Sunday, February 21, 2010

Scandalous Women in Irish History

Amanda McCabe who writes as Laurel McKee for Grand Central Publishing has a new series out set in Ireland. The first book is appropriately enough called Countess of Scandal. To celebrate her release this month, she's been featuring Irish Heroines over at her blog, some of whom were pretty Scandalous. So far she's featured The Countess Markiewicz, and now Margaret King, whose governess was once Mary Wollstonecraft. I came across Margaret when I was researching Mary for Scandalous Women (the book, not the blog). You can read about Margaret here. I can't wait to find out who she's going to feature next weekend.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Scandalous Movie Review: The Crown Prince

The Crown Prince (2006)

Directed by Robert Dornhelm
Written by Klaus Lintschinger and Didier Decoin

Who's in it:

Crown Prince Rudolf  - Max von Thun
Emperor Franz Josef  - Klaus Maria Brandauer
Empress Elisabeth      - Sandra Ceccarelli
Mary Vetsera            -  Vittoria Puccini
Max Korn                 - Omar Sharif

What it's about:

The story opens with the news of Crown Prince Rudolf's suicide at Mayerling. At his funeral, the film flashes back ten years to 1878. Crown Prince Rudolf is full of youthful enthusiasm, and has been living the life of a Playboy in Vienna with his cousins Johan and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Prussia but his father worries that he is throwing his life away. His father exiles him to Prague. Max (played by Omar Sharif, looking like Karl Marx), the painter who is painting the Prince's portrait, convinces him that in order to be a great Emperor, he needs to go amongst the people. Rudolf dresses down and calling himself Julius Felix, meets a young Jewish woman named Sarah who works in her family's bakery. She introduces him to the pleasures of the common folk as well as bagels. Rudolf also starts writing articles under a pseudonym for a liberal newspaper calling into questions the Austrian government's policies. He falls in with a crowd of intellectuals and liberals. Unfortunately his relationship with Sarah is found out, she's married off, and dies tragically. Rudolf is devastated and agress to marry Princes Stephanie of Belgium who his mother dislikes. They are happy only briefly, although they have a daughter Elizabeth. Rudolf is offered the crown of Hungary but refuses it several times, because of his father whose approval he constantly seeks and always falls short. Health problems including an addiction to morphine and several bouts of veneral disease wreck havoc. He meets a young baroness named Marie Vetsera, who is the daughter of his former mistress. Marie is passionately devotedly in love with him. Although her mother wants her to marry the Duke of Braganza, as does Rudolf to save her, she can't live without Rudolf. She follows him to Mayerling where she agrees to commit suicide with him.

Fact vs. Fiction:  The film is pretty historically accurate for the most part. Brigitte Hamman, who has written a biography of Empress Elisabeth was a consultant on the film and it shows, at least in regards to his relationship with his parents. Elisabeth was a distant mother to all her children apart from the Archduchess Valerie. Rudolf and his father did have constant conflicts about his role as the Crown Prince. The story of Rudolf falling in love with Sarah is completely fictional, probably meant to represent Rudolf's disillusion with love, and his willingness now to agree to a dynastic marriage. The marriage with Stephanie was fraught with jealous scenes as portrayed in the film,and the Empress did dislike her intensely.

Mitzi Kaspar did go to the police to tell them that Rudolf was feeling suicidal and that he has asked her to join him in a sucide pact, and she was ignored. The fateful conversation in which the emperor tells his son he doesn't think him fit to succeed actually took place, but wasn't nearly as quiet or civilized a meeting as shown here. In fact, Rudolf's shouting could be heard in the anteroom, and Franz Joseph was so overcome with emotion that he fell into a swoon.

The portrayal of Marie Vetsera or Mary as she is often referred to as, is another story. It's a quibble but she was actually brunette, not a pretty blonde as she is portrayed in the film. For another, her relationship with Rudolf was a lot shorter than it appears in the film. They met in November of 1888, and they were both dead by the end of January 1889. Mary pursued the relationship relentlessly and she was quite brazen about it. Joan Haslip in her biography of Elisabeth writes that Mary came out see Rudolf in the middle of the night in nothing but a nightgown and a coat to give him a cigarette case 17 days before their death. It was the night they consummated the relationship.The case was engraved with the words "Thanks to a lucky chance." She did write him a letter as in the film, and his cousin Countess Marie Larisch did help arrange meetings between the two of them. Marie was pursued by Duke of Miguel of Braganza but there was no engagement nor did Rudolf encourage Braganza to propose to her or encourage her to accept. The relationship between Mary and Rudolf was not a great romance, although he did care for her.  They were only lovers for 17 days before they died. The great attraction however was her devotion and willingness to die with him.

What actually happened the night of the embassy ball was a little different than in the film. In the film Rudolf introduces Mary to his family at the ball. What really went down was that Mary refused to courtesy to Crown Princess Stephanie, until her mother forced her to. The moment was long enough that everyone noticed. In real life, Mary and her mother had terrible reputations, Mary for being fast and her mother for social-climbing, none of which is portrayed in the film. On the contrary Mary, in the film, is seen as an innocent love-sick girl who has been pining for the Crown Prince since she met him as a child.

No one will ever really know what happened at Mayerling. What is known for sure is that, unlike in the film where there are two shots fired one right after the other, in actuality Mary was shot first and Rudolf didn't take his own life until 7 or 8 hours later. Mary was shot during the night and in the morning, Rudolf actually spoke to his valet about breakfast. He was even heard to be whistling before he died. In actual fact, after shooting Mary, Rudolf fell prone to second thoughts, and it was not until after a night of heavy drinking that he eventually shot himself the next morning. One of his letters of goodbye intimated that he no longer wanted to, but was left with no choice, as he had now become a murderer.

The reasons for Rudolf's suicide in this film are complex as they were in real life. At one point a doctor mentions that syphillis will not doubt kill him but what he should have actually mentioned that most people end up mad, and that it is not a pleasant way to die. Also, the movie tries to say that Rudolf had hoped for an alliance with France instead of Prussia but Clemenceau does not win the election in France. While he did receive a telegram just before he died, no one knows what was in it. Clearly, the meeting with his father, telling him he was not fit to rule, amongst so many other things sent him over the edge.

There are a few missed opportunities. Rudolf was very close to his older sister Gisela but you see nothing of his relationship with either of his two sisters. Also, his relationship with Ludwig II of Bavaria, his cousin, who committed suicide is never mentioned. That had a profound effect on him as it did Elisabeth. Instead the viewer is forced to watch interminable scenes of Wilhelm and Rudolf having heavy discussions about the throne while visiting brothels. None of Rudolf's foreign visits are mentioned including his visit to England where he met Queen Victoria.

My thoughts: First of all, I had no idea that this was a three hour miniseries when I took it out of the library. I also expected it to be in German. The story of the final decades of the Habsburg empire is a haunting one and deserves to be told but unfortunately this film fall short in every way.  Empress Elizabeth ("Sisi") and Crown Prince Rudolf are among its more intriguing characters in history. But you wouldn't know that from watching this film, although the three hour lengths gives it plenty of time to explore the relationships amongst the principals. Robert Dornhelm directed and produced The Children of Theatre Street and won an Emmy for his production of The Diary of Anne Frank. With that background, one expects better. Their intentions are good but it feels like he and the writers have no idea how to convey material that is dark and complex. Rudolf is portrayed as a callow playboy who suffers from sudden bursts of interest in politics and then, kills himself. The reasons for his taking morphine are not discussed, he suffered from incredible headaches because of a fall as a child.  At times his addiction to the drug is forgotten and then brought up again. Rudolf is portrayed like Hamlet without the introspection or the intellect.

His political leanings are explained in the most superficial manner (the prince meeting up with two urchins in a Prague slum). This production is written like a Danielle Steel novel, incredibly slow and plagued by underwhelming acting particularly from the actor who plays Crown Prince Wilhelm. The only way to know the passage of time is by Rudolf's facial hair. Klaus Maria Brandauer as Franz Josef is wonderful as always.  Sandra Ceccarelli looks like Elisabeth but one never feels the demons that she spent a lifetime keeping at bay. She tosses off a comment at one point that she doesn't like to be looked at but yet she keeps appearing in public and without the veils and fans that she used. To make sure the viewer knows what is going on, characters keep explaining the plot to each other over and over again.

The movie ends before the cover-up of the double suicide begins. The film would have been much more interesting if we had seen the spin that went on afterwards. Mary's uncles came to collect her body at Mayerling. Mary's corpse was all dressed up and tied to a broomstick to make her sit upright between the two uncles in the couch to seem alive to overly curious passers-by. Mary's mother was told of her death when she came to the palace to find out where she might have gone. Despite her grief, she was forced to leave town, to flee to Italy until the whole thing blew over. The doctor, doing the post-mortem refused to compromise his integrity as a doctor by trying to cover up the suicide. So he mentioned that Rudolf's brain was abnormal to explain what had happened so that the Prince could be buried in sacred ground. Still the story was put out that he had died of heart failure. The Countess Marie Larisch, the Empress's niece, was banished from court for her role in playing go-between and for introducing Mary to the Crown Prince. Elisabeth was devastated by her son's death and blamed herself. None of that is shown.

The film was sumptuously shot at the appropriate historical locations, and the costumes are phenomenal. Max von Thun certainly is handsomer than the real Rudolf was, and as eye candy, he has to make do without the beard that Rudolf always wore to camouflage the nervous twitching of his face. However, he doesn't have the acting chops for Rudolf. He looks like a Ralph Lauren model trying desperately to convey emotion.  There is just no edge to him, the coldness, the arrogance that was also part of his character, the way he treated the women in his life like candy. Haslip mentions in her biography of Elisabeth that at one point Rudolf completely forgot that a woman that he was trying to seduce, was someone that he'd already met and had an affair with. There is just no way that he can convey the complexity the part requires, although he does have a nice moment when Franz Josef humiliates him when he presents him with a special book that he has written, and his father claims that he couldn't possibly have done it. You can see him desperately wanting to tell his father about his editorials that he's written but can't. If only he had been afforded more opportunities like that in the film.
My recommendation: If you have 3 hours to spare, I would suggest that you rent the Romy Schneider 'Sissi' films or even the Omar Sharif/Catherine Deneuve Mayerling instead.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

And the winner of WENCH by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is..........

So sorry that it's taken me so long to post this. My computer was giving me fits this morning, and that I had to spend most of my time sending out emails to libraries, museums, and historical societies to find out how much it is going to cost me for the rights to photos that I want to include in the inserts for SCANDALOUS WOMEN. The manuscript is due in *gulp* two weeks.

Any, I'm pleased to report that the winner of the giveaway of WENCH by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is:


Marg, I will email you to get your address to send you your copy of the book. I'd like to thank everyone for entering and I hope that you will continue following the blog. I will be doing another giveaway probably at the end of the month so stay tuned. I'll also be reviewing the films Camille Claudel and The Crown Prince (about Mayerling) as well

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Magazines for History Geeks

For years I'd seen Renaissance Magazine in bookstores and never picked up a copy. For some reason I thought it was just a magazine for people who liked Renaissance Faires. That was until recently when I ordered a back issue that had an article on Veronica Franco. It turns out that I was wrong. Sure Renaissance Magazine has a lot of ads in the back for the various Ren Faires around the country but it is also filled with interesting and unusual articles.

The Veronica Franco (Issue #41) issue alone has several articles that I found interesting, including one tourism in Medieval Venice, the Origins of the Mafia and Venetian gondolas. Looking at some of the articles in the back issues made me salivate. Whole issues devoted to Robin Hood, and Women of Arthurian Legend just to name a few. I was in heaven. Unfortunatley back issues cost a fortune. The one I ordered cost a whopping $25! So it will take me awhile before I get around to ordering any other issues. However, the magazine itself is $5.95 for a single issue and $29 for a one-year subscription of 6 issues. If you are curious about the magazine, most Barnes & Nobles and Borders Book Stores carry it.

My second gem comes courtesy of Amy at Passages to the Past who first brought the magazine to the attention of history geeks everywhere in the blogosphere. Herstoria as the cover suggests is a new British magazine that focuses on women in history. Of course, the minute that I heard about it, I had to subscribe. International subscription are about $45.00 for the year which gets you 4 issues, but if you are a new subscriber they include one of the back issues with your first issue. Unfortunately my copies arrived damaged, so I had to wait for them to dry out before I coudl read them!

The winter issue includes the following stories:
  • An article n secret agent Yvonne Baseden parachuted into occupied France.
  • Carimandua, the Queen who ruled at the same time as Boudica, and who managed to keep her people safe and prosperous during thirty years of Roman occupation.
  • Women's poetry of the second world war.
  • Women’s history walk around the medieval city of Norwich.

There are also book and film reviews, conference and museum listings etc. At the moment, the focus in the magazine is mainly on the history of women in Britain and Europe, but hopefully if the readership of the magazine grows, they will expand their focus.

I highly recommend both of these magazines.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Scandalous Book Review: Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

I recently picked up a copy of a debut novel called WENCH by Dolen Perkins-Valdez. Dolen had actually sent me an email about her book way back in October, and I'd been eagerly anticipating it ever since. It did not disappoint.

Here's a little teaser from the front flap:

Tawawa House in many respects is like any other American resort before the Civil War. Situated in Ohio, this idyllic retreat is particularly nice in the summer when the Southern humidity is too much to bear. Lizzie, Reenie, and Sweet are regulars at Tawawa House. They have become friends over the years as they reunite and share developments in their own lives and on their respective plantations. They don't bother too much with questions of freedom, though the resort is situated in free territory-but when truth-telling Mawu comes to the resort and starts talking of running away, things change.

In her debut novel, Perkins-Valdez takes the reader on a journey into a period of American history that is often hidden, unspoken, and considered just plain taboo. Witness the outcry at the idea that the nation's founders Washington and Jefferson had not only slave mistresses but also children. Pekins-Valdez opens the book with a definition of the world WENCH and how it's meaning changed over the years, giving you an idea of the status of the women in the novel. The book follows the lives of four slave women, Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu, the wenches of the title. Set in the turbulent 1850's which set the stage for the Civil War, the four women meet each summer when their owners vacation at Tawawa House in Ohio. They live in cottages set apart from the main hotel so that the men can have privacy with their slave mistresses. Don't be fooled by the pretty cover. Although the men are on vacation, the women are not. As slaves, they are still required do chores, as well as help out at the hotel.

In Ohio, they come into contact with free blacks for the first time, and  hear about the idea of abolition, which of course scares their masters who insist that slavery will always exist.  Because of this exposure, the women start to contemplate the idea of freedom, that it might actually be a possibility. Only Lizzie is hestitant to shake off the shackles of enslavement.  She believes that she and her master Drayle have a real relationship, she thinks that she loves him, and that he recipocrates the emotion. Although the book is about the four women, the main character is really Lizzie.

Perkins-Valdez flashes back in time for several years in the middle of the novel to the 1840's. The reader is privy to the beginnings of Lizzie's relationship with Drayle from the time she arrives at the plantation (still called Eliza) in Tennessee and vividly explores the complicated dynamic between not only between Drayle and Lizzie but also between Lizzie and her mistress Fran. We see through Lizzie's eyes the sacrifices the way that they cope when their husband takes a slave mistress. Fran is just as complicated as Lizzie. It would be so easy to make her the villain in the novel, but she's, in many ways, a victim as well. She can't have children and it has to have been painful for her to see Lizzie give birth to Drayle's children. Drayle is kind to Lizzie, he takes her to see her older half-sister Joy at another plantation, and he moves her into a bedroom across from his wife's. It's easy to see how Lizzie could have moments when she forgets the true nature of their relationship.

All four women are vividly drawn from Mawu, who is rebellious and headstrong, to Sweet who is the earth mother of the group, to Reenie who is the oldest of the four women. There are some delightful scenes in the book, at one point the women are allowed to go into Dayton, and the realization that they are in a part of town that is filled with free African-Americans is amazing. Also, when Lizzie discovers the metal hoopskirt that some of the white women wear. Over the course of the book, they suffer unspeakable tragedies, and the reader gets a good look, not only of the lives of these women but also the male slaves, particularly Philip who is one of Lizzie's closest friends. The book concludes with the final summer at Tawawa House, as they learn that the resort is about to be sold, ending a chapter in their lives.

Although the novel is a quick read, it doesn't lessen the emotional intensity nor the suspense of the story.  I had no idea where the story was going, the twists and turns had me riveted. In fact I was so gripped by this book that I couldn't put it down even though I was supposed to be doing research on other topics. The story is fictional, but the fact that Tawawa House actually existed and that it was a place where Southern planters took their slave mistresses adds a resonance to the book. At first, I was a little put out that the book is mainly about Lizzie in some ways, but I quickly realized that she has the longest emotional journey to take in the book. Lizzie is not perfect, at times she's naive, and at one point she does something that is shocking. Her slow realization that she has been living under an delusion or illusion is heart breaking. There are some painful scenes in this book. Perkins-Valdez does not shy away from detailing some of the more unsavory and harsh aspects of the slave experience.  Her writing is assured and lush, allowing the reader to enter a world where you can almost smell the food cooking or the sounds that fill the night air, or feel the oppressive heat of the Ohio summer. This book will stay with you long after you turn the final page.

I was so amazed and impressed by this book that I want to share it with everyone. To that end, I am giving away a copy of this book to one lucky reader. This time the giveaway is open not just to my American and Canadian readers but to everyone. Since the FTC requires that I state where I got the book, I can let you know that I bought it myself. This was not a freebie

The contest ends February 8th at 12:00 p.m. and will be announced on February 9th.

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 or on Twitter and you become one, you get an extra entry.
3) If you tweet about this giveaway, and you let me know, you get an extra entry.