Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Blood and Roses: One Family's Struggle and Triumph During England's Tumultuous Wars of the Roses (2006)

The Pastons are sort of like neighbors you've never met, but see occasionally driving down the street or working in their yards, neighbors you are on nodding acquaintance with but have never actually talked to.  And when you finally get to talk to them, you find them to be delightful people.  If you read anything about the Wars of the Roses or the early Tudors, you are bound to run into the Pastons.  They usually don't get a whole book to themselves, particularly fiction, as their lives - or at least their letters - are remarkably normal, full of the kind of small family drama and love, and litigiousness, that make up the everyday lives of the majority of people.  I imagine they've lurked at the edges of fiction, used for research purposes to give characters authenticity.  Their letters are occasionally quoted by books of nonfiction about the era; they lives were representative of a class of people, and they were also swept up into the turbulence of the time on several occasions. 

 I know there is at least one other book about the Pastons, which I have not read.  I found this particular book to be a mixed bag of interesting and then ploddingly dull.  I think this could be Castor's fault as a writer, but more likely it's the lives of the Paston's themselves.   Most of the letters - and thus what we know of their lives - was taken up with legal matters related to estates and inheritances.  This can make for rather dull reading unless you reading about laws and lawyers of the 15th century.  But woven between all of this was the small soap opera that make up the lives of every family.  A father who thinks his eldest son is good for nothing; the hard mother who always sticks up for him; the daughter who runs away to marry a servant (Downtown Abbey, Wars of the Roses style); the love match between the second son and a local girl.  The backdrop to this is the actual wars of the roses, which injects into their lives on several occasions.  The Pastons were probably pretty typical in that their loyalty lay with whoever they thought could give them the best government, government in this case being who could help them win their cases in court for disputed property.  They were York when it suited them and Lancaster when it suited them, and were playing a dangerous game that probably many had to play.  Regardless, a bad king meant bad business; a stable government meant that land ownership was stable too; and back then land was money.

The  Pastons came out on top; one of the Pastons accompanied Henry VII when he took a retirnue to meet Catherine of Aragon when she arrived on English shores to wed Prince Arthur; the wealthy, aristo line of Pastons eventually died out, penniless. 


As Castor elegantly ends the book, the Pastons spent much of their time scrambling to acquire wealth and property.  They were very, very proud of their manors and a castle they (finally) acquired (with some battles, legal and otherwise, involved). They planned and built elaborate tombs for themselves too.  They thought through building, they would leave a lasting legacy, a mark.  It's like Shelley's "Ozymandias", that old chestnut we all have to read in high school.  The sands of times have buried the manor houses and castle of the Pastons (or more likely, flats and parking structures).  But what remains is what they probably considered almost a throwaway - their letters.  Their words have survived five hundred years and provided us a telescope through time.  Of course, it's through a glass darkly; we can't see every little detail about 15th century living. But the Paston letters give us a tantalizing picture of life in the late middle ages.


My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Pastons are sort of like neighbors you've never met, but see occasionally driving down the street or working in their yards, neighbors you are on nodding acquaintance with but have never actually talked to.  And when you finally get to talk to them, you find them to be delightful people.  If you read anything about the Wars of the Roses or the early Tudors, you are bound to run into the Pastons.  They usually don't get a whole book to themselves, particularly fiction, as their lives - or at least their letters - are remarkably normal, full of the kind of small family drama and love, and litigiousness, that make up the everyday lives of the majority of people.  I imagine they've lurked at the edges of fiction, used for research purposes to give characters authenticity.  Their letters are occasionally quoted by books of nonfiction about the era; they lives were representative of a class of people, and they were also swept up into the turbulence of the time on several occasions.

I found this alternating between incredibly interesting and ploddingly dull.  Other people's legal battles aren't really all that intriguing, when you get down into the details.

Relating the story of the Paston family aloud to someone who asks "what are you reading right now" was actually more fun than reading the book.


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