Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

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This isn’t actually about Madame Tussaud’s (I cannot make myself omit the apostrophe), the tourist attraction: it’s a very interesting and original angle on the French Revolution.  In terms of historical accuracy where Madame Tussaud (nee Marie Grosholtz) is concerned, it probably doesn’t score that highly: it’s based on her memoirs, which were in all likelihood wildly exaggerated, and Michelle Moran’s fictionalised them even further by giving Marie an invented love interest, a non-existent member of the Charles balloonist family.  However, the main players in the French Revolution, and the events of 1788 to 1794, are all here in all their infamy, and it’s really a very good read.   It probably works best if you forget that you know the name Madame Tussaud at all, and just think of the main character as the means through which the story’s told.

Marie Grosholtz was the apprentice of one Philippe Curtius, euphemistically described as her uncle but actually her mother’s lover.  Their wax sculptures became very well-known in Paris and, so the story goes, Curtius hosted a popular salon at which all the future big names of the Revolution were frequent guests.  Robespierre, Danton, Desmoulins, Marat, Mirabeau … the whole gang.  Even Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette made appearances.  And, through the demand for her waxworks, which were often commissioned by people wanting images of themselves or their loved ones, Marie even got to meet the Marquis de Sade.

In fact, she met anyone who was anyone in 1780s Paris!  She – so she claimed – was appointed as a tutor to Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elisabeth in order to teach her how to make wax  sculptures of the saints, and consequently became very close both to Madame Elisabeth and to Marie Antoinette.

Then, come 1789 and the following years, when all hell broke loose, she was expected to make wax sculptures of prominent figures killed during the Revolution.  Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette themselves.  And Marat, when Charlotte Corday stabbed him to death in the bath.  Suspected of being a royalist sympathiser, she was imprisoned during the Terror – and, in prison, became pally with Rose de Beauharnais, the future Empress Josephine.

  1. It’s really not very likely that Marie Grosholtz, later Madame Tussaud, was really right in the middle of everything in the way that she claimed! But the story does enable the reader to see all the major figures of the Revolution, on both sides, as all the major events were going on.  And the story which the book tells is how the French Revolution went horribly wrong almost from the off, and descended into the horror and bloodshed of the Terror.

Marie Grosholtz, as portrayed in the book, is a calm and sensible person who can see what utter rubbish is being spoken by people on both sides, and how dangerous that is.  It’s the same whether it’s the ancient regime in charge or the radical revolutionaries are in charge – there’s a self-important, self-righteous political elite, based in and around the capital city, which is only interested in its own ends and couldn’t give two hoots what the ordinary people want and need.   And an awful lot of fake news is being spread.  Hmm.  Sounds familiar, somehow, doesn’t it?

The lesson is how very easily things get out of hand.  It doesn’t take much for everything to disintegrate and horrific bloodshed to result.  How many times has it happened?  And what happened during the French Revolution is still one of the best-known examples.  It’s always a story worth telling, and this is quite an original take on it.   It isn’t gratuitously gory, but it really does give a sense of just how horrendous it was.  Liberte, egalite and fraternite?  Not bloody likely!

It shouldn’t have been like that.  It kicked off with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.  But it went horribly wrong.   This book really does give a very good sense of how and why that happened.

A few minor things.   All right, the book was in English, but “Citizeness” sounds clumsy in English, and I’d rather that the author had used “Citoyenne”, which is the more familiar term anyway.  The same with the months of the French Republican calendar.  But that’s just personal preference.  And I really do wish that she’d explained that Henri Charles was her own fictional creation!

If you pick up this book expecting to learn the history of the waxworks museums, then you might be disappointed.   But, if you want something a bit different about the French Revolution, give it a go.

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Between Love and Honour by Alexandra Lapierre

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Dagestan possibly isn’t the most obvious of places from which you might expect a chivalric romantic hero to come.    The words people most associate with it these days are probably, and quite understandably, “lawlessness” and “terrorism”.   It’s sad: Dagestan and neighbouring Chechnya have a fascinating history.  And this book, set against the background of the Caucasian Wars, is based on a true story.  Jamal Eddin, our chivalric, romantic hero from Dagestan, was a real person, and Alexandra Lapierre’s done rather a good job of telling his story.

The expansion of Russia does rather tend to get lost in the wider course of European history – which is daft, really, because it’s had far more effect on European and world history than short-lived conflicts like the War of the Austrian Succession or the Seven Years’ War.  The Great Northern War gets a lot of attention, and I suppose the Polish partitions do too, but Russia’s expansion southwards and eastwards only tends to become a “thing” in English language history books once you get to the Great Game and the fear that Russia might barge through Afghanistan into India.  Obviously the whole issue of the Dardanelles and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire gets a lot of coverage, but Russia never actually got involved in any sort of land grab there, other than with the Danubian Principalities.   The Caucasian Wars, on the other hand, get ignored.

Admittedly, that’s partly because the early part of Russia’s conquest of the Caucasus clashed with the Napoleonic Wars.  Everyone knows about 1812.  But what about Russia versus Persia?  Yes, Persia.  By the 1820s, Russia was in control of what would later become the three Transcaucasian republics of the Soviet Union – Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.  And needed to take over the rest of the Caucasus – the area that’s still part of the country which we all call “Russia” and should really call “the Russian Federation” – to link everything up.  The leaders of the resistance formed the imamate of Chechnya and Dagestan, and turned it into a holy war, in which the local population were pushed into following sharia law.  Some of this sounds really rather familiar, doesn’t it?

So, we have Shamil, the Lion of Dagestan, Imam of the Caucasian Imamate.  Following his defeat in the long siege of Akulgo in 1839, he was forced to give up his eldest son, Jamal Eddin, as a hostage, to be brought up in St Petersburg.  Common enough practice in medieval times – think England v France or England v Scotland – but unusual by the 19th century, but it happened.

Nicholas I, Mr Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality, usually seen as a bit of a baddie, crushing the Decembrists and refusing to consider the sort of reforms later made by his son Alexander II, comes across as being rather nice in this book.  He takes a deep personal interest in Jamal Eddin, who is allowed to follow his own religion and dress in Circassian clothing, whilst receiving the education of a Russian nobleman at a military college and then entering the Russian army.   However, inevitably, Jamal Eddin finds himself caught between two worlds, and it all comes to a head when he falls in love with a Russian girl and wants to marry her – and decides to convert to Orthodoxy and become a true Russian.

This happens just as the Crimean War breaks out.  I don’t like the Crimean War.  I always feel rather guilty for saying that, because my great-great-great-grandfather fought in it; but I don’t.  The whole thing was largely due to Louis Napoleon wanting to look like a big shot.  There’s no way Britain should have gone to war with Russia.  It’s the same old thing that happened again in the 1870s, and is happening now – the press whip up this silly paranoia about Russia, and people believe it.  Gah!!  Anyway, this book shows it all in a rather romantic Slavophile way.  Russia wanting to be the defender of Orthodoxy and all that.  Yay!!  Come on, it’s true!  What was Nicholas I’s middle brother called?  Constantine!  Because Catherine the Great genuinely thought that conquering Constantinople was a possibility.  Yes, all right, it does sound a bit land grab-ish, but there genuinely is this idea of being the protector of the Orthodox Slavs and all that.  Bulgaria believes it.  Serbia believes it.   Sorry, I’m way off the point now!

Anyway, back at the ranch, or, rather, back in the Caucasus, Shamil has kidnapped two Georgian princesses and their children and household staff.  In the book, one of the princesses was Jamal Eddin’s first love: I’m not convinced about that, but it makes it all a bit more romantic.  He says he’ll release them if Jamal Eddin is returned to him.  Seeing as it’s apparently unthinkable (no-one actually sees to consider it) for Jamal’s fiancée to go to the Caucasus with him, this means that poor Jamal Eddin is – and this is where the title comes from – caught between love and honour.  (The title’s actually “Between Love and Honor” (sic) but I’m not keen on using American spellings.  How much choice he was given in reality, I don’t know, but, in this book, he nobly sacrifices his own happiness and that of his fiancée for the safety of the hostages.

And so the hostages are freed, and the engagement is broken off.  His fiancée eventually married someone else, but, according to her memoirs, never forgot him and always thought of him as her true love.  Poor Jamal Eddin failed to adapt to life back in the Caucasus, fell ill, and died three years late, still only in his twenties.   Not long afterwards, in 1859, Shamil surrendered.

I just need to get totally off the point again.  When I was in Russia in 2012, another British tourist started talking about “You know, the team with the unpronounceable name”.  “You mean Anzhi Makhachkala!” said I.  They’d just been bought by a zillionaire.  They signed some world-class players, and got Guus Hiddink to be their manager.  When Hiddink left, Rene Meulensteen, who’d been United’s first team coach in Alex Ferguson’s later years but hadn’t been wanted by David Moyes, took over.  He was sacked after 16 days.  Anzhi later made major budget cuts and have now gone down the pan.  This doesn’t have an awful lot to do with the Caucasian Wars.  But, if things had gone differently, maybe Dagestan would actually have become known for something other than violence.

I think that a lot of people forget that the Russian Federation is not just mainly Slavic and mainly Orthodox.  Not enough is generally known about the Caucasian areas.  That’s one reason to read this book.  Another is that it’s a genuinely interesting true story.  And … well, how many books these days talk about “honour”?    If anything, it’s a word associated with the losing side – think Richard Lovelace’s poems, or Ashley Wilkes in Gone With The Wind.  It’s a concept that isn’t much talked about these days.  Maybe we could do with bringing it back.  Although it all ends in tragedy anyway.  But how very Russian is that?!

This is good.  It’s not the best-written book ever, but the story is really something different.

 

Merry Christmas

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Thank you to anyone who’s taken time to read my historical ramblings over the course of the year 🙂 .  I shall try to write more in 2018!  In the meantime, wishing anyone who’s reading this Merry Christmas, Blessed Yuletide, Bon Nadal, Season’s Greetings or any other form of good wishes you prefer.  Make sure that you defy Oliver Cromwell by thoroughly enjoying yourself on Christmas Day, and have a very happy new year xxx.

The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

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 There was, as we all know 😉 , a secret chord, which David played and it pleased the Lord. OK, that’s not the Bible, it’s Leonard Cohen, but never mind! This is another of those books which is aimed at bringing a Biblical figure, in this case King David, to life, by putting their story into the form of a novel. Unfortunately, this really isn’t a patch on Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.  It’s not bad, but it’s too short for such an eventful story.  And it doesn’t get close enough to the character, because it’s told from the point of view of someone else – the prophet Nathan.  Apparently, the lyrics to Handel’s Coronation Anthem, the one we all know the music to but not the words 😉 , start with “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet” … but, presumably because that’s too much of a mouthful, we know it as “Zadok the priest” and poor old Nathan gets forgotten!

He isn’t actually referred to as “Nathan” in this book, but as “Natan”, because the author decided to use a transliteration from Hebrew which she views as correct, but which is rather confusing for the reader. Yes, OK, there are a lot of issues about different translations and transliterations of Biblical Hebrew. Don’t get me started on the issue of Shem and Semitic – most people never realise that the word “Semitic” comes from Shem, son of Noah, because the h got lost somewhere!! Geraldine Brooks decided to restore the missing “h”s, which, OK, there is justification for, but everyone is familiar with the names Saul and Solomon in English, and writing about “Shaul” and “Shlomo” is just confusing. Ditto Moavites rather than Moabites, Batsheva rather than Bathsheba, Yonatan rather than Jonathan, etc  .

OK, enough moaning. The book is quite interesting, because, as the author points out, David’s is the first life story told in full in literature, and there are so many different facets to it. Although the Bible tells us that he’s a great warrior king, if you mention his name then most of us will think of the Michelangelo sculpture of The Boy David and the story of David, as a young shepherd boy, killing Goliath. The phrase “David versus Goliath” is still in very common use.  The book suggests that the tale was probably exaggerated, to make Goliath bigger and David younger, but, hey, that’s how stories go!

Then there’s the question of David’s relationship with Jonathan. Were they lovers or just good friends? I have actually heard this brought up in debates on Sky News, with people using the relationship to try to counter homophobes who try to use the Bible to justify discrimination against gay people. Well, it can be interpreted every which way but Geraldine Brooks goes with the view that they probably were lovers.  I’m inclined to agree.  It’s the same with Achilles and Patroclus.  People in ancient times seem to have been a lot more chilled about bisexuality than some people are today.

And the issue of Bathsheba … was it a consensual affair or did David take advantage of his position as king to force her? The way it’s presented in this book is that he forced her. It’s really not clear in the Bible – although it’s quite clear about how he sent Uriah the Hittite out to be killed.

Those are probably the three David stories that everyone knows. The rest of his story isn’t really as well known as those of Moses, Joseph (thank you, Andrew Lloyd Webber!) and certain other Biblical figures. It was certainly eventful. War, sons murdering sons, brothers raping sisters … there’s certainly plenty to go at in this book, and then of course there are his talents as a poet and a musician, but so much more could have been made of it.  It only really skims the surface.

Did David really exist? Well, no-one really knows, and much of the Bible story is probably legend rather than history, but it does seem likely that there was a king called David, probably around 3,000 years ago. He’s certainly a huge figure in the culture of all three monotheistic religions. And, of course, he’s closely associated with Bethlehem (almost certainly the reason why the nativity story is set in Bethlehem rather than Nazareth) and Jerusalem.  He’s supposed to have captured Jerusalem from the Jebusites and made it his capital.  What he’d say if he knew that people were still fighting over it, one of the most historically and culturally important cities in the world and one which deserves to be treated with considerably more respect than to be used as a political pawn, 3,000 years later, I don’t know.

It’s an interesting subject, but this book really could have been a lot better.  It just doesn’t go deep enough. You’ve got a figure whose name everyone knows but whose story really isn’t well-known at all, and whose story has so many different facets to it, and so much more could have been made of it all.