Review – Just a Girl

Just A Girl – Jane Caro

University of Queensland Press, 2011

The daughter of England’s beloved King Henry VIII, it would seem Princess Elizabeth is destined for greatness. Yet life at court is a chancy one, and before the age of four she has lost both mother and title, declared a bastard like her older sister Mary before her. The best she can hope for from her father is to be remembered. She is, after all, just a girl, and the king is obsessed with siring a male heir. But a time of change is coming, and whether she wishes it or not, Elizabeth will be at the centre of a new age.

It’s no secret I am a passionate Elizabeth fan and I don’t entirely agree with Caro’s perception of the princess, painting her as more insecure and less politically adept than I believe she really was. The structure of the novel didn’t always work well for me either, particularly at the beginning, shifting about from one time period to another without letting the reader take in the setting. Just a Girl does cover a large part of Elizabeth’s life, from childhood to coronation, and I really appreciated the focus Caro paid to the incredibly complex relationship between Elizabeth and Mary. From no queens to three – it’s a fascinating period of history. Elizabeth’s story continues in Just a Queen.

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The Sharazad Project: Week 36

Trigger warning: reference to incest

Last week Nuzhat al-Zaman – secret enslaved princess and loquacious philosopher, recently married to her estranged brother – was asked to share her views on etiquette and had a lot to say. During night sixty two, she expounds on her theme with a new segue set in the caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, where someone called Mu’aiqib is treasurer. Night sixty three opens with him, for unknown reasons, giving the caliph’s son a dirham (that being a silver coin of moderate value). Later, Mu’aiqib is sent for by the caliph himself, who sits holding the coin accusingly. “On the Day of Resurrection,” ‘Umar declares, “this dirham will involve you in a dispute with the people of Muhammad – may God bless him and give him peace.” How does he know this? He’s a caliph. He doesn’t have to tell you, and he won’t.

Someone called Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (Nuzhat al-Zaman thinks that introductions are for lesser storytellers and just throws in new characters when she likes) is in charge of distributing money between public works (or so I assume, the phrasing is very vague) and ‘Umar’s personal savings. He must do a decent job because when ‘Uthman (I’m assuming that’s ‘Umar’s son?) becomes caliph, Abu Musa stays in the same position. One day, someone called Ziyad accompanies him to watch the division of monies. I haven’t a clue who Ziyad is or why he’s there, but when he sees the caliph’s son take a dirham from the collected money he bursts into tears. The caliph asks him what’s wrong. “I brought the tax money to ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab,” Ziyad explains, “and his son took a dirham. His father ordered that it be snatched from his hand, but when your son does the same, I don’t see anyone saying anything or taking it away from him.”

So is ‘Uthman caliph of a different area? Are these men contemporaries? I’ve read some confusing segues for this project, but this one is a downright mess.

Someone else is introduced at this point, Zaid ibn Aslam, to share an anecdote of ‘Umar’s reign. He may be ‘Umar’s son; he may not. The way he tells it, one cold night ‘Umar had a King Wenceslas moment – seeing a campfire, he insisted on visiting the family of travellers sheltering by its warmth. A woman had placed an empty pot over the flames to keep her hungry children hopeful and quiet. Upon hearing of their plight, ‘Umar sent Zaid ibn Aslam off to the palace to collect supplies and they returned with the ingredients for a simple, filling meal. The children ate; satisfied, ‘Umar went on his way.

‘Umar is apparently a bit of a saint. Night sixty four expounds on his acts of generosity. He once bought a slave who refused to sell him a sheep, because he trusted in the man’s honesty. He dressed roughly and ate simply while his servants were given fine things, and valued acts of courage over familial affection. “One year I prayed God to let me see my dead father,” ‘Umar’s son says, “and I saw him, wiping sweat from his forehead. ‘How is it with you, father?’ I asked. ‘Had it not been for the mercy of God, your father would certainly have perished,’ he replied.”

I give up on these people. I don’t even know who is alive and who isn’t.

Fortunately, Nuzhat al-Zaman moves on to different anecdotes. She has impressive stamina but dubious coherency. I don’t even know how to summarise the disjointed little anecdotes and quotes she’s throwing all over the place. Now she’s telling us about ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, another socialist caliph who gives over all his private wealth to the public treasury. The Umaiyads – I’m going to assume they are his family – appeal to his aunt Fatima, asking her to talk some sense into the man. The ensuing visit starts awkwardly because they both want the other to start first.

In night sixty five ‘Umar waffles at length about succession and metaphorical rivers – or perhaps they are not metaphorical, it’s hard to say. Speaking for all of us, Fatima gives up in disgust. She goes back to the Umaiyads and tells them, “Now you can taste the fruits of what you did by allying yourselves through marriage to ‘Umar.” I like you, Aunt Fatima.

Upon his death, the caliph summons his children and is reprimanded for leaving them without an inheritance. ‘Umar declares that either his children are obedient to God and are thus provided for, or are disobedient and deserve no help from him. GO TO AUNT FATIMA, KIDS. ‘Umar tells us about his religious dreams, which have left him with a terror of divine wrath. Nuzhat al-Zaman goes on to offer more anecdotes about what a god-fearing ruler ‘Umar was. During his reign a shepherd let wolves wander among his flock without incident, and ‘Umar once gave a sermon about how we are all dead, really, and I do like you very much, Nuzhat al-Zaman, but please get to the point.

So ‘Umar is still on his deathbed. He refuses to even have a pillow in case it is placed around his neck on the Day of Resurrection. (Why does he think God hates pillows? NO ONE KNOWS.) He faints and Aunt Fatima throws water over him until he rouses. When he tries to get up, annoyed by her concern, she physically holds him down and tells him that though she loves him, “we cannot all speak to you.” I think that’s another way of saying ‘you are impossible’.

And Nuzhat al-Zaman is still talking. Join me next week to find out if any of her audience are still conscious.

Focus 2014

This month FableCroft Publishing is releasing Focus 2014: highlights of Australian short fiction, an e-book only collection reprinting short stories by Australian writers that have received awards acclaim both here and overseas. I am tremendously honoured that my story ‘Signature’ was selected to appear alongside all these fabulous names!

St Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls by Angela Slatter
Wine, Women and Stars by Thoraiya Dyer
Vanilla by Dirk Flinthart
The Legend Trap by Sean Williams
The Seventh Relic by Cat Sparks
Death’s Door Café by Kaaron Warren
The Ghost of Hephaestus by Charlotte Nash
The Executioner Goes Home by Deborah Biancotti
Signature by Faith Mudge
Cookie Cutter Superhero by Tansy Rayner Roberts
Shadows of the Lonely Dead by Alan Baxter

For updates and more information, check the FableCroft website.

The Sharazad Project: Week 35

Trigger warnings: references to incest

Night fifty nine begins with a cunning plan courtesy of Princess Nuzhat al-Zaman, who has fallen into the hands of narrative misogyny and a social-climbing merchant. She has written to her father and entrusted the letter to her new ‘owner’, without him realising who she really is. Because the merchant thinks she’s backing up his ambitions with a personal recommendation to her old employer, he indulges her with a candle-lit meal and some very expensive clothes. When she walks with him on the street, people stop and stare. This happens a lot in Damascus.

Entering the palace of the Sultan Sharkan, the merchant presents Nuzhat al-Zaman as a gift, unaware that she is Sharkan’s little sister. Sharkan doesn’t know it either because he has a resentful, possessive temperament and saw his younger siblings as obstacles to power, which meant he didn’t really see them at all. He’s only ruling Damascus because he didn’t trust himself not to kill his rivals if he stuck around at home.

Sharkan is pleased enough with his gift to remunerate the merchant for Nuzhat al-Zaman’s purchase, and then some. He’ll never have to pay taxes again. As for Nuzhat al-Zaman, Sharkan frees her on the spot and simultaneously declares his intention to marry her. So he hasn’t actually freed her at all.

HOW DOES THIS STORY KEEP GETTING WORSE. HOW?

In night sixty, Sharkan decides to test the merchant’s claims, retreating behind a curtain to listen while Nuzhat al-Zaman is quizzed. First, however, the ladies of the court gather to congratulate Nuzhat al-Zaman on her engagement, and to assess her looks. They all fall for her charm. She takes charge like she was born to it (well, she WAS) and her new friends cannot stop complimenting her. “By God,” the ladies exclaim, “do not deprive us of your goodness and of the sight of your beauty.” She calmly accepts their devotion. From behind his curtain, Sharkan calls out a challenge, asking for proof of her education.

“O king,” she responds, “my first topic deals with administration and the conduct of kings, of how those charged with the supervision of religious law should act, and with what is acceptable in the way of qualities that they should possess.” She then proceeds to school everybody, talking about the responsibilities of government, the need for all people to take their just share from the world and how a king ruled by his personal desires is destined to ruin. Someone get rid of her father and put this gorgeous political mind on the throne, okay?

To further demonstrate her education, she refers to King Ardashir of Persia, who divided his government into four – well, we’d call them departments – Officialdom, Building, Abundance and Justice. Nuzhat al-Zaman continues with several brief anecdotes on the same theme, labouring the need for moderation, so as not to provoke either complacency or mutiny in one’s underlings. “There is a saying that no possession is better than intelligence,” she says, “and that intelligence is best found in resolute administration. There is no resolution to match piety: the best way to approach God is through a good character; culture provides the best balancing scales…good deeds are the best merchandise.” She goes on to point out even highwaymen need to act fairly with one another or they would get nowhere.

She talks for AGES. I’m summarising. Her audience are very impressed by her learning and eloquence, and ask for her opinions on etiquette. She responds with a segue about someone called Mu’awiya, who has a friend, and this friend has a great opinion on the people of Iraq. All of them? Apparently. Mu’awiya’s wife overhears the conversation and asks him to invite some Iraqis over to hear their wisdom. Someone called al-Ahnaf Abu Bakr ibn Qais is brought in for a chat. When asked what advice he has for his host, Abu Bakr replies, “Trim your moustache, cut your nails, pluck the hair from your armpits, shave your groin and use your toothpick constantly.” Well, that was blunt.

In night sixty two, he asks what advice Abu Bakr has for himself. Despite a great deal of prodding, Abu Bakr gives only one response: he acts with humility at all times, in all company. Mu’awiya wants to know if he behaves this way with his wife too. Abu Bakr doesn’t want to talk about his marriage, but is pressed for an answer. “I treat her good-naturedly and with obvious intimacy,” he says, and adds that he’s happy to spend money on things she wants. Mu’awiya has no sense of boundaries and demands to know the details of his guest’s sex life. Abu Bakr’s response boils down to, “…we have fun?” There’s a very welcome focus on his wife’s consent and pleasure. Mu’awiya admits that sounds like a good way to live, and Abu Bakr finishes up the round of wisdom-giving by advising his host to treat all his subjects justly.

Nuzhat al-Zaman appears to be enjoying herself. Which is fortunate, because she’s nowhere near done yet.