Book Reviews

‘The best moments in reading are when you come across something - a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things - which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours.’ Alan Bennett

“Many a book is like a key to unknown chambers within the castle of one’s own self.” ― Franz Kafka

Friday, 16 November 2012

A Humble Companion - Laurie Graham



Laurie Graham is one of those authors who has never let me down; while not deep and weighty, her books are none the less memorable for their lightness of touch, dryness of wit and their memorably entertaining characters. Her latest, A Humble Companion (published in June this year), is rather different from any of her previous books in that it is a historical novel, set in the England of King George III, although she uses the same technique employed to such great effect in Gone with the Windsors and The Importance of Being Kennedy, setting fictional characters and a fictional plot in the context of real life events and people.

The book's protagonist, Nellie Welche, is the daughter of the Prince of Wales's ice cream maker. At the age of 13 she is recruited to be "humble companion" to Princess Sophia - or Sofy as she becomes known to Nellie - the twelfth of King George's fifteen children: "My position in Sofy's life was an unusual one, the result of a royal experiment: a radical notion dreamed up by the most unradical of kings, old George, that his daughter should have a playfellow, a humble companion plucked from the ranks of ordinary people so that she might have a better understanding of the world."

For the rest of her days, Nellie's life is intertwined to a greater or lesser extent with that of Sofy and the other "Royalties", as Nellie calls them.  The chronicle of Nellie's long fictional life is played out against the dramatic national events of George III's reign, and the personal dramas of his rather grotesque offspring.  Thus Nellie witnesses the effects on the "Royalties" of the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, but also the effects of King George's increasing madness; of the licentiousness of the court and the sometimes bizarre sexual appetites of his various offspring, including Sofy's bearing of an illegitimate child; and of the King and Queen's increasing despair later in life at the apparent inability of any of their many children to produce a legitimate heir to the throne, culminating ultimately one year before the death of the King, in the birth of Alexandrina Victoria, only child of George III's fourth son, who later became Queen Victoria.  

Against this backdrop of historical events, Nellie's parallel fictional life has its own joys and tragedies, but throughout she maintains a healthy sense of perspective and accepts whatever life throws at her, whether good or bad, commenting on the events of her own life with the same dry wit and wryness that she directs at the national dramas and courtly shenanigans.  Ultimately the triumph of the novel is the character of Nellie herself, a wonderfully likeable, lively and entertaining narrator, summed up by her granddaughter as  "forebearing, impatient, retiring, outspoken, a cruel mimic, a kind friend, tough as an almond shell, and soft-hearted enough to give you the cloak off her shoulders." By the end this is exactly how the reader feels about her too.  Some of the other minor characters also do much to add colour to the narrative, especially Morphew, the Welches' marvellously plain-speaking manservant - "trusty coachman, begrudging footman, kitchen-table revolutionary... a kindly, sentimental man and a sniffing, scratching snub to my mother's genteel ambitions."  As ever with Laurie Graham's books, the primary interest is in the characters and Nellie and Morphew must be among her most memorable creations.  

If I have one small criticism of A Humble Companion, it is that it's not as laugh-out-loud funny as many of Graham's previous books - though it does have its moments!  In part I think this is because many of the "Royalties" are fairly shadowy figures in the book and, because they are quite grotesque, they are more caricatures than characters - although Googling the historical facts of George III's family suggests that this may not have been too far from the truth!  Partly too, I feel the history weighs slightly more heavily on this book than it did on Gone with the Windsors or The Importance of Being Kennedy: in many ways this was a dark and turbulent period and one of the clear conclusions you can draw from it is that life in the second half of the eighteenth century wasn't easy if you were female or royal.  On the flipside, because Graham skilfully weaves her fiction into a solid factual framework, I learned quite a lot of interesting detail, much of it surprising, about the Hanoverian royal family from this book and I did find myself scurrying off to the internet on several occasions to find out more.  In fact, ultimately, A Humble Companion is the sort of book I enjoy most - one that sheds new light on something and educates me, while thoroughly entertaining me at the same time. In other words, this is for me yet another winner from Laurie Graham and I shall again be watching out keenly for her next book.


Published by Quercus

Reviewed by Penny Tattersall - guest reviewer

A huge thank you to Penny for reviewing this novel for The Little Reader Library. Penny is a self-confessed 'chain-reader' who reads a variety of fiction and non-fiction and whose opinion I value greatly when choosing books. I met Penny via the Read It Swap It website. I am very much looking forward to reading this title myself now too. Lindsay. 

You can follow Laurie Graham on twitter @LaurieGraham47 and visit her website here.

Thank you very much to Bethan at Quercus for very kindly sending a copy of this novel. 

7 comments:

  1. Sounds like a great read. Will definitely have to check this one out soon. Great review.

    Kimberlee
    http://girllostinabook.blogspot.com

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  2. Love the concept of an "average citizen" thrown in amongst the royals!

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    1. Thanks for visiting Melissa. Yes that does sound good!

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  3. Hi there, the November edition of Books You Loved is live. Here is the link Books You Loved November Edition Please do pop by and link in a post about a book you loved. Maybe this one? Cheers

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  4. Sounds like an interesting reading. I so much admire writers of historical fiction - all that research - and love to read it!

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    1. Thanks for visiting and commenting Wendy.

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