Monday 31 October 2011

Is this the face of Mary Boleyn?

Roland Hui, a reader of this blog and author of one of the finest modern assessments of Anne Boleyn's portraiture, recently sent me a link to an article on his new blog Tudor Faces, in which he discusses the identity of two sitters in portraits by the Dutch artist, Lucas von Horenbolte, which may be portraits of Anne Boleyn's sister and father.

The above portrait, a miniature by Horenbolte, is often referenced in websites and some history books today as being a portrait of Anne Boleyn. However, of all the many labelled and re-labelled Tudor portraits, this mysterious lady (described as twenty-five years-old in the faint gold lettering behind her) has had the most inconsistent identification. Sometime around the seventeenth century, it was housed in a collection as a portrait of Henry's first wife, Katherine of Aragon, which was still its presumed identity in 1774, when it was catalogued. By the nineteenth century, its new owner, the Duke of Buccleuch, accepted that the portrait could not have been painted as early as 1511 when Katherine was twenty-five and that it was therefore probably Henry's third wife, Jane Seymour. However, the clothes the woman is wearing are too late to be Katherine's and too early to be Jane's. In 1994, it was suggested that the lady might have been one of Henry VIII's nieces - Margaret, Frances or Eleanor. However, none of them reached twenty-five until the 1540s, by which point the gable headdress was complete out of style. Based on the idea that Anne Boleyn was born in about 1501, Sir Roy Strong subsequently suggested the woman in the portrait was most likely to be Anne, painted in about 1526, when these headdresses were in style. 

However, as Roland points out in his excellent article, the woman in this portrait bears almost no physical resemblance to eyewitness accounts of the real Anne Boleyn or to her other portraits. It is Hui's theory that the lady may actually be Anne's elder sister, Lady Mary Carey, who would have been twenty-five sometime between 1524 and 1528. He also goes on to discuss the evidence that this portrait of an unknown gentleman (below) may be the girls' father, Thomas Boleyn, viscount Rochford, future earl of Wiltshire and Ormonde. 

Fans of Tudor or art history should definitely have a read of Roland's full article, which you can access HERE.

Friday 28 October 2011

A woman out of legend: The Life of Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and Queen of England (Part 2)

After a very long delay to this blog's Lives of the Queens of England series, here is part II of the three-part life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Part I - Daughter of Riches - can be read here.

"My life, when it is written, will read better than it lived. Henry Fitz-Empress, first Plantagenet, a king at twenty-one, the ablest soldier of an able time. He led men well, he cared for justice when he could and ruled, for thirty years, a state as great as Charlemagne's. He married out of love, a woman out of legend. Not in Alexandria, or Rome, or Camelot has there been such a queen."- Henry II in the play The Lion in Winter by James Goldman (1966)

History loves a good romance. Some of its most famous couples, like Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra, are remembered because of the intensity of their love for one another. Others, like Marc Antony and Cleopatra or Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn are remembered not so much for the nature of their love, but because of the melodrama that surrounded them. On 18 May 1152, a newly married couple emerged from the cathedral of Saint Pierre in the city of Poitiers in modern-day France (below). They were Henry of Anjou, nineteen year-old heir-presumptive to the English throne, and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the twenty-something ex-wife of the King of France. Henry and Eleanor emphatically belong to the latter category of famous historical couples. With them, it’s the drama, not the sentiment, which entices. Their marriage, celebrated less than two months after Eleanor’s divorce from her first husband, was born from political expediency, but it ended in civil war, rebellion, mutual recriminations, heartbreak and imprisonment.

Tuesday 25 October 2011

The King of Romania addresses Parliament on his 90th birthday

Looking remarkably good considering today was his ninetieth birthday, His Majesty King Michael I of Romania gave a strong and confident speech to the Romanian parliament in Bucharest, in which he begged the people of Romania to keep faith in the democratic institutions that had replaced the Communist dictatorship in 1989. The King spoke of the importance of remembering history and its complexities, but also warned politicians to look to the future and to serve the people in all that they did: "Tomorrow's world cannot exist without morals, without faith and memory. Cynicism, narrow interests and cowardice mustn't occupy our lives. They remind us too much of the years before 1989."

This was the first time in sixty-five years that His Majesty the King addressed the Romanian parliament. Michael I was forced to abdicate by the Soviet-backed Communist regime in 1947, when he was twenty-six years-old. When the King initially refused to co-operate, the Soviet occupiers threatened to shoot one thousand Romanians until he did so. Since 1989 and the fall of Communism, King Michael and his French wife, Queen Anne, have made frequent visits to Romania and from 1997, the republican Romanian government lifted all restrictions on the royal family's right to enter and reside in Romania. The King is a very popular figure in Romania and there are ongoing discussions about the possibility of restoring the monarchy in the country. Yesterday's speech by the King was thus boycotted by several republican politicians and by the President of Romania, Traian Basescu, a member of the Democratic Liberal Party who caused great controversy a few years ago by accusing King Michael of complicity in the Holocaust. Since Michael was technically Head of State during the Nazi occupation of Romania during the Second World War, President Basescu, who was suspended from office in 2007 amidst allegations of electoral fraud, claims he bears responsibility for the many Romanian deaths in the Nazi concentration and death camps. Paradoxically, President Basescu, a former member of the pre-1989 Communist party himself, also called the King "a slave to the Russians," in reference to Michael's abdication under pressure from the Soviets, who occupied the country at the end of the Second World War. The King did not respond to the accusations, but the president was fiercely criticised in the press at the time. 

A newspaper report on King Michael's birthday and speech can be read HERE.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Remembering Marie-Antoinette

Today is the two hundredth and eighteenth anniversary of the terrible execution of Marie-Antoinette. The thirty-seven year-old Queen was beheaded by guillotine in what is now the Place de la Concorde just after noon on 16th October 1793. 

The Death: Here is my post on her execution from last year.

Marie-Antoinette the Christian: Professor de Oliveira defends Marie-Antoinette and discusses the strength of her Catholic faith (via Tea at Trianon)

Marie-Antoinette and fashion: my post on the young Marie-Antoinette's fashion tastes

Defending Marie-Antoinette: novelist Elena Maria Vidal discusses why she never said "Let them eat cake"

A one-man woman: Elena Maria Vidal gives an excellent discussion of the rumours regarding Marie-Antoinette and count von Fersen, as dramatised in the 2006 movie Marie Antoinette, starring Kirsten Dunst.

Birth: my post on Marie-Antoinette's birth in Vienna and her christening

Sunday 9 October 2011

"Scathingly witty": Elena Maria Vidal's review of "Popular"

Regular readers of this blog may have read my reviews of Trianon and Madame Royale by American writer, Elena Maria Vidal. Now, Elena has very kindly posted her review of my novel Popular, which you can read in full by clicking HERE.

"Released in July 2011, Popular by Northern Irish writer Gareth Russell, is a scathingly witty and humorous romp dealing with privileged teenagers in Belfast. Now I must admit that before meeting Gareth and reading his novel I had a quite different picture of Belfast than I have now. Most of what I knew about Northern Ireland were the news stories of civil strife and terroristic violence which I heard throughout my life, and which made me resolve never to go there.
... It would be a mistake to classify Popular as another piece of trite teen fiction or chick-lit; it is much more. Popular, although it is a novel, has much in common with a comedy of manners, a drama which satirizes the manners and affectations of a particular social class with the emphasis on comic and witty dialog. It follows in the tradition of Molière's Le Misanthrope, Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer, Sheridan's School for Scandal and even the novels of Jane Austen. Most especially, Popular reminded me of such works of Oscar Wilde as The Importance of Being Earnest for its sheer entertainment quality and unapologetic aristocratic flair. Not surprisingly, Popular has already made the transition from book to stage play." 

Tuesday 4 October 2011

October 5th, 1789: The revolution reaches Versailles

"At first only women showed themselves; the latticed windows of the palace were closed, and the Bodyguard and Flanders regiment were drawn up in the Place d'Armes... General consternation and disorder reigned throughout the interior of the palace... The insurrection was directed against the Queen in particular; I shudder even now at the memory of the fishwives, or rather Furies, who wore white aprons, which they screamed out were intended to receive the bowels of Marie-Antoinette... They mixed the most obscene expressions with these horrible threats." - Extract from the memoirs of Jeanne-Louise Campan, lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie-Antoinette
"The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes dying, dying, dying." 
- From The Splendour Falls by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Versailles, not just the political and administrative centre of France's absolute monarchy for the last century, but also its living, breathing cultural embodiment, fell early to the forces of the Revolution. A full four years and ten days before the guillotine blade sliced through the neck of its last queen, the legendary palace was breached and defiled. Today, it stands as a busy, bustling, slightly soulless museum, with little outward sign of the drama and trauma which swept over it at sunset on October 5th, 1789.

Saturday 1 October 2011

My interview in THE IRISH TIMES

My interview with THE SUNDAY TIMES was published in July 2011. The interview is by Pavel Barter, the photograph by Kelvin Boyes.


Friends trashed his idea for a bitchy teen-fiction novel set in Belfast, but Gareth Russell's savagely witty debut wins out in the popularity stakes, says Pavel Barter.

When Gareth Russell said he wanted to write a novel about wealthy high-school kids in Belfast, everyone told him to wise up. Spoilt debutantes, popping into Victoria Square shopping centre for a spot of retail therapy, getting manicures, wearing Ralph Lauren, and sipping martinis at high-society functions? Not images you associate with Belfast.

The negativity bothered him. "Parents of friends told me that nobody would ever publish a book about being popular or a socialite set in Belfast," he says. "If it's not about the potato famine, the Titanic or the Troubles, no one cares. I thought, 'We'll see.' There is so much more to Belfast than  lot of literature and cinema has shown. It was great to set a comedy here. You can have craic in Belfast that you couldn't in New York, Miami, London or LA."

So Russell ignored the naysayers and the setting proved ideal. Popular, the 24-year-old's debut, is set in the fictional Mount Olivet Grammar School, on Belfast's Malone Park, a real-life private avenue. Sitting in the bar of the Europa hotel, the writer takes a gulp of Evian, and wonders if he should send the city's upwardly mobile princesses a thank-you note for providing his inspiration.

Cliques are commonplace in Northern Irish schools, Russell explains. An Oxford graduate, he is co-directing a stage adaptation for Belfast's Belvoir Players Studio, to be staged in early September. The cast includes Imogen ("the hot one"), Kerry ("she has Daddy's credit card") and queen bee, Meredith ("the one who'll kill you as you sleep"). With their token male pal Cameron, these filthy-rich beauty queens undergo rivalries, tantrums and faux emotional breakdowns. Popularity is considered the key to happiness; weakness is preyed upon. It's a ruthless social hierarchy, similar to prison, only with Marie Antoinette-themed parties and Gucci handbags.

In most high-school movies, prom queens are either villains or a plot device to teach the protagonist the error of her ways. This was the case in Mean Girls, which starred Lindsay Lohan, while in Clueless and The Breakfast Club the rich girls are vain yet good-natured at heart. In Popular, on the other hand, the characters are unrepentantly egotistical and superficial, owing more to reality fares such as The Hills, Perez Hilton blogs and Paris Hilton.

Russell has an affection for his characters, but understands if the reader loathes them. "There are times when I'm talking about the characters and people look at me with horror," he laughs. "Meredith and Imogen have their own fans, which, in a way, is a devastating reflection on [today's] morality."

His characters were created as a reaction to the political correctness that has crept into high-school fiction. "Glee went further down the line of feeling it had to tick every box," he says. "I wanted to write someone like Meredith who could say the things a lot of us secretly wish we could get away with. She's not particularly interested in what boys think of her. Meredith is much more interested in what girls think of her. She is a woman's woman."

Russell was inspired to create such an unapologetically savage character after reading a Julie Burchill article in which the journalist mourned the passing of the classic Hollywood bitch. "One of my favourite books is Gone with the Wind. You're not supposed to like Scarlett O'Hara at all because she's a husband-stealing, gold-digging, social-climbing hound," he says.

What Popular lacks in redeemable characters, it makes up for in humour. The writer excels at capturing the ability of teenagers to coin expressions and venomous put-downs. Case in point: "I hate her hair... It looks like someone stuck pubic hair on top of a potato." Popular's characters are routinely cruel, but the writer insists there is a difference between bitchiness and being a bully. It's also one of the few Irish teen novels to deal with gay themes, in the form of Cameron's awakening homosexuality.

Some of the incidences in Popular are gleaned from Russell's own experiences as a student in Downpatrick, but the story is not entirely autobiographical. It's as much influence by his history studies at Oxford University and his interest in Tudor history; Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII, in particular. "There is a steel-butterfly element to her personality that I warm to," says Russell "In a strange way, she influenced Popular [by being] a good example of you can be bitchy without being evil. I liked the pageantry [of the Tudors] and their self-awareness. They knew everyone was watching them. They believed God was watching them. I found that an interesting idea: how would you live if you thought you were being watched all the time? It's Big Brother, with a change of purgatory at the end. It was a cauldron of big personalities and a society that valued outward appearance more than anything else."

At Oxford, Russell directed and wrote plays, including The Audacity of Ideas, set on the eve of the French Revolution. This experience spurred him to pen Popular after he graduated in 2008. The author received 17 rejection letters from agents before he hit gold. Penguin signed him for two books, and he hopes to write a third.

Russell plans to write a biography of Boleyn in a few years' time. "There is a popular version of her as the femme fatale, and a more recent academic trend to see her as incredibly political, like a 16th-century Margaret Thatcher. I don't think that's something she would have recognised. I'm trying to focus more on her position as a daughter of the aristocracy who had been trained to be pleasing, quick-witted, elegant, charming, but I don't think she was a social climber or a rabid politico."

There is a tactical decision to writing Popular now. The memories are fresh and a few years from now his insights may no longer be relevant. The unrepentant narcissism of these characters still feels like a stumbling block, however. Is there any merit in this lifestyle for teenagers? "It's totally vacuous," he admits. And is popularity really all that important? "No." He takes another sip of water. "In the grand scheme of things, the core clique in Popular are not going to damage your health. They're not promoting drugs or rampant sex [but] the scars they might leave on your confidence are another thing."

Bret Easton Ellis wrote his first book, Less Than Zero, about a similarly spoilt and cloistered gang. It became a grim tale of prostitution, drug addiction and snuff movies. Russell wants to keep a comedic tone - this is fiction for young adults - but plans on visiting darker places in the sequel. "Yes, there's the vacuousness, fabulousness and frivolity, but you have to acknowledge that schemes, rules and intrigues will eventually take their toll on the people doing them," he says.

"Nobody can control gossip. It's a liberated demon. There's no way that you can write a high-school book and not show that sometimes it can turn into the most awful experience imaginable."

Popular is out now from Penguin. 
British and European customers can purchase it here.
Australian readers can purchase here. Borders New Zealand also sells Popular.
Canadian and American readers can purchase here.
South African readers can purchase here.

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