Thursday, December 27, 2007

Invisible Woman - The Life of Ellen Ternan

She is the shadowy figure in Dickens’s life, the woman who shared the last thirteen years before his early death. His biographers tried to erase her, their letters to each other were burned, but still the story of Charles Dickens and Ellen Ternan could not be obliterated from history.

Ellen Lawless Ternan was born on March 3, 1839 in Rochester, England, coincidentally a city that had much meaning for Charles Dickens. She was born into a theatrical family of long standing. Her mother, father and grandmother had all been actors; her mother, Fanny Ternan, had even appeared on the London stage, with the great actor William Charles Macready (another good friend of Dickens). When Ellen was around six, her father Thomas Ternan had a breakdown and was committed to an asylum where he died two years later.

From the time they were small children, Ellen and her two older sisters Fanny and Maria had appeared on stage. The life of an actress in Victorian England was difficult. Not only were actresses considered one step above prostitutes (the consensus being that pretending to be someone else made you morally suspect), but actors weren’t exactly rolling in the dough, not even stars of the era could count on job security. There was no Actors Equity back then to make sure that the actors were paid adequately and not worked to death. The life of an actor was a constant round of touring from one provincial theater to another, punctuated with performances in London if the actor was lucky enough to secure an engagement with a London theater. But even stars of the caliber of Mrs. Siddons and Dorothy Jordan still relied on benefits (a practice whereby the night’s proceeds went to the actor) and constant touring. Actors were responsible for their own costumes, they carried sandwiches with them on the train or coach, and lodgings ranged anywhere from dismal to adequate. If an actress was pregnant, she worked up until the day she gave birth, often playing roles like Juliet while 8 months pregnant.

While all three girls had a modicum of success as actresses, it was clear that none of them were ever going to even have even the minor success of their mother. Fanny had ambitions to be a singer, not an actress. All three women faced a life of dwindling parts, playing in minor plays, and constant touring.

Everything changed however in 1857 when they made the acquaintance of Charles Dickens, the most famous writers in England if not the world. He strode the divide between Regency England and the Victorian age like a colossus. By the time, the Ternan women met him; he’d published many of his major novels, and was running a magazine Household Words. He was also the father of ten children, nine of them living, and divided his time between his home in Kent, Gads Hill, a bachelor apartment in London on Wellington Street and a London house.

Dickens was a man of prodigious energy and ambition that had taken him from the blacking factory as a child, through a career as a clerk, and then a journalist covering the Parliamentary debates to his career as a novelist and sometime playwright. Despite his marriage and children, he spent as much time with his friends attending the theater, hanging out at his various clubs, including the Garrick Club (founded in 1831 as a place for actors, men of theater and their supports. Even after over 150 years, its still men only, women are only allowed in the club on the first Thursday of the month with an ‘R’ in it or something like that). He would often walk all night around London; he said that it helped him to plan the next day’s writing.

Dickens was preparing a benefit performance of the play, The Frozen Deep he had collaborated on with his good friend Wilkie Collins. The performances were to take place in Manchester, and Dickens decided that the play needed professional actresses in the female roles. Dickens was fascinated by the theater, at one point he even thought of pursuing a career as a professional actor. He’d secured an audition with the Haymarket, and had prepared assiduously for the audition with the help of his sister Fanny. He’d decided that his forte would be comedy so he’d studied the performances of the comic actors of the day. Unfortunately, Dickens had prepared so strenuously that on the day of the audition, he’d come down with a head cold and was unable to perform. The theaters loss was fiction's gain, but Dickens never lost his desire to perform. He’d often put on performances for his friends that rivaled professional productions. Once, he confided to a friend that his dream was to be a theatrical manager.

The Ternan family was recommended to Dickens by his good friend William Charles Macready. At this time, Mrs. Ternan had pretty much retired from the stage, at the age of 55; parts were few and far between. The lead role went to Maria and Fanny and Ellen (called Nelly by her family and friends) played smaller roles. All four women were impressed and awed at the chance to work with the great Charles Dickens. Dickens in turn was most impressed with Nelly who was 18, blonde and very pretty. Although she was probably worldlier than most 18 year olds having spent her life among theater folk, she still had an air of innocence about her that appealed to Dickens. She was also the same age as his daughter Katey.

Dickens was 45, and clearly suffering from a mid-life crisis. Although he enjoyed family life, he was slightly dismayed at how huge his family was, as if he had nothing to do with the increasing number of children. He was also disenchanted with his wife, Catherine. After twenty-three years of marriage, they had nothing in common anymore. But the seeds of marital discord came two years before Dickens met Nelly, when he became reacquainted with his first love Maria Beadnell. His romantic vision of her was shattered leading to a devasting portrait of her in as Flora Finching in Little Dorrit. After the performances in Manchester, Dickens had secured knowledge of the Ternans’s next engagement in Doncaster, and followed them there. He was taken with Nelly Ternan and was in ardent pursuit of her. Mrs. Ternan, although mindful of the honor, was still careful to find out exactly what his intentions were towards her daughter. His friends as well advised caution.

Matters came to ahead when Catherine found jewelry that Dickens had bought for Nelly. His marriage to Catherine was over, and nothing could be done but that they separate. History has judged Dickens harshly for his behavior towards Catherine and rightly so. In his mind, the marriage was wrong from the beginning, Catherine was unstable and a terrible mother. Her sister, Georgina Hogarth who lived with them, agreed in a letter that Catherine had never had any feeling towards her children. Dickens took a step further and published a letter in his magazine putting forth this view of the marriage, and stating that Nelly Ternan was innocent, and in no way responsible for the breakdown of relations between him and his wife. It was very badly done, particularly taking the children away from Catherine. Only his eldest son, Charley, defied his father and stayed with his mother. Catherine was forced to leave her homes and move into a smaller establishment. Dickens agreed to pay her £600 a year for life.

Divorce was unthinkable, especially for a man in Dickens's position. It would have involved public scandal, as the only way to obtain a divorce would have been to admit adultery. Now free of his wife, Dickens felt free to pursue Nelly, setting her up in her own house which he put in her own name, and then later on moving her out to Slough and then Peckham. Nelly was everything that Catherine was not. She was undomesticated, clever, witty, charming, interested in theater, politics, and literature, while Catherine had neither Dickens’s intellect nor energy (no surprise given that she’d spent most of their marriage either pregnant or raising children).

The rent on the London house provided an income for her. Over the next thirteen years until his death in 1870 Dickens spent at least three nights a week with Nelly, when they weren’t traveling together abroad. Dickens proved himself to be the master of the divided life, no one knew at any given time where he would be. Since none of their letters survive, it’s difficult to surmise what the exact nature of their relationship. Some biographers, like Peter Ackroyd claim that Dickens and Nelly were strictly platonic, that he thought of her like a daughter that he was rescuing from an uncertain life. However, according to Claire Tomalin’s excellent biography Invisible Woman, that contradicts Nelly’s own statements made years later to a vicar when she was married and living in Margate. My own feeling is that if they did have a sexual relationship it probably didn’t last long, subsiding into companionship.

There is also evidence that Dickens and Nelly may have conceived a child around 1866 that didn’t live, or even more than one who didn’t survive. The evidence consists of cryptic notes in a diary that Dickens lost while touring in American in 1867. Whatever the truth, the relationship had its share of strains. Once he set up Nelly as his mistress, he seems not to have known what to due with her. Nelly, for her part, while possibly glad not to be traipsing up and down the country playing increasingly smaller parts for even smaller pay, must have restless after a life of constant activity.

She spent as much time as she could with her sisters, both of whom married. Her older sister Fanny married Thomas Trollope the elder brother of novelist Anthony. He was 27 years older and the father of a teenage daughter Bice, who Fanny had been governess for. Maria, the middle sister, married a brewer in Oxford. While Fanny’s marriage was reasonably content, and she went on to a minor career as a novelist, her works published by Dickens’s magazine, Household Words, Maria’s marriage floundered. Life in Oxford did not suit her, and she increasingly spent time abroad in Florence where Fanny and Tom lived.

The turning point in Nelly’s relationship came with the Staplehurst rail crash they were involved in on June 9, 1865 while returning from France with her mother. Dickens spent some time tending to teh wounded and dying before rescuers arrived. Nelly’s arm was seriously injured and her health became delicate after that. Dickens just managed to keep her name out of the papers as his traveling companion, and he avoided appearing at the inquest into the crash where it would have become known that Nelly was traveling with him.

Now instead of spending her time waiting for Dickens to arrive, Nelly spent more time abroad visiting her sister. It must have been hard for her to see her sisters settled with respectable marriages, while she was kept in the shadows of Dickens’s life. While authors like Wilkie Collins had no problem keeping two separate households (A lifelong bachelor he had two different mistresses), Dickens needed to be more discreet. His reputation rested on the image of him as a devoted family man, upholding Victorian values. Even the disintegration of his marriage, he attributed to the flaws of Catherine, not any wrong doing on his part.

While papers in the United States, like The New York Times, had published whispers about his personal life, and most of his close friends knew about his relationship with Nelly, Dickens was still incredibly discreet and circumspect about the relationship. They didn’t entertain many of his friends at Nelly’s home, nor did Nelly have many outside acquaintances apart from her sisters and her mother. Dickens also undertook to burn his letters periodically and he asked his friends to do likewise, a boon to him but something that every Dickens biographer since then has cause to rue.

So what did Nelly do with her spare time while waiting for Dickens to appear? Well, she read a great deal, studied languages, and helped him by reading his work and advising him. When they were together, they went walking frequently and Nelly learned to ride. Not much of a life for a woman who had spent at least twelve years on the stage. There were more than likely regrets on both sides. While Nelly may have been an actress, Mrs. Ternan had brought up her daughters to be ladies. It must have been a hard decision for both of them for Nelly to accept the life of a mistress. And for Dickens, Nelly was not the comforting wifely woman that he might have wished for (that position however was being filled by his sister-in-law Georgina) nor was she the femme fatale of the Catherine Walters/Cora Pearl variety. Nelly’s choices were few, she couldn’t leave him, and a position as a governess or a teacher at this time was out of the question. Still, as long as he was alive, she was his ‘magic circle of one.’

There is speculation among biographers whether or not Nelly inspired any of the characters in his fiction after the start of their relationship. Clare Tomalin’s theory is that apart from the physical description of Lucy Manette in A Tale of Two Cities, there is little of Nelly in any of his female characters, although there are biographers who speculate there is something of Nelly in Estella in Great Expectations or Bella in Our Mutual Friend. Katey Dickens once said of her father that he didn't understand women, and there is some truth to that in his fiction.

After his final tour of America, Dickens settled down for a bit to start writing his last novel which was left unfinished, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, but he was tired. He’d already suffered a mini-stroke some months before. Now although he was not quite 60 years old, he looked much older. Finally on June 9,1870, Dickens suffered a collapse and died. Although the official version is that he died at Gad’s Hill, there is a theory that he actually collapsed in Peckham with Nelly, and that she then transported him by coach to Gad’s Hill where he died. Clare Tomalin examines this theory in the appendix to her biography of Nelly.

Whether he died at Gad’s Hill or with Nelly at Peckham, Charles Dickens was gone, and Nelly was finally free. He took care of her by leaving her £1,000 in his will as the first of his bequests, finally making public his high regard for her. He also may have left her other funds that were given to her while he was still alive. The rest of his £100,000 estate was divided amongst his children, with a bequest left to his sister-in-law Georgina, who stayed with him after he separated from her sister.

Nelly was now 31 years of age, and a spinster. For the next few years she traveled, staying with her sister Maria, and with Fanny and Tom in Italy. While staying with Maria in Oxford, Nelly met an undergraduate by the name of George Wharton Robinson who intended to make a career in the church. For the next several years, Nelly and George corresponded, and after he finished his MA degree he proposed marriage. He was 24, and Nelly was 36, although she told him that she was much younger. She was helped in the fact that she still looked youthful. While she admitted that Dickens had been a good friend to the family, her now apparent youth precluded there being anything untoward about the relationship. By shaving off a few years, Nelly had managed to erase thirteen years of her life.

The couple settled in Margate, where Nelly persuaded George to give up a career in the church to buy into a boy’s school. They were blessed with two children, Geoffrey and Gladys but the strain of running a school was too much for George so they had to give it up after several years.

From then on things were difficult for the Robinsons. Nelly still had her small annuity from the money that Dickens left her and the rent on the house in London, but it didn’t go very far with a son who needed money to buy a commission in the army and to pay tuition at Sandhurst. Nelly taught privately when she could, and her sisters gave her money when they were able. Still, Nelly is to be commended that she wasn’t tempted to write a tell-all book about her relationship with her Dickens. She spent her last years living in Southsea. After her husband died, she spent more time with her sisters until one by one they died as well, first Maria and then Fanny. Nelly had been operated on for breast cancer, which now returned. She died at the age of 75, buried beside her husband.

It wasn’t until after Nelly’s death in 1914, that the truth began to come out about her relationship with Dickens. Her son, Geoffrey, was in for a shock when he went through his mother’s few papers. Not only did he discover that she had been actress, and older than she claimed, but there must have been hints that she had more than a passing acquaintance with Charles Dickens. Apparently his suspicions were confirmed by Sir Henry Dickens, the only surviving son. Appalled, he burned every last scrap. More revelations were revealed with a book published after Kate Dickens Perugini’s death called Dickens and Daughter. The secret was now out for better or for worse.

The question remains, did Ellen Ternan love Dickens? It’s clear from the few letters from Dickens that survive that he loved her, was passionately attached to her. That’s one thing that will never be certain. She was probably fond of him, he took care of her, respected her opinion on his work but love? The illicit nature of their relationship and the toll that it took on both of them probably precluded love of a romantic nature from lasting for long.

If it weren’t for Dickens would anyone be interested in the life of a third-rate at best actress, who married a schoolteacher? Probably not. Still, Ellen Ternan fascinates for what she might reveal about Dickens in his later years. The British playwright Simon Gray recently premiered a new play called Little Nell about their relationship. I think Simon Gray had it right when he said it was more than an affair, what they had was a marriage, albeit a secret one. Unfortunately she will probably always remain a mysterious and shadowy footnote in the life of Charles Dickens.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Pyrates in Petticoats - The Notorious Lives of Anne Bonny and Mary Read

Who doesn’t love a tale about pirates, swashbuckling tales of adventure on the high seas, where men were men, and women were the naughty figureheads on the ships. Well, among the most notorious pirates of the 18th Century were two women. If you take the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland, you’ll see them featured on the wall, Anne Bonny and Mary Read. Some might call them feminists who chose piracy as a way of rebelling against a male-dominated world. Others might see them as tomboys who just never grew up. Whatever their reasons, Anne Bonny and Mary Read became two of history’s most notorious pirates, male or female. Their story has come down to us shrouded in the mists of legend and myth.

The few facts that we know about Anne Bonny are that she was probably born in County Cork in about 1690 to a lawyer named Wiliam Cormac and his maid, Mary Brennan. Cormac was married and the resulting scandal (apparently Mrs. Cormac was not of a forgiving nature) led him to flee Ireland with Anne’s mother, settling in South Carolina, where he managed to amass enough money as a lawyer to buy a small plantation, where they lived respectably as husband and wife. Anne, however, was not interested in the social life of a wealthy planter’s daughter. She craved adventure and excitement. From childhood, she was headstrong, determined with a fierce temper. There is a story that Anne beat the crap out of a man who dared to make unwanted advances towards her, injuring him so badly that he couldn’t get out of bed for weeks. Also that she once stabbed a kitchen maid with a knife. Clearly not a woman you wanted to have on your bad side.

Instead of making a good marriage, at the age of 16 Anne ran off with a small time pirate named James Bonny that she had met in Charleston, which was then a well-known pirates haunt. When her father found out, he disowned her. She soon found out that not only was James not a very good pirate but he was also spineless. After they settled in the New Providence (present day Nassau in the Bahamas), James, rather than working for a living, spent his time turning in his fellow pirates in order to collect the King’s pardon from the Governor of the island, Woodes Rogers.

New Providence was founded in 1656, and pretty much ignored by those who owned the charter. Because of their neglect, by 1670 New Providence had become a safe haven for pirates. Because it was so near to the American colonies, it provided pirates with plenty of ships to plunder and markets where they could sell what they stole. It was also ideally situated between Europe and the rest of the Caribbean islands. The many coves and tiny inlets of the Bahamas gave the pirates a place to hide when pursued and to keep their ships. However all this was about to change with the arrival of the first royal governor Woodes Rogers in 1718. The British government was getting a little tired of the threat of pirates to commerce, so what better way to fight piracy then with one of their own. Rogers had been a privateer and was ideally suited to be the one to rid the area of pirates. When he arrived, there were about 2,000 pirates in Nassau and other local towns.

Disgusted with his traitorous ways, Anne spent more and more of her time hanging out with the pirates in the local saloons including one owned by Pierre Bouspeut known as Pierre the Pansy Pirate. Pierre owned a coffee shop, hair salon and dressmaking business. Anne may have started her career as a pirate as one of Pierre’s crew. Legend has it that they managed to take hold of a French merchant ship by dressing up an abandoned wreck with a dressmaker’s dummy in the bow, suitably done up as a victim. When the French crew got one look at the sight of Anne standing with an axe over the bloody ‘corpse,’ they quickly turned over their cargo without a fight.

Anne soon left James for ‘Calico’ Jack Rackham (the pirate who allegedly invented the skull and crossbones symbol that we associate with pirates). He was nicknamed ‘Calico’ Jack because of his flamboyant dress, favoring calico coats and britches. Jack offered to buy Anne (who protested at being treated like a piece of property) in a divorce by purchase from James who refused, taking the matter before Governor Rogers who declared that Anne should be flogged and returned to James. Then he passed a court order forbidding the two from seeing each other.

Instead the two escaped on Jack’s ship, “The Revenge.” Because the pirate codes expressly forbid women crew members (they considered women on board to be bad luck), Anne disguised herself as a man, fighting adeptly alongside the men. It was only a matter of time before it was discovered that she was female (the sneaking in and out of the Captain’s cabin must have been a sure giveaway). According to legend, when one of the crew members objected to her presence, she stabbed him through the heart!

Anne soon found herself pregnant with Jack’s child. When he found out, he left her on Cuba to deliver the baby. No one knows what really happened to the child, a baby girl. There was some speculation that she just abandoned her, others think that she left the baby with a foster family to raise it, or that the baby died at birth.

In any event, when Anne later returned to the ship, she met the woman who would soon become coupled with her in infamy, Mary Read. According to legend, Anne became smitten with the new lad on board ship. When she made advances, the ‘lad’ revealed himself to be a woman. Since Mary was the only other woman on the ship, the two became fast friends, although there was some speculation that they were lovers as well, or in a ménage a trois with Jack. There is, of course, no way of knowing for sure whether or not they were lovers, since Hogarth wasn’t exactly under the bed sketching.

Mary Read was born in Devon, England sometime in the late 17th Century. Like many scandalous women, she had a rough childhood. Her father, who was a sailor, went off to sea she was born, and her half-brother Mark passed away soon afterwards. Mary and her mother waited for years for her father to return but to no avail. In desperation, Mary’s mother disguised her as a boy in order to keep her paternal grandmother supporting them. It seems grandma preferred boys to girls. Mary spent her early childhood pretending to be her dead half-brother.

When Mary turned thirteen her grandmother finally passed away. Needing to find work to support herself, Mary (still disguised as a boy) managed to find work as a footboy to a wealthy French woman who lived in London. After a few months, Mary was bored and left, finding work on a man-o-war. After a few years, she became bored again and joined the army where she met her future husband. After confessing her gender, they left the army, opening an inn called The Three Horseshoes near Castle Breda in Holland. Unfortunately, Mary’s husband died after a few months. Mary joined a Dutch ship on its way to the Caribbean where it was attacked by ‘Calico’ Jack. The captured crew was forced to become pirates, a way of life that turned out to suit Mary just fine.

Mary and Anne proved to be more than the equal of any of the men on board ship. Dressed in men’s clothing, Anne was often a member of the boarding party when they attacked a ship, and along with Mary was responsible for the deaths of many sailors, including shipmates, who crossed them the wrong way.

Mary fell in love with one of the crew, Tom Deane, on board ship. After revealing her secret, they became lovers. Deane was not a natural pirate, like Mary he had been pressed into service when Calico Jack captured his ship. When he got into a quarrel with a more experienced member, Mary knowing that her lover stood no chance against him in a duel, picked her own quarrel with the older man, and challenged him to a duel that would take place prior to her lover’s duel. Mary killed the older man but not before revealing to him her gender.

In October of 1720, Captain Barnet, an ex-pirate who was now the commander in the British Navy, attacked Rackham’s anchored ship, “Revenge.” Almost the entire crew on board was drunk, leaving them vulnerable to attack. They had been celebrating their victory in managing to capture a Spanish commercial ship. The fight was short because only Mary and Anne were sober enough to resist. The rest of the crew cowered down in the hold. Read, incensed at their cowardice, shot several rounds into the hole, killing one man.

The crew of the “Revenge” was taken Port Royal to stand trial, which was a huge sensation due to the sex of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, who were reviled for daring to step outside the proscribed bounds for females. The women were tried separately from the men, who testified to their cruelties.

During her trial, when Mary Read was asked why she had chosen the life of a pirate, she replied:

“That as to hanging, it is no great hardship, for were it not for that, every cowardly fellow would turn pirate and so unfit the seas that men of courage must starve.”

Mary and Anne were given stays of execution by claiming they were both pregnant. While Anne may have escaped the hangman’s noose completely due to the influence of her father, Mary Read died in prison either from fever or in childbirth. Like her father, they both died in men’s clothing. She’s buried in St. Catherine’s parish in Jamaica.

What happened to Anne afterwards is a matter of speculation. Its possible that she went back to live with her father on his plantation in South Carolina. However having had a taste of freedom from the restrictions of being a woman in the 18th century, wouldn't she have been more likely to have either gone back to piracy or settled down somewhere on another of the islands?

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry on Anne however states that "Evidence provided by the descendants of Anne Bonny suggests that her father managed to secure her release from gaol and bring her back to Charles Town, South Carolina, where she gave birth to Rackam's second child. On 21 December 1721 she married a local man, Joseph Burleigh, and they had eight children. She died in South Carolina, a respectable woman, at the age of eighty-four and was buried on 25 April 1782."

Calico Jack wasn't as lucky. On the day that Calico Jack was to hang, he asked for special permission to see Anne on his way to the gallows. Anne coldly told him, “I’m sorry to see you here, but had you fought like a man, you need not have been hanged like a dog.”

Anne Bonny and Mary Read defied convention to live an adventuous life. So next time you're riding the Pirates of the Carribean ride at Disneyland, lift a glass of grog to celebrate the lives of these courageous women.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Wallis Simpson: The woman who might have been Queen

On December 11, 1936, Edward VIII of Great Britain made his now famous abdication speech, saying he could no longer continue to fulfill his duties “without the woman I love.” From then on, the story of Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson passed into the history books as the love story of the century. In the seventy one years, tons of books have been written about the couple, including their own memoirs. Even today she provokes a strong reaction when you talk about her. What is it about this story and this couple that has kept us fascinated for so many decades?

This was the biggest scandal ever to hit the royal family of England. Bigger than the Prince and Princess of Wale’s divorce. This was bigger than “Squidgy-gate,” or even the infamous “I want to be your tampon,” recording between Prince Charles and the former Camilla Parker-Bowles. Heck it was even bigger than Princess Margaret and her ill-fated love for Group Captain Peter Townsend, her love affair with the gardener, and her divorce from Lord Snowden.

Unlike the Duchess of Cornwall, Wallis Warfield didn’t come from an aristocratic background. She had no historical connections to the Royal Family, her great-great grandmother wasn’t the mistress of Edward VII the way Camilla’s was. Wallis wasn’t even particularly beautiful but she had what the French call ‘je ne sais quois.” Somehow she managed to captivate the future King of England with her irreverence and domineering manner enough that, like his great nephew with Camilla, he felt that he couldn’t live without her.

She was born Bessie Wallis Warfield in either June 1895 or 1896 in Pennsylvania. There is speculation that she was born before her parents were married. In any event, her father died shortly after she was born. For the first few years of her life, she was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, in modest circumstances, having to depend on the charity of her wealthy uncle, Solomon Warfield.

Wallis married her first husband, Earl Winfield Spencer, a naval pilot, at the age of 20, in 1916 after a whirlwind courtship. She soon learned that the man she married was an alcoholic with a reckless streak. They frequently separated and got back together, and Wallis was frequently unfaithful, having affairs with a Argentine diplomat, and Mussolini’s future son-in-law.

By the time, Wallis and her first husband split for good, she had already made the acquaintance of husband number two, Ernest Aldrich Simpson. Simpson was half-English and half-American, mild-mannered and easy going. He divorced his first wife to marry Wallis. They were married on 21 July 1928, at the Chelsea Registry office. Through a friend, Wallis met Thelma Furness, who in turn introduced Wallis to the Prince of Wales. By the time Wallis met the Prince, Ernest was beginning to suffer financial difficulties. The Simpson’s were living well above their means.

"I really feel so tired of fighting the world all alone and with no money," she once wrote to her mother.

So what was the big deal about? Why couldn't Edward marry her? Well, Wallis Warfield Simpson was not married when the Prince of Wales made her acquaintance, but she’d already been married and divorced once already. Divorce was still a taboo; divorced subjects including members of the Queen’s own family for years were not accepted at court. Although there was nothing constitutionally to stop the King from marrying her apart from that whole Defender of the Faith thing as head of the Church of England, Edward also knew that marrying Wallis would topple the government. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin had already made clear his views on the marriage. He refused to even countenance a morganatic marriage, whereby the King could marry Wallis, but she wouldn't be Queen.

What Edward did next was extraordinary in English history. While Richard II was forced to abdicate, King Charles I was beheaded, and James II and tossed out of England, no King in English history had voluntarily given up their throne. It’s a wonder that hell didn’t freeze over or the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse didn’t come riding up Pall Mall to the doors of Buckingham Palace.

In America, we think of this as a great love story. Heck the King of England fell in love with one of our own. In England, not so much, although given the pro-Nazi sympathies of Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson pretty much did England a favor. Frankly she should probably have gotten a medal. Instead she was denied the title of HRH, something that even Fergie received when she was a member of the Royal Family, and she didn’t dress nearly as well as The Duchess of Windsor. Edward never forgave his brother for not allowing Wallis to have the HRH.

Although Wallis was no beauty, she had charisma, and a belief in her own attractiveness. She knew how to dress to make the most of what she was given. And she apparently treated the Prince of Wales, well not like a Prince. On their first meeting, the King asked her some trivia about being American, to which Wallis replied that she’d been asked the same thing by every English person she’d met. She’d hoped for more originality from the Prince of Wales. Snap! Girlfriend wasn’t cowed by the August presence of the Prince of Wales. Wallis did her homework, when Thelma Furness asked Wallis to look after Edward while she traveled, she had no idea that Wallis would end up replacing her. What do you want to bet that she pumped ole Thelma for whatever information she could about her lover? And then did her one better?

Edward VIII had been a man starved of a mother’s affection. His own mother, Queen Mary, was a pretty cold fish, who left Edward in the hands of a pretty sadistic nanny. His youngest brother who was mentally handicapped was shunted aside, and treated as if he didn’t exist. He was completely scared of his father George V, who boasted that he’d been afraid of his father, and he was damn sure that his children would be afraid of him. All of Edward’s affairs had been with older married women.

There were rumors that Wallis had worked in a brothel in China while her first husband had been stationed in the Far East, where she learned Ancient Asian sex secrets that she used to bind Edward to her. Another rumor was that she was a hermaphrodite, and that Edward was attracted to her for her manly qualities.

Whatever it was, Wallis was smart. While dangling the King on a string, she apparently also had another lover, although this information has now been disputed. Files released by the Government in Britain in 2003 suggested that a man named Guy Trundle was Wallis’s secret lover. Guy was a handsome charmer, a vicar’s son, and a dashing Air Force pilot. He was also an engineer and a car salesman for the Ford Motor Co. He apparently received gifts and money from Wallis. There is a question as to whether this secret lover was working for the intelligence services in a bid to test Wallis’s character which she surely failed. The question is why wasn’t this brought to the Prime Minister and then to Edward? And even if it had been would it have mattered? The King was madly, passionately, devotedly in love. It would probably have taken a crowbar to end the relationship.

I’ve always felt that Wallis enjoyed the attentions of the Prince of Wales, and the social cachet that it gave her to be his intimate friend. I don’t think that she expected initially that he would want to marry her, but when he made it known, she cautiously jumped at the chance. She would be rising higher than any American woman had before or since, not even Consuelo Vanderbilt or Mary Curzon had risen as high. It must have been so tempting. Although in many ways, being a royal mistress was more advantageous than being a royal wife.

In fact she tried to renounce the King. A few days before the abdication, she signed a paper saying that “she has abandoned any interest in marrying His Majesty.” Apparently she found Edward’s dependence on her burdensome and just a tad claustrophobic. She wrote to her uncle, “How can a woman be a whole empire to a man?” But it was too late, the die was cast and Edward had made up his mind. Wallis had no choice now. If she hadn’t married him, after he’d made such a great sacrifice, she really would have been raked over the coals.

The Duke and Duchess were married in June of 1937, in France. An ill-advised trip to Germany after their marriage led them to be suspected of being pro-German. The Duchess was even plagued by rumors that while they were in France before the Germans invaded, she had passed confidential information onto the Germans, through a German lover. During the war, the Duke was appointed Governor of the Bahamas, where George IV felt that he could do the least damange. Wallis bitterly referred to the island as their “Helena,” a reference to the island that Napoleon was exiled to after his defeat in the Battle of Waterloo.

They spent the rest of their lives after the war shuttling between a home in Paris and an apartment in the Waldorf Towers in New York, becoming part of the International jet set, denied any useful role in life other than idleness, a life of parties and making the Best Dressed List. Scandal continued to plague the Windsors. While in the Bahamas, Sir Harry Oakes, a Canadian gold tycoon and the richest man in the islands was murdered. The Duke was suspected of participating in a cover-up, blocking the investigation at every turn. Ann Woodward shot her husband Billy after a dinner party for the Windsors in the 1950’s. And for five years, the Duke and Duchess formed a bizarre ménage a trois with Jimmy Donahue, a Woolworth heir who was gay. In France, they became good friends with Sir Oswald Moseley, leader of the British fascists, and his wife the former Diana Mitford.

Although the Duke had hoped to retire in England, his brother, George VI threatened to cut off his allowance if he set foot in England without an invitation. The King was still steamed that Edward hadn't revealed the extent of his finanical worth when they informally agreed on the amount of sinecure the King would pay him. He was allowed to return for the funeral of George VI in 1952 and again for his mother, Queen Mary in 1953. Wallis didn’t accompany him to either funeral but she was allowed to return for Edward’s funeral in 1972. She outlived him by thirteen years, living alone in their Paris home under the watchful eye of Maitre Suzanne Blum, their lawyer until her death at age 90 in 1986 when she was buried beside her Duke at Windsor. Their home was bought by Mohammed Al-Fayed, who owns Harrods in London who started calling it Villa Windsor. In fact, Dodi brought Diana to the house just before she died. Diana apparently wasn't impressed, she told a journalist that she felt the building was "full of old ghosts" and "more like a museum." In 1998, Fayed put the entire contents of their mansion on the block raising $14 million dollars for charity.

The Duchess summed up her life succinctly in one sentence, “You have no idea how hard it is to live out a great romance.”

Friday, December 7, 2007

Marie du Plessis, the real Lady of the Camellias

The sight of Greta Garbo as Marguerite Gautier expiring in the arms of the handsome Robert Taylor at the end of the movie Camille is a powerful and romantic image that stays with the viewer after the movie has ended. But that was not how the life of the real Marguerite Gautier ended.

On February 5, 1847, Marie Duplessis, once Queen of the demi-monde in Paris, died in agony from tuberculosis at the age of tender age of 23 alone apart from the doctors and her servants. She wrote no books or poetry, left no paintings, was remarkable chiefly for her beauty and her fame as a courtesan. Within weeks of her death, all her belongings, including her pet parrot, were auctioned to pay off her massive debts. Fashionable Paris turned out for the auction, most not to bid but merely to stare. Dickens was among the crowds, later writing: "One could have believed that Marie was Jeanne d'Arc or some other national heroine, so profound was the general sadness."

A myth was beginning to take shape. Who was Marie DuPlessis that so captured the imagination not just of the son of one of France's greatest living novelists but of composers and choreographers through the past century?

Her real name was Rose Alphonsine Plessis and she was born in Normandy on January 15, 1824. On her father’s side, her grandmother was a prostitute, and her grandfather was a priest. Her father, who owned a drapers shop, was a drunkard and a brute. Her mother, Marie-Louise Deshayes, came from a far more respectable background, and clearly married down, living to regret it. Her mother eventually left her father, obtaining employment as a maid to an English family in Paris, and placed Marie and her younger sister with a cousin. Her mother later died when she was 8. Her father, who had no use for her, continued to farm her out to relatives where she lost her virginity to a young farmhand when she was 12. When her guardian learned of the incident, he returned young Marie to her father.

Marie was 13 when her father decided that she could make more money on her back then working for a laundress. He sold her to a seventy year old wealthy bachelor named Plantier who used her for a year and then sent her back to her father. Eventually her father decided he’d had enough of being responsible for her, so he sent her off to live with relatives in Paris, who were grocers. Marie eventually moved out, taking cheap lodgings in Quartier Latin, bouncing around from one form of employment to another, including working as a clerk in a hat shop.

Marie Duplessis was a beautiful young woman, with a petite figure and an enchanting smile. By the time she was 16, she had learned what other pretty girls in her position had learned, that prominent men were willing to give her money and pay her way in exchange for her company. She decided to give up working in a dress shop for little money and become a courtesan. She applied herself to learning to read and write more fluently, and to stay abreast of current events so as to be able to converse on these topics with her clients.

Her career started when she and two girlfriends, stopped for a snack in a restaurant near the Palais-Royal. The owner, a widower by the name of Nollet, took a fancy to her and soon installed her as his mistress, with an apartment on the Rue de L’Arcade. After about a year, Nollet could no longer afford Marie. One evening she was seen at the theater by Count Ferdinand Monguyon, who could better afford to keep her in the style to which she rapidly became accustomed.

It was around this time that she changed her name from Rose Alphonsine to Marie. She told a friend from her village that she had named herself after the Virgin Mary, but she might also have named herself after her mother, or after Mary Magdalene. Marie was a regular at a church dedicated to the Saint. She also added the faux noble 'du' to her name.

The names of Marie's lovers read like a laundry list of the aristocracy of France, including Agenor de Guiche, the future Duc de Guiche-Gramont, who whisked Marie off to the spas of Germany for the summer. There is a possibility that Marie had a child by de Guiche in 1841, and that de Guiche placed the child with foster parents. The child was later thought to have died of pneumonia. At one point, 7 of Marie’s lovers banded together to keep her, buying her a bureau with 7 drawers where they could keep their clothes. Another of her lovers was the witty Comte Edouard de Perregaux, who had been a member of the French Calvary in Algeria. He had inherited a fortune which he proceeded to spend entirely on Marie.

In 1844, when Marie was 20, she was kept solely by the elderly Count de Stackelberg, whom she met while at the baths in Bagneres. He had been the Russian ambassador to Vienna, was married and wealthy. He told Marie that she reminded him of his daughter who had died young. Even though he paid the bills, imported horses for Marie from England, and rented boxes for her at all the best Parisian theaters, he could not give Marie the love that she craved, the love that she never got from her father.

Marie had finally hit the big time as a demi-monde. She was able to move from the Quartier Latin into a beautiful flat on the Boulevard de Madeleine. The apartment was furnished with Louis XV furniture, silk hangings on the wall, and books galore. At the time of her death, Marie owned 200 books. She continued to educate herself, learning to speak French without a Norman accent and to read and write with ease. Her days started at 11 in the morning when she woke up, had a cup of chocolate, read for a little bit, and then spent several hours deciding what she would wear. She would then either take a walk in the park or a ride in her carriage. Her days were now filled with shopping, and getting ready for the salons and parties that she attended, or a night out at the theater or the opera.

At one point she was spending over a 100,000 francs a year on her upkeep, not including clothes, carriages, servants, rent and travel. She was also a compulsive gambler. Like most young women who had led a deprived childhood, Marie was like a kid in a candy store after getting his allowance. She spent partly out of boredom, and partly out of an almost compulsive need for luxury. As if she knew already that she didn’t have long to live and wanted to cram as much life as possible into a few short years.

For all her excesses, she still managed to look like a startled virgin. The actress Judith Bernat described Marie in her memoirs as “Very slim, almost thin, but wonderfully delicate and graceful, her face was an angelic oval and her dark eyes ahd a caressing melancholy, her complexion was dazzling. She had an incomparable charm.When Judith asked Marie why she sold herself, Marie replied that the labor of a working girl would never have afforded her the luxuries for which she had an irresistible craving.

Did Marie like Marguerite ever fall in love? She admitted as much to Judith Bernat, sounding like the character from La Dame aux Camellias, telling her that while she had loved sincerely, no one had returned her love. “That is the real horror of my life. It is wrong to have a heart when you’re a courtesan. You can die from it.”

What made Marie so successful as a courtesan was her candor, (she once stated that lying kept her teeth white!) her flashes of gaiety, and above all her world-weariness, brought on by the futility of her lifestyle, and the consumption that would soon take her life. In the meantime, she enjoyed her life, her dogs, her carriage outings in the country, gambling and throwing dinner parties where authors liked Eugene Sue, Honore de Balzac and Theophile Gautier were guests. Still, Marie longed for security, and true love.

She first met the man who would make her immortal when they both 18 in 1842. He was unsuccessful while she was infamous. Alexandre Dumas fils was the illegitimate son of the famous writer and a laundress. He was struggling to become a writer in his own right out of the long shadow of his famous parent. They met again two years later in 1844 when they were both 20 at the salon of Madame Prat, a hatmaker who lived near Marie. Their affair lasted one year as Dumas struggled to keep up with his more worldly lover. He spent what little funds he had, and when he ran out, he tried his luck at the Baccarat tables. He borrowed money, and was insanely jealous not only of the Russian but of the other lovers that Marie had kept on.

In the meantime, the consumption that eventually killed her was slowly growing worse. Marie tried every cure known at that time, including mesmerism. At Dumas insistence, she tried giving up her social life, spending time with him in the country until boredom overcame her and she fled back to her beloved Paris. Finally Dumas could take it no longer and he set her a ‘Dear Jeanette’ letter. The letter read in part, “I am neither rich enough to love you as I could wish not poor enough to be loved as you wish.” Later after her death, Dumas recovered the letter and presented it to Sarah Bernhardt when she played Marguerite Gautier on stage.

Marie did not reply to Dumas’s letter. She was too busy, and too ill, plus the final love of her life had just arrived in the form of Franz Liszt. Liszt had recently separated from his long-time over Countess Marie d’Agoult. He was 30 and had recently returned from a concert tour of Europe. Marie saw the musician in the lobby of a theater and introduced herself to him. They remained in the lobby chatting throughout the third act. Marie, insisted that her doctor, who knew Liszt bring him to one of her receptions. The doctor willing obliged, and by the end of the evening the musician and composer was her latest conquest.

The relationship was not long-lived, although Liszt later told an acquaintance that the woman he called Mariette was the first woman he’d truly loved. When he left for his next concert tour, Marie begged him to take her with him, claiming, “I know I shan’t live. I’m an odd sort of girl and I can’t hold onto this life that’s the only kind I know how to lead and that I can’t endure.” Liszt promised to take her to Turkey later in the year, but it was too late. He never saw her again. Later on he regretted that he had not been at her bedside.

In her weakness and fear that all of her friends would desert her as she became increasingly ill, Marie allowed herself to be persuaded by her old lover the Comte de Perregaux to marry him. They were married in February of 1845 at Kensington registry office in London, but they quickly separated and never lived together and husband and wife. The marriage was also not legal in France, although that didn’t stop Marie from using the title and creating her own coat of arms. Despite his marrying Marie, his fear of what his family would think kept him from having the banns were published in France which was all that would have been needed to make the marriage legal.

The last year of her life was spent running from one doctor to the next, from one rest cure to the next, in the fruitless attempt to stave off death. Her debts were also mounting as one by one her protectors fell away. She was buried in the cemetery at Montmartre. De Perregaux had her reburied two weeks later in a better burial plot that he had purchased. Five months later, Dumas immortalized her as La Dame aux Camellias. In his version, Marguerite Guatier sacrifices the love of Armand Duval (AD just like Alexandre Dumas) to save him from ruin. He wrote it in just four short weeks.

The first edition sold out 12,000 copies, but it didn’t continue to sell well. It wasn’t until Dumas adapted it to the stage, that Marie’s story reached a wider audience. The play opened almost five years to the day of Marie’s death at the Theatre du Vaudeville. It was a great success. Verdi was among the theatergoers, later he was inspired to create La Traviata which premiered in Venice two years later which only added to Marie’s legend.

Although he wrote several plays and books, nothing came to near to the popularity of La Dame aux Camellias. Later in life, Dumas became obsessed with what he considered the wickedness of prostitution and proposed to the government that all unmarried women be drafted and taught a trade in state schools to keep them off the streets. Also that all street walkers be deported to the colonies.

Marie’s death made his career. In writing La Dame aux Camellias he was finally able to have the Marie that he wanted, the one that had eluded him during her lifetime.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Caroline Norton - Reluctant Heroine

One of the great things about this blog is finding out about interesting women in history that one has never heard of before. One of these women is Caroline Norton. I first read about Caroline in the companion volume to a exhibition at the New York Public Library, and was intrigued. I came upon her story again in another book that I was reading recently. I was struck by her story simply because Caroline Norton was a reluctant heroine.

If her life hadn't been struck by adversity, she would probably have led the life of a contented Victorian maiden. While many of the women that have been featured on this blog defied the social mores of their times, Caroline found herself taking on the established laws that treated women as little better than livestock.

She was born Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan on March 22, 1808. Her father Thomas Sheridan was an actor, soldier and government official. He was also the son of the great Richard Brinsley Sheridan who in his lifetime had been a playwright, author of School for Scandal and The Rivals which are still produced today, theater manager of Drury Lane, and member of Parliament hobnobbing with the Prince Regent and the Devonshire House set before spending his final days in poverty and squalor, ruined by alcoholism and debt. He was so famous for his wit that Byron chose Sheridan as his role model.

In 1817, when she was 9, Caroline's father died in South Africa, leaving her mother to find a way to support 7 children (the Sheridan clan consisted of Caroline, two sisters, and four brothers) with only a minor government pension which her mother supplemented by writing novels for hire. Fortunately, the family was given a grace and favor apartment in Hampton Court Palace, because of the friendship of Richard Brinsley Sheridan with the Duke of York.

Caroline, and her two sisters Helen, and Georgina were so beautiful that they were called the “The Three Graces.” Helen later summarized it for Disraeli, “Georgey’s the beauty, Carry’s the wit, and I ought to be the good one, but I’m not.” Although Caroline was popular when she made her debut, there were no forthcoming offers of marriage. Although attractive, she appealed mainly to older men who weren’t put off by her sarcasm. The younger bucks weren’t as confident. The marriage mart at the time was incredibly competitive only rivaled, as Edward Bulwer Lytton wrote, 'by the slave markets of the East.' The Sheridan sisters had no dowry, the only things they to recommend them were their lineage, their beauty and their wit. Helen, the oldest sister, agreed to marry Captain Price Blackwood, heir to Lord Dufferin, against his family's opposition, and despite not being in love with him. Meanwhile her younger sister Georgina was also beginning to attract attention. At nineteen, Caroline probably worried that she might end up on the shelf.

Enter the Honorable George Chipple Norton. He had made the acquaintance of Caroline when she was 16, and had offered for her, but Mrs. Sheridan had refused, claiming that Caroline was too young to marry. Three years later, Mrs. Sheridan convinced Caroline that he would be a good match. Despite her misgivings, and knowing her family's precarious financial position, Caroline agreed to marry him.

On paper at least, George Norton seemed like a prime candidate. His brother was Lord Grantley, and George was his heir. He'd trained as a barrister, although he didn't practice. He seemed to be able provide a good life for Caroline, consisting of a townhouse in a fashionable part of London, with a few servants to make life tolerable. The reality was far worse. George Norton was a rigid, conventional man who couldn’t understand Caroline’s intellectual curiosity or her nonconformist ways. He disliked clever people, because he wasn’t clever. Also their political differences were another source of friction. Caroline's family were Whigs and George's were conservative Tories. (imagine a die-hard Republican married to a liberal Democrat).

He also resented her closeness to her family, and she hated his, a notoriously unpleasant family. Norton's sister-in-law Lady Grantley refused to be buried near her husband, saying she had lived with the Nortons all her life and that was enough! The couple frequently quarreled about money. It turned out that George didn’t have quite as much money as he’d claimed. Although he was the heir to Lord Grantly, he received no income from him. Their first home turned out to be in his barrister chambers, looked after by only an old female servant. Norton refused to support himself, since it was beneath his status as a gentleman to seek employment. However, he had no objection to Caroline supporting them!

Norton both mentally and physically abused Caroline. Over the years, he kicked her, threw an inkwell at her head, and scalded her with the contents of a teakettle. Like most bullies, he felt he had to teach Caroline her place. "We had been married about two months, when, one evening, after we had all withdrawn to our apartments, we were discussing some opinion Mr. Norton had expressed; I said, that ‘I thought I had never heard so silly or ridiculous a conclusion.’ This remark was punished by a sudden and violent kick; the blow reached my side; it caused great pain for several days, and being afraid to remain with him, I sat up the whole night in another apartment."

Caroline defended herself with the lash of her tongue, castigating his ancestors while exalting her own. When Caroline tried to leave him early in their marriage, her sister Helen convinced her that things would get better once they had children. The couple soon had 3 sons, Fletcher, Brinsley and William. Being a mother brought Caroline satisfaction and happiness.

Since leaving her husband was no out of the question, Caroline turned to prose and poetry to release her emotions. Her poems ‘The Sorrows of Rosalie’ (1829) and the ‘Undying One’ (1830) resulted in her being appointed as editor of the magazine ‘La Belle Assemblee’ and ‘Court Magazine.’ With these appointments, Caroline began to taste a little financial freedom.

Norton was a Member of Parliament but he wasn’t very successful politician although Caroline tried to help him. She used her wit, beauty, and her family’s Whig political connections to try and further his career, establishing herself as a major society hostess. She became friends with many of the literary and political luminaries of the early Victorian period including Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Edward Trelawney, the actress Fanny Kemble, Benjamin Disraeli, the future King Leopold of the Belgians (the widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales), and William Cavendish, the 6th Duke of Devonshire (son of another Whig political hostess Georgiana). It was at one of her dinners that Melbourne met Disraeli for the first time. When he asked Disraeli what he wanted to be, Disraeli replied, "I want to be Prime Minister." Melbourne to his credit took him seriously and proceeded to explain to him why it wasn't possible.

After George Norton lost his re-election, He pressured Caroline to appeal to her friends to help him. To appease him, Caroline went to Lord Melbourne for help securing him a position. They soon became close friends. Melbourne at this time was a widower, having endured a long, unhappy marriage to Lady Caroline Lamb. No stranger to scandal, he'd had a rather public affair with Lady Branden, which ended when her husband sued for divorce, naming him as part of the suit. He was a suave and sophisticated older man who seemed lonely. Melbourne, in turn, was charmed by Caroline's wit and vivacity. He found George a position as a magistrate with an income of £1,000 a year. Caroline would frequently visit him at 10 Downing Street, and he would visit her at home. At first Norton was fine with the friendship as long as it benefited him.

By the time of her third pregnancy, Norton was becoming increasingly difficult, alienating both Caroline and her family. Disgusted with him and his behavior, they refused to have any contact with him. In 1834, pregnant with her 4th child, Norton beat her so severely that she miscarried. While she sought refuge with her relatives, Norton began spending time with his cousin Margaret Vaughn, who was rich. Norton also believed that Melbourne hadn’t done enough for him. When Melbourne finally took office as Prime Minister, Norton began to leak stories to the Tory press, suggesting that Melbourne was having an affair with Caroline, as well as other prominent Whigs such as the Duke of Devonshire and Thomas Duncombe.

The final break came over something as trivial as where to spend Easter. While Caroline went to consult her sister, Norton sent the children to stay with his cousin, and ordered the servants to bar Caroline from returning to the house. Legally at this time in England, children were the property of the husband to do with what he liked, regardless of what the mother might want. Also, by law, the house and everything in it, including Caroline’s personal belongings, belonged to him as well.

To make matters worse, Norton brought a suit for ‘Criminal Conversation,’ accusing her of having an affair with Lord Melbourne, who was Prime Minister at the time. He also went to Melbourne and demanded he pay him £1,400 to drop the suit. Melbourne refused to be blackmailed, so Norton took the matter to court. He also took Caroline’s children away from her, refusing to allow her to see them. She had to resort to subterfuge in order to even catch a glimpse of them, although Norton moved them around to make it even more difficult.

The publicity almost brought down the government which some historians believe was partly Norton’s intent all along. At the time of the suit, William IV was in failing health, and the young Princess Victoria was waiting in the wings. The Tories wanted to be the ones to influence the new Queen. It was to their advantage that Melbourne be portrayed as an ageing roué, spending his time seducing young wives, instead of as a vital politician. Norton was unable to prove that Melbourne and Caroline were having an affair. His only witnesses were disgruntled servants who had been dismissed, and who had probably been paid off to testify. Caroline of course was not allowed to testify in her own defense, since she had no legal identity apart from her husband. Both Melbourne and Caroline insisted that they had nothing more than a friendship. Instead her family took the stand to state that Norton had a mistress, and that he had tried to blackmail the Prime Minister.

Although the jury returned a verdict of 'not proven', the damage was done to Caroline’s reputation. It didn’t matter that she and Melbourne denied any impropriety or that they had been found innocent, she was a fallen woman. She was ostracized by society for a number of years, while Melbourne went on to become Queen Victoria's first Prime Minister.

Caroline didn’t take the situation lying down, she was not Richard Brinsley Sheridan's granddaughter for nothing. When she tried to divorce Norton, she discovered that she couldn’t. At the time, only a man could sue for divorce, and the only grounds was a wife’s adultery. Since Caroline had been declared innocent of adultery in the recent case, Norton could no longer divorce her. She became passionately devoted to the cause of trying to get the laws changed. She lobbied all her influential friends to her cause, convincing Thomas Talfourd to introduce a bill to give mothers the right to appeal to the court of Chancery for custody of children who were under the age of 7. She also began to write political pamphlets under a pseudonym, Pearce Stevenson. Primarily because of her intense campaigning, Parliament finally passed the infant custody bill in 1839, which allowed mothers to appeal for custody and to have access to children under 16.

Caroline never considered herself to be a feminist, didn’t support the suffragette cause. She felt that men were superior. Her argument wasn’t that men and women were equal but that they should be treated equally under the law, justice should apply to rich and poor, male and female alike. She saw the law as having a special responsibility to protect people who were dependent from abuses of power.

Unfortunately while Caroline triumphed in having the law passed, it didn’t help her personally. Norton simply took the children and moved to Scotland, where English law didn’t apply. When her son William fell from his horse, contracting lockjaw, Caroline wasn’t able to get there before he died. As Caroline late wrote, "One of my children was afterwards killed [thrown a horse], for want of the commonest care a mother would have given to her household. Mr. Norton allowed the child to lie ill for a week before he sent to inform me. Lady Kelly (who was an utter stranger to me) met me at the railway station. I said ‘I am here - is my boy better?’ ‘No’, she said ‘he is not better - he is dead.’ And I found, instead of a child, a corpse already coffined...." After William’s death, Norton decided to increase Caroline’s access to her remaining two children.

Norton had initially provided support to the tune of 300 pounds per year for Caroline and the children but when hediscovered that Caroline had received a legacy from both Lord Melbourne after his death and her mother, he refused to pay for her support any longer. When Caroline protested, and tried to get him to pay, he took her to court, reviving the old scandal that Caroline had been Melbourne’s mistress. Caroline lost the case but it lead to her campaigning to change the law concerning divorce. She even took her cause to Queen Victoria penning a stirring letter in defense of women. Here is an excerpt for the letter:

“A married woman in England has no legal existence: her being is absorbed in that of her husband. Years of separation of desertion cannot alter this position....She has no possessions, unless by special settlement; her property is his property....An English wife cannot make a will. She may have children or kindred whom she may earnestly desire to benefit;—she may be separated from her husband, who may be living with a mistress; no matter: the law gives what she has to him, and no will she could make would be valid...."

The club-loungers smile in scorn. ‘What is all this disturbance about? Woman’s rights and woman’s wrongs?—pooh, pooh; nonsense; Bloomerism; Americanism! we can’t have that sort of thing in England. Women must submit; those who don’t, are bad women—depend upon it: all bad women’....Even now, friends say to me:—’Why write? why struggle? it is the law! You will do no good.’ But if every one slacked courage with that doubt, nothing would ever be achieved in this world. This much I will do,—woman though I be. I will put on record,—in French, German, English, and Italian,—what the law for women was in England, in the year of civilization and Christianity 1855, and the 16th year of the reign of a female sovereign!”

In the 1857 Marriage and Divorce Act, women could now sue for divorce, the only proviso was that they had to not only prove adultery but another cause such as cruelty as well. They could also inherit and bequeath property like single women, their earnings as a deserted wife would now be protected from any claim of her husband, and a seperated wife could now make contracts and sue. Caroline however needed to generate income, since there was none forthcoming from Norton. Like her mother and her grandfather, she turned to her pen to make a living, publishing not only novels but also plays.

In 1840, Caroline fell in love with a prominent Conservative politician Sidney Herbert. They conducted a secret five year relationship which ended when Caroline was accused of leaking information to the Times of London that the Prime Minister, Robert Peel, planned to go against his Tory backers by advocating repeal of the Corn Laws, to make it easy for people to obtain cheap corn. Although it was later proven that it Lord Aberdeen's fault, he'd hoped that by leaking the news to the Times of London it would get the paper on the Prime Minister's side, the damage was once again done to her reputation, the Prime Minister's government was forced to resign and Herbert ended the relationship. He later married another woman in 1846.

Caroline was to suffer more sadness when her eldest son Fletcher died of tuberculosis in 1859. However, her second son, Thomas Brinsley Norton, eventually inherited the title of Baron Grantley, which is still held by the family (all the title holders have had the names Richard and Brinsley including the current 8th Baron Grantley, Ricahrd William Brinsley Norton in a nod to their illustrious ancestor Sheridan.)

Caroline was finally free of George Norton when he died in 1875, freeing her to remarry, after a suitable morning period, her friend of 25 years, Scottish historical writer and politician, Sir. W. Stirling Maxwell. However, their marital happiness was short-lived as Caroline died three months later on June 15, 1877.

Later after her death, author George Meredith used her as the basis of his fictional character Diana Warwick in Diana of the Crossways, which repeated the rumor that she had betrayed Herbert for money.

Caroline Norton should be remembered for her ability to turn adversity around. When the going got tough, she fought back and never gave up. While she may have worked to change the laws for selfish reasons, in the end, her persistence and tenacity benefited all women in England.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Scandalous Hoax of Princess Caraboo

It was a story that wouldn't have looked out of place on the front page of the News of the World or The Examiner. A young woman stumbles into a Gloucestershire village on April 3, 1817, wearing a black turban and a black dress, carrying her possessions in a rolled up bundle. Exhausted and starving, she spoke a language that no could understand. The villagers thought she was some foreign begger, so they turned her over to Samuel Worrall, who was the local country magistrate.

It was a dangerous time to be a homeless foreigner roaming the countryside. Napoleon had finally been defeated for the last time and sent into exile on St. Helena, but the British were still worried about foreign agents. At this time, anyone found disturbing the peace was in danger of being transported to Australia, everyone's favorite dumping ground for the criminal class at this time.

The Worralls found the young woman intriguing to say the least. Mrs. Worrall in particular was taken by her. The young woman's hands were soft indicating that she had not done any manual labor, and when she noticed a painting of a pineapple on the wall, she pointed to it excitedly, jabbering away in her language. She also exhibited very strange behavior, refusing to sleep in the bed in the room provided for her, and refusing to drink out of a glass unless she washed it herself. It was clear from the woman's features that she was European but from where? Was she Spanish, Greek or a Romany Gypsy?

The young woman eventually came to live with the Worralls at Knole Park, while Mrs. Worrall tried to solve the mystery. The first thing they learned was that her name was Caraboo. Then a Portuguese sailor claimed to be able to speak her language. The story came out that she came from the island kingdom of Javasu. She had been kidnapped from her homeland by pirates, and managed to escape by jumping overboard into the English channel and swimming for the shore.
Once the Worralls discovered that they were in the presence of royalty, they immediately informed the media, and soon the entire country knew about the mysterious Princess Caraboo and her story. Now a minor celebrity, Caraboo spent the next few weeks enjoying her fame, entertaining the many visitors who came to see her. She even scandalized the gentry by swimming naked in the lake when she was alone. The Worralls, of course, basked in her reflected glory.

Like most hoaxes this one had to come to an end eventually. A woman named Mrs. Neale recognized the description of Caraboo in the papers and revealed that the young woman had been a servant in her house, where she had entertained the children with a made-up language. It turned out that Caraboo's real name was something decidedly less exotic, Mary Baker. Baker didn't come from a foreign background but from the very English Witheridge Devonshire where she was the daughter of a cobbler.

No one is sure why or how Mary Baker decided to assume the identity of Princess Caraboo. The people who knew her as Mary Baker explained that she always had a theatrical bent, prefering to live in her own world of fantasy than in the real world. She'd had many jobs over the years, bouncing from one position to another. Her parents, when they were located, mentioned that Mary had been restless since childhood, unable to settle down. Why was she able to fool so many people? She was helped by the very people she was fooling. Like Anna Anderson who claimed to be Anastasia was able to fool membefs of the Romanovs, the people Mary Baker fooled wanted Caraboo to be real.

It was the romantic age in Britain, Keats, Shelley and Bryon were the poets of the era, writing about exotic places. To them, she looked and acted exactly the way they imagined someone from the Far East would look and sound. Once she had convinced them that she couldn't speak or understand English, they felt free to speak in front of her, providing her with the tools she needed to continue her deception. She also had remarkable memory. She was mysterious and beautiful and she brought excitement to their corner of the world, raising the social status of the Worralls. Her deception also pointed out to a gleeful press how easily the aristocracy could be fooled by the designs of a lower middle class girl with a rudimentary education.

What happened to Princess Caraboo after the truth came out? Mary Baker's natural charm and charisma contributed to Mrs. Worrall offering her money to allow her to sail to Philadelphia. The British press, showing the inventiveness of which they've become legendary in the 20th century, printed a story that Caraboo's ship had blown her off course and landed her on the island of St. Helena where Napoleon had fallen in love with her and proposed marriage (never mind the fact that exiled Emperor was still married). Although the story was intended to be joke, it proved to be so appealing that accounts of Caraboo have reported the story as fact.

In the States, her fame preceded her, and Caraboo spent 7 years traveling around making appearances and telling her story. She finally returned to England in 1824, where she continued to make appearances as Caraboo for awhile but the novelty had worn off. Her fifteen minutes were over. She settled down in Bristol, selling leeches to the Infirmary Hospital, apparently a respectable job in the 19th Century.

She died on January 4, 1865 and was buried in an unmarked grave. She might have gone down in history as nothing but a curiousity if hadn't been for the film Princess Caraboo starring Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline that brought her story to a new generation. On Monday 26 March, 2006, a blue plaque commemorating the life of Princess Caraboo was unveiled at Number 11, Princess Street, Bristol, where Mary lived the last 11 years of her life.

Mary Baker aka Princess Caraboo's story is as much as inspiration as it is the story of a hoax. Mary Baker managed to break out of her own glass and beat high society at their own game. Using her own unique talents and her appeal, she managed to raise above the circumstances of her position.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Cleopatra Last Pharoah of Ancient Egypt

When one thinks of Cleopatra, one thinks of the image to the left. The seductress on her barge on her way to conquer Mark Anthony. More than 2,000 years after her death, the last Pharoah of Egypt still holds our fascination as one of history's most famous and mysterious women. Her name is synonymous with beauty, sex, seduction, and power. Her legend has inspired filmmakers, poets, and playwrights over the centuries as they try to capture her elusive spirit.

But who was Cleopatra really? Was she a seductress who destroyed Mark Antony and brought about the end of the Egyptian dynasty? Or was she a powerful ruler who used men for her own purposes? Was she Black or pure Macedonian Greek and why does it matter? Will the real Cleopatra please stand up? Classical portraits portray her as an ethereal beauty. But that was far from the contemporary versions of the Queen.

Well for starters she reigned as Cleopatra VII (Cleopatra being a popular name in the Ptolemy dynasty. In fact her mother was Cleopatra V). As you can see from the coin minted during Cleopatra's lifetime, she was far from the beauty portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor, Claudette Colbert and others in movies. She was probably no more than five foot one, and more than likely plump. If Cleopatra seduced men it was more from her personality, her charisma, her powerful leadership and her brain, than it was from her looks.

The Ptolemaic dynasty descended directly from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great's generals. So in fact, Cleopatra was pure Greek. In fact, Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic Pharaoh to bother to learn to speak Egyptian. It was among the nine languages that she spoke. The seat of power had moved to Alexandria, on the coast of the Mediterranean. At the time of Cleopatra's reign, it was the largest, most populist, multicultural and most cosmopolitan city in the world. Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, and probably even Jews lived side by side. The city was much closer to contemporary New York. It was a center of learning with one of the most well known libraries in the ancient world.

She was born probably around 69 B.C. and after ascending the throne at 17, ruled for the next 20 years. There is speculation that Cleopatra's grandmother could have been an Egyptian or African concubine, although there is no evidence that this is true. Cleopatra had five siblings, all of whom died before her. Besides her two brothers, she had a sister Arsinoe who was killed on Cleoptra's orders. Her older sisters Tryphaena and Berenice had been killed when they each tried to seize the throne from their father Ptolemy XII. Later there is a legend that Cleopatra herself poisoned her brother/husband Ptolemy XIV, leaving her children by Caesar and Mark Antony as the sole heirs to the Eygptian throne. Clearly she could add ruthless to her other sterling qualities.

As was tradition, Cleopatra married her 12 year old brother (the throne of Egypt came through the female line so for a male to rule, he had to marry a female family member), Ptolemy XIII who she later battled for control of Egypt. Around this time, Caesar's co-consul Pompey was vying with him for control of the Roman Empire. After losing the battle of Pharsalos to Caesar, Pompey fled to Alexandria to seek the protection of Cleopatra's brother/husband Ptolemy XIII. However, Ptolemy's advisors thought it better for Ptolemy to throw his lot in with Caesar. On Pompey's arrival, he was assasinated. Just as Caesar was about to enter the city of Alexandria, he was presented with Pompey's head. Caesar was furious at what had been done to his one time friend and ally. He issued a decree that both Ptolemy and Cleopatra were to dismiss their armies and meet with him to settle the dispute.

This is where Cleopatra first showed the seductive arts that were to make her famous. She had herself delivered to Caesar rolled up in a Persian carpet. When it was unrolled, Cleopatra tumbled out looking like a rumpled kitten. Charmed by this gesture, Caesar took Cleopatra as his mistress. She later gave birth to his son Caesarion. Now backed by Caesar's forces, she defeated her brother, who later drowned while fleeing Caesar's henchmen. She then married her other brother Ptolemy XIV, who was even younger.

Despite the 30 year age different, Caesar and Cleopatra were lovers during the two years he spent in Egypt. While Cleopatra hoped that Caesar would make her son Caesarion his heir, he refused, choosing his grand-nephew Octavian instead. Instead, Caesarion would rule over Egypt and Rome, uniting the East and the West. Cleopatra left Egypt to be with Caesar in 46 B.C. on his invitation. While in Rome, Caesar showered his mistress with many titles and gifts. He even had a statue of her erected in the temple of Venus which scandalized the Roman nobility. Caesar already had a wife named Calpurnia and Caesar's flaunting of his affair with Cleopatra was frowned upon. It was even rumored that Caesar would divorce Calpurnia, marry Cleopatra and make Caesarion his heir instead of Octavius. Unfortunately Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C. by a host of conspirators including his close friend Brutus, who were afraid that Caesar would declare himself Emperor. Cleopatra fearing for her safety, fled back to Egypt. She now made her son Caesarion her co-regent after the death of her second brother/husband.

In 42 B.C. Mark Antony entered the picture. Cleopatra had been approached for support by Cassius, one of the chief conspirators against Caesar. No dummy, Cleopatra wasn't about to side with the man who was responsible for the death of her lover. Instead she sided against him with his rival Publius Cornelius Dolabella and sent legions to his aid in his attempt to claim Syria. Unfortunately Dolabella lost. Mark Antony summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus to question her about her loyalty to the triumvirate. Cleopatra arrived on her great barge dressed like the goddess Venus, impressing Antony with her wealth. She invited him to dine with her that night, and before he knew it, Antony was just as captivated by Cleopatra as Caesar had been. He even agreed to spend the winter with her in Alexandria where they became lovers. She gave birth to Antony's children, the twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and then later another son (these children were eventually raised by Octavia, Antony's ex-wife and Octavian's sister after Antony and Cleopatra's death). According to Plutarch, Cleopatra basically catered to Antony's every little whim, whether he wanted to go hunting or carousing, gambling, she drank with him, and played mischievous tricks with him, basically she never let him out of her sight.

When Antony finally managed to rouse himself from the splendors of Egypt, he returned to Rome to pick up his duties as a ruler of the Roman Empire, part of the triumvirate of Octavian and Lepidus. His wife Fulvia had raised an army against Octavian in his absence and Antony was needed to smooth things over. While in Rome, he married Octavian's sister, Octavia (Fulvia had conveniently taken ill and died), probably to cement the alliance between the two men. Still, Antony's heart was in Egypt with Cleopatra.

After a four year absence (I guess it did make the heart grow fonder), Antony stopped off in Egypt on his way to invade Parthia for a little rendezvous. After rushing through his military campaign, Antony made his way back to Cleopatra's waiting arms. Her charms were such that from that point on, Antony based himself in Alexandria, marrying Cleopatra in 36 B.C. (I wonder if he bothered to divorce Octavia!). Cleopatra gave birth to her third child by Antony soon after, a boy named Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Meanwhile back on the homefront, Octavia remained loyal to her bigamous jerk of a husband. When Cleopatra caught wind that Antony was going to go meet with Octavia, she threw a fit, crying, fainting and weeping until she got her way. Being a woman, she probably sensed that the sensible Octavia might play on Antony's guilt at abandoning her and their two daughters. Antony cancelled the meeting.

It was a mistake that Antony would live to regret. The people in Rome were just a little disgusted at Antony's treatment of Octavia, not the least being her brother, Octavian. Rumors abounded that Antony and Cleopatra had declared themselves gods (the new Isis and Dionysus, how appropriate). Then in 34 B.C. Antony made his children, Alexander King of Armenia and little Cleopatra, Queen of Crete, and finally little Ptolemy ended up with Syria. Antony had also promised Cleopatra lands to rule in exchange for her help with his campaign against Parthia. Cleopatra saw this as her opportunity to regain the Ptolemies' former dynastic empire, and Antony needed Cleopatra's wealth for his armies and his fleet. It was a match made in ambition and greed.

Now completely pissed off, Octavian went to the Senate to declare war on Egypt and Cleopatra. He made Cleopatra out to be the real enemy of Rome, using Antony as her besotted plaything. He even went so far as to read a document he claimed to be Antony's will (probably forged) which reportedly left everything to Cleopatra in the event of his death. In 31 B.C. Antony's forces met up with Octavian's at sea in the battle of Actium in Greece. Cleopatra had provided 60 ships of her own. However, when she saw that Antony's ships were losing to the Romans, she hightailed it out of there. Antony, meanwhile, made the cardinal sin of abandoning his men to follow her. This provided proof to Rome that Antony was just a pawn in Cleopatra's hands.

All was not well with two lovers however. Antony refused to see or to speak to Cleopatra for 3 days after the defeat. When they returned to Egypt, Antony went off to brood, while Cleopatra prepared her country for invasion by Rome. When Antony learned of the surrendar of his forces at Actium and that his allies had changed sides, he decided to join Cleopatra to party like it was 1999.

Cleopatra had begun to experiment with poisons in the likelihood that she would need to take her life. She also built a magnificent mausoleum to which she moved all her worldly goods. In 30 B.C. Octavian finally reached Alexandria. When Mark Antony marched his army out to meet the enemy, he discovered that his fleet had gone over to Roman side. Then Antony's calvary deserted him. With his army defeated, Antony returned to the city, screaming that Cleopatra had betrayed him. Fearing for her life, Cleopatra fled to her mausoleum and barricaded herself inside, ordering her servents to tell Antony that she was dead.

Hearing that Cleopatra was dead, Antony decided to take his own life by stabbing himself with his sword. Unfortunately, he didn't die. He begged his servants to finish him off but instead they ran off. Cleopatra's servent discovered him and told him that his mistress was still alive. Antony was carried to the mausoleum where he died in Cleopatra's arms.

Cleopatra was now a prisoner in her mausoleum, refusing to eat, until Octavian threatened to harm her children if she died. But when she heard that he planned to parade her as a captive in the procession to celebrate his triumph in Rome, she committed suicide rather than be humiliated. No one is quite sure who she died. Shakespeare of course has her dying from the bite of an asp. She died at the end of August and was buried by Antony's side as she requested.

After her suicide, Octavian ordered her son Caesarion put to death. Her daughter by Antony later married King Juba II of Numidia, but the fate of her other two children by Antony, Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphus, remains unknown but most sources claim that their lives were also spared by Octavian.

Did Cleopatra love Antony or was he a means to an end. No one really knows for sure if it more was ambition and lust that brought them together, but that's a pretty combustible combination. Cleopatra while able to survive twenty years as Pharaoah and countless attempts to over throw her rule will still be known as the seductress of the East who lured two of Rome's greatest men away from their duties.

During her reign, she promoted herself endlessly (shades of Madonna, Britney and Lola Montez), making constant public displays of her power, her image as Pharoah and as a goddess. She also personally led rituals that were associated with Isis, the most important Egyptian goddess at the time. By doing so, Cleopatra insured that her people would be loyal to her.

After her death, Octavian contributed to the making of her legend, by spreading stories about her. The legend grew as writers such as Shakespeare, Plutarch, and Shaw were taken by aspects of her story and by the many movies and television shows since then. Everyone has their image of Cleopatra in their head and no matter of new information will dislodge it. She has passed from history into an icon.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen and Rebel, Part II

Eleanor and Henry proceeded to produce 7 more children over the next 14 years, four boys and three girls, Henry (the young King), Richard, Geoffrey, Eleanor, Joanna, Matilda, and the last John in 1166, a remarkable feat during the Middle Ages when infant mortality was extremely high. Unfortunately, their first son William died at the age of 3 from an unknown illness.

Although Eleanor loved her children, Richard especially, she was a woman who loved power and wanted to exercise her intelligence doing more than just hanging around the nursery or supervising her ladies in waiting. Henry, however, wasn't about to share his power with a co-ruler. Although he allowed Eleanor to act as regent during his absences from court, but it was little more than her signing her name to the authority of his ministers, who had the real power.

Henry meanwhile, was also busy, in between ruling his vast kingdom, with other women. At first this didn't bother Eleanor over much, but she soon began to resent it, and his interference in her reign over Aquitaine, which she returned to in 1168. Eventually the two grew apart, the 12 year age difference increasing as the years went by. Although Henry had been discreet with his mistresses at first, that all changed when he fell in love with Rosamond Clifford, the daughter of one of his knights, Walter Clifford. Very little is known about Rosamond except that she was beautiful and Henry loved her above all women. Rumors circulated that Henry would annul his marriage to Eleanor and marry Rosamond, an act that Henry wasn't about to do. Annuling his marriage to Eleanor would mean that Aquitaine and Poitou would no longer be under his control. And Eleanor would once again be bait for his many enemies, seeking to control her vast inheritance. After Rosamond's death in 1176, another rumor spread that Eleanor had either had her murdered or poisoned her directly, despite the fact that Eleanor had been imprisoned at the time. Henry later became involved with Richard's betrothed, Alais, a princess of France and daughter of Eleanor's ex-husband. Needless to say, Richard never married Alais.

Henry allowed Eleanor to return to her court in Poitiers in an attempt to control the unruly barons in Aquitaine. For five years, Eleanor had a certain measure of autonomy from Henry's dominance. It was in Poitiers that Eleanor started to hold the "Courts of Love' where troubadours and poets flocked and the idea of courtly love was practiced, a code comprising 31 articles or The Rules of the 12th Century. The romantic legend of King Arthur took shape at this time, capturing the imaginations of the poets. It was around this time that the idea of the round table, and the love affair betweenGuinevere and Lancelot joined with the earlier versions of the story, through the writings of Chretien de Troyes, who served at the court of Eleanor's daughter, Marie Countess of Champagne. Chrétien also has the distinction of being the first writer to mention the Holy Grail (Perceval).

She even established a tribunal of women where men could come to ask questions. How cool is that? Eleanor of Aquitaine as a medieval Dr. Phil. In Poitiers, Eleanor was also reunited with her two daughters by Louis VII, Marie of Champagne and Alix of Blois. While Henry was the ruler of Aquitaine, Eleanor made sure that her lords knew that their loyalty was to her and not to the King.

The you know what hit the fan in 1173. Their eldest son Henry had been crowned King of England, but was anxious for a little power as were Henry's other two sons Richard and Geoffrey. Although Geoffrey had been made Duke of Brittany through marriage, but Henry didn't allow him to rule, nor did he allow Richard, any who was heir to Aquitaine and Poitou, any influence in the duchy. The sons chafed under their father's iron fist and revolted with their mother's support.

Henry was enraged that his sons would dare to rebel against him and that Eleanor would lend her support. The plan failed and all three sons fled to France. Eleanor was not so lucky, she was caught trying to flee dressed like a man. She was sent back to England and imprisoned for the next 15 years in various royal residences around the country. Very little is known about Eleanor's life during this time. On brief occasions, she was let out of her prison, mainly for Christmas celebrations at the court (The Lion in Winter is set during one such holiday), and to see Richard installed as Duke of Aquitaine after Eleanor renounced her title. Occasionally she was allowed to have family members as visitors, but Henry never let her forget that she was his prisoner.

Meanwhile his sons continued to rebel against him, hooking up with Louis VII's son, Philip Augustus, who proved to be a more formidable enemy than his father. However, the young King Henry died of dysentery in 1183, awaiting his father's forgiveness. Although Henry didn't come in person, he did send his son a sapphire ring as a token of reconciliation. Then Geoffrey took a fatal fall in 1186, leaving his son Arthur who was born 7 months after his death. That left Richard and John as Henry's only heirs. Eventually even John also known as John Lackland for his lack of inherited titles and land, Henry's favorite son joined in. Henry didn't know what his favorite son had done until he lay on his deathbed after a terrible defeat.

Henry died in 1189 and Eleanor was finally free to rule England through Richard. After his coronation, Richard obliged her by taking off on the Third Crusade, to rescue the beseiged city of Jerusalem from Saladin. Eleanor was completey against it, as far as she was concerned, Richard's job was to continue the Plantagenet dynasty by marrying and siring an heir, not to mention the business of affairs of state. She did manage to get him married to Berengaria of Navarre, who although Queen of England, never set foot in the kingdom. The getting of an heir was another story.

Richard was gone for 5 years, in fact during his reign, he spent only 10 months in England, leaving Eleanor plenty of room to rule as administator of the realm, while simultaneously keeping John's greedy fingers off the throne in his brother's absence (apparently Disney's depiction of him in Robin Hood is not far off the mark). In the meantime, Richard managed to get himself captured on his way back from Crusade by the Duke of Austria who held him for ransom.

Not only did Eleanor manage to raise the money to ransom Richard, but she went all the way to Austria to bring back, this while in her seventies. On this return, she even effected a reconciliation between the two brothers. Richard died in 1199 after ten years on the throne, without an heir. This was before the days when the line of succession was clearly demarcated. So there were two heirs, Geoffrey's son Arthur and John. Eleanor threw her weight behind John's claim. Arthur's mother Constance was just as formidable a woman as Eleanor, and she knew that she would have no power if Arthur were King.

Arthur had the power and weight of the French King behind him, but Eleanor managed to help John hold Aquitaine and Poitou against him. John eventually managed to capture him and his sister Eleanor. Arthur died mysteriously while imprisoned which didn't help John's cause. Luckily for him he had his mother to advise and guide him as she had done for Richard. In a savy move, she had her granddaughter Blanche of Castile betrothed to Philip's son, uniting the Plantagents and the Capets. And she personally escorted her granddaughter from Castile, at the age of 80, to her bridegroom.

Eventually Eleanor retired in 1202 to Fontrevault Abbey where she spent her remaining two years of life, match-making for her relatives, seeking advantageous matches for them. She died at the age of 82, a remarkable age in a remarkable life, outliving most of her children, apart from John and her daughter Eleanor. She is buried beside her husband at the Abbey.

In the years following her death, historians judged her harshly for her youthful indiscretions and willful personality, ignoring her later years. But current historians are kinder to Eleanor, emphasizing her political wisdom and her role in the development of Courtly Love.