Harry Bensley, 1876-1956: Around the World in an Iron Mask

The first war ruined so many good things.  International travel, for one thing. The story goes that (Englishman) Rupert Brooke was able to cross America with nothing more than a personal calling card. My own (American) grandfather made a pre-war bicycle tour with nothing more than a Bicycle Club ID. His 1915 passport (US) is a single piece of heavy paper folded wallet size, with all the signs of haste in the planning and execution.

So the story of Harry Bensley (that’s him on the left)  is a fraction less preposterous than it seems.  Continue reading

John Harrington, 1561-1612 : Toilet Humor

Treason doth never prosper. What’s the reason?
If treason prosper, none dare call it treason

Old joke, and a good one.  The other night we were trying to remember whose it was.  Too light hearted for Milton.  Too old timey for Dr. Johnson.  Not quite good enough for Shakespeare, but about that period.

It was John Harrington.

He was one of your basic old Etonians who went on to Cambridge. He was also the godson of Elizabeth I, which connection helped him get a minor place at court.  He was witty, or close enough for courtly work.   Seemed to have a taste for dirty jokes.  They must have been utterly filthy – the story is they got him exiled to Kelston, near Bath.*  Well, the jokes, and the stuff insulting the government in general Continue reading

Count Johann Friedrich Struensee (1737 – 1772) Lèse Majesté

We got a copy of A Royal Affair the other week, drawn in mostly on the basis of the costume drama appeal.  It’s good stuff, and the more I watched it, the more I  wondered how much the film makers had fiddled with the truth.  I mean to say,  American movies that tear their stories from yesterday’s headlines are almost invariably poppycock.

The Danes, as it turns out, are a bit better at the whole thing, and if you want to avoid spoilers, stop now and get yourself the video. This post isn’t going anywhere.

So – Struensee was a precocious son of a German superintendent (much like a bishop) of Schleswig-Holstein.   He trained in medicine, getting degreed at a young age, and spent his off hours rebelling against the stodgy doctrines of his elders. Continue reading

Alexander Andreyevich Baranov, 1746- 1819: Lord of Alaska

I’ve heard it suggested that America could pay off its debt to China by giving them Alaska.

There’s a nice symmetry to this idea.  After all, before the U.S. showed up, the place was part of the Russian Empire.  In large part, this is thanks to A. A. Baranov.

Alaska was known to Europeans, vaguely, as far back as 1741 when Vitus Bering of Denmark made a note of the strait that bears his name.  Captain Cook had a look-see, as did others (George Vancouver), but in general it was too far away from the world’s cash centers to garner much sustained interest.

This changed when the locals began offering passers by the local specialty.  The entire coastline, it turned out, was crawling with fur covered critters,  whose pelts were of a great deal of interest to colder cash centers.  The market was insatiable, the supply seemingly inexhaustible.  Ruble signs lit up in the eyes of the ambitious and there was, in effect,  a fur rush.

Which is where Baranov comes in. Continue reading

Marguerite Joséphine Wiemer, aka Mademoiselle George, 1787-1867: A Woman of Many Parts

Her father was a tailor and the first fifer for a Lorraine Regiment but who yearned for a life of showbiz and eventually lived his dream in a small theatre in Bayeaux, he conducting the orchestra, his wife playing the soubrette roles.  When their daughter was old enough, she too wound up on the boards.

It was a provincial affair, but shuffled along well enough.  Then, in one of those dramatic turns best suited for bad movies, Mademoiselle Raucourt, célèbre tragédienne happened to be passing through, saw the troupe and more to the point, saw something special in the now fourteen year old Marguerite.  She whisked the young thing off the Paris and and put her through the paces, which eventually meant entree to the Comedie Francais.  Her first  major role was as Clytemnestra in Iphigenia in Aulis. (She sounds a bit young for the role, but what is acting if not a convincing lie?)

Among others in the audience was Lucien Bonaparte, brother to the First Consul.  Mlle Georges’ comment:   “In spite of his love for his wife, I think he rather liked me.” Continue reading

Francois Coty, 1874-1934: Taking Care of Business

Francois Coty is known for the cosmetics giant he created, and less happily for his politics, which in the France of the 1930s leaned considerably to the Right.  But his real legacy may not be his political bent, nor yet his fabulous success in the world of cosmetics, but his innovations in the field of business.

For political historians Coty is the man who bought newspapers in France during the waning of the Third Republic, including the right wing L’Ami du Peuple, and who also flirted with Mussolini and his Fascist regime.  The Manichean politics of the 30s have cast a long shadow over the rest of his life, and perhaps that is a shame, because the Ligurian Corsican from Ajaccio, was a great businessman.  He became a multi-millionaire in a matter of two years after creating his first real perfume: La Rose Jacqueminot, and never looked back.  Continue reading

Sweyn Asleifsson, 1116 – 1171: The Ultimate Viking

He was born in Caithness, son of Olaf, who was murdered in 1135 by Olvir Rosta, who a year previously had lost a minor sea battle and carried a grudge.  Olvir’s method of restoring his self esteem was the burning Olaf’s house down while Olaf was still in it.  This is how cycles of violence start, and neglecting to take out the nineteen year old Sweyn was an oversight that was going to cost Olvir.

That would come later.  In the meantime, the boy (who, curiously, took his surname from his mother Aslief) gets his first mention at the 1135 yuletide revels at the household of the earl of Orkney.  It seem the Earl’s cup-bearer had grabbed some of Sweyn’s holiday grog, an act that Sweyn did not take in the spirit of the season. He  stewed for a day or so, then brained the fellow. 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

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

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