Wednesday, April 27, 2011

From Commoner to Royalty: The Story of Anne Hyde, Duchess of York

When Catherine Elizabeth Middleton walks down the aisle at Westminster Abbey and marries Prince William tomorrow, she will be the first non-aristocratic commoner to marry an heir to the British throne since Anne Hyde married James, Duke of York (the future James II). While Lady Diana Spencer and the Queen Mother were commoners, they were both aristocrats. Diana was the daughter of Earl Spencer while the Queen Mother was the daughter of the Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne. What’s that you say, what about Camilla? Well, she is descended from George Keppel, brother of the Earl of Albemarle, so she doesn’t count either.

Our story begins in 1638, when Anne was born at Cranbourne Manor in Windsor Park, owned by her grandfather Sir Thomas Aylesbury, then Master of Request. Her father Edward Hyde was Charles II’s principal advisor while he was in exile so Anne didn’t see much of her father while growing up. At the age of 15, she was appointed a maid of honor to Mary, Princess Royal who was the widow of the Prince of Orange much to the annoyance of the Queen Mother Henrietta Maria, who despised Hyde and his influence over her eldest son. Anne was a big hit at court; she was a particular favorite of the Princess Royal’s aunt, Elizabeth, the Queen of Bohemia for her gaiety.

In 1656, Anne accompanied the Princess Royal on her visit to Paris to visit the Queen Mother. It was there that she met the Duke of York. Although their acquaintance was brief, she must have made quite the impression on him, because when they met 3 years later not only did James seduce Anne but he also allegedly entered into a secret engagement with her. Although Anna was plump and considered plain by some, she was also witty, gay and well-educated, qualities that James himself decidedly lacked. James himself later wrote of his future wife that ‘besides her person, she possessed all the qualities proper to inflame a heart less susceptible than his, with the fire of love.’ In 1659, marrying Anne probably didn’t seem like such a big deal, the Restoration seemed like a pipe dream not a reality. Apparently, it was also the only way that James could get Anne into bed.

When Charles II was restored to the throne in May 1660, Anne returned to England with her family. Of course the inevitable happened, she soon became pregnant. At first James stood loyally by her, telling the King that he had promised to marry her, and he planned on keeping his word. If Charles didn’t give his permission; James would leave England, and live abroad. Charles wasn’t too keen on the match; it would mean that Hyde would now be a member of his family not just one of his ministers. It also killed any chance of James helping to shore up the monarchy by marrying a foreign princess who might bring prestige not to mention money to the union. James was also the heir presumptive to the throne until Charles himself married and sired a legitimate son. On the other hand, Charles genuinely liked Anne, and thought she might be the making of his brother. He reasoned that he was thirty, plenty of time for him to get married. After much debate, Charles gave his consent.

There was no engagement announcement, no speculation about what the bride might wear as she waddled up the aisle. Instead, the shot-gun wedding took place in secret on September 3, 1660 at Worcester House, on the Strand, sometime between 11 at night and 2 in the morning. The ceremony was performed by the Duke’s chaplain and only witnessed by two people, including Anne’s maid. When Anne’s father found out, instead of rushing to offer congratulation, he was more worried that enemies might think that he had encouraged the match to further his own ambitions. He actually told the King that Anne should be thrown in the Tower of London to await execution. Hyde wasn't the only person the newlyweds had to worry about, Jame's mother and sisters were not too happy either when they heard the happy news. Both women raced across the channel hell bent on preventing ‘so great a stain and dishonor on the Crown.’ Princess Mary declared that she would not accept as her sister-in-law someone who had once ‘stood as a servant behind her chair.’ Faced with the wrath of his female relatives, James began to have buyer’s remorse. It didn’t help that the heavily pregnant Anne wasn’t quite as attractive once compared to the other beauties at court.

At this point, his friends helped out by claiming that all five of them could be the father of Anne’s child. Harry Killigrew said that, ‘he had found the critical minute in a certain closet built over water for a purpose very different from that of giving ease to the pains of love.’ Um, TMI! Another alleged lover Sir Charles Berkeley offered to marry Anne to save the Prince from a wife who was “so wholly unworthy of him.” Although the marriage wouldn’t be announced officially until the end of December in 1660, word soon went around the court, setting tongues awag at the juicy news. The idea of a royal prince marrying a commoner was absurd, especially one as dumpy as Anne. Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary a remark made by the Earl of Sandwich when he heard the news, “that he doth get a wench with child and marries her afterward, it is as if a man should shit in his hat and then wear it.”

In October 1660, Anne gave birth to son, who later died in infancy, insisting even during labor that not only was the Duke of York the father of her child but he was also her lawful husband. Finally Charles decided to step in. He informed his brother that ‘He must drink as he had brewed and live with her whom he had made his wife.’ Subsequently Berkeley and the others withdrew their claims. Three days after the official announcement, the Princess Royal died of smallpox lamenting the horrible things she had said about her former maid of honor. Only the Queen Mother was a hold-out but finally even she grudgingly agreed to receive Anne, claiming that she ‘always liked her from the beginning.’ Hypocrite much?

Although the marriage could be said to have been a love match, the relationship soon withered as The Duke of York chased after everything in a skirt. Unhappy, Anne consoled herself with food, growing incredibly obese. However she did manage the Duke’s money for him, and advised him on patronages in the arts and in political affairs. In fact it was Pepys' opinion that "the Duke, in all things but his amours, was led by the nose by his wife.” Anne naturally resented James' numerous affairs, but received little sympathy at Court. Whether out of insecurity or because she’d had to fight so hard for her position, Anne became more royal than the royal family which made her unpopular. In 1670, Anne secretly converted to Catholicism. Of her eight children, Mary and Anne alone survived her. She died in 1671, a few weeks after giving birth to her final child. Of course, when the Duke of York remarried, Charles II made sure this time that his brother married someone more appropriate.

But in the end, it would be Anne’s daughters, first Mary and then Anne who sat on the throne of England.


John Miller: James II (Yale English Monarchs), Yale University Press, New Haven 1978
Jock Haswell: James II, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1972
Anne Somerset: Ladies in Waiting, From the Tudors to the Present Day, Phoenix 1984

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Howell Davis

This past April marked the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War. To mark the occasion, I will be writing a series of posts over the next several months about the lives of some fascinating women who made their mark during the Civil War.

Varina Howell Davis was born at her family plantation, the Briers, near Natchez, Mississippi in 1826. Although her mother, Margaret Kempe was a Southern belle and the daughter of a wealthy planter, her father, William Howell was a Yankee from New Jersey. Although he came from a distinguished family (his father served several terms as Governor of New Jersey), it wasn’t enough to overcome the stigma of being a Northerner. He also wasn’t a very good provider, over the years, he worked as a planter, merchant, cotton broker and banker but none of them panned out in the long run. Her parents had to rely on handouts from Margaret’s family to help support their eight children.

Varina’s only formal education was at Madame Greenland’s School, a prestigious academy for young ladies to Philadelphia. The academy’s principal, Miss Reynaud, praised Varina’s abilities, calling her ‘capable and very smart.” High praise indeed but Southern belles were expected to be demure, deferring to their men, god forbid they should be seen as bluestockings. Varina, however, was highly intelligent and opinionated, her views shaped by the lessons in history and politics she absorbed from a family friend, Judge Winchester. She had to work hard to hide her light under a veneer of Southern charm.

She was just seventeen when she met Jefferson Davis while visiting the Hurricane, the plantation of his older brother, Joseph Davis during the Christmas season in 1843. “Uncle Joe” was an old family friend, but it was the first time she met any of his extended family. Varina wrote her mother soon after their meeting:

"I do not know whether this Mr. Jefferson Davis is young or old. He looks both at times; but I believe he is old, for from what I hear he is only two years younger than you are. He impresses me as a remarkable kind of man, but of uncertain temper, and has a way of taking for granted that everybody agrees with him when he expresses an opinion, which offends me; yet he is most agreeable and has a peculiarly sweet voice and a winning manner of asserting himself. "[The Papers of Jefferson Davis, Volume 2, pages 52-53]

Davis was taken with Varina’s beauty and intelligence, and end of her visit they had an ‘understanding.’ When Davis sought permission to formally court her, Varina’s mother objected. Margaret Howell was not convinced that Davis, a widower eighteen years older than her daughter, was a good match. She thought he was too devoted to his living relatives on whom he was financially dependent, and feared that Varina would be playing second fiddle to his late wife Sarah Knox Taylor (the daughter of President Zachary Taylor) who died of malaria a few months after they were married. Jefferson also belonged to the new Democratic Party while Varina’s family was Whigs. Eventually, however, she gave in and after Varina recovered from a short illness, the happy couple was married on February 26, 1845. The ceremony was attended by only a few relatives and friends of the bride’s family and none of the groom’s. Her mother’s fears about Davis’s late wife were well founded, on their honeymoon; the newlywed couple paid a visit to her grave. Later in life, Varina would often tell people that she was weary of being compared with the ‘sainted Sarah.’

The newlyweds moved into a two-room cottage on the Brierfield plantation that had been given to Jefferson by his brother. However there was soon tension between the couple, when it was decided that Jefferson’s widowed sister Amanda and her seven children would be moving in with them when their new house was built. This was a decision that was made without Varina’s knowledge. This was just the first hint in their marriage that Jefferson’s family was going to be a problem between the couple. Jefferson’s oldest brother Joseph was particularly controlling. But it wasn’t just Jefferson’s family, Varina’s family also were financially dependent on the couple which caused resentment.

The marriage was also strained by frequent separations. First when Jefferson was campaigning for Congress, and then when he served as an officer in the Mexican-American war. This was a difficult time for Varina; she was forced to return to Brierfield where his brother made her life miserable. When Jefferson returned to Washington, this time as a Senator, Varina couldn’t wait to go with him. Varina had a passion for politics, and Washington, D.C. was like Nirvana. As her husband rose in political ranks, she rose in the ranks of Washington society, becoming one of the city’s most popular and also one of its youngest hostesses. Men found her handsome, intelligent and a good listener, while the women were taken by her spontaneity and good humor. For once her intelligence was not a hindrance. When Jefferson Davis was appointed Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, the couple served as official hosts at the White House in place of the First Couple who were still grieving the death of their young son in a train accident. Her happiness was complete, when after seven long years; the couple had their first child in 1852. Three more children followed in rapid succession. Not everyone was enamored of Varina. She was a strong woman, one with definite convictions, and a caustic wit. Some thought her too forward, especially since she didn’t retire from social life when she was pregnant, which was against the established fashion.

When Davis resigned his seat in the Senate at the outbreak of the Civil War, Varina was depressed and sad to the leave the city that had become her home. Although publicly she supported and sympathized with the idea of succession, privately she had doubts that the South could win the war. She was dismayed when Davis was elected the President of the Confederate State of America. During her years as First Lady, she was the subject of both admiration and derision. Friends like Mary Boykin Chesnut enjoyed her unique take on events. Her enemies, however, accused her of playing favorites and of meddling in politics where she didn’t belong. She also came under attack for entertaining lavishly during wartime. When she changed tactics, they accused her of being too austere. Despite the criticism, Varina continued in her support of the troops. She knitted countless articles of clothing for soldiers, donated rugs for blankets made shoes from scraps, and spent hours visiting soldiers in the hospitals. While in Richmond, she gave birth to the couple’s last child, Varina Anne Davis nicknamed Winnie, who would be known as the ‘Daughter of the Confederacy.’

When it looked like the Confederacy was about to lose the war, Davis ordered Varina to go to North Carolina to wait for him. She raised money for the trip by selling everything they owned, netting $8,000 in gold. Children in hand, she fled to North Carolina and then Georgia where the family was reunited. But it was the end of the line; they were discovered by Union soldiers. Varina convinced her husband to try and escape by donning a disguise. She threw her cloak over him and a woman’s shawl over his head. Unfortunately, the cloak didn’t hide Jefferson’s spurred boots. The former President of the Confederate States was now a Union prisoner. Varina took her children to her parents in Canada, and then spent two years lobbying for his release. Jefferson’s enemies had a field day with the report that he had tried to flee dressed like a woman, humiliating him, and infuriating Varina. When he finally was released, he was ill and depressed.

The family lived abroad for several years in Europe and Canada as Davis tried unsuccessfully to establish himself in business. Varina, who was high strung at the best of times, had a nervous breakdown in 1876. While she recovered in Europe, Davis sought solace in the admiration of his other women, including Virginia Clay the widow of Jefferson’s fellow inmate, which infuriated Varina. The couple suffered further losses when their remaining two sons William and Jeff Davis Jr. died (two other sons Sam and Joe died years earlier). They retired to Biloxi, Mississippi where an old friend Sarah Dorsey bequeathed Beauvoir to them in her will. There Jefferson worked on his memoirs. After Jefferson died, Varina stayed at Beauvoir for a few years. She then donated it to be used as a Confederate veteran’s home and moved to New York, where she supported herself as a writer until her death in 1905. In 1889, Davis finally passed away at the age of 81. More than 60,000 people paid their respects as he lay in state.

After his death, Varina Davis published Jefferson Davis, A Memoir (which was a financial failure) in 1890. She shocked Southerners when she up and moved to New York City the following year to pursue a literary career, taking a job as a journalist with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World for $1,500 a year. To make matters worse, she became friends with Julia Dent Grant, the widow of Ulysses S. Grant, who was among the most hated men in the south. She scandalized and offended many when she attended a reception where she met Booker T. Washington, socializing with him as if he were an equal.

She died in 1906 after a bout with pneumonia, surrounded by her daughter Maggie and her grandchildren.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Borgias: My Two Cents


Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia / Pope Alexander VI
François Arnaud as Cesare Borgia
Holliday Grainger as Lucrezia Borgia
Joanne Whalley as Vannozza dei Cattanei
Lotte Verbeek as Giulia Farnese
David Oakes as Juan Borgia
Sean Harris as Michelotto Corella
Simon McBurney as Johannes Burchart
Aidan Alexander as Gioffre Borgia
Colm Feore as Giuliano della Rovere (later Pope Julius II)
Derek Jacobi as Orsino Orsini
Ruta Gedmintas as Ursula Bonadeo (fictional character)
Elyes Gabel as Prince Cem
Montserrat Lombard as Maria
Emmanuelle Chriqui as Sancia
Vernon Dobtcheff as Cardinal Julius Verscucci (fictional character)
Bosco Hogan as Alessandro Piccolomini (later Pope Pius III) (real counterpart: Francesco Piccolomini)
Peter Sullivan as Ascanio Sforza
David Lowe as French Ambassador

The story thus far:  On the eve of the death of Pope Innocent VIII in 1492, a fierce political battle rages inside the Vatican walls over who will become the next pope. The papacy has long been the exclusive domain of a handful of super-powerful and ancient Italian families, so outsider Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia seems like a long shot. But the staid, pious Italians vastly underestimate the ambitions of the wily, rapacious Spaniard. Once ensconced on the throne, Rodrigo uses all of his power and influence to turn the papacy into a dynastic possession for his children, while his rivals plot with all their political might to unseat him.

Rodrigo takes a new mistress, much to the dismay of Vanozza. While Pope Alexander installs his beloved new mistress Giulia in the late Cardinal Orsini’s palace, his enemies are gathering against him. Pope Alexander VI appoints Cesare Cardinal of Valenica, allies with Sforza as Vice-Chancellor of the Curia, and seeks security by creating 13 new cardinals sympathetic to his rule. Della Rovere makes inquiries while Michelletto is firmly embraced by the Borgias as their loyal servant assassin.

My thoughts:  I was without cable for over a week because I was behind on my bill, so I spent the weekend catching up on all the shows that I missed.  Thanks to Time Warner Cable Entertainment on Demand, I discovered that I could watch the 1st 2 episodes of Showtime's new series The Borgias. I've got to be honest here, I absolutely loathed and despised The Tudors with every fibre of my being.  So I didn't have high hopes for The Borgias, until I discovered that the director Neil Jordan and Jeremy Irons were involved. Still, I wasn't going to run out and spend the money to have Showtime added to my already expensive monthly cable bill. But since I could watch the first episodes for free, I thought I would give it a try.

The series started off with a bang. We are informed that it is the year 1492 (hey, I wonder if anything else interesting happened that year?) and it is time for that new reality TV series 'Pick a Pope' starring Rodrigo Borgia. Will Rodrigo be able to bribe enough cardinals to have his dreams come true of being the next Pope? The tension mounts as the votes slowly turn into Rodrigo's favor. Yes! Success has been achieved and Rodrigo Borgia is now Pope Alexander VI. Wasn't that exciting? Weren't you just on the edge of your seat. Not!

I can't really put my finger on what is that made The Borgias so thoroughly unengrossing despite Showtime's pimping out the series as being about the original Mafia family (PSB said the same thing about the Medicis). Perhaps it's because the general audience knows so little about The Borgias compared to say The Tudors which had a built-in recognition factor. Who doesn't know about Henry VIII and his Six Wives? The Borgias not so much. And the series does little too illuminate the mysteries of this family.  So far, all I learned in the first 2 episodes was Rodrigo Borgia really wants to be Pope (Check!), Cesare Borgia doesn't want to be in the church but head of the Papal armies, oh, and he has a thing for his sister Lucrezia, and Lucrezia wants to be painted with a seahorse and wear a really pretty white veil with pearls to her father's popefication ceremony (Check! and Check!). Rodrigo comes across as ambitious but bloodless, Cesare creepy with greasy hair and Lucrezia is just very, very blonde (she kind of looks like a human version of My Little Pony). Oh and they're Spanish, and nobody likes them because they eat paella instead of pasta? I don't know, I'm at a loss here.

The biggest weakness in the series is Jeremy Irons as Rodrigo Borgia.  In countless interviews, Irons has mentioned that he thought he was wrong for the role because Borgia was a noted voluptuary who loved to eat, drink and fornicate. He was also a large man, built more like Gerard Depardieu than Irons slim frame.  He plays Borgia more like an ascetic than a man of the flesh. I totally bought his claim in the first episode that he was going to renouce his mistress and try to be a good Pope. What I didn't buy was the scene were Guilia Farnese comes to confession, and we're supposed to believe that he's so overcome by lust for her that he installs in a palace next door with a secret entrance so they can be together. I could see them spending time playing chess but not having sex romps all over the place. He's great at playing Borgia's ambition but little else.  Rodrigo should dominate the series, but in the first two episodes, Irons seems like he's sleepwalking through his scenes. I almost fell over laughing when he told Cesare that killing people was not an option. Oh, really? But briberty is A-OK?

It's a sad commentary when the most vibrant character in the series is Cesare Borgia's monkey as Carlyn over at Raucous Royals so wittily pointed out. (I have it on good authority however that Mr. Monkey was a bit of a diva, wanting his bananas peeled, pooping all over the place, which was why he was fired. But don't weep, he has a new job as the monkey on Upstairs, Downstairs.)

Unfortunately I will not be watching the next few episodes of the series unless I can watch them for free. I will say on the plus side that the costumes and sets are absolutely beautiful, and as far as I can see, unlike The Tudors, period appropriate.

My verdict:  A big dud of a series with characters that have no redeeming qualities. Unless the producers find someway to make us care about what happens to these people, it's just not worth watching.

Other views:

NY Times article and Review
TV Fanfic

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Scandalous Women welcomes Guest Blogger Kate Lord Brown

Scandalous Women is pleased welcome author Kate Lord Brown, whose new book The Beauty Chorus came out this month:

Synopsis: New Year's Eve, 1940: Evie Chase, the beautiful debutante daughter of a rich and adoring RAF commander, listens wistfully to the swing music drifting out from the ballroom, unable to join in the fun. With bombs falling nightly in London, she is determined that the coming year will bring a lot more than dances, picnics and tennis matches. She is determined to make a difference to the war effort. 5th January, 1941: Evie curses her fashionable heels as they skid on the frozen ground of her local airfield. She is here to join the ATA, the civilian pilots who ferry Tiger Moths and Spitfires to bases across war-torn Britain. Two other women wait nervously to join up: Stella Grainger, a forlorn young mother who has returned from Singapore without her baby boy and Megan Jones, an idealistic teenager who has never left her Welsh village. Billeted together in a tiny cottage in a sleepy country village, Evie, Stella and Megan must learn to live and work together. Brave, beautiful and fiercely independent, these women soon move beyond their different backgrounds as they find romance, confront loss, and forge friendships that will last a lifetime.

When I read a tiny obituary about a remarkable woman who had flown Spitfires during the war, I had to know more. Why don’t people know about these amazing women, I thought? As I researched in archives and museums across the country piecing together the historical details for my novel, I was blown away by their bravery and modesty. There was no glass ceiling for these girls – the sky was the limit.

Some of the men didn’t like it – they said they should do jobs ‘more befitting their sex’, but with remarkable ability and quiet determination these women fought for equal pay and equal terms, a first I think in history. They were mentored by two incredible women – Pauline Gower (who had taught French to pay for her flying lessons), and Jackie Cochran (a formidable American aviator, an orphan who had battled her way to the top – she started out as a beautician, married a millionaire, and singlehandedly recruited and shipped over some of the finest American women pilots to help the British Air Transport Auxiliary).

Coming up with fictional characters to equal the real women was no easy task. Among the ranks of the women pilots, there was Amy Johnson – who had flown half way round the world with only a tennis racket and an evening dress in her flight case. Then there was Audrey Sale Barker, who had crash landed in Africa, and calmly handed an SOS note written in lipstick to a passing Masai tribesman.

I came to admire these women for their strength and bravery – they flew all kinds of planes, anywhere, without radio and without arms. They came from all countries and all walks of life – mothers, grandmothers, debutantes, graduates, trick flyers and even a stripper. They ‘did their bit’ with enormous grace under pressure – and to me, it was a story that had to be told.

Kate Lord Brown has worked as an art consultant for palaces and embassies in Europe and the Middle East, and she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She was a finalist in UK ITV’s People’s Author contest in 2009. Her debut novel ‘The Beauty Chorus’ has just been published by Atlantic. She lives in the Middle East with her pilot husband and young family.  Purchase the book on Amazon:

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Scandalous Women in Fiction: TO BE QUEEN

Author:  Christy English
Publisher:  NAL
Pub Date:  April 5, 2011

From the back cover:  Taught by her father, the Duke of Aquitaine, how to be powerful in the midst of ruthless politics of the court, Eleanor learned at an early age to inspire love and loyalty in the people around her.  Those lessons serve the fifteen-year-old well when - after her father's sudden death - she is crowned Duchess of Aquitaine and becomes the most eligible, sought-after woman in France.
Enamored of the young and beautiful Eleanor, King Louis VII claims her as his own, but the newly crowned monarch is easily manipulated by the Church and therefore bound to a way of life Eleanor does not believe in.  Trapped in a loveless marriage and met with opposition at every turn, Eleanor fights to dissolve her estranged union with Louis and return to Aquitaine. But Eleanor is soon charmed by the English upstart Henry of Normandy.  If she can find the strength to leave her homeland behind, she may finally win the passion she has longed for and the means to fulfill her legacy as queen.

My thoughts:  Eleanor of Aquitaine has long been a heroine of mine, I find her endlessly fascinating, even after years of reading biographies and novels about her.  I had the privilege of reading Christy English's debut novel, THE QUEEN'S PAWN last year, where she skillfully interwove the story of Eleanor's later years with the story of Alais, the French princess who was meant to be Richard the Lionheart's bride, but ended up the last love of Henry II instead. That novel was compelling look at the love not just between an old man for a young woman, but the love between a mother and a daughter, for Alais in many ways was more a daughter to Eleanor than her own children.

So I was beyond excited when I received my copy of English's newest novel, TO BE QUEEN from NAL in the mail.  At the same time I was anxious.  Would this second novel live up to the promise of the first? Well, I'm happy to report that TO BE QUEEN is an even better, more accomplished novel. For most of us our first memory of Eleanor of Aquitaine was a woman in her twilight years in THE LION IN WINTER.  English gives us the young Alienor (as she was known then), starting at the age of 10, as she learns the ways of statecraft from her beloved father, William Duke of Aquitaine.  By the age of 10, Alienor has already lost her mother and her younger brother who was heir to the throne. Although their deaths were tragic, Alienor has learned at a young age to supress her emotions, at least in front of those who might use them against her, seeing them as a weakness.

The relationship between Alienor and her father is so lovingly depicted that it made me long for my own father (who passed away 11 years ago).  William recognizes in his daughter that she has the temperment and inherent skills necessary to be the Duchess of Aquitaine.  Instead of remarrying so that he can have a son to inherit the duchy, William is content to leave it in the hands of his daughter. The two plot to make Eleanor not just Duchess of Aquitaine but Queen of France.  Unfortunately Eleanor's father dies before the plans are fully in place.  Eleanor, however is ambitious, and she manages to achieve her dream only to find that all that glitters is not gold.  She pays a high price for her ambition, marriage to a man who is more monk than saint.

It is a credit to English's skill as a novelist that while we not only feel for Eleanor, we also sympathize with Louis, who is ill-prepared to deal with a woman who has twice the balls that he does. We feel Eleanor's frustrations as Louis spends more time on his knees praying than he does in her bed getting a son.  "I had been a better woman, a soft-hearted woman like my sister, I would have pitied him. As it was, as I listened to his tears, and to the weakness that no prayers would free him from, I began to hate.' How trying it must have been to be married to a saint.

Although I know the story of Eleanor of Aquitaine by heart, English was still able to surprise me with some of the twists and turns of the narrative. I don't want to put up any spoilers but I was surprised at a plot twist that occured 3/4 of the way through the novel that was a game changer for Eleanor and Louis.  Even a story that I knew well, about an incident that happened while the couple were on Crusade in what would be known modern day Turkey, English managed to add nuances and details that took the story to a whole other level. She manages to keep the dramatic tension taught throughout the novel, never letting it slip once, keeping the reader turning the pages to find out just what is going to happen to Eleanor next, will she succeed in getting an annulment, will she and Louis reconcile and have a son? What about the young Henry of Anjou?

Her prose is gorgeous but not ornate or flowery. Eleanor's sister Petra is described in one scene as 'She was fifteen and as beautiful as a summer morning that has not yet felt the heat of noon.' Or this line after Eleanor explains to her young daughter Marie that she is leaving to go on Crusade with Louis. 'One must cut out one's heart to be queen.'

The novel ends on a high note, Eleanor has achieved her goal of being free, as she makes her way back to the greatest love of her life, not Henry II or Richard the Lionheart but to the Aquitaine. I was very happy with the ending, although it left me wanting more. What adventures await Eleanor next? That to me is the mark of a satisfying story.

My verdict:  A highly enjoyable, thoroughly satisfying journey through the early years of Eleanor of Aquitaine's life.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Poor Little Rich Girl: Alice de Janze

On March 25, 1927 a well-dressed couple boarded a train at the Gare du Nord. A shot was heard, followed immediately by another. When the conductor opened the door to the compartment, the woman gasped, "I did it," before collapsing. The woman who pulled the trigger was an twenty-seven year old American heiress named Alice de Janzé, married to a French count. The victim was her lover, 32 year old Raymund de Trafford, the son of an English baronet.

Raymund had informed Alice that couldn't marry her. His parents, who were strict Catholics, had threatened to disinherit him if he married her. Alice had tried desperately to change his mind . She managed to get him to agree to lunch before he left. After they ate, the couple went to visit a sporting goods store where Alice insisted on buying him a present. Raymund chose some knives and a twelve-bore shotgun. Alice purchased a small revolver, a 3.8 caliber Colt with a pearl inlay handle and a box of nickel-plated bullets. At the station, Alice went to the Ladies room, unwrapped the gun and loaded it with bullets. Her plan initially was to commit suicide, to die in the arms of the man she loved, but she changed her mind. Instead, at the last minute, she decided that if she couldn't have Raymund then no one else could either.

As Raymund bid her farewell, she leaned forward to kiss him, throwing her arm around his neck. With her other hand, she removed the pistol from her bag, pressing the muzzle against his chest and pulled the trigger. He collapsed. She then shot herself in the stomach. While Alice's wounds were superficial, her lover was in critical condition. When Alice heard that Raymund was not expected to live, she reportedly began screaming, 'But he must live! I want him to live!' The incident later inspired a similar scene in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1934 novel, TENDER IS THE NIGHT.

The French police planned to press charges against the Countess, accusing her of attempted homicide, as soon as she had recovered enough to speak to them. At first Alice declined to cooperate with police stating 'I decline to give the reason for my act. It is a secret.' Later she made a statement admitting her plan to commit suicide, but that she had decided to take him to 'the Great Beyond' with her. She was held briefly at the women's prison St. Lazare in the same cell that once boasted Mata Hari. Eventually she was released on bail, convalescing at the family chateau in Normandy until the trial. Her defense attorney pleaded that she suffered from chronic depression and tuberculosis which lead to temporary insanity. In the end, Alice received a six month suspended sentence and a fine of 100 francs ($400). The court even rebuked Raymund for reneging on his promise. Two years later, she received a full pardon.

Alice's maternal relatives, the Armours and Chapins of Chicago, tried to do damage control with the press, but Alice was a scandal on both sides of the Atlantic. It was not the first time that Alice made headlines with her exploits nor would it be the last. Born on September 28, 1899 in Buffalo, NY Alice was the pampered only child of William Silverthorne and Juliabelle Chapin, who came from Chicago royalty, her mother was an Armour of the meat-packing family. Her parent’s marriage was a misalliance from the beginning. Her father traveled constantly, leaving her mother alone and lonely. When Juliabelle accused William of cheating with her cousin Louise, he locked her out of the house in the middle of winter in Buffalo. Six months later, Alice's mother was dead of vascular laryngitis. A year later he remarried to Julia's cousin, the woman he'd been accused of having an affair with.

Alice was a daddy's girl and William indulged his oldest daughter, taking her with him when he traveled to Europe. Precocious, dressing far above her years, Alice's father didn't always identify his beautiful companion as his daughter. Alarmed at the way she was being raised, her mother's family petitioned the court to remove her from his custody, and then proceeded to dump her at a boarding school in Washington D.C. Alice suffered greatly from that moment on she would be sensitive to any sign of male desertion.

At the age of 18, Alice was transcendently beautiful, with big, almond shaped eyes that she used to devastating effect, dark curly hair which she ruthlessly straightened, and bow lips. She had a ready captivating laugh, throwing back her head, and a low sultry voice. Her combination of fragility and brazenness appealed to men. Bored with the Chicago deb scene, Alice began to hang out in the jazz clubs, enjoying a brief relationship with a local gangster. Horrified at her reckless behavior, her family banished her to Paris as punishment. It had the opposite effect. She took a job briefly in a dress shop, indulging her passion for fashion, before marrying Frédéric, Count de Janzé in 1921. Like many young women of her class, Alice married chiefly to gain a measure of independence.

Alice soon realized that she had made a mistake. While Frédéric was kind, sensitive and loving, Alice found that she was unsuited for the life of a Countess with all the rules and regulations of French society. Even the birth of her daughters Nolwen and Paola didn't help. Alice suffered from post-partum depression and found it difficult to bond with her daughters. She also suffered from a form of bi-polar disorder, there were no mood stabilizers at the time that she could take, at the most electro-shock therapy was the prescribed treatment. Frédéric's brother and sister-in-law were particularly unsympathetic to Alice's melancholy, believing that she should just get over it.

It was Frédéric’s idea that they take a trip to Kenya in the hope that a change of scenery would help her melancholy. It worked better than he could have possibly imagined. Within days, Alice had decided to buy a farm in the Wanjohi Valley. She soon amassed a plethora of pets including a monkey named Rodrigo, two abandoned lion cubs, several dogs, and a baboon named Valentino. The couple became close friends with Joss Hay, the Earl of Errol and his wife Idina. Soon Alice and Joss were lovers which was fine with Idina, who had her own scandalous love life. Idina and Alice actually became very good friends.

When Alice met Raymund de Trafford it was a coup de foudre both of them. Raymond was the younger son of a baronet, whose family could trace their ancestry as far back as King Canute. Within days of meeting, they were lovers. Her husband hoped that the affair with de Trafford would be as casual as her affair with Joss but he soon realized this his wife was slipping away, enthralled with Africa and de Trafford. For Alice, Raymund was not just a great love but a way out of her marriage. Her lover however was not as committed. She and Frédéric agreed to a divorce, he was awarded sole custody of their two daughters.

After her trial for shooting Raymund, Alice was persona non grata in Kenya in light of the scandal. Kept away from her home, Alice bounced between Paris and London trying to woo Raymund back. She finally succeeded in 1932, after having her previous marriage annulled. But the marriage to Raymund didn’t last, after three months the couple called it quits. They argued about where they were going to honeymoon. When Alice reached into her purse, Raymund thought she had another gun. He fled to Australia. Now that she was a respectably married woman again, although separated, Alice returned to Kenya where she spent the last nine years of her life. Alice rarely saw her children, Nolwen and Paola, although they never blamed their mother for basically deserting them.

Alice spent remaining years of her life taking care of her animals (including lions, panthers and antelopes) and reading. She had also become heavily addicted to drugs, particularly morphine. She was almost feared by certain members of the community due to her rapid changes of mood and the aforementioned shooting incident. Her friend, aviator Beryl Markham, later stated of her: "Loneliness fixed Alice. Everyone was frightened of her". When her former love Joss Hay was found murdered in early 1941, Alice was a prime suspect. Alice however had an alibi; she had spent the night with a new lover Dickie Pembroke. Sir Jock Delves Broughton was tried and acquitted of the murder, but there is speculation to this day that it was Alice. That she was so distraught over his love affair with Sir Jock’s wife, that she decided that if she couldn’t have him, no one would.

In late 1941, Alice was diagnosed with uterine cancer. On September 23, 1941, she attempted suicide by taking an overdose of pentobarbital. When her friend, Patricia Bowles, went to her house, she discovered Alice had already marked every piece of furniture with the name of the friend who would inherit it. She finally succeeded in ending her life seven days later. A servant found her dead on her bed, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot, with the same gun she had once used on Raymond and herself two days after turning 42. Alice left three suicide notes, one addressed to the police, one to her daughters and one to Dickie Pembroke. The content of the letters was never revealed, fueling rumors of containing possible revelations. The late mystery writer, Michael Kilian, who featured Alice as a character in his novel Sinful Safari, believed that she chose suicide because she was depressed about her age and losing her looks. Although she'd had a string of lovers, Alice never found lasting happiness. It was a sad end to a life that had so much promise.

Alice was played by Sarah Miles in the 1988 film White Mischief based on the book of the same name by James Fox.

Temptress:  The Scandalous Life of Alice de Janze and the Mysterious Death of Lord Erroll - Paul Spicer, St. Martin's, July 2010

Friday, April 1, 2011

Book of the Month - Sisters of Fortune: The Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad

Sisters of Fortune:  The Caton Sisters at Home and Abroad
Author:  Jehanne Wake
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, April 1, 2011

From the Front Cover:

As gripping as the best historical novel, Sisters of Fortune is the story of the exuberant Marianne, Bess, Louisa, and Emily Caton, the American sisters who enthralled the highest levels of English Regency society decades before the notorious Dollar Princesses of the Victorian era. The Caton sisters were descended from prominent first settlers of Maryland, brought up by their wealthy grandfather Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, and were expected to “marry a plantation.” Instead, their grandfather made sure that they were well educated, raising four beautiful and charming young women who were unusually independent, intelligent, fascinated by politics, clever with money, and very romantic.
Arriving in Britain, the Caton sisters swept into the set of the Duke of Wellington and went on to forge their own destinies in the face of intense prejudice against Americans and Catholics. After capturing the heart of the Duke of Wellington, who could never marry her, Marianne shocked the world by marrying his brother Richard, Marquess Wellesley, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and taking a prominent place as a Catholic Yankee among the Protestant Anglo-Irish. Emily married Scots- Canadian John McTavish, heir to Montreal’s North West Company, and stayed home in Maryland, where she managed the family’s estates and wealth. Louisa became the Duchess of Leeds and a member of Queen Victoria’s court, while Bess made a fortune speculating in the stock market.

Based on the sisters’ intimate, unpublished letters and lavishly illustrated, Sisters of Fortune is a portrait of four lively and opinionated women, much of it told in their own voices as they gossip about prominent people of their time, advise family members on political and financial strategy, soothe each other’s sorrows, and rejoice in each other’s triumphs. It is also a meticulously researched history of Anglo-American relations and the political, financial, and social world of the nineteenth century. From post-revolutionary America’s White House and wealthiest plantations to Europe’s rarefied world of titled aristocracy, the story of Maryland’s Caton sisters is a stunning work of scholarship that is intimate in tone, sweeping in scope, and as compelling as any novel.

I have been dying for this book ever since I first heard about it last fall while surfing on  If America could be said to have an aristocracy the Caton sisters were certainly members. Descended from one of the first families to settle in the colony of Maryland, the Caton sisters had both beauty and vast wealth. While researching my blog post on Napoleon's sister-in-law Betsey Patterson, I had heard about Marianne Caton who was married to Betsey's brother Richard before eventually marrying The Duke of Wellington's brother.  This book is a joy to read and gives some insight into not only post-revolutionary America but also gives the reader an outsider's look at British society in the early 19th Century.  Long before Dollar Princesses like Consuelo Vanderbilt and Jennie Jerome took London by storm, there were the Caton sisters.

I hope to have an interview with the author Jehanne Wake in the next few weeks.  In the meantime, check out her website at or buy the book at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon