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!

WWI: The Final Hours – BBC 2

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This was an interesting programme, but it was focused entirely on the Armistice and eventual peace deal between the Western Allies and Germany. Obviously it is that Armistice of which we’ll be marking the centenary this weekend, but we’re still dealing with the fallout from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, and it was a shame that none of that even got a mention.  It was also a bit too ready to criticise the Allies.  Horrendous mistakes were made in the agreements that ended the Great War, but a bit more understanding of why that was could perhaps have been shown.  And it completely missed the point that the events of 1918-1919 were deliberately misinterpreted in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s – fake news is hardly anything new.

Incidentally, I don’t think it’s very appropriate to call a programme “WWI”. It’s bad enough when people refer to “World War I” rather than “the First World War” – it makes it sound like a film – but “WWI” is just ridiculous.  Show a bit more respect, please, BBC 2!

The programme was largely about the negotiations which took place between Admiral Rosslyn Wemyss of the United Kingdom, Marechal Jean Marie Foch of France, and Herr Matthias Erzberger of Germany.  The titles say a lot – the British representative was a naval man, the French representative an army man, and the German representative a civilian.

I don’t think it was mentioned that it was Wemyss who made the decision that the ceasefire should come into force at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month – partly because it sounded poetic, but also because, had it been delayed until the afternoon as Lloyd George wanted, even more men would have been killed. Lloyd George was apparently rather narked about it, because it meant he missed the chance to make a big announcement in the House of Commons.  Pretty much all the politicians were given short shrift in this: it was suggested that they were all more concerned about their own images and, to use the modern term, legacies, than in anything else.  A bit harsh, maybe.

The only ones who came in for any real praise were Woodrow Wilson – a progressive American president who wanted to promote peace and understanding between nations, free trade and a reduction in armaments, and showed respect for all nationalities (those were the days!) – and the German representative at the Armistice talks, Matthias Erzberger. It was hard not to feel sorry for Erzberger, who was in an impossible position, especially with all hell breaking loose in Berlin.  He eventually became a victim of the false theory that Germany didn’t really lose the war but was betrayed by internal factions, and was assassinated.

Going back to the subject of what wasn’t mentioned, the decisions made regarding the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires are, as I’ve said above, still causing issues today.  The South Tyrol question’s reared its head again of late.  Every so often, there’s a row over the linguistic rights of all the ethnic Hungarians living in Ukraine, Serbia, Romania and Slovakia.  As for the mess in the Middle East, don’t even go there.

This was all about Germany, and I assume that the idea of the programme was to show that the excessively harsh treatment of Germany by the victorious powers played a large part in the rise of Nazism. It’s a fair point.  Well, it’s more than a fair point – there isn’t really any arguing with it.  Right from the start, the attitude of the Allies was very harsh.  They refused the German request that a ceasefire be put in place whilst negotiations were taking place.  And the naval blockade of Germany was not fully lifted until July 1919: thousands of German civilians died of malnutrition between the Armistice and the lifting of the blockade.  It’s not in any way disrespectful to those who fought on the Allied side to say that that was completely inappropriate.  Shameful, in fact.

Then there were the reparations. Germany would have been paying reparations until 1988 if things had gone ahead as originally agreed.   There’s an ongoing argument about this: some economic historians claim that Germany could have afforded the repayments, whilst others say that, had the reparations been made in accordance with the original schedule, the German economy would have been destroyed.  Austria, Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria were all supposed to pay reparations as well, but that wasn’t mentioned.  The programme did make the point that demanding reparations of the defeated sides was an established principle of warfare at that time.  It also pointed out that France (although it didn’t mention poor Belgium) had suffered severe damage, and that all the countries involved had large numbers of wounded service personnel and the dependants of the fallen who were in need of financial support.

It is generally agreed that the terms were harsh, though. As well as being economically harsh, they were seen as a humiliation – along with the occupation of the Rhineland, which was intended both to make sure that reparations were made, much of Germany’s heavy industry being concentrated in that area, and to stop Germany from invading France again.  The programme laid the blame for all this very much on France.

Just to go on to something else for a moment, the programme said that, and it was a reasonable enough point, Britain was more concerned with what might happen on sea than what might happen on land. Germany was made to agree to disarming its battle fleet and sailing many of its ships to Scapa Flow – where the German Admiral von Reuter decided to scuttle the fleet rather than hand it over to the Allies.  British ships managed to save some of the ships, but most of them sank.  The fact that the German sailors scuttled their own ships just shows how humiliated they felt.

Back to the issue of the programme blaming France over the question of reparations and the occupation of the Rhineland. It was another a fair point.  Marshal Foch was all for France occupying the Rhineland permanently; and the French – along with the Belgians, it should be said – occupied the Ruhr in 1923, despite British opposition.  Then again, France had been humiliated by Prussia in 1871, and French territory had been ravaged during the Great War.

You can go on and on with this, tracing things backwards and forwards. The Second World War.  The Franco-Prussian War.  The Napoleonic Wars.  But the humiliation of Germany … that was something that hadn’t really happened before, not to that effect. Austria and Hungary both came off far worse, really, losing so much territory, but it was Germany that had to sign the war guilt clause.  The infamous Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles.

OK. It had been arguably the most terrible war in human history. Everyone wanted someone to blame. But making Germany accept full responsibility for the war?  Arguments about who and what was responsible for the outbreak of the First World War will probably go on for ever, but no one country was to blame.  The general view is that the war guilt clause was seen by Germany as a national humiliation.  Well, that is how it was seen by Germany.  But it didn’t actually use the word “guilt”.  It didn’t even say that Germany had started the war.  It said that Germany accepted responsibility for the damage caused by herself and her allies.  It was the way it was represented in Germany that caused such a mood of anger.

And, as much as the Allies behaved badly towards defeated Germany, the anger of the inter-war period wasn’t really directed at the Allies. It was directed at the mythical forces within Germany who were supposed to have stabbed the German army in the back.  Basically, it was fake news.  There was an awful lot of it about in the inter-war period.  The Zinoviev Letter springs to mind.  There was an awful lot of it about during the First World War, come to that.   And I don’t feel that this programme got that at all, other than saying that Erzberger was very badly treated.

I’m not entirely sure what this programme was actually getting at. Well, it had an agenda: it wasn’t just presenting the facts relating to the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, it was making the point that the harsh terms imposed on Germany helped to create the environment that led to the Second World War.   But, then, why call it “the Final Hours”, which made it sound as if it was going to be about the last elements of the fighting?  That was probably a bit of deliberate misleading as well: BBC 2 probably didn’t want to sound too negative, at such a sensitive time.  Some good points were made.  But a lot of important points were missed.

Versailles and Knightfall and the persecution of religious minorities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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