Sunday, March 25, 2012

Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy, by John Julius Norwich

I was raised as a Catholic. My grandparents had a framed photograph of Pope Paul VI on their bedroom wall. I don't think it matters how purposefully one has walked away from the Church, nor how rationally one justifies it, the mere idea of the Pope -- the infallible Head of the Church, with all the power and wealth that entails -- is numinous. Mr. Norwich is a historian, a Protestant by birth; he admires the durability of the papacy, deplores its failures and remains placidly unconcerned throughout this long book that God will smite him for heresy. His very sane perspective is this: 'I can only say that as an agnostic Protestant I have absolutely no ax to grind, still less any desire either to whitewash it or to hold it up to ridicule.' He makes clear, however, why this is such a remarkable subject: 'After nearly two thousand years of existence, the Papacy is the oldest continuing absolute monarchy in the world.' Pope-bashing has become fashionable, whether in response to the current pope's limp response to systemic child abuse allegations or the corruption and scandals of centuries past. In two millennia, of course, there have been extraordinary popes as well. A purely corrupt monarchy does not survive for 2000 years.

We always associate the papacy with Rome, of course, but must remember that in the early years, the church's power took root in the Greek-speaking world.
Considered from the perspective of history, the churches which, thanks to St. Paul and his successors, were springing up in Asia Minor, Egypt, Syria, and Greece were far more important than the relatively small communities in Italy. Alexandria was by now the second city of the empire, Antioch—where the word “Christian” was first used—the third. Intellectually, too, these cities were incomparably more distinguished. Despite the fact that Greek was, even in Rome itself, the first language of Christianity (and would continue to be dominant in the liturgy until the middle of the fourth century) and that the first- and second-century popes in Rome were nearly all Greeks, none of them proved to be thinkers or theologians—or even administrators—of any real distinction. Certainly they were not in the same intellectual league as the bishops of Antioch and Smyrna and their friends.
Watching a visiting group of Polish priests don vestments, light candles and celebrate Mass in the tiny cave church of St. Peter in Antioch (now Antakya, Turkey) was one of the most amazing travel experiences of my life - apart from their driver, I was the only witness. Needless to say Antakya is no longer a thriving Christian center, but not everyone has forgotten its potent historic past.

Rome had lost all traces of its imperial glory and had returned to a pestilential state. Huns and Turks and other barbarians surely vexed a great number of popes, but they were benign compared to the summertime microbial plagues that carried off one pontiff after the next in appallingly short order. Meanwhile, Emperor Constantine set up his capitol in present-day Istanbul, dedicating the city of Constantinople to the Virgin Mary in 330. Although the final schism between eastern and western churches was some years off, Christians managed to find other issues about which to bicker in the meantime.

I can never keep my heresies straight, but then Gibbon also commented that the issues were too picayune for the layman, so I feel that I'm at least in good company. Leave it to Norwich -- a Protestant, for heaven's sake -- to offer the Idiot's Guide to Early Heresies.  First we have the Arian heresy, which put the Son a step below the Father.
Christ was not coeternal and of one substance with God the Father but had been created by Him at a specific time and for a specific purpose, as his instrument for the salvation of the world. Thus, although a perfect man, the Son must always be subordinate to the Father.
After centuries violent wrangling over this issue, theologians re-framed the question. Did Christ have one nature, wholly divine (monophysite), or two separate natures, one being human (Nestorian)? This also fractured the church, with each side branding the other heretical. This division has never healed.
Already for a century and more the Church, and particularly the Eastern Church, had been deeply divided on the question of the nature—or natures—of Christ. Did he possess two separate natures, the human and the divine? Or only one? And if only one, which was it? The leading exponent of the dual nature was Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, who had been consequently deposed in 431 by the Council of Ephesus. It was possible, on the other hand, to go too far in the opposite direction; and such was the mistake of Eutyches, who held that Christ had only one nature, the human nature being absorbed in the divine. This theory is known as the monophysite...
The doctrine of the dual nature has remained ever since an integral part of orthodox Christian dogma, though several monophysite churches—including the Copts of Egypt, the Nestorians of Syria, the Armenians, and the Georgians—broke away at Chalcedon and still continue in being.
As I read of these titanic battles, I struggle to understand the passions that fueled them. They are surely meaningless to most Christians today. But then, as Norwich points out, there are today over 22,000 separate Christian religions, so there have obviously been two millennia of schism. I wonder, how many modern Christians can explain what divides them from Catholics?

By the late 600s, the papacy was in one of its scandalous periods, essentially an extension of a power-loving and utterly corrupt Roman family. Not surprisingly, Norwich turns to Gibbon for some wry commentary to describe this 'pornocracy'.
At this point there appears in papal history the ravishingly beautiful but sinister figure of Marozia, senatrix of Rome. She was the daughter of the Roman Consul Theophylact I, Count of Tusculum, and his wife, Theodora; Bishop Liudprand of Cremona described her as “a shameless strumpet … who was sole monarch of Rome and wielded power like a man.”
Lover, mother, and grandmother of popes—“a rare genealogy,” sniffs Gibbon, adding that "the worthy grandson of Marozia lived in public adultery with the matrons of Rome; that the Lateran Palace was turned into a school for prostitution; and that his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the shrine of St. Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor."
Popes were occasionally appointed by rival monarchs, each declaring the other's appointment an anti-pope. The loser of these battles rarely fared well, through no fault of his own. This is the fate of one anti-pope whose monarch lost Rome to his enemy in 998.
Antipope John had fled just in time to the Campagna, but was soon captured. Blinded and hideously mutilated, he suffered much the same fate as the Prefect Peter half a century before, being paraded naked through the streets, sitting backward on a donkey. He was then formally deposed and defrocked before being incarcerated in some Roman monastery, where he lingered for another three years before a merciful death took him.
Rome itself was turbulent, with wealthy and powerful families backing their own candidates. The Romans were perhaps as dangerous as the annual pestilence and invading armies. The pope could rarely count on their protection or support. 
For a pope of such caliber, the Romans should have been grateful; it need hardly be said that they were nothing of the kind. By some sad irony Rome remained as unsuitable as any city could ever be, as both the center of the universal Church and the capital of a revived Western Empire. It was devoid alike of order and discipline, lying at the mercy of irresponsible magnates such as the Crescentii and the counts of Tusculum, and indeed of its own highly volatile populace.
The final break between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches came in 1054 and, according to Norwich's research, was entirely avoidable. In short, a pope and a patriarch went at it like a couple of fighting cocks (with as little intelligence), and the damage was irreversible. The pope's legates to Constantinople took matters into their own hands, causing even greater offense than the ill-advised papal bull.
Even if we ignore the fact that the legates were without any papal authority and that the bull iself was consequently invalid by every standard of canon law, it remains an astonishing production: few important documents, in the words of Sir Steven Runciman, have been so full of demonstrable errors.Yet such was the sequence of events at Constantinople in the summer of 1054 which resulted in the lasting separation of the Eastern and Western churches. It is an unedifying story because, however inevitable the breach may have been, the events themselves should never—and need never—have occurred. More strength of will on the part of the dying pope, less bigotry on the part of the narrow-minded patriarch or the pigheaded cardinal, and the situation could have been saved.
In 1059, Pope Nicholas attempted to establish some independence for the papacy:  'In future the Church would run its own affairs and take orders from neither the empire nor the aristocracy of Rome.' It was a nice thought.

In practice, the popes continued to be puppets of various kings, emperors and rich nobleman. A scene from the mid-1100s, in which two candidates, backed by different potentates who bought what they thought an adequate number of cardinals' votes, tried to climb into the papal throne simultaneously, reads like a Laurel  and Hardy farce.
...just as the scarlet mantle of the Papacy was brought forward and Roland, after the customary display of reluctance, bent his head to receive it, Octavian dived at him, snatched the mantle, and tried to don it himself. A scuffle followed, during which he lost it again; but his chaplain instantly produced another—presumably brought along for just such an eventuality—which Octavian this time managed to put on, unfortunately back to front, before anyone could stop him. There followed a scene of scarcely believable confusion. Wrenching himself free from the furious supporters of Roland, who were trying to tear the mantle forcibly from his back, Octavian—whose frantic efforts to turn it the right way around had resulted only in getting the fringes tangled around his neck—made a dash for the papal throne, sat on it, and proclaimed himself Pope Victor IV.
Norwich cites a few pontiffs as truly remarkable men, and Innocent III is one of his most admired.
[He was] the man under whom the medieval Papacy reached its zenith. No pope ever had a more elevated conception of his position than Innocent III; he was indeed the Vicar of Christ on Earth (a designation that first became current in his day), standing, as it were, halfway between God and man. But his complete confidence in himself—together with a sense of humor rare in the Middle Ages—made him patient, simple, and always approachable, genuinely loved by those around him.
Innocent III had his disastrous moments as well, however, such as his launch of the Fourth Crusade, which resulted in the hideous sacking of Constantinople. Yes, Christians looting, pillaging and raping another Christian capital, leaving it so desperately weakened that it was easy prey for the Ottomans when they arrived. The Ottomans, of course, took the blame for the ultimate conquest, but historians agree the Crusaders did the bulk of the job for them.

Then it was time for another heresy to get people's minds off that. The Albigensians were also known as Cathars and Bogomils. (And they wonder why we can't keep our heresies straight?!) Again, as I read this with my 21st century, fallen-Catholic eyes, I struggle to understand why this idea was so terrifying and objectionable, but it cost thousands of heretics their lives.
Essentially, they espoused the Manichaean doctrine that good and evil constituted two distinct spheres—that of the good, spiritual God and that of the Devil, creator of the material world—and that the earth was a constant battleground between them... The heresy refused to die. It would be another hundred years before the Inquisition, unleashed on the region with all its terrifying efficiency, succeeded in crushing it at last.
Occasionally the College of Cardinals made bizarre choices, and some very strange men were designated the Vicar of Christ. Pope Celestine was a peasant priest, absurdly unsuited for the role of pontiff, and the only one to abdicate. With encouragement, mind you.
He normally refused to see his cardinals, whose worldliness and sophistication terrified him; when he did so, they were obliged to abandon their elegant Latin and adopt the crude vernacular which was the only language he could understand. The duties of the Papacy, political, diplomatic, and administrative, he ignored; favors were bestowed on anyone who asked for them. No wonder that he lasted for just five months, then wisely announced his abdication—the only one in papal history.
The architect of this abdication was Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who is said to have introduced a secret speaking tube into Celestine’s cell through which, in the small hours of the night, he would simulate the voice of God, warning him of the flames of Hell if he were to continue in office.
Another commonly held notion that Norwich refutes is that Avignon was the temporary situation of the papacy in exile. That said, it's hard to fathom why they would have picked that particular city. Rome was disagreeable enough, but it had historical relevance. Avignon just sounds like a pit.
Those years are often referred to as the Babylonian Captivity. They were nothing of the kind. The popes were in no sense captive; they were in Avignon because they wanted to be. Nonetheless, it was not a comfortable place. The poet Petrarch described it as being “a disgusting city” battered by the mistral, “a sewer where all the filth of the universe is collected.”
The Aragonese ambassador was so nauseated by the stench of the streets that he fell ill and had to return home. As papal territory, it also became a place of refuge for criminals of every kind, and its taverns and brothels were notorious.
Moving the papacy back to Rome was no easy task. It had been in France for the bulk of the 14th century and had become very French in language, culture and composition of the cardinals. For a while at the end, there were dual papacies in Rome and Avignon, until the conflict and expense became untenable. This situation reached its nadir when there appeared to be three legitimately elected popes, and one of them allegedly poisoned one of the others. Finally, the cardinals were forced to take action to remove him, acknowledging that he may not have been the most suitable candidate after all.
As Edward Gibbon delightedly noted, “the most scandalous charges were suppressed: the Vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, murder, rape, sodomy and incest.”
The Renaissance brought popes who patronised the arts and architecture and simultaneously swelled the Vatican's library and treasury. How they came by the money and their lifestyles would later send Luther into fits.
Franciscans are noted for their love of poverty; it can only be said that Sixtus, on becoming pope, proved an exception to the rule. From one day to the next, his whole character changed. He spent money like water; his coronation tiara alone cost 100,000 ducats, more than a third of the Papacy’s annual income. To raise additional funds, he sold plenary indulgences on a scale previously unparalleled, together with high-sounding papal titles and sinecures.
He slept almost continuously, waking to gorge himself on gargantuan meals.… He grew grossly fat and increasingly inert, being able, toward the end of his life, to take for nourishment no more than a few drops of milk from the breast of a young woman. When he seemed to be dying, an attempt to save his life was made by sacrificing the lives of three healthy young men to provide a blood transfusion. (Ironically, this attempt was made by a Jewish doctor.) The young men supplying the blood were paid one ducat each. They perished in the process and, with the onset of rigor mortis, the coins had to be prised from their clenched fists.
 Ah, the Enlightenment. It was bad news for the papacy, which had become accustomed to wielding its spiritual clout. Now the popes found themselves battling crass commercial interests.
Pope Paul V, as he chose to be called, was every bit as devout as his predecessor but not nearly as intelligent. He failed absolutely to understand that the Papacy was now one of a number of European powers; it was no longer possible to uphold the ideal of absolute papal supremacy as it had existed in the Middle Ages. Paul attempted to do so and immediately met his match—in the Republic of Venice. The Venetians would not have dreamed of questioning their duty of doctrinal obedience; their political independence, on the other hand, they held to be sacrosanct. Besides, the very existence of their city depended on international commerce; how could they be expected to discriminate against heretics, any more than in the past they had discriminated against the Infidel? ...
As the eighteenth century continued, it gradually became clear that the Papacy had a new enemy with which to contend, an enemy a good deal more insidious than the doctrinal differences that had plagued Christendom for well over a millennium. For this was the Age of Reason. For many churchmen, even heretics were preferable to skeptics, agnostics—relatively few people dared call themselves atheists—or anticlericals. In the face of this new intellectual climate, it is not easy to see what measures the Holy See could have taken; what is clear, however, is that it did not take them.
Things went downhill from there in many regards. Napoleon Bonaparte 'made his formal entry into Milan, where he established a republic. His orders were to annihilate the papacy, "the center of fanaticism..."'  After he'd been exiled to Elba, a revolutionary named Garibaldi returned to Rome with the goal of re-establishing the Roman Republic, removing all temporal power from the pope.

In the 20th century, the Pontiff failed to speak out forcefully against the Nazis and Fascists on behalf of the Jews. Why?
How can we explain this contemptible silence on the part of Pius XII? It all goes back first to his innate anti-Semitism and then to his fear of communism—always, both to his predecessor and to himself, a far greater bugbear than Nazi Germany... 
There were many people, too, who wondered, in retrospect, why a pope who had thought nothing of excommunicating all members of the Communist Party throughout the world had never apparently considered doing the same to the Catholic Nazi war criminals, including Himmler, Goebbels, Bormann, and Hitler himself.
The contemporary Vatican is far from immune to scandal. I remember the brief reign of Pope John Paul I, but I'd been blithely unaware of the rumours of his murder.
He soon found, too, that the Vatican was a hotbed of petty hatreds, rivalries, and jealousies. “I hear nothing but malice, directed against everything and everyone,” he complained. “Also, I have noticed two things that appear to be in very short supply: honesty and a good cup of coffee.”
Friday, September 29, 1978, he was found dead in his bed. He had been pope for just thirty-three days, the shortest reign since that of Leo XI in 1605. Was John Paul I murdered? Certainly, there were reasons to believe so. For a man of sixty-five he was in excellent health; there was no postmortem or autopsy. The Vatican, moreover, is an easy place for murder. It is an independent state with no police force of its own; the Italian police can enter only if invited—which they were not.
The conspiracy theorists claim that there was a murky lot of financial malfeasance that John Paul I had uncovered and was about to expose. John Paul II, the Polish pope, may have taken the opposite approach and simply taken good advantage of it. 
[John Paul II] gave every encouragement to the Polish Solidarity movement and its leader, Lech Wałęsa, to whom he may well have secretly channeled funds through Archbishop Marcinkus and the Vatican Bank. As Mikhail Gorbachev once remarked, “The collapse of the iron curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.”
John Paul II left another odd legacy. I wonder if he felt the need to canonise so many others as an oblique way to mitigate his own shortcomings.
Where he surprised everybody was in his berserk canonizations of everyone in sight: quite apart from the 1,340 men and women whom he beatified, the first step to sainthood, he canonized no fewer than 483 new saints, more than had been made in the previous five centuries.
The present pope, Benedict XVI, Norwich notes, has hit some rough patches in his papacy. Just as he's being bludgeoned in the press for his lukewarm response to allegations of child abuse, he elevates the ordination of women to an equivalent offense.
Sometimes, indeed, the Church seems to take a step backward: as recently as July 15, 2010, it elevated the ordination of women to the status of “grave delict,” making it one of the most serious crimes in canon law and effectively putting it on the same level as child abuse.
His papacy is not over, however, and until it is, Norwich suggests that we reserve final judgement.  In the end, he sagely notes, there will have been better popes and most assuredly worse ones.  

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hotel Iris, by Yoko Ogawa

Last year, I relished The Housekeeper and the Professor, so I quickly downloaded this novel when I saw it. I read the former book on a whim, with no preconceptions.  Ms. Ogawa immediately exploded any preconceptions with which I might have begun the latter. It's got no mathematics whatever. Unlike the housekeeper who follows her employer into the numinous, pure realm of numbers, the teen-aged narrator of Hotel Iris follows a much older man into a psychologically grimy affair of sexual dominance and humiliation.

The Hotel Iris is a run-down guest-house on the outskirts of a Japanese seaside holiday town. The building and the family that runs it appear to be decaying in tandem.
And then it was grandfather’s turn. He died two years ago. He got cancer in his pancreas or his gallbladder—somewhere in his stomach—and it spread to his bones and his lungs and his brain. He suffered for almost six months, but he died in his own bed. We had given him one of the good mattresses, from a guest room, but only after it had broken a spring. Whenever he turned over in bed, it sounded like someone stepping on a frog...
Grandfather suffered all the time, but the hour just before dawn was especially bad. His groans echoed in the dark, mingling with the croaking of the mattress. We kept the shutters closed, but the guests still complained about the noise. “I’m terribly sorry,” Mother would tell them, her voice sickly sweet, her pen tapping nervously on the counter. “All those cats seem to be in heat at the same time.”
Ogawa draws a superb portrait of a town with all the superficial merriment that comes with heavy tourist traffic. Meanwhile, there is the reality of the people who live there year-round, particularly those who don't cater to the most affluent guests.
The streets were filled with people enjoying their holidays. Parasols opened, fountains frothed, champagne corks popped, and fireworks lit up the night sky. The restaurants, bars, hotels, and excursion boats, the souvenir shops, the marinas—and even our Iris—were dressed up for summer. Though in the case of the Iris, this meant little more than rolling down the awnings on the terrace, turning up the lights in the lobby, and putting out the sign with the high-season rates.
The narrator's mother feigns surprise and outrage when there is a late-night disturbance in one of the Iris' rooms. A half-naked woman runs down the hall shrieking obscenities, and the man who had been sharing the room with her hurls her shoes after her, bellowing, "Shut up, whore!"  The hotelier scolds the man, demands payment and his departure and tries to placate other awakened guests. The man exits the hotel with a surprising amount of dignity, depositing a stack of bills on the reception desk as he leaves. It's just another night at the Hotel Iris.

The mother is trying to hold things together at the hotel. Trying to keep up appearances. Her daughter's appearance is one of her most cherished prizes. She is fanatical about brushing and oiling Mari's hair.
Since I was a little girl, Mother has praised my appearance to anyone who would listen. Her favorite customers are the big tippers, but the ones who tell her I’m beautiful run a close second, even when they aren’t particularly sincere. “Have you ever seen such transparent skin? It’s almost scary the way you can see right through it. She has the same big, dark eyes and long lashes she did when she was a baby. When I took her out, people were constantly stopping me to tell me how cute she was. And there was even a sculptor who made a statue of her—it won first prize in some show.” Mother has a thousand ways to brag about my looks, but half of them are lies. The sculptor was a pedophile who nearly raped me.
Mari, is out running an errand when she spots the man who had fought with his whore at the hotel. As if entranced, she follows him. When he reaches the ferry dock and waits there, he turns to speak to her. He is much older; he lives on an island and translates texts from Russian. In a strangely formal way, he asks Mari if he might write to her. And thus begins their affair. At first it's an avuncular relationship, but the moment it becomes sexual, it's all about bondage, humiliation and sado-masochism. The transition is jarring.

Mari, it turns out, is aching for someone to mortify her flesh, almost as an antidote to her mother's preening and boasting. Her only sexual attraction to the translator is as someone who can humiliate her. When she looks at his aging skin, she is gratified. It's what she deserves.
But I wanted this body I worshiped to be ugly—only then could I taste my disgrace. Only when I was brutalized, reduced to a sack of flesh, could I know pure pleasure.
The Housekeeper and the Professor was a quirky and lovely little novel, and this one is quirky and sinister. The translator makes Humbert Humbert seem wholesome by comparison, and Mari's state of mind is as inaccessible to me as Fermat's Theorem. I admired this book, and it deserves another read, maybe in a year or two. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

I think novels are a bit like travel destinations in the sense that our response to both depends largely upon serendipity. When your luggage disappears, and the hotel has lost track of your reservation, you spill the welcome glass of papaya juice down the front of your shirt, and the monsoon clouds are closing in, you quickly have the sense that this isn't going to be the best holiday ever. Nothing quite works out. And it's maddening, because you know that some months earlier or later, it might all have been magnificent.

I've had the very same experience with books. I've finished a novel with a shrug thinking I might have just relished it at some other time, and conversely, I ended The Elegance of the Hedgehog believing it was providentially well-timed. When we're enchanted with a boutique hotel, we overlook the dust-bunnies under the armoire, and I was so wrapped up in these characters that I didn't give a hedgehog's derriere about the book's flaws.

Paloma Josse is a whip-smart 12 year-old Parisian girl who has (quite correctly, by many standards) judged that life is stupid and pointless. She has resolved to kill herself before her 13th birthday. Renee Michel is the concierge in the apartment building where Paloma's family lives. She carefully hides her love of existential philosophy, Tolstoy and classical opera behind the facade of an irritable, middle-aged factotum. The narration switches back and forth between them, these two ladies who keep their brilliant lights under bushel baskets.

Every now and again, however, Mme. Michel lets something slip. Fortunately, most of the residents of the building are steadfast in their assumptions about her and barely notice when she says something to shake them. She is unimpressed when one of the young residents announces to her that he has just been reading Marx. And he liked it.
Antoine Pallières, prosperous heir to an old industrial dynasty, is the son of one of my eight employers. There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite—a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups—beaming at his discovery, sharing it with me without thinking or ever dreaming for a moment that I might actually understand what he was referring to.
“Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression,” I nearly murmured, as if only my cat were listening to me.
But Antoine Pallières, whose repulsive and embryonic whiskers have nothing the least bit feline about them, is staring at me, uncertain of my strange words. As always, I am saved by the inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions to crumble. Concierges do not read The German Ideology; hence, they would certainly be incapable of quoting the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.
Paloma, records in her diary why there is no hope for her future. Life is absurd, and only those dullards who haven't cottoned onto this fact can carry on into adulthood.
Even for someone like me who is supersmart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else, in fact superior to the vast majority—even for me life is already all plotted out and so dismal you could cry: no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It’s just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.
Paloma's diary entries fall under one of two headings, either Profound Thoughts or Journal of the Movement of the World, in which she records her observations of motion. As her father watches a New Zealand football match on television, she is captivated by the haka, or ritual Maori dance, that the players perform on the field as the match is set to start. One player in particular catches her eye. Her observation makes me think that this adolescent girl in her pink-framed eyeglasses also has an internal strength that she hasn't quite discovered yet.
And so the haka, which is a warrior chant, gained all its strength from him. What makes the strength of a soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy by sending him a whole lot of signals, it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself, by staying centered... That Maori player was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance—everyone could feel it. And yet you also got the impression that the great oak could fly, that it would be as quick as the wind, despite, or perhaps because of, its deep roots.
She has very clear opinions of what knowledge is valuable, and they rarely align with those of her parents or teachers. Although they haven't had a conversation yet, one gets the sense that Paloma and Renee would see eye to eye on a great many things. Mme. Josse, however, is just one more vexation to her daughter.
My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raving fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She’s vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue.
Renee is a plain, middle-aged woman who takes no pains to look like anything else. She has as little interaction with the building's residents as she can manage. Although she is their equal (and often their superior) in terms of intellect, she knows that her role as a concierge is a well-defined and very subordinate one, and she stays within it. She and her late husband had shared the job until he died, after a long, slow battle with cancer.
Since we were concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama... The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it and, for the apartment owners who encountered him every day in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a non-entity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never fully emerged, a creature who, because he had lived only half a life, with neither luxury nor artifice, must at the moment of his death have felt no more than half a shudder of revolt. The fact that we might be going through hell like any other human being, or that our hearts might be filling with rage as Lucien’s suffering ravaged our lives, or that we might be slowly going to pieces inside, in the torment of fear and horror that death inspires in everyone, did not cross the mind of anyone on these premises.
About halfway through the book, Paloma happens to look a bit more deeply into the concierge. 
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.
Much excitement commences amongst the building's residents when the apartment of the late food critic is purchased by a Messr. Ozu, a refined, retired Japanese gentleman. The ladies are all a-twitter, wondering about the drastic renovations he appears to be making, starved for more information about him. Renee had let slip a bit of Tolstoy one day in Ozu's presence: 'All happy families are the same...' He had, to her mortification, completed the sentence ('but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'). Renee learns from her friend, the Portuguese cleaning lady, that Ozu has two cats. She asks for more information about them.
“They’re ever so thin and move around without a sound, like this.” With her hand she draws strange undulations in the air. “Do you know their names?” I ask again. “The female is Kitty, but I didn’t catch the male’s name.” A bead of cold sweat races down my spine. “Levin?” I venture. “Yes, that’s it. Levin. How did you know?”
Paloma asks the concierge if she might 'hide' in her loge from time to time, whenever she needs to get away from her dreadful parents and sister to think her Profound Thoughts. Renee welcomes her to do so, and about the same time, Ozu gets into the habit of dropping by. He too has seen through her brusque facade and invites her to his apartment for dinner one evening. She eventually relents, and allows her Portuguese friend to spruce her up a bit -- new hair-do, new (well, only slightly used) dress. Renee is a nervous wreck.

After a bit of sake and some appetisers, she agonises over how to ask to use the toilet. She runs through a whole stream of euphemisms, but her bladder can take no more, and she asks for direction to the rest room, where she confronts a toilet the likes of which she's never seen. When it's time to flush, she considers the row of buttons and presses the one with a flower on it. A loud blast of music -- it sounds like Mozart's requiem, but surely that cannot be -- reverberates through the room, and Mme. Michel panics. She tries to flee the bathroom but cannot seem to open the door. She hears Ozu on the opposite side, gently encouraging her to turn the handle in the other direction. The door opens. She emerges, shaking, into the hallway.
“I . . . ” I say to Monsieur Ozu, for there is no one else here, “I . . . well . . . You know, the Requiem?” I should have named my cat Badsyntax. “Oh, I imagine you were frightened!” he says. “I should have warned you. This is a Japanese thing . . . my daughter’s idea to import it. When you flush, it sets off the music, it’s . . . more pleasant, you see?” What I see, above all, is that we are standing in the hallway outside the toilet, in a situation that is blasting to smithereens all world records for ridiculousness.
Nonetheless, the friendship between Renee and Ozu deepens; he sees the elegance, and the hedgehog begins to let her bristles drop. Paloma is also part of their secret society of kindred spirits. What these three eccentric individuals give to and take from each other is priceless. I loved them dearly.  

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The People of the Abyss, by Jack London

Sometimes the best remedy for gloomy exhaustion is a dive into a novel about people who are mired in even worse straits. "You're reading what?!" asked my English colleague. "Is that really a good idea?" Well, The People of the Abyss, Jack London's account of life in squalid East London at the dawn of the 20th century, is not going to jolly anyone out of  funk. It is highly likely, however, to make most people's 21st century problems seem relatively benign.
I'd always associated Jack London with books about sled dogs -- White Fang and Call of the Wild. I avoided these books when I was a child, since my father was a veterinarian and I needed no reminding that humans treat animals badly. Now, in my mid-life, Jack London reminds me of how callously humans handle each other. In 1901, Jack went to England and decided to investigate life in the slums of East London. For the people living there, life was no less (and quite possibly more) harsh than for creatures struggling to survive in the brutal arctic zone. Mercy was all but nonexistent and social safety nets unheard of. The Abyss of this book seems no less brutal than the slums and poorhouses of Dickens' day. In the Malaysia of 2012, with England among the "civilised" nations scolding Asia about human rights violations, I have to sit back and marvel at Jack London's exposé .

When the author first arrived, he asked "proper" Londoners to give him some pointers about East London. They responded with incredulity, as if he were asking about a neighbourhood in central Africa. It is Jack's first clue that London consists of two very separate worlds.
“You don’t want to live down there!” everybody said, with disapprobation writ large upon their faces.  “Why, it is said there are places where a man’s life isn’t worth tu’pence.” “The very places I wish to see,” I broke in. “But you can’t, you know,” was the unfailing rejoinder. “Which is not what I came to see you about,” I answered brusquely, somewhat nettled by their incomprehension.  “I am a stranger here, and I want you to tell me what you know of the East End, in order that I may have something to start on.” “But we know nothing of the East End.  It is over there, somewhere.”  And they waved their hands vaguely.
The American consul's reply at least speaks to me of the can-do attitude of American men of that period. No bureaucracy, no neurosis. Just confidence and determination.
I took my way to the American consul-general.  And here, at last, I found a man with whom I could “do business.”  There was no hemming and hawing, no lifted brows, open incredulity, or blank amazement.  In one minute I explained myself and my project, which he accepted as a matter of course.  In the second minute he asked my age, height, and weight, and looked me over.  And in the third minute, as we shook hands at parting, he said: “All right, Jack.  I’ll remember you and keep track.”
Jack began by paying a grudging hansom cab driver to take him on a scenic tour of the East End. The view varied little.
We rolled along through miles of bricks and squalor, and from each cross street and alley flashed long vistas of bricks and misery. 
He rented a room for himself -- rather posh by East London standards -- but it still lacked certain amenities.
Not only did the houses I investigated have no bath-tubs, but I learned that there were no bath-tubs in all the thousands of houses I had seen. 
We speak of air pollution today as if it's a phenomenon of the automotive age. Pack an insanely high population density into a small area with oil and wood fires for heat, cooking and light, and the result was most unhealthy. Plants could not survive in East London then.
Leaving out the disease germs that fill the air of the East End, consider but the one item of smoke.  Sir William Thiselton-Dyer, curator of Kew Gardens, has been studying smoke deposits on vegetation, and, according to his calculations, no less than six tons of solid matter, consisting of soot and tarry hydrocarbons, are deposited every week on every quarter of a square mile in and about London. 
Jack had to compete with hordes of impoverished men to experience one night in a London poorhouse. These facilities had limited space, and gaining entry for a night was a mixed blessing. The accommodations were foul and had to be paid for by hard labour all the following day. At the end of that, the men were tossed back out into the streets to make room for the next batch. Those with no shelter were doomed to walk the streets all night as laws prohibited their sleeping in the open. His descriptions of the utter exhaustion were devastating, but a night in the workhouse offered small solace.

Jack was "quite certain that the twenty-two of us washed in the same water." The bedding was hardly cleaner:  "... the back of one poor wretch was a mass of blood from attacks of vermin and retaliatory scratching."  On the following day, he and other inmates worked off their lodging debt in the local infirmary. They were given one last meal before their discharge.
At eight o’clock we went down into a cellar under the infirmary, where tea was brought to us, and the hospital scraps.  These were heaped high on a huge platter in an indescribable mess—pieces of bread, chunks of grease and fat pork, the burnt skin from the outside of roasted joints, bones, in short, all the leavings from the fingers and mouths of the sick ones suffering from all manner of diseases.  Into this mess the men plunged their hands, digging, pawing, turning over, examining, rejecting, and scrambling for. 
Shortly after his night in the workhouse, Jack surfaced to witness the coronation of King Edward VII. His recent experiences and his American socialist sensibilities dampened his appreciation for the pomp and grandeur.
Vivat Rex Eduardus!  They crowned a king this day, and there has been great rejoicing and elaborate tomfoolery, and I am perplexed and saddened.  I never saw anything to compare with the pageant, except Yankee circuses and Alhambra ballets; nor did I ever see anything so hopeless and so tragic.
 He made several observations about the deadening effects of living in cramped squalor, starved of food, heat and education. Such impoverished people managed only "conversation as meditative and vacant as the chewing of a heifer’s cud."

He also noted that England was at the peak of its colonial glory, and her best young men had gone off to South Africa, India, and beyond. Those who remained behind struggled to survive in what he perceived to be an abandoned and dying mother ship.
The erstwhile men of England are now the men of Australia, of Africa, of America.  England has sent forth “the best she breeds” for so long, and has destroyed those that remained so fiercely, that little remains for her to do but to sit down through the long nights and gaze at royalty on the wall.The strength of the English-speaking race to-day is not in the tight little island, but in the New World overseas.
As if his anecdotal observations weren't potent enough, he resorts to numbers. I found these statistics staggering.
The population of London is one-seventh of the total population of the United Kingdom, and in London, year in and year out, one adult in every four dies on public charity, either in the workhouse, the hospital, or the asylum.  When the fact that the well-to-do do not end thus is taken into consideration, it becomes manifest that it is the fate of at least one in every three adult workers to die on public charity...
There are 300,000 people in London, divided into families, that live in one-room tenements.  Far, far more live in two and three rooms and are as badly crowded, regardless of sex, as those that live in one room.  The law demands 400 cubic feet of space for each person.  In army barracks each soldier is allowed 600 cubic feet.  Professor Huxley, at one time himself a medical officer in East London, always held that each person should have 800 cubic feet of space, and that it should be well ventilated with pure air.  Yet in London there are 900,000 people living in less than the 400 cubic feet prescribed by the law...
One in every four in London dies on public charity, while 939 out of every 1000 in the United Kingdom die in poverty; 8,000,000 simply struggle on the ragged edge of starvation, and 20,000,000 more are not comfortable in the simple and clean sense of the word.,, 
The average age at death among the people of the West End is fifty-five years; the average age at death among the people of the East End is thirty years. 
Finally, Jack takes the opportunity to ridicule the misguided attempts by some well-meaning and well-off Londoners to bring some light to the East End. It's hard to appreciate fine art on an empty stomach. Until England can offer its poor (many of whom fell into ruin simply because they fell ill or were injured) a way to survive a temporary misfortune without going straight to the poorhouse, he says, there is no point in offering token gestures. They are simply ridiculous. You might better offer beer.
I have gone through an exhibition of Japanese art, got up for the poor of Whitechapel with the idea of elevating them, of begetting in them yearnings for the Beautiful and True and Good.
Did Destiny to-day bind me down to the life of an East End slave for the rest of my years, and did Destiny grant me but one wish, I should ask that I might forget all about the Beautiful and True and Good; that I might forget all I had learned from the open books, and forget the people I had known, the things I had heard, and the lands I had seen.  And if Destiny didn’t grant it, I am pretty confident that I should get drunk and forget it as often as possible.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Calling Out for You, by Karin Fossum

When the flood of business writing left me feeling like a drowned rat at the end of a day, I turned to Karin Fossum for respite. There's nothing like a murder in Norway to put everything back in proper perspective. Calling Out for You is the fifth of Fossum's novels, and the fourth that I've read. (That first one is still awaiting translation.) It's certainly the richest of them that I've read so far, and the critics agreed -- it won the CWA Dagger Award in 2005.

The CWA is, by the way, the Crime Writers' Association, and its members obviously appreciate Fossum's marvelous knack of writing about the horrible ordinariness of most crimes. She doesn't write thrillers, and if you want the kind of suspense that will keep you reading til your eyes glaze over, forget about her. I will not easily forget, though, the characters in this novel -- the killer (assuming the Inspector got the right man), the victim, her widower, or the various and assorted witnesses in the small Norwegian village where the murder takes place. Even Chief Inspector Sejer and his sidekick, Officer Skarre, reveal more of their inner selves in this book. (Fossum maintains that she doesn't want Sejer to attract a cult following, but I feel she's taken that a bit too far -- he was almost a non-entity in the earlier books.)

As the book opens, a mother greets her 20-something son who has just come into the house with a badly scratched face, which he attributes to wrestling with his Rottweiler. Everything about this young man radiates testosterone and anger, and the dog story immediately sounds dubious. The mother can or will see only so much.
Later she hears him in the bathroom, sounding hollow in the tiled space. He's singing. The door to the medicine cupboard slams. He's probably looking for a plaster, silly boy. His mother smiles. All of this violence is only to be expected. He is a man, after all. Later, she would never forget this. The last moment when life was good.
Then we meet Gunder,who is a simple man. That's not to say he's stupid; he is uncomplicated. He sells farm equipment. He is a middle-aged bachelor who relies upon his sister for female companionship. Years before, she gave him an illustrated book about different cultures around the world, and he has always been captivated by the illustration of an Indian woman in traditional attire. Very slowly and methodically, he arrives at the decision to make a trip to India in pursuit of a wife. He knows that the other villagers will find it outlandish, so he buys a traditional Norwegian brooch (which he feels would look nice on a sari) for the bride he feels certain he will meet, and he tells only his sister where he is going and why.
It was clear to him that he wanted an Indian wife. Not because he wanted a subservient and self-sacrificing woman, but because he wanted someone he could cherish and adore. Norwegian women didn't want to be adored. Actually he had never understood them, never understood what they wanted. Because he lacked nothing, as far as he could see. He had a house, a garden, a car, a job, and his kitchen was well equipped. There was under-floor heating in the bathroom, and he had a television and a video recorder, a washing machine, a tumble-dryer, a microwave, a willing heart and money in the bank. Gunder understood that there were other, more abstract factors, which determined whether you were lucky in love – he wasn't an imbecile.
And to everyone's amazement but his own, Gunder does exactly what he sets out to do. He meets Poona in a Mumbai restaurant (where he eats every meal) and, toward the end of his stay, proposes marriage to her. She sees in Gunder a decent, kind man, and she accepts. They marry in India. Gunder returns to Norway, and Poona is to follow later, after putting her affairs in order. Gunder is on his way to meet her at the airport when he receives word that his sister has been in a terrible car crash and is lying comatose in hospital. In a terror, he asks an old friend, a cab-driver, to go fetch Poona. The friend could not find her at the airport, and soon after, one of Gunder's neighbours finds a horribly battered foreign woman's corpse in his meadow.

Watching Gunder trying to absorb the fact that his new wife has been murdered and that his sister may never awaken is nothing short of excruciating. In a very touching scene, Inspector Sejer advises Gunder to confide all his grief to his comatose sister. "Just start talking. No one can hear you in here. Tell her about Poona... Tell her everything that has happened."

Sejer and Skarre have their own frustrations. The people in small villages generally don't like to discuss each other's business with the police. Sejer deeply understands this, and he chats about it with his favourite confidante -- his dog, Kollberg.
"In a place like this," Sejer said aloud and studied the wood and the meadow and Gunwald's house. "In a place like this people will protect one another. That's how it always is. If they've seen something they don't understand they wouldn't dare to say so. They think I must be mistaken, I grew up with him, we've worked together and anyway, he's my cousin. Or neighbour. Or brother. We went to school together. So I won't say anything, it must be a mistake. Human beings are like that. And that's a good thing, isn't it, Kollberg?" He looked at the dog. "We're not talking about evil here, but the good in people which stops them from saying what they know."
One witness, however, is very informative. Linda is a young woman with a less than solid reputation amongst the locals, most of whom find her emotionally off-balance. After meeting young and handsome Officer Skarre, Linda begins to remember increasing numbers of details about the crime scene. It's not long before she believes that fate has thrown her and the gorgeous investigator together for a reason.

She found the telephone directory. Looked under S and found Skarre, Jacob, 45 Nedre Storgate, and his telephone number, which she memorised twice. After that it was burned into her brain. She found the folder with the newspaper cuttings and went upstairs to her room. Stood for a while in front of the mirror. Then she read them all again. She had to keep this case alive. Had to blow on it the way you blew on embers. It had become something that sustained her, almost like a mission.
There are quite a few men who seem like plausible suspects in this senseless and brutal murder. Based upon the information that they've gathered from Linda (a patently unreliable witness) and everyone else in the village (patently uncooperative witnesses) and their gut instincts, the police arrest Gøran, the muscle-bound, angry young man with the scratched face. His parents are devastated, the other villagers run the gamut from disbelieving to accepting that the right man is in jail, and Gøran is cocky and defiant. He quickly learns, however, that Sejer, tall, grey-haired, and soft-spoken, should not be underestimated. He has subtle and devious ways of triggering self-incriminating outbursts. When they begin chatting about body-building and fitness, Gøran at last feels that he is in control of the interview. He suggests an arm-wrestling match.Sejer shrugs. Why not?
Gøran counted to three and pushed violently. Sejer did not attempt to drive Gøran's fist down. He was only concerned to hold out. And he managed that. Gøran's strength exploded in one violent charge, then it died away. Very slowly, Sejer pushed his fist to the table. "Too much static training. Don't forget stamina. Remember that in future." Gøran massaged his shoulders. He didn't feel good.
Have Skarre and Sejer arrested the killer? They think so. We hope so, but Fossum reminds us that unless a killer is caught red-handed, there will always be room for doubt. It's untidy and uncomfortable, and it's just the way life is. 

This novel was published in the US with the title The Indian Bride. I suppose it's a more memorable title, but Calling Out for You is haunting. So many characters in this book are calling out -- for help, for love, for attention. And they almost never get what they seek. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Lady Elizabeth, by Alison Weir

Bookface has fallen behind on both reading and blogging over the past few months, having been consumed by a deluge of business writing and editing assignments with short deadlines. The work and associated compensation are always welcome, but I will be happy when my eyes stop colliding with "up-skilled employees" and "leverage" used as a verb.

As I was reading David Starkey's Six Wives in January, I realised that my knowledge of Tudor history has some mortifying and gaping holes. I actually know very little about that other famous red-haired monarch, Elizabeth I. I found this book on my Kindle and decided to dive in. The Lady Elizabeth is (as I should have surmised from the title) about her pre-coronation years. It is also historical fiction, but I trust Alison Weir implicitly to stay within the facts at hand. There are a few writers who maintain that exquisite balance between historic and fictional detail, and the result is a book that reads like a black-and-white history reproduced in colour. Alison Weir is one of those writers, and this is one of those books.

Elizabeth is three years old, living in a country house in northern England when her 21 year-old half-sister arrives with a retinue that includes a female fool. In what is quite possibly the most sympathetic glimpse of Mary, she struggles to explain to the toddler that her mother, the late Anne Boleyn, has just been executed for treason. She had brought her fool along to distract the hysterical child when the news finally sinks in. Mary wrestles with her own mixed emotions -- she had, with good reason, loathed Anne Boleyn and must have at least secretly rejoiced in her death. For this fleeting time, however, she perceives her half-sister as an innocent and treats her kindly.

Even as a small tot, Elizabeth showed precocious intelligence. It doesn't escape her notice that her servants no longer address her as Princess. He may have stripped her of her royal title and her legitimacy, but King Henry VIII still ensured that his younger daughter lived in comfort and had superlative teachers. And those teachers marveled at the speed with which she picked up Latin and Greek, rhetoric and literature. In this, she took after her father. When she rode in procession with him, sitting in front of him on his horse, another similarity came to light.
The common touch came effortlessly to him; he loved the adulation. Elizabeth loved it too, and began waving herself, much to everyone’s amusement; and on that day, there was born in her a craving to be thus acclaimed, to be such a person as her father was, to bask in the people’s love and approval.
Mary and Elizabeth were both fond of Jane Seymour, Henry's third wife. Jane's death following the birth of Prince Edward was another devastating loss for Elizabeth. Weir hints that it might also have sparked her belief that having children is a deadly game.
But she knew that the Queen would never wake up, that her soul had fled, and that, in some mysterious way, having the Prince had killed her. Appalled by the sweet scent of death, and realizing with dread that there were more perils in the world than she had ever imagined, Elizabeth buried her face in her hands to shut out the sight of the white, waxen face and tried very hard to pray. 
Weir gives some delicious glimpses of what must have been the child Elizabeth's perceptions of the bawdy Tudor court. When he wasn't hunting fowl and game, Henry was hunting women (whether or not he was currently married to one of them). Of course, not all Europeans found the English randiness so amusing. Elizabeth overhears a courtier describing the King's latest hunt.
“He asked that suitable French ladies be brought to Calais so that he could meet them and get to know them a little before choosing. Well, the ambassador was furious. He said that the great ladies of France were not to be paraded like prize animals in a market. And then he dared to suggest”—Sir John was almost whispering—“that His Majesty might like to mount them one after the other, and keep the one he found most agreeable.”
She was too busy striving to imagine her father riding the French ladies, much as she would ride her hobbyhorse, round and round Calais. The images this conjured up made her giggle under her breath. Adults did the silliest things.
As Elizabeth grows a bit older, she displays flashes of rage (for which her father had long been famous) and a pronounced tendency to speak her mind. She and Mary are clearly girls of very different temperaments and, it becomes clear, both are being raised by adults profoundly loyal to their mothers. Or, more accurately, to the religious beliefs their mothers had held. Mary has grown into as devout a Catholic as the Pope might wish for, and Elizabeth is a staunch little Protestant. When Mary realises that her half-sister is growing up a heretic, the tenuous bond between them begins to crack.
After Mass one day, Elizabeth asked, “Why do they ring those bells?” Mary looked shocked.
“Have you not been taught, Sister?” she asked, frowning. “The bells signal the elevation of the Host.”
“Father Parker says that it’s wrong to have bells at Mass,” Elizabeth said, quite innocently.
“It is very wicked of him to say such things,” she said firmly. “The bells signify the holiest moment in the Mass. Come with me.” Taking the child’s hand, she led her back into the empty chapel, to the altar rails. “When the priest holds up the bread and the wine before the people,” she explained, “he does it to show that a miracle has taken place, for during Mass, as Our Lord promised at the Last Supper, the gifts of bread and wine become His very body and blood, given for us for the redemption of our sins.”
“But how can that be?” she asked. “They are still bread and wine. I have tasted them.”
Mary was appalled. What had they been teaching the child? “But that is the miracle!” she exclaimed. “When they are consecrated, they still look like bread and wine, but they become the real body and blood of Jesus Christ. I’m surprised that Father Parker has not explained this to you. It is our Faith.” Elizabeth forbore to say that Father Parker had said something rather different: She guessed that Mary would be cross if she did.
By the time Elizabeth is 15, King Henry has died, boyish Prince Edward acts as the puppet monarch maneuvered by his council, and Elizabeth is living with Henry's widow. Catherine Parr shed her mourning attire indecently soon, according to many, and re-married Admiral Thomas Seymour, her first love. It all looked so promising -- after a stormy marriage to the old, ill and irascible King, Catherine could look forward to the rest of her life with handsome and dashing Seymour, perhaps even having children with him. It all went sour, because the scoundrel husband only had eyes for the adolescent Lady Elizabeth. In well-documented romps, he would burst into her bedchamber at all hours, rough-housing with her and flirting shamelessly, much to the horror of her lady-in-waiting (who was responsible for protecting her honour.) A scandal ensued, and Elizabeth faced an outraged council to defend her purity. It became painfully clear that her life would never be a private one. She would always face public scrutiny. And men with agendas.
“He was a man of much wit and very little judgment,” she said quietly, knowing they were all waiting on her every word. Well, she would say no more, however traumatized and confused she felt. One thing she had learned from this whole sad and dangerous business, and that was that she must in future keep her own counsel and never betray her true feelings. It was a harsh lesson for one who was just fifteen years old.
(In the postscript, Weir confesses that she allowed herself to take one leap from the historical record in connection with this incident. It's perhaps the emotional climax of the story, so I won't reveal it here, but it gives the historian a chance to take a piece of gossip that's been circulating for centuries and have a lark with it.)

The gap between them widening to a chasm, Mary, now on the throne, begins to doubt that Elizabeth is Henry's biological daughter. Despite the fact that everyone else sees the unmistakable resemblance, Mary convinces herself that Elizabeth is the bastard of Anne Boleyn and one of her adulterous lovers. She is painfully aware that if England is to return to a permanent state of Catholic Grace, Elizabeth must never be allowed to rule after her. She begins a long campaign of vilifying, imprisoning and banishing her half-sibling.
“Yet I can scarcely believe that she is my sister. She is no longer the sweet, winning child whom I so loved when my father was alive. I fear that vanity, heresy, and ambition have changed her. I can no longer think of her as my dear sister, but as a viper in my bosom.”
Mary, meanwhile, weds Philip II of Spain, whose credentials as a devout Catholic include sponsoring the Inquisition. Many of the English oppose the match. Mary, however, is determined. She is giddy with a school-girlish excitement for her handsome young groom. This is not exclusively a marriage of political expedience for her.
“You know that there have been demonstrations against the marriage in London?” Renard asked gently.
"They have been dealt with,” Mary said sharply, the smile vanishing. “Some of my subjects do not know what is good for them, I fear. The rest, I am glad to say, rejoice for me, and for England.”
“As do I, madam”—Renard smiled—“and His Highness too. I hear he is an eager bridegroom.” He hoped that sounded convincing. Mary blushed deeply.
“I trust he will not find me wanting,” she said humbly. Looking at her faded, tired face and thin, flat-chested body, Renard could have wept for her.  
Men are from Mars, women from Venus. Always have been, even in the 16th century.
Mary lay in bed, watching the summer moonlight streaming through the open casement. Beside her, Philip—her Philip, her darling, her joy—was breathing evenly.
Her part, as she understood it, was to lie still, submit to his attentions, and pray for an heir. She was managing, she thought, rather well. Just let her get pregnant, and then that constant thorn in her side, her sister Elizabeth—if she was her sister, of course—could go hang herself. Next to her, Philip was pretending to be asleep. He was praying that his dried-up spinster of a wife would soon be with child, so that he could in conscience abstain from her bed and perhaps, if he could contrive it, get back to Spain for a while.
As the newlyweds begin a campaign of incinerating England's "heretics", Mary vacillates. Is it better to keep her menace of a half-sister nearby? If she's at court, she can be watched like a hawk, but she gets on Mary's nerves insufferably. If she's banished to a house in the middle of nowhere, she's pleasantly out of Mary's line of sight but woefully available to those Protestants who would overthrow her. Being far advanced in what turns out to be a false pregnancy, Mary feels especially indecisive and vulnerable.

Philip, her ostensibly devoted husband, has his own private thoughts on the matter.
“We will make no decision as to her future until after your confinement, but I do feel she should be brought back to court so that I can keep an eye on her until then.” And, he thought to himself, it would be wise to establish a good working relationship with Elizabeth just in case she ever does become queen.
Philip was thinking that, even as a furtive Protestant, Elizabeth would be preferable to Mary, Queen of Scots, any day.
Weir does a spectacular job of building what we know of the Virgin Queen from the records of her youth and the turbulent years of Mary's reign. This woman knew as a child that she wanted to rule. She knew herself to be capable of it. She had more than enough examples of good and strong women who had squandered or lost their power to husbands, Mary included. 
For in the course of her long seclusion, she had discovered that the most important thing to her in life was freedom: the freedom to come and go as she pleased, to make her own choices, and not constantly to have to submit to the will of others. Such freedoms did not come with marriage. 
Elizabeth is back in a remote country house in the north when the horsemen ride up, just as Mary's entourage had done years before. These horsemen bring a different message: Long Live the Queen. Long Live Queen Elizabeth.