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

Arcadius Avellanus, born Mogyoróssy Arkád (6 February 1851 – 16 June 1935: “Scisne Latine, Barbare?”

Mogyoróssy Arkád was born in Esztergom near Budapest back in the days before exurbia blurred the line between city and country. His first language, he claimed, was Latin.

The claim is fantastic enough to seduce credulity, and some of the circumstances behind his early life suggest it might be true.

Independent details on his early life are, sadly, scarce, and gentlemen do not inquire too closely into the details of other men’s personal lives, and given what that part of the world has gone through in the years since Avellanus’ birth, confirming anything could be a challenge.

Consider the range of populations under the Hapsburg’s imperial eage. Hungarian German Slovak Slovenes, Serbs, Croats, Rumanians, all jealous of their several prerogatives, what to bring them together, particularly in matters of law and politics? Latin, of course, was language of the Church, the lingua franca of the renaissance. It lasted as the official language of the Hapsburg Empire until 1782.

Sixty nine years (the space between 1782 and his birth) was less earth changing a span in those days than now – one can imagine a traditional family keeping up the old ways, preparing its sons for whatever service the Empire might require. Continue reading

John Gamgee (1831-1894): The Iceman Cometh

John GamgeeDr. John Gamgee was born in Florence Italy in 1831, the son of a Scottish veterinarian who wanted his children to have a broad education. John eventually graduated from the Royal Veterinary College in London. He thrived in that field. In 1858, he founded the New Veterinary School in Edinburgh in 1858, and later the Edinburgh Veterinary Review. In 1863, he organized the first International Veterinary Congress in Hamburg Germany.

So far, so dull, unless you are interested in Victorian academic politics. A few years later, the United States government invited him to consult on the matter of lung plague and cattle fever in Texas. He lectured widely in America, promoting his novel view on the pathogenic theory of medicine. That is, that disease was transmitted by microorganisms. It was a theory for which claim he was widely ridiculed.

His so-called “rollerskate” was less controversial, but it was his explorations into the mechanics of refrigeration more that makes him interesting to the general reader. 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

The Reckoning

The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe

Picador

Charles Nicholl

This biography done in the early 1990’s is an arresting variation on the little sonata usually played by Christopher Marlowe’s biographers.  Their performances are almost always tuned to the minor key of Marlowe’s early death (at 29) and the tragedy this posed to English letters.  Charles Nicholl decided to play things in a different mode altogether and the suspenseful true crime narrative he composed is jaunty and percussive instead of a dirge for a dead poet. Continue reading

Charles Louis Désiré Du Pin (1814-1868): Red Devil

If he doesn’t appear in any of the Flashman books, he should have.  Of all the outrageous soldiers of the 19th century, Du Pin is one of the most notorious and, like Flashman himself, appears to have been everywhere.

He was born at Lasgraisses in the shadows of the Pyrenees,  attended Ecole Polytechnique in Palaiseau and was enrolled as an officer in the French Army.  His first few years were uneventful, but that changed for good once he was sent to Algeria in 1842.  Made a name for himself a year later in the battle of Smalain the 1847 capture of Abd-el Kader, and featured in the panoramic painting of the event of the sort so beloved of the 19th century patriots.  (Full marks if you can make him out.)  Promoted to Major by 1851, he was off to fight in the Crimea in 1855 (French cavalry made no such nonsensical cavalry charge into any valleys of death). Four years later he was in Italy, leading a cavalry division and helping the locals break away from the Austrian Empire.   Along the way he picked up a pair of Legions d’Honneur and and some other decorations for bravery. Continue reading

Charlotte Oelschlegel (1898-1984): Ice Queen

Before there was Ice Capades,  before there was Holiday On Ice, before there was Cirque du Soleil, there was the Hippodrome,  5200 seats of theatrical goodness (this was New York – nothing like it on earth).  It was the venue for that needed filling, and Charles Dillingham was just the guy to fill them.

He had taken over the place seats of the from the Shuberts, and those 5200 seats needed filling.  The Schuberts had already gone through the line of elephants act, the wild west show, and any number of water shows.  Dillingham had bigger things in mind.

Job applicants filled in the forms listing their qualifications:  “drive a car, ride a bicycle, dive, ice or roller skate, ride horseback, plus the usual requirement of quality and range of  voice. Dancing – the basic one – was accepted for granted.” *   Among the final cast were  such now forgotten luminaries as Arthur Deagon the Chubby Comedian and Harry Griffiths, The Jaunty Juvenile;  and the unforgettable John Philip Sousa). 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

Karl May, 1842-1912 : Big In Germany

There was a blip on the radar screen with the 2012 centennial of his death, and a few translators have pushed through labor-of-love translations, but on the whole he is still remarkably unknown in America.   This from a man who was the largest selling author in the German language, bigger than Thomas Mann or Erich Maria Remarque, or – well, everyone, really.

So why the indifference?  It’s not as if his work is introspective dark philosophical central European doomsday jobs.  He wrote page turners.  Good page turners.  It can take a little bit to get into the spirit of the thing – we are talking a nineteenth century writer here – but once hooked, you will be hard pressed find the work anything but compelling.  He has narrative drive up the wazoo, and could teach pretty much anyone writing thrillers today a thing or two about action. Continue reading

Bernhard von Breydenbach (1434-1497*): On The Road Again

Von Breydenbach was a rich man, a doctoral graduate of the University at Erfurt,  the canon of Mainz who had, by his own accounts, lived a somewhat loose life, wicked enough that he thought a pilgrimage to the Holy Land would do his soul some good. So in April of 14, 1483 he gathered his friend the artist Erhard Reuwich of Utrecht and with a few of other titled and moneyed traveling companions, set off to see the sights of the Middle East.  

The trip itself was pretty standard tourist fare for the time. Venice first, as Venice had regular water connections with the Muslim Levant.  There they spent any number of days waiting for the ship to be ready, time he spent in seeing the local sights, then as a now spectacular. Once at sea it was to the Venetian held territories of Modon, where he met Gypsies, whom he describes not as being Egyptian (never mind India), but from the nearby town of Gippe.  Stood to reason, of course.  Continue reading