Sunday, July 18, 2021

Big Book Summer Challenge - The Winter King, Perdita, and Lionheart

I am happy to report that I have three books finished that qualify for the Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Sue of Book by Book.

The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, by Thomas Penn. I've read a fair amount about Henry VIII and his children, but I knew very little about his father, Henry VII. 

This was a great book, chock full of interesting aspects of Renaissance Europe, English/Scottish history, and very readable. It was also a real treat to read about Catherine of Aragon while watching The Spanish Princess, which is based on a Philippa Gregory novel, who plays fast and loose with history, but it was still fun to watch the show while reading the history.

Henry VII, his mother Margaret Beaufort, and young Henry VIII, as portrayed in The Spanish Princess

The Winter King gets its title from the idea that Henry VIII as a young man represented such promise for England--young, handsome, personable, educated, devout, athletic--in other words, he was the Spring of a new dynasty that would bring peace and prosperity to a country that had been consumed by civil wars (the War of the Roses) for generations. Winter comes before Spring, hence HVII was the Winter king, older, less handsome, not personable but crafty and cunning, not athletic--he usurped the thone and was never beloved, though he was feared and grudingly respected. 

Perdita: The Literary, Theatrical, Scandalous Life of Mary Robinson, by Paula Byrne, was absolutely wonderful. Another non-fiction, it was the JASNA Denver/Boulder bookclub selection for our July meeting, and it was great fun to discuss it with other Janeites who enjoy learning about Georgian and Regency history. 

Mary was a Bristol-born beauty who was married at age 15, became an actress mentored and trained by the great David Garrick, captured the attention of the teenaged Prince of Wales (later George IV) and became his mistress, left the stage, had affairs with a variety of men, and became a fashion icon until her mid-twenties. It was then that she contracted rhuematic fever, which made her lame for the rest of her life. She then embarked on a literary career, wrote poetry, essays, gothic novels, was close friends with William Godwin (Mary Wollstonecraft's widowed husband) and Coleridge, and wrote her memoirs in which she told her side of the story and which her daughter finished after her death at the young age of 43.

Mary was a fascinating person and every bit as much of a celebrity in her day as Princess Diana was in the 1980s and 1990s. Sadly, her literary efforts sunk to oblivion during the Victorian era and only resurfaced in the 1990s. Now scholars give Mary credit for her contributions to poetry, particularly in the innovative use of metre that influenced her contempories such as Coleridge and his ilk.

There's an absolutely great lecture on YouTube in which the presenter discusses Mary Robinson in detail, covering much of the same material in the biography, though not to the same depth.

My third big book is a novel, Lionheart, by Sharon Kay Penman, who passed away in January of this year. Lionheart is the fourth in Penman's chronicles of the early Plantagent kings, this one focused on Richard I, son of Henry II and Eleanor of Acquitaine. It takes place mostly in Otremer, or the Holy Land, and recounts Richard's role in the Third Crusade in which European Christian forces tried to recapture Jerusalem from Saladin.

Unlike Philippa Gregory, Penman exhibits a slavish devotion to historical accuracy and this book reflects that devotion in that there are a lot of characters and a lot of relationships, feuds, and ambitions to keep straight, but I loved it!

I especially loved reading about Joanna, Richard's youngest sister and Queen of Sicily, as well as Berengaria of Navarre, whom Richard married enroute to the Holy Land. Both women accompany him and the Crusaders and seeing the world through their eyes was a nice contrast to the seemingly endless battles.

I also absolutely loved two of Richard's kinsmen, Morgan (Welsh cousin and son of the marvelous Ranulf of the earlier books) and Henri, son of Richard's sister Marie. They were personable, interesting, and charming.

I learned so much about medieval warfare, the politics of the Crusades, Saladin and his army, the geography and landscape of Otremer. Penman is such an excellent storyteller, giving her characters such authentic voices without imbuing them with modern sensibilities.

Next up in the series is A King's Ransom, which presumbably is about Richard's capture and imprisonment on his way home from the Crusade.

I have a couple more big books on the horizon, so I might get a couple more under my belt before Labor Day.

Happy reading.


  1. Mary Robinson sounds like a fascinating person! I'd read that book in a heartbeat. And the one about Henry VII sounds really interesting, too. :)

  2. Hi Jane, I think I might want to explore Sharon Kay Penman's books because they are well written and accurate. Novels about the Kings and Queens of England are a genre I keep wanting to get into but I keep telling myself I want to read the books chronologically starting with the Normans but that's a way to procrastinate. Better to just pick a particular King or Queen that interests me and start there.

  3. I listened to The Winter King a while ago and learned a lot. Looking back, it would have been nice to have a print copy, too, but that was before I hit upon the idea of read/listen combinations.

  4. Oh how I wish I could say I loved "chunksters". The only time I seem to be drawn to one is when I use to take long plane rides but, these days I seem to be drawn to books under 400pp. Hope you enjoy this challenge.

  5. What an intriguing trio of historical fiction! Perdita is the one that most calls to me.

  6. All three of these books sound fascinating, especially Perdita, and I'm so glad you've made progress on the challenge! Thanks so much for the great reviews!

  7. Wow, 3 Big Books! Way to go, Jane!

    And so much historical fiction - sounds fascinating!

    Glad you enjoyed these - hope you enjoy your other Big Books, too!


    2021 Big Book Summer Challenge

  8. I'll check out the video on Mary Robinson thanks .... & congrats on the 3 big books !

  9. These all sound good. I own Lionheart and am a big fan of Penman; she attended my law school and I always hoped I would meet her but it never happened.

  10. What a fantastic accomplishment! Those look like really interesting books. I'll have to add them to my ever-growing list.