapters of the biography, Treglown recounts Dahl’s young years in Wales and how he grew up without a father figure for a significant portion of his life. While Boy laid the groundwork for much of what the reader knows about Dahl (including his adventurous childhood and experiences at boarding school), Treglown explains that Dahl chose to add some selective memory to his hyperbole in recounting those years. Dahl admits that he was fully aware of this and had little desire to rectify the discrepancies after publication, which might add to his fanciful nature and ability to spin tales to entertain readers. A brief stint with the RAF during the Second World War left Dahl with many memories and some early ideas for writing projects. However, injuries kept him out of the cockpit and he was sent to Washington, where he served in the British Embassy. Many have wondered about Dahl’s time in Washington, though Treglown offers little. There was one vignette about how Dahl discovered documentation of the American plan to takeover all civilian airlines after the war, monopolising the industry for their own benefit. Treglown also mentions that Dahl used his time in America to hone his skills with females, bragging of his conquests while dodging those who asserted any amorous intentions. Without a formal education after boarding school, Dahl needed a means of making money, especially after the end of wartime aggression and thought that he might be able to tap into his creative storytelling abilities.

Armed with a number of ideas and few people interested in his war-flavoured work (nuclear weapons, communism, Hitler), Dahl was put in touch with Walt Disney, who tried to create some films related to one of his few popular war stories that had been published. This project turned out to be less effective than either had hoped, the beginning of a string of failures with which Dahl would face over the next number of years. Dahl continued to work with the Knopf Publishing House, who remained curious about his work, though found it hard to find a market for his work. Treglown admits that Dahl was not committed to any publisher and would turn to whomever might have an interest in his work. Dahl enjoyed writing the more macabre story and did not tone down either language or content, as Treglown offers numerous examples of stories related to murder, rape, and extreme gore, all of which left many publishers less than eager to sign the author. In a twist of fate, Dahl was introduced to Hollywood actress Patricia Neal and the two soon gravitated to one another. Many felt that Dahl’s name-dropping was annoying and out of sync with Neal’s personality, but she began mirroring his ways and soured her relationship with many others. The two quickly married and became one of the oddest couples amongst their friends; Dahl would openly berate her and mock her southern roots while Neal passively allowed him to do so. It was only after Neal bore Dahl his first child that things became at least somewhat tolerable. While Dahl remained aloof and sought to publish his work, the family lived off Neal’s roles and accompanying paycheques. After their brood grew even more, Dahl began to exemplify a strong paternal instinct, something that Neal admitted openly to anyone who would listen. 

It was at this time that Dahl began concocting some stories to entertain his children. First, one about a young boy named James and his adventures riding on a giant peach, and eventually another about a young Charlie Bucket who won the chance to tour inside the town’s chocolate factory. Dahl quickly found publishers for these two stories in America, though Britain was slow to publish. Of interest to the reader, the publication of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory faced a great deal of pushback, specifically due to Dahl’s depiction of the Oompa-Loompas. Their ‘pygmy from the depths of Africa’ backstory proved highly problematic in a civil rights era America, though some massaging of the text eventually made it more palatable. Dahl still had little interest in gearing stories for children, though did agree to pen a few when approached by publishers for a series of books they had in mind. Playboy remained his most reliable source of income, publishing a number of his stories and paying decently. However, Dahl faced two significant personal tragedies that impeding his writing abilities and pulled his coping abilities to their limits. His marriage to Neal remained strained and she continued to be the primary provider, which surely irked the author. Their travel to shoot her films kept Dahl and his children on the move, though he tried to lay down some roots in both New York and rural England. And yet, he had still yet to find his niche for which he would eventually become so well known. Dahl did find himself expanding his horizons and ended up tackling screenplay writing, one of his own Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (title changed to remove vernacular mention of ‘Charlies’ and the racial implications) and then some of the James Bond saga, none of which were excitedly received. This earned him some decent financial payout, but nothing that could have let him retire.

The Dahl-Neal relationship continued to fray, as Dahl found companionship with a much younger woman, Felicity Crosland. He wrote to Neal and promised that there was no sexual component to it, though Neal speculates that this might not have totally been the case. Dahl’s children were getting older and could see the cracks in their parents union, some of whom chose to act out and found their antics splashed across the tabloids. Dahl was, by now, beginning to find him momentum and had published Danny the Champion of the World, with moderate success. Treglown uses some of the latter chapters in the book to explore Dahl’s eventual connection to Quentin Blake, illustrator extraordinaire whose work is likely best known to many readers who have read Dahl’s work since the early 1980s. Additionally, the reader will find discussion of early manuscripts and story ideas of his most popular works (The BFG, The Witches, and Matilda) highly amusing, especially since Dahl’s original plots took a backseat when strong editors got their hands on the work. Except for a few instances, Dahl’s work was heavily rewritten, showing that while he was a master, his preeminence did not give him a pass when the red pen emerged. There was also a strong concern that Dahl was an admitted anti-Semite, something he never denied, though he did try to spin it as having issue with the Israelis during their battles in the early 1980s. He did go so far as to publicly draw parallels between Israeli PM Menachem Begin and HItler, which left many ill at ease. However, his agent and publishers continued to push back against booksellers who brought this up by citing that the stories themselves were not racially or culturally abhorrent, even if the author espoused his own set of beliefs. By his waning years, Dahl tired of criticism and interactions with the lowly reading public, which Treglown exemplifies in narrative full of off-colour comments made by the author. However, Dahl was sure to have much of his estate go towards helping the sickest of children and those who would be able to enjoy his work, in hopes that his stories could offer a dose of marvellous literary medicine. In death, Dahl was remembered for his stories and the wonder that they brought as new readers discovered them. However, his life was anything but a walk through the park or along the English seaside.

Treglown has surely taken on a significant and controversial task in trying to paint a complete picture of Roald Dahl. The man whose image is inedibly etched into the minds of millions (children and parents alike) is surely not the one that reality has to offer. By presenting Dahl in such a frank manner, the reader is able to see another side of the man. Offering detail where it is needed and skimming over other areas, Treglown weaves together a powerful piece that does dispel Dahl’s “magical Willy Wonka” nature and offers, perhaps, the crueller side seen by many of the villains that end up slain in his books. Treglown offers another interesting aspect in the narrative that is worth mention; he contrasts many of Dahl’s life experiences with children’s stories he would eventually create. For example, Dahl’s lack of a father figure (many of his stories only deal with a child and one parent or an orphan), boarding school cruelty (many stories have evil characters, both children and adults), and his Scandinavian lineage (there is a significant amount of witch, goblin, and other fairy mention in his stories). The reader is given this insight throughout the narrative and left to find other crumbs for themselves. Paced with decent sized chapters that provide enough for the reader to digest, Treglown has succeeded in offering the ‘other side’ to this author who sought greatness himself, rather than bask solely in the reactions of his fans. A should read by Dahl fans to balance out their previous sentiments.

Kudos, Mr. Treglown for keeping the story flowing and not candy-coating the narrative (pun intended). I have a much better view of the man and his development as an author, as well as some of the lesser known aspects.