Elizabeth Sutherland Leveson-Gower, 19th Duchess of Sutherland, 1765–1839; “Scotch people are of happier constitution…”

I was digging around a Scottish root of the family tree and reading about the ill-fated Clan Gunn (great-grandfather Harry Nelson of Stirling, and so a member) when I came across a reference to the Highland Clearances and the evil Countess of Sutherland.

Highland Clearances were one of those suspiciously neutral phrases so disliked by George Orwell.  But an “Evil Countess”?  Not a lot of wiggle room with that kind of talk.  It was irresistible.  I had to know more.

The countess in question turns out to be Elizabeth Gordon,  only child of the 18th earl of Sutherland and his wife.  One of those households so yearned for by young readers of children’s books where the parents exit early  and both freedom and responsibilities  are put on tiny shoulders.   In Ms Gordon’s case,  the title came to her just after her first birthday.  Already we can see where this story is going. Continue reading

Pierre Poivre, 1719 – 1786: Nutmeg and Spice

Really, you couldn’t make up a name like that and even if you did, no fiction editor worth his salt would let it pass.   So, truth must step up where fiction dares not tread.

Poivre  was the son of a Lyon merchant and was heading towards a religious career when the Society of Foreign Missions, impressed with a native talent of languages,  sent him to China and Indochina to get his feet wet with a little evangelical work.  Reports of his time there get somewhat murky (mysterious east and all that), a curious mixture of amusing anecdote and utter silence. One story goes that he  landed in a Chinese jail through a misunderstanding with a local mandarin but learned enough Chinese while incarcerated to talk himself out of it.

On the utter silent part (or at least the Not-In-Front-Of-The-Servants part), is the fact that he was encouraged to leave the mission and indeed, from China altogether.  Certainly he gave up the path towards the church.    Continue reading

Ecaterina Teodoroiu, 1894-1917 : “Forward! I’m still with you!”

And, to complete a hat trick (and because I have an admiration and liking  for things Romanian), we turn now to Ecaterina Teodoroiu, The Heroine from the Jiu

She was born one of eight children to a poor peasant family in Targa Jiu in Southern Romania and spent her earlier years studying to become a  school teacher.   Certainly she looks the part.

Of course, looks can be deceiving.

Romania did not enter the war until 1916.  In the early years, the kingdom exploited all manner of unlikely resources, including the Scouts.  As a nurse with that organization (they were instrumental in moving and tending the wounded), she was able to visit her brother, a sergeant, at the front. She came to appreciate the patriotism and camaraderie that war can create in a group of men.  Continue reading

Flora Sandes (Yudenitch), 1876–1956: Easily Bored

“When a very small child, I used to pray every night that I might wake up in the morning and find myself a boy.”

Instead she was always what she had been born, an Anglican vicar’s daughter,  and a product of Ireland and Surrey.  If not a boy, she was still able to get a full measure of  ridin’ and shootin’ and such like typically English country pursuits.  And, in due course, she would become the only English woman to fight on the front lines of World War One.  For Serbia.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  She first had to get through finishing school in Switzerland, and with a small legacy from an uncle and the money she earned as a secretary, to pick up fencing and the rudiments of first aid.  Also how to drive, which in her case was in her own French roadster, a Sizaire-Naudin to be specific.

Continue reading

Milunka Savic, 1888-1973: Woman Warrior

1912-1913 marks the centenary of the First and the Second Balkan Wars, a spot of local trouble that would lead to the killing fields of the First World War.  They’re not much remembered outside the area except by specialists and presumably relatives.  Certainly they didn’t kick up any household names.

Which is not to say that there were not  people with good stories.  People like Milunka Savic.

She was a village girl, and either from boredom or patriotism (or possibly because her brother was to ill to go), in 1912 she cut off her hair and presented herself to the recruiting sergeant.  Induction was presumably a cursory affair, and she was soon toting gun and bayonet to the front lines.  No further record of the brother, but the army got their money’s worth.   Continue reading

Count Alfred D’Orsay, 1801-1845: Charmed, I’m Sure

The one difficulty in Brideshead Revisited (okay, there are a lot of difficulties in Brideshead Revisited, but I’m only interested in one of them) is the question Sebastian Flyte’s charm.

We are assured that he has it, repeatedly, but somehow it never quite gets off the page. Now Waugh is some kind of writerly genius, and Sebastian is based on the real thing, but in this exercise, the author is coming up against a writing challenge even harder than describing sex without sounding absurd. Charm, like certain jokes, is evanescent.

As with Sebastian, so with Alfred. That he had charm and by the bucket-load is widely attested, and his CV ticks all the boxes for any romance writer’s dashing leading man. His father, a general for Bonaparte,* was considered the best looking man in the army and a dab hand at warfare. While the general was off expanding and defending the empire, Alfred was raised by his maternal grandmother, another good looking and elegant wit, Anne Franchi, aka Madame Craufurd, mistress of Duke of Wurtemberg among others. (Of her it is written “there is considerable mystery about this good lady’s career”. But I digress.) Continue reading

Thomas and Daniel Wildman (floruerunt 1760-1780): Improving the Shining Hour

“June 20 1772 Exhibition of bees on horseback! At the Jubilee Gardens, Islington, this and every evening until further notice (wet evenings excepted).

The celebrated Daniel Wildman will exhibit several new and amazing experiments, never attempted  by any man in this or any other kingdom before.  The riders standing upright, one foot on the saddle and one on the neck, with a mask of bees on his head and face. He also rides standing upright on the saddle with the bridle in his mouth, and, by firing a pistol makes one part of the bees march over the table, and the other swarm in the air and return to their hive again, with other performances too tedious to insert.”

Imagine only that Lennon had had that poster instead of Pablo Fanque’s! Continue reading