La Belle et la Bête – Old as Time

straparola_ritrattoI see the Disneys are dragging out Beauty and her Beast for a new iteration.  It was, of course, ever so, and long before animation and CGI

Scholarly types generally agree that the first iteration of the timeless tale came from the works of Venetian Giovanni Francesco Straparola (1480-1558), a somewhat shadowy figure who thought to follow the success of Boccaccio’s Decameron with a new collection of short stories (the Pig King is the entry in question).  As it happened, he was quite right, and his stuff sold rather well. We may assume he lived happily ever after. As one does in Italy. Continue reading

The Six: The Lives of the Mitford Sisters

the-sixThe Mitford sisters have become an industry.  There are over twenty nine titles concerning them and that does not count their own books- three of them were writers. Only one of them was truly a success, the instigator of the Mitford mythology: Nancy Mitford.

Laura Thompson is contributing her second book to this already crowded section of the biography shelf. The Six, The Lives of the Mitford Sisters is not a straightforward biography.  She has already written about Nancy, Life in a Cold Climate and this is her second attempt at mapping the complicated lives of these siblings only this time by psychological surveillance. Continue reading

Lady Anne Blunt (1837 – 1917); Horse Sense

Née Lady Ann Isabella Noel-King.

Her grandfather was Lord Byron, her father the Earl of Lovelace, her mother Ada Lovelace, who is credited (not quite accurately) as the first computer programmer for Babbage’s calculating machine.  With that kind of pedigree, anything was possible.

She grew up on her father’s considerable estate at East Horsley Park,  home-schooled in languages, mathematics, and violin.  She learned drawing from John Ruskin.  As befits a proper country blueblood,  she found her  real passion from  a young age was horses (indeed, it was said that she could jump a mount well into her seventies).    This meshed nicely with her husband’s passion for the Middle East.  It was about the only thing on which they could make a real partnership. Continue reading

Philippe Duc d’Orleans (1640 – 1701); Didn’t Ask, Didn’t Tell

Philippe Duc d’Orleans had the dubious distinction of being Louis XIV’s younger brother. It was not a position to be envied. Having the Grand Monarque as a sibling must have been trying sometimes in the extreme, but Monsieur, as Philippe was always called, had a way of getting out of the tedium of his proximity to power: he was gay.

In fact Monsieur was so very far out of the closet, in a place and at a time, when the “Italian vices” were punishable in all sorts of barbaric ways, that it staggers the mind now both that Monsieur could pursue his way of life relatively unobstructed, or that it was so often recorded by memoirists. We know that his brother Louis detested homosexuality, and yet he seems to have tolerated it in his brother, of whom, we understand, he was very fond. 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

William Horace de Vere Cole (1881-1936 ): A Man of Few Parts

February, 1910.  Herbert Cholmondeley of the Foreign Office arrived at Paddington Station with a delegation of Emperor of Abyssinia in England on an official business.  He approached the stationmaster-  it seemed the dignitaries had planned a visit to HMS Dreadnought, pride of the British navy, down in Weymouth.  Would the station master be able to arrange a private car for the honored guests?  He could,  and he did.   Once arrived at their destination, the princes were greeted by an honor guard, and the national anthem of Zanzibar was played.  The foreign visitors were allowed to inspect the fleet and even bestowed military honors on some of the officers.   Mr. Chomondeley translated for the exotics,  and regretted that they could not stay for lunch for religious reasons. Continue reading

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

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

Alfonso León Fernando María Jaime Isidro Pascual Antonio de Borbón y Austria-Lorena, (1886-1941): Gesundheit

A name fit for a king, and so he was.  A king, that is. His father King Alfonso XII died before he was born, which gave him the rare distinction of being king right out the starting gate, though technically his mother Maria Christina of Austria was regent for his first sixteen years,  a time that saw the loss to Spain of Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to Teddy Roosevelt and President McKinley.

Married one of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren Princess Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg (1887–1969),  kept Spain out of the First World War, left Spain in 1931 and never quite made it back, dying in Rome in 1941.

Why am I on about this?  Because as of Friday, I’ve been enduring the ‘flu (yes, yes, I know. Vaccination.  I know.  I was busy, and  besides probably some geriatric or tot needed it more). With little else to do but sneeze, shiver, and cough, I began to wonder, why was the 1918-19 pandemic called the Spanish ‘Flu?  One of those bigoted we-didn’t-start-it monikers, like the French calling syphilis the Italian disease and the Italians calling it the French?  Was Spain being made to pay for avoiding the mass slaughter of the trenches? Continue reading