Review Fridays: Madame de Pompadour

The details:

Title: Madame de Pompadour
Author: Nancy Mitford
Genre: Biography
Pages: 296
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Nancy Mitford is perhaps better known today as one of the infamous Mitford sisters and for her works of fiction. However, she was also an enchanting biographer. I would not recommend her biography of Madame de Pompadour for someone strictly interested in a stuffy history full of dates and data. The tone is intelligent and chatty, one of a friend who loves to gossip and knows her topic well. Mitford is witty, and one might come away from the book with the feeling that she shares a spirit in common with the topic of this particular biography.

Madame de Pompadour was the mistress of King Louis XV of France. In her youth, a fortune teller predicted that she would one day reign over the heart of a king. Her family, fond of nicknames, called her Reinette, or Little Queen. Mitford describes Louis XV as shy and reserved, regal and handsome, fun-loving yet very fond of his family, with a dull wife incapable of holding his attention. Reinette filled the void of a smart, funny companion, one who remained essential to the King even after their physical relationship fizzled out.

The only thing I knew about the Marquise de Pompadour prior to reading this is that she played a prominent role in an episode of the new incarnation of Doctor Who. During that episode, Reinette is haunted by clockwork creatures. She is also visited by the Doctor via a revolving fireplace. During a crucial moment, Reinette remains strong when everyone else is collapsing around her. And it is no accident that she was written that way. The real Madame de Pompadour, although not always respected during her time, was an amusing, intelligent, accomplished woman.

She was responsible for a professional-quality theatrical company, which entertained the King and his court. She knew some of the leading intellectuals of her day. Although she is blamed for some bad foreign policy, Mitford explains how various factors actually contributed to the failures. Mitford balances the good and the bad, portraying Madame de Pompadour as a powerful woman, one who loved her daughter and the King.

The bittersweet ending is perfect, with the last lines describing Reinette’s final journey from Versailles. Mitford writes about Madame de Pompadour in an informal, chatty way that makes her personality come alive for modern readers.



Downton Abbey recap, Season 6, Episode 9 (Finale)

Well, this is it. The very last episode, but there have been rumors of a possible movie, so who knows when or if we’ll see these characters again. In the finale, all of the loose ends are tied up, perhaps a bit too neatly.

Anyway, we begin with a bunch of outside scenes. The upstairs folks have decided to take advantage of the good weather and are having meals and drinks outside. Edith has taken the opportunity to make changes in her life. She is going to put Marigold into a school in London and devote the majority of her time to living there. Well, honestly, this could have happened much earlier in the season, but fine, if that is what she is doing, good for her. It really is the best place for her. She stops by Violet’s house to have a chat with Miss Cassandra Jones herself, AKA Granny’s butler Spratt, with the good news that they are thinking of giving him a full page column. Always wanting to cause trouble, Denker listens at the door.

The rest of the family continues to discuss Edith and Bertie. They mostly equate happiness for Edith with rank and marriage, but couldn’t Edith be happy living alone in London with her work at the newspaper and Marigold? Robert and Mary go to visit Violet, who remarks that she was beginning to forget what they looked like. Are we supposed to forget that Violet didn’t want to see them because of what happened during the hospital fight? That she actually fled the country to avoid them? Cora couldn’t come because she is busy with hospital work, and Violet seems to no longer really care about it. She has been ill, but believe me when I say that that is a big red herring. She says something that gets Mary’s imagination working, apparently, with good deeds for Edith.

Edith drives down to London with Henry. Henry is blandly nice, and he and Edith seem chummy, so I suppose that’s progress in Mary’s relationship with Edith. Henry has decided that he no longer wants to competitively race cars. Edith says that that will make Mary happy, which it will, but it leaves Henry with very little to do. He is trying to figure out the next phase of his life just as Edith has found hers. It is strange because Edith and Henry seem to have more chemistry than I have seen between Mary and Henry. Henry was not perfect for Mary (I would have preferred Charles Blake), but time was running out, and, if nothing else, the writer seems intent on giving each and every person a romantic match (except for Thomas).

Aunt Rosamund has invited Edith to dine at the Ritz. Edith feels that this is an unusual sort of treat, and I’m surprised that she didn’t work out why at the Ritz before she got to the table. There, Rosamund abandons her to a dinner with Bertie! Well, well, well, look who has come crawling back. As I said during the last recap, I understood Bertie’s reasons, but he was wrong. What he should have done was tell Edith he needed some time to think about it and would catch up with her when he got back to London, but instead he decided that the truth about Marigold disqualified Edith to be a marchioness. Added to that, Edith has finally got things together. She has a plan for the future. She will live in London with Marigold. She will be more involved with the paper. Instead, Bertie is offering her a chance to hole herself up in the country with his dour mother.

Edith questions the need for secrecy, and Bertie says that he suspected she wouldn’t come if she knew he would be there. This is true. So, he had issues with her dishonesty last episode, and is trying to woo her back using dishonest methods? He mentions that Mary called and set the whole thing up, but says that he would have called Edith anyway, so I am not sure what Mary’s role is in this? Is it just to give her something nice to do when it wasn’t really necessary? Edith is obviously not ready to talk about this yet, especially not in a public place, but she doesn’t get up and leave. Bertie, in tears, tells her that he made a mistake and misses her. You can just see Edith’s heart melting here, but I maintain that, in the long run, Edith would be better off getting up from the table and continuing with her own life plans.

Personally, I felt that they needed more time. Everything in this episode felt a bit rushed. I am trying to imagine the sort of life they will lead together, and I would have cheered this relationship on last episode, but I feel like Bertie revealed something about himself in his reaction to Edith’s secret last episode. He asks her to marry him. We don’t see a definite response, but we find out that Edith called home to Downton Abbey that night to give her father the good news. They want to move forward as soon as possible, so Cora and Robert are going to Brancaster Castle to meet Bertie’s mother and attend a dinner where the engagement will officially be announced.

A whole series of red flags against Bertie pop up when he says that he doesn’t want to tell his mother the truth about Marigold. The fact that he thinks dishonesty is the best way to deal with his mother is very confusing to me after he spent so much time on his moral high horse when breaking up with Edith. Edith agrees to this secrecy at first. Then, during their first meeting, his mother goes on and on about how Bertie will have to be the moral example for the entire area now that he is marquess. Long story short, this woman is awful. She claims that she will mostly leave Bertie and Edith alone after they are married, but I doubt that. As Robert remarks after she retires for bed, “Golly!” Edith decides that she has to tell his mother, and so she does. She reacts just about as well as could be expected, and Bertie is strong in the face of her opposition.

During the dinner, Bertie is about to announce the engagement when his mother interrupts. Robert whispers to her that if she ruins this and doesn’t announce it herself, she will lose Bertie forever. And so she announces it and does a complete volte-face by saying later that Edith showed great bravery. The wedding is planned for the Christmas-New Years week, so the episode fast forwards to that moment. It seems for a moment that someone might object (Bertie’s mother? Michael Gregson?), but all goes well. Edith and Bertie depart for their honeymoon.

This recap has gotten out of hand, so here are some other quick plot points:

  • Baby Bates (a boy) is born in Mary’s room during Edith’s wedding reception.
  • Thomas leaves for a new job. He resolves to be kinder and to make friends there, but he finds it very lonely as there aren’t many people downstairs at the new house. On a related note, Carson develops a shake in his hands, which impacts his ability to work. They discuss hiring a new butler, and I have no idea why no one thinks of Thomas during the discussion? Anyway, Thomas visits during Edith’s wedding and takes over for Carson serving drinks. They decide that Thomas will serve out his notice at his old job and then return as the new butler. Carson will act as a sort of emeritus butler and consultant during large events.
  • Molesley also leaves for a new job! One of the teachers at the school leaves, giving Molesley a chance to move into his cottage and take over responsibilities for his students. He comes back to Downton to help during big occasions, such as Edith’s wedding.
  • Henry and Tom become car salesmen! Mary is actually happy for them, and also she is pregnant, but she doesn’t want to steal the limelight from Edith, so she tells no one else.
  • Denker tells Violet that Spratt writes for Edith’s paper. Violet, who refuses to act in a predictable way, is merely amused and tells Spratt that she will have to ask for his advice about fashion and such.
  • Rose and her husband come back to visit, but without their baby daughter. She helps to convince Robert not to be jealous of the time Cora spends on the work at the hospital, and to instead be proud of it. I really missed Rose this season; the show needed more optimism.
  • A list of characters randomly paired off:
    • Daisy and Andy. When she at first resists his advances, he ponders whether she likes men (the only possible explanation, apparently? It couldn’t possibly be that she doesn’t like him that way). Then, when he stops trying, he gets his own Darcy-wet-shirt scene, bringing Daisy around. Everyone tells her that she could do worse, and I don’t think that’s a very good reason to enter a relationship with someone.
    • Mrs. Patmore and Mr. Mason
    • Baxter and Molesley
    • Tom and the editor at Edith’s newspaper (whose name I still don’t know)
    • Isobel and Lord Merton (who was dying, until it was determined that he was not)
    • Denker and Spratt** (**not really, but it certainly felt it was going that way with all of the shipping going on in this finale)

Review Fridays: These Shallow Graves

The details:

Title: These Shallow Graves
Author: Jennifer Donnelly
Genre: Young adult/historical fiction/mystery
Pages: 496
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble link

Jennifer Donnelly is a marvelous writer. As someone familiar with her other work, such as award-winning A Northern Light, I looked forward to reading These Shallow Graves very much. I’m happy to say that, despite some cliche minor plot points, it did not disappoint at all. The late nineteenth century New York setting is atmospheric and thrilling. The amount of research Donnelly did while writing is very clear as the setting becomes like another living, breathing character.

Josephine Montfort, a teenager from a wealthy family, longs to be a journalist like her idol, Nellie Bly. She is pulled into a mystery when she overhears a newspaper reporter named Eddie say that her father’s so-called accidental death was a murder. Jo is a girl who questions things and feels compelled to have answers at any cost. She is also, unfortunately, expected to marry well and live the life of a proper lady. That means no going out unchaperoned, no visits to unseemly locales, and no wandering the streets at night. However, in her quest for the truth, Jo secretly does all of those things and loves the freedom. She feels the pull of duty and the pull of desire, and she has a difficult time deciding between the two. She and Eddie follow every lead as they chase the killer, despite threats made against them.

The idea of freedom, particularly for women, plays a large role in the book. Donnelly examines the double-standard between men and women during the historical period. Women who want something untraditional–their own hard-won careers–have to sacrifice something in the process. Jo is torn between doing what her family expects of her and following her own heart. She has a talent for writing, but the scope of her topics would be very limited if she made a good match. Not only that, but she finds herself falling for handsome, brave, intelligent Eddie. The romance between Jo and Eddie is very sweet, and it was impossible not to root for them.

The secondary characters are just as delightful as Jo and Eddie. Oscar is a before-his-time crime scene investigator who uses scientific knowledge to intuit how people were killed. His crush, Sarah Stein, is a medical student who is just as enthralled by the decomposition of human corpses as he is. Fay is a tough, tragic pickpocket who is bought and sold like a commodity. She, too, dreams of freedom. Jo’s high-society beau, Bram, gets enough depth by the end that the reader might wish he had more to do within the pages.

The plot sometimes is marred by cliches, including one of my least favorite: one character is seen with someone of the opposite sex, leading to the conclusion that they have another sweetheart, but it turns out the other person was just a cousin/sibling/relative of some sort. Those moments seemed like very obvious steering of the plot and characters. Yet, Donnelly rewards the reader with a bittersweet ending that felt appropriate when weighed against the rest of the novel. The ending implies that this could be a stand-alone book, but I found myself wishing that it were part of a series. Even at nearly 500 pages, the thrills and twists and turns were so constant that it was a very quick read. After finishing the book, it was hard to let Jo and Eddie and the world they inhabit go, which for me is a sign of good writing and characterization. If you are a fan of young adult literature, historical novels, or murder mysteries with lively heroines, do give this a try.