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‘Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife’ by Anne Boileau

nun_300At nine years old, Katharina Von Bora was in the way.  A tomboy, and not prepared to flatter her new stepmother, she is sent away to the school attached to the Marienthron Convent at Nimbschen.  From that point onwards, she was being shoehorned into joining the order as a nun and, accordingly, she becomes a novice at the age of fifteen.  What a convenient way to get rid of a troublesome child.

However, by 1523, when she is in her early twenties, Katharina, and several other younger nuns, are restless.  They’ve heard about Martin Luther’s revolutionary preaching in Wittenberg and they’re fascinated by their – illegal – copy of the Bible in German.  More than anything else, though, they want out.  They can’t bear the thought of being stuck in the convent for the rest of their lives.  So, they write to Luther himself and he replies, concocting a plan for them to be smuggled from the Marienthron Convent in empty herring barrels.  They arrive in his house in Wittenberg and then they have to reconnect with the real world.  Luther doesn’t know what to do with them.  He expects the girls to return to their families, but for Katharina, and her friend, Ave, there’s no chance of that.  Eventually, Luther and Katharina marry.. and I’m not giving away a spoiler as the book starts with Katharina married and pregnant.

The book is written as Katharina’s diary during the last weeks of her pregnancy.   It’s not just ‘based on a true story’.  It’s a biography, faultlessly researched .  Anne truly got into the hearts and minds of the people living in that part of Germany during the first part of the sixteenth century, their fears of disorder and chaos, that sometimes only Latin prayers would do and the very real social disorder caused by Luther’s preaching.

Katharina herself was an interesting main character, plucky, resourceful, resilient, yet consistent with her time.  Luther himself is also well-drawn, earthy, a man who makes jokes about farts and bowel movements, yet whose thunderous voice can fill a church and the hearts of those waiting outside.

Anne Boileau lives in Essex.  I know her under her real name, although I haven’t met her recently and she has no idea that I’m reviewing her book.  The last time I saw her she was delivering staff development on lesson planning.  A month ago, however, Anne came to talk to the St Andrew’s Church Book Club about Katharina Luther, although unfortunately I was too snowed under with work to attend.  Really sorry to have missed her.  An unputdownable book, about one of my favourite periods in history.

Rating:  4/5

Buy Katharine Luther:  Nun. Rebel. Wife. here.

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‘Portrait of a Marriage’ by Nigel Nicolson

Nigel Nicolson paints an endearing portrait of the marriage of his parents, Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson.  His viewpoint is that, despite many – mostly homosexual – affairs on both sides, and, after the first few years following their wedding, no action in the marital bed, the two were devoted, missing each other during their times apart, and valuing their love and union as the pivot in their lives.  All the time I was reading this book, I was wondering how much of a gloss this loyal son was applying, but he quotes from letters over decades and at length.  And the two remained together from 1911 to Vita’s death in 1962, which left Harold devastated, until his own death in 1968.  I’m persuaded that, despite everything – a lot of portrait is accurate.

Vita Sackville-West was born into the aristocratic Sackville family of Knole, Kent. Following her grandfather’s death, her (nuclear) family returned to Knole via a circuitous route.  Her mother was her grandfather’s illegitimate daughter, from a liaison with a Spanish dancer, Pepita, but her father inherited the very grand stately home through being the son of one of her grandfather’s brothers.  There was a court case – of course – and, this being the Sackville-Wests, a very colourful one.  Despite living in many other properties with Harold, including no Sissinghurst, where she built her amazing garden, Vita loved Knole with a passion.  In fact, on her wedding day, she almost didn’t get married because she couldn’t bear to leave Knole.

Vita Sackville-West wrote numerous novels and earns her living as a writer.  Harold also wrote, mostly factual books, fitting in how writing in between his high-profile career as a diplomat, which included being a secretary for the Paris Peace Conference after the First World War.  However what she is known for is her affairs with Violet Keppel and then Virginia Woolf.  The Violet affair is described in painstaking details, partly from Vita’s own diaries.  In the detail, we know and feel the pain and the conflict.  When Portrait of a Marriage was adapted for television, by  Penelope Mortimer, whom Nigel Nicolson describes as ‘somebody’s mother-in-law’, someone who had no time for ‘posh people’.  It is tempting to go for the juicy bit.  After all, sex is supposed to sell, isn’t it?  But this book is far deeper and more thoughtful than just sex.

I’m writing this on a train and Virgin Trains are letting me have only 15 minutes internet, so I’d better finish.  I’m stalling about the way I recommend books, so I’m changing the way I do it.  In future, I’m going to award stars, five being wonderful, one being awful.  For Portrait of a Marriage, I’m awarding FOUR.  It misses out on five because the end of the book, as Vita and Harold go into middle-age, drifts off a bit.   A very good read.

 

 

 

Book Reviews, Lack of

I try hSamuel_Johnson_by_Joshua_Reynolds_150ard to make my posts interesting, relevant, witty, topical and otherwise SEOgenic, but this one is going to be boring.  Writers spend so much time writing to please… no, charm… editors etc that we have sometimes to allow ourselves some space to be ourselves and let go.  Dr Johnson wrote that ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money ‘  (Wikiquotes) but the truth is we don’t always.  To be spare you, however, this post will be short.

Back to the topic promised in the heading:  why no book reviews recently?  I can assure you that I haven’t stopped reading, nor have I spent over two weeks reading the last book posted up here.  I feel I’m writing too many book reviews and that, if I’m not careful, this will cease to be writing blog.  The other issue is that I haven’t read anything recently which I can give a positive review.  I wrote some time ago that I would be unstintingly honest in what I said about each book, but, on the other hand, I don’t want to pan another writer’s work – even the work of an established author.  I am just a scribbler (hardly a successful one), not an academic literary critic, who has spent years studying literature.  So my silence must speak for itself.

No, Dear Reader, I did not like what I saw:  involved and convoluted sentences (containing brackets) – and em dashes;  spelling and grammar mistakes; and words omitted.   Aren’t books proofread anymore?  Characters lacked… er… character, or were wooden caricatures.  Often none of the  characters in a whole novel were likeable, although every one contained some interesting insights.  Plots were muddled and unconvincing, ending far too quickly – suddenly, everything was all right again – although descriptive passages in all of them were well-written.   Next Tuesday, I’m going to see ‘The History Boys’ at The Mercury Theatre in Colchester, so I’m going to read the play first.   I may – or may not – write a review.