21 April 2016

Lucy and Ricky

Lucy  by Ellen Feldman

Comments on two books recently read. Second started but first finished was the historical novel Lucy: A President, A Marriage, A Love Affair by Ellen Feldman. Clearly the beneficiary of in-depth familiarity with the historical documents, Feldman tells the story of the intimate relationship between Lucy Mercer and Franklin Roosevelt. Beginning with the hiring of Lucy in 1915 by Eleanor Roosevelt as what today we would call an administrative assistant (when her husband was Assistant Secretary of the Navy in the Woodrow Wilson administration) Feldman creates a plausible first-person account of a deeply emotional and physically intimate affair that continued until its discovery by Eleanor three years later.

Forced to end the affair to maintain the possibility of becoming president, Franklin nonetheless remained in contact with Lucy even after her marriage to a widower some years her senior. The FDR-Lucy (now Rutherfurd) relationship resumed something of its earlier intimacy as World War II dragged on with the disabling stroke and eventual death of Lucy's husband. The connivance of Anna Roosevelt, Franklin and Eleanor's eldest daughter, in enabling the resumption of her father's relationship helps explain why Lucy--and not Eleanor--was at FDR's side when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

A superbly told story as much of manners as the heart, Lucy demonstrates, on the one hand, the reality of a social world that is not so different from as our own as we might wish to believe and, on the other, the long-lost days when a discrete hypocrisy helped maintain the veneer of virtue. In that respect, much has been lost.

Media of Richard III
In contrast to the rich texture added by the author to the story of Lucy, Richard III; A Ruler and His Reputation by English historian and litterateur David Horspool hews closely to the discoverable facts of the life, times, and death of England's king best known through Shakespeare's portrayal as a tragi-comic villain. Horspool is clearly at home with all the bits and pieces of the documentary record of this period in English history (as well as that of the interested players of France, Burgundy, Normandy, and Flanders) in addition to the conclusions drawn from the relatively recent discovery of the remains of Richard himself beneath a parking lot in Leicester.

Horspool's care doesn't prevent him from drawing reasonable inferences from the available data and thus he assigns to Richard culpability for the deaths of his two young nephews who had rightful claims to the throne Richard had seized on the sudden death of his brother.

As with most contemporary historians, Horspool is as interested in the "history of the history" of his subject as he is with the man himself. Thus, throughout the book Horspool interweaves the generations of re-tellings of the story of Richard III. To my surprise, the distinctive blackening of Richard's reputation did not begin with Henry Tudor but a full generation later with Thomas More. Of course, even during his reign Richard had to contend with those who thought he was a murderous usurper but portrayals as a physical (and thus moral) cripple began in the times of Henry VIII. Indeed, not long after the accounts of "Richard the Degenerate" there were pro-Ricardian voices and it is their current incarnation as the Richard III Society that led to the discovery of his remains in 2012.

While hardly a romance of manners, Richard III is an excellent and accessible history of an era of political life far different from our "enlightened" world of politics framed by the media. Yet, as Horspool demonstrates with his account of the 2015 interment of Richard's remains, even today something of the romance of a bygone era continues to affect the public political psyche.

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