Sunday, 31 October 2010

Mr. Jefferson in Paris



"Are all men created equal, Mr Jefferson, or should this read 'all white men are created equal'?" 

So asks a French aristocrat in the 1995 movie Jefferson in Paris, gazing at the ambassador for the new United States with a slightly amused sneer.

Over at The Guardian newspaper, Alex von Tunzelmann reviews the movie, fifteen years after its release, commenting that its two leads "have the sexual chemistry of a pair of recalcitrant pandas." A phrase I found delightfully hilarious. Read the full review here. 

Over at Tea at Trianon, novelist Elena Maria Vidal comments on a recent article about how Mr. Jefferson, despite claiming to hate the decadence of pre-revolutionary French high society, was in fact secretly enthralled by it - especially its culinary delights. As always, it's the puritans you need to watch-out for... 
"Though disgusted by the excess of Parisian society, Jefferson couldn't help but be drawn to its art, architecture, music, food and wine. A man of contradictions (he was adamantly against slavery yet never freed his 200 slaves), Jefferson socialized with the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, and was known to host lavish dinner parties in his Parisian apartment on the Champs Elysees (Bordeaux was his wine of choice). He employed four French chefs and had his slave, James Hemings, learn the art of French cooking." 

Saturday, 30 October 2010

A new biography of Cleopatra

I have to say I agree with Elena Maria Vidal in being excited about Stacy Schiff's new biography of Cleopatra VII, the last Pharaoh of Egypt, whose suicide on August 12th 30 B.C. marked the capitulation of Egypt to Roman rule.

Interestingly, I can't help but feel that the late Roman Republic's obsession with fiscal virtue and its demonisation of Cleopatra's Egypt as "decadent" has a lot in common with the recent republican/Tea Party obsession with lambasting America's present elite, via the route of criticising people for being educated at an Ivy League university. This excellent education somehow allegedly makes them either a corrupting or alien influence. (Here's looking at you Christine O'Donnell and Glenn Beck...) The fact that many of the critics of "the elite" are themselves people who work in television, drive SUVs, have disposable incomes, take regular holidays, have private health insurance and send their children to private schools does not seem to have occured to them. They too are a long away from the economic reality most Americans live with. Not that they seem to be in anyway aware of this... too much self-reflection is alas apt to get in the way of a rant. Anyone who has ever seen Glenn Beck try to explain the Divine Right of Kings or medieval history on his show will attest that a knowledge of any elite - or indeed common sense - is not his in abundance ...

Equally, the ancient patriotic republican idea that Rome equated with virtue and hard-work, while the East was saturated with corruption, laziness, extravagance and moral degeneracy also seem to echo the Tea Party or radical Right's bizarre interpretation of "American values," in which the noun "European" has somehow become the political insult de jour and has been extended as a definition to include the entire north-east coast.

To quote Cleopatra's new biographer: -

"In the late republic, that outsized wealth impugned her morals. To wax eloquent about someone's embossed silver, sumptuous carpets or marble statuary was to indict him. In the Roman view, Cleopatra quite literally possessed an embarrassment of riches. This meant that every evil in the profligacy family attached itself to her. Well before she became the sorceress of legend—a reckless, careless destroyer of men—Cleopatra was suspect as a reckless, careless destroyer of wealth. Even if she never melted a pearl in vinegar, as legend has it, she could well afford to do so... Gulping down his envy with a chaser of contempt, a Roman found himself less awed than offended by Egypt. He wrote off extravagance as detrimental to body and mind, sounding like no one so much as Mark Twain, resisting the siren call of Europe many centuries later. Staring an advanced civilization straight in the face, the Roman dismissed it as either barbarism or decadence....  The divide between the civilized, virtuous West and the tyrannical, dissolute East began in part with Rome and its Egyptian problem. Cleopatra emerged as stand-in for her occult, alchemical land, the intoxicating address of sex and excess. She wielded power shrewdly and easily, making her that rarest of things: a woman who—working from an original script—discomfited the very male precincts of traditional authority. Two thousand years later, those tensions and anxieties have not relaxed their hold."

The full article can be read here and I would really recommend it. 

The new biography can be viewed here on Amazon.com

Thursday, 28 October 2010

"The Enchantments of Romance"

"There is no name in the annals of female royalty over which the enchantments of romance have cast such bewildering spells as that of Anne Boleyn." - Agnes Strickland, author of The Lives of the Queens of England 
Best-selling British historian, Alison Weir (above), reflects on the recent resurgence of interest in Anne Boleyn in an article published on The Anne Boleyn Files. Miss Weir has recently written three highly successful novels - Innocent Traitor, The Lady Elizabeth and The Captive Queen - but she is perhaps best-known for her non-fiction works, which include accounts of the mysterious death of the Princes in the Tower, the Wars of the Roses, the murder of Lord Darnley, the downfall of Anne Boleyn, the mid-Tudor monarchy, and the Tower of London, as well as biographies of the six wives of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry VIII, Isabella of France and Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.

The Queen and the Tsarina

"Both women were vilified in ways that transcended all reality by their political enemies. In order to pull apart a family, destroy the image of the mother; in order to bring a nation into revolution, then destroy the reputation/ image of the queen/ empress, who was the mother figure of the people. If they could convince the people that the queen/empress was evil and that the king/tsar was an idiot, then it meant the children were no good and the entire family should be gotten rid of. It was a deliberate ploy. Antoinette and Alexandra are tragic because no matter what they did it played into the hands of their enemies.  The Great Catherine outwardly had lovers and no one held it against her and she was loved by the people. Napoleon's Josephine spent more money on clothes in one year than Marie-Antoinette did in her entire life and yet Josephine was popular with the French people. "
- Elena Maria Vidal, author of Trianon, Madame Royale and The Night's Dark Shade
Via the blog The Sword and the Sea comes a report of a recent online debate on the Alexander Palace Forum debating who was more maligned - Marie-Antoinette, Queen of France (1755 - 1793) or the Empress Alexandra of Russia (1872 - 1918.) American novelist, Elena Maria Vidal, herself the author of two novels based on the lives of Marie-Antoinette's family, offers a judiciously even-handed comparison of both women.

The Tsarina's demonisation by the opponents of the Russian monarchy is tragic, as is the breakdown of her own health in the years after 1905. However, in terms of picking who was the more unfairly traduced, my own sympathies would probably lie on the side of Marie-Antoinette. One gains the impression that she was certainly the "nicer" of the two women - if you had to pick which one to have dinner with, I'm sure Marie-Antoinette would top most people's list. However, the fact that Alexandra was a difficult personality is in itself part of the tragedy of her life and death. Alexandra's determination and struggle to remain devoted to her marriage and her belief in absolute monarchy, even as she faced her own health concerns, the terrible tragedy of her only son's life-threatening illness and her inability to like the glittering, high society glamour of life in Saint Petersburg, is truly admirable. That she was eventually consumed by paranoic fantasies of conspiracy theories is tragic, but perhaps unsurprising.

Interestingly, during her first official State Visit as Empress of Russia, Alexandra visited Paris with her husband, Tsar Nicholas II, and stayed in the apartments at Versailles once occupied by Marie-Antoinette. Like many Victorians, Alexandra was genuinely fascinated by the tragedy of Marie-Antoinette and she kept a large portrait of the dead Queen of France in her own apartments at Tsarskoe Selo.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Helicopter crash in Northern Ireland

The Mountains of Mourne in the south-east of Northern Ireland are usually far more famous for their beautiful scenery, which inspired Northern Irish author, C.S. Lewis, to create the mythical land of Narnia in his seven-part children's series The Chronicles of Narnia, first published between 1950 and 1956. However, at 4 o'clock on Saturday afternoon, near the tiny village of Leitrim, an Agusta helicopter went down, with the loss of three lives.

The  helicopter, which had been privately hired, had taken-off from Saint Angelo airport in Fermanagh, in the western half of Northern Ireland, earlier in the afternoon, bringing two guests home from a hunting week. Amongst those killed was Charles Stisted (47), captain of the Guards Polo Club in Windsor, and a close personal friend of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.

Following news of the crash, the Police Service of Northern Ireland helicopters were quick on the scene where, not long after, they confirmed that the pilot, Mr. Stisted and his passenger, had sadly been killed on impact.

South Down MP, Margaret Ritchie, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), said "The local community is in absolute shock, but their thoughts are with the families and friends of the victims. Their thoughts and prayers are with them. What should have been a happy occasion has ended in tragedy."

In London, Clarence House issued the following statement on behalf of Prince Charles, his wife and his sons, after hearing the news of Mr. Stisted's death:  "The Prince of Wales, The Duchess of Cornwall, Prince William and Prince Harry are all shocked and deeply saddened by this terrible tragedy. Their Royal Highnesses' thoughts and prayers are with the families of those killed at this dreadful time."

October 24th, 1537: The Death of Jane Seymour

Over at The Anne Boleyn Files, Claire Ridgeway marks the anniversary of the death in childbed of Henry VIII's third wife, Jane Seymour, mother of the future King Edward VI (r. 1547 - 1553.)

Sunday, 24 October 2010

"Popular" character profile: Catherine

Over at my book blog, I have started profiling in-depth the main characters of Popular, my first novel which will be released in the UK on July 7th, 2011.

The first character to be profiled is nice but dim popular girl, Catherine O'Rourke, the 16 year-old daughter of a local property developer, who is still desperate to cling onto her position in the school's elite.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

Defending "The Tudors"

Over at The Anne Boleyn Files, Claire Ridgeway defends the recent television series, The Tudors, which chronicled the life of Henry VIII (Jonathan Rhys Meyer) from the half-way point of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (Maria Doyle Kennedy) until his death after four years of marriage to Catherine Parr (Nip/Tuck's Joely Richardson.) Along the way, Rhys Meyers (whose performance was probably the most controversial in the series and, to my mind, the least convincing) was joined by the award-winning Sam Neill (Cardinal Wolsey) and Jeremy Notham (Sir Thomas More), as well as by pop star Joss Stone (Anne of Cleves), Pride and Prejudice's Tamzin Merchant (Catherine Howard), I Capture the Castle's Henry Cavill (pictured right as the Duke of Suffolk), the fantastic Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn), True Blood's James Frain (Thomas Cromwell), Rome's Allen Leech (Francis Dereham), The Exorcist star Max von Sydow (Cardinal von Walburg), Burn Notice's Gabrielle Anwar (Princess Margaret Tudor) and eight time Oscar-nominee, Peter O'Toole (Pope Paul III.)

Dr. David Starkey, author of The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities & Politics, Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, Elizabeth: Apprenticeship and Monarchy, was scathing in his criticisms of the show's many inaccuracies. In one radio interview, he acerbically remarked: “I’ve got no problem with getting history wrong for a purpose – Shakespeare often got things wrong for a reason. But it’s the randomised, arrogance of ignorance of The Tudors.”

However, Claire and The Anne Boleyn Files join Dr. Tracy Borman, author of Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen, in defending the show. As Dr. Borman wrote: -

“Having been determined to loathe the hugely popular BBC series, with its unfeasibly beautiful actors, dodgy costumes and improbable storylines, I found myself becoming strangely addicted…I grew to appreciate The Tudors for its merits as an historical drama. Yes, the scriptwriters may have taken liberties with the facts, but they have also succeeded in recreating the drama and atmosphere of Henry VIII’s court, with its intrigues, scandals and betrayals... Television dramas, films and novels offer a way in to history and can inspire an abiding passion for the subject. Provided that they encourage people to find out what ‘really’ happened, rather than being treated as reliable historical sources in their own right, then they can and should be respected as a force to be reckoned with in the world of history.”

Friday, 22 October 2010

New movie about Marie-Antoinette

 Media outlets in France and online have confirmed that a new movie based on the novel Les Adieux à la reine is going into production in Paris. The novel, written by the acclaimed historian and sociologist, Professor Chantal Thomas, author of the non-fiction book La Reine Scélérate: Marie-Antoinette dans les pamphlets, was first published in France in 2002 and it later won the prestigious literary award, the Prix Fémina. Les Adieux à la reine was published in English in 2004 as Farewell, my Queen

The novel essentially takes place over the final three days of life at the Palace of Versailles and it is told through the eyes of a palace servant, Agathe-Sidonie Labourde, a deputy Reader in the household of Queen Marie-Antoinette. The novel begins, after a prologue set years later in Vienna, as Agathe attends early morning Mass before journeying to the Petit Trianon to read from a selection of works, which she has lovingly selected, whilst the Queen relaxes and takes her morning coffee. She reads from a pastoral comedy by Marivaux, the sermons of the late Bishop Bossuet (as per her late mother's instructions, Marie-Antoinette hears readings from pious works at least once every day) and finally, much to the Queen's delight, Agathe also reads from the latest issue of Magazine of New French and English Fashions. The slow, easy pace of life at Versailles at the height of summer is captured beautifully, masking the political intrigues festering throughout the palace and the nation at that time; it is only Agathe's careful notation at the top of each short chapter which alerts the reader to the fact that today is, in fact, July 14th 1789.

From there, the novel rapidly degenerates into something far more sinister as Agathe recounts the moment the giant court apparatus of etiquette and tradition fell apart, with strange whispers being heard, soldiers fleeing and aristocrats, courtiers, priests and servants wandering around the cavernous palace in the dead of night, unsure of who they are bumping into and desperate to acquire some news of what exactly is happening in Paris, which seems to be on fire in the distant horizon. Thomas does not ridicule the alien - and often bizarre - world of Versailles, but rather she embraces its values and makes the reader see through the eyes of Agathe and her generation. One of the novel's most powerful moments comes when, for the first time in her life, Marie-Antoinette stands in front of a door and it doesn't open automatically for her. Later, when she is standing before the entrance of the abandoned Hall of Mirrors, Agathe is struck dumb with terror and revulsion at the realisation that there is no usher to formally announce the Queen's arrival. It's an amazing technique, which fully captures the claustrophobic world of Versailles during the three terrifying days when the absolute monarchy in France effectively vanished forever.


According to Internet reports, director Benoît Jacquot is assembling an all-star cast for Les Adieux à la reine, which will be shot in French and at Versailles. So far, the confirmed actors include 25 year-old actress and model, Léa Seydoux, who played Queen Isabella of Angoulême in last year's Robin Hood, Academy Award nominee Gérard Depardieu and the extraordinarily beautiful, Eva Green (above.) 

Having read the book, however, I'm fairly certain that at least some of the speculations about who exactly each actor will be playing are incorrect. 61 year-old Depardieu is far too old to play the 34 year-old King Louis XVI, as one article suggested; given the novel's story, I'd say it's far more likely that he could end-up playing the eccentric Captain de Laroche, the custodian of Versailles's menagerie - basically, the royal zookeeper. The King, in any case, does not appear very often in the story, since most of the drama is situated within the Queen's Household or the wider Court, rather than the government or Household of the King.

Seydoux probably will be cast as Agathe, which means they'll be reducing her age (Agathe is in her 30s by the time the novel starts, although seems much younger.) However, I'm quite sceptical about the claim that Eva Green has been cast as Marie-Antoinette. Although, maybe they're dyeing her hair?

I could be completely wrong, but given her hair colour and physical appearance, it would make a lot more sense for her to have been cast as Gabrielle de Polignac, the queen's confidante, who, unlike Marie-Antoinette, does not exactly come out of Les Adieux à la reine smelling of roses. Beautiful but chilly in the novel, the dark-haired and exquisite Gabrielle would make far more sense as  a casting choice for Green. Plus, Gabrielle is one of the novel's major characters and its characterisation of her, whilst not necessarily as sympathetic as the one you would find in Elena Maria Vidal's Trianon or as fanciful as the one offered by Sofia Coppola's Marie-Antoinette, is certainly fascinating.

Anyway, I could be wrong, entirely; it's pure guesswork. Having read Les Adieux à la reine, however, I am really excited to see it being brought to the screen and to see who's playing whom. Les Adieux à la reine is a dark and quite moving novel, which will hopefully make an amazing movie. And - I'm very glad the French are making it.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

October 19th, 1851: The Death of Marie-Thérèse of France



"I thank all the FRENCHMEN who have remained attached to my family and to me for the proofs of devotion that they have given us, for the sufferings and pains they suffered because of us.

I pray God to pour out His blessings on France, which I have always loved, even in the midst of my bitterest afflictions."
- The Will of the Princess (1851)

The Cross of Laeken marks the anniversary of the death of Princess Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte of France, the only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, who died in Austria at the age of seventy-two, three days after observing the 58th anniversary of her mother's execution.

Next week, I will be reviewing Elena Maria Vidal's wonderful novel Madame Royale, based on Marie-Thérèse's later life. For a review of its prequel, based on the marriage of her parents, click here.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

October 18th, 1541: Death of Margaret Tudor, Queen Mother of Scotland

Claire Ridgway over at The Anne Boleyn Files marks the anniversary of the death of Henry VIII's eldest sister, Margaret Tudor, Queen Mother of Scotland. The widow of the late King James IV, who had predeceased her by twenty-eight years, it was through their granddaughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, that James and Margaret have become the ancestors of every monarch to sit on the British throne since 1603.

The second child and eldest daughter of King Henry VII and his queen, Elizabeth of York, Margaret was born at the Palace of Westminster in London during the final weekend of November 1489 and christened in honour of her paternal grandmother, the Countess of Derby. At the age of thirteen, she was placed into an arranged marriage with James IV, the thirty year-old King of Scots. Although she lacked the beauty of either her mother or her younger sister, the Queen of France, Margaret was still considered attractive and vivacious. As later events would show, she certainly had a taste for chosing her own mates - apparently something of a family trait in Henry VII's children.

The marriage between the Scottish king and the English princess lasted for ten years, in which time Margaret was pregnant six times - although thanks to 16th-century infant mortality, only one of those children, the future King James V, survived into adulthood.

Years later, Margaret was to be the only one of Henry VIII's surviving family to publicly approve of her brother's separation from Katherine of Aragon and his subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn. Margaret and her new sister-in-law even exchanged apparently chatty letters and gifts with one another and Margaret showed where her sympathies lay by swiftly removing her daughter (also named Margaret) from the company of her cousin, Princess Mary, and placing her into the household of the new Queen Anne. Relations between Margaret and her former sister-in-law, Katherine, had not always been warm, which perhaps explains Margaret's enthusiasm for the Boleyn marriage. Margaret had been left a pregnant widow when her husband, James, invaded England in 1513 and was defeated and killed by the English armies at the Battle of Flodden. Exultant at the victory, Queen Katherine had wanted to send the entirety of the dead King's body as a present to her husband, King Henry, who was then off fighting a rather pointless war in France; it was only when the Earl of Surrey begged the Queen to consider how such a gesture would be viewed by the rest of Christendom that Queen Katherine relented and instead dispatched King James's blood-stained coat. Neither was a proper Christian burial was not arranged for the dead King of Scots, in contravention of the proper etiquette of medieval chivalry; some said his body was buried at Sheen Abbey, others at Hume Castle. A rather more lurid (and probably ridiculous) story is that Queen Katherine had him posthumously decapitated and the head buried at the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel in Wood Street, London. Whatever happened - and it's possible that after stripping him on the Queen's orders, the English soldiers had simply hurled him into a communal grave - the exact whereabouts of Margaret's first husband are still a mystery.

Alone and friendless, forced to grapple with the thankless task of being Regent since her son James V was only a toddler when he came to the throne, Margaret - whose affection for Scotland can probably generously be described as "lukewarm" - soon fell in love and married for a second time to a Scottish lord. His name was Lord Archibald Douglas, the 6th Earl of Angus, and by him Margaret produced another child - a daughter, Margaret, who would make her career at the court of her English uncle, as has already been discussed. Like her mother, younger Margaret also seemed determined to chose her own men, rather than have other people chose them for her. And, like so many of the Tudors, she seemed to find members of the Howard clan absolutely irresistible. She was to earn her fearsome uncle's wrath after being romantically involved with Anne Boleyn's uncle, Lord Howard, and later with Catherine Howard's brother, Charles.

In any case, regardless of their daughter's romantic shennanigans, the marriage between Margaret Tudor and Archibald Douglas was apparently not an altogether happy one and in 1527, Margaret secured a divorce from him, on the flimmiest of theological grounds - something which, quite ironically, earned her a strict lecture from her brother in London. (Secretly, however, it's my hunch that the ease with which Margaret secured a divorce from the Vatican on the most tenuous and, indeed patently false, grounds, led Henry to believe that acquiring his divorce from Katherine of Aragon would be equally easy. He failed to realise that it wasn't theology that was at play here, but politics. Katherine mattered; Archibald didn't.) Not long after ridding herself of the irksome Archibald, Margaret married her lover, Lord Methven, to whom she was still married at the time of her death in 1541.

As Claire records, death came for the former Queen at her husband's castle in Perthshire, in the form of a massive stroke. She was fifty-two years old at the time and her body was conducted to the nearby Carthusian Abbey of Saint John, where it was buried with due ceremony.

She was survived by her son, King James V, and her daughter, Margaret, the future Countess of Lennox, whose affair with Charles Howard Margaret had been (perhaps hypocritically) infuriated to discover, via an angry letter from King Henry, shortly before her death. Younger Margaret was lucky, however; a more serious punishment was spared her when Queen Catherine's own adultery diverted the English King's attention from his niece's altogether more trivial romantic misdemeanour.

Margaret Tudor was the penultimate of the children of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York to die - her younger brother, King Henry VIII, outlived her by just over five years.

For Claire's full account of Margaret's political significance, read here.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

October 16th, 1793: The Execution of Marie-Antoinette


"I was a queen, and you took away my crown; a wife, and you killed my husband; a mother, and you deprived me of my children. My blood alone remains: take it, but do not make me suffer long."

Lancelot de Carles and the Portuguese author of the Alcobaca account said that when Death came for Anne Boleyn in 1536, she was still at the height of her beauty. The glossy brunette tresses were immaculately coiffed; the glistening dark eyes, the long, elegant fingers, the trim waist and the smooth skin were all still intact in the waif-like 28 year-old. Her jailers had treated her with respect – bowing as they entered her presence; the Constable of the Tower even stammered over his words in informing the Queen that the time had now come to die. It was left to Anne to offer soothing words of polite comfort to her gaoler, rather than the other way round. On the scaffold, thousands had knelt before a woman who was still young, still glamorous and still beautiful.

When they came for Catherine Howard in 1542, the teenage Queen still radiated that potent mixture of vulnerability and sexuality which had made her so lethally attractive to men. When they came for Jane Grey in 1554, she was dressed demurely in black – still the perfect, prim, Protestant porcelain doll, her eyes aglow with quiet ecstasy at the prospect of being martyred for her faith. When they came for the Romanov Grand Duchesses in 1918, they were all young, all pretty; their ages ranged from twenty-two to seventeen. Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were still recognisably the iconic princesses who had stared out from hundreds of photographs celebrating the domestic bliss of Russia’s last Imperial Family.

But when they came for Marie-Antoinette in 1793, France’s most iconic queen was no longer beautiful or even pretty. Rather, she was in every way – apart from the curious beauty endowed by dignity – positively and undeniably ugly. The sufferings she had endured over the last four years and especially in the last thirteen months had destroyed what remained of her good-looks. As the poor woman sat writing her last letter between the two fat wax candles in the grim, cold and dank prison cell at the Conciergerie in the pre-dawn darkness of October 16th 1793, anyone hoping to see the one-time goddess of ancien régime sophistication would have been cruelly disappointed. The trim waist which had once been encased in Rose Bertin’s legendary creations of haute couture had thickened and coarsened; the beautiful fair hair which the celebrity coiffeur, Monsieur Léonard, had once styled into everything from towering poufs decorated with diamonds, jewels, powder and feathers, to simple chignons inspired by country-maids, was long gone. The Queen’s hair had turned entirely grey over the last year and it had even begun to fall out. That skin – the ivory-white smoothness of which had once caused her aristocratic contemporaries to fall into raptures of both praise and jealousy – was no longer alabaster, but rather emaciated, almost ghostly. The skin had begun to sag as well, around her chin, neck, cheeks and eyes, in particular. The sparkling blue eyes, shared by so many of the Queen’s Hapsburg relatives, had dimmed and clouded over, as the days and weeks spent in a darkened prison cell ruined her eyesight. She was thirty-seven years-old.

In the last forty-eight hours, the Queen had eaten almost nothing and her body was now rapidly beginning to fall apart, as if it too sensed that the end was near and that there was no point in holding itself together any longer. The Queen’s monthly period had started a few days earlier, but it had quickly degenerated into a frightening case of vaginal hemorrhaging. She had to constantly change her menstrual linens and trying to find the time to do so discreetly, when she was apt to be interrupted by the revolutionary guards at any given moment, was difficult. For a woman who was always so protective over her privacy and mortified by nudity, it was particularly humiliating set of circumstances.



Friday, 15 October 2010

"It gets better": Texas city councilman gives an emotional speech about teen bullying and suicide

I am really pleased and excited to hopefully be visiting the Trevor Project during my visit to America in November to hear them speak about the appalling cases of suicide and bullying amongst the adolescent gay or lesbian population of the United States. It is a situation which is particularly important and personal to me, because I happen to be writing about it right now and while I am happily not writing a story that involves suicide or self-harm, it is certainly a difficult thing to write about, nonetheless.

Of course, all bullying - especially when it becomes merciless, unremitting or physical - is to be deplored; all of it is tragic. The rise of suicides amongst American teenagers who either are or perceived to be gay is something that indicates within that specific segment of the population, bullying is becoming an endemic problem - the current number of celebrities working with the Trevor Project include Daniel Radcliffe, Kathy Griffin, Ellen DeGeneres, Neil Patrick Harris, Jay Manuel and Anne Hathaway, amongst others. They are all seeking to speak directly to the victims and to convince them that it does get better. If only 13 year-old Asher Brown had known that, before he put his father's pistol to his head and pulled the trigger.

The current spate of suicides or attempted suicides amongst young girls who have been targeted by a sustained bullying campaign of intimidation, which began to include cellular phones, Facebook and MySpace, is another worrying - rather, horrifying - trend, as the recent case of the suicide of Irish transfer student, Phoebe Prince (15), shows all too well.

All children get teased - myself included. But, for it to reach the stage where suicide is contemplated suggests that schools are fundamentally failing in their duty of pastoral care and if they are failing because they personally don't approve of homosexuality and are therefore loathe to correct the bullies, then may God forgive them. I'm inclined to think, or hope, that the latter is not the case - I hope that these schools are lethally incompetent, rather than lethally cruel.

My heart goes out to these young adults and, in some cases, children and I am not one of those who has a sufficiently bleeding-heart to say that I also feel sorry for the bullies, too. I don't. I feel nothing but contempt and disgust and as un-Christian as it sounds, for those who have been responsible for these suicides - I hope they have to live with that guilt until the day they die. What they did was beyond reprehensible.

I came across this video on the blog It seems to me, run by the Director of Pastoral Events for the Marin Foundation, which is a Christian organisation. It is from a Texas city councilman called Joel Burns, who speaks movingly about the recent spate of suicides. It is a very emotional speech and I applaud the Councillor for feeling strongly enough about the issue to share so much of his thoughts and feelings.

For Councillor Burns's speech in Fort Worth, Texas, please click here.

Requiem æternam dona eis, Domine:
et lux perpetua luceat eis.
In memoria æterna erit iustus,
ab auditione mala non timebit...

In paradisum deducant te Angeli:
in tuo adventu suscipat te Martyres,
et perducant te in avitatem santam Ierusalem.
Chorus Angelorum te suscipiat, et cum Lazaro quondam paupere
æternam habeas requiem.

Amen.

Monday, 11 October 2010

The Last Station (2009)

Novelist Elena Maria Vidal reviews the movie The Last Station, a moving account of the final years of Count Leo Tolstoy, Russian aristocrat, author and philosopher. The movie stars Tony Award Winner Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music, Jesus of Nazareth, Malcolm X), Oscar-winner Helen Mirren (The Queen, The Madness of King George, Gosford Park), James McEvoy (Atonement, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Last King of Scotland), Kerry Condon (Rome) and Anne-Marie Duff (The Virgin Queen, The Magdalene Sisters, Charles II.)

You can watch the trailer here.

Fit for a Queen

The blog Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century is hosting a rather fun video, celebrating the legendary wardrobe of the last Queen of France and her contemporaries.

The dress above is one of the cumbersome but magnificent gowns required by Versailles etiquette to be worn by the great ladies of the Court on formal occasions of State. Marie-Antoinette was not a fan of this particular style of dress, but she made the best of it by employing the talents of her famed dress-maker, stylist and so-called "Minister of Fashion," Madame Rose Bertin, who American Vogue credited with inventing the entire concept of haute couture in their September 2006 issue.

The personal style of Marie-Antoinette and her confidantes is something often misrepresented. Like earlier queens, such as Anne Boleyn and Henrietta-Maria, Marie-Antoinette was genuinely interested in fashion for fashion's sake - she enjoyed the touch and sight of gorgeous fabrics and daring, fashion-forward gowns. Unlike other sovereigns, such as Elizabeth I or Louis XIV, the Queen did not enjoy dressing for the sake of grandeur or political display. Her decision, in the 1780s, to patronise the movement for simpler, elegant lawn dresses was one of her more controversial, but is also indicates that the Queen preferred style to splendour and innovation to tradition when it came to fashion.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given her own obsession with fashion and her appreciation of the power of aesthetics, Marie-Antoinette's set was known for being a fairly fashionable one. Her brother-in-law, the Comte d'Artois, was generally considered to be the best-dressed man in France, while several of the Queen's ladies-in-waiting were praised for their sense of style - the imperious but entertaining Princesse d'Hénin, a friend of the Comte d'Artois', had a preference for sophisticated and generally fairly conservative cuts in clothing; the pretty Thérèse-Lucy de Dillon, married to the Governor of Tobago and chatelaine of a beautiful townhouse on the rue du Bac, generally followed where the Queen led, but her love of the latest fashion and complimentary, highly-feminine styles were commented upon with approval by many of the courtiers at Versailles.

Amongst the Queen's extended circle, perhaps the most adventurous dresser was Victoire, the Princesse de Guéménée, wife of one of the highest-ranking aristocrats in the kingdom and related by blood to another of the nation's "first families." Victoire was noted for the general fabulousness of her lifestyle, her extravagant parties, her sophisticated manners, her luxurious homes, her gambling addiction, her financial recklessness, her love for her pet dogs and her dazzlingly decadent dress-sense. Madame de Guéménée dressed in the most lavish and ostentatious style, which so many of us associate in our heads with the last days of the ancien régime in France. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Madame and her husband were the only French aristocrats in the entire century who actually faced bankruptcy - a financial scandal which rocked the nobility and titillated the gossips of Paris and Versailles for months to come. The Queen, who was not particularly close to Madame but enjoyed her parties, arranged for a loan to be given to the couple to spare them the humiliation of debtors' prison, but the Guéménées were still forced to quit the capital for awhile, in order to live-down the disgrace of their bankruptcy.


Perhaps the keenest of the Versailles fashionistas, after the Queen herself, was her friend and Superintendent of her Household, the Princesse de Lamballe. A pretty society widow, the Princesse was not only one of the highest-ranking women in France as a Princess of the Blood, but also one of its wealthiest, thanks to the enormous fortune she had inherited when her young but immoral husband died at the age of twenty from advanced syphilis, leaving her everything but an infection. Mercifully, Madame de Lamballe had avoided contracting venereal disease, since her husband had quit his wife's bed for that of a dancer, Mademoiselle Chassaign, shortly after the wedding. That the Lamballe marriage had been abusive had long been whispered in the corridors of Versailles and with the inheritance received from her husband, it was cruelly (but accurately) reported that the prince had given his wife far greater pleasure in death than he ever had in life. Deeply religious, morally upstanding, highly sentimental, emotional and lady-like, Madame de Lamballe showed no wish to re-marry and instead used her vast fortune to give generously to her favourite charities and to maintain an extravagant yet elegant life as one of the French aristocracy's premier socialites. She kept two large homes - her town-house of the Hôtel de Toulouse (where the recent film Marie-Antoinette starring Kirsten Dunst was partially filmed; Madame's home was used to film the scenes of Marie-Antoinette's youth in Vienna) and her beautiful country house of the Château de Rambouillet (above left.)


Sunday, 10 October 2010

October 9th, 1514: The Marriage of Princess Mary Tudor to Louis XII, King of France


On her wonderful website The Anne Boleyn Files, Claire Ridgeway marks the anniversary of the marriage of Henry VIII's youngest sister, the teenage Princess Mary, to the middle-aged widower King Louis XII of France. Commenting on the young princess's arrival, His Grace the Bishop of Asti, then the Ambassador of the Republic of Venice to France, commented: -
"I promise you that she is very handsome, and of sufficiently tall stature (de statura honestamente granda). She appears to me rather pale, though this [I] believe proceeds from the tossing of the sea and from her fright. She does not seem a whit more than 16 years old, and looks very well in the French costume. She is extremely courteous and well mannered, and has come in very sumptuous array…"
Amongst the new Queen of France's retinue was one of the daughters of England's most accomplished diplomat, Sir Thomas Boleyn, the heir-apparent to the Earl of Ormonde. Claire, who is currently writing a series on Anne Boleyn's early life, reasonably hypothesises that the "Mademoiselle Boleyn" mentioned in the household accounts was Sir Thomas's youngest daughter, Anne, although other historians have suggested that it was in fact Anne's elder sister, Mary, and that Anne joined the French Royal Household slightly later. As with everything pertaining to Anne Boleyn's childhood, the sources are less complete than we would like.

The marriage of Louis XII and Mary Tudor lasted less than three months, with the King dying (allegedly of exhaustion) on New Year's Day, 1515. Mary seduced and then eloped her brother's best friend, Charles, Duke of Suffolk and the two returned to England, to try and face down the scandal. Mary was back in London for the birth and christening of her niece, the much more famous of the two Mary Tudors. Mary and Charles's daughter, Frances, was to become the mother of Lady Jane Grey, another iconic and tragic member of the English Royal Family.

To read more on the brief marriage of Louis and Mary, click here to see Claire's account.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Happy birthday, Lynsey!

My sister's birthday!

"For the Bible Tells Me So" (2007)


Thanks to my friend Ellen Buddle for reminding me of this incredibly powerful documentary.

For the Bible Tells Me So is an absolutely terrifying and devastating insight into the world of Christian fundamentalism, particularly that of the hard-line evangelical movement, which unfortunately has come to dominate the world's largest religion in the last half-century.

By savagely critiquing fundamentalists' claims that homophobia and Christianity are inextricably linked, For the Bible Tells Me So manages the unique task of being respectful and even, in the end, hopeful, without being sensationalist or cruel. It combines "hellfire and whimsy." What gives this documentary its punch is that it does not interview men like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens - men for whom the issue of gay rights is of secondary concern to their determination to concede that no good came of religion, ever. The welfare of gay men, gay women, their friends and families is for them nothing more than a convenient float to ride on - or so it has always seemed to me. Instead, For the Bible Tells Me So interviews men and women of the Christian faith from right across the boundaries of opinion and it shows that - as ever - Christianity is very much a broad church, in the truest sense of the word.

I should like to say that my own opinions on homosexuality and Christianity are perhaps known to regular readers. It is baffling to me that some educated persons still consider homosexuality to be a "choice." As if anyone would voluntarily chose a lifestyle which involves an often humiliating "coming out" or the fact that in about 85% of the world you can't do something as simple as walk down the street holding the hand of the person you have fallen in love with, without fear of jeering, humiliation or worse. It is beyond idiotic to assert that anyone "chooses" homosexuality.

The sheer venom and cruelty of fundamentalist homophobia is - as For the Bible Tells Me So points out -  something truly mesmerising and horrifying in its intensity.

Before linking to the trailer, however, I should like to say that although my own views of homosexuality are well-known, there are many men and women of good faith and good conscience who do not agree with homosexuality. I do not agree with them, but I do not dislike them for it. For some, it is simply a belief that the creation and sustenance of human life must properly lie at the root of any fulfilling human sexual or romantic relationship. For others, it is simply the case that the arguments explaining the context of Leviticus and Romans' criticism of same-sex relationships are not convincing enough to explain away their teachings. And, for others, it is based on the feeling that things are changing too much, too fast. Obviously, it is no secret that I disagree; equally, it is no secret that I also think they have every right to hold those opinions. I do not agree that they have the right to legislatively enforce their lifestyle choices on other people, but that is another argument. What we can hope for - indeed, praise - is something which has already happened on the comment sections of this blog - namely a polite and respectful exchange of ideas amongst educated people.

The world that For the Bible Tells Me So is a million miles removed from this kind of atmosphere. It is a disgusting, abhorrent and revolting world, which is happily opposed by men and women of great courage and conviction.

The trailer can be viewed here. 

"L'évasion de Louis XVI" (2009)

Novelist Elena Maria Vidal reports on a French television drama based on the downfall of King Louis XVI, L'évasion de Louis XVI. Herself the author of the novel Trianon, a sympathetic account of King Louis's marriage to Marie-Antoinette of Austria, Miss Vidal praises the drama's attempts to show the doomed monarch in a more positive light. 

You can watch the trailer for L'évasion de Louis XVI here and read this blog's review of Miss Vidal's novel here.

Friday, 1 October 2010

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