Sunday, 31 March 2013

March Competition

We have five copies of Tracy Chevalier's latest novel - The Last Runaway - which the best answers to the following question can win:

"What is the most interesting piece of research you have done, whether for a book or for your own pleasure?"

Answers in the Comments below.

Closing date 7th April

We are afraid all our competitions are open only to UK residents.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Cabinet of Curiosities by Laurie Graham

Here at The History Girls we are creating our own Cabinet of Curiosities; we will each write about, and place in said cabinet, an item which we consider to be precious or beautiful or significant or fascinating or inspirational, or just plain weird! Watch out for the 30th of the month when that is not the last day of the month and you will see what one of us has chosen.

One day we might draw all our objects together into a virtual museum.

Laurie Graham is going to start us off:

You can buy a perfectly nice working samovar these days, if you have a thousand pounds going spare, but the ones I covet are those owned by my Russian friends, passed down through generations of their families. Exiled samovars had a better survival rate than the ones that remained in Russia. Many of those were melted down for bullets.

A samovar is far more than a way of making tea. It's a gathering place, a symbol of hospitality and comfort, the Russian equivalent of our open hearth. Its imagery and its pull are powerful. This is no mere teapot.

Actually a samovar isn't a teapot at all, although a teapot can and often does nestle on top of it, keeping warm. The samovar is a water heater. The fuel may be wood chips or charcoal or dried pine cones. I did once own a small spirit-burning samovar and highly unsatisfactory it was too. I managed to singe my eyebrows several times but never produced a cup of tea that didn't smell of meths.
If the Samovar Fairy ever deposits the genuine article on your doorstep, here's how to use it. First you must make a pot of very strong tea  -  2 teaspoons of tea leaves to each cup of water  -  and leave it to steep. A mixture of leaves can work well, perhaps black tea mixed with something fruit or flower scented. A little of this concentrated tea or zavarka is what you put into your cup. Then, when the water has boiled, you open the samovar spigot and dilute the zavarka to your taste.

Russians can make quite a meal of a cuppa. Sometimes they sweeten it with jam. But their funniest trick is to hold a sugar lump between their teeth and allow the tea to percolate through it. Personally I take mine black but weak, hold the jam.

A friend said to me, 'But you can buy an affordable samovar in any Russian souvenir shop.'  True. But that would be a purely decorative samovar, a useless dust-gathering apology for something that should be handsome and functional. I want a samovar that has dents and stains and history. Please.

Photo credit: Wiki Commons

Friday, 29 March 2013

When to stop researching and start writing by Tracy Chevalier

It's a big treat to welcome to The History Girls today someone who has helped to make historical fiction mainstream once more - Tracy Chevalier.  She has written on subjects as diverse as Vermeer, Blake and Mary Anning and may one day write about cathedrals and/or prime numbers.

Tracy Chevalier is the author of seven novels, including the recent The Last Runaway, as well the international bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has sold over 4 million copies, been translated into 39 languages, and made into a film with Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. She grew up in Washington, DC and has a BA in English from Oberlin College (Ohio). In 1984 she moved to London, where she lives with her husband and son. She worked in publishing for several years before doing an MA in creative writing at the University of East Anglia. She has been Chair of the Society of Authors, and judge of the Jewish Quarterly Prize, the Royal Society Science Book Prize, and the Orange Prize. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature.

Over to Tracy:

When have I done enough research to start writing an historical novel?

When have I read all the studies relevant to my subject; sought out diaries, notebooks, letters, ephemera; visited locations and soaked up their atmosphere; talked to experts and taken classes; read books and newspapers and magazines contemporary to the period; found information on the internet from passionate lovers of the subject; looked at paintings, drawings, etchings from the period; visited museums; watched people weave, or quilt, or make hats, or paint.

The short answer? Never. There are still books about Vermeer on my bookshelves that I feel I should read – yet I wrote Girl with a Pearl Earring in 1998!

In fact, as I look over my books I spot one or two for each novel I’ve written that I really should have read, and probably never will – though I keep them, just in case. They are my dirty little secret.

There are always more sources that might help me. I could seek out that expert who can explain all about the best straw to use when making a bonnet or how to take apart a Victorian grave:

Photo credit: Panhard

or how to milk a cow or make cheese. I could read more attentively, take more notes, review those notes more often. It is never enough.

In general my research for a book takes place in four stages:
• the specific subject I’ve been inspired by: a Vermeer painting, the fossil hunter Mary Anning, the Underground Railroad in pre-Civil War America
• the general feel of the place and time: 17th-century Holland, 15th-century Paris, 18th-century London, Ohio in 1850
• the very specific details that arise from plot demands: How do you make a hat? What flowers are blooming in Ohio in September 1850? What do you see when you walk from Soho to Bedlam in 1793 London?
• the hands-on stuff, where I do what my characters do: make a quilt:

Tracy's first quilt Photo by: Jacob Chevalier Drori:

find a fossil:
Photo by: Jacob Chevalier Drori:

or weave on a mediaeval-style loom.

The reality is that there is never enough time, or space in my brain, to do absolutely thorough research. There is the efficient use of time to consider, for one thing. Annie Proulx once gave an account of going to see a knife maker while researching her novel That Old Ace in the Hole. She drove eight hours to see him – twice – and got really interested in knives. The result? Two sentences in the book. I could not do that: I don’t have Annie’s strength of character.

Instead I am always hoping for the perfect research day where I get exactly what I need in a condensed amount of time. It happens rarely: most of the time I get bogged down in the wrong book, or look through an archive and am uninspired. But just occasionally I have a charmed day, and think, “This is what it’s all about.”

Two examples:
In Burning Bright, my novel about William Blake’s neighbours, one of the families is from Dorset, where women make buttons in their spare time. At the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester I found a 1971 pamphlet on the 18th-century Dorset button cottage industry. It told me a lot, but I really needed to see some of those buttons. At the end of the pamphlet the author mentioned an antique dealer in Lytchett Minster who sold Dorset buttons. 35 years later, would she still be around? I went outside, rang Directory Enquiries, then her. Indeed, she still had Dorset buttons; she even gave talks on them. I drove over to see her, heard the talk, and bought a couple of buttons, as well as a button-making kit so I could make one myself. A good day’s research. More like that, please.

More recently, I was in Ohio to research The Last Runaway, my new novel about an English Quaker who moves to America and gets involved with runaway slaves. Since she ends up living on a farm, I wanted to visit one run along 19th-century lines. Luckily there is a substantial Amish population in Ohio. They don’t use electricity or engines (also no buttons, and no contraception). Their farms are distinctive for the endless laundry hung out, the buggies parked in the yard, the fields full of horses needed to make up for lack of engines, and the kids running around in bonnets and wide-brimmed hats. A perfect example of a 19th-century farm.

But the Amish are a closed community – I couldn’t just wander up and poke around. However, if you find the right connected person, the world opens. A local historian introduced me to a local farmer, and soon we were pulling in to the farm of an Amish family he knew. The farmer’s wife happily showed me around and answered my many city-girl questions. I was shocked by how huge the barn was, and how much hay was stored. I squelched through the pig sty, holding my breath (the farmer’s wife went through it barefoot). I admired the horses, the cows, the chickens, the pantry lined with preserved fruit and veg; noted the bare walls of the house, and the girl at the sewing machine with a huge pile of clothes to mend. Mostly, though, I simply looked, and smelled, and drank in the truly strange surroundings, trying to preserve the feeling so that I could place my character in it and make her feel it too – that profound sense of alienation. I could never have thought it up. My book and my heroine took a great leap forward that day.

Photo credit: Ian Lamont

Research only takes me so far, however. It is wonderful, the best part of the process of writing a book, I think. And yet, it never quite reaches the mark. After a while, when I’ve read a lot of books, taken a lot of notes, been places and talked to people and gotten my hands dirty with quilts or fossils or cemeteries, I find I am still searching for something – that imprecise something. The thing moving out of the corner of my eye. The paragraph I read over and over and don’t quite understand. The bibliography listing primary sources I just can’t get to. The article in an obscure journal I manage to track down and discover doesn’t tell me anything. I look and read and sew and breath in pig shit, yet the itch is not scratched. “If only I could find just the right book to fill this gap,” I think. “The article that explains exactly what I need to know.”

Research notebooks Photo by: Jacob Chevalier Drori:

When that thought grows loud enough to overwhelm what I’m researching, I know it is time to set aside my notes and start writing. For the book that will explain exactly what I want to know? That is the book I must write.

PS. A traffic accident meant that I missed the launch of The Last Runaway but Tracy kindly sent a photo so that we could feel we'd been there:

Tracy and a quilt. Photo by Jenni Buhr.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Fiercely faithful, by K. M. Grant

After the recent conclave, a commentator said of Cardinal Bergoglio, the new pope, 'he's chosen the name Francis, the gentle saint' or words to that effect.  He certainly used the word 'gentle'.  It's an odd word to use in connection with a saint, since saints are only gentle in Ladybird books and hagiographies.  'Gentle' implies sympathy and the gift of self-effacement. Beth in Little Women is gentle.  Though he may have said pretty things - make me the channel of your peace, etc. -  and, so we're told, been able to silence swallows, St. Francis of Assisi was not gentle.  Like all saints before and after, he was something much more uncomfortable:  singleminded.

Francis determined to take Christ's teachings literally and to their bitterest degree.  'Go and sell all thou hast and give to the poor' left him naked.  'Take nothing for your journey, neither staves, nor scrip, neither bread, neither money, neither have two coats apiece' left him and his followers dependent on the charity of others.  Francis revered poverty.  One follower's remark that it's all very well to be born rich and choose to be poor, but that being born poor is a different matter entirely, may not have raised even a smile.

Single-mindedness was combined with literal-mindedness.  When Christ, through an icon, said 'go and repair my house' Francis began rebuilding a church with his bare hands. When Pope Innocent III told him, on first introduction, to 'go and play with the pigs', Francis did just that.  This last turned out pretty well.  In his delightfully unsaintly style, Matthew Paris, the 13th century chronicler, tells us that the following day Francis smelled so bad the pope hurriedly granted all his requests.

Nor was gentleness a consideration when it came to endorsing, or not, Francis's fledgling order.  Whilst tossing up the options - Francis as holy man or Francis as heretic - Pope Innocent had a dream.  In this dream he saw this rough, smelly and slightly unnerving derelict holding up the Basilica of St. John Lateran.  Holy man, then.  Had the papal dream been otherwise, Francis might have been cast out of the church altogether.  Serendipity.  That's the way it went in the medieval church - may still go.

Yet how we long for our saints to be gentle.  If they're not, it's hard to like them.  But the truth is, saints don't want to be liked.  They want to pursue the path of holiness if it kills them, and it often does.  Take the Forty Martyrs, executed for refusing to recognise any faith but Roman Catholicism.  It's not gentleness that helps you face the crushing door (St. Margaret Clitherow), the lonely death in the Tower (St. Philip Howard) or hanging, drawing and quartering (St. Edmund Arrowsmith - a Jesuit like the new pope).  It's a steely faith and a will of iron, neither of them gentle qualities.

Sometimes, we mistake humility for gentleness.  Certainly Francis of Assisi was humble, although by refusing all comforts, getting a follower to drag him through the streets and leaping into ditches of ice and snow if his flesh 'itched' (erring priests, bishops and cardinals take note), you might say that he took public mortification almost to the point of pride.  Indeed, it was he who told Cardinal Ugolino (later Pope Gregory IX) that the Franciscans' calling was to 'follow in the footsteps of Christ's humility' so that in the end they could be 'exalted above the rest of the saints'.   This is not a gentle message and it wasn't meant to be.

I don't think Francis would have recognised himself in the commentator's remark about the new pope's choice of name.   'Gentle's all very well,' he might have said, 'but if you want to be a real saint, forget it.'

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Ladies of the Rose, no 2: Fanny Elssler, by Louisa Young

The Rose

Gallica; Origin: Vibert, France 1835

Medium pink and double, perhaps spotted with white; very fragrant according to some but light-scented according to others; it flowered in late spring and summer, and no-one knows much about it.

Where is it now? It is rarely in catalogues, not in encyclopaedias and not on the internet - but that could just mean that it is not in fashion. The latest reference I could find had it growing at Roserie la Hay in southern France 1902. I thought it might have disappeared, or been renamed, or was perhaps lingering on, its name forgotten, just another lovely pink rose in neglected gardens across the world. 

But I think I have found it it - a nursery in California is selling what it calls Fanny Essler and dates to 1848, grower unknown. I have found a picture, which is not too different to the roses in the background of this portrait of Fanny. 

The Lady

Franziska Elssler was a ballerina, and was indeed, in Vita Sackville West's phrase, 'a member of the haute coccotterie of Paris'. She was beautiful and clever, and the Romantic writer Theophile Gautier described her as 'the most spirited, precise and intelligent dancer who ever skimmed the boards with the tip of her steely toe'.

She was born in Vienna June 23 1810, to a large and poor family of remarkable and various talents. Her father was Hayden's copyist and valet, her mother a seamstress, her grandfather a fiddler and maker of plaster figurines, her brother a tenor and chorus master at the Berlin Opera House, her sister a mime at the Vienna Opera. Fanny started dancing as a child. By five she was on stage, and by 11 she was in the Corps de Ballet at the Kartnertortheater. When she was 14 she and her sisters Therese (with whom for years she performed a double act) and Anna were taken to Italy to further their careers. 

This was an age given to grand romantic enthusiasm, as you can see from how Gautier describes Fanny in her prime. 'Her legs are fashioned like Diana the Huntress, their strength in no way depriving them of grace. Her head, small like that of an antique statue, sits with pure and noble lines on satiny shoulders which need no rice powder to give them their white complexion. Her eyes have a most poignant expression of mischievous voluptuousness…. Half ironical smile…. Finely curved lips….features as regular as if they were made of marble… Very soft, silky, glossy brown hair…. as suited to bear the goddess's gold circlet as the courtesan's coronet of flowers. Although she is a woman in the full acceptance of the term, the slender elegance of her figure allows her to wear male attire with great success… she is Hermaphrodite…' Therese, considered unnaturally tall at five foot six, often danced men's roles. One who saw her, the dramatist Franz Grillparzer, said she looked like 'a dancing Strasbourg Cathedral.'

In Naples, when Fanny was 16, her dancing and her person particularly delighted Leopold, the Prince of Salerno, who was the King's brother and had a reputation as a practiced reprobate. Many years later Fanny told to a friend in London, Harriet Grote, that the Prince had forced her mother to sell her to him, and that they were unable to resist his wealth and unscrupulous influence. Buying girls was not that unusual. Desperate or greedy mothers used to line their young daughters up on the steps of the palace of one old prince in Vienna, Alois Kaunitz-Rittberg. Children working on the stage were especially vulnerable, and the Horschelt Kinderballett, a children's company to which Fanny may well have belonged, was closed down after that particular scandal. 

Count Prokesch, a friend of Fanny's next protector, described the Prince of Salerno as 'Fanny's first purchaser, who had her body without touching her soul'.  Purchase or not, when the affair became common knowledge the King sent his brother to Rome, to join the Papal Guard of Honour (whether he considered the irony of his brother's new post history does not relate). Fanny was returned to Vienna pregnant, with 3000 ducats a year. She  gave birth to her son Franz Robert in June 1827, the day after her 17th birthday. He was left with relatives, while she returned to work and the audiences who loved her from a distance.

Among the audience in Vienna was Baron Freidrich von Gentz. He was the best-known political writer of his time, an adviser and friend to the Chancellor, Prince Metternich, handsome though worn by a naughty life, intelligent and 45 years older than Fanny. He sent her camellias and wondered if she had a soul; she cast him friendly looks from the stage. Fanny's mother approved the liaison, thinking it unlikely to produce any more children to interrupt Fanny's money-making, which was supporting the family. Fanny herself said later that she was flattered by von Gentz's attentions, grateful to him, fond of him and, she said, after him she could never put up with a stupid man. At the time, though, he 'never knew such bliss on earth' and she proposed kissing him 'so as to drink in your soul', so perhaps the fondness etc was with hindsight and discretion. Metternich warned von Gentz against the liaison - as well he might, for within three years von Gentz was dead - exhausted, some said, by such a romantic and improper connection.

Her next romance was with Anton Stuhlmuller, her dancing partner, but his engagement with her company and their affair were both temporary. Gossip linked her with the interesting Count Alfred d'Orsay, a man of enigmatic sexuality, but in fact she was pregnant again, by Stuhlmuller. Her daughter Theresa Anna Catherine Jane was born with maximum discretion in London in October 1833, and baptised under false parental names at Spanish Place. By 1834 she was off to Berlin, dancing with her sister again, and thence to Paris, where Dr Veron, director of the Paris Opera, launched her debut in La Tempete, offering - he claimed - 40,000 francs a year (in fact it was 8000, plus bonuses). At the dinner laid on try to seal the deal, he had jewels and diamonds brought round on a silver salver, with the pudding, and after the opening night her battements were compared to Paganini's violin-playing. Even the star ballerina Marie Taglioni applauded, 'with several of her fingers', and new pun was heard: 'est-ce une femme ou est-ce l'air?' - Is it a woman or is it air? (She and Taglioni were seen as great rivals - Theophile Gautier said Fanny was the pagan ballerina to Taglioni's Christian: bold, voluptuous, powerful and dramatic.) 

Veron was not above allowing a rumoured scandalous romance from the past to be believed. The Duke of Reichstadt, Napoleon's golden-haired son, had been taken to Vienne after his father's death, and brought up there as an Austrian prince. He was a great fan of the ballet. He had come frequently to see Fanny dance - 'voila mon petit prince, toujours a son poste!' (There's my little Prince, always in his place) was her comment, and von Gentz had been jealous. Tongues had wagged. Some said she had been employed to seduce him and spy on him; and when he died, of consumption, some said he died of the shock of her treachery. (There was another performer, Therese Peche, with whom an entanglement for political purposes had been attempted.) That was why she had left Vienna, they said… 

Anyway, Fanny told Harriet Grote: 'I might perhaps have liked to have a Napoleon for my lover, but … it would have been the death of Gentz.'

Still, as the theatrical journalist Charles Maurice put it, this 'prince who was very dear to the French nation and who died in the flower of youth to the sorrow of our age' was 'something which has no bearing on the question but which will nevertheless do her much good, will add to the anticipated success of the Paris debut…  whether this rumour is well-founded or not, it is certainly one that will stimulate interest and curiosity in Mlle Essler.'  Publicly, Fanny never denied the affair. Privately, she always did.

Fanny's rose was dedicated by the enterprising Vibert in 1835. It was not her only dedication -  the Grands Magasins du Temple du Gout (The Big Shops of the Temple of Taste!) in rue Sainte-Anne launched a cloth named after her - Elsslerine - 'A transparent material with a light lining for ball and evening gowns, made by a new process.' This was around the time of  the height of Fanny's Parisian fame, in 1836, when her dance the cachuca in Le Diable Boiteux took, as they say, Paris by Storm. 

Gautier saw it: 'She comes forward in a basque in pink satin trimmed with wide flounces of black lace; her skirt, weighted at the hem, fits tightly on the hips; her wasplike figure is boldly arched back, making the diamond brooch on her bodice sparkle; her leg, smooth as marble, gleams thorugh the fine mesh of her silk stocking; and her small foot, now still, awaits only the signal of the orchestra to burst into action. How charming she is, with her high comb, the rose at her ear, the fire in her eye and her sparkling smile. At the tips of her rosy fingers the ebony castanets are a-quiver. Now she springs forward and the resonant clatter of her castanets breaks out; she seems to shake down clusters of rhythm with her hands. How she twists! How she bends! What fire! What voluptuousness! What ardour! Her swooning arms flutter about her drooping head, her body curves back, her white shoulders almost brush the floor. What a charming moment! Would you not say that in that hand, as it skims over the dazzling barrier of the footlights, she is gathering up all the desires and all the enthusiasm of the audience?' 

Evidently it did - others spoke of provocative gestures, lascivious abandon, sensual grace, the 'thrilling, quivering, twisting body'. After the initial shock, audiences required her to repeat the dance during the show. Within weeks she was summoned to dance it for Louis Phillipe and King Ferdinand of Naples, who liked it so much they sent her a porcelain luncheon service.  A new dance hall, Salle Musard in Rue Vivienne, used scenes from the dance in the décor, and the dance escaped the stage as people began to try it on the dance floor.

Fanny had strong professional opinions on the scenarios of ballets presented, and would make notes in the margins. 'If the strangely fashioned and ill-constructed things the authors bring you for acceptance were put  on the stage with all their imperfections on their head,' she wrote, 'many a name's bright reknown would be damned by failure.' Her opinions on theatres were no less stringent: the King's Theatre in London was 'the vilest of all stages, it runs half way across the pit as if it had escaped the hands of the carpenter and gone off on a voyage of discovery for itself.' She was always terrified of cats, but for her role in La chatte Metmorphosée  en Femme she brought in a white kitten to study: an early example of method acting?

Gautier remained obsessed with her. 'Venus must have been dancing at the Opera under the form and the name of Fanny Elssler, a wholly appropriate activity for a fallen divinity of ancient Olympus,' he wrote. He demonstrates admirably how there is nothing modern in obsessive attention to the physical attributes of female stars. 'Her kneecaps are neat and well-defined,' he wrote, 'and the whole knee beyond reproach …. Also her arms are well-rounded, not like others whose frightful thinness makes them look like lobster claws dabbed with white paint….In certain bending positions, the lines of her features are badly presented, the eyebrows become tapered, her mouth turns up at the corners, her nose becomes pointed giving her an unpleasant sly expression. Also, Mlle Elssler should not wear her hair so high on her head.' He felt it was not the right hair for her head, or indeed her body - too Mediterranean for her overall Germanic effect. And: 'We also counsel her to paint her pretty fingernails a paler pink.'

Queen Victoria requested that Fanny dance not the Cachuca but a more respectable pas de deux with Fanny Cerrito for a Royal Command Performance, and in 1840 she toured the United States - the first leading Ballerina to do so. Acceptance in the US was by no means guaranteed: 'anything like an abbreviated garment would be visited with national wrath,' wrote one critic. 'Aught approaching a free use of her limbs would be a signal for the horrorstricken burghers to … pass an ordinance requiring that she quit the country.' Pursued by scandal and acclaim in equal measure, she travelled the US for a  year and half longer than she had planned. As she had taken only six months leave she was sued for breach of contract by the Paris Opera when she returned. Still, London, St Petersburg Moscow and Milan were there for her.  

In some ways her story is an invert of Isadora Duncan - the dancer travelling the great cities, bearing children to different men, crossing the Atlantic and causing outrage and delight with her physicality and her outfits. But Isadora was a woman of passion above all, whereas Fanny's 'was not a passionate nature,' said her friend Betty Poli 'Not only her physical life, but also her soul, was ruled by the law of measured beauty…. She seemed to dance not only with her feet but with her soul.'

Fanny inspired enormous affection and attention - her followers were known as Fannytics, and bought souvenirs ranging from the usual figurines and lithographs of her dances (La Cachuca, La Cracovienne, in a unifrom with frogging; as La Sylphide, with sweet little wings, as Flora, entwined in roses) to souvenir prints commemorating famous moments in her life: her purchase and freeing of a negro slave family during her visit to North America, 1840-42, for example, or her devoted fans fighting in a barrel of eggs to get a bouquet which she had thrown from her window in Vienna (1842). There were useful items too: a cup and saucer for hot chocolate, with her picture on, a porcelain desk set incorporating inkwell, sander, penholder and a small statue of Fanny in her Cachuca stance, and a rather risqué cigarette holder in the shape of her leg, made of meerschaum and amber, and wearing a garter and a little black boot. The court confectioner, Coutar, made little sugar statuettes of her.

Johann Strauss, rather more stylishly, wrote a three-act operetta about her, Die Tanzerin Fanny Elssler (1935); there were also three ballets about her, a handful of novels, a play and a film in 1937, in which she was played by Lilian Harvey.

She also inspired a lot of very bad poetry. One, La Deesse, an 'Elssleratic' Romance, published in New York in 1841, starts: 'Give me a lyre with golden wings, That with the tone of Eden rings, that lends the raised spirit wings, To soar among celestial things!' and goes on for 44 pages. Another, 'No Slur, Else-Slur, a Dancing Poem or Satyr' was advertised as being 'by Nobody, published by Anybody, sold by Everybody and and for sale anywhere but especially in Wall Street and before St Paul's, Broadway.' 'Nobody' is believed to have been an inmate of the McClean Asylum in Massachusetts.

Ah, there were so many stories . . . . 


Fanny's tragedy was that both her children predeceased her. Theresa died in 1870, of an inflammation of the lungs, leaving a heartbroken husband and daughter of 14; and in 1873 Fanny's son killed himself after a dreadful stock market failure. Fanny had frequently sent him money and he had had no great success in life, but he had a wife and family. Fanny wrote to Betty Poli: 'What I have suffered these last days you cannot imagine….. My heart has now lost everything.'

Fanny died in 1884.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

DAVID BOWIE IS Exhibition – Dianne Hofmeyr

DAVID BOWIE IS © Victoria and Albert Museum, London 
For the first time in history a Museum has been given access to the David Bowie Archive. On Preview Day of DAVID BOWIE IS, the V&A was abuzz. The queue stretched from the exhibition entry right the way along the long marble hall all the way back to the Kensington Gore entrance. The wait was an hour and a half and that was only if you were a Member and clutched an invite. The response was unprecedented even surprising the V&A organizers and staff. I must admit to giving up and returning at 10 am the next morning when admittance was by ticketed time with far fewer Members weaving their way in. 

Why Bowie on a History blog? Well apart from the fact that the numbers last Friday made history, the exhibition in itself is surprising in that David Bowie has been out of the limelight for almost a decade. It's a very timely exhibition for the V&A as Bowie released a new surprise Album on his 66th birthday in January. And for those of you also born in the year 1947 and for anyone fascinated by this period of the 60’s 70’s and 80’s, DAVID BOWIE IS will be a marvellous step back into the cultural and social influences of the past.

Bowie, born David Jones in 1947, was brought up in a bedsit in Chelsea with no heating when ration cards were still in existence. Relics of his youth… a pendant of pop idols of the time, a model of the Queen’s coronation carriage, Beano comics, books like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, early 60's photographs of a blonde teenager with slicked back hair are all there to see...
Promotional shoot for The Kon-rads 
Photograph by Roy Ainsworth, 1963 
 Courtesy of The David Bowie Archive 2012.
Image © V&A Images 
... and finally the photograph of that sapphire sphere emerging from the darkness, viewed by astronauts from outer space. Who remembers seeing that first unearthly shot of the place we inhabit? 

The moon landing inspired his fictitious character Major Tom and his single, A Space Oddity, which coincided with the landing, was Bowie’s breakthrough moment. His handwritten lyrics in the exhibition from this time with their many scratched changes and scribbles, for songs like Oh You Pretty Things, Starman, and Five Years will endear him to any writer who takes to pen and paper to work through tricky dialogue and narrative.

The exhibition explores Bowie’s innovative approach to putting together albums and tours by creating them around fictionalised stage personas and narratives. 1972 marked the birth of his most famous creation – Ziggy Stardust, a human manifestation of an alien. Ziggy was daringly androgynous and had an otherworldly appearance that still has a powerful influence on pop culture.

Not only has Bowie’s music and individualism influenced others, but has itself been influenced by wider movements in art, design and contemporary culture. His spacesuit for Starman designed by Freddie Burretti, was inspired by Kubrick’s film, Clockwork Orange. And the designs for the Ziggy Stardust tour were inspired by Kansai Yamamoto, whose first international showing took place in Britain in 1971. Yamamoto went on to design the flamboyant creations for the Aladdin Sane tour in 1973.
Striped bodysuit for Aladdin Sane tour 
 Design by Kansai Yamamoto. Photograph by Masayoshi Sukita, 1973 
© Sukita / The David Bowie Archive 2012 
The shiny patent boots with green satin platforms, the many cloaks, suits and costumes are all on display. We see a designer’s notebook with Bowie’s measurements, the culottes designed by Issey Miyake only shortly after he graduated in 1971 and the iconic Union Jack coat designed by Alexander McQueen for the Earthling album cover.

Artists like Andy Warhol, with his experimental film and performance work and manipulation of images of famous people like Marilyn Monroe, and writers like George Orwell, with his book Nineteen Eighty Four, all made an impact and influenced Bowie's approach to music, tours and videos. He is quoted as saying: 'It has to be three dimensional. I’m not just content with writing songs.' He saw the videos as an extension of his art rather than a marketing device.

Most bizarre of the objects exhibited is a puppet with David Bowie’s face projected onto the co-joined cloth head-shapes so that they rest cheek to cheek in conversation with each other.

The penultimate room celebrates Bowie as a pioneering performer both on stage and in film in a gigantic immersive audio-visual, where fortunately there is a chance to sit down. I should have mentioned before that everyone is provided with a headset but you can view the rooms out of sequence as they are synced to wireless and pick up the narrative at certain hotspots in each room.

Bowie is described by Dylan Jones author of the book, When Ziggy Played Guitar, as being: ‘the quintessential rock chameleon, the archetypal pop changeling'. A sense of this comes across in the words printed on the walls in the various exhibition rooms… David Bowie is making himself up... David Bowie is surprising himself... David Bowie is moving like a tiger on Vaseline... and in the room with huge audio-visual of his concerts... David Bowie is someone else.

In the final room against a background of photographs, are the words:
The exhibition tells part of the story but the rest lies with us, the audience, and the connection we make to the man and the myth. Bowie offers no ‘authoritative voice’ but a rich body of work for us to admire, appropriate, re-imagine, and make our own. 

See DAVID BOWIE IS for yourself and make up your own mind…
Timed tickets cost £14, or there's free admittance if you are a Member of the V&A (but go early in the day to avoid the crush). Allow yourself about two hours.

Currently a free exhibition of photographs of David Bowie by Sukita is showing at Snap Galleries in the Piccadilly Arcade to coincide with the exhibition.

Please note: The images used in this blog are by special permission from the V&A for the period of this exhibition only and may not be reproduced. 
Dianne Hofmeyr's picture book, THE MAGIC BOJABI TREE, published by Frances Lincoln and illustrated by Piet Grobler, is out on 4th April.

Monday, 25 March 2013

SEX, POWER, and LADY DAY by Eleanor Updale

Here we are, March 25th already.  It's Lady Day: the Feast of the Annunciation, and the source of all sorts of traps and trouble for generations of historians.  

Until the mid 18th century, this was - for official purposes - New Year's Day.  For long after that, it was the traditional date on which deeds were signed, rent paid, and indentures activated.  It is the reason our tax year starts on April 6th (allowance having been made for the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, when Britain 'lost' 11 days). 
Anyone studying letters and diaries from the Early Modern period will be familiar with the problem of dating documents written between January and March. Some scribes helpfully straddle the social and administrative years: changing the date on January 1st, but writing (say) 1697/8 in the months before Lady Day. But when only one year is given, we can't know whether the writer is sticking with the 'old' year, or anticipating the 'new. It could be either. Only context can help us establish exactly when something was written.

If you look at the top of this diary entry, you will see that both years are given.

With Lady Day gone by, the entries for April are firmly set in 1698

 Even secondary sources can be a problem. Some historians adjust to start all years in January, and/or to match British dates from before the calendar change with those on the continent (where the Gregorian calendar was already in use). Some don't. Until recently, it was not usual for authors to state their policy.
I was going to say more about all this, but while I was cruising the Internet for Lady Day facts, I came across the news (to me) that March 25th 1782 was the birth date of Caroline Bonaparte, Queen of Naples. 

 I had never heard of her, but after a quick trawl of the Web, and a skim through her granddaughter's memoir, I would like to know more.  It's quite a story - and it ends with an unexpected Scottish link.
Caroline was Napoleon's youngest sister.  At first a friend, but then an enemy of the Empress Josephine, she married one of Bonaparte's most flamboyant and successful generals.  Caroline was 17, and awash with love and lust, when she wed Joachim Murat in 1800.

Napoleon described Murat as the bravest man in the world, and rewarded his many military successes with a shower of titles, culminating in the crown of Naples in 1808.
Whether Caroline or Murat was the more dynamic political operator is a matter for debate.  Their relationships with each other, and with with Napoleon and his enemies, fluctuated - with passionate entanglements and rifts in all departments.  Murat came to a sticky end as Napoleon's authority crumbled, and he posthumously became a hero of the Risorgimento. He features in Tolstoy's War and Peace, and Napoleon is said to have blamed the defeat at Waterloo on his rejection of Murat's help. The memoir written by Caroline's namesake and granddaughter tells of a life of extravagance and intrigue. Murat's wealth was immense.  Among his possessions was the Elysee Palace in Paris.

Defeated by the Austrians, and sentenced to death by firing squad in 1815, Murat is said to have faced execution courageously, but with enduring concern for his good looks. Tradition has it that his last words, as he refused a blindfold, were, "Soldiers! Do your duty! Straight to the heart but spare the face. Fire!"

Having fled to Trieste, where she called herself the Comtesse de Lipona (an anagram of Napoli), Caroline survived, and remarried.  Her second husband was the intriguingly named Francesco MacDonald, another character of whom I knew nothing until this week. As far as I can make out, he belonged to the same Jacobite family that produced Flora of 'over the sea to Skye' fame.
Caroline and Francesco ended their days in Florence.  When Caroline, now widowed for a second time, died in 1839, her servants organised the systematic looting of her fabulous possessions. Her children had by then dispersed; some to exile in America, where Caroline has descendants today. I wonder whether they know that this is the 231st anniversary of her birth. 
Anyway, Happy Birthday, Queen Caroline, and Happy Lady Day to you all.