Monday, 30 April 2018
To win a copy of Katherine Roberts' Bone Music (see yesterday's post), answer this question in the Comments below
"If you had Borta's power to spirit-travel in the body of an animal, which animal would you choose and why?"
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Sunday, 29 April 2018
Our April guest is Katherine Roberts. Not only was Katherine one of the first History Girls; the book she talks about here, Bone Music, is published by The Greystones Press, the independent publisher set up by Mary Hoffman and her husband. Here is a photo that Katherine posed for on the occasion of the virtual launch of Bone Music and The Sword of Ice and Fire by John Matthews.
If that doesn't whet your appetite enough, here is a bit more about Katherine:
Katherine Roberts won the inaugural Branford Boase Award for her debut novel Song Quest (Chicken House/Scholastic 2000). Since then she has written many more fantasy and historical books for young readers, including the Seven Fabulous Wonders series based on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and I am the Great Horse, telling the story of Alexander the Great from the horse's mouth. She lives in Devon and is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Penryn in Cornwall.
A recent study of the genetic legacy of the Mongols suggests that 1 in 200 males alive in the world today are direct descendants of Genghis Khan. If you consider the infamous Mongolian warrior lived well into his sixties and took several wives as was the custom of his people, who between them bore him 11 legitimate children, and that he no doubt sired an unspecified number of illegitimate children as he built an empire four times the size of Alexander the Great's, this is not as surprising as it first seems. So who were the women in Genghis Khan’s life, and what did they think of the small boy, originally named Temujin, who grew into such a ruthless conqueror?
The quotes below are from my novel Bone Music, which is in turn based on a 13th century Mongolian text known as The Secret History of the Mongols (Chinese: Yuan Ch'ao Pi Shih) that combines legend and history to tell the story of Genghis Khan's early years.
Princess Borta (or Borte) – Genghis Khan’s childhood sweetheart and first wife.
We first meet the Khan's first and most important wife when she is 10 and Temujin is just nine. Temujin's father Yesugei the Brave, leader of the Mongol Alliance, rides with his eldest son across the steppe in search of a suitable girl. They find her in Dei the Wise’s camp, a chief blessed with beautiful daughters and rich herds. At this stage, Temujin and Borta's betrothal has the flavour of a royal wedding, with the camp's shaman joining the young people’s hands and calling on the spirits of their ancestors to bless the match:
“As the two chiefs linked our hands together with a chain of flowers, a strange shiver went through me and I wished they would let me have a drink, too. Our shaman blessed the union with his horsetail staff, which tickled, making me want to giggle. Apart from that idiot Jamukha throwing a stone at Temujin when he tried to kiss me, we got through it without too much embarrassment.” (‘Bone Music’, Borta’s Story)
Jamukha later becomes Temujin's blood brother, or anda. I used artistic licence in having Jamukha here at the start of the story, but historically the two boys became bitter rivals for the leadership of their people and, however their rivalry started, it was never going to end well.
In Bone Music, Borta also has a pet deer called Whisper, which she rescued from the forest and that later becomes her shaman-animal, carrying her spirit in reflection of the Mongol people's ancestors, Blue Wolf and Fallow Doe. Later, she fashions a violin from the skull of her deer and plays it in battle to call down a storm to frighten Jamukha's forces, while the other shamans play an imaginary version of the Mongolian horse-head fiddle known as a morin khur:
Behind the old men, my beautiful wife stood on a rock against the sky, her black hair loose to her waist, holding her delicate deer-bone violin. (Bone Music, Temujin’s Story.)
Horse head violins are still an important part of Mongolian culture, although these days the sounding box is usually made of wood rather than covered with horse hide, and the traditional horsehair strings have been replaced by nylon, leaving just the carving of a horse’s head on the neck of the instrument as a reminder of its legendary origin.
|Mizu basyo at Japanese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0|
Lady Hogelun – Genghis Khan’s mother.
Yesugei the Brave originally stole Temujin’s mother from the Merkid tribe when she was travelling to her wedding and made her his first wife, at the same time making bitter enemies of the Merkid people. When Yesugei is poisoned on his way back across the steppe from Temujin and Borta's betrothal ceremony, Hogelun immediately recalls her son from Dei the Wise’s camp and tries to get the Mongol Alliance to accept the boy as their new leader. But an ambitious chief called Kiriltuk takes advantage of Temujin’s youth to seize control of the Alliance, and drives the family out of his camp to die of starvation over the winter. However, Lady Hogelun (who is pregnant with Yesugei’s daughter at the time) has no intention of letting her sons die, and orders Yesugei's second wife to help her gather berries and dig for onions, until their boys are strong enough to bend their bows and hunt for meat. She also takes on the unenviable task of raising her sons to be honourable warriors - a job made difficult because Temujin and his eldest half-brother Begter are always at each other’s throats. When Temujin kills Begter after a violent quarrel that started over some fish their younger brothers had caught, a furious Lady Hogelun gives the boys the ‘old bundle of arrows' lesson:
“Snap it!” Mother said, handing Khasar one of my arrows. Khasar gave me an apologetic look, but obeyed. The shaft broke at once, and I groaned inwardly at the thought of having to whittle another one. Then Mother took five of my arrows and held them together in a bundle, which she passed to me. “Now you, Temujin,” she said, knowing very well I wouldn’t break them even if I could, because making good arrows to replace them would have taken me ages. After the bundle has been passed around all the boys, who in turn fail to break the arrows, Lady Hogelun presses her lips together and tells them sternly: “The broken arrow is Begter. These five are the rest of you, strong only if you stick together. Up here, we have no friends except our own shadows, and no whips except our horses’ tails, so you ungrateful horde of savages had better stop fighting each other if you want to live to see your children grow up!” (‘Bone Music’, Temujin’s Story)
This is a lesson Temujin takes to heart, and he later makes alliances with the other tribes in order to defeat his enemies.
Old Khoga – Borta’s servant.
When Temujin finally arrives to claim his bride, Borta’s mother (no doubt worried about her daughter in the young khan’s war camp) gives Borta one of her most trusted servants. Khoga is devoted to her young mistress and tries to save her when the Merkid raiding party attacks their camp while Temujin is away, after Borta falls off her horse and breaks her arm:
Old Khoga turned out to have more sense than any of us that morning. She had been following us along the track, seen me fall, and came puffing up the slope to help. She took one look at my arm, bundled me into the yak cart and pulled the sheepskins over me to hide me from the raiders. (‘Bone Music’, Borta’s Story).
Khadagan –warrior girl.
Some Mongol girls trained as warriors so they could ride and fight alongside their brothers. When Temujin is captive in Chief Kiriltuk’s camp awaiting punishment for killing his half-brother Begter, he persuades one of the braver girls to help him escape. Her name is Khadagan, and later she joins the rebellion among the Alliance families who defect to join Temujin. Towards the end of the story, Khadagan is entrusted with a message by the increasingly desperate Jamukha:
I needed a messenger who could get into Lady Borta’s yurt alone, someone Anda Temujin would trust. “Is that girl still around?” I asked Yegu. “The warrior girl who came to my tent the winter we spent with Kiriltuk’s Alliance? Send her to me.” Jamukha hopes to win Borta's aid by returning the skull of her pet deer, which he rescued from Temujin's camp following her capture by the Merkids but lost to a wolf. Needless to say, this does not go down well with Borta: The gift of the deer’s skull didn’t work out quite as I’d planned. Khadagan returned with news that Borta had given birth to a son, together with Borta’s threat that if I came anywhere near her or her child, she’d tell Temujin that I was the wolf. (‘Bone Music’, Jamukha’s story.)
Temulun – Temujin’s little sister, given a boy’s name to protect her from the evil spirits who steal babies from their mothers in the night.
Temulun was born in exile and grows up in a rough camp with her four brothers and remaining half-brother. She thinks she is a boy, but as the Khan’s sister she will be valuable for making alliances with other tribes through marriage when she grows up. Jamukha recognizes this and, in one of his attempts to remain in Temujin’s camp (and close to Borta), he asks his anda for the girl's hand in marriage.
“I was thinking of your sister, actually,” Jamukha said into the silence that had fallen between us and threatened to divide us again. “She’s strong and pretty, rides well too.” Temujin, who is still thinking of which Merkid bastard might have got his wife pregnant during her captivity in their camp, is caught completely unawares: “Be serious!” I said, realizing what he meant. “Temulun’s only nine!” (‘Bone Music’, Temujin’s story).
Upon which, Jamukha points out that Temujin was only nine when he was promised to Borta, rubbing salt into the still-raw wound. It might actually have been a good match when Temulun was old enough to marry, but by then the rivalry between Temujin and Jamukha had escalated beyond repair.
|Genghis Khan and three of his four sons|
Bone Music ends when Temujin becomes Genghis Khan and ruler of all the people who live in felt tents at a large gathering of the clans in 1206. After that, he goes on to conquer many other people, from the Chinese Kin and Sung people to the east, the ancient Tanghut people of northern Tibet, and the Moslem kingdoms to the west as far as Hungary and the Mediterranean coast. Along the way, he took other wives to cement alliances:
Yesugen and Yesui - Tartar sisters, who became good friends with Borta.
Ibaka - Kereyid girl, later given to one of Temujin's generals Jurchedei as a reward for service.
Gurbesu - Naiman girl.
Khulan - Merkid girl who accompanied the Khan on his western campaign.
Chaka - Tanghut girl.
Genghis Khan died in 1227 on campaign, possibly of sickness after a hunting accident when he took a fall from his horse. But there is another, more colourful, version of his death involving the wife of a Tanghut chief, whom he seized as spoils of war after killing her husband on his (second) Tanghut campaign.
Gorbeljin the Fair - Queen of the Tanghuts.
Ashamed that she has been violated by her people's enemy, she sends a message by bird to her father vowing to drown herself into the Black River. But first she washes herself until her beauty returns and shares Temujin's furs one last time, thus 'passing a mortal illness into his blood'. When the old Khan eventually falls asleep, Gorbeljin slips away and throws herself into the river as she has promised to do - although, in true legendary fashion, her body is never found.
Saturday, 28 April 2018
I’ve just come back from seeing a 21st century production of a 19th century operetta by the late, great Gilbert and Sullivan. The reason for my attendance at this event was because my oldest granddaughter, at university in St Andrews, was directing the show, so of course we went to support her, and had a thoroughly good time. We were most impressed by the talents and professionalism shown by the cast and the small group of musicians, and felt that our granddaughter had done a grand job in this, her first, directorial role. (Of course, we weren’t a bit biased!)
However, we couldn’t help wondering how relevant the story is today.
Princess Ida opened at the Savoy Theatre on 5 January 1884, the eighth of Gilbert and Sullivan’s fourteen collaborations. The opera satirises women’s education and Darwinian evolution, which were controversial topics in conservative Victorian England, but Gilbert was also aiming his satire squarely at Women’s Emancipation. When Princess Ida was revived in 1926, The Times said: “It was after the fairies of Iolanthe had wrought havoc in the British Constitution that Gilbert turned to the companion task of showing how fatal it would be if women ever presumed to be anything but fairies, and cocking a cynical eye at Tennyson’s Princess, wrote Princess Ida, or Castle Adamant.”
The Times was right, in that the story is based on a narrative poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson called The Princess (1847), written following the founding in the same year of the first college of women’s higher education, Queen’s College, London. In 1870, when women’s higher education was still a radical concept, Gilbert wrote a farcical musical play, based on the poem, also called The Princess, and subsequently lifted much of the dialogue of Princess Ida directly from his 1870 farce. However, Girton College, Cambridge, had been established in 1869, and by the time Gilbert and Sullivan collaborated on Princess Ida in 1883, the idea of a women’s college was no longer considered revolutionary. Indeed, Westfield College, the University of London’s first women’s college, which had opened in 1882, is cited as the model for Castle Adamant, and certainly women’s higher education was very much in the news in London at the time.
Based, as several of Gilbert’s plots are, on misunderstandings, children married or affianced at an early age and brought up with no knowledge of each other, and a certain amount of cross-dressing, mistaken identities and so on, at first sight Princess Ida would seem to have little relevance to the world of today. (Mind you, some of Shakespeare’s plays, such as Twelfth Night, involve similar problems, so maybe we shouldn’t blame Gilbert too much!)
It is hard to tell the story of Princess Ida simply, but I will try. The story concerns the young Prince Hilarion, who was married at the age of one to Princess Ida, a few months younger than he. Since then they have never seen each other, but now Hilarion is 21, his father, Hildebrande, insists that it is time he claimed his bride. However, when Ida’s father, Gama, arrives with his three sons, he tells Hildebrande that Ida has forsworn the world of men and formed an all-female university at Castle Adamant. Indeed, he says, “No men are allowed within its walls, and it is so feminist an establishment that although the ladies rise at cockcrow, every morning the crowing is done by an accomplished hen”.
Naturally, this being G&S, Hilarion and his friends, Florian and Cyril, decide to break into Castle Adamant dressed as women and impersonate female students, hoping to persuade Ida to change her mind. Princess Ida is intrigued by these three “new students” and feels a strange connection with Hilarion. However, Florian’s sister Psyche recognises them and explains the philosophy of the university to them: namely, that women are superior to men and should rule the world in their stead. But having by now taken a fancy to Cyril she promises to keep their secret, and warns them to avoid Lady Blanche, who originally helped Ida form the university but now wishes she was in charge herself. Then Melissa, Lady Blanche’s daughter, arrives, discovers their secret and falls in love with Florian, so that when Lady Blanche sees the boys and guesses their secret immediately, Melissa convinces her that if she helps Hilarion to gain his love, Ida will leave Castle Adamant to marry him and leave the university to Lady Blanche. This is music to Lady Blanche’s ears, so she agrees to help the boys.
But just as all is about to go well, Hildebrande arrives with his army and threatens to kill Ida’s father unless the princess agrees to marry Hilarion. Ida refuses, and rousing her students to fight the male invaders, declares that she will die before she will be Hilarion’s wife.
As the army lays siege to Castle Adamant, Ida prepares her students to fight them, but soon discovers that the girls are not too keen on the idea of fighting all these young men. She is distressed by her students’ betrayal of all she has taught them, so when her father, Gama, and her three brothers arrive, Ida agrees to allow them in.
Her three foolish brothers, having just removed their armour as being too heavy and uncomfortable, challenge Hilarion, Florian and Cyril to a battle to decide Ida’s fate, but are roundly defeated.
Hilarion then makes an emotional appeal to Ida, pointing out all he has learned about women and marriage during his time at Castle Adamant, and declaring his love. Moved, Ida admits that she does love him, so she accepts him as her husband and, along with Psyche and Melissa, leaves the university, leaving a delighted Lady Blanche to rule over Castle Adamant.
It remains one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s less frequently performed operettas, but retains much of their perennial charm. However, I do wonder what Gilbert would have thought of it being performed by students of both sexes at a mixed university!
Friday, 27 April 2018
Oxford has one of Britain’s best outdoor swimming pools. Surrounded by trees and blossom with a view of distant hills between the flowering bushes, Hinksey Outdoor Pool is one of Oxford’s special summer places. When it opens at 7 a.m., local residents arrive in their swimming costumes and dressing gowns. After a few lengths they stroll home for breakfast, and are replaced by laughing schoolchildren, grannies like me getting fit and everyone in between. And it is all thanks to cholera.
Oxford from Hinksey Hill, by William Turner of Oxford, 1789-1862, painted c.1840.
The railway line and swimming pool are now beyond the two bushes on the right.
|Contaminated 'Monster Soup' flowed through Oxford in the River Thames.|
Better times began for the residents of Oxford when in 1844 the Great Western Railway line was constructed from London, terminating in south Oxford near Hinksey village. Railways need a lot of gravel, and there was plenty in Hinksey. So a vast quarry was dug, which soon filled with fresh spring water. When in 1854 the connection between drinking water and cholera was made, the City of Oxford spotted an opportunity to bring health to their people, and bought the new lake and land around it from the Earl of Abingdon. They then built a pumping station powered by steam engines, which served the local residents during the day with clean water. If a fire broke out at night, a policeman woke the boilerman who fired up the pumps. To ensure the water was not contaminated, the Waterworks Committee kept animals and people out with high fences and to inspire confidence in the quality of the water, the land was landscaped with trees and neat hedges. However, the Oxford photographer Henry Taunt complained of the number of freshwater shrimps coming out of his taps, and mussels regularly blocked the valves in the fire brigade’s engines.
So in 1884, after a law was passed that drinking water had to be filtered, huge water tanks and filter beds were dug near the lake and a dozen men were employed at the improved water works. Filtering sand was dredged from the river, while coal brought in carts from canal barges was then taken away as ashes. By 1934, Oxford’s population had risen to over 80,000 and Hinksey could not supply enough water. It now all came from Swinford Water Works, 5 miles west of Oxford. The Water Committee handed over the lake, land, pumping station and filter beds for recreation. The pumping station is still South Oxford Community Centre; Hinksey Lake is popular for swans, fishing and junior rowers; the cooling pond is used by ducks, model boat enthusiasts and in cold winters, skaters; and Hinksey Park has tennis courts, football and a playground.
|The new diving board at Hinskey Pools, 1936.|
But best of all was the Jubilee Pools which opened in 1935, the 25th year of King George V’s reign. The filter beds were converted into three swimming pools and two changing rooms were built – one for men, one for women and children. On the opening day, children from St Matthew’s Infant’s School were invited to sing to Alderman Brown, the Mayor of Oxford. ‘The Jubilee Pools had no fences around them, just the pools,’ recalled Peter Horwood one of the schoolboys. ‘You put your swimming costume on in the morning when you got up, go and have a swim, play in the fields out the back, then go and have another swim. It was all free.’ During the Second World War, the pools were closed and the RAF used them for dinghy and life-saving practice. After a drowning accident in 1958, fences were erected and adult swimmers charged 1 shilling (5p) and children sixpence (2p). Individual changing huts were also installed with a balcony above for spectators.www.janiehampton.co.uk
|Hinksey Pools in 1965. copyright Oxfordshire County Council.|
In 1960 a roof top café opened, but by 1990 the season lasted only 6 weeks and the pool closed in 1994 when the filter system broke down.
Bob Price is retiring this May after 35 years as Labour Councillor for Hinksey Park ward. He told me that his proudest achievement has been the refurbishment of Hinksey Pool. Since it reopened in 1997, two of the filter pools have been filled in and grassed over for sunbathing, the heated pool (temp 25oC) now has a shallow area for children and a deeper section for serious swimmers, clean individual changing rooms, hot showers, and on sunny days a café serving cappuccino, panini and ice cream. On cold days, the pool steams and swimmers are rewarded with free hot chocolate. When the moon is full the pool stays open until midnight. Bliss.
The Changing Faces of South Oxford and South Hinksey, Book 2, Carole Newbigging, Robert Boyd Publishing, 1999.
The Changing Faces of South Oxford and South Hinksey, Book 2, Carole Newbigging, Robert Boyd Publishing, 1999.
Thursday, 26 April 2018
The month of Messidor, from the Latin 'messis', corn harvest.
I have lived in France for over thirty years and I am ashamed to admit that I have only just discovered the Republican Calendar. Am I alone in this ignorance?
On the 6th October 1793, or 15 Vendémiaire, An II, the Convention decided to create a new calendar for a new Republic, fixing the start date as the day when the Republic was proclaimed, namely the autumn equinox, 22nd September 1792.
The seven-day week was replaced by a ten-day one called a 'decade'. The day names were changed to primidi (day one), duodi, tridi, quartidi, quintidi, sextidi, septidi, octidi, nonidi and décadi.
Months were made up of three decades (or thirty days). They year ended after Fructidor with 5 supplementary days and a 6th, Day of the Revolution, for leap years.
The French poet, Philippe François Nazaire Fabre, created names for the months. His inspiration came from the seasons and events in Nature. The Republican Calendar began its year in the autumn with the month of Vendémiaire. Vendage in French or vindemia in Latin is the grape harvest.
The names given for each month are really beautiful.
Names were also given to each day of the year and they were chosen from trees and flowers, plants, animals and farm tools.
Alas, Napoleon I who, of course, was not in favour of a Republic abolished this newly-devised calendar in 1806 and returned us to the Gregorian one.
23rd April 2018, is quintidi (day 5) Floréal in the year of CCXXVI, celebrating the nightingale. Nightingale Day in the Flowering month of 226th year.
My birthday, 22nd April, was celebrating the hawthorn.
I have taken these beautiful designs off their Twitter page, @, so I hope I am not abusing any copyright.
A beautiful way to count the days of our life, eh?
Wednesday, 25 April 2018
As a novelist, I’ve never doubted that fictional characters are real; we all know what we mean when we refer to Sherlock Holmes, Hamlet, Mr Micawber or Lizzie Bennett. It gets more complicated when fictional characters interact with historical facts.
Puccini’s Tosca is one of my favourite operas and for many years I simply responded to the glorious music, accepting the romantic and melodramatic plot on its own theatrical terms. The photo above shows Enrico Caruso as the painter Cavaradossi, Tosca's lover. Tosca is set in Rome in 1800 and the novel I’m writing at the moment is set in Rome in 1805. Seeing the opera again recently, I wanted to know more about its political and historical background. Was there really a villainous chief of the secret police called Scarpia and an irresistible diva called Tosca? No, is the short answer, but the story of how they gathered enough imaginative moss to still fascinate us in the 21st century is an interesting one.
Puccini's grandfather, Domenico Pucccini, was in Naples in January 1799 to study with the composer Paisiello. He wrote a long letter to his father describing the chaos as the Queen, Maria Carolina, who had vowed to avenge the death of her sister Marie Antoinette, encouraged the massacre of all Jacobins and Republicans. "Here we are then in the most detestable anarchy, with everyone in mortal danger, especially we poor foreigners, who, if heard speaking differently, are immediately called "Jacobin" and given a shotgun "pill" in the chest—not the most pleasant medicine in the world." This is the same Queen who, in the opera Tosca, has asked the famous singer to perform at the Te Deum at the Palazzo Farnese to celebrate a great victory at Marengo. Later, news comes that Marengo was in fact a victory for Napoleon. In the opera, as in my novel, Napoleon is an invisible presence, seemingly invincible, who the characters argue over.
As well as these stories Puccini must have heard as a child, about the revolutionary martyrs who were burned and tortured by reactionary royalists, his opera is based on a play by Sardou, La Tosca.
This was written as a vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt and became a huge international success in the late nineteenth century. Shaw despised Sardou’s melodramas, which he referred to as Sardoodledom, but audiences loved them. Sardou’s grandfather had been a barber in Napoleon’s army and for his grandson, as for Puccini, it was the revolutionaries who were admirable. In Act 1 of the opera Cesare Angelotti has escaped from the dungeons of Castel S. Angelo, the round building below, and is hiding in the church where Cavaradossi is painting.
Tosca herself, in both the play and the opera, is devout and disapproves of such wickedness as atheism and reading Rousseau and Voltaire. But, because she is passionately in love with the painter Mario Cavaradossi, she forgives his sinful politics. Tormented by jealousy, she follows her lover to Angelotti’s hiding place and Scarpia, of course, has her followed. Later, in the Castel S. Angelo, while Mario is tortured in the next room, she agrees to sleep with Scarpia in return for a safe conduct pass to take both Mario and herself out of the Papal States. Scarpia pretends to her that he will arrange a fake execution for Mario at dawn and then allow them to go free. As Scarpia bears down on her to demand his reward, Tosca stabs him.
Although Sardou’s play is far too long for modern audiences - at 5 Acts compared to the opera’s 3 - it does expand interestingly on the politics and motivation of the characters, and gives us a powerful feeling of the danger of the times We learn that Angelotti has been sentenced to three years in prison for possessing a volume of Voltaire and also, unofficially, for recognising Lady Hamilton, who he picked up as a prostitute in Vauxhall Gardens years before. In fact, the lovely Emma did play a most unlovely role in Naples during the bloody period following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. An intimate friend of Queen Maria Carolina, she had herself rowed out to watch a famous republican being hanged from the yardarm of his own ship. We also learn from Sardou that clothes were intensely political and could be a matter of life and death: if you wore a powdered wig and buckled shoes you were a royalist; if you had a beard or a mustache and plain dark clothes you were assumed to be free thinking and revolutionary.
Puccini’s opera has a rich historical background. Italy had long been divided into a number of small states, with the Pope in Rome ruling the Papal States in central Italy. After the French Revolution, in 1798, a French army under Napoleon marched into Rome, where there was no real resistance from the very unmartial Romans. The Pope, Pius V1, was taken prisoner and transported to France. where he died a year later at the age of 81. The short lived Roman republic was ruled by seven consuls and, in the opera, Angelotti was one of them. However, many ordinary Roman people hated their new rulers and mocked La Repubblica per Ridere ( the ridiculous republic).
Although the Pope was an absolute monarch the Church was generous to the poor. Very few Romans starved, and they did not want to be ‘liberated from slavery.’ Some aristocrats, including the Borghese family, were happy to compromise with the French. They were told to make a list of their valuables and anyone who opposed the Republic had all their possessions and property confiscated. Napoleon himself never came to Rome and soon found that he needed his troops in Egypt. So, after only a year, the Republic came to an end. As someone says in Sardou’s play, the French left Rome by one gate and the Neapolitans entered by another. Both armies looted shamelessly and many of Rome’s most cherished works of art, including the Apollo Belvedere and The Laocoon, ended up in Paris, in the new Muséum central des arts de la République in the Louvre.
As always, there is another point of view. The Catholic novelist Piers Paul Read has written a fascinating novel, Scarpia (2015) which is written with great sympathy for those who were loyal to the monarchy and the church. In his version of the same story, Scarpia is a decent, honest Sicilian nobleman who despises revolutionaries. At the end of Puccini’s opera Tosca, after stabbing Scarpia to defend her honour, finds that her lover Mario really is dead. She leaps heroically to her death from the battlements of the Castel S. Angelo, crying, ‘O Scarpia, avanti a Dio!’ ( O Scarpia, we meet before God).
I hope it is forgivable to reveal such a famous ending. At the end of Read’s accomplished novel, however, Tosca is confronted by Scarpia’s devoted friend, Spoletta:
“‘You vile whore,’ he shouted. What did you hope for? To escape? To claim a crime of Passion? An appeal to the Rota? A pardon from the Pope? Is that what you imagined?’
Then, “Spoletta took seven strides to the castellated ramparts, lifted her high above his head, and threw Floria Tosca over the wall.”
And so we storytellers play with fiction and history, often to the annoyance of professional historians.
Tuesday, 24 April 2018
|Mummy. Les Livres des Simples Medecines.|
To go with your tutty, you might want another spice for your supply chest called 'momie', 'mumia' or 'mumm'. A drug handbook of 1166 defines 'mummy' as a kind of spice collected from the tombs of the dead. This doesn't mean thousands of years old Egyptian mummies as we might imagine, but slightly more recent embalmed corpses that still have a bit of give in them. A 15th century treatise, the Livres des Simples Medecines, tells us that it is 'A spice or confection found in the tombs of people who have been enbalmed with spices as they used to do in ancient times, and as the pagans near Babylon still do. This mummy is found near the brain and the spine. You should choose that which is shining black, bad-smelling and firm. There was another kind which was opaque, white, and easily crumbled to powder, which should be rejected. The Livres illustration for the product apparently depicts a corpse in an open coffin.
Mummy was thought to be efficacious in the prevention of nosebleeds when combined with the juice of a plant called 'shepherd's purse'. Indeed, its main function was to stop bleeding. If a person was spitting blood because of injury or malady, they were advised to put a mummy pill under the tongue, the latter made from mummy, mastic powder and water in which gum arabic had been dissolved.
The full magnificent Livres des Medecines can be accessed by clicking on this link:
Posted by Elizabeth Chadwick at 00:30
Monday, 23 April 2018
|photo by Herbert Rose Barraud|
Like most people, I expect, I first encountered her through her children's work; rather curiously, I heard of 'The Secret Garden' when I read Noel Streatfeild's 'The Painted Garden.' Clearly this was the wrong way round. I'd heard of Little Lord Fauntleroy, as a term of abuse and contempt, I'm afraid. I read 'The Secret Garden, then 'A Little Princess', and finally I found Fauntleroy, in an early 20th century edition, in a second hand bookshop on the other side of the river from where we lived in Kendal, when I was about thirteen. So I read Fauntleroy when I had almost left children's books behind, (you got an adult library ticket at the age of fourteen, and most of my books came from the library: I could never otherwise have financed my reading habit.)
Frances Hodgson Burnett had an interesting and difficult life, which I don't wish to recount in detail, but in brief, she was born in Manchester, where her father lost all his money. The family then emigrated to Tennessee, where they lived in poverty. Like Louisa May Alcott and her fictional Jo March, Burnett began writing stories for magazines, and earned money for the family that way. She had an up-and-down financial life, but continued to be self-sufficient and to support her family. She had two sons, one of whom died young of TB, and two disastrous marriages. The first ended in divorce, after years of living apart; the second was an abusive relationship and her husband, an English actor, blackmailed her into the marriage. She finally got the courage to get rid of that second husband.
Out of an incredibly prolific output, I'm going to talk about four books. I shan't talk about 'Making of a Marchioness' because it's pretty well known, and if I do ever blog about it, I'd like to give it a blog all to itself.
'The Shuttle' deals with marriages between American heiresses and British aristocrats, and it begins with a rather ineffectual American heiress, Rosalie Vanderpoel, who marries a British aristocrat and waster, is taken back to his dilapidated house in the country and his horrific mother, and is bullied into signing over all her money to Sir Nigel. He also cuts her off from her family. Her younger sister, Bettina, is cast in a different mould; a strong woman, who, when she comes of age, announces to her father that she's going to England to find out what has happened to her sister.
She finds a woman who has been physically and emotionally abused, a shadow of the pretty sister Bettina once knew, However, with her father's money and her own force of personality, Bettina renovates the house for her young nephew, and when Sir Nigel returns, stays on to defend her sister against him. She also finds a love interest on her own account. That's enough about the plot, to avoid spoilers.
What interested me was that this subject matter could find readers in the Victorian era, and the issue of domestic abuse (which arises in 'The Making of a Marchioness' too, is in no way softened. One of the most powerful passages in the book occurs when Vanderpoel senior becomes aware that Bettina has fallen in love, which, given his eldest daughter's experience, cannot be called a risk-free option.
'If a man who was as much a scoundrel, but cleverer - it would be necessary that he should be much cleverer - made the best of himself to Betty - ! It was folly to think one could guess what a woman.. would love. He knew Betty, but no man knows the thing which comes, as it were, in the dark and claims its own - whether for good or evil. He had lived long enough to see beautiful, strong-spirited creatures do strange things.' Hodgson Burnett knew herself to be such a strong woman, and knew that even such a woman could fall into the hands of an abusive partner.
|Burnett when older: Library of Congress|
|From A Little Princess, my copy,|
'The Head of the House of Coombe' was published in 1922, Burnett's last novel. A feather-headed young woman from Jersey marries a young Englishman who has no money and, apparently, less sense. They have a baby, who she ignores. She lives a life of extravagance, fashion, and debt, and her husband then dies. The servants disappear and she's left on her own till one of her aristocratic friends, a rather strange Marquis, bails her out financially. The world then supposes she's his mistress. She isn't. Her neglected little girl meets a kindly boy in the Park, and plays with him several times, but when his mother discovers who little Robin is, she takes the boy back to Scotland to save him from the taint. Subsequently, Lord Coombe discovers that Robin is not only neglected but abused, and he dismisses her nursemaid and gets her a loving one, gets her educated, builds her a delightful extension to live in, still in the house of 'Feather', which is her mother's nickname.
One can easily recognise elements from the children's books here: Feather strongly resembles Mistress Mary's neglectful mother, and Robin, like Sara Crewe, is consigned to a garret till rescued by a masculine well-wisher, and installed in pleasant rooms, Coombe does not, however, adopt Robin. There's a second volume, apparently, but I haven't read it.
I was interested in this recurrence of the emotionally absent mother. Burnett was not a huge success as a mother; partly because she had to work so hard. Her boys were left behind, missing her, when she voyaged to England to promote her books. Letting it be known that her second son, Vivian, was the inspiration for 'Fauntleroy' wasn't the best move any mother ever made, either. When Lionel was dying of TB in Paris, she went away during his last days to refresh herself in England; she did get back before he died. I don't wish to be judgemental about that. But afterwards she wallowed in grief; remained in England while Vivian wrote letters to her begging her to come to him. He was naturally, grieving greatly for his beloved elder brother. What really stuck in my gullet was her letter to him, telling him that all his needs had always been met, and she had to devote herself to a foundation for poor boys that she had set up in London. Here, she sounds like Mrs Jellaby in 'Bleak House', and though much about Mrs Jellaby makes me wince, I can understand some of what Dickens was lampooning. I do wonder whether Burnett was aware of any element of 'Feather', or Mistress Mary's mother, in herself. Perhaps not. Neither Feather nor Mrs Lennox indulged in philanthropy.
The reason I haven't read the second volume of this novel is the hideous jingoistic subplot of the novel, complete with evil Prussian spies (one of whom wants to rape Robin, and she's rescued only in the nick of time.) Burnett, looking back, characterises the Germany of that time as a nation that believed 'that the world has but one reason for existence - that it may be conquered and ravaged by the country that gave them birth.' Flip back to 'The Shuttle' and consider this passage.
'I believe you would always think about doing things,' said Lady Anstruthers. 'That is American, too.'
'It is a quality Americans inherited from England,' she said lightly, 'one of the results of it is that England covers a rather large share of the map of the world.'
Only of course, Hodgson Burnett didn't see the British Empire as anything but benevolent. I think further comment is unnecessary.
|Illustration from 'That Lass o'Lowries'.|
I approached 'That Lass o' Lowries' with some trepidation, because it's full of north-country dialect and though I'd found bits of it quite acceptable in 'The Secret Garden,' I wasn't sure how well I could manage large quantities of dialogue written in it. In fact, it didn't cause me any problems at all, and I honestly think this novel is the best of her adult work. It deals with one of the women who worked underground in the mines. At school I was shown pictures of them dragging trucks along rails underground, acting as beasts of burden, and they were represented to me as pitiable. Joan Lowrie, the heroine of the novel, is a different creature.
'The man's jacket of fustian, open at the neck, bared a handsome sun-browned throat' (though one does wonder how she managed to get it sun-browned, working long hours down the pit). 'The man's hat shaded a face with dark eyes that had a sort of animal beauty, and a well-moulded chin.'
Joan is a woman of character, though she is often physically abused by her no-good father. She shortly takes in an unmarried mother of a small baby who was seduced and kept, till she became pregnant, by the son of a local squire. Liz is one of those weak counterparts to the strong female lead who I've observed in other novels. Joan protects Liz, though she's sometimes irritated by her, and drives the pompous parson out when he comes to moralise at the poor girl.
'Does tha see as tha has done her any good?' she demanded, 'I dunnot mysen.'
'I have endeavoured to the best of my ability to improve her mental condition,' the minister replied.
'I thowt as much,' said Joan. 'I mak no doubt tha'st done thy best, neyther. Happen tha'st gi'en her what comfort tha had to spare, but if you'd been wiser than yo' are, you'd ha' let her alone.'' And she sends him off with: 'Howivver, as tha has said thy say, happen it'll do yo' fur this toime, an' yo' can let her be for a while.'
Joan Lowrie is one of several characters in the novel who can see patronising hypocrisy for what it is, and have no hesitation in speaking their mind about it. I did find the working-class characters convincing and well-drawn, though there are traces of patronage in the portrayal, but far less than one would fear to discover. Perhaps this is because Burnett herself had been desperately poor, and must have had to do with working-class children in Tennessee. But Joan is right up there with Elizabeth Gaskell's working-class heroines, or some of George Eliot's women. Tough, yet kindly, and less ferocious that Clorinda in 'A Lady of Quality,' she has a quality of genuineness, and you can't help but love her. I do recommend this book.
|Photo: project Gutenberg|