Jews Queers Germans by Martin Duberman

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This book, which can’t decide whether it’s a novel or an academic work, traces prejudices in Germany from the Harden-Eulenburg affair, which brought down the Kaiser’s inner circle and sparked a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash which those involved in the associated trial naively hadn’t seen coming, through the First World War and the “Cabaret era” of the Weimar Republic, and on to the rise of the Nazis.  There’s not as much about the royal family as I was expecting, but all sorts of well-known figures from the arts world of the time – Degas, Nijinsky, Colette, Josephine Baker, Isadora Duncan, George Bernard Shaw and numerous others – make appearances.  It’s not particularly well-written: I can just about live with the lack of commas in the title, because I think it’s the author’s way of showing that many key figures at the time were Jewish and gay and German; but having a 334-page book which isn’t divided into chapters is not ideal, books being written in the present tense can be irritating, the dialogue’s very clunky and it jumps around too much!   However, it’s an interesting take on a pivotal period in world history, and how people manipulate old prejudices in order to further their own political ends.  Also, one of the key figures in it has some sort of Manchester connection, but I can’t get to the bottom of it and it’s really annoying me!

It’s supposed to be a novel, written around three main characters – Graf Harry von Kessler, son of a German banker father and an Anglo-Irish mother, a diplomat and patron of the arts, on whose diaries much of it’s based, Walther Rathenau, businessman and liberal politician, and Magnus Hirschfeld, doctor and gay rights campaigner whose work was mentioned a lot in A Terrible Splendor. However, it would really have worked better as an academic book.  There are pages and pages of information about history, law, politics, scientific theories and philosophy, and much of the dialogue is just the characters repeating factual information to each other.  I never felt that I got to know any of them: there was no plot and no characterisation.

It’s quite bitty, as well – all the more reason why it would have benefited from being broken down into chapters.  It’s split into six parts, to be fair, but couldn’t half do with being split into chapters within those.  Also, whilst I’m moaning, it annoyingly refers to “England” and “Austria” rather than “Britain” and “Austria-Hungary”, doesn’t seem to realise that Disraeli converted to Anglicanism, and spells “principle” as “principal”!

Having said all that, the actual information is quite interesting.  It was the Harden-Eulenberg affair that I was really after, and about a quarter of the book covers that – with the Kaiser, who was portrayed sympathetically in The Summer Queen, coming across here as the very nasty piece of work that he really was.  The book opens with a conversation between the Kaiser and the Grafin von Moltke. To cut a long story short-ish, she claimed that her estranged husband, a general in the German army, was having an affair with the Kaiser’s best friend, Philipp von Eulenburg-Hertefeld, the Kaiser’s best mate and the leader of their so-called “Liebenberg Round Table” group of close male friends. Eulenburg & co came into conflict with another political clique, led by Friedrich von Holstein. There was a lot of tension over foreign policy, and over the Kaiser’s rather absolutist style of rule. At the same time, a number of military officers were tried by courts-martial for being gay, and six of them sadly committed suicide.

Journalist Maximilian Harden, a supporter of the Holstein clique, decided to bring von Eulenburg down by publishing reports about him and von Moltke. Moltke sued him for libel, and various other names were brought into it.  Strangely, the book suggests that Harden actually admired von Eulenburg and thought he was a good influence on the Kaiser, which makes no sense and completely contradicts what everyone else says about the whole affair!  Magnus Hirschfeld, a prominent doctor who’d long been campaigning for the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the German Empire, especially after observing how many of his gay patients had tried to commit suicide, was one of the key witnesses in the trial, naively thinking that proving that senior army officers were gay would do away with negative stereotypes.

Unfortunately, it backfired badly, with the far-right claiming that Hirschfeld, who was gay and Jewish, and Harden, who was a Lutheran convert but had previously been Jewish, were conspiring against straight, “Aryan” German men. There was a major homophobic and anti-Semitic backlash. Von Eulenburg’s influence was ended, but, however unpleasant he and his cronies may have been – they’re known to have held strong racist and anti-Semitic views – they’re also now seen as having had a moderating influence on the Kaiser.

Did the trial and its aftermath lead to a culture of what would now be called “toxic masculinity” in the upper echelons of Berlin society?  What was its personal and political effect on the Kaiser?   That was what I was hoping the book would discuss, but, instead, it jumped on to Harry Kessler’s travels in Britain, France and Greece!   All sorts of well-known arty figures, and a few obscure ones, get mentioned in this section, and then we jump back to politics with the introduction of Kessler’s friend Walther Rathenau, who would later play an important role at the German War Ministry during the Great War, and then become Foreign Minister. Wikipedia says he had business interests in Manchester, but I can’t find any more information about that and it’s really, really annoying me!!

So we go from arts to politics, and then, just as we’re getting into the build-up to the Great War, Kessler and Rathenau fade into the background and there’s a section about Magnus Hirschfeld, his theories about sexuality and gender identity, and his campaign, backed by many others, for gay rights.   Whilst it’s probably quite well-known that the Code Napoleon gave civil rights to religious minorities, it’s not very well-known that it also decriminalised homosexuality … but that didn’t apply in the German Empire, or, obviously, the British Empire.  Some of Hirschfeld’s theories read rather strangely now, but he really was a pioneer in his field.  Sadly, being gay, Jewish and what would now be called a gay rights activist made him a target for the far right – but he himself was a strong German nationalist, as was Rathenau (who was Jewish but not gay) and Kessler (who was gay but not Jewish), which I think is what the lack of commas in the title’s getting at, and the far right don’t get at all.  There’s also some interesting commentary on the differences between attitudes in Germany, France and Britain.  But this is not historical novel stuff: it’s stuff that belongs in an academic book.  I do not know why the author tried to present it as a novel!

Then Hirschfeld fades back into the background, and Kessler and Rathenau take centre stage again, having long discussions about Martin Buber and anti-Semitism.  Kessler’s presented as quite a liberal figure until this point, but, once the Great War starts, the book shows him developing more right-wing views.  Hirschfeld, by contrast, adopts more radical views.  We also see him defending the rights of gay men to serve in the Armed Forces.  It does feel a bit more like a novel at this point, but we’re still very detached from the characters … which is a shame, because they all seem rather interesting.

We then move on to the political and social chaos after Germany’s defeat.  It’s particularly unfortunate that we don’t really get to know Kessler, because he seems to have known everyone!   He was pals with the leader of the German delegation at the Versailles peace talks, as well as knowing anyone who’s anyone in the arts world.   This bit’s well-known – the war guilt clause, and the attempts to blame Germany’s defeat on Jews.  I honestly hadn’t realised just how much violence there was in Germany at this stage, though.  Over 350 political figures were murdered by right-wing extremist group Organisation Consul.  I’d have expected the book to focus on Rathenau’s role in the Treaty of Rapallo, in which Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to renounce all territorial claims and claims to war reparations against each other, but, instead, we get Rathenau talking to Kessler about Zionism.

Maybe this is the author’s way of saying that Rathenau’s assassination, in 1922, was because he was Jewish?  Was it?  Or was it because he was seen as a liberal?  Or accused of having links with communism?  Probably all three.  We do see that trade union leaders call on their members to down tools for a day and stage demos in honour of Rathenau.  He’s seen now as some sort of martyr to democracy … but he’s not very well-known in Anglophone countries, so it’s nice to see him playing a big part here.  Still can’t sort out the Manchester connection.  Apparently it was something to do with an electrical power station.  Could it have been the one at Radcliffe?

Hirschfeld isn’t killed, but he is badly beaten up.  This is the “Cabaret” era, and Hirschfeld does actually get involved in that: he promotes various films, and he’s friendly with figures from the arts world.  Max Harden also reappears at this point, having not been mentioned all through the war.  It’s all just so bitty!

Then, with the rise of the Nazis, another character enters the fray – Ernst Rohm, one of Hitler’s closest friends and allies and leader of the Stormtroopers.  There’s a strange parallel between the Harden-Eulenburg affair and the Night of the Long Knives, and it’s never usually picked up on.  I was going to say that I suppose it’s because what the Nazis did later was so horrific that it seems inappropriate to compare the rise of the Nazis to anything else, but some people seem to throw the word “Nazi” around strangely casually these days.  Anyway.  The views of Rohm and his circle on political and military affairs brought them into conflict with other members of the Nazi party, and, just as had happened with Eulenburg, his homosexuality was used against him by the faction who wanted to bring him down … although the author rather overlooks the fact that this was more of a common or garden power struggle than anything else.

Strangely, the author doesn’t actually draw the parallel.  There’s a lot of talk about about homophobic attitudes within the Nazi party and within German society in general.  We see how the Social Democrats attack the Nazis by associating them with homosexuality.  We see how the Nazi party tries to make a link between being Jewish and being gay.  This happens throughout history – people exploit hatreds and prejudices against different groups by making links.  It can be anything.  Sometimes there’s some sort of logic to it, e.g. linking Catholics and Jacobitism.  Sometimes there’s none at all. e.g. linking Jews and Communism.

But, as I’ve said, the author doesn’t link this back to events at the start of the book – and that says a lot about how bitty it is, and how there’s no real plot.  We see Hirschfeld travelling the world, before eventually settling in France.  We see Kessler also settling in France.  But there’s no real conclusion, and no bringing together of the different aspects of the book.  It was an interesting idea, and the author, himself both gay and Jewish, obviously feels incredibly strongly about both anti-Semitism and homophobia and is trying to raise awareness of where they can lead.  There’s a huge amount of information in this: he’s obviously done a lot of research.  But it does read as if someone’s bursting to tell you something and they just want to get it all out there, without making it particularly clear or easy to take in.  Good idea, not particularly good execution!

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Imagine – Hitler, the Tiger and Me (Judith Kerr) – BBC 1

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This was originally shown in 2013, but was repeated recently as a tribute to the late Judith Kerr, who died in May. Part of it was about the Mog books and The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and there were some references to her personal life; but most of it showed her revisiting Berlin, in the company of the BBC’s Alan Yentob, and talking about her experiences there – as told in When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. As the programme explained, the book isn’t only widely read by children in English-speaking countries but is also a set text in German schools. Various other authors were interviewed about their views on Judith’s books: Michael Rosen said that children’s books were a place of safety. Maybe that’s partly why some of us keep on going back to them, even when we’re supposedly grown up.

During her visit to Berlin, she went back to her old home, and met the people living there now. It must have been very strange both for her and for them, but she was very calm all the way through. It was so emotive – and even more so when she went to the local railway station and saw all the memorials there, with the dates of the wartime deportations, the numbers of people deported and the names of the concentration camps to which they’d been sent.

As she said, it was all very well having memorials, but no-one did anything at the time. The Nazis came to her family’s home, intending to confiscate their passports, just two days after they’d reached safety in Switzerland. Two days … had they stayed in Berlin just another two days, they’d almost certainly have ended up on one of those death trains. But, as in her books, she didn’t seem bitter. She just said how thankful she was too have been so lucky, and how she felt obliged to try to make something of her life, when so many people had been denied the chance to make anything of theirs.

It was also interesting to hear more about her father. I don’t think I’d realised just how important a figure he was. Apparently, he was considered to be second on the Nazis’ hit list. He was even friendly with Einstein, and hoped to join him in America – but America wouldn’t let the Kerrs in. It was very poignant to hear about how he felt that he’d lost not only his country but also his language: how could he keep on writing in German? It’s not the most obvious of issues to think of in terms of refugees and persecution, but it’s a very good point. If you’re someone to whom it’s important to write, and especially if you’re a professional writer, how do you cope when you lose your language? He went back to Germany after the war, but took ill soon afterwards, and, with the help of his wife, committed suicide. As we’re told in the books, they had suicide pills with them all through the war.

Judith and her brother didn’t; but she spoke about her terror in 1940, when the threat of invasion seemed so real and there was nowhere else to run to. Towards the end of the programme, we heard from some of the German children, two of them Jewish, studying When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit at school. They all spoke excellent English: most British schoolkids of that age can’t speak a word of German or even French! They’d have been about the same age that Judith was then, and they’d clearly taken in what the book was saying, but they didn’t seem scared.

It’s not a scary book. And I was the over-imaginative kid who had nightmares about the Vermicious Knids in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator! Not all children’s books, even those aimed at very young children, are a place of safety.  Mind you, I never re-read Roald Dahl’s books.  I suppose the children’s books that I do read over and over again – and there are many of them – are a place of safety, even though some of them take the reader to some pretty disturbing places along the war..  Michael Rosen was actually talking about the Mog books, and how Mog ends up curled up safely in a basket, with a fish, but the When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit books aren’t scary either. Maybe Roald Dahl wanted to scare kids. Judith Kerr didn’t. It takes one hell of an author to be able to write a book about fleeing Nazi Germany, with the word “Hitler” actually in the title, informing kids about what happened, without scaring them. Judith Kerr was that author.

Thanks to the BBC for repeating this: I didn’t see it first time round.  I’m glad I’ve seen it now.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit review.

As the Poppies Bloomed by Maral Boyadjian

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This is a novel about the Armenian Genocide, but it focuses on the home and community lives of a group of people in an Armenian village. We don’t see the death marches: we do see some of the main characters being murdered in their own homes.  I’ve head people question the popularity of The Diary of Anne Frank, because it doesn’t show the concentration camps or the Einsatzgruppen massacres; but the whole point of that book is that it reminds us that the victims of the genocide to which it relates were just ordinary people, leading ordinary lives, with the same hopes and dreams as anyone else.  This one’s the same.  The author uses the word “dehumanisation”, and, when there’s just been yet another mass hate killing, this time in El Paso, and when a frightening number of people seem to think it’s OK to dehumanise anyone who votes for a different political party to them, holds different views on a particular issue, or has a different ethnicity, religion, gender, socio-economic background, sexuality or sexual identity, it’s critically important to remember where dehumanisation can lead.  The author’s grandparents all survived the Armenian Genocide.  Up to one and a half million people didn’t.  The book also gives a very interesting insight into Ottoman Armenian culture and traditions.

I was quite disturbed by a comment I read on Facebook last week: someone had written that “[supporters of a particular political party] are not people”.  OK, you probably shouldn’t get too wound up over things that ignorant people write on social media, but there’s so much of it around these days.  It’s about anything and everything.  Often it’s the usual “hate crime” areas – race, religion, sexuality, politics.  Sometimes it’s targeting groups of people for the most bizarre reasons, like which football team they support, or even which newspaper they read.  All right, obviously I’m not suggesting that anyone’s about to try to massacre people who read a particular newspaper, but when you spout that sort of hatred, when you label people, when you dismiss them, lump them together, when you dehumanise them … it’s a slippery slope.

Anyway.  This book’s set mainly around the time just before and after the Siege of Van in the spring of 1915, when Ottoman forces attacked the city of Van and were beaten back by the Armenian resistance.  Exactly what was going on, especially whether or not the Armenians had Russian support, is still unclear – but what is clear is that horrific atrocities were carried out against the Armenian civilian population of the area, before, during and after the siege.  The region had already seen massacres of Armenians in the 1890s and 1900s.  The book’s centred on the Sassoun area, closely linked to Armenian nationalism, and the scene of massacres in 1894, 1904 and 1915.

It’s a fascinating portrayal of life in an Ottoman Armenian village. There’s a lot of very interesting detail about the structure of family and community life, and about food, drink, clothing, farming, the treatment of illnesses, and the rituals surrounding births, marriages and deaths. There are romances that work out, and romances that don’t. It’s a book about a group of relatives and friends leading their lives. It’s so important that there are books like this, fictional or non-fictional, about the Armenian Genocide, the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, or any other genocide, as well as accounts of death marches and concentration camps and mass shootings, because it’s so important to remember that the victims were just ordinary people They should have just lived their lives out in peace, but they had the bad luck to be part of a demographic group that was the target of other people’s politics and hatred.

This was a long-running thing, though. There’d been some talk internationally back in the 1890s about tackling the issue of the Turks’ treatment of the Armenians, but nothing was done about it. The older generation of characters well remember what happened then. Several characters are involved in political movements. The fear of the Turks hangs over them at all times. And then we see the killings, in several of their guises. We see women, children and old men massacred in their homes. We see other women taken away, their fate unknown: we know that mass rape was a big part of the Armenian Genocide. We see young men conscripted into the army to fight in the Great War, but killed by their supposed comrades. We see other young men killed in clashes between Armenians and Turks.

We also see that a lot of the killings were carried out by Kurds. That’s something that’s rarely spoken about, although it is acknowledged by some Kurdish groups.

Some characters survive. At the end, we see one of them in America, telling his grandchildren what happened. That’s based on the experiences of the author, who was born in Lebanon and now lives in Canada: all four of her grandparents were survivors. She mentions that many of her friends had never heard of the Armenian Genocide. The Turkish government won’t acknowledge that it happened. Most other governments don’t recognise it either – not because they don’t believe that it happened, but because they won’t risk upsetting modern Turkey, a major player in the complex politics of the Middle East.

Unusually, it was in the news in the U.K. recently, when respected academic surgeon Lord Darzi, whose grandparents fled the Armenian Genocide and lost many relatives and friends during it, resigned from the Labour party. He said “As an Armenian descendant of a survivor of the Armenian genocide I have zero tolerance to anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or any other discrimination against religion or race”.  In the U.S., Kim Kardashian West – not someone I thought I’d ever be writing about!! – has drawn attention to the subject, calling on the American government to recognise the Armenian Genocide.  It won’t happen, but at least she’s raising awareness of a subject that isn’t spoken about enough.

This is a very interesting book.  It’s not heavy-going or difficult to read, and it tells the reader a lot about Armenian culture.  There’s a lot of romance and family life in it.  But, essentially, it’s a novel of the Armenian Genocide, and that makes it important as well as interesting – both because the Armenian Genocide isn’t given the recognition that it should be, and because the world seems to be increasingly poisoned by hatred and we need to stop and remember where that can lead to.  This is a book about ordinary people leading ordinary lives.  And most of them end up being murdered.  Everyone who posts some nasty comment on social media, or shouts abuse at someone in the street, should bear that in mind – and, after what’s just happened in Texas, this is a particularly good time to do so.

Ann the Word by Richard Francis

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Shakers are a lot more interesting than Transcendentalists.  They do not worry about cold showers or manure.  More importantly, there’s the local connection.  Whilst obviously I knew that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, even I wouldn’t have claimed that “American’s most important and successful utopian community” had been deeply influenced by a fight over potato prices on Shudehill.  I’m not sure that I’d have claimed that Ann Lee, the first leader of the Shakers, was the most influential working-class woman since Joan of Arc, either – although I can see the point.  This isn’t a particularly good book, and it says nothing about the influence that Shakers had on architecture, furniture and education, not to mention bonnets, but it makes some very valid points about how the authorities couldn’t handle the idea of a religious community being led by a woman.  And it goes into quite a lot of detail about the geography of 18th century Manchester – which will probably mean nothing to New Englanders, who are presumably the intended audience, but is very interesting if you’re me.

To be fair, it’s meant to be a biography of Ann Lee, not a book about Shakerism; and she died before the Shakers had established their reputation for being skilled farmers, craftspeople and educators.  It’s a shame that something wasn’t said about that, though, especially as the author was quite negative about Shakerism.  OK, it’s hardly most people’s thing, but each to their own!  There aren’t many sources about Ann, other than those written by people who lived and worked with her, so most of what the book says about her time in America is just an account of conversions of different people, and it reads like a novel, with a lot of dialogue and detailed accounts of who took whose arm and who got upset and so on.

The part about her early life in Manchester is much more interesting – probably because there were virtually no sources about it, so it’s mainly about Manchester!  There’s an account of the Forty-Five, and also an account of food price riots in 1757, notably the one on Shudehill – along with comments about how this was all linked to working-class assertiveness.  If you go back to the Civil War era, and look at the Levellers and the Diggers, there’s certainly a link between working-class assertiveness and radical Protestantism: I’d never really thought about it in connection with the Shakers, but it’s a fair point.

Ann was born in Toad Lane, which is now Todd Street – by the side of where Cathedral Gardens, Chetham’s and the National Football Museum are – and, of course, that was the heart of town in those days.  The Infirmary, where Ann worked as a cook, and the “house of correction”, where she was imprisoned for a while, were all in that area.  So was the grammar school, which the author annoyingly doesn’t mention!  The descriptions of town in the mid-18th century are the best part of the book!   Ann’s early life is interesting, too, especially how she suffered from what would now be recognised as depression and eating disorders, and spent some time in an asylum: it was after that that she really got into the religious stuff.

There are also references to Shakers in the Cheshire area – mainly in the Marton area just north of Congleton.  There’s a really nice café there: I sometimes stop at it on my way home from Little Moreton Hall and Biddulph Grange!  And a reference to groups of “prophets” meeting in Great Budworth.  There’s a nice ice cream place there.  Sorry, food on the brain!

The parts about her life and work in America are, as I’ve said, mostly about converting different people: there are a lot of names, which I doubt will mean anything even to someone who’s very au fait with Shakerism.  However, the accounts of how the Shakers were persecuted by the authorities are fascinating, and disturbing.  They were accused of being British spies, this being the period of the American Revolution, and, as they refused to swear an oath of allegiance because they said it was against their faith, many of them were imprisoned.  Suspicion about a woman leading a religious group meant that Ann was horrifically persecuted. OK, there’d have been hostility towards anyone seen as claiming to be some sort of Second Coming, but Ann was seriously sexually assaulted.  It wasn’t just the authorities: the Shakers were attacked by mobs as well.  Think about the treatment of the Yazidis by ISIS.  Was the treatment of the Shakers by other Christians so different?

It’s not the greatest of books, but I very much enjoyed reading what it said about 18th century Manchester, and it made some very good points about hostility towards the idea of women as religious leaders.  It also said a lot about attitudes towards religious minorities in both Britain and America – not just Catholics and Jews, but minority Protestant groups as well.  I think we tend to forget that it’s only very recently that that’s changed, and there are still some issues now.  Anyway, I think that’s enough reading about New England Utopian groups – on to something else now!

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

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I feel vaguely guilty for having enjoyed this, because it was mostly just a lot of historical royal gossip. Maybe I’m being a bit of an academic snob here, because I never feel guilty about reading historical royal gossip when it’s in academic book format – Theo Aronson’s written loads of books like that, and so have Carolly Erickson and various other people, and I assume that Margaret Pemberton’s been reading some of them!  Or maybe it’s because I feel vaguely uncomfortable about reading fictionalised accounts of the lives of people who seem so close: the book runs from 1879 to 1918, but some of the main characters were still around as recently as the 1950s. I haven’t got Netflix, so I didn’t watch The Crown!  Anyway, I did enjoy it – and I suppose it wasn’t all fluffy stuff, because it covered the build-up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, focusing mainly on Princess May of Teck, later Queen Mary, Princess Alix of Hesse, later the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

There are an awful lot of cousins, who have relationships with and marry each other. If you’re used to royal family trees, it will make perfect sense. If not, you might get confused! It’s all been said umpteen times before, but it’s still entertaining. I’m not sure what the King of Norway would make of the suggestion that his grandmother, the then Princess Maud, had a full-blown affair with Prince Francis of Teck: it’s known that she was interested in him, but I’m not sure about the rest. And I’m not convinced that Princess May had always been in love with the Duke of Clarence. He comes across as a very romantic figure here, but, whilst the rumours that he was Jack the Ripper are more than a bit OTT, a romantic figure he was not! But I quite like the idea that Ella of Hesse went into her marriage with Grand Duke Sergei knowing full well that it was a lavender marriage, and actively chose that because it was the nearest she could, at that point, get to being a nun … rather than finding out after the ring was on the finger, as her sister-in-law Victoria Melita of Edinburgh did.

I’ve heard it all a million times before, but it’s still quite fascinating how there were all these cousins and second cousins marrying each other. Or not marrying each other, in the cases of Maud and Francis, “Eddy” (the Duke of Clarence) and Alix, Wilhelm and Ella, etc etc.

What about the three main figures? The book revolves around the fictional and possibly rather silly idea that May, Wilhelm and Alix recognised each other as “Kindred Spirits”, all being outsiders for one reason or another, and swore an oath of friendship. The blurb on the front cover says “Her broken oath would cast an empire into turmoil” … and I don’t actually know to what that’s supposed to refer! It makes no sense whatsoever. Does it mean something to do with Alix and Wilhelm’s supposed childhood friendship? And who’s “The Summer Queen”? Queen Victoria? May? That doesn’t make much sense either. Anyway, I think all the “oath” stuff is best ignored: it just seems to be there to try to justify the focus on three different people, and link them together.

Alix’s story has been told in both academic books and fiction umpteen times, and is therefore very well-known, but she seems remote in this book. We don’t really get a sense of her concerns about changing her religion, her fears for her haemophiliac son’s health, or what was going on with Rasputin. The book also suggests that it was Wilhelm who convinced her to marry Nicholas, which doesn’t make much sense either but is presumably to tie in with the “kindred spirit” idea.

Queen Mary’s story, on the other hand, has rarely been told. She’s usually seen as the epitome of dignity, and, because of that, as being a bit cold, so it was nice to see a book reminding us of her difficult childhood, as the descendant of a morganatic marriage, and the time her family spent living in Italy and the freedom she enjoyed there, as well as how difficult it must have been for her when the Duke of Clarence died. She comes across really well here.  I’m glad about that.  She’s an admirable figure who coped well with some very difficult times.

“Willy” comes across well too. He’s such a hate figure in the English-speaking world, because of the First World War, and also the appalling way in which he treated his mother. If Queen Mary is seen as the epitome of dignity, he’s seen as the epitome of Prussian militarism – but the author is quite sympathetic to him, reminding the reader of all the horrific treatments he was subjected to in order to try to cure the damage done to his arm by a difficult birth. He certainly didn’t have it easy, but I’m not sure why the author’s quite so sympathetic towards someone who was undoubtedly very militaristic, and had some very unpleasant attitudes. She shows him as being an Anglophile, when he was anything but, and ignores some of his extremist views. On a more positive note, she touches on the interesting Harden-Eulenberg affair, when his closest friend and advisor fell from power amid a lot of talk about homosexuality, then a taboo subject in the German Empire.  It’s something that’s increasingly attracting attention from historians of the period, many of whom link its effect on the Kaiser to an increase in militarism.

There’s the odd blunder – notably saying that the previous Queen Mary had been Mary Tudor! – and the author annoying refers to “England” rather than “Britain” all the way through, but it’s generally accurate.  In fact, it generally reads as if it most of it was taken from books by Theo Aronson or Justin Vovk, and fictionalised, but maybe I’m doing the author a disservice there.  Even though a lot of the subject matter is pretty “heavy”, especially that relating to Russia, the story’s fairly light, and it’s not a bad choice for holiday reading.  Something about it vaguely annoyed me, but I think that was just because it felt weird that the lives of people who lived so recently, and whose lives, at least in the cases of May and Wilhelm, are well within living memory, had been turned into easy reading.  And, as I’ve said, that’s probably just me being an academic snob!   Given that I knew all the factual royal gossip in this already, I am clearly a total hypocrite … 😉 .  And I did really enjoy it!

 

 

Fruitlands: the Alcott family and their search for Utopia by Richard Francis

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I have *not* taken to Transcendentalism: this is for research purposes only.  Fruitlands was the short-lived commune set up by Bronson Alcott, Louisa M Alcott’s father, and his London-born associate Charles Lane. They had an interesting range of ideas, from the admirable, notably supporting Abolitionism and, to some extent, women’s rights, to the offensive – some of their ideas about producing a perfect new generation came unpleasantly close to eugenics – and all sorts of other things.  Opposing organised religion and political parties – wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful …?   Following a vegan diet. Trying to avoid cooking anything.  Opposing individual property ownership. Drinking nothing but water, not using artificial lighting, showering and bathing using only cold water, not using any form of animal labour, not using even natural fertilisers (they said that manure upset the weather), practising celibacy except as “necessary” to procreate; and one of them was into nudism because he thought that clothes stifled the spirit.

Some of it seems rather extreme; and their experiment didn’t last very long.  After only a few months, Lane and Alcott fell out, Lane joined the Shakers – everyone knows that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, yes 🙂 ?!  – , Mrs Alcott put her foot down, and Fruitlands was abandoned. But certain aspects of their theories and practices held some appeal at the time and afterwards, and do resonate in our own age of concern about environmental issues and religious and political extremism.  But, as so often happens, it wasn’t thought out properly – trying to live entirely off natural products on land that wasn’t really arable wasn’t the greatest of ideas – and those in charge were so repressive and dictatorial and determined to force their views on everyone else that they created more discord than harmony.  Louisa wasn’t impressed … and yet there are certainly some aspects of Fruitlands in Plumfield.

This is for research purposes, as I’ve said – it’s not really bedtime or holiday reading.  But there’s some interesting stuff in it – plenty of food for thought.

Transcendentalism’s usually said to be an offshoot of Romanticism, combined with religion, and then taken off in the direction of separating yourself from wordly things and sticking closely to nature. I get myself all tangled up with Romanticism. It’s a Lancastrian thing – we’re very proud of the Industrial Revolution, but we also want to keep the Lake District unspoilt so that we can wander about dreaming of hosts of golden daffodils!

I do not get tangled up with religion, but some of the Transcendentalists did – Eve eating the apple was apparently a bad thing because, although apples work with veganism, she was looking for knowledge instead of just looking for an apple. This is not my department. If someone says “The Fall”, I assume they mean the late, great, Mark E Smith & co. It had links to aspects of Unitarianism, and also to the Shakers – who’ve always interested me because of the local connection.  I’m so parochial!  It’s linked to Hinduism and Jainism as well, and I find those links easier to follow, because they don’t get everything mixed up with the creation story.  Anyway, this is not my department, as I’ve said: I’m just doing some research into the history of New England, and this particular area of it appealed because of the Alcott connection.

Louisa M Alcott’s own take on it was that the men did a lot of waffling whilst the women tried to keep body and soul together.  I feel so sorry for Abigail Alcott, Louisa’s mother. Some observers commented that the Transcendalists – like 17th century Puritans – thought that no-one should be allowed to be happy; and remarks made in Abigail’s letters and diaries suggest that that was how she felt. Bronson, like a lot of idealists, conveniently ignored the practicalities of real life, so they were always in debt. He also nearly ended up in prison for refusing to pay his tax so that he could distance himself from the state – a bit like that Australian couple who were in the news recently, for refusing to pay their property taxes because they said that their property actually belonged to the Good Lord. (Presumably they were quite happy to use all the public services paid for by everyone else’s taxes.)  And he didn’t want to get a job because he thought that being a wage slave was bondage, but he thought it was fine to tap friends and relatives for money because that was encouraging them to be charitable!  A very far cry from Jo March writing penny-dreadfuls in order to pay her way in life.

Abigail suffered from both physical and mental health problems, as well.  A vegan diet is obviously fine if you’re getting the proper nutrition, but they didn’t have the requisite knowledge about that and so she was existing on fruit, bread and water, and consequently felt ill for a lot of the time. And the ideas about producing perfect offspring meant that Bronson blamed her when they had a stillborn baby. Even the domestic postbox idea, which she introduced and which sounds like such good fun when Laurie introduces it in Little Women, came about not as a bit of fun but as a way of trying to relieve domestic tension – write your issues down instead of bottling them up or yelling at each other about them. I don’t wonder she had enough. It can’t have been very nice for either her or the children … although it’s interesting that the Bhaers’ Plumfield, which was supposed to be so wonderful, was probably named after Plum Tree Meadows, the previous name for the area where Fruitlands was situated.

On a more positive note, the Anglo-American links are fascinating. I always think that with 19th century movements. Considering that letters must have taken quite a while to cross the Atlantic, the amount of communication and sharing of ideas is fascinating. The nudist guy was British, incidentally.  There was even an Alcott House, predating Fruitlands, in Surrey, named after Bronson Alcott. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea that American women were better than British women, though! That probably explains the rather offensive way that Louisa portrays Kate Vaughn, which always annoys me. And their contacts, or at least Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s contacts, with some very well-known names on both sides of the Atlantic, are worth nothing – Carlyle, Hawthorne, Thoreau. Louisa M Alcott’s probably better known than any of them these days: I wonder what Bronson would have made of that!

If Bronson Alcott were around today, he’d probably be one of those people who, whilst some of his ideas would be too extreme for most people, would have many ideas which made a lot of sense, especially with all the current concerns about the environment … but who alienate others with their lecturing tone, their refusal to respect or even listen properly to other people’s views, their lack of humour, their failure to consider practicalities and their constant attempts to guilt-trip everyone.  I don’t know why it always seems to get like that.  It’s a great shame.

Also, as the author points out, they didn’t really get involved with the Abolitionist movement, and they didn’t seem very concerned about all the other social and political issues of the day.  Marmee and the girls taking their Christmas breakfast round to the Hummels (this is my comment, not the author’s!) might not have changed the world, but at least they tried to help people in need!

It seems very likely that Plumfield was Louisa’s attempt at showing a gentler side of it – one which might have worked.

There’s a lot of philosophy in this book, so it’s quite heavy-going, but the author’s done a very good job with the subject matter.  Some of the ideas are quite outlandish, and he’s very critical of how self-obsessed they were, but he doesn’t mock them – yet, at the same time, he shows the impracticability of Alcott and Lane’s particular experiment, and its negative impact on Abigail Alcott and others.  And he gets a few Little Women/Little Men references in there, whilst resisting what must have been a strong temptation (well, it would have been to me!) to include dozens of them in a book which isn’t actually about them.  I wouldn’t say that this was an entertaining book, but it was quite interesting.

And, whilst I’m certainly not suggesting that we all start running around starkers, or avoiding eating potatoes because they grown downwards rather than upwards, some of the ideas are certainly relevant to today.  Avoiding buying clothes or other items known to have been produced unethically.  Being careful when it comes to artificial substances getting into the food supply. Not being cruel to animals.  The Fruitland experiment just wasn’t viable, and I don’t think I’d have liked Bronson Alcott or Charles Lane very much, but, as I said, there’s some food for thought here!

Queen of the North by Anne O’Brien

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I really like Anne O’Brien’s books.  She writes about historical periods which few other novelists cover, doesn’t mess about with the known facts, and gives plenty of historical detail without ever treating the reader as if they’re ignorant.  This particular book’s about Elizabeth Percy, nee Mortimer, wife of Henry “Hotspur”, aunt of the young Earl of March who was widely recognised as Richard II’s heir before Henry Bolingbroke’s coup, and sister of Sir Edmund Mortimer who allied with the Percys and Owen Glendower in the uprising of 1403 (defeated at the Battle of Shrewsbury, on the site of which there’s a very nice farm shop and cafe!).  It’s both very informative and very readable.

This is a period of history which is more familiar from Shakespeare than anywhere else.  It’s not generally taught in schools, and it wasn’t even taught when I was at university.   Yet the names are well-known – if only because Owen Glendower had a terrorist group named after him, and Henry Percy, because the Dukes of Northumberland owned land in Tottenham, has got a Premier League football club named after him!! Seriously, the Percys, Earls and later Dukes of Northumberland, are still going strong.  Often in the gossip columns, because the present duke’s children are pals with Princes William and Harry.  And still at Alnwick Castle – now also known as Hogwarts!  There aren’t all that many great homes and great noble names which go back so far.

The forgotten name’s that of Mortimer.  Well, you do hear it a lot at lovely Chirk Castle, one of my favourite National Trust properties; but the Mortimers could have been Kings of England, and, instead, the Duke of Lancaster deposed Richard II and became King Henry IV – an elusive figure despite the Shakespeare plays, and, like Henry VII, completely overshadowed by his more glamorous son – and the Mortimer line, with no male heirs after the deaths of Elizabeth’s Mortimer nephews, merged into the Yorkist line.

Richard II had no surviving royal brothers, no children by his first wife, and a second wife who was only a child.  So who was his heir?  Edmund Mortimer, descended from the second surviving son of Edward III but through the female line, and only a child, or Henry Bolingbroke, descended from the third surviving son, the Duke of Lancaster, through the male line?  Edward III’s supposed to have ruled out succession through the female line.  But England had never had the Salic Law – and Edward himself had claimed the throne of France through his mother.  And England’s not always that fussy about lines of descent anyway.  It shouldn’t have been relevant, because Richard would have expected to have children with his second wife eventually, but he fell out with Henry, and Henry deposed him, and … did he have him killed?  You’ve got to think so.  As with Peter III of Russia, it was all a bit too convenient that a recently deposed king just happened to die.

Shakespeare’s got Henry Hotspur, heir to the Earl of Northumberland, being a similar age to the future Henry V, the aforementioned glamour boy, but he was actually more of an age with Henry IV.  Henry IV really should have tried to keep the Percys, the so-called Kings of the North, on side, but he didn’t.  Hotspur and his brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer both fought for Henry against Owen Glendower, but Mortimer was captured and Henry refused to let the Percys ransom him.  Because he thought Mortimer was in league with Glendower?  If he wasn’t then, he was soon, and so were the Percys – planning to divide the country between them.  But the rebels were defeated, at Shrewsbury.  Hotspur was killed.  Elizabeth was pushed into a second marriage. Henry IV was duly succeeded by his son Henry V … and, if Henry V hadn’t died young, and his son Henry VI hadn’t suffered from mental health problems, the succession disputes would probably have ended there, but that’s another story.

So it’s quite a messy, complex period of history; and Elizabeth Percy, nee Mortimer, was closely connected to all the major figures involved.  This book suggests that she was always determined that her nephew was Richard II’s rightful successor, and that she.played a crucial role in her husband’s decision to join Mortimer and Glendower.  We can’t know for sure exactly what her role was, but it’s certainly not unlikely that she’d have been heavily involved in the decision-making, and there’s nothing in this book that couldn’t have happened.  The fact that it is about Elizabeth means that we don’t see or hear that much about the motives and actions of Richard II, Henry IV or Owen Glendower, but, to be fair, the book is not about them.  We see Elizabeth at court, though, and talking to her Mortimer nephews, and meeting Owen Glendower.  There’s also quite a bit of personal stuff about her relationship with her husband – we can’t know much about their marriage, but it rings true, and it works well in the context of the book.

It’s told from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, but it’s not really that sympathetic towards her, or towards anyone else involved.  Everyone – apart from the young Earl of March and his brother, who didn’t really seem that interested in the throne – was on their high horses about who was entitled to what and how badly they’d been treated, but no-one really behaved very well.  It must be far easier to write a book in which the protagonist is shown as being in the right, and in which the narrative takes one side or the other, than to write one like this.  And it’s probably also easier to write about a well-known figure like Anne Boleyn or Queen Victoria than to write about someone who was just a real as they were but of whom a lot of readers may never even have heard.

Probably quite tempting, as well.  Books about the Tudors and the Victorians always sell!  But I’m so grateful to the people who write about the more neglected periods of history – especially Jean Plaidy, who was the person who showed me that medieval history was absolutely fascinating and wasn’t all about motte and bailey castles and the daily lives of monks, which was much of what I’d been taught in the very brief time given to it at school!   And I also like the fact that Anne O’Brien focuses on women, who, unless they’re queens, and sometimes even then, are so often overlooked.

This is historical fiction for historians – there’s a lot of politics in it, and it helps to be familiar with the Plantagenet family tree, and it assumes that you know the basics.  I love that!  Not everyone will, but I do.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will certainly be reading Anne O’Brien’s next book, part of which will overlap with this one, when it comes out later this year.