Merchants of Virtue by Paul C R Monk

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This is set in France just before and after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and shows just how bad things were for Huguenots, who even had their children taken away if they refused to convert to Catholicism.  We have a marked tendency to look at situation from the viewpoint of how it influenced events in England, so it was good to find a book which was purely from the viewpoint of French Protestants themselves – and which also showed some of the issues faced in any era by refugees, something which we’re sadly seeing yet again with people fleeing Ukraine. We see the characters, those who escaped imprisonment or forced labour, effectively facing a choice between becoming Catholics or trying to leave for England, Protestant parts of Switzerland or America – easier said than done with Louis XIV trying to stop the departure of Huguenots, many of them skilled craftspeople or businesspeople, from his kingdom.

It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s worth reading as a reminder of just how bad religious persecution in Europe was, well into the early modern period.   It was only really in the 19th century that the rights of religious minorities came actually to be respected, and not even then in some cases.

The persecution of Huguenots was a big stain on the reign of Louis XIV, which in so many other ways was glorious; and the book, the first in a trilogy (many loose ends are left untied) gets it across very well.

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The Real War of Thrones (Season 2) – Sky History

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Absolutely loving this!   I sometimes say that there are too many Tudor-era documentaries on TV, made at the expense of looking into other eras; but this one’s different, because it doesn’t just look at one country.  The centrepoint is the French Wars of Religion, but it looks into how that fitted into what was going on elsewhere.  I remember a wonderful aide-memoire from A-level days – that Elizabeth I sought to fight the Spanish in the Netherlands to the last drop of French blood.  Confusing?  Oh, gloriously so!   And, after three episodes, we’re only up to 1569 , so we haven’t even got to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre yet.   The next episode is entitled “Blood Wedding”, just in case anyone doesn’t know what’s coming!

The programme’s done in what seems to be in the “in” way now, with actors playing the parts of the historical figures and the presenter acting as narrator but not actually being seen.  Maybe it’s “dumbing down” a bit, but it does work better than the old-style programmes which had a presenter sitting behind a desk and just talking.  The American narrator is doing my head in a bit, with his talk about Toodors and Stooarts and the Dookes of Guise, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

So, what’s going on?   Well, Henry VIII wanted the infant Mary Queen of Scots to marry the future Edward VI, but, instead, she was shipped off to France and married to Francois, the heir to the French throne  – son of Henri II, who despite spending most of his time with his mistress Diane de Poitiers, had managed to father ten children on his wife, Catherine de Medici, she of alleged poisoned gloves fame.  Edward then died, and was succeeded by Mary, who married Philip II of Spain (Aragon and Castile).  Then Mary died, and was succeeded by Elizabeth.  Then Francis died.  Numerous suitors were suggested for both Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots.  Elizabeth kept ’em dangling.  Mary married Lord Darnley, and then he died in mysterious circumstances and she … well, we don’t know whether she went off with Bothwell or whether he forced her, but this programme insisted that they were lovers and didn’t even say that there were big doubts over what actually happened.  That actually quite annoyed me.   There are big doubts over what actually happened.

Meanwhile, there were ongoing political and sometimes military clashes in France between the Catholics, led by the Guises, the maternal uncles of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Protestants.   And, in the Netherlands, there’d been a revolt against Spanish rule.  England hadn’t got stuck in yet, but would do later – largely through getting the French to get stuck in, in the hope of winning Elizabeth’s hand in marriage.  And the French Wars of Religion were supposed to be being sorted by marrying the king (three brothers all became king and all died young, so it got very confusing, but the king at this point was Charles IX)’s sister Margot to the Protestant Henry of Navarre, but, of course, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre took place a few days later.

We did all this for A-level.  OK, it was very gory, but it was also very exciting.  This is the sort of stuff which kids like to learn about, not motte and bailey castles or the daily lives of medieval monks, which we had to do in the first year.  This was exciting and fast-moving, full of romance and fighting, and guaranteed to keep the attention of viewers, whether kids or adults.   More series like this, please!!

 

The Queen’s Fortune by Allison Pataki

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This is a novel about Desiree Clary, one-time fiancee of Napoleon, before he threw her over for Josephine, and later the first Bernadotte queen of Sweden.  The story’s told, in the first person, by Desiree, but it’s dominated by Napoleon and Josephine … which is a shame, really, because there are hundreds of novels about them but no others (AFAIK) about Desiree.  Maybe Napoleon had a big personality that he will inevitably dominate any novel in which he appears.

It’s quite a light book, but there’s plenty of historical information in it, and no glaring inaccuracies.  And it’s an interesting portrayal of Napoleon.  I’m not sure whether this was what the author intended, but it comes across as a story which is common in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, if not the late 18th and early 19th – lad from an ordinary background suddenly becomes a celeb, moves to the bright lights of the big city, starts hanging around with the in crowd and being featured all over the gossip columns of the papers, becomes somewhat alienated from most of his family and old mates, throws over his faithful sweetheart in favour of an experienced, glamorous, sophisticated socialite … and it all ends in tears.  And I suppose that that actually is what happened.  It’s just that it involved a war which dragged in most of Europe and some countries beyond, and the temporary or permanent placing of numerous relatives and friends of Napoleon on a large number of thrones.

General Bernadotte, by contrast, comes across as someone far more scrupulous, steady and loyal.  And true to the principles of the Revolution, before a) it turned into the nightmare of the Terror and b) it was overturned by Napoleon.  It’s rather ironic that it was Napoleon, the ordinary boy, who overturned most of the changes which had enabled him to come to power, and made himself an Emperor.

With, initially, Josephine as his Empress.  I’m not overly keen on the portrayal of her in this book.  She comes across as a high-class tart.  The author herself does seem to acknowledge that that’s unfair,  and keeps reminding us that Josephine was an outsider from Martinique and then suffered horribly during the Revolution, and about all the awful pressure on her to produce an heir; but she still shows her as a high-class tart.   And the book makes an interesting point about Napoleon restricting the rights of women.  However much you may dislike the man, he deserves credit for promoting the rights of religious minorities, and for having relatively liberal views towards homosexuality; but he definitely didn’t do much for the position of women.

To get back to Desiree, she and her sister Julie, born in Marseille to a wealthy family which had sought ennoblement, met Napoleon and his brother Joseph whilst attempting to get their brother released from prison.  Soon afterwards, Julie and Joseph married, and Desiree and Napoleon became engaged.   But then Napoleon met Josephine, and Desiree was history – although they did continue to play a part in each other’s lives, because of the family relationship.  Desiree eventually married General Bernadotte, who became Marshal of France, Governor of the Hanseatic cities and Governor of Hanover, before being elected heir to the throne of Sweden in 1810.   Gustav IV Adolf of Sweden had been overthrown in 1809, and his uncle proclaimed Charles XIII, but Charles was in ill health and had no heir.  In 1818, Bernadotte became King Charles XIV John of Sweden, and Desiree became Queen Desideria.  And their descendants sit on the throne of Sweden to this day.

However, Napoleon and Josephine manage to dominate the story even once the Bernadottes are in Sweden.  Or, rather, once General Bernadotte’s in Sweden, because Desiree continued to spend much of her time in France.  We do hear, interestingly, about how they were both torn psychologically between France and Sweden – but much of that’s about Napoleon.  And then their son marries Josephine’s granddaughter, and Desiree reflects on how her life is still dominated by Josephine.

It’s a bit light and fluffy sometimes, but generally it’s a very enjoyable book.  I just wish that the book about Desiree had actually been a bit more about Desiree!

 

 

The First Actress by C W Gortner

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I was amused to read C W Gortner’s comment in the afterword about how he became interested in Sarah Bernhardt, the subject of this book, when he was being a melodramatic little boy and his grandma would say that he was “doing a Bernhardt”.  When I was being a melodramatic little girl, my grandad would say that I was “a Sarah Bernhardt”.  I used to think that it was just a quirky saying of his, but Gortner says that it was a comment made by a lot of parents and grandparents at one time.

Gortner is obviously a huge fan, and waxes lyrical about how Sarah can be credited with creating modern, natural acting, as opposed to the more overblown acting seen in earlier times.  I’m not quite sure how that fits with the idea of her as being melodramatic, but I’m not an expert in theatre so I’m not going to worry about that too much!

The book’s written in the first person, and it’s quite short: it doesn’t cover all of Sarah’s life, and omits some fairly important parts of it, notably her marriage and her strong support for Alfred Dreyfus.  But it does give you a very good sense of the person, and what a fascinating life she led.

She was the illegitimate daughter of a Dutch courtesan living in Paris.  No-one’s entirely sure whom either her father was or who the father of her own illegitimate son was, but Gortner’s taken a view on both.  We see her difficult childhood and the start of her theatrical career – and how it was disrupted by her slapping a well-known but very irritating senior actress, which Gortner repeatedly refers to as “The Slap” … which kept making me think of Darrell Rivers slapping Gwendoline Mary Lacey, but never mind.

There’s quite a bit about the plays, but most of the book’s about her personal life – her family, and her friendships with a wide range of people including the Prince of Wales, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas.  There’s quite a bit about her lovers, too, but not as much as you might expect.

I think Gortner was quite keen to focus on aspects of her life with which he identifies – her Jewish background, her love of animals, and the possibility that she might have had a same sex relationship – but I think he just generally finds her very interesting and very admirable.  The book doesn’t go as far as her work during the Great War, but we do see her work during the Franco-Prussian War, which is obviously something completely different to her acting career: she was certainly an unusual woman.

As I said, the book’s quite short, and there’s certainly enough material about her to have filled a much longer book, but what there is makes for very entertaining reading, and I really enjoyed it.

Paris Police 1900 – BBC 4

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Four episodes in, I still can’t quite decide what to make of this – but I think that we are now getting somewhere.  Bearing in mind that I’m a historian, not a crime series person, I was expecting a historical drama showing the effects of the Dreyfus Affair on Parisian society – the nasty side of the Belle Epoque.   It does do that, to some extent, but we’ve also had the police trying to contact the deceased president in a seance to ask whether or not the Dreyfusards murdered him by tampering with his Viagra equivalent, an extremist drugging the police commissioner’s wife in an attempt to take photos of his friend abusing her (fortunately, he was foiled when the dead president’s mistress recovered from a heroin-induced coma and stopped him), policemen being stabbed to death through doors, someone being murdered when his chimney was blocked up so that he was asphyxiated, a man trying to have his wife imprisoned for adultery but changing his mind when he realised that the story’d get into the papers, and an awful lot of dismembered bodies.

However, in the fourth episode, we have finally got more into the nitty-gritty of the Dreyfus Affair and everything surrounding it, and away from some of the crazier stuff.  Although we tend to associate the Belle Epoque with people doing the can-can in the Moulin Rouge, this was a troubled time in French history, with politics deeply polarised, feelings still running high about the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and, of course, the Dreyfus Affair and the associated riots in France and Algeria – which caused such strong feelings internationally that there were anti-French demonstrations in many countries, the entire British press united to condemn the French authorities, the Lord Chief Justice of England criticised the French courts, and Edvard Grieg cancelled a proposed tour of France.  It casts such a long shadow that it’s being dragged up in the current French election race, and a museum dedicated to it was opened only a couple of weeks ago.

Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer, was controversially convicted of passing state secrets to Germany, and exiled to Devil’s Island.  It then emerged that the real culprit was someone else, there were demands  that Dreyfus be released, and, in early 1898, the writer Emile Zola famously published the “J’Accuse letter”, addressed to President Felix Faure, pointing out that the case against Zola was full of holes and accusing the authorities of anti-Semitism and violating justice.  Zola was then convicted of libel.  Anti-Semitic riots broke out across France and Algeria.  Dreyfus was retried, with journalists and photographers all over the world crowding into the court, but again found guilty.  There was such an uproar that he was pardoned, but he wasn’t officially cleared until several years later.

In the middle of all this, President Faure died suddenly, apparently whilst enjoying the “company” of his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil.  And there was an attempted coup at his funeral.

Tangled up in all this was the Anti-Semitic League, which had begun life as a nationalistic league wanting revenge on Prussia but had then turned nasty.

In this series, Marguerite Steinheil is employed by the police to spy on the Guerins, the leaders of the Anti-Semitic League.  Running alongside this is a series of mysterious murders of women, thought to have been carried out by a butcher – hence all the dismembered bodies.

The sets are brilliant – the turn of the century Parisian streets in working-class areas, the gorgeous costumes of well-to-do women, and the Guerins’ frighteningly impressive rabble-rousing.  And there’s an awful lot going on, and a lot of interesting characters.  But some of it really is very strange!   However, what is never is is boring!    Let’s see what the next four episodes bring …

Paris in Ruins by M K Tun

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Hopefully there will be triumph and definitely no ruin in Paris during the French Open, but it was a different story 150 years ago.  The Paris Commune, currently in the French news as the anniversary is marked – it collapsed on 28th May 1871 – has been rather romanticised over the years.  It’s even got an ’80s group named after it, which is rather confusing because my brain kept going “Baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you” whilst I was reading about shootings and arson, which was completely inappropriate 🙂 .  However, this novel, unusually, goes for the view taken by most of the international press at the time, i.e. that it was mainly about violence and anarchy, which is interesting.

We see the events of the Prussian siege of Paris and then the Paris Commune through the eyes of two young women from well-to-do families, who both become involved in war work.  The unfortunately-named Camille Noisette becomes a nurse at a hospital set up (and this hospital did really exist) at the Paris Odeon by the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and her brother’s fiancee Mariele de Crecy looks after young children at a creche set up by another of Camille’s brothers, a priest.  Other members of both families become caught up in events in various different ways, and not all of them survive.

The main message of the book is that atrocities were committed by all sides, that both the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune happened largely because of the egos of powerful men, and that it was innocent civilians who suffered as a result.  And poor Paris, which suffered terrible damage from bombing and arson. The Commune does still sharply divide opinion, but I was surprised that the book was quite so strongly against it.  It’s a bit wooden in parts, and some of the dialogue doesn’t flow very well, but it’s very well-researched and historically accurate, and a good read.

It starts with Camille being a bit of a rebel, and sneaking off to bars with her friend Andre (who she eventually marries).  I think most readers will assume that she’s secretly involved with the radicals, but, in fact, she’s working undercover and spying on them – especially on Louise Michel, one of the most famous figures of the Commune.  Like many other Communards, Michel was deported to New Caledonia.     But the spying story falls by the wayside, as Camille goes to work at the hospital.

I was a rather melodramatic little girl – you’d never have guessed that, would you 😁? – and, when I was really overdoing it, my grandad always used to say that I was being like Sarah Bernhardt.  At the time, I assumed she must have been a famous film star from the inter-war years, so I was rather bemused when I found out that she was a French stage actress whose heyday was long before Grandad was even born.  I know she did play in Northern England, more than once, so I’ve wondered if an older relative or friend – maybe my great-great-grandma, who seems to have been quite into theatricals – saw her on stage and raved about her, and that was why he had this bee in his bonnet about her, but I’ll never know now 😢,  But, because of that, I was quite interested to see her appear in this book, and to learn about the important humanitarian work she did at a very difficult time in Parisian history.

Meanwhile, Mariele and her mother attempt to escape and are captured by Prussian soldiers, in a slightly OTT bit of the book, but they make it safely back to Paris, and we see shy Mariele grow in confidence as she insists on helping out with the children.  There’s definitely a sense that both girls are rebelling against what’s expected of young ladies, but the narrative is vehemently opposed to the more radical approach taken by the Communards.  The emphasis is all on the taking of hostages, the attacks on the Church and the imprisonment of people for very little reason, and not much is said about more positive actions such as attempts to help the poor.

Certainly, the romanticisation of the Communards, like the romanticisation of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is inappropriate, but I thought the book was a bit too biased against them and could have tried to give a more balanced view.   But point taken about unnecessary wars and unnecessary violence, and the same can be said about the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War and the Dano-Prussian War.

It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but, as I said, it was well-researched and accurate, and really got me thinking.  Not bad at all.

 

Royal History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley: the French Revolution – BBC 1

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  I thought that some of this was a bit patronising.  Surely most people realise that the institution of monarchy in France didn’t come to an end in 1789, or even 1793; and surely no-one thinks that the French Revolution was a peasants’ revolt.  Also, Lucy Worsley’s childish dressing up is extremely annoying, as is her use of the word “fibs” which I don’t think anyone over the age of eight is in the general habit of using …. although I did rather envy the large plate of French pastries which she apparently found necessary to illustrate the issue of food shortages.  Furthermore, there was a disappointing lack of reference to either tricoteuses or Charlotte Corday murdering Marat in the bath.  People should always mention these things when discussing the French Revolution.  Especially tricoteuses.

Having said all that, I thought she made some extremely good points.  There were three main themes which stood out for me.  One was the demonisation of Marie Antoinette – and I’d draw parallels with Henrietta Maria and Alexandra Feodorovna, as well.  All three had their faults, but they weren’t responsible for their husbands’ failures.  Yet people always seem to find it easier to blame a woman, especially a foreign woman.  One was the way in which French history romanticises the Revolution, conveniently ignoring the Terror, the fact that it wasn’t actually very democratic at all, and the fact that the First Republic only actually lasted for, er, twelve years.  And the third was the way in which British history views it completely differently, due in no small part to Charles Dickens and Madame Tussaud, and puts a lot of emphasis on Madame Guillotine.  I think it was probably also Dickens who popularised the image of tricoteuses.  I really was very disappointed that there was no mention of tricoteuses …

Poor old Marie Antoinette, then.  I think most people are now past the idea of her saying “Let them eat cake” but, as Lucy pointed out, the idea was so strongly held for decades that it even appeared in school textbooks.  I don’t think she ever stood a chance, even when she got married: it was too soon after the Diplomatic Revolution, and Austrians weren’t popular in France.  Then it took her a while to produce an heir … which was because Louis didn’t, er, make the effort.  And, as I’ve said, people love to demonise a woman, especially a foreign woman, and especially to make sexual allegations about her.  In poor Marie Antoinette’s case, she was even accused of abusing her own son.  That’s not widely reported now, but the “let them eat cake” story does still linger.

As for the French view of the Revolution, Lucy wasn’t nastily sarcastic like she was in the unpleasant series about American history, but she did poke a bit of fun at Emmanuel Macron (a man who irritates me a million times more than she does) for making out that the French Revolution was some great exercise in democracy which set the pattern for the entire world.  It was pointed out that the Storming of the Bastille only actually freed a few prisoners, most of whom were forgers and one of whom was an Irishman who thought he was Julius Caesar.  And that the franchise was only extended to some men, not all.  And no women.

I don’t think anyone sees it as a peasants’ revolt, but it does have this image as a mass uprising, whereas, as Lucy said, it started off with a group of upper-middle-class legislators having a meeting at a tennis court.  The “to the barricades” thing belongs to 19th century risings.  French history tends to gloss over that.  And it glosses over the Terror …

… whereas British history is obsessed with the Terror!   Guillotines!  Tumbrils!  Tricoteuses!  Oh, hang on, she didn’t mention tricoteuses.  The guillotine was apparently meant to be democratic, though.  I have to admit that I’d never thought of that, but it was a very good point.  English historians are very familiar with the idea of posh people being beheaded on Tower Hill, with a nice sharp sword rather than an axe in Anne Boleyn’s case, whereas common people were hanged at Tyburn; and Ancien Regime France had a similar system.  Then came the guillotine.  And it didn’t hurt – although I suppose we don’t really know that for sure, as none of its victims can tell us.  But there is still no denying the fact that a lot of people were guillotined, and that the Terror well deserves its name.

Even so, I think that there was still some romanticising in Britain over the French Revolution, especially given the repressive nature of Pitt the Younger’s government.  But I think British historians get more romantic about the American Revolution, even though it was against Britain!

To draw this back to the idea of “fibs”, the point was that the French and British views of the French Revolution are very different but both pretty biased.  Fair point.  Although I remember everyone making a big fuss about the 200th anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille, in 1989.  We had a “French day” at school – which must have been at least a week early, as we’d have broken up by the 14th.  We were supposed to speak French all day.  Very Chalet School.  Except that no-one really bothered.  But we did get croissants at break.  It was a bit mad that we, in Britain, made a fuss of that.  But then people make a fuss about the Fourth of July as well.  Oh, whatever!  It’s an excuse to eat …

We were also reminded about the obsession with decimalising everything – although, strangely, without any reference to the Brumaire/Thermidor calendar.  And about the use of hot air balloons.  I think the idea of that was to make the point that the revolutionaries were into science, although I don’t think anyone’s ever “fibbed” that they weren’t.   And, apparently, Robespierre wasn’t as bad as people make out.  Hmm.  Oh, and the Tricolore is not really a revolutionary or republican symbol, because the white is the Bourbon colour, and it wasn’t really a thing until the 1848 Revolution, not the 1789 one, anyway.  The word “Tricolore” always reminds me of our school French textbooks.  They were a big thing in the 1980s.

Anyway, despite Lucy’s rather irritating presenting style, I enjoyed this more than her American history series, when she was so spitefully sarcastic about the history of our most important ally, or the previous “Royal History” series when she kept putting across the BBC’s Euro-obsessive agenda instead of talking about what she was supposed to be talking about.  This was much better, and hopefully the rest of the series will be the same.  And I wonder what happened to all those pastries …

 

 

Knightfall (season 2) – History

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Luke Skywalker’s taken charge of training the Templar initiates, the Grand Master’s stealing lines from Scarlett O’Hara, Ed Stoppard thinks he’s a cross between King Herod and the Exodus Pharoah, the unborn baby whom the Queen of France conceived in an affair with a monk has been stolen from her womb, we’re all about to get mixed up with a group of devil worshippers, no-one knows the words to Toto songs, Viscount Gillingham has taken to self-flagellation, and I think everyone’s forgotten that they’re meant to be looking for the Holy Grail.  Medieval history is not like this in Jean Plaidy books. I’m hoping it all gets sorted when Andrew Foyle/Charles Blake/the nice doctor from The Royal takes revenge on Carson the butler for persecuting Cathars: I’ve been rather keen on Cathars since reading up on them in my first year at university.  This has just got beyond bonkers, though.  What planet are the scriptwriters on?!  Maybe Luke Skywalker knows …

We’re supposed to be in early 14th century France, in the period leading up to the dissolution of the Knights Templar by Philip IV.  I was assuming it was meant to be 1305, when Philip’s queen, Joan of Navarre, died in childbirth (or, if you believe the alternative version, as a result of witchcraft, but I think we’ll go with the childbirth version of events).  Although Pope Boniface VIII, played by Jim Carter (Carson), was already dead by then, whereas he’s alive and well in this.  However, a preview thing said it that it was meant to be 1307.  Even though Joan’d only just died, and that was actually in 1305.  And Boniface died in 1303.  Right.  Whichever planet the scriptwriters are on, it definitely isn’t Planet Historical Accuracy.

Joan had just died, anyway.  However, in this crazy universe, she didn’t die in childbirth, or even by witchcraft, but was murdered by her husband, after he found out that her baby was fathered not by him but by Brother Landry – aka Viscount Gillingham (why are so many people from Downton Abbey in this?).  Landry removed the baby (well, he got one of his mates to perform a Caesarean on Joan’s corpse) and has hopefully hidden her away safely.

Meanwhile, he’d been booted out of the Templars, for having an affair with the queen – which TBH was not unreasonable, as it’s not really what monks are meant to do – but he was desperate to be allowed back in and hung around outside Templar HQ making such a fuss that the Grand Master eventually gave in – yelling “As God is our witness” in apparent (but rather feeble) imitation of Scarlett O’Hara in the garden at Twelve Oaks.  However, as punishment for being a naughty boy, Landry has got to start again at the bottom of the heap, and the monk in charge of trainees (sorry, initiates) is Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker.  I’ve never watched anything to do with Star Wars, but even I’ve heard of Luke Skywalker.

Landry then messed up during a fight with lots of swords and shields.  People kept shouting “Hold the line”. I was waiting for someone to say “Love is always on time” … but they didn’t.  Oh well.  It looked as if it might get a bit more interesting when he starting whipping himself, being rather upset after Luke Skywalker told him off.  I mean interesting from the point of view of exploring medieval religious attitudes towards sin and punishment, not in an S&M sense!  But from there we went on to a strange conference around Joan’s half-decayed corpse.  I didn’t really need to see that.

This was mad enough, but, from what I gather, it’s about to get worse.  Philip has sussed that Landry took the baby, having noticed that she’s gone missing from Joan’s corpse.  He’s now going to order that all babies in the area be murdered, to ensure that Joan and Landry’s baby dies.  I know this sort of thing happens in the Bible, but it didn’t happen in medieval France and I think it’s actually going way beyond the boundaries of good taste to include a storyline like that in something that’s supposed to be a historical drama, not a dystopian horror story.  And then a load of devil-worshippers are going to turn up, which I don’t mind per se … but they’re going to murder people in Satanic rituals. Don’t ask me what’s happened to the Holy Grail: everyone seems to be too busy murdering each other to think about it.

WTF is going on with this?  I know it doesn’t claim to be historically accurate, but the first series at least contained some sense, and actually made some very valid points.  I’m vaguely hoping this one might show us something about the Cathars, but I don’t actually think it will, because Catharism was pretty much a spent force by this time.  Mind you, given the extent of the historical accuracy so far, it wouldn’t surprise me if a load of Lutherans, Calvinists and Old Believers all turned up, never mind Cathars.

The previews are all full of people going on about “epic drama” and “complex characters”.  Well, sorry, but I just can’t take it seriously!  I suppose it isn’t any more bonkers than Vikings, and I’m still loving that and am sorry that the next series is going to be the last; but we don’t have that many historical sources for the Viking era, and a lot of what we do have is so mixed up with myth and legend that somehow it doesn’t seem such a problem for a TV series about that to make so much up.  With medieval France, we’ve got the real history – and this very definitely isn’t it!

On the other hand … maybe this is going to appeal to the sort of audience who wouldn’t watch a more traditional period drama series?  Is that a good thing, if it’s getting more people into history?  You could possibly argue that, but I think there’s a danger of ending up with a blurring of the lines between something like Game of Thrones, which is pure fiction/fantasy, and real history, and I think that’s pretty worrying.  This is entertaining, in a way, but I’m not really comfortable seeing the lives of real historical characters – kings, queens, popes, advisors, et al – distorted as much as this.  If you want to write pure fiction, maybe stick to purely fictitious characters?

Marks for being entertaining, though.  The swords and shields fight was quite dramatic.  Even if they didn’t seem to know the rest of the words to the Toto song.

Colette

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This was all right for a wet Sunday, but it didn’t really do Colette justice.  Her life story is fascinating, and a good script could have combined glamour and scandal in Belle Epoque Paris with some serious points about women’s rights, sexuality and transgenderism, and made a very interesting film.  This unfortunately didn’t quite manage it.  Also, it suddenly stopped whilst she was only in her 30s, missing out the most successful periods of her life.  And there was very little historical context: I wasn’t expecting a long discourse on the Entente Cordiale or the Dreyfus affair, but a bit of scene-setting would have been nice!  And was it really necessary to show the husband using the chamber pot?!  Talk about too much information!  It was all right; but it could have been a lot better.

Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873, later Sidonie-Gabrielle Villars by marriage, is one of France’s best-known female novelists.  In brief, she was born to a rural family in reduced circumstances, married a famous author and publisher known as Willy, and moved to Paris with him. His books weren’t making enough money to fund their extravagant lifestyle.  She wrote the “Claudine” novels, considered very racy at the time, and they proved to be incredibly popular; but he, having put under under huge pressure and even locked her in her room until she’d done what he considered enough writing for the day, claimed all the credit for them.

Meanwhile, he was having affairs with a load of other women, and she then began having affairs with other women as well – encouraged by him, because he thought it’d provide good material for the books!  The film shows them both at one point having an affair with the same woman, played by Eleanor Tomlinson from Poldark.  Colette then moved on to a relationship with “Missy”, Mathilde de Morny, whose mother was allegedly the illegitimate daughter of Nicholas I of Russia and whose father was the half-brother of Napoleon III.  Missy wore men’s clothing, at a time when it was actually illegal (seriously) for women to wear trousers, and the film shows them (that’s “them” as a gender neutral pronoun, not a plural) preferring to be referred to as “he” rather than “she”.

Colette had by this time had begun an acting career as well, and an on-screen kiss between her and Missy caused a riot at the Moulin Rouge – that was one of the bits that the film did quite well.  Acting was how she supported herself after she and Willy separated and eventually divorced – but the film didn’t go that far.  Nor did it show, except in a few slides at the end, her taking legal action to get recognition of the fact that she was the true author of the Claudine books, her later literary success – including the publication of Gigi, on which the famous musical’s based- and her two later marriages, nor mention the fact that she was honoured by becoming the first female author to be buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery.

Question – what do you do about accents, in an English language film set in a non-Anglophone country?  Some of the reviews of the BBC production of Les Miserables have moaned about the characters being given Cockney accents, but what’s the alternative?  You can’t have everyone speaking in ‘Allo ‘Allo French-accented English.  Nor can you really have working-class characters speaking RP: it’d sound wrong.  It felt strange in this that everyone sounded Terribly English, when you knew they weren’t.  The exception was the Eleanor Tomlinson character, who spoke in a Southern drawl that was supposed to show that she was from Louisiana – except that it sounded far more Charleston than New Orleans.

The story of Colette’s life really is very interesting, and the film’s worth seeing because of that.  And for some lovely scenes in the French countryside, although I think they were actually filmed in England!  The “Gay Paree” thing was done quite well too, with nice costumes and some good scenes showing salons and the theatre.  Dominic West as Willy and Keira Knightley as Colette both played their parts well, he as the controlling older man and she as the young wife who finds her own identity and has the guts to strike out on her own.  There was also a very touching scene in which Denise Gough as Missy explains how she never felt comfortable in women’s outfits and knew that she’d “come home” when she borrowed her brother’s clothes.

So there were plenty of positives, but I just felt that the film didn’t tell the story of Colette’s life, or make the very important points about attitudes towards women, towards same sex relationships or towards transgenderism, as well as it could have done.  It raised important points, but the way in which it got them across didn’t quite work.

Les Miserables – BBC 1

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This looks like it’s going to be a brilliant adaptation of a complex and fascinating story, as you would expect from Andrew Davies.  Great performances all round.  No historical bloopers with the scenery.   I kept waiting for the characters to burst into song, though!  Sorry, I know we’re not supposed to say that, and I know very well that Les Miserables was originally a book (and I know the publication date, because I know that it was published during the American Civil War, which is totally irrelevant!), but I know the musical so well that it was impossible not to compare the two.  The musical is incredible.  This was pretty good too!

Consequently, what I picked up on were the bits that aren’t in the musical!  Obviously that’s not a criticism of the musical: you can only fit so much of a very long book into a stage show.

For a kick off, we started with the Battle of Waterloo.  Hooray!  My one and only real gripe with the musical is that it doesn’t make it clear at the beginning exactly where in history we are, and I think that’s caused a lot of confusion, with people who are perhaps not overly familiar with 19th century French history getting the impression that the rising is in 1789, not in 1832.  So hooray for the historical scene being clearly set!  And the character fighting at Waterloo was Marius’s dad.  I’m afraid I’ve never read the book, despite having owned a copy for about fifteen years.  Oops.  I am not proud of this fact, but it’s such a huge book and I’ve got so many other books waiting to be read!   So I didn’t know anything about Marius’s background, other than that he was from a well-to-do family, and was fascinated to learn about the pro-Napoleon dad and the pro-ancien-regime grandad.  Now we were really getting into Bourbon Restoration era France!

The Thenardiers haven’t really come into it yet, but we’re going to see that Marius’s dad believed that Monsieur Thenardier saved his life.  It’s confusing in the musical, because we don’t really understand how Marius and Thenardier know each other.

Then there’s Fantine.  In the musical, we only get to know her as a struggling single mother.  Everyone knows I Dreamed A Dream, but we don’t actually see the doomed romance, or get to know the girl that Fantine was before she got into trouble.  The scene with Fantine and her mates in a bar, on the pull, could have been set today, and yet it didn’t seem anachronistic because it worked just as well two centuries ago.  It seemed very Andrew Davies: I don’t know how it’s put in the book, but it was really good.

I haven’t mentioned Jean Valjean or Javert yet, which is weird because they’re surely the two central characters.  They didn’t seem as central here as they do in the musical, though.  The musical is very much about Javert’s ongoing pursuit of Valjean and the various clashes between the two.  I hadn’t realised that the other characters feature so much more in the original story.  Both characters were played very well and very convincingly, though, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.

Er, so what I’ve done is compare the TV series to the musical.  This would really annoy Andrew Davies, who’s claimed that he’s rescuing the book “from the clutches of that awful musical with its doggerel lyrics”. But I hope all the newspaper reviewers compare the two, because Andrew Davies deserves to be annoyed in return for making that remark.  It’s a brilliant musical which a lot of people love.  There’s no need for him to make nasty remarks like that!  The book doesn’t need “rescuing”.  But it did need adapting into a mini-series, because the musical, due to time limits, can’t show everything, and I’m really enjoying seeing the bits I didn’t know were there!  It was an excellent first episode: there wasn’t one poor performance, and there wasn’t really anything to criticise.  Good stuff!