Boadicea and Her Daughters

I am posting this photo for Skywatch Friday, a site where bloggers are invited to post pictures that include the sky.  The sculpture in this photo depicts Boadicea (aka Boudica) and Her Daughters.  Boudica was the queen of a Celtic tribe during the period of the Roman invasions.  She led an uprising of her tribe against the Romans in around 60 A.D.  Her people lost, but they gave the Romans a good fight.

This sculpture is by Thomas Thornycroft, who worked on it from 1856-1883.  It is located in London on Westminster bridge, facing Big Ben.

Let’s give three cheers for Boudica for taking on the Romans!

 

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You Must Change Your Life

In You Must Change Your Life, Rachel Corbett elucidates the unlikely friendship between French sculptor Auguste Rodin and Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke.  Not only was Rodin 35 years Rilke’s senior, but their personalities were polar opposites. Rilke was sensitive, delicate, refined, while Rodin was robust and carnal.  At the time of their meeting in 1902, Rodin was famous and admired, while Rilke was still unknown. his poetic gifts unformed.   Their meeting was transformative for them both.  Rilke was transfixed by the older artist, and they developed a master-disciple relationship that lasted until Rodin’s death.

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Photograph of Rainer Maria Rilke Photographer unknown

You Must Change Your Life provides a sketch of both artists’ biographies.  Corbett includes information on the most significant relationships of the two men’s lives, especially the women who surrounded them.  (I wrote a previous blog post here on one of these

NPG x6573; Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford
Photo of Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford

fascinating women: Lou Andreas-Salome.) Corbett is most interested, however, in exploring the process of creativity and artistic development.  In doing so, she delves into the intellectual and artistic currents of late 19th century in order to explain to readers the influences on both Rilke and Rodin.  She explores not only aesthetic theories, but also on other intellectual currents such as philosophy, psychoanalysis, and the newly explored concept of empathy.  Corbett also illuminates the significance of particular places in creativity—especially the city of Paris, which has been the incubator of so many artists.

Of all the many influences on Rilke, Rodin was one of the most important. Rilke allowed himself to be like clay in his master’s hands, yearning to be shaped into something memorable.   He learned many things from the sculptor, especially “the meaning of structure.  [Rodin] had given [Rilke] the blueprint to build his poetry like a carpenter builds four walls around him” (246).  Learning structure was immensely valuable to the poet.

However, Rilke also misunderstood some of Rodin’s advice, much to his detriment.  Rodin urged Rilke to “travailler, toujours travailler” (work, always work).   Unfortunately, Rilke followed this advice literally, sacrificing close relationships and many of the pleasures of his life in order to pursue his art more fervently.  “He had sat around empty hotel rooms, stared at cathedral towers and caged lions, slept in empty beds.  But deep within the body of this lifelong observer was the trace of a ‘still feelable heart’ that had been ‘painfully buried-alive by images,’” observes Corbett.  Rilke had abandoned life “in anticipation of future payoff” (247).

It was only later that Rilke realized that “Rodin had not made any of the sacrifices that he, Rilke, had.  Rodin was no martyr for his art.  How did he live? Full of pleasure, and exactly as he pleased, it turned out” (247).   At first, Rilke felt disillusioned when he realized his mentor was not what he thought he was.   Eventually, though, Rilke realized that nobody, no master, could tell their disciple how to live.  The artist has to figure it out for themselves.  The important thing about art, Rilke realized later in his life, is that “there was never anything waiting on the other side: There was no god, no secret thing, and in most cases no reward.  There was only the doing” (247).   Rilke does, of course, become a great poet.  Corbett does not suggest that Rodin was the only reason for Rilke’s greatness.  He was, nonetheless, a pivotal figure in Rilke’s artistic development.

I found Corbett’s book fascinating.  I would recommend it to readers who are interested in the arts, in creativity, in the cultural and intellectual currents of late 19th century Europe, or even in the city of Paris.  The book contains a number of different “threads,” of which I only touched on a few here.  Perhaps one could fault Corbett for trying to cover too many different topics, leaving a somewhat “meandering” feel to the book.  I, however, enjoyed her excursions into some of the facets of fin-de-siecle European art.

Dickens plus Austen = Gaskell?

elizabeth-gaskellI had never read Elizabeth Gaskell’s work before.  After reading her 1855 novel North and South, I have decided that this 19th century English writer is a cross between Jane Austen (especially Pride and Prejudice) and Charles Dickens (especially Hard Times) because of her combination of social critique, romance, and light satire.

Like Dickens, Gaskell is concerned in her novel with portraying the harsh effects of the industrial revolution on so many people.   Margaret Hale, a young woman in her late teens, is the daughter of a clergyman.  She is not as beautiful as her cousin Edith but people admire her because of her dignity and intelligence.    She grew up in the South of England partly in the  beautiful village of Helstone and partly in London.  At the beginning of the novel, Margaret discovers that she has to leave her beloved Helstone parsonage and move north to Milton, an industrial city (based on Manchester).  Her father is moving the family because he has some dissenting views from the Church of England and no longer feels he can remain a clergyman in good conscience.  (If Gaskell explained what these dissenting views were, I missed it.  Why keep them a secret?)

Margaret and her mother nearly have a nervous breakdown because of the move.  One would think nothing worse had ever befallen a soul than having to move homes to a new town. Margaret finds Milton lamentable at first.  A large, bustling, dirty industrial town with bad air, it has none of the charms of her beloved Helstone or the sophistication of London.  It also lacks the “right” type of people—gentlemen and their families.  Instead, it is full of industrialists and people who are in trade.  Margaret looks down her nose at all such people.

She begins to soften her stance towards Milton when she makes some new friends—some people who work in the mills.  However, by getting to know the “hands,” as they are called, she learns how deplorable the conditions are for them.  She learns that one young woman is dying at age 18 because of breathing in so much cotton.  She also learns how hard it is for the “hands” to make ends meet with the money they make and she sympathizes with them when they go on strike.  It is Gaskell’s sympathetic portrayal of the “hands” and her critical view of industrialism that reminds me most of Dickens.  (Apparently, Dickens was her editor, so this resemblance is perhaps not surprising.)

North and South reminds me more of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice when it comes to her characters and her wit.  Margaret meets mill owner (and self-made man) John Thornton when she first comes to Milton.  He is attracted to her, but she looks down on him for not being a gentleman. (She has both the pride AND the prejudice.) Later, she disapproves of him because of the way he treats his workers.  The two characters remain sparring partners for most of the novel.  Gradually, though, we see both of them changing and growing (for the better) into more mature and complex selves.   Creating strong central characters who change in a realistic way throughout the narrative is one of Gaskell’s strengths.  I also enjoyed the way she gently but realistically created characters with glaring weaknesses: her mother is self-pitying, her father is weak, and Mrs. Thornton is, frankly, a witch.   The novel is not a comedy, but some of the scenes with these flawed characters interacting together were quite amusing.

Although I admired Gaskell’s critique of industrialism and her creation of characters, I did not enjoy the book as much as I had hoped I would.  This was partly, I think, because of her long-winded writing style.  She could have cut out a couple of hundred pages with no harm to the story.  I also wondered why certain aspects of the novel were included.  Why the story of the brother in exile?  Why the proposal from Mr. Lennox?  The worst part, though, was the last half or so of the novel, in which people were dropping dead like flies.  I found that such melodrama ruined the impact of the story.

I neither loved nor hated the novel.  I thought it was OK.  I know that a lot of people love it, though, so if it sounds like your cup of tea, I encourage you to go for it.

 

This is my post for “19th century classic” in the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge hosted by Books and Chocolate

Lou Andreas-Salome

louandreassalome

Put Out My Eyes

Put out my eyes, and I can see you still,
Slam my ears too, and I can hear you yet;
And without any feet can go to you;
And tongueless, I can conjure you at will.
Break off my arms, I shall take hold of you
And grasp you with my heart as with a hand;
Arrest my heart, my brain will beat as true;
And if you set this brain of mine afire,
Then on my blood-stream I yet will carry you.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translation from German: Babette Deutsch (1895-1982)

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this poem for Lou Andreas-Salome, with whom he was deliriously in love.   I discovered the poem in Rachel Corbett’s recent book You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.  Corbett’s book explores the relationship between Rilke (a poet) and Rodin (a sculptor).  Corbett focuses on how Rodin’s artistic example helped to shape Rilke’s own growth as a poet.  While the main thrust of her work is on the Rodin-Rilke friendship, Corbett also brings to light many of the other important influences on Rilke, one of whom was Lou Andreas-Salome.

Before reading Corbett, I had never heard of Andreas-Salome, who lived from 1867 – 1937.  (She was born in Russia of German parents.) Her role in You Must Change Your Life is minor, but I am devoting this post to her because I find her fascinating, and I think she deserves to be more famous than she is today.  (In her own time, she was well known in intellectual European circles.)

A prolific writer, Andreas-Salome penned more than a dozen novels.  She was also a philosopher, critic, and one of the first women psychoanalysts.  She published several critical works as well, including major studies on Ibsen, Nietzsche and Rilke.

Andreas-Salome also known for her personal life as a femme fatale and a “serial muse” who captivated and intellectually guided a number of famous men.   Corbett observes that

Andreas-Salome’s main gift was her acutely analytical mind.  She had an uncanny ability to comprehend abstruse ideas from the era’s most formidable thinkers, often illuminating aspects of their own arguments that they had not even conceived.  She was a kind of intellectual therapist: listening, describing, analyzing and repeating back their ideas in order to illuminate the places where shadows fell in their logic. (26)

Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the men she inspired.  He referred to her as “by far the smartest person I ever knew” and proposed marriage to her twice.  (She declined.) Later, she became a close friend to Sigmund Freud and studied psychoanalysis with him.  She became a pioneer in the psychoanalysis of women’s sexuality.  Freud and Salome exchanged ideas about psychoanalysis in over two decades’ worth of letters.  These letters are published and are available on Amazon here.

A free-thinker, Andreas-Salome made her own rules about how she should live. Her life was remarkably, even scandalously, liberated for a woman of her time.   She was married for over 40 years to Carl Andreas, but with the understanding that there would be no sex and no children.  Further, both people were free to take other lovers.  (It was rumored that Carl Andreas had threatened to kill himself if Lou did not marry him.)

One of her deepest relationships was with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who was 14 years her junior.  Rilke regarded her as not only a lover, but as a muse.  Corbett explains that

Andreas-Salome did not return Rilke’s unhinged adoration, but she began to genuinely appreciate his talent and believed that the qualities she disliked in him could be fixed with a little grooming.  She began to mold the poet into a version of himself that she found more attractive.  . .  The poet hungered to become her creation.  More than his first great lover, Andreas-Salome was his confidante, his mentor, his muse, even a kind of mother—if not to the young man, then at least to the artist maturing inside him.  “I am still soft, I can be like wax in your hands. Take me, give me a form, finish me,” he wrote in an autobiographical story when he met her” (28).

It is hard (probably impossible) to speculate on how different Nietzsche’s, Rilke’s, and Freud’s works would have been without the intellectual influence of Salome.  I find it sad that few people today have heard of her, while these three men are household names.

Corbett, Rachel.  You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin.  New York: Norton, 2016.

 

 

His Bloody Project

I was looking forward to reading His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.  The crime novel is billed as a historical thriller and is set in the Highlands of Scotland in the mid-1800s.  Roderick Macrae is arrested for murdering three people. He admits he is guilty, and he is already in jail awaiting trial before the book begins.  We read his memoir of the events, along with other documents related to the crime, such as statements by people who knew him, medical reports, and so forth.

his-bloody-project

Bloody Project received rave reviews and was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.  Critics called it “gripping,” “compelling,” a “psychological thriller.”  I enjoy psychological thrillers and was ready to be gripped and compelled.

However, I was disappointed.  Although I was impressed at Burnet’s evocation of the godawfulness of the life of crofters in 19th century Scotland, I did not find the book riveting.  Roderick Macrae admits from the beginning that he killed the three people and is ready to face the consequences.  His memoir explains what led to the killing.   Maybe I missed something, but I failed to see anything of a psychological thriller in his account.  His voice was devoid of emotion or any real depth.  He wrote in what a psychologist might call “flat affect.”  The life he and his family led was devoid of any warmth, affection, joy or anything to make life worthwhile.  The way Lachlan Broad treated them was brutal.  Given the circumstances of his life, I completely understand why Roderick murdered the three victims and why he did not much care whether he lived or died.  I guess that is a testament to the strength of Burnet’s writing.  However, because Macrae’s life was so grim, and there was nothing compelling about his personality, I did not feel affected one way or the other about the outcome of his trial.

To state it bluntly, I felt no thrill or mystery or much of anything except pity for the entire class of people who had to live this way.

Note to writers

From a craft perspective, though, I did find Burnet’s use of various documents to tell the story interesting. It is a different way to convey multiple perspectives on a character or event.   Tim O’Brien used this technique brilliantly in his novel In the Lake of the Woods, and I think it added layers of complexity to the story.

I also thought the inclusion of J. Bruce Thomson, the expert in the field of criminal anthropology, was interesting.  This character illustrates the real trend at that period of “experts” who were able to tell if a person was inherently prone to criminality by examining his physical features.  Criminality was believed by some to be something hereditary and innate rather than a response to circumstances.  Bringing in this character was a good way to help readers understand the intellectual currents at work in this period.

Question for my readers:  I know this was a critically acclaimed book.  What am I missing? 

Richard III: Dastardly Devil or Propaganda Victim?

Josephine Tey, Daughter of Time, published 1951.  Mystery novel.

Josephine_Tey_april_1934_6

Josephine Tey was one of the pen names of Elizabeth MacKintosh.

 

“Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.”  -Francis Bacon

I first learned of England’s King Richard III when I studied Shakespeare in college.  In Shakespeare’s play Richard III, readers learn that Richard, who ruled England from 1483-1485 was a nasty piece of work who reveled in villainy:  “And thus I cloth my naked villainy / With odd old ends stol’n out of holy writ; / And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.”

Shakespeare emphasizes the physical deformity of the hunch-backed Richard, suggesting that his moral deformity is a natural result of his abnormally curved spine:  “And therefore, — since I cannot prove a lover, / To entertain these fair well-spoken days, – / I am determined to prove a villain, / And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”   Since nobody could love a cripple such as himself, Richard mused that he might as well rejoice in evil deeds.

Richard III, I learned, deserved such opprobrium because he had ordered the murder of his two nephews, Edward and Richard, who were aged 12 and 9 at the time.  Twelve-year-old Edward was supposed to be protected by Richard until he was crowned as the King of England.  Instead, Richard declared himself as king and the two boys—Edward and Richard—disappeared forever.  It was believed by many that Richard had ordered the murder of the Princes in the Tower in order to assure his own reign.

Such dastardly deeds surely could not go unchecked, and Richard III did not reign for long.  There were two rebellions against him.  The second one, led by Henry Tudor, resulted in the death of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.  After his death, Henry Tudor became King Henry VII.   Richard III’s reputation as evil incarnate became as firmly entrenched as the Tudor dynasty.

Josephine Tey, however, who lived from 1896-1952 was suspicious of the prevailing belief that Richard was the murderer of the princes.  In her detective novel Daughter of Time, she set out to prove that Richard was innocent of the murder of his two nephews.

Daughter of Time is a fascinating hybrid; it is a detective novel but also a work of historical inquiry.  The main character of the novel is detective Alan Grant.  Grant is stuck in a hospital bed for an extended period of time, and he is bored out of his mind.  His friend Marta suggests that he might pass the time by investigating a historical mystery.  She brings him portraits of historical figures, knowing that he enjoys studying faces.  When she shows him a portrait of Richard III, Grant becomes intrigued.  He does not believe this to be the face of a person who could have murdered his nephews.

Grant then begins to investigate the historical record, trying to figure out how it was determined that Richard was the murderer.  Using the investigative skills that made him successful as a detective, Grant starts with easily available historical books and moves on to records found in the British Museum (thanks to his assistant Brent Carradine.)  The readers learn, along with Grant, how flimsy the evidence for Richard’s villainy actually is.  Instead, Grant believes, the evidence points much more strongly to Henry VII as the real murderer of the princes and the truly villainous king.  Tey makes a convincing case that the Tudors deliberately set out a vicious campaign of propaganda to smear Richard III’s reputation in order to solidify the Tudor dynasty.

I am not a historian and I am not equipped to make an informed verdict on what happened to the missing princes in the tower.  I did, however, find Tey’s novel fascinating for its investigation of how history is made.  She suggests that once a propaganda campaign succeeds in creating a historical “fact,” the “fact” is repeated throughout the generations with few people questioning its veracity.  Hundreds of years after the historical events occurred, it becomes extremely difficult to figure out what actually happened.

Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time, however, succeeded in undermining the established “truth” that Richard III was a villainous murderer of children.  According to this article in the New Yorker, Tey’s mystery novel “sparked mass interest in Richard’s redemption.”  Recently, in fact, Richard’s bones have been discovered and he has been given a proper burial (one he did not receive in his day.)  Click here for more information.

I highly recommend Daughter of Time to readers interested in English history and in how history is made.

If you have read the book or know more about Richard III, I’d love to hear your perspective.

This blog post is my Pre-1500 entry for the When Are You Reading Challenge?  

“Below Stairs”: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir that Inspired “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”

libro_111115154418_BELOW_STAIRS

 Those of you who are “Downton Abbey” fans know that the 5th season has just begun here in the U.S.  We viewers are wondering which of her many suitors Mary will marry.  We are wondering why Edith’s love relationships are invariably disastrous and how she will be able to keep the existence of her illegitimate child a secret.  We know that the aristocratic and wealthy Crawleys live lives that are worlds apart from those of their downstairs servants.  We see, however, that the Crawleys do care about the welfare of their servants and treat them with kindness and respect.  In some cases, such as the relationship between Anna and Lady Mary, the relationship could almost be considered that of friends.

Reading Margaret Powell’s memoir Below Stairs made me realize how utterly unrealistic “Downton Abbey’s” portrayal of the master-servant relationship is.  Below Stairs, originally published in the UK in 1968, is the memoir of Powell’s experience in domestic service in the 1920s.  This memoir (along with her others) was the inspiration for the hit TV series “Upstairs, Downstairs” and one of the inspirations for “Downton Abbey.”

Fans of “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs” will find many of Powell’s descriptions of the homes, the job descriptions, the relationships among the servants and so forth quite familiar, if nonetheless appalling.   When Powell was hired as a kitchen maid at age 15, she worked from 5:30 a.m. until about 10:00 at night.  She had only one evening off a week, from 4:00 – 10:00, and every other Sunday off, also from 4:00- 10:00 p.m.  She could never be out later than 10:00 p.m.   She slept in a tiny, freezing-cold attic room and was only allowed a cold hip bath for her hygiene.  All of this for 24 pounds a year.  It is no surprise, then, that Margaret felt like was in jail.

Margaret Powell
Margaret Powell

21st century readers might wonder how this life differed from slavery, except for the fact that servants were free to quit their jobs. Powell did eventually quit, after she got married.  Trying to find a husband while working in such constrained quarters and with so few hours off was another trial for Powell and another theme of her memoir.

I already knew about the hard work, the low wages, and the appalling hours.  What I did not realize was how awful most of the employers were to their servants.  In both “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey”, the wealthy employers are basically decent people who are not unkind to their servants.  In Powell’s book however, basic human kindness was an extremely rare commodity among the wealthy who hired her.  Most of her employers treated their servants as little better than brutes and lorded their superiority over their staff in every way possible.  (To be sure, Powell’s perspective is that of one individual and could be skewed.  However, some of the critics of “Downton Abbey” who are knowledgeable about the period also claim that the relationships between employers and servants in “Downton Abbey” are extremely unrealistic.)

As Powell recounts it, class divisions were never forgotten, never even blurred.  Even as a young child, she learned that rich children and poor children could never play together.  She did not mind that so much as a child because it seemed that the poor children had more freedom and more fun.  She was not so happy about the class divisions, however, when she went into service.  She said of her employers that

“We always called them ‘Them.’  ‘Them’ was the enemy, ‘Them’ overworked us, and ‘Them’ underpaid us, and to ‘Them’ servants were a race apart, a necessary evil” (74).  Powell goes on to write that,

“It was the opinion of ‘Them’ upstairs that servants couldn’t appreciate good living or comfort, therefore they must have plain fare, they must have dungeons to work in and to eat in, and must retire to cold Spartan bedrooms to sleep.  After all, what’s the point of spending money making life easier and more comfortable for a lot of ungrateful people who couldn’t care less what you do for them?  They never tried, mind, to find out if we could have cared more by making our conditions good and our bedrooms nice places in which to rest.”

One of the pleasures of reading Below Stairs is Powell’s ability to write brief, yet insightfully snarky sentences about the hypocrisy and meanness of her employers, such as this:  “There were always economies which had to be made.  During my years in domestic service I noticed that all economies began with the servants and always ended with them too” (46).

Powell is acutely aware of the class differences in her world and of the drudgery of the work servants do.  However, she is no socialist and is not advocating a revolution.  Her point is simply that most of her employers could have made the servants lives considerably more comfortable without a huge sacrifice of money.  For example, why couldn’t the servant eat the leftovers of what the employers ate, rather than having to eat food the rich would find unpalatable?  Couldn’t the servants have a heated bedroom with decent blankets?  Couldn’t they take a heated bath?  Maybe have two nights off a week instead of one and be able to stay out as late as they wanted to?  Slight changes would have made a huge difference and there was no compelling reason NOT to make them except for the seeming callousness of the employers regarding their servants’ basic human needs.

The servants did what they could to make their lives more bearable.  One way was to gossip about their employers.  After all, the servants met very few other people in their lives.  Some of the most entertaining stories in the memoir are gossipy tidbits about her “betters” that Powell shares.  For example, one of her married women employers had a habit of bringing young male ‘boy toys” back to her home.  Powell unfortunately walked in on one of them, who was standing stark naked in a bathtub.  Another employer, a man, had a fetish for hair curlers.  He invited the female servants up to his room at night, simply so he could rub their hair while it was up in curlers.

I am trying to imagine Lord Grantham lasciviously rubbing the curlers of, say, Anna, while Cora is in the other room having a “romp” with, say, Jimmy.  Good heavens, I think I am going to swoon!

Where are Jane's curlers?
Where are Jane’s curlers?