Tuesday 28 August 2012

The Crusader's Bride: The Life of Berengaria of Navarre, Queen of England

"And I have asked to be
Where no storms come, 
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea."
- Heaven-Haven by Father Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 1889)

Before it was unified with France in 1620, the small kingdom of Navarre lay in the north-west of the Iberian peninsula, bordering the Bay of Biscay. In 1170, it was ruled over by thirty-eight year old King Sancho VI, nicknamed "Sancho the Wise" or "Sancho el Sabio" by his subjects. Reflecting its location between a disunited Spain, imperialist England and fractured France, Navarre had an ethnically and religiously diverse population. The majority were either Occitan-French or Basque, but there were sizable Jewish and Islamic communities, too. The capital city was Pamplona, today part of Spain; its major cathedral was the magnificent Santa Maria le Real (the existing Santa Maria in modern Pamplona is a replacement, completed in the early sixteenth century.)

We have no way of knowing when Princess Berengaria was born into Navarre's first family - she was named after her grandmother, Berengaria of Barcelona. Records are frustratingly vague and there is a five year margin of guesswork, between 1165 and 1170. Her father, Sancho the Wise, had ruled Navarre since succeeding to the throne in 1150, at the age of eighteen. He was a tenacious defender of Navarre's independence from the neighbouring kingdoms of Aragon and Castile. A patron of the arts, particularly architecture, he was also a talented diplomat who had not only outwitted the expansionist designs of Aragon and Castile, but also established friendly relations with Henry II's England - then, unquestionably, the dominant political force in western Europe. Henry II had an empire that stretched from the Pennines to the Pyrenees; his inheritance from his father had given him huge tracts of land in northern France; his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine meant that he had de facto control of Navarre's closest neighbour and, around the time Berengaria was born, Ireland had fallen to Henry's seemingly-unstoppable taste for glory. It was therefore a very good idea to keep the English on-side in the 1170s and this policy of her father's would later shape Berengaria's entire adult life.

Her mother, Queen Sancha, was a daughter of the King of Castile and his wife, a former princess from Aragon. As things go, Sancha herself was living proof that the theory that peace between nations could be guaranteed by royal marriages was hit-and-miss, at best. The deliciously-named Sancho and Sancha had six children together, with Berengaria apparently being born somewhere in the middle. Her eldest brother, another Sancho, was the heir to the throne and nicknamed "Sancho the Strong" by his subjects. He certainly had all the looks of a handsome, medieval warrior. He was also incredibly tall - one anthropologist suggested after studying Sancho's remains that he could have reached nearly 7 ft in height, although that seems slightly improbable. Sancho seems to have been proud of his looks and when he developed a weight problem in old age, he apparently felt the humiliation keenly. The other children, apart from Berengaria, were her brothers, Ferdinand and Ramiro, and her two sisters, Constanza and Blanca. 

Appropriately enough for a girl whose father had the sobriquet of "the wise," Berengaria of Navarre acquired a reputation for intelligence. She also seems to have generally been considered very attractive. Like Anne Boleyn four centuries later however, there was one eloquent dissenter - the chronicler, Richard of Devizes, thought that Berengaria was more clever than she was beautiful. In general, however, commentators seemed to agree that Berengaria had both beauty and brains - "a beautiful and learned maiden," "beautiful" and "of renowned beauty and wisdom". Even allowing for some of the verbose flattery that was slapped on with a metaphorical trowel for medieval royals, there is enough consistency in the surviving sources to suggest that she was good-looking, like many members of her family, and that she also inherited their brains. 

In 1190, when Berengaria was probably about twenty years old, the international situation and her father's politics found her a husband. Henry II of England had died, worn out and dejected by his sons' constant rebellions against him. His eldest surviving son, Richard, had now taken the throne, with the enthusiastic support of his mother, Eleanor, who had sided with her sons against her husband and endured nearly fifteen years of house arrest as a result. The Islamic attacks on the Holy Land had resumed and Europe was once again preparing for a crusade. Determined to go, Richard needed allies and he also needed to produce a son and heir, in order to keep his troublesome younger brother in check. With her family's connections to the Plantagenets and her country's geographically significant location, Berengaria seemed the perfect choice. Already en route to Italy to deal with an assault on his family's interests in Sicily, before setting sail for Palestine, Richard sent his mother south to Pamplona to fetch his betrothed and bring her to him. It was not romantic, but at least it was practical.

By this stage, the English Queen Mother was in her sixties and Berengaria must have quailed at the thought of meeting her. Her scandalous behaviour during the last crusade, her two marriages, her rebellion against her late husband, her larger-than-life personality, her fabulous wealth and her penchant for intrigue had all served to make Eleanor of Aquitaine a legend in her own lifetime. The two women met for the first time in Pamplona and Berengaria's father hosted a splendid banquet in Eleanor's honour at the nearby Palace de Olite. (Below) Then, it was Berengaria's duty to say goodbye to her family and accompany her mother-in-law on the long and perilous journey towards Sicily. 

The evidence would suggest that Eleanor and Berengaria did not have a particularly good relationship. In later years, Eleanor was to do absolutely nothing to help Berengaria and she had a tendency, both then and later, to sideline her daughter-in-law in public and in private. The Queen Mother also rather pointedly, and nastily, omitted the usual "dilectissima" or "carissima" when she referred to her daughter-in-law in official proclamations. If this is true, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the journey from Pamplona to Messina was not an enjoyable one. Nor can it have been particularly comfortable, since the two women and their entourage had to pass through the Alps in the dead of winter and then across the inhospitable plains of Lombardy. Feverish to reach her beloved son, Eleanor did not allow any time for rest or relaxation. The only stops they made were near Milan, where Eleanor had some official duties to carry out, and again in Pisa, where she waited for further instructions from Richard. One of Berengaria's first official appearances with the English royal family would have been on her journey with Eleanor during their stopover at Lodi, near Milan, when they met the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich VI, who was also anxious to end Tancredi's control over Sicily. 

It was not an easy time for Eleanor, which may suggest that she was particularly irascible company for poor Berengaria. Her daughter, Joanna, the Queen Dowager of Sicily, had been cheated of her inheritance by a usurper, Tancredi, who had also hurled Joanna into prison and thus necessitated Richard's pre-crusade attack on the island. There were also concerns that Richard's one-time friend (and some said, more than that), King Philip-Augustus of France, was attempting to exploit Tancredi in order to weaken Richard, regardless of the fact that both England and France were theoretically committed to one another because of the crusade. 

Berengaria and Eleanor reached Sicily on the last day of March in 1191. The queen-to-be was described by one chronicler as "a wise maiden, noble, brave and fair, neither false nor disloyal." Unfortunately, her arrival coincided with Lent, the great penitential season of the Christian calender and one in which all marriages were prohibited by canon law. Richard and Berengaria could not therefore be legally joined together until the arrival of Easter, several weeks away. In the meantime, she got her first glimpse of her husband's impressive military skill, when he captured the city of Messina and forced Tancredi to release Joanna from her prison in Palermo. Joanna, King Richard's youngest sister, was reunited with her mother and brother and, it seems, that she and Berengaria soon developed a genuine friendship. 

What of Richard the Lionheart himself? Well, like his parents, he was good looking. He was also tall and muscular, thanks to his active lifestyle. Despite his commitment to the crusade, there is not much evidence to suggest that he was particularly religious, but nor did he disdain the church or pursue quarrels with it - unlike his father and foolish youngest brother. Enshrined in legend because of his role in the Robin Hood tales, where he features as the archetypal "good king" to his brother John's "bad," Richard's reputation among scholars has fluctuated greatly since his death in 1199. He spent almost none of his reign in England, which led future Victorian scholars to fulminate against him in an outburst of patriotic pique. William Stubbs, the great historian and Anglican Bishop of Oxford, famously described Richard as "a bad son, a bad husband, a selfish ruler and a vicious man" in his 1864 description of Richard's reign. At the same time, other Victorians were celebrating Richard as the progenitor of the British Empire. Richard does seem to have genuinely deserved his reputation for military genius and Islamic chroniclers at the time paid him the grim tribute of saying that they never "had to face a bolder or more subtle opponent." He was not, however, overly concerned with his subjects' welfare, although he does deserve credit for halting the church-backed anti-Semitic pogrom that broke out in London shortly after his coronation. He also had the Plantagenets' infamous temper tantrum problem. Not quite the "hail-fellow-well-met" national paterfamilias suggested by the Robin Hood legends, Richard the Lionheart was nonetheless a  perfectly competent monarch and a brilliant military leader. That being said, the Victorian verdict that he was a "bad husband" may still be a fair assessment.

Saturday 25 August 2012

25th August, 1482: The death of a failed warrior

There's a fascinating theme that pervades Phyllida Lloyd and Abi Morgan biopic The Iron Lady. The movie is not really about Margaret Thatcher's controversial political career, but rather about a powerful life at its tail ends. The Iron Lady is about a woman who once wielded enormous influence, but who is now settling slowly into her twilight. A quiet end to a noisy life. And it's that same feeling which comes across when looking at the final years of another iron lady, another power player, another Margaret, who died on this day in 1482.

Marguerite of Anjou was only fifty-two years old when she passed away at the chateau of Dampierre, three miles from the winding course of the River Loire. She had already outlived her husband, King Henry VI of England, who had ended his life eleven years earlier as a murdered victim of the Tower of London, and her only child, Prince Edward, who had fallen in battle against the House of York in the same year. Since then, Marguerite had been driven back to her native France, where she endured financial humiliation and poverty. Forced to abandon her household and ancestral castles because she could not afford their upkeep, she was eventually granted asylum at Dampierre by the kindly Seigneur de Morains, a friend of her late father's. 

Marguerite was, and is, a controversial queen consort. The daughter of a French princeling who had a claim to the throne of the Naples, she was married to the deeply religious and mentally-imbalanced King Henry VI when she was fifteen years old. Strikingly beautiful, Marguerite also had an iron will and tenacity that her husband lacked. More than one observer made the catty remark that the House of Lancaster might have kept the throne if the genders of the King and Queen had been reserved. Whatever Marguerite privately thought of her husband's increasingly bizarre pieties, she was never anything less than totally loyal to him. She struggled valiantly, and sometimes savagely, to hold the monarchy together when Henry became to suffer the first of his frequent nervous breakdowns and states of mental paralysis. Sensing an opportunity to advance their own power, the King's cousin, the Duke of York and his family, began to make moves through parliament and then militarily to oust Henry from the throne and put a York in his place. Marguerite fought them every single step of the way.

The Yorks lost no time in portraying the foreign-born and high-handed Marguerite as a "she-wolf," the veritable re-incarnation of the wicked Isabella of France, who had overthrown and murdered her husband Edward II back in 1327 and then brazenly ruled alongside her adulterous lover. At times, Marguerite did nothing to dispel their propaganda against her. When her armies defeated those of the Duke of York, she had his head sent back to the gates of York wearing a paper crown, grimly joking that it was the only crown he would ever wear. His son, however, got his hands on the real thing soon after and drove Marguerite and her family into exile. 

Nine years later, she was back - after orchestrating probably the most audacious allegiance-flipping coup in history - having stolen the Yorks' former chief ally, the Earl of Warwick, and returning with his army at her back. She briefly managed to put Henry back on the throne, before Edward IV and the Yorks staged a counter-coup, in which Marguerite's 17 year-old son was killed fighting and her husband was almost certainly murdered directly on Edward IV's orders. With her family dead and her forces annihilated, Marguerite crept back to France, where her life slipped quietly, and tragically, to its close. When she died, the only thing of value that she still owned were her pack of hunting dogs. They were taken after her funeral by King Louis XI, who had treated Marguerite shamefully and miserly for the last decade.

Her body was taken to the Cathedral of St.-Maurice d'Angers, where she was buried next to her father, the erstwhile King of the Naples, and her mother, the Duchess of Lorraine. Few lives offer a better picture of the political instability that shattered England in the 1400s. For centuries after her death, she was painted as a vindictive harpy who had schemed and seduced her way through English politics, dragging her pathetic but holy husband along behind her. (Much the same personality would later be transposed onto her successor, Queen Elizabeth Woodville, whose life was to end in not-dissimilar circumstances.) Politically unwise and often ruthless, Marguerite was nonetheless no more of a "monster" than any of her contemporaries - and her actions certainly compare favourably to some of those carried out by Edward IV or Richard III. 

Surrounded by a weak husband, a treacherous aristocracy, economic unrest, language barriers, misogyny and a national identity crisis after the victories of Joan of Arc, Marguerite was ultimately turned into the scapegoat for an unhappy and bloody time in English history. 

Monday 20 August 2012

The White Star sisters

By 1907, Britain's White Star Line had an impressive fleet of liners that enabled the company to connect Britain with both its imperial colonies and with the rest of the world. Advertising maps alerted the public to the vast geographical remit of the White Star company and its corresponding ability to move passengers across the globe in comfort, speed and security. The most prestigious of all routes was the transatlantic passenger lane between England and America. Like their rivals at the Cunard Line, some White Star ships left from Liverpool and some connected to American ports like Boston, but the flagships of the line left from the southern port of Southampton, with stop-overs at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown in Ireland, before heading across the ocean to New York. White Star vessels were known for the comfort of their accommodation and the company's impressive safety record - its only major sinking had been the loss of the Republic in 1909, which had taken over a day to sink, enabling a full evacuation. There were five prestigious ships that operated the transatlantic route in 1907 for White Star - the Oceanic and the four sisters known as "the Big Four," the Cedric, Celtic, Baltic and Adriatic. The Oceanic had been nicknamed the "Queen of the Ocean" when she was launched in Belfast in 1899, at a ceremony watched by the cream of the Irish Protestant Ascendancy - including the Duke of Abercorn, the Marquess of Londonderry and the Marquess of Dufferin. 

But by 1907, the arrival of Cunard's awe-inspiring Lusitania and Mauretania had removed the sparkle from White Star's commercial crown. Not only were the new Cunarders the largest ships afloat, but they were also the fastest and the most luxurious, as well as using the famous four funnel design previously reserved for German ships. With the funding of their new de facto owner, the wealthy American financier J.P. Morgan, White Star Line's chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, met with the former Lord Mayor of Belfast, Lord Pirrie, one of the controlling partners of the world-famous Belfast shipyards, Harland and Wolff. They agreed to combat the Cunard threat by building two new ships in quick succession that would dwarf the Cunard sisters in terms of size and in the comfort offered to its passengers. In order to do that, both Ismay and Lord Pirrie realised that speed would have to be sacrificed. Deciding to make a virtue out of a necessity, they later marketed that the White Star's journey across the Atlantic - which usually took a full day longer than the Mauretania's - could be done so in much greater comfort and stability. A third sister was planned for a later date, which would have re-established White Star's monopoly of the British transatlantic trade - had the plan worked. As with the building of the Oceanic, Ismay's directive was summed up in the phrase, "Nothing but the best."

Thousands of workers toiled for three years to build the first of the Olympic-class liners. Most of the men came from the Protestant-dominated working-class districts of east Belfast, where the Harland and Wolff yards were (and are.) The Olympic was launched in 1910 and sailed on her maiden voyage, to great media ballyhoo, in May 1911 (above). Nearly half again as large as the Mauretania, she was also much more attractive in terms of her outward appearance and she was deliberately designed to have the sleek, elegant exterior favoured by European royalty when it came to designing their enormous private yachts. White Star's hopes that their new queen would corner the lucrative upper-class transatlantic market was shown by the fact that there was room for over one thousand first class passengers. They had access to the ship's grand staircase (now legendary because of the number of times it's featured in movies about the Titanic), lounges and restaurants based on the royal apartments at the Palace of Versailles, a smoking room that rivaled the best gentlemen's clubs in London with its fireplace, leather armchairs, mahogany walls and stained glass windows. There were verandas that were based on the winter gardens made popular on German ships, wide promenade decks, an enormous dining saloon that could sit five hundred people at one sitting, reception rooms based on Jacobean country houses, Turkish baths inspired by the decadence of the Ottoman sultans, a gymnasium, a squash court and the world's first ever swimming pool onboard a luxury liner. The first class staterooms were decorated in a variety of historical styles and there was a huge range of prices, moving from the fairly basic cabins on A-Deck to the lavish parlour suites on B-Deck. Second class accommodation was sombre, comfortable and very obviously Edwardian (below) and third class was spacious, clean and comfortable. The prices, of course, for all three classes were correspondingly quite a bit higher than they were for other ships. It added to the Olympic's intentional sense of distinctive superiority over her rivals.

All of this positive publicity - and, some would say, the White Star Line itself - was dealt a death blow eleven months later, when the slightly larger Titanic sailed on her maiden voyage. She was practically identical to the Olympic and only ocean liner buffs can recognise the difference between the two from photographs (the Titanic enclosed part of its promenade deck, expanded the Louis XVI restaurant, added in an extra cafe for first class passengers and added an extra layer of exclusive luxury suites on B-Deck, hence why she was just over a thousand tons heavier than her sister.) Four days into her first voyage, the Titanic sustained a side-on collision with an iceberg and sank just under three hours later, with the loss of over fifteen hundred lives. It was, at that point, the worst maritime disaster in history and it caused a media sensation, that has never quite gone away. The White Star sustained a huge financial loss, but what was arguably even more damaging was the image the Titanic created of a company that was either callous or incompetent. Perhaps both.

With the benefit of hindsight, it does seem as if White Star was doomed from the moment its flagship became the most famous disaster in history. The shadow of the Titanic was a long one that would cast a darkness over the company for the rest of its existence, but it seems slightly simplistic to assume that from the moment Titanic hit the iceberg, White Star's own demise was also inevitable. 

The third of the White Star sisters, the patriotically-named Britannic, was launched in 1914. Larger than the Titanic and kitted-up with enough lifeboats and the latest safety provisions, Britannic might have helped restore the White Star's reputation, had she had the chance. But when the First World came, the Olympic was pulled out of service and turned into a troop transport for the Royal Navy and the incomplete Britannic became a hospital ship. The Olympic had a stellar war-time service record and she was nicknamed "Old Reliable." But the Britannic sank in 1916 after hitting a German mine in the Mediterranean. Until 1936, she was the largest ship built on British soil; she is still the largest British passenger liner to actually have sunk at sea in a shipwreck.

When the war ended in 1918, White Star had lost a great number of its ships to the Allied war effort, and with only the Olympic left out of its three super-ships, the company was facing a bleak feature until the British government decided to honour its promise to reward the firms that had served it so faithfully during the war. Ocean liners were being taken from Germany under the terms of the peace treaties as a form of reparations and public feeling in Germany, like everything to do with the Versailles peace settlement, was outraged by it. A medium-sized liner called Columbus, which had been built in 1913 for the Nordeutscher Lloyd company, was seized and given to the White Star Line, who re-named her Homeric. With two funnels and a gross tonnage of just over 35,000, Homeric (above) was a pleasing ship, with a conservative aesthetic and comfortable accommodation (below - one of the first class corridors). A renovation was ordered in Belfast shortly after, when it was decided that her 18 knots sailing speed was too slow for White Star to maintain its weekly schedule of Atlantic sailings, but apart from that the Homeric proved a very popular running mate to the Olympic when she entered service for White Star in 1922.

But the Homeric, although pretty and popular, was not enough to replace the mighty Britannic, which would have been White Star's pride and joy if she hadn't been lost in Britain's campaign against the Germans and Ottoman Empire. The chosen replacement was the largest ship built in German history, so far, which would ameliorate the sting of having lost the largest ship built in British history, so far - at least, for the British. She was the 56,000-ton Bismarck, named after the statesman who had helped unite Germany in the 1870s. Her smaller sisters, the Imperator and Vaterland, had already been seized. Imperator had become Cunard's Berengaria and Vaterland had gone to become the United States's first major transatlantic luxury liner, Leviathan. Bismarck had never been finished and now she was finished for the White Star Line, under her new name, Majestic (below). She entered service in 1922 as the largest ship in the world and immediately helped re-solidify White Star's former reputation for size, luxury and security. 

With the Majestic, Olympic and Homeric now in service as running mates, White Star was able to start operating one of the most financially successful routes on the north Atlantic. Having three ships  meant that one ship would always be at sea or being re-provisioned, whilst the others were leaving New York and Southampton on a weekly basis to complete in-tandem crossings of the Atlantic. The Olympic remained one of the most consistently popular ships of the decade, which rather dispels the myth that the Titanic continued to haunt the ocean-going public's mind. The Majestic, with her cavernous first class rooms (below), also helped attract a loyal clientele in the economically-prosperous 1920s. However, when the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s, the transatlantic market temporarily imploded and ships that had been designed for point-to-point travel across the often-rough Atlantic, like the Majestic or Olympic, struggled to adjust to the indignity of short hot-weather cruises, desperately designed to turn some kind of profit.

By 1934, it was clear that White Star's days were financially numbered. Its fleet was made up of ships that were either too old, too big or both. There were a number of collisions, power-cuts, a huge drop in booking numbers and a new spate of edgy-chic superships were emerging from Germany, France and Italy which made British ships seem antiquated and fusty. The Olympic, alone, managed to keep up respectable (if not exactly healthy) booking numbers - a testament to the affection she was still held in - but her days were numbered and White Star began to look on her enormous running costs, frequent technological difficulties and occasional collisions as a headache. In 1934, the company merged with their old enemies, Cunard, to form the Cunard-White Star Line - all their resources would now be pooled into creating a glamorous new liner to modernise Britain's transatlantic image and counter the humiliation posed by Germany's Bremen, Italy's Rex or France's forthcoming Normandie.

There were clear signs from the beginning that Cunard was the dominant force in the new "partnership." Of the six prestigious ships the new company now had at its disposal for the premier run across the Atlantic - the Majestic, Olympic, Homeric, Berengaria, Mauretania and Aquitania - three would have to go, immediately. Two more would be kept around to run alongside the Queen Mary, until her new sister-ship, Queen Elizabeth, was completed in 1939/1940. Both the Mauretania and Olympic, as the oldest of the set and the ones most in trouble, were quickly agreed upon as the first two that had to go. There was a public campaign to keep one, or both, as floating hotels or museums and it's difficult not to groan at the financial and historical mistake that was made in not preserving the Olympic. In the age of Titanic mania that began in the 1950s and has continued ever since, it would surely have been a goldmine to whoever owned it. As well as a fascinating one for subsequent generations.

Signs of the pro-Cunard bias of the new merger came when a decision had to be reached about which of the two companies' flagships - the 52,000-ton Berengaria or 56,000-ton Majestic - should be kept on to serve until the Queen Elizabeth was ready. Despite the fact that the Majestic was larger, younger and safer than the Berengaria, it was Majestic who was sold for scrap and the Berengaria which was kept on. The Homeric survived long enough to participate in the festivities to mark King George V's Silver Jubilee in 1935, but as the slowest and smallest of the six ships, it did make sense that she should be scrapped too.

With its three former ships having completely vanished into scrap metal and scattered pieces of furnishing, the White Star's last two surviving ships were the motor ships Georgic and a new Britannic. They continued to sail under the White Star colours until their careers ended in 1956 and 1960, respectively. Cunard, however, dropped the White Star name in 1949 and today the company's name survives in a commercial sense solely as a kind of white-gloved service exclusively reserved for those occupying the most expensive suites on the current Cunard ships, Queen Mary 2, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth. Once a year, on the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, those three ships hoist the White Star flag for the day.

Wednesday 15 August 2012

The Cunard sisters

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Great Britain was not accustomed to the sensation of inferiority. America, although large and rich, was still viewed as a parvenu republic whose influence was confined to a continent that none of the other great powers were interested in; Imperial Russia had an empire that was second in size to Britain's, an economy drastically smaller and a political system which, to the British, bordered on the barbaric and arcane. France, Britain's theoretical ally and rival, was prone to revolution - as changes of regime in 1804, 1814, 1815, 1830, 1848, 1852 and 1870 had shown. The only country that Britain could not dismiss was Imperial Germany - newly unified and hungry for the glory that Britain enjoyed. The two countries competed in everything - army, navy, diplomacy, economy, art, industry and colonialism. The rapid expansion of the German navy under Admiral von Tirpitz gave Britain cause for alarm; the expansion of her commercial passenger fleet simply caused patriotic pique. Britannia was supposed to rule the waves in all its guises - be it military and commercial - and this newfound teutonic one-up-manship quite simply would not do.

The arrival of four lavish luxury liners, all named after members of the German imperial family, caused distress in London and Liverpool. The British Empire no longer had the largest passenger ships in the world. Then when another German company launched the Deutschland in 1900, which took the Blue Riband award for the fastest westbound crossing of the North Atlantic, it was clear that something had to be done. The British government were prepared to offer generous financial assistance to the Cunard Line to enable them to build a duo that would resoundingly crush the humiliation posed by the German liners, in terms of both size and speed. The only contractual stipulation was that if Britain ever needed the ships to perform for the Royal Navy during war-time, then Cunard would have to oblige. No such offer was made to Cunard's British rivals, the White Star Line, who, by that stage, were simply far too heavily-financed by J.P. Morgan for the British government's liking.

Although today all Cunard ships are named after British queens, before 1936 they were all named after provinces of the ancient Roman empire. (Hence why they all ended with -ia, whilst the adverb-inspired White Star's ended with -ic.) The first sister was named Lusitania, after the ancient Roman province of Portugal, and she was built at the John Brown shipyards on the Clydebank in Scotland. Weighing in at 31,550 tons, she was launched by Lady Inverclyde. She sailed on her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York in September 1907 and immediately recaptured the Blue Riband for Britain; wresting it from the Deutschland.

The second ship, Mauretania, was named after Roman northern Africa and she was built at Swan Hunter shipyards on the Tyne in north-eastern England. She was launched by Winston Churchill's aunt, Anne, Duchess of Roxburghe, Queen Victoria's former Mistress of the Robes. Entering service in November 1907, two months after her sister, the Mauretania was slightly larger and slightly faster. The 31,900-ton liner took the Blue Riband and held it, quite incredibly, for the next twenty-two years. 

The press excitement surrounding the Lusitania and Mauretania was not just a result of patriotic sabre-rattling, but also because of a genuine sense of technological excitement. The two ships were not just larger than their German rivals, but a marvel of contemporary engineering because they were nearly twice the size of any ship then in existence. Their interiors, too, provoked much purple-hued commentary. Unlike the White Star Line, which preferred to decorate sister-ships (i.e. ones of roughly similar design, size and construction date) in almost identical styles, the 1907 Cunard sisters had individual aesthetics. To be reductive, the Lusitania was slightly more 'baroque' in her first class accommodation - particularly in her famous first class dining saloon (above) and the Mauretania was more conservatively English, with more use of mahogany, stained glass and a 'country house' feel in rooms like her first class lounge (below.) The Queens Grill on the current Cunard ship Queen Victoria is inspired by the first class lounges on-board the Mauretania.

For four years, the two Cunard sisters were the last word in ocean-going luxury, size, speed and safety. In 1911, Cunard's British rivals, White Star Line, struck back with the 45,000-ton Olympic. Half-again as large as the Mauretania, the Olympic and her two sisters that were still being built in Belfast - Titanic and Britannic - were never designed to challenge the Cunarders in terms of speed. They would take a full extra night to make it across the Atlantic, but they would carry their passengers in more stable and spacious accommodation. There would also be three of them, not two, meaning that they would be able to offer more regular services than the Cunard Line's flagships. In response, Cunard commissioned a third ship to be built on the Tyne and opted to play White Star at their own game. She was not to be as fast as the two elder ships, but rather she was to be roughly the same size as White Star's Olympic and to offer comparably luxurious quarters. 

Of course, by the time the new Aquitania was launched by the Countess of Derby in 1913, White Star's dream of a three-ship express run lay in tatters due to the Titanic disaster. All of the Cunard ships were revamped to carry more lifeboats since, like most of their contemporaries, they had been as unprepared as the Titanic had been. Named after the Roman province of western France, the Aquitania sailed on her maiden voyage in May 1914 and was dubbed "the ship beautiful," because of her palatial first class rooms. (Below) A month after she entered service, the Austrian archduke, Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated on a state visit to Sarajevo and Europe slid into the carnage of the First World War.

During the war, the Aquitania was gutted of her beautiful interiors and served first as a hospital ship and then as a troop transport for the Royal Navy. The Mauretania was a warship, a troop transport and a hospital ship; whilst the Lusitania was tragically sunk by a German U-Boat with the loss of over one thousand civilian lives in 1915. When the war ended in 1918, the two surviving sisters re-entered service for Cunard and the triumphant British government exacted the ultimate commercial humiliation on a vanquished Germany. The former pride of the German maritime fleet - the 52,000-ton Imperator, launched into service by Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1913 - was requisitioned and given to Cunard as reparations for the sinking of the Lusitania. She was kitted up in the Cunard colours (red and black funnels) and renamed Berengaria - which I like to think of as a bit of a transition name. It was the first Cunarder to be named after a queen of England (Richard I's wife in the twelfth century), but she still had the -ia ending.

Throughout the 1920s, Cunard ran a three ship service - now sailing from Southampton, rather than Liverpool. The Berengaria could be marketed as the company's impressive flagship (she wasn't the largest in the world; that honour went to White Star's Majestic); the Mauretania was still the world's fastest liner and the Aquitania represented a gracious alternative to the fast "jazz age"-style decoration of newer ships. It was a commercially successful operation, until the Great Crash of 1929 upended the world's economy. Passenger numbers plummeted and the three Cunard ships began to run at a financial loss for the first time in their history.

Inventive, if undignified, methods were used to try to make the vast ships turn a profit again. The Berengaria was sent on several "booze cruises" out of New York, to give alcohol-thirsty Americans a chance to escape Prohibition and drink themselves into a nautical stupor once the ship sailed outside American jurisdiction. The Mauretania was painted white (below) and tried to crack the cruise market. She was, however, too big and too old fashioned to cope well with exotic or hot ports of call. The Aquitania, which had been the most profitable of the three during the 1920s, went on short cruises to the Mediterranean. But these were piecemeal methods and the ships, particularly the Mauretania, were now simply too old to function properly for a company that could not afford to keep repairing ships that were unfashionable and consistently booked far below full capacity.

In 1934, Cunard and White Star bowed to economic reality and merged with one another to become the Cunard-White Star Line. Britain only needed one transatlantic luxury firm now, not two. This, of course, created the problem that they now had six liners available for the north Atlantic trade - the Majestic, Olympic, Homeric, Berengaria, Aquitania and Mauretania. Both White Star and Cunard had been making plans to build a new super-ship to modernise their companies' image and capture the new markets emerging as the Depression receded. They now wisely merged their finances and the new ship was named the Queen Mary in part because it avoided giving off the appearance of bias by picking either an -ia or -ic name. (Although as a sign of the way things were to go, her funnels were painted in the Cunard colours.) 

The Mauretania was withdrawn from service shortly after the 1934 merger. Her furnishings were sold at auction in the following year and she was bought by a scrapping firm, after paying an emotive final trip to her "birthplace" at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. As a sign of how much affection she'd been held in during her career, even the U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, wrote a letter urging that she should be bought and preserved as a museum. The Berengaria, which helped maintain the transatlantic route whilst the Queen Mary was built, was retired in 1938 and met a similar fate. It was decided that the Aquitania should keep the new Queen Mary company until the new Queen Elizabeth was ready in 1940, which meant that when the Second World War broke out in 1939, the Aquitania was once again called-up to serve her country. Over the next six years, she transported nearly 400,000 soldiers for the Allied war effort. When the war ended in 1945, the former "ship beautiful" was used by Cunard to help the Canadian government in bringing "war brides" and their children over to Canada. By 1949, she had to be definitively retired as she was so old that she could not be brought in line with modern safety requirements. After a career that spanned nearly four decades, 1.2 million passengers, 3 million miles and two world wars, the Aquitania was sold for scrap metal in Scotland in 1950. 

Tuesday 14 August 2012

Christopher Hitchen's thoughts on "Brideshead Revisited"

After posting my review of the 2008 movie adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, starring Matthew Goode, Ben Whishaw and Emma Thompson, I came across an article in the Guardian by the late, brilliant Christopher Hitchens. While I never exactly agreed with Christopher Hitchens' views on many things - namely the monarchy and some of his critique of religion - I always admired his superb skills as a writer and this reflection on what makes Brideshead Revisited so compelling, reminds me why.

Hitchen deftly highlights how Sebastian's sexual ambiguity and male beauty is almost certainly an homage to the martyrdom of the Christian saint, Sebastian. He demolishes the idea that Charles and Sebastian were not romantically attached to one another and goes to town on "the ridiculous word 'platonic' that for some peculiar reason still crops up in discussion of the story". He cleverly explores how Christianity helped shape not just the novel's storyline, but also some of its sentence structure. But his best analysis comes on how he believes it's the ghost of the First World War and the millions of war-dead that haunt Brideshead Revisited - shaping characters as diverse as Lady Marchmain (whose three brothers were killed on the Western Front and who is determined to immortalise them in a dynastic history) to the bullish "Boy" Mulcaster, a viscount's heir who becomes involved in repressing the General Strike because he thinks it will make the "Glorious Dead" of the war proud that he, who was too young to fight in 1914, stepped up to save the nation from its internal enemies in 1926.

It's a brilliant article, from a brilliant writer, and it can be accessed here.

Sunday 12 August 2012

12th August, 1904: The birth of an heir

For most of the eighteenth century, the power of the Russian monarchy had been wielded by women. When his mother Catherine the Great died in 1796, the new emperor, Paul, introduced a set of succession laws which, in the future, barred women in the Romanov family from inheriting the throne - or from transmitting that claim to their children. The Empress Anna had married abroad and when she unexpectedly inherited the throne in 1730, it was felt by many that her government became the puppet of her German in-laws. Female monarchs, like Anna, could therefore apparently be weak and easily dominated by their male advisers. If they weren't weak, then the dominant misogynist logic of the time held that they would be devious and manipulative. Both the Empress Elisabeth and Catherine the Great had seized the throne by overthrowing weak male monarchs in order to achieve their goals. After a century of such behaviour, Emperor Paul, who loathed his mother and had mortified Marie-Antoinette on a state visit to Versailles by the things he said about her, was determined to make sure that a female coup didn't happen again. From 1797 on wards, the succession to the Russian throne could only proceed directly through the male line.

By 1904, Tsar Paul's great-great grandson, Nicholas II, was beginning to feel the pressure of his ancestor's decision. So far, he and his Anglo-German wife, Alexandra, had produced four children - 8 year-old Olga, 7 year-old Tatiana, 5 year-old Maria and 3 year-old Anastasia. All girls. (Below) Whilst the birth of Olga, a fat and healthy baby, had been greeted with undisguised joy in 1895, the birth of Maria in 1899 had been described by her own grandmother as a crushing disappointment and when Anastasia was born in 1901, the Tsar had gone for a long walk in the palace gardens, before putting on a brave face to greet his wife and child.

Alexandra was more than aware that people expected her to deliver. (Quite literally.) And she felt the pressure keenly. When her second daughter, Tatiana, was born in 1897, the young Empress had apparently burst into tears, asking, "What will the nation say?" There were also signs that Alexandra's delicate build could not cope with many more pregnancies. She did not have a strong heart, or back, and even during her second pregnancy, she had spent most of her time in a wheelchair or in bed. She repeatedly fainted during her pregnancy with Maria and the birth of Anastasia had been difficult. Increasingly desperate, Alexandra had turned to her religion and she formed a close friendship with another member of the Imperial Family, the Grand Duchess Militsa, a woman known for her interest in the quack fringes of Christianity. On her advice, the Empress had made visits to a dubious French mystic called Philippe Nazier-Vachot; she had also gone on pilgrimage and bathed in holy springs. At one point, not too long after Anastasia's birth, the Tsarina thought she might be pregnant again, but it was a false alarm.

In early 1904, Alexandra knew for certain she was pregnant again. She was under pressure not just from her own body, which physically could not take any more pregnancies, but also from the nation, who had been anything but responsive when yet another daughter had been born in 1901 - despite the Tsar's attempts to celebrate Anastasia's birth by granting amnesty to certain prisoners. As with Anastasia's birth three years earlier, the Imperial Family stuck to their usual annual routine and decided to spend part of the summer at Peterhof (below), a magnificent eighteenth century summer palace near Saint Petersburg, built by Peter the Great and sometimes nicknamed "the Russian Versailles." 

The weather was very hot that summer and the breeze coming off the bays near the palace helped alleviate the court's discomfort. On 12th August, the Tsar and Tsarina sat down to luncheon together, as usual. The Empress was nine months pregnant. She made it to the soup course before excusing herself and hurrying to her rooms, with her servants and doctors. After all the pain and panic that had gone into hoping for a boy, and all the pain and panic that would follow this particular little boy, Alexei Romanov's birth was actually surprisingly easy. Labour lasted less than an hour and in the early afternoon, the guns at Peterhof fired out to announce the birth of another imperial child. Protocol demanded three hundred shots for a boy and one hundred and one for a girl. By the time the one hundred and second shot was fired, the nearby imperial naval base at Kronstadt had started their own salute. The population of the country's capital, Saint Petersburg, heard the news when the enormous cannons of the Peter and Paul Fortress began thundering out across the city and the cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan led the city's churches in a bell-ringing cacophony. 

The child had been christened Alexei, after Nicholas II's favourite ancestor, the seventeenth century Tsar Alexei the Just. He inherited the Romanovs' proverbial good looks and the delicate complexion of his mother's family. Nicholas described it as a "great, never-to-be-forgotten day" in his diary and attributed his son's birth to "the mercy of God." Alexandra wept hysterically: "Oh, it cannot be true! It cannot be true! Is it really a boy?" The Empress's lady-in-waiting, Anna Vyrobouva, described him as "beautiful ... healthy, normal." He was beautiful, yes, but he was not healthy.

Some of the first official visitors to see the future tsar in his cradle were his four sisters, who were allowed to tiptoe in once the baby had been washed and dressed. His full name and title was His Imperial Highness Alexei Nicholaivich, Sovereign Heir and Tsarevich, Grand Duke of Russia, Hetman of All Cossacks, Knight of the Order of Saint Andrew, Head of the Siberian Infantry, Head of the Horse Battalion Infantry and Head of the Cadet Corps. His godparents were his grandmother, the Dowager Empress Marie (Nicholas's Danish mother and one of the most popular members of the Romanov family with the public); King Edward VII of Britain, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany and the Tsarina's brother, Grand Duke Ernest of Hesse. It would be six weeks before his parents began to notice dark purple bruises on his arms and legs and the awful realisation that he had haemophilia - the same disease which had killed Alexandra's uncle, Leopold, and her little brother, Frederick. 

Desperate to hide the truth about her son's illness, lest it weaken respect for the dynasty, and crippled by guilt that it had been her genetics which gave him the sickness which could kill him, Alexandra turned to the same dubious religious solutions she had used when trying to fall pregnant in the first place. When doctors couldn't do anything for her, she sought an answer from God and she believed she had found it in the form of a smelly, eccentric Siberian peasant called Grigory Rasputin. His soothing voice and prayers were the only thing that seemed to stop Alexei's terrible fits of bleeding and, having witnessed these miracles with her own eyes, Alexandra became convinced Rasputin had been touched by the hands of God. To preserve her son's life, she ignored all the evidence which proved that, once he left her presence, Rasputin was not submissive and holy, but wild, drunken and belligerent. Even when she (ludicrously) was accused of being his lover, Alexandra refused to abandon the man who could cure her son. Nicholas, who found Rasputin bizarre and slightly irritating, loved Alexandra so much that he could not bring himself to shatter the only mechanism she had to cope with their child's disease: religion, represented by Rasputin. She defended Rasputin, even when everyone around her knew that his unpopularity was damaging the monarchy. Since the public knew nothing of Alexei's illness, they could not understand why Alexandra was so attached to Rasputin and, naturally, many of them therefore assumed the worst. The repressed trauma of Alexei's illness would eventually set in motion a catalogue of disasters that would shatter the prestige of the Romanov dynasty, claim dozens of political careers, split the church, end Rasputin's life and drag Alexandra's reputation through the mud. Thirteen years later, when the Russian Empire Alexei was born to inherit vanished in revolution, many people, even Alexandra's own friends and family, blamed her dependence on Rasputin and the secret grief she had carried for years, which had led her to put her son's health, his happiness and (above all) his privacy above everything else.

Thursday 9 August 2012

Marie-Astrid: the Queen who never was

The 1981 marriage of Charles, Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer was one of the most famous media events of the century. The splendour of the day and the drama of the marriage's breakdown in the next decade helped remove memories of the fact that for most of the 1970s, Prince Charles's position as the world's most eligible bachelor had helped occupy the tabloids.

Before the lithesome loveliness of Diana lit up the nation's screens, Prince Charles was linked to a whole host of women. Some eligible; many decidedly not. Certain members of the Royal Family looked on in horror at the pretty, wealthy but racy young women Charles was involved with in the decade before he met Diana. None of them seemed quite right to take on the enormous responsibility of being the next Princess of Wales. They either weren't virgins, weren't aristocrats or there was some defect in their personality that made royal insiders doubt they would adjust well to the "glamour in aspic" of marrying into the royal house. 

One woman that Charles was linked to for a time was, on paper, perfect in all respects bar one. She was Princess Marie-Astrid of Luxembourg; she was the eldest child of Luxembourg's reigning Grand Duke Jean and his elegant Belgian wife, Josephine-Charlotte. She had trained as a nurse, despite her royal upbringing, and now served as President of the Red Cross in Luxembourg - the kind of humanitarian charity work that the British Royal Family love. She was five years younger than Prince Charles, pretty, poised and having been born into royalty herself, she knew what to expect. By 1977, British tabloids like the Daily Express were confidently reporting that Buckingham Palace would soon be announcing the Prince's engagement to the twenty-three year-old Princess of Luxembourg.

The only problem, of course, was her religion. Like all members of Luxembourg's reigning family, Marie-Astrid was a Roman Catholic. One of her father's godparents had been Pope Benedict XV and the family retained close ties with the Vatican. For years, it was assumed that it had been Pope Paul VI who ruined Marie-Astrid's chances of becoming Queen of England by invoking the Ne Temere decree, which required that, as a Catholic, she should be married in a Catholic church and promise to raise her children as Catholics, too. Given that Marie-Astrid was going to marry the future head of the Protestant Church of England, that naturally created some problems and the whole thing had to be called off.

In fact, whilst it's unlikely that the Pope would have been too enthused about seeing Marie-Astrid's children raised as Protestants, it was Britain that torpedoed the match. Not Rome.

In the first place, there were laws in place that made such a marriage impossible. If Charles and Marie-Astrid had married, it would have been the first time a British sovereign legally married a Roman Catholic since the future James II married Maria-Beatrice of Modena in 1673. Their reign had ended in revolution and when their enemies triumphed at the Battle of the Boyne, laws were introduced banning any future monarchs from marrying a Catholic. When the future George IV attempted to marry a gentle Catholic widow, Maria Fitzherbert, in 1785, he broke nearly every constitutional law applicable to his private life. The marriage was regarded as totally illegal and George was eventually forced to marry the far less appealing Princess Caroline of Brunswick - who may have been smelly and annoying, but at least she was Protestant and that was really all the British government cared about.

That the government considered it possible that Prince Charles might one day want to marry Princess Marie-Astrid is shown by the fact that there were several committees set-up to see if it was constitutionally possible to repeal the ban on British royals marrying Catholics. There was soft opposition, from the beginning, including from Charles's beloved grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who was not only a devout Protestant but was also naturally opposed to change. Concerns about how such a marriage would affect the already-volatile situation in Northern Ireland were also voiced. Early in 1980, the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, set up a small committee to discuss the issue. According to her future biographer, Hugo Young, the Prime Minister herself was strongly opposed to changing the law or to encouraging the Prince's marriage to Marie-Astrid. And her objections rested squarely on the idea that the princess's religion was problematic and undesirable. Some of the committees other members later told Young that they had been shocked by "the extreme anti-Catholicism" of the Prime Minister.

Eventually the rumours about Charles and Marie-Astrid faded away. Maybe that's all they ever were. Neither Charles, nor Marie-Astrid, ever went firmly on the record about how much truth there had been in the idea that they could quite married. Evidently, Mrs. Thatcher considered it a possibility, but we don't know how sold on the idea Charles himself ever was. Charles soon announced his forthcoming marriage to the beautiful Diana Spencer - young, virginal, British, aristocrat and Protestant. And Marie-Astrid married a member of the deposed Austrian royal family, Archduke Carl-Christian, in 1982 (above.)

Prince Charles is now the father of two sons and is married to Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall - one of the women who was considered so unsuitable for him in the 1970s. Marie-Astrid, now an Archduchess of Austria and Princess of Hungary, is the mother of five children. Her eldest, Marie-Christine, is married to the Count of Limburg-Stirum, and is a mother herself. Her eldest son, the twenty-six year-old Archduke Imre, is engaged to the American Catholic journalist and pro-Life activist, Kathleen Walker; his 24 year-old brother, Archduke Christoph, is engaged to the French diplomat's daughter, Adelaide Drapé-Frisch. (Both engagement pictures are below.) Marie-Astrid's two youngest children are 21 year-old Archduke Alexander and 18 year-old Archduchess Gabriella. 

How history might have been different if the rumours were right and the Prime Minister had supported the idea. Perhaps though, given Marie-Astrid's own devotion to her Catholic faith and the quiet lifestyle she now enjoys, things worked out for the best. 

Wednesday 8 August 2012

"Brideshead Revisited" (2008)

In 1981, Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited was turned into a lavish eleven-part television drama, with a combined playing-time of nearly thirteen hours. It is still generally agreed to be one of the greatest television series of all time. It not only captured the fantastic characters of Waugh's book, but also the atmosphere of the 1920s and 1930s, when most of the novel is set. In 2008, a new movie version of the  same novel came out starring Emma Thompson, Michael Gambon, Ben Whishaw, Matthew Goode and Hayley Atwell. Any movie of Brideshead Revisited was always going to struggle by being compared to the television show thirty years earlier. After all, the movie has to do in two hours what the television show got to do in thirteen. Inevitably, parts of the story suffer or are cut short. 

For those unfamiliar with the story of Brideshead Revisited, it centres on a young upper middle-class student called Charles Ryder, who goes to study History at Oxford in the early 1920s. Initially, he befriends his cousin's circle of serious-minded friends and tries to devote himself to his studies like they do. However, he's already beginning to bore of this worthy but dull existence when he meets a strikingly handsome young aristocrat, Lord Sebastian Flyte. The pair (one is tempted to say "the couple") meet late one night when Sebastian, who has been out drinking heavily with his wealthy friends, vomits through Charles's open bedroom window and then sends him dozens of bouquets of flowers the next day to apologise. Charles is dazzled by the flamboyant, clever and eccentric Sebastian, who spends almost none of his time studying and most of it drinking, partying and organising picnics. (Needless to say, I'm a Sebastian fan.) Sebastian, who is repeatedly described as the most charming man anyone has ever met, is equally smitten with Charles and seems to regard their friendship as the only form of genuine affection he's ever known. One fateful day over the holidays, Sebastian invites Charles to visit him at home - which turns out to be a sprawling and magnificent country palace called Brideshead. There, Charles meets Sebastian's family, including his devoutly Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain, and his stunningly beautiful sister, Julia. From there, the slow disintegration of Charles and Sebastian's relationship - and Sebastian's sanity - dominates the rest of the novel.

To begin with, what's right with the new version of Brideshead Revisited? Well, there are some very fine performances. Matthew Goode is very handsome, in the manner of a 1930s' pin-up, and he plays the lead role of Charles Ryder with a lot more angst and heart than the character was given in either the novel or the TV show. Hayley Atwell also manages to make her character, Julia, far more likable and she captures all of Julia's spoiled flirtatiousness perfectly. Michael Gambon and Emma Thompson as Sebastian's parents, the Marquess and Marchioness of Marchmain, are both very good and Ben Whishaw is, as ever, absolutely marvelous. On the one hand, his version of Sebastian is far more openly pathetic and a good deal less charming than the television drama's, but he also lights up the screen any time he's on it and helps give the movie a heartbreaking curve that it might otherwise have lacked. Greta Scacchi, Felicity Jones, Ed Stoppard and Joseph Beattie are also memorable in their performances as Cara, Cordelia, Bridey and Anthony Blanche (far less camp and much more astute in this adaptation.)

The movie is also undeniably beautiful, in nearly every shot. Oxford looks, as ever, nothing short of breathtaking. Brideshead was filmed at Castle Howard (below), the home of the Earl of Carlisle, just like it was in 1981 and the house has lost none of its power to dazzle the audience, in the same way it dazzles the character of Charles. Venice, Italian beaches, 1930s London and luxury transatlantic liners all combine to make this a costume drama lover's dream. Like Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, Brideshead Revisited is simply stunning to look at from start to finish.

But, like Marie Antoinette, there's an absence at the core of Brideshead Revisited. You're not quite sure what you're supposed to feel or who you're supposed to sympathise with - with the obvious exception of Sebastian. Part of the problem comes from the time issue, which naturally means certain storylines have to get simplified. In the novel, it is strongly implied that very early on in their friendship, the relationship between Sebastian and Charles was sexual. It was certainly romantic, with Charles describing himself repeatedly as being "obsessed" with Sebastian and later saying that Sebastian was the "forerunner" for all the subsequent (female) loves of Charles's life. However, the novel was published in 1945 when censorship was still rampant and Waugh himself was a devout Catholic, who was unlikely to go into too much detail about it. It's therefore left up to the reader to decide just how far Sebastian and Charles went with each other during their summer term at Oxford - and there are no clear answers in the novel about whether one is straight or gay. Indeed, at one point, the sexuality of both Charles and Sebastian seems to be equally confusing or confused. The issue is left unresolved, because Sebastian's alcoholism and nervous breakdown severs the boys' relationship and Charles, of course, eventually ends up in a messy love triangle with two women. In a nutshell, we don't quite know what happened between Sebastian and Charles, physically, but they're clearly supposed to be in love with one another in the book. With thirteen hours of screen time, the 1981 television show was able to play with this idea brilliantly and the television show is as ambiguous and teasing as the novel was. Shots of them sunbathing naked together on the roof of Brideshead, snuggling together in a gondola, being congratulated on their love by Sebastian's father's mistress, chatting while Sebastian bathes and strolling arm in arm through the Botanical Gardens in Oxford litter the television series, but not once are they shown actually kissing. Like the novel, the jury is still out in the television show. It's the original (and benign) form of "don't ask, don't tell."

The 2008 movie, however, doesn't have the time to do this and it was apparently felt that modern viewers wouldn't appreciate the subtleties. The ambiguity of both characters' sexuality is therefore stripped down to an easy-to-digest label - in the movie, Charles is straight and Sebastian is gay. And indeed, it's his inability to reconcile his homosexuality with his mother's fervent Catholic faith that eventually pushes Sebastian into the downward spiral that practically kills him in the end. Charles is obsessed with Sebastian, yes, but apart from one rather chaste kiss between the two of them after a night of heavy drinking, there's no indication that Charles genuinely believed himself to be in love with Sebastian, too. 

Portraying the two leads as being on opposite sides of the sexuality fence could actually work if it was done right, but all it did here was to make Charles's actions even more selfish and socially-ambitious than they are in the novel. (Which is saying something.) Charles Ryder's one redemptive feature, in my eyes, was that he had the capacity to love. In the movie, it now seems as if he goes along with Sebastian's infatuation with him, simply because he likes Sebastian's company and his big, big house. 

The reduction of the novel's portrayal of sexuality is also mirrored in how the movie chooses to portray its other great theme - spirituality. Whilst the novel and the television show both stuck to Waugh's pro-Catholic view of things, even though he could acknowledge its flaws, the film plumps for making Christianity the villain of the piece. And, in particular, Sebastian's mother - Lady Teresa Marchmain, played by Emma Thompson. Whilst Thompson's sweet voice sings the Salve Regina during evening prayers with her children, her all-consuming obsession with her Catholic faith crushes down on her family's life and, eventually, destroys at least three of them. With Sebastian's sexuality much more of an open issue in the movie, it's strongly implied that Lady Marchmain knows all about it and that she's doing everything in her power to force her psychologically-fragile son to "choose" an alternative lifestyle. Over dinner, she only seems to warm to Charles once she realises that he isn't friends with Anthony Blanche - the story's only "out and proud" gay man, whom Lady Marchmain evidently blames for having "manipulated" Sebastian into thinking he's gay. As she pushes and prods Sebastian to change his ways and places spies around him at Oxford, she ironically drives him further and further into the arms of the alcoholism she's trying to save him from. Thompson's performance is, I think, magnificent. And she clearly loves playing this ill-informed matriarch, who wreaks misfortune whilst firmly believing that she's doing good. The problem is that by turning Lady Marchmain and, by extension, Catholicism (or her version of it) into the baddie of Brideshead, the film strips away all of the story's ambiguities and complexities. With Lady Marchmain standing centre-stage as the fount of all that's wrong with her children's lives, and later Charles's too, we as an audience lose a lot of the other brilliant bits of Brideshead Revisited: Charles's social climbing, Julia's staggering self-obsession, Sebastian's weakness, Bridey's prudishness and Lord Marchmain's pleasure-loving selfishness. All of the other characters seem to become less interesting and less important, because of the story's insistence that it's Lady Marchmain who's to blame.

There are a few other tiny problems with Brideshead, namely that it doesn't quite seem to capture the accents and mannerisms of the era in the way the 1981 television show did. Trying to pull it out of the shadow of the TV show is also next to impossible and comparisons are inevitably made throughout, if you've seen it. Whilst the TV show will probably still enjoy cult status long after the film, there's still quite a bit to praise in the more modern adaptation. Brideshead Revisited is enjoyable, lovely to look at and it has some very fine performances. (Trailer below.)

Monday 6 August 2012

Golden Imaginings: why are movies about Marie-Antoinette so bad?

One of my dissertations was on how Marie-Antoinette's reputation has been shaped in the years since her death. I have written about her numerous times. She has appeared as a character in three of my plays. Chapter V of the dissertation was called 'Golden Imaginings,' about how Marie-Antoinette has been portrayed on film. I shacked-up with Marie-Antoinette, when writing fiction and non-fiction. And I feel very protective over her. Like I do with a friend who I know makes the occasional stupid mistake, but who nobody but her friends quite understands. Even a whisper of the phrase 'Let them eat cake' is enough to make me feel blood in my nostrils and the moment anyone implies that they think she deserved to die on the guillotine in 1793, I am going to automatically hate that person for ever. Like all people of my generation, I know that haters go'n hate, but if you think Marie-Antoinette deserved what happened to her then you're either an idiot or you have a chunk of glass where you heart ought to be.

Anyway, I digress. With the new Farewell, My Queen (above) causing quite the stir at film festivals, I thought I'd revisit the interesting, if often frustrating, ways in which the last Queen of France has been immortalised on the silver screen. (Just to clarify - I don't actually think of Marie-Antoinette as a saint, either. I read a pamphlet once where she was compared to Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Which seems a bit over the top, tbh.)

Ellen Buddle was the first actress I worked with as Marie-Antoinette in one of my own plays - the first version of The Audacity of Ideas, in 2006. When Ellen first got the part, she knew very little about the character and she delved into a number of biographies to create a breathtakingly good portrayal. A few years later, Ellen and I were discussing Marie-Antoinette again. The second version of Audacity had just been staged, with the lovely Lydia Forte playing Marie-Antoinette, and Ellen and I were talking about some of the play's characters. Having played the Comte d'Artois in both versions, I said that I felt that I could have played him much better now, having matured a bit more as an actor. Ellen said that there were things she would have changed about her performance as Marie-Antoinette. Since I'd always loved her performance as Marie-Antoinette, I was surprised to hear her say that. "I think I made her too interesting," Ellen said, "I think in reality she was a bit, well, bland, to be totally honest. And if I played her again, which I'd love to, I think I'd try and get that across a bit more."

What Ellen said might smack of emotional blasphemy to some of Marie-Antoinette's modern-day adherents. How could one describe the dazzling and then tragic Marie-Antoinette as bland? At first, I instinctively disagreed her, but the more I think about it, the more I think she may be right. In a way. Marie-Antoinette's story is fascinating, but that does not necessarily mean that she was. She was charming, flawlessly well-mannered, graceful, elegant and (as the final few years of her life would show) very, very brave. But, she was no Anne Boleyn or Cleopatra. She had no real intellectual interests and, for most of her life, no political agenda. She was kind to people and (contrary to how she's presented today) particularly so to the poor. But it was the Revolution which made Marie-Antoinette famous for centuries after her death, not her own personality. And I think that's why writers get her so wrong, so often. We can't accept that this theoretically amazing character actually had whole stages of her life which were, alas, quite boring. For the first few years of her married life, she was ignored by her husband's family; for the next few, she escaped that humiliation in a round of big hair, big dresses and even bigger parties, and then there was nearly a decade in which her chief concern was to be a good mother and a good Catholic. Worthy stuff, but hardly fascinating from the point of view of an actress, novelist or playwright.  

Is this why so many of the modern movies about her are so unforgivably average? Because, I mean, let's face it, there hasn't been a really good one since 1938. History fans work themselves up into a tizz of excitement every time a new movie based on Marie-Antoinette's life is announced, but they are nearly always disappointed by the result. How is it possible to take the story of the original "girl who had everything," daughter of an empress and wife of a king, who lived in one of the most magnificent palaces in history, became one of the original fashion icons, surrounded herself with glamorous characters, was unfairly targeted in one of the most savage (and successful) character attacks in history and who ended her life as a victim of one of the most bloody events in European history, and make it all seem so boring?

Maybe part of the problem, though, is that film-makers keep trying to make Marie-Antoinette more interesting than she actually was. Maybe that's why in every new movie that comes out, she is presented as totally different to the one before. The stubborn but charming Marie Antoinette of 1938 (above), the manipulative reactionary of Le Marseillaise, spoiled in Lady Oscar, the deluded self-obsessive of Jefferson in Paris, the heroic fighter of L'Autrichienne, spoiled and shallow in The Affair of the Necklace, a completely blank canvas with Kirsten Dunst and Sofia Coppola, or as a possible lesbian in the French language movie Farewell, My Queen, where Marie-Antoinette was played beautifully by Diane Kruger, who looks uncannily like the real queen.

In fact, my guess is that part of the problem is that Marie-Antoinette is just not leading lady material, but she looks like it on paper. When she was alive, she was so surrounded by servants and etiquette that she was removed, both literally and figuratively, from the drama of every-day life. The distance put between her and the rest of humanity still survives. It is difficult to take the story of Marie-Antoinette from fourteen to thirty-seven and keep an audience wholly invested in it. What Marie-Antoinette thought, or felt, we know from her private letters, but those feelings were seldom on public display and for about fifteen years of her life, her daily routine hardly changed at all. If a dramatist isn't careful, it means that both his leading character and the world she lives in can come across as a bit boring. Lovely to look at, but dull. 

Like I said, a successful biopic was pulled off in 1938, with Norma Shearer in the title role, but that's largely because the film makers were quite prepared to ditch any bits of history that proved too difficult for the audience to understand and to focus instead on accurately conveying Marie-Antoinette's personality. In 1938, Marie-Antoinette is the star, not the era she lived in and by making her so sympathetic, they make the film interesting. It's all lots of gasping, melodrama and tears, but given how highly-strung the 18th century was, it's probably not a million miles away from the truth. In 2006, another biopic, the beautiful Marie Antoinette with Kirsten Dunst as the eponymous queen, flopped because so few people could follow it. Or care about it. Coppola's Marie-Antoinette is an every girl. She's any girl in modern Britain or America who happened to wake up one morning and find themselves a princess. Dunst's Marie-Antoinette is rich, lonely and famous, but she is not royal. There is no sense of the crushing weight of royal etiquette, of the Catholic religion or of the expectations of monarchy - all of which Marie-Antoinette lived her life surrounded by. The film was stunning, the acting was very good, but 2006's Marie Antoinette is a celluloid testament to just how problematic having Marie-Antoinette as your lead can be.

Where Marie-Antoinette can pack a punch as a phenomenal character is when she's allowed to be "best supporting actress" or even a memorable cameo. With limited, or reduced, screen-time, Marie-Antoinette's grace and the unique position she found herself in can be dramatic gold. The only moments of the otherwise-idiotic Affair of the Necklace are the ones in which Joely Richardson appears as Marie-Antoinette (below). Yes, the character is about as three-dimensional as a piece of cardboard, but Richardson is so good, and the queen's position so unenviable, that her ten minutes on screen are worth more than everything else. 

I must have realised this problem with Marie-Antoinette, unconsciously, a long time ago. I never made her the lead female in any play I had her in. It was always Gabrielle de Polignac. In The Wages of Beauty, which I'm working on at the moment, Marie-Antoinette appears frequently, but each time she appears, her life has moved on slightly. It's the story of Gabrielle's life, in which the Queen is Gabrielle's main focus, but not necessarily the audience's. In Act I, Marie-Antoinette is twenty-two years-old and it's the era of towering head-dresses, glamorous ball-gowns and no babies. She is bored, unhappy, exhausted and she feels pressure from all sides. By the time she returns, in Act II, she has become a mother. She has mellowed, she is happier, more poised and more confident in herself. And sassier, too. I like it when Marie-Antoinette discovers her backbone. She has the confidence to stand-up for herself. She expects to be obeyed now, rather than simply pandered to. Writing that is interesting; I enjoy it and there is a unique challenge in writing Marie-Antoinette that I've never experienced with another historical character. In fact, I love writing her, but it's only by making peace with the fact that what's interesting about her in a non-fiction biography won't necessarily be interesting to an audience. Or comprehensible. In Wages of Beauty, Marie-Antoinette's story is interesting (I hope!) because you see her evolution at its major stages. Ironically for someone who spent her whole life as the star performer, today Marie-Antoinette's best place is as an "also starring." 

What happened to Marie-Antoinette still has the power to shock and move us - if we can only allow ourselves to ditch the ludicrous stereotype of her. She is a great part to play and to write; it's a challenge to bring to life an essentially good woman, who partied as a teenager, loved as a mother and then ended her life in an appallingly unfair and violent way. With Marie-Antoinette, less is more. Audiences can, and will, find her interesting because of the light touches of detachment and effortless ease with which she lived her life in the years before the Revolution. But not if that's all they see for two and a half hours. The real Marie-Antoinette's personality probably wasn't as interesting as the sly minxes of Affair of the Necklace or Jefferson in Paris, or of the enigmatic and emotionally-unstable dilettante seen in Farewell, My Queen, but given the right movie, the right play and the right actress, I think she could still have the power to fascinate and dazzle.

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