The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck


This is an awkward book. There isn’t really a plot as such, it jumps backwards and forwards between different years and different characters, and it doesn’t go into much depth about anything.  However, set mainly in Bavaria in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it raises a lot of very challenging issues about the experiences of German women during the war, and the extent of complicity and collective guilt about the Nazi atrocities and how people did and didn’t deal with that.  It also makes the reader think about the general chaos in post-war Europe, about the differing attitudes of the Allies towards the German people – ranging from the American Quakers who sent Christmas presents for German children to the Soviet soldiers who brutally abused German and Austrian women – and about how the Nazis were able to win control in the first place.  It even mentions Salem school, briefly attended by Prince Philip.  Then it seems to come to the rather impractical conclusion that the best answer is to get away from Germany and move to the United States, the country where – don’t start discussing this bit with Donald Trump – everyone can start again.

There’s the odd horrendous historical blunder, notably referring to Namibia as “a former Habsburg colony”, but it seems to be accurate otherwise. The author, who’s American but has one German parent, is very familiar with Germany, and says that she wrote the book after finding out that her German grandparents were both committed Nazis.  I don’t know how you’d deal with that, and I don’t know how Germany’s dealt with it.  I think Germany’s tried, though.  It doesn’t try to make out that it was a victim.  And it doesn’t refuse to discuss what happened during the war – whereas Osaka has just broken off its twinning agreement with San Francisco, because San Francisco’s put up a statue honouring the women forced into brothels by wartime Japan.  Somehow, societies move on.  The states of the former Yugoslavia have done that, more recently.  Somehow.

There are three main characters in the book. Marianne, a Prussian aristocrat, is probably the central character.  The Bavarian castle in the title belonged to her late husband.  He, and her childhood friend Constantine – known as Connie, which really annoyed me, because he was supposed to be this very handsome, dashing, Alpha Male, and I’m not sure what was the idea of giving him such a feminine-sounding name! – were involved in the von Stauffenberg plot, and were executed as a result.  The book’s very vague on exactly what Marianne’s involvement was, and how come she and her children weren’t punished.  It’s also vague on how she came to marry a Bavarian, and the impression’s given that she always thought she and Connie would end up together, but it’s never really gone into.

Marianne had promised the two men that she’d try to take care of any other women whose husbands had been executed due to their role in the resistance. Maybe she’s the person the author wishes her grandmother had been – always vehemently opposed to the Nazis, unable to understand how everyone didn’t realise how evil they were, and unwilling to try to forgive anyone who’d played any sort of role in carrying out Nazi atrocities.  She can’t cope with living in Germany, and, in the end, she moves to America.  In old age, she publishes her memoirs of being a heroine of the Resistance.  Presumably her readers hear all about her role in the von Stauffenberg plot: it’s very irritating that we don’t!   And it’s then, eventually, that she accepts that maybe things weren’t as black and white as she thought.

Early on in the book, she traces Connie’s widow, Benita, and young son, Martin. Martin had been taken to a home for the children of “traitors”.  He copes well with the post-war world, but he ends up in America as well.  But Benita really suffers.  Like so many women in Germany and Austria, she was repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers.  All credit to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the decision it made about this year’s awards.  Rape was used as a weapon of war throughout the war in the former Yugoslavia, and is being used now this minute in Rakhine province in Burma/Myanmar, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The incredible Nadia Murad’s highlighted what IS did to Yazidi women.  The violence during Partition in the Indian sub-continent’s another example.  It’s thought that up to two million women were raped by Red Army soldiers in 1944-45.   Even some concentration camp survivors were attacked.  It hasn’t really been spoken about until recently.  It wasn’t only the Soviet troops, but it was particularly the Soviet troops.  Annoyingly, the book repeatedly uses the word “Russian” for “Soviet”, but that’s not unusual.

The Soviet attitude, insofar as there was one, seems to have been that the Germans and Austrians deserved everything they got, and that their troops were entitled to do what they liked after their part in defeating the Nazis. No. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

We learn that Benita was part of the League of German Girls, as a teenager. She had no great interest in politics, and regarded it as something like the Girl Guides.  She struggles, not surprisingly, to cope with what happened to her, but eventually forms a relationship with a former Nazi.  Marianne, who can’t understand this, persuades the man that it would be wrong for him to marry the widow of a former resistance hero.  He breaks off the engagement.  Benita eventually kills herself.

The most interesting of the women is Ania. Marianne brings her to the castle on the understanding that she’s the widow of someone Connie had worked with.  She manages the best of any of them, eventually remarrying and making a new life for herself on a farm.  But then it turns out that she isn’t who she says she is: she’d taken someone else’s papers.  She’d actually been deeply involved with the Nazis for years.  She’d bought into all the ideology: she’d been committed to it.  But she had, eventually, realised that she was wrong.

Ania’s story makes it frighteningly easy to see how an ordinary person could have been complicit in the Nazi atrocities. Her family and community had suffered badly as a result of the Great War.  They were then embittered further by the harshness of the post-war settlement, and by the occupation of the Rhineland by British and French troops, and the reparations demanded of Germany.  What a mess that settlement was: I saw on the BBC website earlier this week that the South Tyrol question’s reared its head again.  The Nazi youth groups seemed like good fun. They organised trips out into the countryside, and sports matches.  Everyone else belonged to them.  And the Nazis promised to make Germany great again.  Ania and her husband ran Nazi camps for young men.  She saw herself as a sort of housemistress.

She had some idea of what was going on, but she didn’t think about it much. It seemed distant, like something happening a long way away.  What do you do?  We have 24/7 news these days.  We know all about the Rohingya crisis, about Yemen, about Syria, about the Democratic Republic of Congo … what do we do about any of it?  Maybe share an article about it on Facebook.  Press the “sad” emoticon if one of our friends shares an article about it on Facebook.  I did sign a petition asking the Government to do something when news of the IS treatment of the Yazidi women first emerged, but I’m not sure what good I expected it to do.  Send the odd tenner to the Red Cross.  That’s all.

But at least you accept what’s going on. You don’t try to kid yourself that it isn’t happening.  You acknowledge that, and you hate it.  Ania can’t forgive herself for being complicit, and she also can’t forgive herself for her self-deception, for letting herself believe that people were just being “resettled”.  When babies and toddlers arrived at her camp, and were then taken away, she’d told herself that they were going to foster homes or orphanages.  It was when she’d accepted that they were being taken away to be killed that she’d left.

She makes a new life for herself, but never forgives herself. But her daughter, another one who ends up in America, working for a human rights organisation, does forgive her.  Ania reflects on the modern culture of baring your soul on TV chat shows and feeling that you’ve earned forgiveness that way, but knows that no amount of talking or soul-baring can ever put right what happened in Nazi Germany.

The book ends with a very minor character, the daughter of the man to whom Benita was briefly engaged, reflecting on how Nazism permeated everywhere in Germany, and how everyone’ll have old photos somewhere of parents or grandparents in Nazi uniform and or making the Nazi salute. Most of us will have photos of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts or great-uncles during the war, and hopefully we’re all very proud of them.  It’s hard to understand how Germany deals with that.  I’ve been to Germany several times, and will hopefully be going again next month.  I’ve got absolutely no problem with modern Germany, or with today’s Germans.  But is it always there?  When Angela Merkel said that all Syrian refugees were welcome in Germany, people said that she, someone who wasn’t even born until nine years after the end of the war, was still trying to make up for what the Nazis did.

The idea of collective guilt and collective responsibility was certainly very much to the fore in 1945. The book touches on the de-Nazification programme but, frustratingly, only touches on it.  We’re told that there are leaflets and posters showing concentration camp victims, as part of the de-Nazification programme – that the Americans are trying to make the Germans face up to what happened.  But that most of the locals try to ignore them.  There were films too, although the book didn’t really mention them.

In the American zone, everyone had to fill in a form, and they were then all categorised as either Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Followers or Exonerated Persons. The idea was to implement a full, detailed, de-Nazification programme.  But there just wasn’t the administrative manpower for it, especially once attention turned to the Cold War.  In the British zone, only those applying for official jobs had to fill in the forms.  In the French zone, they didn’t really bother at all.  As early as 1946, “de-Nazification” was handed over to the German authorities.  Not much happened – lack of time, lack of manpower, too much paperwork, other things to do – and it was abandoned as a bad job in 1951.

The book says too little about it, only that most people hoped to get away with being classed as Followers. It also touches on the vast numbers of people in Displaced Persons Camps, and on the post-war food crisis, but it doesn’t really explain any of it.  There’s too much it doesn’t explain, but what it does do is make you think.

Final thought. All the characters agree that they can start anew in America, where there’s openness, and where there’s no guilt.  The people who emigrate seem to have no trouble being allowed into America.  There was a ship called the St Louis, which took nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees to Cuba in 1939.  Cuba wouldn’t let them in.  The United States wouldn’t let them in.  Canada wouldn’t let them in.  I’m not having a go at those three countries:  there are all sorts of stories about people desperately pleading at every foreign embassy in Germany and Austria to be granted a visa, and being turned down.  Eventually, the ship had to sail back across the Atlantic.  I’m pleased to say that Britain agreed to take a third of those on board.  The others were eventually admitted to France, Belgium and the Netherlands: 254 of them were murdered after those countries were occupied by the Nazis.  In a couple of weeks’ time, Justin Trudeau will be issuing a formal apology for Canada’s refusal to take the refugees.  A lot of apologising goes on these days.  No guilt?

I’m not sure what I wanted from this book. I was hoping for more of a sense of Bavaria, but it said almost nothing about Bavaria: the castle could have been anywhere.  The idea of a castle being returned to a family who’d opposed the Nazis reminded me of Marie von und zu Wertheim, nee Marie von Eschenau, a favourite character in the Chalet School books; but there wasn’t much about the castle either.  It was a very unsatisfying book all round, but it certainly contained a lot of food for thought.


A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher


This is the story of how the Nazis persecuted one of the greatest tennis players of the 1930s, Roland Garros champion and three-times Wimbledon finalist Gottfried von Cramm, because he was gay, his boyfriend was Jewish, and he’d refused to join the Nazi party and had courageously spoken out in protest at the treatment of his Jewish friend and doubles partner Daniel Prenn.  American spelling of “splendour”! It also tells something of the wider story of the persecution of Jewish sports players – as a result of which one German Jewish tennis player, Nelly Neppach, was driven to commit suicide – and gay people in Nazi Germany.  Members of the tennis community, including King Gustaf V of Sweden, spoke out in support of both von Cramm and Prenn.  Both men thankfully survived the horrors of the Nazi era.  So many other people didn’t.

Following the recent controversy over the Twitter account of surprise Australian Open quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren, John McEnroe gave a magnificent speech, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, about the prejudices faced by some of the great players of the past, and their struggles to overcome them.  The names of Arthur Ashe, who fought against racism, and Billie Jean King, who fought against sexism, are well known.  That of Gottfried von Cramm, Fred Perry’s opponent in the 1935 and 1936 Wimbledon finals, is much less so; and I was rather pleased to find that there was a book about him.

The book itself isn’t actually that great, it has to be said.  Some of the prose is really quite poor, some of what’s included isn’t particularly relevant, and it jumps backwards and forwards across time and between different themes and settings in a rather bitty and confusing way.  But it’s worth persevering with, because it’s a very interesting story.

It intertwines the story of von Cramm, and to a lesser extent that of Prenn, with the stories of Americans Don Budge and Bill Tilden, and a present tense description of the 1937 Davis Cup semi-final deciding rubber between von Cramm and American Don Budge.  That match, staged on the Centre Court at Wimbledon in front of a packed crowd including Queen Mary, is generally regarded as the greatest Davis Cup match ever played.  Some people say that it was the greatest tennis match ever played, but, come on, that was the 2008 Wimbledon men’s singles final … not that I’m biased or anything, of course 😉 .  I was in tears at the end of that 2008 final, between the stress of it all and the happiness at the result.  Oh dear, I’m getting off the point already.  Back to 1937!

Anyway, Budge won, 8-6 in the final set.  The relevance of the match is that it was shortly after von Cramm’s defeat that he was imprisoned.  He’d lost three Wimbledon finals in a row – two to Fred Perry, the second of which, during which von Cramm was injured and unable to compete effectively, was, of course, to be the last time a British man would win the Wimbledon men’s singles until Andy Murray’s triumph in 2013, and the third, in 1937, to Budge – and Germany had failed to win the Davis Cup, and so his credit with the Nazis as a shining example of German success was weakening.  And he’d already been taken in for questioning in relation to homosexuality in April 1937, three months before the Davis Cup match, although he’d been released without charge.

Himmler, who was, to use Marshall King’s words, “a murderous homophobe”, and who also disliked the aristocracy, had probably been ready for a while to move against him, but Goring was known to be a fan of sport and the arts and reluctant to attack any of the big names in either field – as long as they were bringing glory to the Third Reich.  There’s even a story that Hitler had phoned von Cramm before the match, and that that showed what a big deal it was.  The phone call story was probably untrue, and the Nazis would probably have arrested von Cramm anyway, but the book, whether for the sake of dramatic effect or whether because the author actually believes it, takes the approach that he was literally “playing for his life”.

However, I’m not sure that the juxtaposition of the details of the match and the story of what went on off the court really works that well.  One minute you’re reading about how the Nazis arrested thousands of gay men and sent them to prisons or concentration camps, and the next minute you’re reading about how well someone was serving and volleying at break point down … it’s just a bit too much of a contrast.

However, the book’s worth reading, for the stories of Gottfried von Cramm and Daniel Prenn, and also that of Bill Tilden.  There’s a fair bit of historical background detail too.  The point’s made that, unlike in Britain, sport was not a big thing in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – but was promoted by the Nazis.  Something that is now such an important part of the culture of Germany and most other countries carried, at the time, some nasty connotations of building a super race and proving racial superiority.  On a completely different note, there’s a lot of description of the nightlife and social life in liberal Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s – the Berlin we know from the musical Cabaret, the most gay-friendly city in Europe in those days.  It’s also pointed out that Germany had also been seen as a welcoming destination for refugees escaping from the Russian Revolution, including the Prenn family.

Going back to Gottfried von Cramm, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, his name might sound like it belongs to a cartoon baddie but no-one seems to have had a bad word to say about him.  He was a real Boys’ Own hero – the perfect gentleman, the perfect sportsman, a wonderfully elegant player, handsome and charming.  I’ve got a thing about tennis players: I’d probably have had a major crush on him if I’d been around in the 1930s!  He belonged to an aristocratic family who could trace their ancestry back eight centuries, were fabulously wealthy and lived in a castle.  He looked like the perfect specimen of the master race, tall and blond.  He was incredibly popular both in Germany and elsewhere, and the Nazis would have loved to have had him as a pin-up boy.  But he wanted nothing to do with them.

He and Daniel Prenn formed the backbone of a German team that had a real chance of winning the Davis Cup, but, in 1933, the “Reichssportfuhrer” (and what a horribly creepy word that is) declared that Jewish players were to be barred from representing Germany.  The ITF did nothing, but it’s quite moving to read about the efforts made by individuals.  Britain’s Fred Perry and Bunny Austin wrote a letter of protest to the Times.  King Gustaf V of Sweden, a keen tennis player who’d played with most of the sport’s leading lights, went to Germany on a state visit, had to dine with Nazi officials and then, straight afterwards, went off to play tennis with Daniel Prenn.  For the monarch of one country to have made such a public gesture about his disgust at the internal politics of another is really very something.  Sadly, neither his gesture nor Perry and Austin’s achieved anything, but Daniel Prenn was able to move to Britain, thanks to the support and sponsorship of Manchester (let’s just get the local connection in there!) businessman Simon Marks, and lived out the rest of his life in peace in London.

Gottfried von Cramm was also later to speak out against the treatment of Prenn.  Not only refusing to join the Nazi Party but publicly setting himself against its policies was particularly brave because the Nazis had something on him – his relationship with a Jewish actor called Manny Herbst.  Von Cramm was married, but had been involved with Manny Herbst for several years, until Herbst had managed to leave the country after the introduction of stringent anti-gay laws in 1935.  He’d been unable to take his money with him because of the restrictions on Jews taking money out of Germany, so had left it with von Cramm, who remained in touch with him and was sending the funds on to him in stages, which was strictly illegal under Nazi law.

From 1936, the year before this particular Davis Cup match, the persecution of gay men –gay women were not targeted to the same extent – intensified.  Many people whom Gottfried von Cramm knew “disappeared”.  This, a tennis book, says more about the witch hunt against gay men in the Third Reich than most history text books do.  As with the Spanish Inquisition, the Terror during the French Revolution, Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union, etc etc, any sort of denunciation was seized on by the authorities: people who were just living their lives in peace were at the mercy of anyone who had any sort of grudge against them and was spiteful enough to act on it.

This is an under-reported part of the Nazi terror.  Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish doctor who became an advocate for gay rights (and also for women’s rights) after becoming aware of the high rates of attempted suicide amongst his gay patients, and was the first person to prevent statistical evidence showing that rates of depression and suicide were higher amongst homosexual people than heterosexual people, went into exile in France: his scientific institution in Germany was closed down, and the irreplaceable works in its library destroyed.  Around 100,000 men were arrested under the Nazi anti-gay laws, of whom around 50,000 were sent to prison and up to 15,000 sent to concentration camps.

Obviously, reading about this, as with reading about anything connected to the evils of the Nazi regime, is very intense and extremely distressing.  And then, right in the middle of it, the book suddenly witches to the life and career of Don Budge.  Budge was a wonderful player, and I was interested to read that his dad had played for Rangers, but it was just a common or garden story of a middle-class all-American boy who made it to the top of his chosen sport and became pally with several leading celebrities.   I was very emotionally caught up in the stories of von Cramm and Prenn and what was going on in Germany, and suddenly to be reading long descriptions of tennis matches and Californian pool parties instead was just very strange.  Maybe the contrast was meant to be effective in some way, but it didn’t really work that well for me.

Then it was on to Bill Tilden, the number one tennis player of the 1920s, who fell out with the American tennis establishment because they disapproved of his working as a tennis journalist, and, by 1937, was coaching von Cramm, and therefore in the strange position of being an American coach helping out the Germans in a Germany versus the USA tie.  Shamateurism and all the horrendous hypocrisy of it is an interesting saga – and it was still going on in rugby union as late as the 1980s – but this book wasn’t long enough to cover that as well as Nazi Germany, and including bits about it just made things seem very disjointed.

Anyway, eventually, it was back to Nazi Germany, and a lot of talk about the Max Schmeling-Joe Louis boxing matches and the Berlin Olympics.  This, although something everyone’s heard umpteen times before, was interesting, and helped to set the scene in terms of the relationship between the Nazi authorities and sport, but, again, the jumping about between times and places made things seem quite incoherent, and I kept wishing that the author would just stick to the main point, about the persecution of tennis players.

Also, the author insists on using “English” where he should be using “British”, and makes some cracks about the British upper-classes being pro-Nazi.  The Davis Cup format was different in those days.  Britain, as defending champions, would play the winners of the semi-final in the championship match.  With Fred Perry – Stockport’s finest 🙂 – having recently turned pro and therefore being ineligible for selection, our chances in the final weren’t great.  Germany were considered easier opponents than the US, and so the British crowd – mainly upper-class, at Wimbledon in those days – were mainly cheering for von Cramm.  The author does acknowledge that that was the reason, but also trots out the old chestnuts about the upper-classes admiring Hitler.  Some of them certainly did, but it’s not very fair to generalise – and it wasn’t even relevant to the book.  He also talks about Charles Lindbergh being pro-Nazi – well, he may well have been, but, again, it just wasn’t really relevant to the subject matter.  Stick to the point!!

Having said all that, to be fair to the author, it wasn’t his fault that I’d only bought the book because my attention had been caught by what John McEnroe had said about von Cramm, and that it was von Cramm I wanted to read about.  So maybe I’m being unfair.

Anyway.  Eventually, we got back to the Davis Cup tie, even if we did get an interlude concerning Bill Tilden’s finances just as Don Budge was about to serve for the match.  Budge won, the US beat Britain in the final, and Gottfried von Cramm then spent a further eight months away – first in America, then in Japan, then in Australia.  Returning to Europe in the spring of 1938, he thought he was going to spend some time with his family and then head off to Paris, to play in the French Championships and to enjoy a reunion with Manny Herbst, who was living there.  Instead, he was arrested and charged under “Paragraph 175”, the Nazi anti-gay law.  He was also charged with breaching foreign exchange rules for sending Herbst his money.  And, like many other men, he was also charged on completely fabricated evidence of having a relationship with a man he’d had nothing to do with, this second man being someone whom the Gestapo paid to tell a pack of lies to help bring about convictions under Paragraph 175.

He got a much lighter sentence than many, one year in prison.  That was largely because he claimed that Herbst had been blackmailing him over the money – they remained friends, and it’s likely that Herbst, safely out of Germany, was only too happy to have been used as a scapegoat if it saved von Cramm from a longer sentence – and, by some bizarre logic, because his partner was a Galician Jew and so that apparently didn’t matter as much as if he’d been involved with an “Aryan” who was in need of protection from him.  But it was bad enough.  In protest, Don Budge organised a petition signed by several leading sporting names including himself, Helen Wills Moody and Joe DiMaggio.  King Gustaf V also protested against von Cramm’s imprisonment.  As with the support given to Daniel Prenn, it sadly did nothing to change the laws, but the fact that they stood by their friend really does say something.  Homosexuality was illegal in both the US and Sweden at the time, but these people still spoke out.

Possibly because of all the publicity, von Cramm was released early, after seven months.   He was lucky, if that’s the right word.  The book describes how many other gay men in Nazi Germany were transferred to concentration camps, identified there by pink triangles on their uniforms, given the worst jobs and savagely beaten by guards.  It was very upsetting to read, and it was very strange to be reading it in amongst descriptions of serves, volleys, lobs and groundstrokes.  And, almost unbelievably, those who survived were, when the camps were liberated at the end of the war, sent back to ordinary prisons to complete their sentences.

Paragraph 175 was not removed from the German law code until 1994, and it was only last year, 2017, that it was agreed to pay compensation to those convicted under it.

Von Cramm returned to playing tennis after his release.  He won Queen’s in 1939, but was unable to compete at Wimbledon – reports conflict as to why  – and was unable to compete at the US Championships after the American authorities refused him a visa because of his conviction for “moral turpitude”.  Incidentally, the book also notes that the US Lawn Tennis Association did not at that time allow black players to compete in its events, and that many American tennis clubs did not admit black or Jewish people as members.  Some of that sort of thing was still going on in the 1980s: I remember Tom Watson, one of world’s leading golfers when I was a kid, speaking out against it.

Despite everything that the Nazis had done to him, and despite the offer of Swedish citizenship, von Cramm felt obliged to join up when war broke out.  He returned to playing tennis after the war, and was later involved with the German Tennis Federation (and having been divorced from his first wife in 1937, was briefly married to Barbara Hutton for a time in the 1950s), before tragically dying in a car crash in 1967.  Tennis writers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s included him as one of the leading players of all time.  His name isn’t very well-known now.  Maybe John McEnroe’s wonderful speech will ensure that it becomes so again.

At the end, we got a round-up of what happened to everyone else.  Daniel Prenn continued to play tennis after moving to Britain, and then became a very successful businessman, living on into his eighties.  Being a tennis player saved his life, really, because being banned from playing in Germany drove him to leave the country.  Tragically, though his widowed mother, who’d moved to Poland, and his younger sister, who’d moved to Czechoslovakia, were both killed in the Holocaust.  Don Budge won the Grand Slam in 1938.  He was sadly never the same player after suffering a shoulder injury during the war, but remained involved in tennis and lived a long and happy life.

Bill Tilden’s story was tragic, though.  He was also gay, and was convicted on two charges of indecent activity with under-age boys, probably trumped up by the homophobic Californian police.  California might have a liberal reputation now, but it didn’t repeal its homosexuality laws until as late as the 1970s.  He’s the only man other than Rafa and Roger to have reached ten finals at one Grand Slam event, and is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players ever.  But he didn’t get the support that von Cramm did, got into severe financial difficulties, developed mental health problems, and died of a heart attack at the age of 60.   In 2016 – yes, 2016, just two years ago – proposals to put up a plaque dedicated to him in his home city of Philadelphia were rejected.  A new biography of him’s due out very shortly, but it costs £31 to pre-order it on Amazon, so I won’t be reading it just yet.

Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm remained friends, and played a number of exhibition matches in Germany, but were unable to play each other in America as the US authorities never allowed von Cramm back into the country – on the basis of a conviction handed down by a Nazi court.  So the US immigration authorities basically said that they agreed with a judgement made by one of Hitler’s courts.  That’s beyond appalling.   We’ve still got a way to go, but the huge backlash over the Tennys Sandgren Twitter affair hopefully shows that most people in tennis and in general are disgusted by racism and homophobia, and that’s encouraging.

The name of Gottfried von Cramm isn’t very well-known now.  It would be nice to think that John McEnroe’s very impressive speech will make it more so.  This is not a particularly good book – it’s disjointed, and the style of writing leads a lot to be desired – but it’s worth reading because of the subject matter.  As McEnroe said, people need to be aware of what went on in the past; and this book’s got a lot to tell its readers, whether they’re tennis fans or not.

Reformation: Europe’s Holy War – BBC 2



This really needed to be a series, rather than a single programme. David Starkey, who can sometimes be a bit dry but wasn’t this time, did a decent job with what he said, but an hour really didn’t give him time to say very much.  I’m amazed that none of the TV channels have commissioned a full series to mark the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses.  Come on, we’re talking pretty major stuff here!

The programme started by trying to put a modern spin on things. Why do so many documentaries do that these days?!  OK, it’s better than Lucy Worsley dressing up, but surely we can study the past without always having to try to draw parallels with the present day.  Comparing the Islamic fundamentalism in the 21st century with Christian fundamentalism of the 16th century – which would have worked a lot better if there’d been some proper coverage of Christian fundamentalism of the 16th century.  And flashing up “#Luthersreformation” on screen.  Oh dear.

However, once he actually got on to talking about the 95 Theses, it was very good. It really is incredible how Luther’s ideas spread.  “Went viral”, as the programme put it.  I mean, he wasn’t a prince, or a courtier, or an archbishop, or a renowned international scholar: he was just some monk in a university city a very long way from Rome or Vienna.  Starkey made a lot of familiar but still interesting points about the importance of the growth of printing and the use of the vernacular.  Whatever anyone’s views on doctrine and practice, the use of the vernacular in religion is so important.  No offence to anyone who prefers their services or religious books in Latin, Church Slavonic, Hebrew, Arabic or whatever, but it is rather helpful if you can actually understand what’s being said.  Even taking that into the account, the impact of the 95 Theses and the follow-up writings is incredible.  There’d been reformist movements before – the Waldensians, the Lollards, the Hussites, etc – but their impact had been short-lived and restricted to a particular area.  With Luther, it all just took off.

Then we had the Diet of Worms.  It still makes me laugh when I see that written down!  The appeal of Luther’s ideas to local princes.  Schmalkaldic League.  The Peasants’ War.  Annoyingly, no mention of the Twelve Articles of Memmingen – but I’m only saying that because I once stayed overnight in Memmingen.  But then we switched to England.  Now, the English Reformation is extremely interesting, and obviously extremely important, but did we really need yet another programme about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn?   Henry, Anne, Catherine, Wolsey, the Dissolution of the Monasteries … yes, it’s fascinating, but it’s been covered so many times, and the title of the programme suggested that it would have much wider geographical scope than that.

And off we went again with having to try to put a modern spin on things. Henry VIII’s break with Rome was “the Tudor Brexit”, David Starkey informed us.  Er, hardly.  The break with Rome was, whatever the spread of Protestant feeling in the country, the choice of Henry VIII and his ministers.  Brexit is the result of the democratic will of the people.  And, whilst the pre-Counter Reformation Catholic Church was, like the institutions of the European Union, very good at grabbing everyone’s money, it didn’t try to micro-manage and uber-control the whole of Western Christendom.

However, as Starkey pointed out, there are parallels in terms of the importance of the sovereignty of the national parliament. The Reformation was one of the best things that ever happened to England/Britain.  As one of my university lecturers used to say, Britain isn’t a very Christian country but it’s a very Protestant country.  In the best of ways, unlike some of what’s gone on in the US and South Africa.

It was all getting very interesting, with the talk about the influence that the Reformation had on national identity and self-confidence. But there it stopped. I know the BBC’s obsessed with Henry VIII, but surely it must acknowledge that the story of the English Reformation didn’t stop with Henry VIII! What about Mary’s attempts to restore Catholicism? The swing to more radical Protestantism in Edward’s reign? The Elizabethan Settlement? And, if you’re going to talk about religious books being written in the vernacular, then surely you need to mention James I and the Authorised Version of the Bible?

And it wasn’t even just supposed to be about England. If you’re going to call a programme “Reformation: Europe’s Holy War” then you need to go a long way beyond the 95 Theses and the Diet of Worms.  It didn’t even get on to the Peace of Augsburg!  And, as an example of iconoclasm, Henry VIII’s minions smashing up the monasteries was a pretty poor one.  That was mainly about money: there were far better examples on the Continent.

What about Zwingli, and Calvin? What about Thomas Muntzer (whom, as a result of spending too much time thinking about tennis whilst I was doing my A-levels, I always want to call “Thomas Muster”)?  It only really mentioned Germany and England.  What about the Nordic countries?  What about the French Wars of Religion, St Bartholomew’s Day and all that?  What about the growth and repression of Protestantism in the Habsburg crownlands?  And Protestantism in Poland – now there’s a story that very rarely gets told!   What about the Netherlands, where the Reformation arguably had more impact than it did anywhere else?  And, for crying out loud, surely a British Broadcasting Corporation programme about the Reformation should have mentioned Scotland!   It needed to go beyond the 16th century and well into the 17th century, to the Thirty Years’ War, and to Oliver Cromwell and co – and maybe right up until the Glorious Revolution.  And, given that they started by going on about radicalism, the Anabaptists, or at least the Puritans, really needed to be in there.

It was an interesting enough programme, but it was just short. “Reformation: Europe’s Holy War” is a very ambitious title.  It wasn’t possible to come even close to doing it justice in the space of an hour.  More, please, BBC!

The Queen’s Lady by Barbara Kyle


Word PressI thought that this was going to be yet another book about Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn; but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was more about some of the neglected aspects of the Reformation era.  It also included quite a bit of the theology of the Reformation, which tends to be overlooked in books.  All right, the soap opera-esque story of the loyal wife being thrown over in favour of a younger model makes for a much better story than debates over (let’s see if I can remember how to spell this!) transubstantiation, but it’s good to see the actual religious issues being mentioned too!

The protagonist, Honor Larke, an orphan, becomes a ward of Thomas More – known to us as St Thomas More, the man for all seasons, the man who died rather than betray his beliefs, et al.  This book reminds us that More was very much involved in suppressing early attempts to bring the Reformation to England, and that a number of “heretics” were burnt at the stake during his time as chancellor.  There’s been debate over this in the past, and More was strongly criticised in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, but it’s not something that’s really mentioned now.  By the standards of the times, his actions were not severe – what he did was hardly the “Spanish Inquisition” – but it still doesn’t sit very well with the supposed ideas of humanism.  He’s also presented as a dirty old perv who lusted after young girls: that bit doesn’t really work, as I’m not aware that there’s any historical evidence for it.

Honor becomes involves in trying to protect early Protestants from More, but ends up having to leave England … and becomes involves with the Anabaptists, and the Munster Rebellion.  It’s unfortunate that the word “Anabaptist” has become identified with what went on at Munster, because the actual word “Anabaptist” just refers to the (IMO) very sensible idea that people should only be baptised, or otherwise join/be regarded as part of a religion, once they’re old enough to take that decision for themselves, rather than the idea, which most people hold, that parents and guardians and religious leaders should be able to try to force their own religious views on a young child.  Anyway, Anabaptism also came to encompass the rejection of civil society, which is fine when you’re talking about (later) peaceful groups like the Amish and the Mennonites but which, in the 1530s, resulted in an attempt to take over the city of Munster, in Westphalia, and then got wildly out of hand with its leaders legalising polygamy and trying to force women into marriage.

I think the idea of this book is that all forms of religious extremism and religious intolerance are very dangerous, and that’s obviously a lesson that’s very relevant today.  It really wasn’t what I expecting, because the blurb on the back cover gives the impression that it’s all about Henry and Catherine and Anne.  Even the title does that, because for a while Honor is a lady in waiting to Catherine of Aragon.  Honor does have rather more adventures in a short time than anyone is likely to, but, hey, it’s a book.  And it’s certainly a different take on things.  Worth a read!

The First Violin by Jessie Fothergill


Word Press

From this rather enthralling if somewhat melodramatic mid-Victorian tale of romance and scandal around an orchestra in the Rhineland, I have learnt that many of the Germanic names in the Chalet School series were taken from a controversial novel by an author from Cheetham Hill. It took me ages to put that sentence together ;-).

May Wedderburn, a, 18-year-old vicar’s daughter living in a quiet part of northern England in 1869, is invited to accompany Miss Hallam, a well-to-do older lady, on a trip to Germany. Whilst they’re waiting from their train from Cologne to their final destination of Elberthal, a fictional town somewhere in the North Rhineland area, May becomes separated from Miss Hallam and her maid, misses the train, and is left stranded with no ticket and no money and unable to explain herself in German. Fortunately, as it wont to happen in books, she’s rescued from her plight by a kindly stranger, a handsome, charming and somewhat mysterious young man.

Once everyone is safely in Elberthal, Miss Hallam arranges for May, who has a good singing voice, to take lessons from a local music master, Herr Max von Francius, director of Elberthal’s orchestra. It turns out that the first violinist of the orchestra is none other than the handsome stranger from Cologne station, Eugen Courvoisier. May of course falls madly in love with Courvoisier, and he with her, but there are all sorts of misunderstandings, each thinks that the other doesn’t like them, and Courvoisier is reluctant to become involved. This is clearly linked to the mystery surrounding him, which deepens when first we find out that he has a young son, whom he adores, and then the child is taken away to live with relatives even though it obviously breaks Courvoisier’s heart to part with him.

It then comes out that Courvoisier is alleged to have forged his brother’s signature on a cheque in order to cheat him out of a large sum of money. Although May and all his friends are sure that he’d never have done anything so dishonourable, he doesn’t deny it. Then various things happen, May falls ill and returns to England to recuperate, Courvoisier and his friend and housemate Friedel von Helfen move away, the Franco-Prussian War breaks out, and it looks as if Our Heroine and Our Hero are doomed never to meet again.

However, Miss Hallam conveniently dies, and leaves May some money with which to return to Germany and resume her musical studies, Courvoisier comes back to Elberthal to visit and, without giving away what happens (although it’s pretty obvious!), everything is resolved happily.

It does have to be said that a fair bit of what happens would strain anyone’s credulity, even given that most Victorian novels are full of amazing coincidences! It reaches pretty ridiculous proportions when May is caught up in a hurricane which has suddenly struck without warning (as no doubt happens on a regular occurrence in that well-known hurricane zone, north west Germany), accidentally steps on to a boat (as you do), finds herself being swept down the Rhine, and then realises that there’s someone else on the boat and, what do you know, it’s Eugen Courvoisier, who just happened to be visiting Elberthal that day and just also happened to accidentally step on the same boat in the middle of the sudden hurricane! Come on J.

Silliness aside, though, it’s quite an interesting story, even though you always know that May and Eugen are going to get together and that it’s going to turn out that Eugen is completely innocent of the dastardly deeds of which he’s been accused. Also, some of it was quite controversial in its day, and the book was rejected by the first publisher whom Jessie Fothergill approached – because of the sub-plot involving May’s sister, Adelaide, and Herr von Francius. Adelaide marries an unpleasant man for his title and his money, but soon regrets her decision when he treats her badly. Whilst she’s visiting Elberthal, she and von Francius fall in love. They don’t actually “do” anything other than declaring their feelings to each other, whereupon von Francius immediately does the decent thing and leaves town, but Adelaide’s husband finds out and divorces her.

She and Max then marry, she redeems her character by her sterling service as a nurse during the Franco-Prussian war, and they get a deus ex machina punishment when poor Max dies young. However, May, rather than being shocked when her married sister becomes involved with another man, is obviously very sympathetic towards her, and the reader’s obviously meant to feel the same, and in the mid-Victorian world that didn’t go down very well .. and it was brave of Jessie Fothergill to write it.

I thought some of May’s own behaviour was a bit questionable by the standards of the times, as well! She gets quite a lot of freedom, staying behind in Elberthal on her own when Miss Hallam and her maid return to England, and going about on her own much of the time even before then. When she initially learns that Courvoisier is in Elberthal, she goes round to his home, on her own, at night, to try to pay him back for the train ticket! Nothing improper happens, and she’s only trying to do the right thing, but I’m sure that young single mid-Victorian ladies shouldn’t have been going round to gentlemen’s homes without a chaperone, especially at night! Then she goes off skating on her own, falls through some thin ice and is rescued from the cold water by, you’ve guessed it, Eugen Courvoisier … and we hear all about how much she’s enjoying being held and carried by him! Again, nothing improper goes on, but I don’t think mid-Victorian young ladies were meant to admit to having thoughts like those, LOL. Mind you, it’s pretty mild compared to some of what goes on in the Brontes’ novels!

On a different note, there are no actual comments about it in the books but it’s interesting to see Anglican vicar’s daughter May enjoying all the Carnival festivities and to hear that she enjoys attending services at a Jesuit church. That would certainly have appealed to the author of the Chalet School books, but it’s not something you’d particularly expect to find in a book written in the 1870s.

Anyway. Eugen, being a man, is allowed to have had a bit of a naughty past, although we’re assured that it was only whilst he was very young, and that it didn’t involve wine or women, only overspending and gambling. He apparently managed to lose all his money through betting on the Derby – couldn’t he have found anything in Germany to bet on?! By the time we meet him, he has of course mended his ways, but I still thought that some of the comments about how noble and honourable he was, and even at one point May wondering how she was going to cope with being married to someone so perfect, were a bit overboard, given that he had had this wild youth!

He’d also been married before. Friedel von Helfen wonders about the mother of the child, but, strangely, May apparently doesn’t! We eventually learn that she was Courvoisier’s wife, that it’d turned out that she’d only married him for his money, and that she’d later conveniently dies. It’s quite interesting how some novels do have these heroes who’ve been married before, although it generally turns out that there were major issues with the first wives and that they’ve therefore never really known true lurve before, etc etc – think Mr Rochester, or Max de Winter. Never happens the other way round, though, with a young widow attracting the attention of a dashing man (unless he’s after her money). And the heroines/second wives are always so young. Oh well.

Something else about this book, which is more unusual, is the “bromance” between Eugen Courvoisier and Friedel von Helfen. The book’s narrated partly by May and partly, not by Courvoisier, but by von Helfen, who is devoted to him and refuses to believe any ill of him. It’s Friedel, not May, who gets to narrate the ending. Some of it’s very poignant: the part in which Courvoisier’s son is sent away and von Helfen reflects sadly on how the light of two lonely lives has gone is probably more moving than any of the romantic passages. It’s common for books to show a close friendship between two women, but unusual for them to show such so deeply a friendship between two men.

In amongst all the tangles of romances and friendships, we do learn quite a bit about the workings of the orchestra, and we see various concerts and rehearsals, as well as May’s singing lessons. Of course, this was at a time when the German states were the place to go for well-to-do British ladies wanting to study music. “Deutschland, land of music,” May thinks to herself … and a lot of people at the time would have had that image of Germany. Land of music, philosophy and literature. The book was published in 1877 and set in 1869-72, so we’re looking at a crucial time in the development of what became the German Empire. The Franco-Prussian War, the third of the three wars in which Prussia fought and won in the mid-19th century, actually takes place during the book – both Eugen (whom we later learn was previously a cavalry officer) and Friedel serve in it.

This is really the point at which Germany’s image abroad starts to change big style, although that doesn’t come across in the book … it was probably too soon for that. I frightened myself when it dawned on me that we’re now as far removed from the Second World War as the Second World War was from the Franco-Prussian War: how did I get to be so ancient?! Going back to Germany, there’s always a lot of food for thought when you think about how this country so much associated with high culture, the country which Prince Albert hoped would join with Britain in leading the world to some sort of wonderful liberal future – and, who knows, maybe things would all have been different had Friedrich, Albert’s son-in-law, not tragically died so soon after becoming German Emperor – became the land of the Nazis, the people who perpetrated the most horrific atrocities the world has ever known.

This has all got rather heavy now. On a lighter and completely different note, how about all the names from this book which were “borrowed” by Elinor M Brent-Dyer for her Chalet School series, we have Eugen Courvoisier, Herr Helfen (I don’t think the first name of the Herr Helfen in the Chalet School books is ever given, but there’s a mistake in one book in which Friedel von Gluck is referred to as Friedel von Helfen!), Karl Linders (in The First Violin, a friend and colleague of Herren Courvoisier and Helfen), Herr von Francius and the von Rothenfels family. I know that it can be difficult to think of surnames in foreign languages, but you would think that “EBD” would at least have mixed up the first name-surname combinations! I also assume that this is where she got the idea of German women wearing tartan from: I don’t think I’ve ever come across that anywhere else!

Also, whilst I’m wandering off the point of The First Violin itself, I was interested to learn that Jessie Fothergill was born in Cheetham Hill, the daughter of a cotton manufacturer. She later spent many years living in Littleborough, after her father’s death forced the family to move to a smaller and cheaper home, before sadly dying – in Switzerland, of lung disease – at the age of only 40. Most of her books are set in Lancashire, and I’ve managed to find a copy of Probation, set in Rochdale during the Cotton Famine. The Cotton Famine was my dissertation topic and there are very few historical novels about it, so I’m rather excited to have found I’ve never come across before! Incidentally, one point that’s made towards the end of The First Violin is that Eugen’s learnt that the true heroes of society are not the upper-classes but the lower middle-classes. How brilliantly mid-Victorian Manchester is that 😉 ?!

Also, whilst I’m reminiscing about my university days, there were various references in the book to “Prinz Eugen, der edle Ritter” (“Prince Eugene, the noble knight”), a German folk song. The idea was to show that people thought of Courvoisier as a perfect gentleman, but the Prinz Eugen of the song is Eugene of Savoy, a hero in Austria because of his role in various campaigns against the Ottomans but best known to British historians as the Duke of Marlborough’s oppo during the War of the Spanish Succession – my university “special subject”. Not something that would excite anyone else, but it excited me, LOL!

Anyway, this is now rapidly approaching the length of a university essay, so I’d better stop waffling and go and do something else, but this book, even if some of it is rather daft, has certainly given me a lot to think about.  Now to read Probation!