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

A Thoroughly Modern Marriage

Portrait of a Marriage

Nigel Nicolson

Atheneum, 233 pages

Vita Sackville-West

Since gay marriage has become a legal reality in the United States so recently, it pays to remember that in the last century tolerance for sexual variety was generally low.  Homosexuality was considered a perversion and a few unlucky people born with the proclivity sought out “cures”.  There were however some surprisingly tolerant oases in this desert of  negative public opinion.

One such was the long running marriage between Harold Nicolson, the British diplomat and his wife Vita Sackville-West the novelist and garden writer.  They married for love in 1913, or so it appeared at the time.  What Harold Nicolson did not know was that his wife was in love with another woman, and only came around to marriage reluctantly. Continue reading

Charles Rose Ellis (1771-1845): Come Sing Me Montego Bay

Stumbled across this documentary about German indentured servants in Jamaica and their descendents, which in turn led me to Charles Rose Ellis.

He was the son of James Ellis, who  in turn was grandson of Col. John Ellis who settled in Jamaica in 1665.  Charles’ father was one of the great landowners of 18th century Jamaica and very rich indeed.  James died at sea when Charles was thirteen, leaving  the young man with an estate worth £20,000 a year (Mr. Darcy, you will recall, had half that amount- but then, he didn’t have land in the Caribbean). Continue reading

Major-General Rudolf Anton Carl Freiherr von Slatin (1857-1932): Three Faiths

Said to be the inspiration for one of Karl May’s characters, von Slatin is one of those characters who make us feel utterly inadequate.

Born the son of a Jewish convert to Catholicism near Vienna, he was in the commercial academy when his father died rather suddenly.  By chance he heard of an opening at a German bookstore in Cairo.  The sheer unlikelihood appealed to him, and he was off to Egypt.

All thoughts of bookselling left him as he joined Theodore von Heuglin,  explorer and ornithologist into the mountains of Dar Nuba in Sudan.  Rough times and much rebellion in the area at the time, and Europeans were few.  Before he was through, von Slatin met such luminaries as botanist Dr Eduard Schnitzer (aka, Emin Pasha on his conversion to Islam, later to relieve Henry Morgan Stanley) and General Charles George Gordon. Continue reading

Abul Tayyeb al Mutanabi (915-965): The Would-be Prophet

The desert knows me well,
the night and the mounted men.
The battle and the sword,
the paper and the pen.

The Wall Street Journal last Saturday did an appreciation of Firdausi, author of the Persian epic the Shahnamen Book of Kings.  He’s a well enough known name (that is to say, I’ve actually heard of him), but who is the best of the Arab poets?

Short answer is, Al-Mutanabi. Continue reading

Anthony Henley (1700-1767): “Dear Sir, Please Go Jump in the Lake”

It is a commonplace that our elected officials do not really have their constituents best interests at heart.   They neither write nor read the legislation they vote into existence, collecting money from the moneyed interests to whom they are in thrall.  Independent minds are few indeed,  court jesters at best, no threat to anyone, really.

But then we tend not to elect people like Anthony Henley.

Henley was the eldest son of his namesake, who was himself a Whig MP, a friend of Jonathan Swift, patron of the Purcells, and said to be a great wit and possessed of a £3,000 a year (on top of a marriage settlement of £30,000) , which benefice came to the son in 1711.  (That’s the father’s picture you’re looking at – I could find none of the son himself.) Continue reading

Lucy Stone (1818-1893) – By Any Other Name

Well the next thing I had to do as to join the Lucy Stone league, so that I could keep my own maiden name after matrimony.  Because a girl’s name should be Sacred, and when she uses her husbands it only sinks her identity.  And when a girl always insists on her own maiden name,  with vialents, it lets people know what she must be important some place or other.  And quite a  good place to insist on an unmarried name, is when you go to some strange hotel accompanied  by a husband. Because when a room  clerck notes that a girl with a  maiden name is in the same room with a gentleman, it starts quite a little explanation, and makes a girl feel quite promanent before everybody in the lobby.

But Dorothy said I had better be careful.    I mean, she says that most Lucy Stoners do not really worry the room clerck, because they are generally the type that are only brought to hotels om account of  matrimony.  But Dorothy  said that when Henry and I waltz in and ask for a  room with my maiden name the clerck would probably take one good look at me, and hand Henry a room in the local jail for the Man act.  

But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, Anita Loos  (all spellings utterly sic) Continue reading

Caresse Crosby (1891-1970): America’s First Girl Scout

It’s true! In 1910, Robert Baden-Powell came to America to help get the Boy Scouts going here and brought Lady Baden-Powell with him.  She somehow wound up at our  subject’s school  and had lunch with Miss Ruutz-Rees.

Mrs. Crosby writes:  “I am sure it was in exchanging modern ideas over the after luncheon coffee cups that they together with Miss Loundes and Miss Lewis (both as British as buns) brewed the scheme for instigation of a Girls Scout movement right there at Rosemary.”

Polly was chosen as the first initiate, and got the name Policumteenawa, signifying Little-Possum-By-the-Fire, or some such.

But we get ahead of ourselves. Continue reading

Sampiero Corso ‘the Fiery’, ‘the Most Corsican of Corsicans’ – 1498-1567

I once had a French teacher whose family was Corsican.  Among the family possessions was a dagger, on one side of which blade was engraved Vendetta, on the other, Morte.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans.  No surprise that a Napoleon could come out of there.

And while Napoleon had to prove himself to the rest of the world, Sampiero Corso was concerned only with his own country and his own people.  Keeping it local, as it were, which is a sensible scope for any political leader.

He was born a commoner in 1498 near Bastelica.  Then as now, the army was a means to advancement, and a little less now than then, fighting as a mercenary under foreign flags was a respectable career path.  He started out on that path at age fourteen.

Hardboiled, the Corsicans. 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