Friday, October 30, 2009
Thursday, October 29, 2009
It is truly the discovery of a new hemisphere in
a person’s life when he falls seriously in love.
-Vincent van Gogh
The Sunday newspaper in Arles, Le Forum Républicain, featured a brief story in its 30 December 1888 issue about an incident that had happened just before Christmas. The article begins: “Last Sunday at 11:30 pm, one Vincent Vangogh, painter of Dutch origin, presented himself at the maison de tolérance no. 1, asked for a certain Rachel, and gave her his ear, saying ‘Guard this object very carefully.’ Then he disappeared.”
We know Vincent van Gogh, of course, as perhaps the world’s most famous artist, beloved for his colorful paintings, the object of fascination for his turbulent personal life. But what about Rachel? No other surviving historical source calls her by name. In a letter to his brother Theo after his recovery, Vincent only mentions “the girl I went to when I lost my wits” and claims to remember nothing about that night. A brief notice in another news clipping from the time discreetly calls Rachel “a café girl,” while painter Paul Gauguin — who’d been staying with Vincent at the time of the “ear incident” — refers to her as “a wretched girl” in a letter to another painter friend, Émile Bernard. The one other place that might reveal Rachel’s last name (or real name, if she used a pseudonym), age. etc. is the archive of Arles...but the files on Arlesian brothels from Rachel’s time period are sealed until 2042.
My novel, Sunflowers, was born from the question: who was Rachel? To have asked for her that fateful night, Vincent must have known her, but how well? Had he been just another customer, had she been just another prostitute...or not? I imagined a relationship between Rachel and Vincent on the premise that if there had been something between them in “real life,” Vincent would likely have kept it a secret from Theo and anyone else back home. After all, just a few years before in The Hague, Vincent had lived with a former prostitute and her two children for over a year, to the dismay of his family and all his friends. Paint such women, use them as models...yes., if he must. Live with them, love them...absolutely not.
I am not the first to be intrigued by Rachel. Irving Stone, in his novel Lust for Life, made her a rather dim sixteen-year-old who keeps dolls in her room at the brothel. The movie version of Stone’s book casts her as a sultry brunette with gypsy eyes, who purrs “Hello, redhead” to Kirk Douglas. In the later film “Vincent and Theo,” Rachel passionately kisses Tim Roth’s Vincent and lets him paint her face. Neither film shows Vincent taking the piece of his ear to Rachel after the self-mutilation, the episode for which she is actually known. Too gory for movie audiences?
My Rachel (I pronounce her name French style: Rah-SHELL) combines the historical Vincent’s taste in women with research I did on prostitutes of the time. Like many of the women populating the quartiers chauds (we’d call them “red-light districts” now) of French towns and cities, the fictional Rachel arrives at the brothel out of desperation, lost in a bad situation with neither family nor money. Like these women, for Rachel escaping this life seems nearly impossible. But then she meets a redheaded foreigner in a summery garden, and two lonely people suddenly have the chance to be less lonely. Later, Rachel must confront the realities of Vincent’s mental illness and try to help him to safety and freedom — and she must confront her own reality, too: the past she has avoided, the future that hangs in the balance. My Rachel has hard choices to make. My Rachel knows happiness, and she knows despair. Above all, my Rachel knows love.
Is this Rachel anything like the historical girl who fainted at van Gogh’s feet the night of 23 December 1888? I have no idea. Neither I nor anyone else will probably ever know for certain. But we can all imagine...
Sunflowers: A Novel of Vincent van Gogh is available in trade paperback from Avon-A. Visit Sheramy online at her website (www.sheramybundrick.com) or her blog (vangoghschair.blogspot.com).
Thanks Sheramy! And wait for it, Scandalous Women is giving away a copy of Sunflowers to one lucky reader. Note this giveaway is only available to my American and Canadian readers.
Here are the rules:
1) Just leave a comment with your email address at the end of this post.
2) If you are not a follower of the blog and you become one, you get one extra entry.
3) Twitter about the giveaway and let me know about it, and you get two extra entries.
4) The contest ends November 5th 2009 at 12:00 p.m. and will be announced on November 6th.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Hilary Swank......Amelia Earhart
Richard Gere.......George P. Putnam
Ewan McGregor....Gene Vidal
Christopher Eccleston.....Fred Noonan
Joe Anderson....................Bill Stutz
William Cuddy...................Gore Vidal as a young child
Mia Wasikowska................Elinor Smith
Cherry Jones......................Eleanor Roosevelt
On Friday, I decided to see the new film Amelia starring Hilary Swank and Richard Gere at the AMC movie theater on 42nd Street (tickets cost $6 before 12 noon). I'm writing a chapter on Amelia for Scandalous Women, and I thought this would be a great way to get in the mood. Movies should never be used for research, but I was eager to see what the filmmakers did with Amelia Earharts story.
The film starts off with Amelia Earhart along with her navigator, Fred Noonan on the last leg of her around the world flight. The movie is told in flashbacks from her childhood when a young Amelia is first captivated by the sight of an airplane. As a young woman, she is recruited by publishing tycoon George Putnam to become the first woman to cross the Atlantic, the catch is that she can only be a passenger, she can't fly the plane. She's actually replacing Amy Phipps Guest, a rich socialite who was supposed to make the trip. Amelia agrees because of the publicity it will be bring to aviation and in particular to women pilots.
While stuck in Newfoundland, Amelia chastizes one of the pilots for drinking, telling him that she will take over the flight if he doesn't get his act together and get on the plane. When they finally land in Wales, Amelia is thrust into the limelight as the most famous woman pilot of her time. Putnam helps Earhart write a book chronicling the flight, the two gradually falling in love , and they eventually marry although she forces him to promise to let her go within a year if she's unhappy. Amelia is embarrassed by all the hoopla and publicity work that she has to do, since it has nothing to do with flying, so she decides to become the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic.
The film flashes forward through the next decade as Earhart falls into an awkward and unconvincing love affair with Gene Vidal, an aviation pioneer probably more famous for being the father of author Gore Vidal. She reconciles with Putnam but is determined to do one last flight, an around the world flight that no one has successfully completed. Earhart's first attempt ends in a crash landing in Hawaii. Due to the time it took to make repairs, Amelia is now forced her to take the plane in a reverse direction, leaving the lengthy transpacific crossing at the end of her flight. On the way to refuel on tiny Howland Island, radio transmissions between a Coast Guard picket ship and Earhart's aircraft reveal a rising crisis, as her fuel begins to run out. Her last message is a cryptic position report. The film's ending is ambiguous since what really happened to Earhart that fateful day is not known for sure.
Directed by Mira Nair, the script was written by Ron Bass and Ann Whelan Thompson. The screenplay was based on two biographies of Earhart East to the Dawn by Susan Butler and The Sound of Wings by Mary S. Lovell.
Amelia is a disappointing, curiously uninvolving and bloodless biopic of Amelia Earhart, which is a shame because it had huge potential to be an amazing film. Hilary Swank was born to play Amelia Earhart, it is a role that fits her like a glove. She even looks like Earhart. Unfortunately she's stuck with a script that falls apart whenever it comes down from the clouds. Bass made the decision to include a great deal of Amelia's own words in the script. The problem is that it sounds like Swank is reading aloud from Earharts biography than actual dialogue. It comes across stilted and phony, as she were giving a commencement address or a public service announcement.
The least interesting aspects of the film are the ones that deal with her personal life. The audience never really gets to see her relationship with Putnam development. They also cut out Putnam's first wife Dorothy (who was played by Virginia Madsen), who he was married to when he first met Earhart. In fact, Earhart dedicated her first book to Dorothy. In real life, not 'reel' life, Putnam accompanied Earhart when she met her first transcontinental flight from New York to Los Angeles, becoming the first woman to do so. If the filmmakers had included a few short scenes during this flight, we might have the chance to see the 'love' relationship between the two grow, as opposed to their 'professional' relationship which is covered nicely. Another curious scene details Putnam telling Earhart about how she's going to be endorsing Lucky Strikes cigarettes despite the fact she doesn't smoke. Nowhere in the film does the audience learn how shocking it was for a woman in the 1920's to endorse cigarettes when women smoking in public was still frowned on, or the fact that Earhart lost a job as McCall's aviation editor because of it.
Her subsequent extramarital affair with Gene Vidal is curiously bloodless, they seem to sleep together just because they both like planes. In another curious scene, Amelia compliments another woman, while they are sitting in a hotel lobby, making particular note of her gorgeous legs. For a brief second, I thought the film was going in another direction, was Amelia about to suggest a three-some? Come out? No, instead it turned out that she just hated her own legs, which Vidal points out not Amelia. It was a WTF moment in a film that needed more juice. Her scenes with Gene's son Gore seem to be tacked on as if to say 'and look she's also good with children!'. I would love to know how Vidal feels about being portrayed as an adorable, mop-haired tyke straight out of central casting.
When the film deals with Amelia flying, it's on a surer footing. The scenes of her preparing for her first flight across the Atlantic and at the end when she's on her way around the world are mesmerizing. Warning: if you don't like to fly, you will not like this film. There are quite a few scenes filled with turbulence and danger.
There is one big continuity gap that stands out. The title card before the scene says that it is 1932, but all the signs at the big aviation race for women all state that it is 1929 which is when the race took place. Also, Amelia comes in third, and it is never explained that she stopped to help a fellow pilot out who had serious problems.
Another huge problem for me with this film is that Amelia never seems to ever get upset, or angry. Swank plays her primarily as awkward but with gumption. In 'real' life Earhart might have been that even-keeled, but it makes for a boring movie. You long for her to throw a tantrum or something. When Amelia and the two pilots are stuck in Newfoundland at the beginning of the film, Amelia lectures one of the pilots in a rather unemotional way about her father being a drunk. I'm not a child of an alcoholic but that has to leave some kind of emotional scars and it would have been nice to see more of that. Even when she ends her relationship with Vidal, it's kind of bloodless.
So I would have to recommend that if you want to see this film, that wait until it comes out on DVD in the Spring.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
Pulled straight from the canvasses of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Elizabeth Hickey’s The Wayward Muse paints a vivid portrait of the mysterious and beautiful Jane Burden, the Pre-Raphaelite icon. A stableman’s daughter raised in the slums of Oxford, England, seventeen-year-old Jane is convinced of her own homeliness. But her fortunes forever change when she is discovered by the charismatic and irreverent painter, Rossetti. Jane is swept into the artist's world as model and muse and falls madly in love with him. When Rossetti abruptly leaves her, Jane reluctantly agrees to marry his protégé, a shy craftsman named William Morris. But her passion for Rossetti never dies, and years later all three become entangled in a love triangle from which they will never escape.
I've been a huge fan of the Pre-Raphaelite painters since the moment I first saw their paintings in the Tate Museum in London. I've written about Lizzie Siddal's tortured relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti back in May here, and as soon as I found out that a novel had been written about Jane Burden and William Morris, I snapped it right up. The painting on the upper left is actually Rosetti's portrait of Jane as Prosperine.
Hickey's novel is a wonderfully evocative portrait of Mid-Victorian England. Jane lives one step up from dire poverty in a house where the basement constantly overflows from the privy in the street. She's been educated to read and write, as well as domestic skills. She has very few choices in life, marry a local boy and live the same life as her mother, or work as a domestic or in a factory somewhere. A chance meeting with Rossetti and Edward Bourne Jones at the theater in Oxford changes her life. She's invited to model for them for the murals they are painting of Arthurian legends for the Oxford Union . Her mother is immediately suspicious of Rossetti (he's Italian) and worries that Jane is being invited to prostitute herself but is assured by Burne Jones.
Jane can hardly believe that these two men consider her to be beautiful after she's been told all her life by her mother and sister that she's ugly. But these two artists see in her a singular beauty that harkens back to the Medieval painters that they strive to emulate. Jane immediately falls for Rossetti who flatters her and pursues her ardently. She takes little notice of Morris at first, until Rossetti is called away and the other painters leave. Morris falls in love with her, and she agrees to marry him after she finds out from one of the other models, that Rossetti is engaged to Lizzie Siddal.
But Jane doesn't love Morris although he treats her better than Rossetti ever did. Before their marriage, she's set to a finishing school to polish her manners. When she arrives in London, she initially feels insecure about her lack of education compared to the others in Morris's circle. Morris also soon becomes consumed by work and has little time for her. She becomes friends with Georgiana McDonald, who later marries Burne-Jones, and Lizzie Siddal. Despite the birth of two daughters, Jane cannot forget Rossetti. After Lizzie's tragic death, Rossetti asks her to sit for him and they are plunged into a passionate affair. Morris surprisingly turns a blind eye to the relationship and offers to allow them to spend time together in the country at Kelmscott manor. The lovers are initially happy but Rossetti has demons that threaten to overtake his life. He had become addicted to alcohol and chloral hydrate after Lizzie's death and starts to suffer delusions.
I couldn't put this book down. I felt for Jane who only married Morris because her options were so limited. She tries to be a good wife but the passion that she feels for Rossetti can't be denied. It's almost a Cinderella story except in this version, she doesn't marry the handsome prince but his best friend. Jane is swept up into a world that she never dreamed of occupying, becoming the muse to two different men in different ways. I also felt for Morris, married to a woman that he loves but who he has little in common with. Both Jane and Morris were incredibly shy and awkward when it come to relations with the opposite sex. Meanwhile Rossetti flatters Jane, he doesn't make her feel inadequate the way that Morris does.
Rossetti is a hard man to like. A brilliant painter and poet, let's face it, he's a complete sh*t, no matter how you slice it. In Hickey's novel, he leads Jane on then leaves her without warning, never letting her know that he has other commitments. Even after Lizzie dies, he commits the ultimate sin of digging up her grave to retrieve the poems he buried with her. I found it hard to sympathize with him. There were times reading the book when I didn't know who to slap upside the head first, Jane for spending so much time mooning over Rossetti, Morris for being self-sacrificing to the point of masochism, or Rossetti for being such a selfish bastard. However it's hard not to feel for Jane, both men in her life can't seem to get past her beauty, it's almost as if she's an object, not a person. Neither man seems to have the first clue as to who she is inside.
The author does take some liberties with history. There is no evidence that Rossetti and Jane had an attachment before he left Oxford. Gay Daly in her wonderful book Pre-Raphaelites in Love believes that Lizzie Siddal and Jane would never have become friends if they had had a love affair while he was still with Lizzie. There were no secrets among the brotherhood, and Lizzie probably would have found out, she knew about Rossetti's affairs with Fanny Cornforth and Annie Miller.
Because the book is told from Jane's point of view, and it focuses soley on Jane's relationships with Morris and Rossetti, the reader never learns that Rossetti was continuing to see the model Fanny Conforth who eventually went to work for him as a housekeeper. Nor are we privy to the information that Morris and Georgie Burne-Jones had an intimate friendship. In fact, Morris had several platonic female friends that he turned to for the companionship that he couldn't get from Jane.
The author's afterword doesn't really tell you much about Jane's life after Rossetti died. She omits Jane's ten year affair with the poet, womanizer, and diplomat Wilfred Scawen Blunt. Blunt sought out an introduction to Jane precisely because of her relationship with Rossetti, whom he admired. Soon after they met, they became lovers. Jane was 44 at the time, (Blunt was 43) and twenty years older than most of the women that he seduced. He'd had a long affair with the courtesan Catherine 'Skittles" Walters in the 1860's, and he was unhappily married to Anne, the granddaughter of Lord Byron, another one of his heroes. Like Morris and Rossetti, Blunt was drawn to Jane's beauty, as well as her relationships to Rossetti and Morris. Once again, Willian Morris was forced into the position of cuckhold.
Blunt encouraged Jane to talk about her relationship with Rossetti, which she was more than willing to do. Finallly she had someone to share with! It is from Blunt and his diaries that historians have been able to glean information about Jane's relationship with Rossetti. The relationship finally petered out as Jane couldn't compete with the younger, prettier women that Blunt was chasing.
If you are interested in the Pre-Raphaelites, or artists in general or just love reading about Victorian England, than I urge you to pick up a copy of Elizabeth Hickey's book. Or you can just enter the giveaway. I will be giving away 1 copy of the book, deadline for entries is next Thursday October 29. You can also find out more about Hickey and her books at her web-site.
1) If you want to enter, leave a comment on this post with your email address.
2) If you are not a follower of the blog, but become one, you get an extra entry
3) If you are on twitter and you tweet about the giveaway, you get an extra entry.
4) If you do both 2 and 3, then you get two extra entries.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
When Sheridan Le Fanu, the Victorian Gothic writer, was creating his novella Carmilla, he probably had Countess Elizabeth (Erszebet), one of the world's greatest serial killers in mind for his anti-heroine. Bram Stoker's Dracula owes as much to her as to Vlad the Impaler. By the time the Blood Countess's reign of terror was over, 650 girls had lost their lives, all for the Countess's insatiable desire to look young.
Elizabeth Bathory (1560-1614) came from one of the richest and noblest families in all of Hungary. One of her ancestors Stephen Bathory actually fought alongside Vlad III Dracul (aka The Impaler) during his wars against the Turks. Another ancestor was a King of Poland. With that kind of background, Elizabeth's life should have been plain sailing. She was beautiful, and intelligent, able to speak four languages. But she was also spoiled, sadistic, and probably a little bit insane as well. At the age of 4, she began to suffer from epileptic seizures. Later she suffered extreme mood swings (she was probably bipolar) and violent uncontrollable rages. She grew up willful and spoiled, without any attempt of discipline from her governesses. Huge mistake because the lack of discipline just made Elizabeth think that she could do what she wanted. Her family also suffered from the inbreeding common amongst the nobility at that time, trying to keep the bloodlines pure.
At the age of 14, Elizabeth was married to Count Ferenc Nadasdy, who took the name Bathory, because her family was nobler than his. Nadasdy was 25 at the time of their marriage and nicknamed 'The Black Hero of Hungary' for his incredible temper. Like his wife, Nadasdy apparently was a sadist, although even he became disgusted by his wife's actions. Since Nadasdy was often away from home waging war, Elizabeth occupied her time by becoming involved with the occult and refining various torture methods. Her companions in fun were her Aunt Klara, who apparently was well-versed in fun past-times like torture and flogging, as well as a retainer with the colorful name of Thorko. During this time, she also gave birth to five children. By all accounts, she was a loving and devoted mother, which somehow seems at odds with her later reputation for sadism.
Elizabeth soon discovered how much fun it was to torture the servants, particularly young girls who couldn't fight back for fearing of losing their lives if they talked. Elizabeth would punish them for the slightest mistake, she once sewed the mouth of a girl shut because she talked too much. It was a high time at the castle what with the screaming, and the hushing and shushing going on. Other fun games included covering girls with honey and leaving them tied to trees, or forcing them to stand outside naked in winter time. The doings at Castle Cachtice soon became known to the populace, but Bathory's family were powerful enough to bribe the right people to say nothing. People were afraid of them and their power, including the Church. Even the nobles who suspected something protected their own.
After her husband's death, Elizabeth realized that she was getting older. She was in her forties and not the luscious young thing that she once was. Legend has it that she slapped a servant girl for pulling her hair too tight, scratching her with her long nails. As she wiped away the blood on her hand, Elizabeth noticed that the skin beneath looked younger and firmer. Before you could say Oil of Olay, Bathory got the bright idea that bathing in virgin's blood would help her look younger. Her alchemist did her one better and suggested that drinking the blood would also rejuvenate her. Nothing like a glass of B+ before you go to bed at night. Girls were tortured, and their blood drained to appease the Countess.
After awhile, Bathory decided that peasant blood just wasn't cutting it anymore. She was an aristocrat, what she needed was the blood of her own kind. So....she decided to open a school for the daughters of the minor nobility to teach them deportment and manners. Big mistake, while peasant girls going missing might not arouse suspicion, these girls had families who cared about them. Bathory's whopper of a mistake was tossing the bodies of 4 girls over the wall of the castle, instead of burying them which would have been smarter. This time she wasn't going to get away with it so easily.
Word reached the year of the King of Hungary, who ordered an investigation into the situation. This worked to the King's advantage because it gave him the chance to check the power of the nobility who were always getting out of hand. A raid on the castle was ordered. Girls were found dead or dying in the dungeon of the castle, and bodies were found under the floor boards, in cupboards, where ever they could be stashed. Stupidly Elizabeth had actually kept a ledger in her desk with the names of the girls that she had killed.
Elizabeth was arrested along with her cronies in torture. They all immediately confessed after a little torture. However, Elizabeth as an aristocrat could not be put on trial for her deeds. However, not realizing a get out jail card when she saw one, Elizabeth tried to get the authorities to let her stand trial. Instead, her accomplices had to pay for her crime with their lives. But Elizabeth did not escape unscathed, her family had her walled up in a tiny room at Cachtice with little ventilation where she died at the age of 54.
There are those who believe that Bathory was not quite as bad as she was made out to be, that like Vlad the Impaler, her name has been blackened as part of a conspiracy. The confessions of her servants were obtained by torture and she was never tried for her crimes. Her diaries are in a library in Hungary but they have not been translated because the handwriting and the language are difficult to read.
A Dark History; The Kings & Queens of Europe, From Medieval Tyrants to Mad Monarchs: Brenda Ralph Lewis, Amber Books Ltd. 2008
The World's Wickedest Women - Margaret Nicholas
The Blood Countess - Alisa M. Libby
Friday, October 16, 2009
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Born in a brothel in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1775, Betsy Bowen was the daughter of a prostitute and followed in her mother’s footsteps, the one exception being that she was not a streetwalker. Betsy attained a higher status in that profession, that of kept woman. Her first liaison was with a prominent man in Providence who kept her exclusively for himself in a brothel. She was sixteen when their liaison began. When she became pregnant, her protector took her child and paid Betsy to leave town. She decided to start a new life in New York City where she got work as a poorly-paid supernumerary in the opera.
Eventually, she changed her name to Eliza. She accepted the protection of a French sea captain, Emile de la Croix, and took his name. When he returned to France, Eliza went with him. She was accepted by Napoleonic society and became the toast of Paris. She returned to New York alone about 1804, determined to start a millinery business with her newly acquired knowledge of French fashion. She rented a shop in the basement of Stephen Jumel’s wine shop. Her business failed and Eliza turned her shop assistants into prostitutes, becoming their madam.
Stephen was attracted to his tenant and Eliza wasted no time. She became his mistress and moved into his house. Stephen was aware of her past, but in the French spirit of laissez-faire, he didn’t mind. Eliza wanted more than protection from Stephen, she wanted marriage. She knew that it was only as a married lady that she would be accepted by New York society. Despite their living arrangements, Stephen as an eligible bachelor, continued to be invited by the best people, without Eliza of course.
One day when Stephen was away on business, a rider caught up with him with the news that Eliza was dying. Stephen immediately headed back to New York. When he arrived, her doctor and his priest assured him she would not live out the night. Eliza made a deathbed request of Stephen that he save her immortal soul by marrying her before she died. His priest was there, time was of the essence, so Stephen married her on the spot. Miraculously, Eliza recovered, some say she was never in danger, and tricked Stephen into marriage. The truth will never be known. However, Stephen did not feel betrayed. He remarried her in a ceremony in Old Saint Patrick’s Church after her recovery. Stephen invited all his society friends, none came.
In 1810, Stephen bought Eliza a magnificent Georgian Palladian mansion in Washington Heights, now known as the Morris-Jumel Mansion, and opened to the public as a Historic House Museum of the Decorative Arts. As a wealthy, married woman, Eliza sought revenge on her first lover by returning to Providence. There is no documentation that her return had any effect, negative or otherwise, on his first lover.
However, it did have a lasting consequence on one male from her past, it was at this time that her natural son learned who his mother was. Tragically, he spent most of the rest of his life trying to get her to acknowledge him. Knowing that Stephen wanted to have children, Eliza used this trip to Providence to collect her sister’s illegitimate daughter, Mary Bowen. When they arrived back in New York, Stephen was enchanted by the child and adopted her.
The family Jumel went to France on one of Stephen’s ships, the Eliza, and once again, Paris welcomed Eliza. The Jumels settled in and Mary was enrolled in a convent school. Stephen decided to remain in France and sent Eliza home with his Power of Attorney to sell off his property and return to him with the proceeds. Eliza saw her chance to make a fortune and used Stephen’s POA to purchase property, increasing their fortune tremendously. She refused to return to France and Stephen was forced to return to America. Their marriage was effectively over. Eliza retained Stephen’s POA and engaged in buying more and more New York real estate, while Stephen, now an old man, retired to the farm in Washington Heights where he died after an accident in 1830..
In 1832, Eliza married Aaron Burr. She felt his status as a former Vice President would bring her the recognition she’d craved all her life. It did not. Their farcical marriage ended in divorce within two days of Burr’s death. Thereafter Eliza styled herself as the widow of the Vice President of the United States.
Her adopted daughter, Mary had married a man named Nelson Chase, they had two children whom Eliza raised after Mary died an early death. Through these children, Eliza managed to follow a life that aped that of Grand Society. She went to Saratoga in the season. She had a home there and every morning she managed to get her carriage in front of the line that went from the hotels to take the waters.
One day, a black man managed to maneuver a carriage directly behind Eliza’s. He imitated her every gesture, causing the onlookers to laugh. Eliza spotted him and realized he was making fun of her. The next day, her carriage was first in line, as usual, but Eliza had added a pistol as one of her accessories. The experience of the previous day was never repeated.
When Eliza Jumel Burr, the former Betsy Bowen, died in 1865, at age 90, she was the wealthiest woman in the United States.
Thanks Audrey for stopping by! You can learn more about the Morris-Jumel mansion here.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Here is a brief teaser:
In the ruthless arena of King Henry VIII’s court, only one man dares to gamble his life to win the king’s favor and ascend to the heights of political power England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years, and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. The quest for the king’s freedom destroys his adviser, the brilliant Cardinal Wolsey, and leaves a power vacuum.
Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell is a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people and a demon of energy: he is also a consummate politician, hardened by his personal losses, implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
The novel is like a rich hearty meaty stew that needs to be savored over time with say a glass of mulled wine on a winter's day, not rushed through. As I said in an earlier post, this is not a fast read. It is a amazingly rich portrait tof the Tudor era, although at times I felt a time-line was needed to figure out exactly when things were happening. Mantel has a tendency to skip around, as Cromwell remembers key events from his past, and the narrator recounts events that Cromwell couldn't have first hand knowledge of.
I found Cromwell to be an interesting choice for a protagonist. There are some readers who might not find him likeable, but I found him sympathetic and even admirable at times. It's a testament to Mantel's skill as a writer that she is able to convey the complexity of the man without softening him. Cromwell is ambitious, wily, yet practical, hard yet extremely loyal to Cardinal Wolsey. These two men, who both came from nothing, Wolsey the son of an Ipswich butcher, and Cromwell the poor kid from Putney are two of a kind. It's easy to see why Wolsey might have seen Cromwell as a son, and Cromwell definitely has daddy issues.
Cromwell has a great love for his children and relatives, although he's not always able to show it and he's a devout follower of the new religion. He can also be arrogant, and sarcastic and something of a bully. What I found most interesting about him is that he has no illusions about anyone. He's aware that Henry is fickle and can just as quickly go off someone as bring them into his inner circle. All the usual suspects are here, the Duke of Suffolk, the Duke of Norfolk (who inexplicably disappeared after the first season of The Tudors, Mary Boleyn (who is not the good girl portrayed in The Other Boleyn Girl), Jane Seymour, Cranmer, and those who might not be so familiar to readers, like Elizabeth Barton. Readers hoping for a sympathetic portrait of Anne Boleyn will be disappointed. She comes off as a grasping, ambitious shrew in Mantel's version. Mantel also repeats the rumors that Henry VIII had carnal knowledge of Anne and Mary Boleyn's mother Lady Elizabeth Howard. Apparently Henry liked to keep it in the family, the Howard family that is, since his fifth wife was Anne's cousin Katherine.
The book also gives the reader a good sense of how society was beginning to change during the Tudor period, as self-made men like Cromwell and Wolsey were starting to make their way at court, and the old aristocracy had to reluctantly make way for these upstarts who were gaining the ear of the King. Not much is really known about Crowell's early life but Mantel manages to fill the reader in with a plausible history for him.
Readers who know their Tudor history will want to rush out and buy this book, even though they know how it all ends up. At times, it may feel like one needs a scorecard to keep up with all the family relationships, and frequent trips to the computer to look things up on Wikipedia! But if the reader sticks with the book they will not be disappointed. The title WOLF HALL has both a literal and probably a figurative meaning. I won't spoil it for those who haven't read the book but I was shocked and surprised when I found out. She also ends the book in an interesting place, not the place that you think that she would end it. Reading this book, I was reminded of the historical fiction that I read growing up, authors like Taylor Caldwell, Georgette Heyer, and Anya Seton, authors who took the reader on a journey into a different world.
FYI: It appears that Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell is related to Thomas Cromwell, which I have always wondered. Oliver Cromwell was his great-great nephew through Cromwell's sister Catherine.
I'm giving a copy of WOLF HALL away, the contest ends on Friday October 16th. To be entered, just leave a comment on this post. If you twitter about the giveaway, you get an 2 extra entries, and if you don't follow the blog, but become a follower, you'll receive an extra entry.
Addendum: I have removed portions of this review that sounded a little too similar to another review on the web. It was inadvertant and I'm sorry for any confusion or harm that it may have caused the author Leslie Carroll.
Friday, October 9, 2009
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
I was struck by this paragraph in the NYTimes article: 'In the run-up to Tuesday’s ceremony at the Guildhall in London, Ms. Mantel, 57, was the overwhelming favorite, with the bookmakers William Hill giving “Wolf Hall” odds of 10-11, the shortest odds ever for a nominee.'
I was lucky to receive a review copy of WOLF HALL from the publisher (According to the new FTC rules, bloggers must disclose how they receive their books). Normally I only review books that fall under the purview of Scandalous Women in history but I couldn't resist the idea of reading a book about the wily Thomas Cromwell. Perhaps its because of James Frain's magnificent performance in The Tudors (and I really hate this show so that's saying something.) Given the popularity of The Tudors, both the series and the dynasty, it's interesting that Mantel has chosen to focus more on the men, then the women. Countless books have been written about Henry's wives, his mistresses, and even Cardinal Wolsey, but Cromwell has been neglected. For that alone, it's worth reading the book.
I'll be doing a giveaway of WOLF HALL with a review on Sunday. The novel covers the period in history covered by the first two series of The Tudors, meaning the rise of Anne Boleyn seen through Cromwell's eyes. I will say this, the book is not a fast read, it is incredibly dense, but the language is so vivid and the world she creates is so fascinating. There is nothing worse than finding a book that you really want to read, and then having to do other things, when all you want to do is curl up on the bed and indulge. And the book is so heavy at 532 pages that it is not really something you can schlep on the subway.
For another opinion, the book was recently reviewed in The New York Times book section by Janet Maslin. You can read the review here.
Hilary Mantel does not have a web-site but you can find out more information about the author at www.henryholt.com.
Monday, October 5, 2009
Welcome, Diane, to Scandalous Women. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started writing?
Sure. Well, I have been writing historical fiction for almost 20 years, beginning with Courtesan, a novel based on the true, epic love story of Henri II and Diane de Poitiers—who was the unofficial Renaissance queen of France. It was a story that changed my life since I was driven to tell it to an American audience to such an extent that I gave up the final portion of a doctoral degree in psychology in order to go to France and finish the story. That is probably a good thing since I have been blessed enough to say that The Queen’s Mistake is my 11th historical novel and I have never looked back. But I like to believe that my books perhaps encompass the two worlds of psychology and fiction, bringing to life characters, their troubles and their triumphs, in a human and believable way. At least that has always been my goal.
What led you to choose Catherine Howard as the heroine of The Queen's Mistake?
Because I began my writing career in the Renaissance, I think I have a special fondness for those stories. It is most definitely my favorite period in which to immerse myself and spend a year. Catherine Howard’s story was a challenge because it is not one that ends well, obviously, and also if one read only the most basic information about her, it would be easy to see her as simply an empty-headed girl who got what she deserved. So there was my challenge! When I began to research her, that was not my take at all and, as with so many of my other characters, I was driven to make Catherine human, and to bring her to life in a 21st Century manner, painted across a 16th Century backdrop, since many of her struggles (love, promiscuity, commitment, honor) are things young women struggle with even today.
Tell us about the research. Was there anything you learned about Catherine that you didn’t know before?
I always do my research both in the U.S. and, in this case, in England, but always whatever country in which the book is set; France, Italy, Scotland. I need to be able to see the places about which I write, see some of the actual clothing if possible, furniture, tapestries, just really get a sense of how my characters lived in order to be able, hopefully, to bring them to life for readers. That was an early lesson I learned directly from the late icon Irving Stone, author of The Agony and The Ecstasy.
I discovered a great many things about Catherine Howard in the process of writing the book, mainly about her true care and concern for her husband during their short marriage, in spite of his dissipated condition and his violent mood swings and fits of temper at the time.
The perception of Catherine Howard is usually that of a silly, flighty, not very bright young woman. David Starkey refers to her as the ‘sexy teenager.’ Do you think this reputation is justified?
Initially, probably yes in some ways. There is little doubt that she was promiscuous. But I think through the course of her life she changed and matured. She most certainly worried about Henry and his health and tried, in her way, to be a good wife to him.
Catherine Howard was remarkably promiscuous at an early age, having consensual relationships with a variety of partners. Was that unusual for the time? And how was she able to get away with it without getting caught?
Not unusual for one in her circumstance, raised with a certain amount of privilege then left in boredom often to her own devices. As The Queen’s Mistake shows, she was able to get away with the behavior because she was left largely unattended by her uninterested grandmother.
Catherine Howard is very young when she marries Henry VIII who was fifty years old and had already been married four times. Do you think that Catherine ever loved Henry?
As I researched the story and began to write, I came to believe that, yes, Catherine did love Henry, in a way. There is certainly evidence that she took tender care of him and worried after his health. The likelihood of that being a passionate love however is certainly diminished by his physical condition at the time, as well as his turbulent history with wives-- which would have frightened any young woman who felt the potential for being next in line. Add to that, that I believe her heart was given over to Thomas Culpeper before she married Henry, and I think a more loyal love mixed with friendship and conern is likely.
What do you think Catherine’s fatal mistake was? Do you think that her fate was inevitable or was there something that she could have done to change things?
Great question! I don’t know however if it was one fatal mistake that she made, or rather a series of them that led to her sad end. In some ways, I do think it was inevitable because Henry was bound to discover her love for Culpeper, thanks to the jockeying for position at court by so many ambitious rivals to her power, and that there was little she could do about that once she had been presented to him as a virgin and she chose to allow that ruse. Naturally, having no contact at all with Culpeper would likely have helped. But considering their daily proximity and love for one another, that likely sealed her fate.
Both Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk and the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk claim that their actions are for their families. How much does ambition play a part in the story of Catherine Howard? Do you think that in some ways she was just a pawn?
I think it had everything to do with it and Catherine was a complete pawn. Add to that the poor thing was incredibly naïve--- not about human nature or men of course, but about the mature workings of the world, having been raised out in the country for much of the time, away from the complexities of court, where she could have gained some perspective and gravitas, in the way that other young maids of honor had, and I think it is a tragedy in the making right there.
The Tudors are wildly popular, it seems like every month more and more books are published during this time period. Why do you think the Tudors continue to be popular?
Another good question, one which I have asked myself. I think in part it is the American audience’s familiarity with the subject, the common language, as well as the notion of anyone who had six wives and many mistresses, just the notion of that is fascinating to people I think. And he was such a different character during his lifetime. For example, the Henry VIII of The Queen’s Mistake is an entirely different character from the younger, fit and handsome Henry of The Secret Bride, or my upcoming The Queen’s Rival.
You’ve also written a novel about Henry VIII’s sister, Mary Boleyn called The Secret Bride. I have to ask, have you watched The Tudors? And if you have what did you think of what they did to Mary’s story?
I did watch the first season, yes. While I enjoyed some of the elements of such a stylized, “current” representation of the subject, obviously trying to bring it to a broader market, there were just way too many inconsistencies and alterations of actual history for me.
What are you working on next?
Up next is The Queen’s Rival, the story of Henry VIII’s first official mistress, Elizabeth Blount, known as Bess, during the time of his first queen, Catherine of Aragon. Bess’s son, Henry Duke of Richmond, was the only illegitimate child Henry ever publicly acknowledged, one he overly indulged and provided for, and who quite well might have become his successor, had he not died a sudden and mysterious death… It’s a remarkable story I hope everyone will look for.
For more information about Diane and her books check out her web-site.
Also remember there are still 3 more days to enter to win a copy of Diane's book. Just leave a comment, and you will be entered to win. If you are not already a follower, and you sign up to follow the blog, that's an extra entry. And if you twitter about the giveaway, that's two more entries!
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Ben Whishaw as John Keats
Abbie Cornish as Fanny Brawne
Paul Schneider as Charles Armitage Brown
Kerry Fox as Mrs. Brawne
Thomas Sangster as Samuel Brawne
Jonathan Aris as Leigh Hunt
Samuel Barnett as Joseph Severn
Written and directed by Jane Campion
On Friday I went to see Bright Star, the new film about the romance between poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne, literally the girl next door. I was intrigued to see the film because I had been under the mistaken impression that while Keats had been in love with Fanny, she didn't return his feelings.
The film details their relationship from their first meeting in 1818 until Keats' death from tuberculosis in Rome in 1821 at the age of 25. Along the way there are obstacles, namely the objections of Keats' friend Charles Armitage Brown, who considers Fanny to be a nuisance, taking Keats away from his work, to Keats' lack of money and ill-health. Despite these obstacles, the love between Keats and Fanny keeps growing until they are engaged. Keats goes off to Rome for his health, but he is aware before he leave that he will probably not return to England.
I'm going to admit straight-up that I am not a big Jane Campion fan. I thought her adaptation of the Henry James novel 'Portrait of a Lady' totally missed the point of the novel, and I wasn't enamored of The Piano either (but that may just be because I can't stand Holly Hunter either), so I didn't have high hopes for this film. Well, color me surprised, I absolutely loved it. The film moves exceedingly slow at times, Campion lingers on the small moments, the first time that Keats touches Fanny's hand for example or the first time that they kiss. She doesn't rush the 'getting to know you' period of their relationship. It's almost as if it unfolds in real time.
There are so many delightful scenes in this film, particularly when Keats is explaining poetry to Fanny who says that she doesn't understand it. She even tells Keats that she doesn't completely admire his poem Endymion. Keats and Fanny don't really seem to have that much in common, she loves fashion and gossip, while he seems contemplative and bookish, but despite themselves they are immensely attracted to one another. Another delightful scene is when Keats spends Christmas with the Brawne family, despite his friend Brown having made other plans for them. It's not just the scenes between Fanny and Keats that resonate with all the longing, and pang of first love, but also the domestic scenes between Fanny and her family, Fanny dragging her reluctant brother and sister along as chaperones whenever she wants to see Keats. At times the emotions might seem over the top, particularly Fanny's but if one remembers back to what you were like when you fell in love for the first time, they seem all to real.
I've only seen Abby Cornish in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, and heard the rumors about her and Ryan Phillipe, so I was incredibly impressed with her work here in Bright Star, she fairly glows whenever Keats is around, and she's fully prepared to take on his friend Charles Armitage Brown, when he insults her. Ben Whishaw is also effective as John Keats. He's completely believable as the poet right down to his ink-stained fingers, and so thin, one worries about his health in real life. Paul Schneider was also incredibly impressive, his Scottish accent was so good, I couldn't believe that he was actually from North Carolina in real life. Oh, and the adorable actor from Love Actually plays Fanny's brother Samuel. It's hard to believe that he's all grown up.
I highly recommend this film, particularly if you are a huge fan of the Regency period. The costumes are divine, and as far as I can tell, entirely appropriate for the period, right down to the shoes and the undergarments.
If you want to read more about Fanny Brawne, her romance with Keats and her life after his death, there is an interesting article here.
You can also read a chapter from Andrew Motion's biography of Keats here.
Also here is a link to the Keats house in Hampstead which I visited years ago, and now that I've seen there movie, I want to go back. It's just re-opened to the public this past summer, after a major restoration.
Thursday, October 1, 2009
The first of this month's giveaways is The Queen's Mistake by Diane Haeger. Isn't the cover gorgeous? I would love to own that dress.
Here is a brief description:
From the author of The Secret Bride, the tragic tale of the fifth wife of Henry VIII...When the young and beautiful Catherine Howard becomes the fifth wife of the fifty-year-old King Henry VIII, she seems to be on top of the world. Yet her reign is destined to be brief and heartbreaking, as she is forced to do battle with enemies far more powerful and calculating than she could have ever anticipated in a court where one wrong move could mean her undoing. Wanting only love, Catherine is compelled to deny her heart's desire in favor of her family's ambition. But in so doing, she unwittingly gives those who sought to bring her down a most effective weapon-her own romantic past.The Queen's Mistake is the tragic tale of one passionate and idealistic woman who struggles to negotiate the intrigue of the court and the yearnings of her heart.
I'll also be posting an interview with author Diane Haeger next week.
The giveaway ends October 8th. In order to win a copy, leave a comment on any post between now and October 8th.
If you are not a follower and you become one, you will receive an extra entry.
If you twitter about the giveaway, you will receive two extra entries in the giveaway.