The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler

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  This is a different sort of family Holocaust memoir, partly because it’s got recipes at the back, and partly because it’s about Innsbruck.  Not Warsaw, Lodz, Vilnius, Kyiv, Minsk, Vienna, Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Berlin, Prague or a little shtetl somewhere, but Innsbruck.  And I was going to say that this is the first time I’ve come across a Holocaust book about Tyrol, but, of course, the first ever slightly Holocaust-related book I read was The Chalet School in Exile.  And, for nearly 40 years, I have tied myself in knots over Austria – land of the Chalet School (which has played and continues to play a big part in my life), The Sound of Music (which I’ve seen 85 billion times), Sachertorte (which I like to have on my birthday, and at various other times during rhe year), strudel, coffee houses, lakes, mountains, waltzes, white horses, grand palaces … and, in the not too distant past, Nazis.  I’ve got photos dotted about the house of myself in Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.  Hey, I scoffed a huge piece of apple strudel from an Austrian stall at the Christmas market in Manchester last weekend.  But I still tie myself in knots over it all.

Most people probably know that, until recently, The Sound of Music had never been shown on state Austrian TV, because of Austria’s issues with itself.  And just to wander a bit off topic, Tony Warren, the late, great, creator of Coronation Street, addressed this issue in The Lights of Manchester, in which a character gets spooked during a romantic weekend in Vienna.  I even wrote a Chalet School fanfic to try to sort it all out in my head, but it really is difficult.

In this, we’ve got a British author inheriting a large amount of family papers from her Tyrolean-born father, who escaped from Innsbruck as a schoolboy in 1938, and looking into her family history – centred on the Cafe Schindler, the very popular coffee house on the Mariatheresienstrasse which was founded by her great-grandparents.  It was seized from the family after the Anschluss, but they did eventually get it back, but then sold it on in the 1950s … and it still exists.

The author seems to have started her research because she had questions about her dad and her complicated relationship with him.  I’m not sure that she needed to be so negative about him in a published book, but that was her choice.  The questions about him are never really answered, but there’s a lot in this, going back to the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, and how the various members of her family came to be in Innsbruck, or elsewhere.

There’s a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction subplot about a relative by marriage, Dr Eduard Bloch, a Jewish doctor in Linz who treated both Hitler and his mother before the Great War, and got some sort of special protection in the 1930s because Hitler had always liked him.   But the main character ends up being Hugo Schindler, the author’s grandfather – a proud Tyrolean, proud Austrian, who sometimes wore lederhosen and a little green hat, fought for Austria-Hungary in the Great War … and was badly beaten by people from his own local community on Kristallnacht, and lost his mother, sister and brother-in-law in the concentration camps.

The book takes us through the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the awarding of South Tyrol to Italy, and shows us the Schindler family setting up their cafe and how it became very popular in a city coping with the shock of everything that had happened.  Innsbruck wasn’t Vienna: there were very few non-Catholics there, and there were no “Jewish areas” – everyone lived together, one community.  But then, and this was something I found out myself when doing some research a few years ago, the events of Kristallnacht were particularly brutal in Innsbruck … and it has to be said that Tyrol has a history of intolerance of religious minorities.

And yet, after the war, the Schindler family chose to return.  The author talks about the complexities of the post-war era and how it suited everyone to cast Austria as a victim, when in fact Austria had welcomed the Nazis in.  There’s a lot of personal stuff in this book, which is, after all, a family history – family feuds, different members of the family ending up in different places, etc, but the main focus is on the Cafe Schindler, and they did eventually get it back.   The story isn’t always set out in the clearest of ways, but there’s a moving end in which the author ensures that “steine”, memorial stones marking the place where a Holocaust victim lived – I saw quite a few of them in Budapest in 2019 – are placed for her great-grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle.

Then there are recipes for Kaiserschmarm, apple strudel and Sachertorte.  I made sure that I had all of those when I went to the Vienna Christmas markets in 2019.  In fact, pretty much the first thing I did after leaving my luggage at the hotel was to rush off to the Cafe Sacher to have genuine Sacher Torte on its home patch.   Austria, land of coffee houses.  And Nazis.  But time moves on, and, as the author says, very few of the people who had anything to do with Nazi atrocities are still alive.  And the Cafe Schindler’s still there.  I very much hope to go back to Innsbruck one day, and, if I do, I’ll be calling in.

They Wanted To Live by Cecil Roberts

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This is the sequel to Victoria Four Thirty, and it contains a really strange admixture of themes.  And, as Hungary is much in the news today, due to the row over UEFA refusing to let Bayern Munich’s stadium be lit up in rainbow colours as a protest against the new Hungarian anti-LGBT laws, it seemed like a good time to be writing about it.

It’s 1938, and our porter friend Jim has a win on the pools, enabling him and his Hyacinth Bucket-esque girlfriend Lizzie to get married and set off on a Continental honeymoon tour.  However, when they reach Vienna, expecting to find glamour and culture, they find a Nazi-dominated hell.  Horrified by what they see, they agree to smuggle a Jewish refugee’s baby to Budapest … to what, in a book published in 1939, both the author and the characters sadly assumed would be safety.

However, in Hungary, we move away from the harshness of political reality and into a load of folksy peasant stuff, national costumes and dancing and galloping across the steppe, along with caddish counts, which all seems to belong more to the 1920s than the 1930s.  We also see Jim and Lizzie, who’s renamed herself Betty, taken up by a crowd of aristocrats, who either believe or pretend to believe that waitress Betty is a former debutante and porter Jim is an Old Etonian.  After several glamorous nights partying in Budapest, we head off to the country pile of a count … where we hear a lot about the multinational nature of the grand families of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, and numerous references to the Treaty of Trianon – which was a mess, and is still causing issues today.  The author wasn’t to know what lay ahead, but it will be hard for the reader not to reflect on the fact that Hungary will soon be throwing its lot in with the Nazis.

A twist in the tale then takes us to Prague, just as the Munich Agreement is being signed, so we get to see that from a Czechoslovak (as it was at the time) viewpoint.  And then Jim returns to his mundane but very real life in London.  The book was published in 1939, so presumably it was written before war was declared, but most people, even early readers, will have read it knowing that war lay ahead.

It really is a strange mixture of very unpleasant realities, with this young, naive couple, abroad for the first time, seeing just what is going on in Austria, and other characters even being driven to suicide by Nazi persecution, and a fairytale in which they get mixed up with the glamorous life of the Hungarian nobility.

Several characters from the first book reappear, but most of them don’t.  The descriptions of Hungary, and also of Vienna, are superb.  I’m not sure how realistic the whole storyline with the Hungarian nobles is, but, OK, I suppose it could have happened.  And the contrast between down-to-earth Jim and aspirational Lizzie is rather funny, until it all ends in tears.

It’s a very readable book, but I can’t remember the last time I read anything with such a complete mixture of different themes.   One minute you’re witnessing Nazi thugs beating up innocent people in a Viennese cafe, the next you’re being taken off to swim in Lake Balaton by a rakish count.  This is certainly different.  And, oh, what a contrast to the first book.  In that book, we saw characters thinking that they could escape their mundane lives and start anew somewhere else.  In this book, we feel all along that danger is lurking, and that Jim is very wise to want to return home, even if working at Victoria Station isn’t very exciting.

Not that I’m comparing the pandemic to the war, obviously, but I went to Vienna in December 2019.  I’ve got photos of myself in the Cafe Sacher, with a piece of Sachertorte, a Viennese coffee and a big grin on my face, and at the Hofburg and the Schonbrunn and the Prater.  When I came home, I thought I’d be back on my travels very soon.  Little do we ever know what lies around the corner, eh?

 

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton

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This is a very interesting book, although the style won’t appeal to everyone, about the Kindertransport and one of the women who was most important in it.  Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, known as “Truus”, was a Dutch (Protestant) woman involved in rescuing Jewish children, initially connections of her own friends and acquaintances, from Nazi Germany, from as early as 1933, going to Germany herself and bringing them to the Netherlands, which became more and more difficult as all countries tightened immigration rules.  When the British government agreed to the establishment of the Kindertransport programme, in 1938, Truus was asked by the Refugee Children’s Movement in Britain to travel to Vienna, meet Adolf Eichmann there in person, and try to persuade him to agree to let children from Austria be evacuated.  He tried to trick her by saying that the plan could go ahead if she could arrange for exactly 600 children to leave, in a very short space of time – and she managed to do it.

In total, around 10,000 children were brought to safety in Britain.  The book ends in 1939, but Truus continued to help refugees throughout the war, despite being arrested more than once, turning down the chance to leave the occupied Netherlands for safety in Britain herself.  She was unable to have children herself, and the book shows the sadness that this caused her and her husband Joop, but became known as the “mother of 1,001 children”.

The book’s partly about Truus, and partly about three fictional characters – a teenage boy, a teenage girl, and the boy’s younger brother – who become three of the 600.  The style of writing isn’t the most readable I’ve ever come across, but it’s a fascinating story.  We see Truus in action, and also her home life, and we see how the lives of the two teenagers, misfits who’ve become close to each other,  and their families are torn apart.  There’s also a toy Peter Rabbit.  I’m not sure how big Beatrix Potter was in inter-war Austria, but rabbits seem to be a bit of a thing in books about children escaping from the Nazis.

We also see just how quickly things changed in Austria.  It wasn’t a gradual process as it was in Germany.  Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, was opposed to the Anschluss, and Austria had no equivalent to the Nuremberg Laws until it was taken over.

The title of the book refers to the last Kindertransport train, which was from Prague, to depart before war declared.  It never reached the Netherlands, and no-one knows what happened to the children on it – but, sadly, I think we can probably imagine.  It does have a link to the characters, but it’d be a spoiler to say what.

Some of the language jars slightly: no-one in 1939 said “chalkboard” rather than “blackboard”, and a British person would have said “disembark” rather than “debark”.  OK, OK, that’s nitpicking; but it’s quite a strange book, with newspaper cuttings (which I think are actually fictional, although what they say is factual) about the latest events included in between every few chapters.  I thought it worked quite well, but people might find it off-putting.

It’s also quite unusual in that not only do Hitler, Eichmann and other Nazis feature as characters but we actually see things from Eichmann’s point of view in some scenes.  He has to be included because Truus did meet him in person, but it’s quite strange when we actually “see” his thoughts.  And the book does jump about a lot, between the different characters – not just the main characters, but various minor characters as well.  However, it’s a very interesting story – both the part about Truus, largely based on fact, and the part about the children, who are fictional but who speak for so many real children who were parted from their families by horrific events, but whose lives were saved,

The Kindertransport was sanctioned by the government here in that they agreed to make an exception to the immigration laws in the case of the children concerned,  but it was all organised by private individuals.  The treasurer of the Refugee Children’s Movement went to my old school, and two of the prominent committee members name-checked in the book went to our brother school.  Sorry, I just had to say that!  I’m not just being cliquey, honestly: I’m making a point that these were ordinary people, not aristocrats or politicians or celebs.  They put in a huge amount of work to persuade the government to agree to it, to raise money and win popular support, and to find homes for the children.  We’ve rather lost that civil society thing now: governments are expected to deal with anything and everything.  The work that these people did, on a voluntary basis, was very admirable, to put it mildly.

But they, at least, were safe in Britain – it was Truus who actually went into the Third Reich, putting herself in danger, to bring the children out, and without any personal reason for doing so, only that she wanted to help.  I’ve read better books than this, but it’s an amazing story, and she was an amazing woman.

 

 

The Chalet School and Cornelia by Katherine Bruce

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There are a lot of things about Cornelia Flower, one of the most memorable characters in the Chalet School series, which are never satisfactorily explained. Notably, how she was suddenly transformed from being a lying, cheating bully, breaching the Chalet School code of honour in pretty much every way, in her first few weeks at the school to being naughty but nice thereafter, and how she came to have such a close relationship with Mademoiselle Lepattre. This book covers the second half of the term which Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) described in The Head Girl of the Chalet School, which, as the foreword explains, was very eventful but rather rushed through, and answers some of the questions. I’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions about the Flowers remaining, though – maybe they could be answered in a sequel at some future date 🙂 ?

It can’t be easy trying to make sense of the contradictions in someone else’s work – and, as is often said in discussions in the Chalet School magazines, Facebook groups and internet fora, the books were written for children and EBD can’t possibly have expected them to be analysed in quite as much detail as they are now. I like to think that she’d be very pleased to think that there was so much interest in and discussion about the Chalet School books, nearly a century after the first one was written, though. It’s a great testament to how well-loved the books are.

It’s certainly very strange that Cornelia is described as a liar and a cheat, i.e. dishonourable, just about the worst thing that a Chalet School girl could be, shortly after arriving at school, and is so unpleasant that she not only reduces Simone to tears but also nearly comes to blows with peaceful Frieda … and then she becomes a perfectly nice girl without any sort of explanation/drama! The series is full of girls who, one way or another, are brought to see the error of their ways, but we normally at least see some sort of showdown scene, usually with one of the major characters involved. And there’s hardly anyone who’s as bad as Cornelia seemingly is to start with; and, when a new girl is difficult in any way, there’s usually something in her background that explains it, which there isn’t in Cornelia’s case.

So it’s all a bit of a mystery, especially as we’re never even told what she lied about or how she cheated – although, to be fair, Cornelia appears during only the fourth book in the series, when both EBD and the Chalet School were still finding their way. The explanation given here, that she never actually did lie or cheat and it was all a misunderstanding, and also that she’d clashed with Jo because Jo had been in a bad mood due to her worry about Madge following the birth of David, makes a lot of sense. I’m assuming that anyone reading this, if anyone at all actually is reading it, is familiar with the Chalet School books and knows who all these characters are, by the way!

And there are several one-to-one scenes with Mademoiselle Lepattre which show how their relationship develops. I think Mlle deserves that as much as Cornelia does, because, whilst she always comes across as a lovely person, she seems like a very weak headmistress when handling Eustacia and the feud with St Scholastika’s.  Her handling of Thekla’s behaviour is also poor, and asking the prefects to decide about Biddy’s future is just bizarre. Madge is shown as becoming a mother figure to Juliet, Robin and to some extent Grizel in the early books, and it makes sense that Mlle, the next person in charge of the school, would have come to fulfil that role for Cornelia, whose mother has died and who doesn’t seem to have any grandmothers, aunts, older female cousins or other mother-figures in her life, but we never actually get to see it happening. It’s great to have that gap filled in.

It’s also nice to see Mlle commenting that no-one minds the odd practical joke, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. That’s one of the joys of the Tyrolean era – no-one objects to a bit of harmless mischief. Compare that with, for example, the Middles in Peggy of the Chalet School having to endure an all-day punishment for using Regency language.

The book does cover a term that’s already covered in “canon”, and so, inevitably, there’s a certain amount of repetition of scenes and events that we already know. It’s the third recent fill-in book to cover a term that EBD wrote about herself, and, much as I’ve enjoyed reading them all and much as I love the Tyrolean era, I’m hoping to see future fill-ins covering areas in the chronology where there are gaps. The gap in the middle of The Chalet School in Exile is crying out to be filled, as are various parts of the wartime years.

We do see the revisited scenes from a different angle, generally Cornelia’s point of view, though. The rescue scene at the end is the obvious one, and another is Marie and Andreas’s wedding – one of my favourite parts of the entire series. I love the insight into the local culture, and I love the fact that the servants/domestic staff are treated as people with their own lives, not just ciphers who are there to serve the other characters. EBD wrote a lovely scene, sadly cut by Armada, in which Jem says how pleased he is that Marie and Andreas have got together; and the Pfeifens are as much a part of the early books as the Mensches or the Maranis are. Sadly, that doesn’t survive the Tyrolean era. By the end of the Swiss books, Rosli has worked for the Maynards for eight years without the reader even being told her surname!

There’s not really anything new in those scenes, though, but we do get to see a lot of other things which EBD either skipped over or only mentioned retrospectively; and I really enjoyed seeing those. During the Tyrolean era, the books aren’t “just” school stories in the way that they are later: the family lives of major characters form a big part of them, and a whole world develops, with many Old Girls living nearby. As time went on, and the average age of readers got younger, it probably made sense to focus more on the school and on schoolgirls, but, now that most readers are “grown-ups” (am I a grown-up?!), I think there’s room for hearing more about events out of school.

Madge having such a difficult time giving birth to David is one such instance of an important event only being touched on by EBD. When Jack Maynard turns up and tells Jo that she’s got to come to the Sonnalpe at once, and is quite brusque with his own sister, who’s clearly shocked and upset, it’s clear that Madge is in a bad way; but EBD couldn’t say much more because some of her young 1920s readers might well have been thinking that babies were found behind a gooseberry bush or brought by a stork. She’s often criticised for unrealistically suggesting that Jo gives birth to triplets with very little effort, and is winning swimming races against super-fit Roger Richardson shortly after giving birth to twins; but what happens with Madge reminds us that she was well aware that childbirth could be dangerous. Madge’s gynaecological history is quite interesting, with both Sybil and Ailie arriving well before they were expected, come to think of it!  Anyway.

Now, we get to see Jo’s anxious questioning of Jack as they head up to the Sonnalpe, and the conversations between her and first Jem and then Madge when she arrives. We also get to see the new parents and the new auntie with David. His arrival’s a really big thing for the school – it’s a real community at that point, and the girls get busy making toys for him, and scrap over who’s going to get to hold him when Madge visits. Later books say that David looks like Madge, but it’s nice to see Jem trying to claim that he looks like his own side of the family (as people tend to do with new babies!), and mentioning his sister Margot, to whom EBD doesn’t refer at all until later in the series.

A lot of events that are referred to but never actually shown at all are worked into the book, as well. Gisela’s wedding. Wanda’s wedding. Three weddings in one book does sound a bit more Hello! than Chalet School, but they’re all very different, with Wanda’s wedding involving a trip to Vienna, somewhere we never see the girls visit in the original books. Joey’s climb up the rocks, which she refers to in The Coming of Age of the Chalet School. I’m never entirely convinced by EBD’s insistence that so many people invited the entire school to their weddings, and I’m even less convinced by the idea of Wanda and Friedel interrupting their honeymoon in order to attend a school concert, but fill-in authors obviously have to work with what EBD tells us! Poor Friedel!!

Much of the plot of The Head Girl of the Chalet School is a bit bonkers, really! I always cringe a bit over Herr Arnolfi being referred to as a “madman” and a “lunatic”, but, OK, EBD was writing over ninety years ago. The whole story reads very uncomfortably to modern sensibilities – man holds young girls prisoner – but it was written in very different times. There’s quite a strong flavour of Victorian Gothic about it, in a lot of ways. And it’s early in the series, and EBD does try out a lot of different ideas early on – Eustacia’s accident is very reminiscent of What Katy Did. It certainly is different, as opposed to all the avalanches and blizzards we get in the Swiss books!

The idea of the salt caves was great, but is never really followed up on, so it was lovely to see the girls getting to visit the caves, and hear about local businesses preparing hopefully for an influx of visitors. And I really liked Katherine’s explanation that Herr Arnolfi had been a professional museum and that his illness was the result of the stress and pressure of his career: I thought that worked very well. There are so many minor characters in the Tyrolean books, and in The Head Girl of the Chalet School in particular, some recurring, some only appearing in one book, and I always want to know more about them! And I think he deserved a background story. Tales of someone living alone in a remote area, with local people saying they’re the devil or whatever, belong more to times well before the 1920s, but they certainly exist. It’s a sad story, and his life deserved that extra information.

In a different way, I’m not comfortable with Jo referring to Sophie Hamel as “Fatty” and making spiteful remarks about how a boat she was in would have capsized had Sophie been one of the party; but it does tie in with something she says in Two Sams at the Chalet School, and also with her nasty comments about Frau Berlin’s weight in The School at the Chalet. Considering that personal remarks are supposedly considered “ill-bred” in Chalet School land, there are an awful lot of digs about people’s weight all through the series. Three cheers for Jem Russell for telling Madge (in Joey & Co in Tyrol) that she looks fine as she is and doesn’t need to go on a diet! I enjoyed seeing the boat/rock-climbing incident, too. It’s so frustrating when EBD refers to something in a later book, and you think you must have missed it, or forgotten it, or that it’s been cut out of a paperback edition, and then you find out that, no, it’s just not there at all!

There’s also quite a lot of Austrian history in this. Good good! My personal specialisms are British, Russian and American history, but one of my best marks at university (apologies for “bucking”, as Grizel would say) was for an essay on Austrian history, and the tutor involved really couldn’t understand why I insisted on going for Austrian history rather than something more obvious such as the French Revolution. I would have explained, but I didn’t think he’d understand 🙂 . It’s told in a way that should appeal even to readers who aren’t historians, rather than sounding like something copied out of a textbook as it has to be admitted that some passages in the Swiss books do!

It’s also good to have Mr Flower’s back story filled in: the reference in The Chalet School in Exile to his having spent time in South Africa strongly suggests that his wealth came from some sort of involvement with precious metals or minerals, but we’re never actually told, whereas it’s expanded on here. I love the idea of his father having been a Forty-Niner, and of he himself having travelled the world and taken Cornelia with him.

There’s definitely something of the international man of mystery about him! Not so much at this point, but certainly later on. As I said, I’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions about the Flowers! Most of them relate to the period covered by The Chalet School in Exile, set several years later, so obviously they couldn’t be answered in this book, but maybe they could in some future book 🙂 ? Why on earth did Mr Flower buy up the school buildings – what was he planning to do in a fairly remote part of a country that had just been annexed by the Third Reich? And, the following year, what was he doing in Bordeaux, and how come umpteen other characters all ended up there with him?

There’s also a cryptic remark earlier on about Cornelia getting such mothering as not even Mademoiselle Lepattre could provide. I can only assume that EBD intended to provide Cornelia with a stepmother and then forgot about it! Finally, why did the late Mrs Flower give Cornelia two Russian-sounding middle names – Naida (an abbreviation of Nadezhda) and Anastasia? Anastasia is obviously associated with the youngest of the Grand Duchesses, and I’m guessing that Naida was a misspelling of Nada and that EBD got the name from Nada (Nadezhda) Mountbatten, nee Torby, Marchioness of Milford Haven. Maybe she just liked reading royal gossip … or did she have some mysterious link to the Romanovs?!

Anyway! This book does a great job of answering the main questions that arise when we first meet Cornelia, and of describing events which EBD mentions but doesn’t show. There’s the odd EBD-style-ism, notably Friedel von Gluck being described as Bernhilda’s fiancé rather than Wanda’s fiancé, and the odd typo such as Carinthia being spelt “Carinithia”. And I’m fairly sure that Andreas never worked at the school, and that Marie moved to Die Rosen – I gather than the references to “Die Rosen” as “Die Blumen” are genuine EBD-EBD-isms, and have just been replicated here 🙂 – as soon as Madge and Jem got married, rather than after her own wedding, but, hey, no Chalet School book would seem at all authentic without one or two slips.

It’s a very enjoyable read, and I know that an awful lot of Chalet School fans have already bought it and read it. There’s something magical about the Tyrolean era of the Chalet School, and anything that takes me there is incredibly welcome!

The Chalet School Annexe by Adrianne Fitzpatrick

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This is a fill-in that’d been waiting to be written!   It’s very frustrating that EBD, having set up the Annexe and located some of the main characters there, never showed us anything of Juliet’s time as a mistress, Juliet and Grizel working together, Madge’s temporary return to teaching, or Robin’s maturing from a rather irritating “Engelkind” to the girl who braved a crowd of baying Nazis to try to help Herr Goldmann.   Robin’s the central character in this book, which I think is probably what most readers would have expected.

(Although this is set in the 1930s, and therefore classes as being historical even though there’s no history as such in it, nothing I’m saying will make much sense to anyone who doesn’t read Chalet School books.  I’m just indulging myself by writing it.  It’s “Twixmas”, after all!)

Jo barely features.  Hooray!  I don’t dislike teenage Jo, but I do dislike the way that, as the series progresses, she’s placed at the centre of everything, even in situations which shouldn’t involve her at all. I’m very fond of Madge and am always sorry that she’s shoved into the background, quite probably so as to leave centre stage free for Jo; so it’s great to see her involvement here … although it can’t have lasted for long, as Sybil was born at the end of the following term.  There’s such a nice scene in which Madge gently ribs Juliet about being so keen to make the Annexe seem like the Chalet School that she insists on referring to a tiny little room as “Hall”, and it really does get across that lovely lightness and humour that we get in the early books, before the School starts taking itself and its institutions too seriously.

Juliet, despite her youth and inexperience, manages things very well, although we do see her being nervous early on.  Strangely, there’s not a single mention of Donal, or the general fact that Juliet will only be teaching until she and he can afford to get married.  I can’t stand the man and wish Juliet had sent him packing, but it does seem a bit odd that there’s no reference to him.  Oh well.  The interaction between Juliet and Robin comes across very nicely, and Gertrud’s absence – we were originally told that “Grizel and Gertrud” would be helping Juliet, but then Gertrud never appeared!  – is satisfactorily explained as being due to a ski-ing accident.  I have such great admiration for the way in which fill-in authors work their way round EBD-isms 🙂 .

I’m sorry that Grizel, although it’s nice to see her getting a chance to teach Games as well as music, is portrayed unfavourably, though.  I’m sure it’s exactly what EBD would have done, because she always seemed keen to insist that Grizel disliked Robin and was jealous of her, but I think Grizel gets a raw deal in the later Tyrol books.  Surely anyone would be upset if they invited an old friend for a catch-up and just got “Can’t.  Where’s my Robin?” in response, without so much as a “Sorry” or “Maybe another time”, or if they had to hear of an old friend’s engagement second-hand?  Grizel put herself in considerable danger to rescue Robin in Head Girl, and that gets forgotten about.  As I said, I’m sure the way Grizel’s written here is the way EBD would have written her, had she written a book about the Annexe, so it’s no criticism of Adrianne Fitzpatrick, but I do think it’s a shame.

Most of it’s about the girls, though, as you would expect, not the staff.   EBD never named most of the twenty-two pupils of the Annexe, so a fill-in author was free to guess at them.  It’s great to see Lilias Carr included: we hear very little about the school-age pupils at the San.  I’d like to have seen more of Stacie, but I suppose there’s only so much you can fit into a book of this length.

The main plot is one which EBD liked and used several times – in New, Bride, Oberland and Feud -, that of a group of Chalet School girls and a group of girls from another school/other schools having to find a way to come together.  Seeing as EBD used it no fewer than four times, it’s hardly original, but it’s good to see Robin and Amy, two of the central characters of the early days, at the heart of it, along with Signa.

There are also a whole load of minor plots.  We see, very realistically, that some girls aren’t at all happy with being moved to the Annexe.  EBD, who didn’t like to criticise either the school or the doctors, never really hinted at that, but surely it was inevitable.  Amy misses Margia.  Inga misses her friends.  Renee is worried about her music lessons.  Irma feels that she’s missing out on all the excitements at the main school.  They must have felt like second-class citizens, and that must have been hard for everyone – and it must also have been strange knowing that most of the girls hoped to be moved to the main school ASAP.  And, yay, one girl rebels and has a hot bath!  I always find it very unrealistic that no-one in the entire canon series ever does that!

There isn’t that much about “delicacy” and health issues.  We’re told that they only have short lessons, and are encouraged to go out for fresh air in between lesson periods, which is interesting, and there are some references to medicine, but there’s not actually that much sense of it being a special school in any way.  Doctors are barely mentioned!   However, it would have been pretty miserable if it’d been some kind of set-up in which no-one was allowed to do anything in case they hurt or tired themselves – and that wouldn’t have fitted with the emphasis on fresh air and exercise anyway.  And, as the author pointed out, Jem would definitely not have wanted them sleeping outdoors in all weathers, which was the way it worked at some “health” places at the time J.

There are no major accidents or disasters, but there’s a lot of the usual Chalet School stuff that we know and love!  Cookery lessons, making stuff for the Sale, expeditions, etc.  It’s very well-written, and it reads a proper Chalet School without ever slavishly following EBD’s use of language or syntax.  There’s no point at which you think that that wouldn’t have happened, or that that character wouldn’t have behaved in that way, but, at the same time, it’s different, because a lot of the characters are unfamiliar and the whole Annexe set-up is unfamiliar.

It’s not particularly exciting, in that there aren’t any dramatic incidents/accidents, but, quite frankly, it all gets a bit too much in some of the Swiss books, where there are meteorites landing on cricket pitches, sudden blizzards and avalanches every five minutes and people lying “still, grey and to all appearance dead” all over the show!  There’s more than enough in the plots and the characters here to hold the reader’s attention.  The only things I’d moan about are criticisms of the Chalet School (I love it to bits, but nothing’s perfect!) rather than of this book, i.e. the portrayal of Grizel and the repetition of the two-become-one plot.  It’s a really enjoyable read – and the Tyrol-era Chalet School books are so good that anyone who can write a book that genuinely feels like one of them deserves a lot of credit!

The Amber Heart by Catherine Czerkawska

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This is meant to be a star-crossed romance set against the complex political, social and ethno-religious background of 19th century Galicia (the Ukrainian/Polish one, not the Spanish one) … but there’s a delicious interlude in which Our Heroine is escorted round the sights of Imperial Vienna by a handsome nobleman who keeps buying her Viennese cakes and pastries.  We get long lists of these.  He even hires a personal patissier, in the hope of impressing the lady.  Maybe this is some sort of romantic fantasy of the author’s?  If so, it’s a pretty good one.  If anyone knows where you can find one of these cake-providing handsome noblemen, please shout up.

The Siege of Atlanta moment in this is the Galician Slaughter/Peasant Uprising of 1846.  Polish history puts a lot of emphasis on uprisings.  1794.  1830-1831.  1863-64.  The leaders of these are all lionised.  However, the 1846 Uprising – very badly timed, because if they’d waited another two years then Austria would have been trying to deal with Hungary and Northern Italy at the same time … although, in that case, Russia would probably have got stuck in – gets quietly overlooked because it ended up with the Poles all fighting each other and doing the Austrians’ job for them.  This is the first book I’ve ever found which deals with it as historical fiction, and one of very few books I’ve ever found which deal with the glorious confusion that is Galicia as historical fiction at all.

I don’t think the author quite knew how much historical/political background to give, and sometimes it seems as if she’s decided that she’d better explain things, so she includes some information about the Partitions and about the Habsburg Empire.  However, she doesn’t do it until after covering events which wouldn’t really make much sense if you didn’t know the background.   The Polish Partitions and the Habsburg Empire are both fascinating subjects, but I’m not sure that they’re that well-known in English-speaking countries, and it would have made more sense to have put the background info in first.  Having said which, it’s rather nice feeling that you’re expected to know what’s going on.  OK, I won’t write an essay on the Partitions, because this book’s about Austrian Poland/Ukraine and I always come at the whole thing from a Russian viewpoint.

Anyway.  A star-crossed romance.  Our Heroine is a Polish, Roman Catholic noblewoman.  Our Hero is a Ukrainian, Orthodox peasant.  You get the idea.  Come 1846, the Polish upper and middle classes staged a rebellion, centred on what was then the Free City of Krakow, with the hope of regaining their independence.  The Polish peasants in Austrian Poland (much of which is now part of Ukraine) rose up against the Polish landlords – serfdom still existed in Galicia at this point, although it was abolished two years later – and actually massacred a fair number of them, and the Austrians were able to put down both rebellions, but not before taking advantage of peasant support against the nobles.  And, to put the tin lid on it, a load of crops got destroyed in the chaos.  And Krakow lost its status as a free imperial city and was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire, which it wasn’t very pleased about.  So it’s probably no wonder 1846 doesn’t get spoken of in the same terms as 1863-64 et al.  It was a pretty major disaster from a Polish viewpoint.

Our Hero rescues Our Heroine from the peasant mob who attack her home and murder her husband, and, having fancied each other for years, they then get together.  It doesn’t fit in that well with the historical facts, though.  The uprising was in the Polish areas, not the areas where most of the peasantry were Ukrainian (or Ruthenian, or identifying as Orthodox rather than Catholic … the terminology’s a nightmare with Galicia).  The villages also seem to be very much mixed Polish and Ukrainian, which I’m not sure they would have been … although it’s meant to be set near Lviv (referred to in the book, correctly in terms of historical context, by its Austrian name of Lemberg), and that was much more mixed before the Poles moved out after Lviv was moved from Poland to Ukraine the Second World War … mostly to Wroclaw, which needed repopulating after the Germans had been booted out when it was moved from Germany to Poland.  That all makes complete sense, doesn’t it 🙂 ?

Oh, and how come all the Ukrainians are Orthodox?   Given that we’re near Lviv/Lwow/Lemberg, shouldn’t most or all of the Ukrainians be Greek Catholic?  I don’t like that expression in a Ukrainian/Belarusian context, and think that “Uniate” is far better, but apparently people prefer “Greek Catholic” and “Uniate”‘s seen as being a bit offensive.  Come to that, why are none of the characters Jewish, bearing in mind that we’re talking about Galicia in the mid-19th century?

Oh well, I suppose a bit of historical licence can be forgiven.  It’d spoil the story if the hero and heroine weren’t of different nationalities and different religions, as well as from different social backgrounds!   The idea is that everything’s against them.  It’s a lifelong relationship: the amber heart of the title is a necklace given to him by her mother, who dies after catching smallpox whilst trying to nurse his mother through it.   They never actually marry, and in fact they both marry other people, but they’re involved on and off for years, and have two children who are passed off as being someone else’s.  Funny how some of the greatest romantic novels of all time work like that: The Thorn Birds is the obvious one, and A Dark and Distant Shore is another.  This doesn’t come even close to being in that league, but it’s so rare to find a book set in Galicia.  James Michener’s Poland is, in part, and there’s Michael Andre Bernstein’s Conspirators which is great, but they aren’t sagas about the lives of particular characters like this is.  And there’s quite a bit of interesting description about the homes and lifestyles and customs of both the nobles and the peasants.

There’s even a feminist angle: Our Heroine does not remarry after her husband dies, but runs her estate on her own, with the help of Our Hero as the estate manager.  At the end, whilst it’s usually the bloke who dies first, leaving the woman to ruminate on what might have been – with the obvious exception of Wuthering Heights – in this case she dies first, and he actually does a bit of a Heathcliff: he doesn’t go around kidnapping people and forcing them into marriage, but he does mope around and drink too much for a while.  Then he dies too.  Hmm.  Books that just do the happy ever after thing end with the couple getting married: books like this inevitably end with one or both of them dead.

And finally, what of the cake-buying nobleman?   Well, he doesn’t get the girl either.  She leaves Vienna, and moves back to her country estate near Lemberg/Lviv/Lemberik/Lwow/Lvov.  At least all the commonly-used versions of the name begin with L:  Bratislava/Pressburg/Pozsony’s far more confusing.  Her cousin lives in Vienna for many years, and puts on loads of weight from eating all the cake.  Seriously, this book gives the distinct impression that all anyone does in Vienna is eat cake.  Ahem – not that I’ve got a photo just above the computer of myself in a Viennese coffee house with a huge piece of Sachertorte in front of me.  And I’m always moaning about how much I struggle to lose weight.

Anyway, you’d think that someone – one of these irritating people who eat cake all the time but never put on an ounce – would have snapped him up, but no.  He continues to adore Our Heroine, and, having sussed out what’s going on with her and Our Hero, he reflects sadly that he offered her cake when all she really wanted was rye bread.  That’s supposed to be some great allegory for the whole thing, but it doesn’t work because she carried on living in her big house, with her servants and her expensive gear, so it was hardly as if she was managing on bread and salt all for the love of Our Hero.  But it’d be a brilliant line if she had been.   So, he doesn’t get the girl, but they’re best friends, probably more like sister and brother.  It’s quite sad for him, but it’s nice as well.  Sometimes people aren’t destined to be a couple, but there’s no reason why they can’t still be friends.

Incidentally, I’ve never yet made it to Lviv, but I remember thinking in Krakow (and in various other Slavic areas which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) how nice it was that you could have black bread for breakfast and Austrian-style cake for afternoon tea!   And that’s Mitteleuropa.  As of this week, the Berlin Wall has been down for longer than it was up.  That really makes me feel old!   But I think we still see Europe in terms of Eastern Europe and Western Europe, the way we did during the Cold War, and it’s time to stop that.  And that probably goes right against the grain (bad pun about Ukraine as a major grain producer entirely intended) of the 1846 attempt by the Galician nobility to get away from Austrian influence … and which all went wrong.  Very unusual choice of background for a book, and that’s nice.  It’s hard finding books set in Galicia!

 

 

 

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

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“The Accidental Empress” of the title is “Sisi”, Elisabeth of Bavaria, who married Emperor Franz Josef and became Empress of Austria, and, later, Queen of Hungary. She’s an interesting figure who, like Diana, Princess of Wales, attracted quite a cult-like following both during her lifetime and after her tragic early death.  However, this book – which goes as far as the Ausgleich of 1867, with a sequel now available – doesn’t really do her story justice.

It starts off quite well, with an account of Sisi’s childhood, and how it was her elder sister who was supposed to marry Franz Josef, until he fell in love with Sisi instead. It’s interesting reading a historical novel about Franz Josef as a young man: he reigned for so long that you tend to forget that he wasn’t always the elderly man that he was by the time of the Great War!   And the clashes between Sisi and her domineering mother-in-law come across quite well.  But the really interesting period of her life, her sad struggles with anxiety and depression, just doesn’t come across well at all.  The time she spent away from Austria is skipped over, and, whilst her eating disorders and obsession with exercise are mentioned, the reader doesn’t really get any sense of how she’s feeling and why she’s having these issues.  I don’t know if maybe the author doesn’t feel comfortable writing about mental health issues, but she doesn’t convey them well at all.

Also, a lot of important characters are missed out. The author does explain that she didn’t want to over-complicate things, but I’ll be interested to see how, in the sequel, she explains how the succession works after Rudolf’s suicide, having given the impression that Franz Josef was an only child! One major character who does figure prominently is Count Andrassy, Hungarian politician and Sisi’s alleged lover, but the book gives the impression that Sisi and Andrassy were responsible for the Ausgleich, whereas it was really Ferenc Deak (the politician, not the footballer of the same name!) who played the most important role in bringing it about.  And I’m not sure that people would have referred to Buda and Pest as “Budapest” in the 1850s.

It’s not a bad book, and it isn’t meant to be a textbook, but it could have been so much better, with a bit of effort.  That’s really frustrating!

Vienna: Empire, Dynasty and Dream – BBC 4

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I appreciate that there’s rather a lot to get through in just three hour-long programmes, but I was only expecting the first programme to go as far as the abdication of Charles V. Instead, it whizzed right through to the Siege of Vienna (the 1683 one!). So that was quite a lot to think about all in one go! Simon Sebag Montefiore’s programmes are always excellent, though: he treats the viewer like an adult, but doesn’t make things too academic for a general audience. He gets the facts across, but he livens things up as well. Plenty of talk about blood and gore, a lot of ironic comments about strange royals, and, of course, he had to mention the fact that the officials who were chucked out of the window in Prague in 1618 landed on a pile of dung. Rather disappointing that we only saw one piece of strudel, though; and not a mention of cake. However, the next episode will be moving on to the 19th century, so I assume we’re going to get Einspanners and Sachertorte then. And maybe a bit more strudel too.

I’m not sure that Simon’s very keen on the Habsburgs, but never mind. Anyway, after a very (and I mean very!) brief mention of Vienna’s pre-Habsburg history, we moved rapidly on to the Habsburgs becoming Dukes of Austria in the late 13th century, and then equally rapidly on to the Privilegium Maius, the brilliant mid-14th century forgery which invented the title of “Archduke” and enabled the Habsburgs to become king-like rulers of Austria, and the founding of Vienna’s university. Then we whizzed forward again, to Frederick III becoming Holy Roman Emperor in 1442.

I wish we’d heard more about the early years. The focus for English historians looking at European events in the 13th and 14th centuries, and the first half of the 15th century, is so much on the conflicts between England and France that everywhere else tends to be overlooked. Anyway, the programme wasn’t meant to be filling in gaps in other sources, so I suppose it can’t really be criticised for that. And so to Maximilian. I’m never sure that Maximilian really liked Vienna. I always get the impression that he preferred Innsbruck. Anyway, Maximilian married Mary of Burgundy, and thus the Habsburgs gained control of the Low Countries.

That part of expanding the Empire was planned. The rest wasn’t. I’m not sure that the programme really got that across. Yes, Philip the Handsome married Juana of Aragon (whom Simon rather annoyingly and incorrectly insisted on referring to as “Juana of Spain”), but no-one expected that that was going to give the Habsburgs control of Aragon and Castile, and the Castilian possessions in the “New World”. It only happened because Ferdinand and Isabella’s other heirs kept dying. The same with Hungary – Anna Jagellon, who was married to Charles V’s brother Ferdinand, wasn’t supposed to be the heir, but her brother died without having any children.

This was the point at which the focus really did switch to Vienna itself, rather than to the Habsburgs in general. The Italian Wars weren’t mentioned at all. The Diet of Worms, the Wars of the Schmalkaldic League, and even the Peace of Augsburg never got mentioned either – there was a brief mention of Martin Luther, but that was about it. That was a very interesting reminder that the focus in England, France, the German states, etc, was at the time, and is now when we think about the 16th century, so much on the Reformation that the march of the Ottomans across the Balkans, into Hungary and, in 1529, to the outskirts of Vienna itself, doesn’t get anything like the amount of attention it deserves.

On to Rudolf II. The fact that he moved the capital to Prague and therefore shouldn’t have got nearly as much attention in a programme about Vienna was conveniently overlooked, so that various stories about his weird goings-on could be mentioned. There were a lot of references to Habsburg inbreeding, which was to cause so many problems for Spain as well as for Austria. Then back to Vienna, and the Thirty Years’ War. I always come at the Thirty Years’ War from a Swedish viewpoint, but, of course, from an Austrian Habsburg viewpoint it was all a great, Catholic, triumph.

Then things went pear-shaped. Surprisingly quickly – only 35 years passed between the Peace of Westphalia and the Siege of Vienna. “Please don’t do the Sobieski thing,” I muttered to the television; but, of course, he did the Sobieski thing. People always do the Sobieski thing. It’s not that I’ve got anything against Sobieski, but it really annoys me how he gets all the credit for defeating the Ottomans, and Eugene of Savoy doesn’t get any. Poor old Eugene! Overshadowed by Sobieski during the Siege of Vienna, and overshadowed by Marlborough during the War of the Spanish Succession. The only time Eugene gets any credit is when talking about the Great Turkish War of the 1680s and 1690s, and no-one ever talks about that!

No coffee. No croissants. No bagels. People usually mention at least one of those when they’re talking about the Siege of Vienna. I think Simon got rather short-changed with this series, because he spent most of his time wandering about and we only once saw him in a coffee house. Someone please provide the man with an Einspanner and a huge piece of cake? He deserves them. He got through a hell of a lot in an hour!  I still think I’d rather that this had gone a bit more slowly, but I suppose there’s a lot more to fit in and only two hours left.  Shame it’s not more!

Woman in Gold

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Word Press   This film has received very mixed reviews and, yes, a lot more could have been made of a fascinating fact-is-sometimes-stranger-than-fiction true story; but it’s worth seeing even so.

It tells the story of the battle by Maria Altmann, an elderly woman living in California, to regain various paintings stolen from her family by the Nazis, including the famous painting of Adele Bloch-Bauer, her aunt, by Gustav Klimt – which was known sometimes as “Woman in Gold”, and which, displayed in Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery for many years, became so important in Austrian culture that it was referred to as Austria’s Mona Lisa.

Adele, who died young, had asked her husband Ferdinand to leave the painting to Vienna’s Belvedere Gallery after his own death.  Events then overtook the family, who were Jewish: Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer fled to Switzerland and his collection of valuable paintings was stolen by the Nazis.  In his will, he left his property to his nephew and nieces.

Years later, Austria began a programme of “art restitution” and Maria found out that the paintings had been stolen. It’s been described as cheesy and heartwarming – and, yes, Maria won out in the end.  And, yes, the fact that she then sold the paintings is glossed over a bit.  But it makes you think.

In particular, it makes you think about Austria.  I’m not going to write an essay about the very complex issue of Austria and the question of its Nazi guilt, although it’s something I’ve done quite a bit of research into (for Chalet School fanfic, of all things), but it’s something that’s never really been resolved and now probably never will be.  It was recorded that Austria was a victim of the Nazis, but Austria did vote overwhelmingly in favour of the Anschluss and there’s a lot of incontrovertible evidence showing that the Nazis were welcomed into Austria and, after the war, Austria wasn’t treated like the other states: it was, like Germany, divided up between the Allies, and didn’t regain full independence until 1955.  And it has this strange dual image in other countries.

Look, I love Austria.  I love the Chalet School Tyrol-era books.  I’ve seen The Sound of Music so many times that I pretty much know it off by heart.  I’ve got a photo on display of me sitting at an outside table at a Kaffeehaus in Vienna, a big grin on my face and a cup of coffee and a piece of Sachertorte on my plate.  My favourite café in my home city of Manchester is called The Vienna Coffee House.  But there’s the other side of it as well.  (Incidentally, Austrian state TV has never shown The Sound of Music.)

Really, this had to be about Austria – specifically, about Vienna.  The Nazis weren’t going to find paintings of family members by master artists in the homes of Jewish families in little villages in Galicia or Bukovina, or even in industrial middle-class areas in Lodz or commercial middle-class areas of Thessaloniki.  But they were in elegant, cultured, sophisticated Vienna.  And the film shows us a lot of shots of what went on in elegant, cultured, sophisticated Vienna – and this was even before Kristallnacht, and well before people were taken away to concentration camps.

I don’t mean to have a go at Austria.  I love Austria, as I’ve said.  I’ve been there three times.  Four times, actually, including a brief stop en route from Italy to Calais.  And this all happened a long time ago: there are very few people alive today old enough to have played an active role in what happened there in the Nazi era.  And it’s not just about Austria: the theft of artwork happened in many places.  Some of that artwork’s still missing: I’ve seen the reconstruction of the Amber Room in St Petersburg, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that the original’s still missing.

And Maria Altmann getting her family’s paintings back didn’t make up for what the Nazis did.  How could it?  And that’s why the people who describe this film as being “cheesy” or “heartwarming” are missing the point.  Yes, she got her paintings back, and a lot of other people got the artwork stolen from their families back too, but paintings don’t make up for lost lives, or even for lost homes, lost childhoods and tainted memories. So this isn’t cheesy, or heartwarming. Does it even really have a happy ending?  Adele Bloch-Bauer wanted the painting to be on display in Vienna.  But she couldn’t have seen what lay ahead.  Austria lost its most treasured painting.  Maria Altmann got the painting, but she lost so very much more.  It’s not cheesy or heartwarming.  Think about it properly, and what it actually is is thought-provoking.