The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses – Indu Sundaresun

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Everyone’s heard of the Taj Mahal. Most people will know the term Mughal/Moghul/Mogul, but probably in connection with either a local takeaway or as a term for a successful businessperson.  Not many people, even in the Indian subcontinent, will have heard of the Empress Nur Jahan.  And I’m not sure how familiar most people in the UK are with the history of the Moghul Empire, because no-one teaches us much about pre-colonial Asian history.  Novels about royal families are a brilliant place to start learning about an unfamiliar period in history – especially when they involve such an interesting character as the Empress Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa.  If you want something to learn about Northern India, or even if you just want a good read about something different, give Indu Sundaresun’s books a go.

The main character in these two books is, as I said, Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa (1577-1645), the twentieth and favourite wife of the Emperor Jahangir. Her niece Arjumand, known as Mumtaz Mahal, married Jahangir’s son, the future Emperor Shah Jahan, who famously had the Taj Mahal built as Mumtaz’s mausoleum after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  It’s ironic that the publishers are marketing these books, along with Shadow Princess, which is about Jahan and Mumtaz’s eldest daughter, as “the Taj Mahal trilogy”, because Indu Sundaresun is keen to make the extremely good point that Mehrunnissa, who exercised political power and was a patron of the arts, at a time when it was very rare for a woman to do so, is all but forgotten, whereas Mumtaz, who didn’t actually do very much other than repeatedly conceive and give birth, has achieved immortality because of a beautiful building.

Shadow Princess is well worth a read as well.  It shows, amongst other things, the battles between several brothers, resulting in one brother having the others murdered, and also makes the point that, romantic as the Taj Mahal seems now, people at the time weren’t actually all that thrilled about vast amounts of taxpayers’ money being spent on an elaborate royal tomb.  It also shows the shift in attitudes from Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s keenness to incorporate elements of different religions into the life of an Islamic court to Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s successor’s, destruction of Hindu temples and fiscal discrimination against his Hindu subjects.

Just to go off the point slightly, on a recent trip to Northern India I found it interesting that most of the major buildings in older parts of Delhi, and of course the Taj Mahal in Agra, were built by the Islamic rulers of a predominantly Hindu state, and that most of the newer buildings in Delhi were built under the British Raj, but that there’s absolutely no thought of pulling them down or complaining that they’re symbols of oppression or discrimination.

Anyway, to get back to the point, Mehrunnissa is the star of the first two books. They’re written in a way that makes them very easy to get into but at the same time conveys a huge amount of information about the Mughal court and the Mughal Empire, everything from life in the harem/zenana, including the rivalries between the various different wives, to political machinations within the court, to wars with rival powers.  And the romance between Mehrunnissa and Salim/Jahangir, of course!

In brief, Mehrunnissa is born, on the road in what’s now Afghanistan, to a Persian noble family fleeing to Hindustan. They’ve got so little at the time that she’s almost abandoned at birth, but her father rises to become one of Emperor Akbar’s Grand Viziers, and Mehrunnissa goes to live at court.  The romantic version of events, which is the one shown in these books, is that she and Jahangir took a shine to each other from early on.  Spoilsports now say that this never actually happened.  Oh well.  Whatever, she was married off, unhappily, to a Persian soldier, by whom she had one daughter – whom she later married off to one of Jahangir’s sons, hoping (in vain, as it turned out) that her daughter would become Empress in turn.  After he died, she married Jahangir.

By that point, she was in her thirties. Women at the Mughal court were generally considered past their sell-by date by then, but she was the one who had the Emperor’s affection when there were plenty of younger models he could have gone for instead.  Go Mehrunnissa!   And, at a time when women were not expected to exercise power, and bearing in mind that she was only part of the royal family by marriage, she was pretty much the power behind the throne.  Jahangir was a little too fond of booze and opium.  She sat with him when he held court, issued coinage in her own name, dealt with the various Western powers looking to establish or increase their influence in what’s now India, was involved in consultations with ministers, and raised an army to fight a rebellion – even riding into the thick of things on a war elephant.

She is brilliant!   Rags to riches.  Well, OK, not quite, but her family were in dire straits when she was born.  Bagging the emperor when everyone would have expected him to be more interested in some silly young thing.  Wielding political power at a time when women weren’t supposed to.  And commissioning a tomb for her father which is generally agreed to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  Not to mention taking care of hundreds of orphans, mostly girls.  She should be right up there amongst the female icons of history.

But she isn’t. Her story ended rather sadly – confined to effective house arrest by her stepson.  As many other strong women have been, she’s been painted by those historians who have written about her as – well, a conniving bitch, not to put too fine a point on it.  And her name isn’t really known much now, even in India and Pakistan.  Whereas the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world, arguably the symbol of India.  I loved the Taj Mahal, and I’m so glad I’ve seen it, and I agree that it’s quite romantic that Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz Mahal so much that he wanted to build such a splendid tomb for her, but … well, it’s a bit strange that the Mughal Empire has been immortalised by the symbol of a marriage and a death.  I suppose it makes a change from triumphal arches and grand palaces, eh?  Anyway, these books shouldn’t be being marketed as “the Taj Mahal trilogy” at all, and it’s rather insulting to Mehrunnissa that they are!

I wasn’t actually looking for a “strong women of history” novel. I just wanted to find out more about the Mughal Empire.  And this book really is a good starting point for that.  But I really did like the character.  And I liked the author’s writing, and will be looking for more of her books if I ever get through my existing book mountain.  We aren’t generally taught much Asian history in British schools and universities, and these books make the Mughal court in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century seem very accessible.  Read and enjoy!

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Against the Inquisition by Marcos Aguinis

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You don’t necessarily expect a book about the Spanish (well, Peruvian) Inquisition, culminating in the main character being burnt at the stake, to be described as a “stirring song of freedom”; but this book really is quite inspiring. And it’s a true story – the story of Argentinian crypto-Jewish doctor Francisco Maldonado da Silva, born in 1592, who spent 12 years out-arguing the Inquisition before eventually being condemned to death.  It holds a lot of lessons for both the present and the past, and was written by an Argentinian author who lost many family members in the Holocaust and played an important role in promoting democracy in Argentinian culture after the fall of Galtieri.  The original Spanish edition was published in 1991, but it’s only recently been made available in English.

Obviously, Peru was under Spanish (maybe I should say “Castilian” … but maybe not, by this point) rule at this point. The book actually covered quite a wide part of Spanish South America: Francisco is born in Argentina, studies medicine in Chile and is imprisoned in Lima, and part of the story is also set in the Cusco area.  The fact that part of it was set in Cusco is significant, as that’s the area most closely associated with the pre-conquistadorian history of Peru.  The indigenous people of Peru were later deemed to be outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, which operated from Peru from 1570 unto 1820, but not in the early years.  The reader sees indigenous people, black slaves and people of mixed race being targeted, and also meets minor characters accused of, amongst other things, witchcraft and homosexuality.

It’s also relevant that Francisco’s family are of Portuguese descent. Portugal was under Spanish Habsburg rule at this time – I’ll refrain from writing an essay on royal genealogy, much as I’d love to.  Therefore, so was Brazil – at a time when it was under attack from the Dutch (and there are plenty of references to the Eighty Years’ War).  “New Christians” of Portuguese descent seem to have come under particular suspicion.

There are various minor characters who fall under suspicion for a number of reasons, but the book’s original Spanish title was “La Gesta del Marrano” and the story is about the persecution of crypto-Jews. It jumps backwards and forwards quite a lot, but, basically, we see Francisco as a young child, see his family torn apart when the Inquisitors take his father away – and help themselves to all the family’s possessions  – and his mother dies shortly afterwards, and see him grow up a devout Catholic, taught by monks.  We then see him train as a doctor, be reunited with his father, and turn to Judaism.  Initially, he does as his father did, lives outwardly as a Catholic, and tells his Catholic wife nothing about his background and beliefs, whilst secretly meeting up with other crypto-Jews to celebrate festivals and rituals.  But, eventually, he has enough: he wants to live openly as what he is, to be what he identifies as. “I am what I am.”

It’s possibly a bit confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with the background of the expulsion of Jews from Castile, Aragon and Portugal but I think the religious practices, and the specific culture of the crypto-Jews – things like keeping the key to a lost family home back in the Iberian Peninsula – are explained fairly well.  As recently as 2014, the Spanish government granted dual nationality to people like the da Silvas, should they choose to seek it: this is something that has remained relevant for over half a millennium.  That’s quite unusual: I’m struggling to think of comparable examples.

One thing I did find unusual about this book, in terms of books about crypto-Jews, was that it was nearly all about men. There is a lot about Francisco’s father, also a doctor.  We meet him again years later, a broken man forced to wear the “sanbenito”, the penitential garment forced on people by the Inquisition.  Francisco’s father explains crypto-Judaism to his elder son, Francisco’s brother, and he’s taken away by the Inquisition as well.  Francisco grows up a devout Catholic, and only turns to Judaism when it’s all explained to him by his father.  Women barely feature.  Francisco’s mother and wife are both from “Old Christian” families, with no Jewish heritage.  His sisters are devout Catholics, and it’s one of them, a nun, who denounces him.  Often, with a book about South American crypto-Jews, you realise what’s going on when you see mothers and daughters, in a supposedly Catholic household, lighting candles on a Friday night.  Not with this one. We do meet some women who are practising crypto-Jews, but it’s very much a male-dominated book – fathers and sons, groups of male friends.  Male priests running the Inquisition, of course.

There’s also a minor point about clashes between the Inquisition and the Jesuits. It is only a minor point, but it’s interesting because, from an English viewpoint, we probably tend to lump them all together.  All part of the Black Legend.  I love Spain, OK.  I was in tears when the Spanish flag went up during the medal ceremony for the 2008 Olympic tennis men’s singles event!   I am not getting Black Legend-ish.  All countries and cultures have shameful things in their past – and sometimes in their present.  But … well, we do say “Spanish Inquisition” rather than just “Inquisition”.  And this is a true story.

It’s not meant to be anti-Spanish, though. And it’s not meant to be anti-Catholic.  The point is made over and over again that Francisco thinks Jesus was a good man, and that the basic ideas of Catholicism are about being good people, leading good lives.  It’s the institutions of the institution that have gone wrong – it’s elements of the Catholic Church, not Catholicism.  That is very relevant at the moment, when hardly a month seems to go by without yet another horrific tale of child abuse by members of the clergy coming to light, and also when Islamic fundamentalists are carrying out such atrocities.

He spends years in prison, debating with the representatives of the Inquisition. They can’t break him. They can’t out-argue him.  They come to admire his incredible knowledge of religious texts, and his way of interpreting them.  At one point, he goes on hunger strike and nearly dies, but then he decides that it’s his duty to fight on, partly for the sake of a number of other alleged crypto-Jews who’ve also been arrested.  Ultimately, he’s burnt at the stake.

There isn’t really official recognition of martyrdom in Judaism in the way that there is in Christianity. (Masada??). If there was, he’d certainly be recognised as one.  And it’s not just that he died for his particular faith.  It’s, and this must really have called out to an author who lived through the Dirty War in Argentina, that he stood up, not only for what he believed in but for the right to believe what he believed in, and to live openly as what he chose to be.  Human rights.  So many people over the years have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their political beliefs or their sexuality or just because they were different in some way.  It’s still going on, in so many places.

Most people choose to go with the flow, to bend with the wind … er, that’s enough clichés for one sentence!   Change your religion, profess loyalty to the regime in power, keep your head down and get on with it.  Most of us wouldn’t have the strength to do otherwise.  There are plenty of arguments in favour of going with the flow and bending with the wind: Francisco’s wife is left destitute, their two young children are left to grow up without a father, his patients are left without a skilled and well-respected doctor.  And it takes some strength to live a lie as well – but no-one should have do that, to bear that pain every day.

It feels wrong, in some ways, to talk about finding inspiration in a book about such a horrific topic. The “stirring song of freedom” line’s Mario Vargas Llosa’s description of the book, by the way.  This is a book about evil, masquerading as some sort of attempt to bring about religious “purity” in society.  It’s a book about persecution.  But persecution can bring about inspirational individuals.  Frederick Douglass springs to mind.  Nelson Mandela, maybe.  People like that can change the world.  This book isn’t going to change the world, but it’ll certainly make you think.  And admire.  I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this to be made available in English, but, now that it has been (sorry, my Spanish isn’t up to reading a whole book in it!), it’s well worth reading.  It’s relevant to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Emmerdale 1918 – ITV 1, and Journey’s End

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Two very different looks at the Great War, one on TV and one a film adaptation of a play written in 1928.  I am a great believer in the power of soap operas to get messages across 🙂 , and I love the idea of exploring history via soap characters – maybe ITV and BBC could do more of this!   Personal history is increasingly popular, probably because the rise of the internet’s made it so much easier for people to become involved in genealogy, and the idea of this was to show how the war affected a number of individuals from Esholt, the Yorkshire village where Emmerdale used to be filmed, in a series of programmes presented by Emmerdale actors whose characters have similar jobs/positions.  Journey’s End, by contrast, was about fictional characters but took us right into the hell through which soldiers were living during the Spring Offensive of 1918, with almost all the action taking place in an officers’ dugout in one of the trenches.

It (Journey’s End) focussed on the mental hell as much as, maybe more than, the physical hell.  Although the action all took place towards the end of the war, we see at the beginning the attitude associated with the early months, a naïve young lad straight out of school desperate to get stuck into the action.  He was sent to the Front after only a few weeks of training.  Emmerdale 1918 showed us a video of some of the training: Charlotte Bellamy (Laurel Thomas) commented that it looked more like her legs, bums and tums class at the gym than something designed to prepare novice solders for war.

Our lad, Second Lieutentant Raleigh, was a public schoolboy with relatives in high places, and pulled strings to get himself assigned to a company captained by a family friend who’d been a few years above him at school, someone he’d always hero-worshipped and who’d got a bit of a thing going with his sister.  Only they weren’t at school any more, and the boy he knew at school was now aggressive, anxious, drinking too much, and convinced that his relationship with his friend’s sister would break her heart – either he’d die, or he’d go back to her a completely different man from the one she knew and loved.

We didn’t actually see the fighting, although we heard about the men who’d been killed: we saw how things played out in the dugout.  It wasn’t easy to watch: it was very intense and, because it was nearly all set in such a confined space, and over the course of over a few days, quite claustrophobic: it probably got the psychological hell across as well as any dramatisation could do.

The second episode of Emmerdale 1918 was also about a young lad with no military experience, going to the Front.  In this case, he was Joshua Booth, a working-class lad from a small Yorkshire village.  Of the 200 people living in the village, 50 went away to war.  That’s very hard to take in.  25% of your local community gone to war.  They don’t seem to have been in a Pals battalion, which at least was something.  In this case, we got the background: we saw the normality of this young man’s life at home, and we were read extracts from his letters to his sweetheart – who threw him over and married someone else.  You don’t expect that in a war programme, do you?  I know it sounds daft, but wartime romances are meant to end in either tragedy or joy, not in one partner dumping the other.  It was far less tense, far less intense, because it was indirect, and not so focussed on a small space and short period of time; and yet it had the intensity of being about just one person and, significantly, someone who really lived.

Different approaches, different backgrounds, and yet both stories ended the same way: neither young man survived.  Journey’s End didn’t tell us what happened to his comrades.  Emmerdale 1918 did tell us that the other 49 men from Esholt who went away to war all survived, which was incredible really … and yet some of them must have had life-changing injuries, physical or mental, and none of them could ever have been the same again.  Nor could anyone else who lived through that time.  The series is about the fact that it was a total war: we’re also getting land girls, chefs, vets … everyone’s lives turned upside down.

Do schools did get kids to compare The Soldier and Dulce et Decorum est?   It was a standard English Lit GCSE essay topic in my day.  Journey’s End was very Dulce et Decorum est: you just felt broken. Emmerdale 1918 inclined more towards The Soldier – not as sentimental, but concentrating on remembering the bravery, the heroism, the sacrifice.  More John Maxwell Edmonds – for our tomorrow, people like Joshua Booth gave their today.  So many lives lost, so many other lives irrevocably damaged.

It’s hard to believe that we’re now almost as far from the end of the Great War as the end of the Great War was from the end of the Napoleonic Wars.  25 years ago, people were starting to day that the idea of Remembrance would gradually die out, but it hasn’t.  It’s good that it hasn’t, but what a tragedy that, every year without fail, there are more and more war dead to be remembered.  And more and more people who’ve survived but suffered life-changing physical injuries and or horrific trauma.

Journey’s End is hard going, and certainly not enjoyable, but it’s worth watching.  As for Emmerdale 1918, I think this is a brilliant idea.  Soap stuff makes headlines!  We’ve seen that with so many crucial social issues. Can it now branch out into history?  OK, I think this series is a one-off, and I don’t think we’re about to see the cast of Coronation Street marking the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre or the cast of EastEnders showing us life in medieval London … but it would be great if we did.

 

Island Beneath The Sea by Isabel Allende

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The Haitian Revolution of 1791 was one of the most important events in modern history, but it’s rare to find a historical novel about it, so I was very pleased to come across this. It also covers another crucial event, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  However, Mrs Rochester strikes again – we have a mad Creole wife.  And there’s an incestuous marriage.  But, apart from those two rather OTT storylines, it’s a fascinating depiction of life in Saint- Domingue (Haiti) and later New Orleans, seen from the viewpoints of various different people.

I don’t think I’d realised just how complicated society was in colonial Saint-Domingue. And, by all accounts (well, Google and Wikipedia), the “casta” system of race and class still holds quite strong in Haiti today.   In 1791, slaves, black and mulatto, made up 87% of the population.  87%!  The rest of the population consisted of grands blancs, the well-to-do, upper-crust whites, many of them in favour of independence because of concerns about Revolutionary France’s attitudes towards both slavery and trade, the less well-off petits blancs, and affranchis – free “people of colour”, mainly but not all of mixed descent.  To complicate matters further, there was a hierarchy amongst mixed race people, based on relative percentages of black and white blood.  And there was some support amongst affranchis and slaves for a British takeover, seen as preferable to independence under the grands blancs.

The main character in this book is Tete (short for Zarite), a young slavewoman, taken away at an early age from her mother, a black teenage girl who’d been raped by a white sailor on a slaveship. She becomes the personal maid to the wife of Toulouse Valmorain, a French plantation owner, and nursemaid to their son.  Valmorain’s Creole wife is “mad”.  What is it with this idea of Creole women in the West Indies being mad?  Is it all about Mrs Rochester, or does the idea go beyond that?  It’s years since I read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I thought I remembered there being something in it, maybe in a foreword or an afterword, suggesting that the idea of Creole women going “mad” was actually fairly commonplace.  However, when I tried Googling “Creole women mad”, I got a zillion hits but they were all about Mrs Rochester!

Anyway, seeing as Madame Valmorain is largely out of the picture, Toulouse forces Tete to become his mistress. They have two children.  The first one is taken away and handed over to Valmorain’s friends, a wealthy free mulatta courtesan with whom Tete had once lived as a child, and her white husband.  Another couple also feature in the story – again, a white man and a mulatta woman, but in that case the man will not marry his lover or legally acknowledge their children.  So we’ve got three very different relationships, all involving white men and mixed race women.  Other characters include a slave man who becomes Tete’s lover, and an elderly free black woman who’s involved in voodoo – voodoo plays quite a significant part in the book.

Syncretic religions are fascinating, and obviously voodoo is very important in Haitiain culture. (The spelling “voodoo” is actually now avoided in Haiti, because there are so many misconceptions about it, and “vodou” is preferred.)  A voodoo/vodou ceremony took place just before the 1791 rebellion began.

Once the rebellion’s begun, Tete, aided by her lover – although he later leaves her in order to play a full part in the rebellion -, helps Valmorain, their child, and his child by his wife to escape from the plantation. She’s become very attached to Valmorain’s son and heir, and he regards her as his mother.  He’s also very close to her daughter, his half-sister. They all survive.

It’s pretty accurate as to what actually happened. (Excuse the change of tense – it’s easier to write the historical stuff in the past tense and the book’s storyline in the present tense, for some reason!).  Hundreds of thousands of slaves joined the rebellion.  Plantations were destroyed.  Many white people were raped and or murdered.  Civil war broke out: white people killed black people in revenge.

At this point, the rebels were looking for an end to slavery, not for independence from France.  The authorities in France – Revolutionary France, of course – then granted civil and political rights to free men of colour, and abolished slavery in some areas … whereupon the grands blancs decided that maybe a British takeover was the best bet.  Britain then got stuck in.  So did Spain.  Then, in 1794, Robespierre’s government abolished slavery in France and French colonies, and granted civil and political rights to black men in the colonies.  That’s pretty impressive – the bad things that Robespierre did tend to overshadow the good, and he deserves a lot of credit for that particular decision.  Napoleon later reversed it, and slavery in the remaining French colonies then lasted until 1848.

To cut a long story short, there were years of fighting, involving the Haitian “rebels”, Napoleonic France, Britain and Spain; there was a mass epidemic of yellow fever; there was horrific violence; thousands of people died … and Haitian independence was eventually declared in 1804, but followed by the mass rape and murder of white French people. The Haitian economy, further hindered by an 1825 agreement to pay reparations to French ex-slaveholders, has never really recovered.

We don’t actually see all that in the book, though, because Valmorain, Tete and the two children leave for New Orleans. That’s pretty true to life: many white people did leave for continental America, and many of them took their slaves with them.  The relationship between Tete and Valmorain is very complicated, and complicated further by the closeness between her and his young son.  Even though he becomes violent and abusive towards her, she doesn’t try to leave him. Their parting only comes when he remarries, and his new wife doesn’t want her or her daughter around.  Tete eventually meets another man, finds happiness with him, and is able to force Valmorain to free her as a reward for saving his life back in Saint-Domingue.  So her story does end happily.  The “island beneath the sea” of the title is death.  In the early chapters, many of the slaves long to reach the island beneath the sea.  By the end, Tete rejoices in her life.

But there’s the question of what’s going to happen to her daughter, and the answer seems to be placage, the system whereby a white man and a black or mixed race woman would enter into a relationship which was a formal union, with a legal contract, but not a legal marriage. It happened in many places, but is generally associated with New Orleans.  Rosette, the daughter, is presented at one of the famous quadroon balls (there is some historical debate about these quadroon balls), so that she can try to attract a suitable man … but there’s then a very odd storyline in which she and her half-brother, Valmorain’s son by his first wife (the Mrs Rochester one), get married.  She then dies in prison after hitting Valmorain’s second wife. I’m not sure what Isabel Allende was getting at with that, TBH.  Placage would have accurately reflected the life of an attractive quadroon woman in New Orleans in the early 19th century.  Marriage to a half-brother, and marriage between a quadroon woman and a white man in general, didn’t, to put it mildly.

These latter stages of the book take place against the background of the Louisiana Purchase – a reminder of what a shock the people living there must have got when they found out that Napoleon had just blithely sold them to the United States, and also a reminder that the Haitian Revolution indirectly led to the acquisition by the young United States of a huge tract of territory, changing the course of American history as well as Haiti’s own history.

Haiti changed the world. That’s been forgotten, to a large extent.  In many ways, it was absolutely inspirational – the majority slave population threw off their shackles, literally in some cases, defeated their oppressors and took control.  That is very, very rare in world history.  White people were shown that they weren’t naturally superior, whatever they may have thought before.

However, whilst that should have struck a huge blow for racial equality, it did the opposite – fear of slave revolts, especially in places like South Carolina where slaves formed the majority of the population, led to a hardening of attitudes over race and slavery, especially as so many white people from Haiti, like Toulouse Valmorain, settled in slaveholding parts of the United States (or areas which would become the United States).  It gets a mention in Gone With The Wind, by Grandma Fontaine, just by the way.  Any overthrowing of the authorities by slaves would have attracted a negative reaction, but the horrific violence committed by both sides made it far worse.

And the other huge effect it had was being arguably the main reason for the Louisiana Purchase. It’s hard to think that a megalomaniac like Napoleon didn’t fancy the idea of ruling a trans-Atlantic empire, and it seems to’ve been events in Haiti which made him decide that it would actually be more trouble than it was worth.  The Louisiana Purchase consisted of (I’ve copied this bit from Wikipedia because I couldn’t be bothered typing it all out!) “land that forms Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahome, Kansas, and Nebraska; the portion of Minnesota west of the Mississippi River; a large portion of North Dakota; a large portion of South Dakota; the northeastern section of New Mexico; the northern portion of Texas; the area of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (plus New Orleans); and small portions of land within the present Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan”.  If France had tried to hang on to that, how would American history have panned out?  Possibly very differently indeed.

So that’s two huge events in world history, covered in one book. And all the blurbs make it sound as if the book’s all about Tete, but it’s not – and I mean that in a good way, because it means that we get to view events through the eyes of a number of different people.  I think I could have done without the incestuous marriage storyline, which I found rather distasteful and completely unrealistic, but, other than that, it was a very interesting book.  Recommended 🙂 .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Duenas

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This book made a lot of promising starts, but, frustratingly, jumped away from every scenario just as things were getting interesting!   It wasn’t just starts: sometimes it jumped into a plotline in the middle, leaving you wishing you’d got the background in more detail.  And I think the author must have read Jane Eyre just before reading it, because one of the storylines was distinctly Mrs Rochester-esque.  It wasn’t a bad read, although the Mrs R.-ish “madness” storyline really had no place in a book written in the 21st century, but Maria Duenas could have made several really good novels out of the material, rather than a single bitty and, by the end, slightly bonkers, one.

Our hero, Mario, has emigrated from Spain – with a complicated background involving the Basque country, Mallorca and illegitimacy – to Mexico, and, arriving as a young man with nothing, made a fortune from silver mining. It would have been fascinating to have heard how he did this, but we don’t.  We only meet him as a middle-aged man who’s borrowed a load of money to buy machinery from the United States, unluckily just as the Civil War/War Between The States was breaking out.  The guy he’d been dealing with has been killed at Bull Run/Manassas, and the machinery’s been requisitioned by the US government, leaving our man in deep doo-doo.

Mexico, 1861, then. Surely the scene is set (if we ignore the title!) for a novel about the French and Austrian intervention.  Bring on Archduke Maximilian!   Er, no.  We’re out of Mexico before the French have even invaded, never mind the Habsburgs getting stuck in.  And we’re off to Cuba – the glamorous Paris of the Antilles, where it’s all happening.  And where the slave trade is still legal: it wasn’t abolished there until 1867, and slavery wasn’t abolished there until 1886.  Mario then gets embroiled (in a business sense only) with his son’s fiancée’s auntie.  Again, there’s a back story, this time about how she “had” to marry someone unsuitable, but it’s never really gone into.  There are some wonderful descriptions of life in Havana, about its relationship with Spain and how that’s viewed by different groups – Cuba was to rebel against Spanish rule in 1868 – and about the effects of slavery, and it really gets interesting when the dodgy auntie tries to con Mario into getting involved with the slave trade, and he refuses.

But, just as the reader’s really getting into it, we’re off again!   Mario and the auntie’s husband play a high-stake game of billiards, and Mario wins the vineyard in Andalusia (well, the title was a bit of a giveaway there) which the auntie’s husband has recently inherited from a cousin.  Goodbye Havana, next stop Jerez!

And so we now get on to the fascinating tale of the importance of sherry to the Spanish economy in the 19th century – making up around 20% of total exports, most of them to Britain.  I was saying only recently, after a visit to Marsala and reading up on how the Marsala wine trade was developed by a Scouser and a Yorkshireman, a year after I went to Porto and read up on how the port wine trade was developed by a man from Ashton-underl-Lyne, that someone really needs to write a book about the effect on European history of British boozing!  Seriously, it has had a huge impact on the history of Portugal, the history of Sicily and, to some extent, the history of Andalusia.

And, yet again, a fascinating back story that we don’t hear enough about. The auntie’s husband came from a rather complicated background involving various cousins and friends who all expected to marry each other but didn’t.  One of them has ended up as the Mother Abbess as a convent.  One of them has married an Englishman and is trying to con her dangerous stepson, who keeps kidnapping people – cue a dramatic rescue by our hero and his Indian (“Indian” is the acceptable term when talking about the indigenous peoples of Latin America) servant.  The auntie’s husband thinks he killed one of his cousins by mistake, except that it turns out that it was someone else who killed him by mistake.  Our hero agrees, in order to con the cousin’s stepson, to pose as the cousin who’s recently died and left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband, but it all goes a bit pear-shaped, and a doctor who was going to marry the one who ended up in the convent gets involved.  Er, yes.  I said it was rather complicated, didn’t I?!

Oh, and he can’t flog the vineyard until a full year’s passed since the death of the cousin who left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband. And the one who’s married to the Englishman has got the needle because she thought she’d inherit it.  And the sister in the convent’s fallen out with them all because she wanted to marry the Englishman.  Well, she wanted to marry the doctor as well.  Presumably either or, not both.  It would have made a great story if we’d followed them all from when they were children and these complicated relationships were being formed, but, as it is, it’s all rather confusing.  Then the son’s fiancée’s auntie turns up, along with her slavewoman.  The slavewoman gets involved with the Indian servant, and they eventually live happily ever after.  And the son decides to dump the fiancée, which is irrelevant because neither of them are really involved in any of it – and it’s all complicated enough as it is, and really rather bonkers by this point.

It then transpires that the English husband is mad, and that he comes from a family of mad people. I really, really hate it when people put storylines like this in modern books.  It’s quite understandable that someone like Charlotte Bronte should have written a storyline about someone being “mad.  Gothic-type novels are full of “mad” people.  And that whole idea about “the taint of hereditary madness” – it was a huge thing, and a huge tragedy because it meant that people with mental health issues were shoved away out of sight for fear that the family name be tainted.  But for someone to write a storyline like this in the 21st century – no, no, no.  I appreciate that attitudes vary between countries and cultures, but I wouldn’t really expect to be finding a storyline like this in any book written within the last thirty years or so.  Can we please, please get past this?  Can we not talk about people being “mad”?  Can we please get past this idea about the taint of madness within families? Can we please stop stigmatising people like this?

I think that, in this case, what the husband actually had was early onset dementia. OK, that term would not have been used in the 1860s, but there are still far better ways of putting it than Maria Duenas did.  But I said it was Mrs Rochester-esque, didn’t I?  I don’t actually know how well-known Jane Eyre is in Spain, but I think it’s one of those books that’s well-known worldwide.  The part set in Cuba was really good, and the background story about the complicated family past in Jerez could have been really good had it been gone into properly.  But it all got very strange at the end.  No Grace Poole, but the “mad” husband gets packed off to stay at the convent where his sister-in-law, the one who’d once hoped to marry him (when she wasn’t hoping to marry their doctor pal) was Mother Abbess … whereupon he sets the place on fire, and kills himself, conveniently leaving the way clear for his wife to marry our hero Mario.  They then live happily ever after on the vineyard.

I’ve got a horrible feeling I’ve made this all sound rather silly. It wasn’t really.  Some parts of it were very … well, promising rather than good, because they weren’t developed properly.  If the book had been longer, and if the focus had been on either Mario or the vineyard family (both Andalusian and Cuban branches) and the background stories had been developed properly, it could have been very good.  As it was, it was rather frustrating.  By the end, it read like something that an over-enthusiastic teenager with an over-active imagination, desperate to pack in as much drama as possible, might have written.  Promising … but the promises were never really fulfilled.

 

 

Versailles and Knightfall and the persecution of religious minorities

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By a strange coincidence, both of these (thoroughly inaccurate!) historical dramas have chosen to include major sub-plots involving the persecution of religious minorities in France – in Versailles, the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which led to hundreds of thousands of Huguenots leaving the country and is said to be when the term “refugees” originated, and, in Knightfall, the Great Exile of the Jews in 1306.  Versailles even cheekily but not inappropriately chose to show a character coming out with the famous line by Heinrich Heine – who, on the subject of religious discrimination, converted from Judaism to Protestantism because Jews were excluded from academic posts in Prussia – about how burning books leads to burning people, 136 years before it was written.

The “burning books” line always sounds as if it was about the Nazis: obviously, having been written in 1821, it wasn’t. It was actually about the Spanish Inquisition – which was closely associated with the Alhambra Decree of 1492, expelling Jews from Aragon and Castile and their subject territories, and the Expulsion of the Moriscos by their great-great-grandson Philip III in 1609-14.

It was hardly just France and Spain. Religious discrimination was practised across Europe. It’s often associated with the Middle Ages – burnings at the stake et al – and with the Reformation era, but it went on long after that.  Even countries generally considered fairly liberal practised legal and practical discrimination: Catholic emancipation in the United Kingdom (then, of course, including the whole of Ireland) didn’t come about until 1829, Catholics in the Netherlands suffered discrimination until the twentieth century, and Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants includes an interesting portrayal of the persecution of non-Lutheran Protestants in nineteenth century Sweden.  In most places, things were improving by the mid nineteenth century, helped by Napoleon’s secularisation policies, but the 1882 May Laws in the Russian Empire led to a wave of pogroms and the emigration of over two million Jews.

It’s not a problem that ever seems to go away. We don’t really get new religions developing any more, and religious minorities have tended to evolve into ethno-religious minorities, so it can be difficult to say whether the issues are about ethnicity or about religion, but the point is that minorities are still being discriminated against and even persecuted.  China’s clamping down on the Uighur Muslims.  The Rohingya Muslims are suffering horrific persecution in Burma/Myanmar: that and the barbaric treatment of the Yazidi people by so-called Islamic State – who have now turned on the Druze as well –  are probably the worst examples in recent years.  Christians have come under attack in Egypt and Nigeria.  Concerns have been expressed about the attitude of the right-wing Hindu government in India towards Sikhs and Muslims, and about the effect of the new Israeli constitution on the status of the Druze.  Just a few examples.  Even in the UK, you can’t turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper or glance at the internet without reading/hearing about someone accusing Jeremy Corbyn of anti-Semitism or Boris Johnson of Islamophobia.

Neither programme comes even remotely close to being historically accurate!   Versailles has a group of Huguenots (who for some reason all have North of England accents) plotting to assassinate Louis XIV … who has just found out that he and the Duc d’Orleans are not really the sons of Louis XIII but are in fact the products of an affair between Maria Teresa of Austria and Spain, Queen of France, and the Man in the Iron Mask. Knightfall, quite apart from featuring a pope who’d died several years before it’s set, has a major plot involving Princess Isabella (the She Wolf of France, she who would eventually marry Edward II, have an affair with Roger Mortimer and overthrow her husband) having an affair with a Prince Lluis of Catalunya, son of King and Queen of Catalunya … despite the fact that the Crown of Catalunya had been part of the Crown of Aragon for nearly 150 years by this time!  Not to mention the Queen of France having an affair with one of the Knights Templar.

But the fact that they are such utter twaddle – although quite entertaining, and I’ll rather miss Versailles now that it’s finished – actually makes it even more interesting that they’ve chosen to focus so much on something as serious as this.  Really, the two situations aren’t comparable, and, in terms of both numbers and impact elsewhere, the Edict of Fontainebleau/Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the Alhambra Decree would be a better comparison, but there’s nothing on about Spanish history at the moment.  And the Revocation wasn’t an instrument of expulsion: the Huguenots weren’t told to get out of France.  But their lives were made so miserable that most of them did.

Just going back to the impact of the Revocation, it had a big effect elsewhere, and nowhere more so than here. As well as the impact of the refugees who flooded into the British Isles – and had a very positive effect on the economy – the fear of what a Catholic monarch might do, and the way in which interested parties (to use a Jane Austen expression) used that fear, played a big part in bringing about the Glorious Revolution and everything associated with it.  The Great Exile didn’t really affect anywhere other than France – but it’s worth noting that the persecution of religious minorities in Spain and, later, the Russian Empire, had a big impact on international impressions of those countries, and that the flood of emigration had a big effect – as with the Huguenots, often a positive one – on the countries to which those emigrants went.

Are the events of 1306 and 1685 comparable in terms of motive?   Was any of it actually about actual religion/piety, for a kick off?  Not really.  There has always been an idea that Louis XIV was influenced by Madame de Maintenon, who was very Catholic and disliked Protestants for religious reasons.  That idea certainly came across in Versailles.  Why do people always want to blame women for what men do??  No-one’s ever suggested that Philip IV of France was henpecked into exiling the Jews, but I’ve certainly read articles suggesting that the Edict of Expulsion of Jews from England, in 1295, was influenced by Edward I’s mother, Eleanor of Provence.  I’m not buying any of that – and I don’t think any of it was actually about religion.

Philip, like Edward I, was probably largely motivated by money: he didn’t want to pay his debts to Jewish moneylenders, and he also grabbed the money and other assets which the exiled Jews were forced to leave behind. Louis wasn’t, though, to be fair.  France actually suffered economically as a result of the expulsion of the Huguenots, who included many skilled craftspeople.

Attempt to gain popularity, maybe, in the case of either or both? We’ve all seen how “populist” politicians seek to appeal to a certain section of public opinion by railing against religious minorities, and that’s very definitely nothing new.  Toleration of Huguenots, granted by Henri “Paris is worth a Mass” IV, once a Huguenot himself, was not popular amongst French Catholics.  The expulsion of Jews from Edward I’s England has been seen as a sop to the upper classes ahead of the imposition of a new tax, and the Great Exile (one of several expulsions of Jews from medieval France, but probably the one which had the most effect) probably went down pretty well with the Christian majority.  Again, though, I don’t think it was really that.  Religious minorities are an easy target, blamed for everything from heavy taxation in Polish-ruled Ukraine (i.e. at the time of the Khmelnytsky Massacres) to the Great Fire of London, but there was nothing particular of that sort going on in either 1306 or 1685.

No: it mainly seems to have been about power and control. Maybe not so quite much so in 1306, but definitely in 1685.  And you can say the same about the “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” idea in Alexander III and Nicholas II’s Russian Empire, the drive to eradicate Protestantism in the Habsburg Empire, and a million and one other examples.  Religion and control are very closely intertwined, and it’s a lot easier to control people when you’ve got religious uniformity – when you’ve got everyone singing from the same hymn sheet, in fact, and, as part of that, when you can make everyone feel that they’re all part of a whole.  Attacks on religious minorities by random groups of people are usually motivated by hatred, or just by wanting someone to blame for social and economic problems,  but, when it’s coming from the state, from the centre of power, it does tend to be about power and control.  And Louis XIV was very keen on power and control.

Of course, sometimes, power and control involve political leaders clashing with the power of the majority religion –Henry VIII and Napoleon – but that’s another story. And we get enough programmes about the Tudors and about the nineteenth century: it’s nice to see something different!   And, whilst this again is another story, the hunted, if they gain power, often become the hunted.  All those stories about the persecution of early Christians in the Roman Empire – and then, once the Roman Empire became Christian, the Christians set about persecuting minority Christian sects and everyone else!

The Great Exile and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes are far from being the worst examples of religious persecution in the history of Europe, or the history of the world. They aren’t even the worst examples of religious persecution in the history of France – the Albigensian Crusade was probably that, and the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre also springs to mind.  There were no massacres, no mass rapes and no autos da fe.  And there weren’t any gas chambers … the Nazi genocide isn’t really to be compared with the general history of religious persecution, but I want to say something (in case anyone’s actually reading this!) about the current trend for the use of very incendiary language and inappropriate comparisons with events from history, and referencing the actions of the Nazis is one of the main forms of it.

We are currently seeing a very worrying rise in far right attitudes, in many countries, but the use by the media and by individuals of inappropriate comparisons with the atrocities of the past is, in addition to being inappropriate, extremely unhelpful.  It increases tensions which really don’t need increasing – and it’s also rather insulting to the victims of those atrocities.

If you’re talking about the persecution of the Rohingya, by all means compare it to the worst incidences of persecution in the past. But yelling and screaming about how Donald Trump’s immigration policies are reminiscent of Nazi Germany isn’t helpful.  The separation of children from their parents is beyond disgusting, and deserves to be condemned in very strong terms – but not in terms which reference the murder of seventeen million people.  The blockade of the Gaza Strip has created an appalling humanitarian crisis, and is completely unacceptable, but, again, referencing the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany is completely inappropriate.

The other week, racist graffiti was daubed on the home of a black family in Rochdale. That’s utterly appalling, and I hope that the victims are getting whatever support they need and that the perpetrators are caught and locked up, but I was rather taken aback to hear someone telling a local TV news crew that we seemed to be going back to the days of slavery.  Graffiti is not comparable with the evils of slavery.

There is undoubtedly a problem with anti-Semitism within elements of the Labour Party, and Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t really have made a worse mess of handling it if he’d tried. But is it really appropriate to talk about him being an “existential threat to Jewish life” in the UK?  He’s hardly planning to re-issue the 1295 Edict of Expulsion, is he?  And Boris Johnson’s comments about burkas were extremely offensive, and have caused a completely unwarranted row – I appreciate that he was talking about the bans on burkas imposed in several Continental countries, but it isn’t an issue here, so why make it one? – but he was actually opposing the imposition of bans on burkas, unacceptable as his language was.

I wish people would just tone down the language with all of this.   Especially when it comes to comparisons with events of the past.  Possibly don’t watch Versailles and Knightfall, if you’re after an accurate idea of what went on in the past.  But do think about some of the horrors which they’re addressing, and the many other lessons of history which we need to learn and ensure are never, ever repeated.  Think about all those people who were driven from their homes, and their home countries, in 1306 and 1685.  Think about the current series of Who Do You Think You Are, which has shown both Marvin Humes and Shirley Ballas finding out that some of their ancestors were enslaved, and Robert Rinder learning about his grandfather’s experiences and the loss of many of his relatives in the Holocaust.  Please don’t reference those events, when talking about today’s events, unless it really is appropriate to do so.  But please also remember just how bad it can get.  There’s a lot of unpleasant stuff going on at the moment.  It needs to be stopped.  Far too often, it hasn’t been.

 

 

The Seamstress by Maria Duenas

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This book is set partly in Madrid, partly in and around Lisbon, partly in Tangier, then a multicultural international zone associated with everything from artists to espionage, and mostly in Tetouan, which served as the capital of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco from 1913 to 1956. Four fascinating cities, and an interesting story set mainly during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War, with a mixture of real people and fictional characters.

It’s not a spy story – I don’t really do spy stories, apart from James Bond! – but a lot of it does involve the Special Operations Executive. I generally associate Special Operations Executive with Occupied France – and I’m afraid that that’s just made me think of ‘Allo ‘Allo, but never mind – and the Norwegian heavy water sabotage, and don’t think very much about Spain and all the other countries where operations were taking place; and I think there’s also a tendency to think of Spain and Portugal as being outside mainstream European history during the period of the fascist dictatorships there, despite the well-known links between Franco and Hitler.

Also, despite the Rif War and its effect on Spanish politics in the 1920s, and for all the ongoing rows over Western Sahara (why does no-one make a fuss over the Moroccan occupation of Western Sahara?), and the fact that Spain holds Ceuta and Melilla, it’s easy to forget that Spain was, and still is, involved in North Africa – it wasn’t all about France, Italy and (in Egypt) Britain. As the book points out, Spain didn’t really get involved in the Scramble for Africa, but it did, after losing control of Cuba and the Philippines, make an agreement with France which gave it control of a couple of bits of Morocco.  Tetouan, a city with a complicated history (involving a lot of pirates, back in the day!), and a mixed population of Arab Muslims, Berber Muslims and Sephardi Jews, was the administrative centre of the southern bit.

I’m not sure that we really got the distinction between Arabs and Berbers, though: there were just a lot of references to “Moors”. I was slightly bemused in Sicily recently to see a sign warning people to beware of “Saracens” in cafes.  I assume that it was in the sense of the old-fashioned English term “street Arabs”, but you just wouldn’t dream of using that term in English now, and you wouldn’t really say “Moors” when talking about the 20th or 21st centuries.  Anyway, things are presumably different in Spanish and Italian … and I have now got off the point.  I just have a lot of sympathy with the way that the Berbers have been treated in Morocco, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and elsewhere.  And, having said all of this, there were quite a few references to “Riffians”, and Riffians are Berbers.

OK, OK, back to the point!   Amongst the Spanish officials there in the 1930s were the pro-British Juan Luis Beigbeder y Atienza, later Franco’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Franco’s pro-German brother-in-law, who would eventually replace Beigbeder as Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ramon Serrano Suner.

So some pretty influential people. Both of them, especially Beigbeder, feature in the book, as do Alan Hillgarth, the British adventure novelist who was an intelligence agent in Spain in the 1930s and 1940s, and Rosalinda Powell Fox, Beigbeder’s lover and a British spy.  Churchill’s supposed to have said that “the war might have taken a very different course were it not for Rosalinda”.

None of them are very familiar figures. It’s not a part of twentieth century history that gets a lot of attention.  Too much else going on at the time, to be fair!

The main characters, though, are the fictional ones. The first person protagonist, the seamstress of the title, is Sira Quiroga.  The early part of her life’s a bit like a cross between Evita and a Georgian melodrama – she’s the illegitimate daughter of a Madrid seamstress and her married former lover, grows up in poverty, and dumps her nice boyfriend for someone who is clearly bad news.  Her long-lost dad reappears on the scene, gives her a load of money and jewellery, and suggests that she get out of Spain because trouble (the civil war)’s coming.  She and the new boyfriend go off to Morocco, and, whaddaya know, he runs off with her money and jewellery and leaves her with a huge pile of debts.  She gets involved with various shady characters, and sets herself up as a high-class dressmaker in Tetouan, where most of her customers are the wives of Nazis hanging around there, but where she also meets and becomes friendly with the aforementioned Rosalinda Powell Fox, and is recruited by the British Special Operations Executive.

She goes back to Madrid, and is sent on a mission to Lisbon, and there’s a lot of chasing around and jumping off trains … it is all a bit James Bond, but it’s largely a historical novel, full of information about what was going on in the Spanish protectorate and in Spain itself at the time. What would have happened if Spain had joined forces with the Third Reich and Mussolini’s Italy?  It could well have happened.  Maybe it’s best not to think too much about it.  It sounds a bit weird that a book should start off as a tale of poverty and dodgy boyfriends and then turn into a wartime thriller, but it does work really well.  I love the idea of writing notes in Morse code, made to look like the stitches for a sewing pattern!

And it’s been made into a TV series, under its original title – El Tiempo Entre Costuras (The Time Between Seams) – in Spain, but unfortunately it’s never been shown in the UK. Sky Arts used to show some good Spanish drama series – I really enjoyed Grand Hotel and Isabella – but they don’t any more, which is a shame.

The ending is really annoying, though. We see Sira reunitedwith Marcus Logan, a British spy with whom she’d become involved in Tetouan and then (as you do) just happened to bump into whilst she was on her secret mission to Lisbon.  After they’d dramatically got off the train together to escape the agents of the Spanish double agent who’s working for both the British and the Nazis (I did say it was all a bit James Bond), and it’d turned out that he knew her long-lost dad (yes, OK, it did get a bit far-fetched), but we don’t actually find out what happens to them after the war – we’re told that it’s all a mystery.  Sorry, but that’s a rather silly way to end a book!

But, apart from the ending, and the fact that some of the spy adventure stuff is a bit bonkers for a book that isn’t actually a spy story, it’s very entertaining, and very interesting. It really is easy to think of Spain and Portugal as having been outside the mainstream of European history for much of the twentieth century, and maybe even the second half of the nineteenth century too.  They weren’t.  And Tetouan – I love Morocco, but I knew nothing about Tetouan before reading this book, but what a fascinating place it sounds!  And, come on, Sky Arts, give us some more Spanish drama!