Before Bethlehem by James Flerlage

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Biblical novels, notably The Red Tent, can be very good.  This one’s only so-so, but it does have a reasonable stab at setting the nativity story in the historical context of the struggles faced by the people of Judaea and Galilee under the control of both the Romans and the religious courts.  It’s easy to forget that the nativity story’s set only 70 years or so before the outbreak of the war that culminated in the mass suicide at Masada, because no-one ever really talks about the two things as part of the same history.  It also includes some interesting Tudor-esque suggestions about Herod’s fears of being overthrown by either the line of the Maccabees or the line of King David.  However, the author’s unwillingness to choose between a Red Tent-type novel presented as historical fiction and a religious story with angels and divine messages means that the book doesn’t really work that well as a whole.

The story follows an Orthodox tradition that Joseph was a middle-aged widower with several children when he met Mary, and is told from the viewpoint of James, his youngest son. I understand that all the details of Joseph’s family as given in the book – his children, his brother and sister-in-law, the name of his first wife – come from the same tradition.  He’s shown as being a reasonably well-to-do man, rather than a “humble” carpenter.

I’m hardly an expert on the Bible, but I don’t know that it actually says anything about Joseph not being well-to-do.  Is the “humble” idea some sort of English thing from the Peasants’ Revolt and “When Adam delved and Eve span”, or am I overthinking this?  And the idea that Joseph was a fair bit older than Mary makes sense, because he disappears from the story fairly early on – although I suppose he could just have died young.  Anyway, whatever, this is the picture we get.

Archaeologists agree that Nazareth, as it is now, was only a two bit village at the time, and the book shows Joseph and his family being based in Sepphoris, a now-ruined city nearby, but also owning and farming some land at Nazareth. It suggests that Herod wanted to force all the builders/craftsmen in the area to leave their homes, close to harvest time, and go and work on constructing his new city at what’s now Tiberias.  Tiberias is – thank you, Wikipedia – supposed to have been founded quarter of a century later, but, OK, I suppose people must have been working on it beforehand.  I’m not sure how well this idea works, but it does get across the point that everyone in the area was very vulnerable at the time – you couldn’t really argue with either the Romans or the religious authorities, and just had to try to keep your head down.

Unfortunately for Joseph, in the story of this book, he not only caught the eye of Romans looking for workers but also caught the eye of the religious authorities, who were looking for a husband for Mary. And this is where the author gets himself all tangled up.

By this point, around a thousand years have passed since the time of King David. The Bible is a historian’s nightmare and it’s well nigh impossible to be sure who did or didn’t really exist, or when, but it’s generally accepted that the reign of David was around a thousand years before the birth of Jesus.  However, according to all the sources, there were still people whose line could be traced back to David, and Joseph – so the New Testament says – was one of them.  And Mary was, according to the book, considered special because she was descended from Aaron, brother of Moses (I think that’s quite a common tradition?) and had been dedicated to the Temple from birth by her parents.

This would make any child of theirs a double threat to Herod. Think Katherine Grey and Edward Seymour, or Arbella Stuart and William Seymour!   This idea works really well, and would explain quite logically why Herod might have had it in for Joseph and Mary.  Herod was only king because he’d sucked up to the Romans.  He’d replaced the Maccabee dynasty.  Yes, all right, all right, it’s officially called the Hasmonean dynasty, but (the nickname) Maccabee works better.  You don’t get football teams called Hasmoneans, do you?  He’d married a Maccabee princess, but she wasn’t his first wife or the mother of his heir.  Meanwhile, most people still regard the descendants of King David as the rightful heirs.

The nativity story totally contradicts itself on this bit. The “king” has to be descended from King David.  Joseph is descended from King David.  Therefore Jesus has to be descended from Joseph.  Let’s not go there, because people can get very offended if you start questioning religious texts, but, as a historical novel, this seemed at this point to be working really well – it was all very plausible.

It was also very interesting, with descriptions of life at the time, of the harsh punishments meted out by the religious courts, of the issues of Roman occupation, and of James and Joseph journeying to Jerusalem and their time there. The idea was that Joseph had agreed to marry Mary – who was very young, and came across as being rather a brat –  in exchange for the religious authorities using their influence with the Romans to get him out of having to work at Tiberias.

However, it then all goes a bit awry, because the author presumably couldn’t bear to abandon the religious story, and brought in angels and miracles. He couldn’t bear to leave Bethlehem out of it either, even though historians can’t find any evidence to support the census story and it’s likely that Jesus was actually born in the Nazareth area and the stable/Bethlehem stuff was “created” to provide a link to Royal David’s City.  He doesn’t go with the census story, and instead, having included angels – although he doesn’t actually show angels appearing in Nazareth, instead saying that they’d appeared “offstage”, whilst Mary was staying with her cousin Elizabeth – and insisted that it’s a miraculous virgin birth, says that they decide to leave Nazareth to get away from the gossip, the scandal, and, above all, fears of punishment by the religious courts.

No stable as such. Instead, the birth takes place in a watch tower.  On the Day of Atonement.  Well, it couldn’t have been December, or shepherds wouldn’t have been watching their flocks by night – and the idea is that they originally went to Jerusalem but the reason everywhere was full up was because there were loads of pilgrims there.  That makes sense, I suppose.  And then three astrologers sent by Herod turn up, everyone keeps going on about miracles and messiahs, and they head off to Egypt.

So it’s a strange mixture of actual, practical history, Orthodox tradition relating to the life of Joseph, and a religious-miracle element which the author evidently couldn’t bear to be without. I’m not knocking religious-miracle stories, if that’s what people are into, but I don’t think that trying to work them into a historical novel really works very well.  It would have been much better to have stuck with the idea of Herod being after Joseph and Mary because he was worried about the threat from a scion of the rightful ruling dynasty.

It might be worth a read, if only for people to remind themselves of the historical context. As I said, no-one ever really relates the nativity story to the issues of Roman rule in Judaea and Galilee.  The Christian stories move on to Rome and Ephesus and don’t cover the destruction of the Second Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Siege of Masada, and the Jewish stories don’t do Jesus, so you don’t get them together. But trying to combine a historical story and a religious-miracle story can get a bit muddled.

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The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses – Indu Sundaresun

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Everyone’s heard of the Taj Mahal. Most people will know the term Mughal/Moghul/Mogul, but probably in connection with either a local takeaway or as a term for a successful businessperson.  Not many people, even in the Indian subcontinent, will have heard of the Empress Nur Jahan.  And I’m not sure how familiar most people in the UK are with the history of the Moghul Empire, because no-one teaches us much about pre-colonial Asian history.  Novels about royal families are a brilliant place to start learning about an unfamiliar period in history – especially when they involve such an interesting character as the Empress Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa.  If you want something to learn about Northern India, or even if you just want a good read about something different, give Indu Sundaresun’s books a go.

The main character in these two books is, as I said, Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa (1577-1645), the twentieth and favourite wife of the Emperor Jahangir. Her niece Arjumand, known as Mumtaz Mahal, married Jahangir’s son, the future Emperor Shah Jahan, who famously had the Taj Mahal built as Mumtaz’s mausoleum after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  It’s ironic that the publishers are marketing these books, along with Shadow Princess, which is about Jahan and Mumtaz’s eldest daughter, as “the Taj Mahal trilogy”, because Indu Sundaresun is keen to make the extremely good point that Mehrunnissa, who exercised political power and was a patron of the arts, at a time when it was very rare for a woman to do so, is all but forgotten, whereas Mumtaz, who didn’t actually do very much other than repeatedly conceive and give birth, has achieved immortality because of a beautiful building.

Shadow Princess is well worth a read as well.  It shows, amongst other things, the battles between several brothers, resulting in one brother having the others murdered, and also makes the point that, romantic as the Taj Mahal seems now, people at the time weren’t actually all that thrilled about vast amounts of taxpayers’ money being spent on an elaborate royal tomb.  It also shows the shift in attitudes from Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s keenness to incorporate elements of different religions into the life of an Islamic court to Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s successor’s, destruction of Hindu temples and fiscal discrimination against his Hindu subjects.

Just to go off the point slightly, on a recent trip to Northern India I found it interesting that most of the major buildings in older parts of Delhi, and of course the Taj Mahal in Agra, were built by the Islamic rulers of a predominantly Hindu state, and that most of the newer buildings in Delhi were built under the British Raj, but that there’s absolutely no thought of pulling them down or complaining that they’re symbols of oppression or discrimination.

Anyway, to get back to the point, Mehrunnissa is the star of the first two books. They’re written in a way that makes them very easy to get into but at the same time conveys a huge amount of information about the Mughal court and the Mughal Empire, everything from life in the harem/zenana, including the rivalries between the various different wives, to political machinations within the court, to wars with rival powers.  And the romance between Mehrunnissa and Salim/Jahangir, of course!

In brief, Mehrunnissa is born, on the road in what’s now Afghanistan, to a Persian noble family fleeing to Hindustan. They’ve got so little at the time that she’s almost abandoned at birth, but her father rises to become one of Emperor Akbar’s Grand Viziers, and Mehrunnissa goes to live at court.  The romantic version of events, which is the one shown in these books, is that she and Jahangir took a shine to each other from early on.  Spoilsports now say that this never actually happened.  Oh well.  Whatever, she was married off, unhappily, to a Persian soldier, by whom she had one daughter – whom she later married off to one of Jahangir’s sons, hoping (in vain, as it turned out) that her daughter would become Empress in turn.  After he died, she married Jahangir.

By that point, she was in her thirties. Women at the Mughal court were generally considered past their sell-by date by then, but she was the one who had the Emperor’s affection when there were plenty of younger models he could have gone for instead.  Go Mehrunnissa!   And, at a time when women were not expected to exercise power, and bearing in mind that she was only part of the royal family by marriage, she was pretty much the power behind the throne.  Jahangir was a little too fond of booze and opium.  She sat with him when he held court, issued coinage in her own name, dealt with the various Western powers looking to establish or increase their influence in what’s now India, was involved in consultations with ministers, and raised an army to fight a rebellion – even riding into the thick of things on a war elephant.

She is brilliant!   Rags to riches.  Well, OK, not quite, but her family were in dire straits when she was born.  Bagging the emperor when everyone would have expected him to be more interested in some silly young thing.  Wielding political power at a time when women weren’t supposed to.  And commissioning a tomb for her father which is generally agreed to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  Not to mention taking care of hundreds of orphans, mostly girls.  She should be right up there amongst the female icons of history.

But she isn’t. Her story ended rather sadly – confined to effective house arrest by her stepson.  As many other strong women have been, she’s been painted by those historians who have written about her as – well, a conniving bitch, not to put too fine a point on it.  And her name isn’t really known much now, even in India and Pakistan.  Whereas the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world, arguably the symbol of India.  I loved the Taj Mahal, and I’m so glad I’ve seen it, and I agree that it’s quite romantic that Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz Mahal so much that he wanted to build such a splendid tomb for her, but … well, it’s a bit strange that the Mughal Empire has been immortalised by the symbol of a marriage and a death.  I suppose it makes a change from triumphal arches and grand palaces, eh?  Anyway, these books shouldn’t be being marketed as “the Taj Mahal trilogy” at all, and it’s rather insulting to Mehrunnissa that they are!

I wasn’t actually looking for a “strong women of history” novel. I just wanted to find out more about the Mughal Empire.  And this book really is a good starting point for that.  But I really did like the character.  And I liked the author’s writing, and will be looking for more of her books if I ever get through my existing book mountain.  We aren’t generally taught much Asian history in British schools and universities, and these books make the Mughal court in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century seem very accessible.  Read and enjoy!

Against the Inquisition by Marcos Aguinis

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You don’t necessarily expect a book about the Spanish (well, Peruvian) Inquisition, culminating in the main character being burnt at the stake, to be described as a “stirring song of freedom”; but this book really is quite inspiring. And it’s a true story – the story of Argentinian crypto-Jewish doctor Francisco Maldonado da Silva, born in 1592, who spent 12 years out-arguing the Inquisition before eventually being condemned to death.  It holds a lot of lessons for both the present and the past, and was written by an Argentinian author who lost many family members in the Holocaust and played an important role in promoting democracy in Argentinian culture after the fall of Galtieri.  The original Spanish edition was published in 1991, but it’s only recently been made available in English.

Obviously, Peru was under Spanish (maybe I should say “Castilian” … but maybe not, by this point) rule at this point. The book actually covered quite a wide part of Spanish South America: Francisco is born in Argentina, studies medicine in Chile and is imprisoned in Lima, and part of the story is also set in the Cusco area.  The fact that part of it was set in Cusco is significant, as that’s the area most closely associated with the pre-conquistadorian history of Peru.  The indigenous people of Peru were later deemed to be outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, which operated from Peru from 1570 unto 1820, but not in the early years.  The reader sees indigenous people, black slaves and people of mixed race being targeted, and also meets minor characters accused of, amongst other things, witchcraft and homosexuality.

It’s also relevant that Francisco’s family are of Portuguese descent. Portugal was under Spanish Habsburg rule at this time – I’ll refrain from writing an essay on royal genealogy, much as I’d love to.  Therefore, so was Brazil – at a time when it was under attack from the Dutch (and there are plenty of references to the Eighty Years’ War).  “New Christians” of Portuguese descent seem to have come under particular suspicion.

There are various minor characters who fall under suspicion for a number of reasons, but the book’s original Spanish title was “La Gesta del Marrano” and the story is about the persecution of crypto-Jews. It jumps backwards and forwards quite a lot, but, basically, we see Francisco as a young child, see his family torn apart when the Inquisitors take his father away – and help themselves to all the family’s possessions  – and his mother dies shortly afterwards, and see him grow up a devout Catholic, taught by monks.  We then see him train as a doctor, be reunited with his father, and turn to Judaism.  Initially, he does as his father did, lives outwardly as a Catholic, and tells his Catholic wife nothing about his background and beliefs, whilst secretly meeting up with other crypto-Jews to celebrate festivals and rituals.  But, eventually, he has enough: he wants to live openly as what he is, to be what he identifies as. “I am what I am.”

It’s possibly a bit confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with the background of the expulsion of Jews from Castile, Aragon and Portugal but I think the religious practices, and the specific culture of the crypto-Jews – things like keeping the key to a lost family home back in the Iberian Peninsula – are explained fairly well.  As recently as 2014, the Spanish government granted dual nationality to people like the da Silvas, should they choose to seek it: this is something that has remained relevant for over half a millennium.  That’s quite unusual: I’m struggling to think of comparable examples.

One thing I did find unusual about this book, in terms of books about crypto-Jews, was that it was nearly all about men. There is a lot about Francisco’s father, also a doctor.  We meet him again years later, a broken man forced to wear the “sanbenito”, the penitential garment forced on people by the Inquisition.  Francisco’s father explains crypto-Judaism to his elder son, Francisco’s brother, and he’s taken away by the Inquisition as well.  Francisco grows up a devout Catholic, and only turns to Judaism when it’s all explained to him by his father.  Women barely feature.  Francisco’s mother and wife are both from “Old Christian” families, with no Jewish heritage.  His sisters are devout Catholics, and it’s one of them, a nun, who denounces him.  Often, with a book about South American crypto-Jews, you realise what’s going on when you see mothers and daughters, in a supposedly Catholic household, lighting candles on a Friday night.  Not with this one. We do meet some women who are practising crypto-Jews, but it’s very much a male-dominated book – fathers and sons, groups of male friends.  Male priests running the Inquisition, of course.

There’s also a minor point about clashes between the Inquisition and the Jesuits. It is only a minor point, but it’s interesting because, from an English viewpoint, we probably tend to lump them all together.  All part of the Black Legend.  I love Spain, OK.  I was in tears when the Spanish flag went up during the medal ceremony for the 2008 Olympic tennis men’s singles event!   I am not getting Black Legend-ish.  All countries and cultures have shameful things in their past – and sometimes in their present.  But … well, we do say “Spanish Inquisition” rather than just “Inquisition”.  And this is a true story.

It’s not meant to be anti-Spanish, though. And it’s not meant to be anti-Catholic.  The point is made over and over again that Francisco thinks Jesus was a good man, and that the basic ideas of Catholicism are about being good people, leading good lives.  It’s the institutions of the institution that have gone wrong – it’s elements of the Catholic Church, not Catholicism.  That is very relevant at the moment, when hardly a month seems to go by without yet another horrific tale of child abuse by members of the clergy coming to light, and also when Islamic fundamentalists are carrying out such atrocities.

He spends years in prison, debating with the representatives of the Inquisition. They can’t break him. They can’t out-argue him.  They come to admire his incredible knowledge of religious texts, and his way of interpreting them.  At one point, he goes on hunger strike and nearly dies, but then he decides that it’s his duty to fight on, partly for the sake of a number of other alleged crypto-Jews who’ve also been arrested.  Ultimately, he’s burnt at the stake.

There isn’t really official recognition of martyrdom in Judaism in the way that there is in Christianity. (Masada??). If there was, he’d certainly be recognised as one.  And it’s not just that he died for his particular faith.  It’s, and this must really have called out to an author who lived through the Dirty War in Argentina, that he stood up, not only for what he believed in but for the right to believe what he believed in, and to live openly as what he chose to be.  Human rights.  So many people over the years have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their political beliefs or their sexuality or just because they were different in some way.  It’s still going on, in so many places.

Most people choose to go with the flow, to bend with the wind … er, that’s enough clichés for one sentence!   Change your religion, profess loyalty to the regime in power, keep your head down and get on with it.  Most of us wouldn’t have the strength to do otherwise.  There are plenty of arguments in favour of going with the flow and bending with the wind: Francisco’s wife is left destitute, their two young children are left to grow up without a father, his patients are left without a skilled and well-respected doctor.  And it takes some strength to live a lie as well – but no-one should have do that, to bear that pain every day.

It feels wrong, in some ways, to talk about finding inspiration in a book about such a horrific topic. The “stirring song of freedom” line’s Mario Vargas Llosa’s description of the book, by the way.  This is a book about evil, masquerading as some sort of attempt to bring about religious “purity” in society.  It’s a book about persecution.  But persecution can bring about inspirational individuals.  Frederick Douglass springs to mind.  Nelson Mandela, maybe.  People like that can change the world.  This book isn’t going to change the world, but it’ll certainly make you think.  And admire.  I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this to be made available in English, but, now that it has been (sorry, my Spanish isn’t up to reading a whole book in it!), it’s well worth reading.  It’s relevant to everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Island Beneath The Sea by Isabel Allende

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The Haitian Revolution of 1791 was one of the most important events in modern history, but it’s rare to find a historical novel about it, so I was very pleased to come across this. It also covers another crucial event, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.  However, Mrs Rochester strikes again – we have a mad Creole wife.  And there’s an incestuous marriage.  But, apart from those two rather OTT storylines, it’s a fascinating depiction of life in Saint- Domingue (Haiti) and later New Orleans, seen from the viewpoints of various different people.

I don’t think I’d realised just how complicated society was in colonial Saint-Domingue. And, by all accounts (well, Google and Wikipedia), the “casta” system of race and class still holds quite strong in Haiti today.   In 1791, slaves, black and mulatto, made up 87% of the population.  87%!  The rest of the population consisted of grands blancs, the well-to-do, upper-crust whites, many of them in favour of independence because of concerns about Revolutionary France’s attitudes towards both slavery and trade, the less well-off petits blancs, and affranchis – free “people of colour”, mainly but not all of mixed descent.  To complicate matters further, there was a hierarchy amongst mixed race people, based on relative percentages of black and white blood.  And there was some support amongst affranchis and slaves for a British takeover, seen as preferable to independence under the grands blancs.

The main character in this book is Tete (short for Zarite), a young slavewoman, taken away at an early age from her mother, a black teenage girl who’d been raped by a white sailor on a slaveship. She becomes the personal maid to the wife of Toulouse Valmorain, a French plantation owner, and nursemaid to their son.  Valmorain’s Creole wife is “mad”.  What is it with this idea of Creole women in the West Indies being mad?  Is it all about Mrs Rochester, or does the idea go beyond that?  It’s years since I read Wide Sargasso Sea, but I thought I remembered there being something in it, maybe in a foreword or an afterword, suggesting that the idea of Creole women going “mad” was actually fairly commonplace.  However, when I tried Googling “Creole women mad”, I got a zillion hits but they were all about Mrs Rochester!

Anyway, seeing as Madame Valmorain is largely out of the picture, Toulouse forces Tete to become his mistress. They have two children.  The first one is taken away and handed over to Valmorain’s friends, a wealthy free mulatta courtesan with whom Tete had once lived as a child, and her white husband.  Another couple also feature in the story – again, a white man and a mulatta woman, but in that case the man will not marry his lover or legally acknowledge their children.  So we’ve got three very different relationships, all involving white men and mixed race women.  Other characters include a slave man who becomes Tete’s lover, and an elderly free black woman who’s involved in voodoo – voodoo plays quite a significant part in the book.

Syncretic religions are fascinating, and obviously voodoo is very important in Haitiain culture. (The spelling “voodoo” is actually now avoided in Haiti, because there are so many misconceptions about it, and “vodou” is preferred.)  A voodoo/vodou ceremony took place just before the 1791 rebellion began.

Once the rebellion’s begun, Tete, aided by her lover – although he later leaves her in order to play a full part in the rebellion -, helps Valmorain, their child, and his child by his wife to escape from the plantation. She’s become very attached to Valmorain’s son and heir, and he regards her as his mother.  He’s also very close to her daughter, his half-sister. They all survive.

It’s pretty accurate as to what actually happened. (Excuse the change of tense – it’s easier to write the historical stuff in the past tense and the book’s storyline in the present tense, for some reason!).  Hundreds of thousands of slaves joined the rebellion.  Plantations were destroyed.  Many white people were raped and or murdered.  Civil war broke out: white people killed black people in revenge.

At this point, the rebels were looking for an end to slavery, not for independence from France.  The authorities in France – Revolutionary France, of course – then granted civil and political rights to free men of colour, and abolished slavery in some areas … whereupon the grands blancs decided that maybe a British takeover was the best bet.  Britain then got stuck in.  So did Spain.  Then, in 1794, Robespierre’s government abolished slavery in France and French colonies, and granted civil and political rights to black men in the colonies.  That’s pretty impressive – the bad things that Robespierre did tend to overshadow the good, and he deserves a lot of credit for that particular decision.  Napoleon later reversed it, and slavery in the remaining French colonies then lasted until 1848.

To cut a long story short, there were years of fighting, involving the Haitian “rebels”, Napoleonic France, Britain and Spain; there was a mass epidemic of yellow fever; there was horrific violence; thousands of people died … and Haitian independence was eventually declared in 1804, but followed by the mass rape and murder of white French people. The Haitian economy, further hindered by an 1825 agreement to pay reparations to French ex-slaveholders, has never really recovered.

We don’t actually see all that in the book, though, because Valmorain, Tete and the two children leave for New Orleans. That’s pretty true to life: many white people did leave for continental America, and many of them took their slaves with them.  The relationship between Tete and Valmorain is very complicated, and complicated further by the closeness between her and his young son.  Even though he becomes violent and abusive towards her, she doesn’t try to leave him. Their parting only comes when he remarries, and his new wife doesn’t want her or her daughter around.  Tete eventually meets another man, finds happiness with him, and is able to force Valmorain to free her as a reward for saving his life back in Saint-Domingue.  So her story does end happily.  The “island beneath the sea” of the title is death.  In the early chapters, many of the slaves long to reach the island beneath the sea.  By the end, Tete rejoices in her life.

But there’s the question of what’s going to happen to her daughter, and the answer seems to be placage, the system whereby a white man and a black or mixed race woman would enter into a relationship which was a formal union, with a legal contract, but not a legal marriage. It happened in many places, but is generally associated with New Orleans.  Rosette, the daughter, is presented at one of the famous quadroon balls (there is some historical debate about these quadroon balls), so that she can try to attract a suitable man … but there’s then a very odd storyline in which she and her half-brother, Valmorain’s son by his first wife (the Mrs Rochester one), get married.  She then dies in prison after hitting Valmorain’s second wife. I’m not sure what Isabel Allende was getting at with that, TBH.  Placage would have accurately reflected the life of an attractive quadroon woman in New Orleans in the early 19th century.  Marriage to a half-brother, and marriage between a quadroon woman and a white man in general, didn’t, to put it mildly.

These latter stages of the book take place against the background of the Louisiana Purchase – a reminder of what a shock the people living there must have got when they found out that Napoleon had just blithely sold them to the United States, and also a reminder that the Haitian Revolution indirectly led to the acquisition by the young United States of a huge tract of territory, changing the course of American history as well as Haiti’s own history.

Haiti changed the world. That’s been forgotten, to a large extent.  In many ways, it was absolutely inspirational – the majority slave population threw off their shackles, literally in some cases, defeated their oppressors and took control.  That is very, very rare in world history.  White people were shown that they weren’t naturally superior, whatever they may have thought before.

However, whilst that should have struck a huge blow for racial equality, it did the opposite – fear of slave revolts, especially in places like South Carolina where slaves formed the majority of the population, led to a hardening of attitudes over race and slavery, especially as so many white people from Haiti, like Toulouse Valmorain, settled in slaveholding parts of the United States (or areas which would become the United States).  It gets a mention in Gone With The Wind, by Grandma Fontaine, just by the way.  Any overthrowing of the authorities by slaves would have attracted a negative reaction, but the horrific violence committed by both sides made it far worse.

And the other huge effect it had was being arguably the main reason for the Louisiana Purchase. It’s hard to think that a megalomaniac like Napoleon didn’t fancy the idea of ruling a trans-Atlantic empire, and it seems to’ve been events in Haiti which made him decide that it would actually be more trouble than it was worth.  The Louisiana Purchase consisted of (I’ve copied this bit from Wikipedia because I couldn’t be bothered typing it all out!) “land that forms Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahome, Kansas, and Nebraska; the portion of Minnesota west of the Mississippi River; a large portion of North Dakota; a large portion of South Dakota; the northeastern section of New Mexico; the northern portion of Texas; the area of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado east of the Continental Divide; Louisiana west of the Mississippi River (plus New Orleans); and small portions of land within the present Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan”.  If France had tried to hang on to that, how would American history have panned out?  Possibly very differently indeed.

So that’s two huge events in world history, covered in one book. And all the blurbs make it sound as if the book’s all about Tete, but it’s not – and I mean that in a good way, because it means that we get to view events through the eyes of a number of different people.  I think I could have done without the incestuous marriage storyline, which I found rather distasteful and completely unrealistic, but, other than that, it was a very interesting book.  Recommended 🙂 .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Matriarch by G B Stern

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Gladys B Stern, born in London in 1890, changed her middle name from Bertha to Bronwyn because it sounded more romantic, converted from Judaism to Catholicism, studied in Switzerland, was introduced to her future husband by Noel Coward, frightened off umpteen different secretaries, and liked to be addressed as Peter. I’m not entirely sure how you get “Peter” from “Gladys”, but, hey, in the inter-war years, Anything Went.  As for the actual book, it’s supposed to be a feminist novel written before its time (although that’s actually mainly because the men are all presented as being useless), and it’s also a Jewish novel in a way that I really don’t think you could write now.  So … yes, something a bit different.

It’s essentially a family saga, set mainly in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th century, and mainly in London.  The main theme is fairly universal – an older generation who want to control things, and younger generations who are either desperate for their elders’ approval, want to rebel and go their own way, or feel bound by guilt and duty to do as their elders want.  The matriarch of the title is Anastasia Rakonitz, who’s born in the Austrian Empire (the Hungarian part, but pre Ausgleich!) but spends most of her life in London, and the other main character is her granddaughter Toni.  There are absolute hordes of other characters, though.  It’s rather confusing trying to remember who’s who, and it’s quite frustrating that there are a lot of bit part characters whose stories are never fully developed, but the author explains that she created a huge array of characters because she wanted to give the sense of an extensive family network, stretching across many countries.

There isn’t actually that much history in it. It starts off in Anastasia’s grandmother’s girlhood, during the Napoleonic Wars, when we’re reminded of the crucial role, often overlooked, that Napoleon played in the granting of civil rights to religious minorities and the reduction of the power of the religious authorities.  The man might have done a lot of damage in other ways, but he deserves a lot of credit for that.  It soon leaps forward in time, but the events of 1848 don’t really get a look-in, the Ausgleich isn’t mentioned, and the Franco-Prussian War, although it’s the reason that Anastasia (having previously moved to Paris) ends up in London, is only mentioned in passing.  The Great War does play more of a part, but only in terms of who is and isn’t involved in the fighting: it seems to have strangely little impact on the Home Front.  So it doesn’t actually say that much about the period during which it’s set, but it says a lot about the 1920s, when it was written.

It’s been described as a feminist novel written before its time. Now, having grown up in the age of Barbara Taylor Bradford, Jackie Collins et al (don’t you just love an ’80s blockbuster?!), a family saga in which the female characters dominate seems quite normal to me 🙂 , but this book was published in 1924, when a lot of women in Britain still didn’t even have the vote.  Anastasia is the one pulling the strings.  Then, when the family loses its money following a bad investment in a fraudulent ruby mine, it’s her granddaughters who pick up the pieces.  However, the women only really dominate because the men are so utterly useless in times of trouble.  And, whilst Anastasia might be a strong female lead, it’s made clear that she’s only really interested in her sons and grandsons, not in the young women of the family.

Is that feminism?   It’s not equality.  I suppose it depends on what you class as feminism. Anastasia really isn’t very appealing: she’s controlling, demanding, self-obsessed and doesn’t treat other people well.  Is the idea that women have to be bossy and controlling in order to impose their authority?  She walks all over her daughters and daughters-in-law.  I don’t know that I’d call this a feminist novel, but then we are talking about nearly a century ago … ugh, how on earth can the 1920s be nearly a century ago?!

“Rags to riches” is another common theme in novels – riches to rags rather less so. Jewish novels set in Britain (or America) usually start with rags.  This one starts with riches.  By the time Anastasia and her family arrive in London, the family has a well-established diamond business stretching across Europe – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France, Italy … and I feel as if I should be saying Belgium or the Netherlands, seeing as diamonds are involved, but they don’t really come into it!   They live a life of luxury in London.  Then the money goes, and Anastasia cannot adopt: it’s her granddaughters who take charge.  This was published five years before the Wall Street Crash, so it’s quite prescient in a way, but the author’s own family had lost their money thanks to an investment in jewels going wrong.

Nobody actually struggles that much. It’s hardly Helen Forrester: no-one’s living hand to mouth.  But there’s this idea of lost luxury, of faded grandeur.  We don’t sympathise with that, do we?  We sympathise with the middle income people reduced to poverty, but we don’t sympathise with the wealthy family reduced to circumstances that for most people class as normal.  Or even with middle income people who are struggling, but not that much.  That’s quite an interesting thought.  It’s very mean-spirited, really, especially as people can be quite sneery about it.   It can be quite problematic, as well – look at all the huffing and puffing over well-dressed Syrian refugees carrying fancy mobile phones, as if you can’t be a proper refugee unless you’ve got nothing but the clothes you stand up in.  But we clearly are meant to sympathise with the Rakonitzes, just as we’re meant to sympathise with all those characters in children’s books in the period who lose their private incomes because of dodgy solicitors or guardians.  And we should do, really.  I just don’t think we do.  Is that some sort of really nasty Schadenfreude?!

There are also struggles over health. Anastasia suffers from some sort of mental health problem – it’s not clear what, but it comes and goes – in later life.  And Toni is “delicate” – and it’s made clear that this is because her grandparents, Anastasia and her husband Paul, were first cousins.  Now there’s a subject you don’t hear mentioned much.  I’m feeling quite uncomfortable just writing about it – even though it’s something that comes up over and over again in history books, because of royal marriages, and because marriage between first cousins is/has been banned by civil or religious law in many places.  Is this a post-Nazi thing?  Does it come too close to sounding like eugenics, and is that why I’m feeling uncomfortable mentioning it? Would someone include a storyline like that in a book written now?   And how much of a divider is the Second World War, or, more specifically, how much of a divider are the Nazi atrocities, in terms of what authors might or might not include in books?

That’s particularly relevant because this is the saga of a Jewish family. I said “a Jewish novel”, but maybe it isn’t a Jewish novel.  Like Csardas, which I read a few months ago, religious practice doesn’t really come into it – there’s very little about religious festivals, or religious services, and no-one seems very bothered about things like eating kosher food – and many of the Jewish characters marry people who aren’t Jewish.  The idea of the multinational clan … the best-known example is the Rothschild family, but there are others too.  The Rakonitzes certainly aren’t in their league, but apparently they are based on the author’s own family, i.e. a real family.  Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, featuring a similar clan, is also based on his own family.   The Sassoons also spring to mind (I went to China last year and did a lot of reading up on Shanghai beforehand).  The Oppenheims.  The Goldsmiths.

I’m just feeling incredibly uncomfortable writing this, especially in the current climate, I got this book because it was going free on Kindle, and because I actually had the impression that it was set in Austria-Hungary and I always struggle to find books set there: I wasn’t expecting to be writing all this multinational financial dynasty stuff.  As I said, the Rakonitzes are hardly the Rothschilds, but still.

There shouldn’t be anything to feel uncomfortable about. Religious minorities do tend to dominate finance and business, having traditionally been excluded from the professions.  Look at some of the big name British banks.  Lloyds, founded by Quakers.  Barclays, founded by Quakers.  Look at the big High Street names: Methodist and Jewish founders abound.   But you get all these vicious conspiracy theories.  There are some very odd and clearly preposterous stories about the Rothschilds, and have been for a good 200 years.

Obviously it happens with other groups as well. It doesn’t happen so much now, but it certainly used to happen with Catholics, at least in Britain and America.  Freemasons.  Muslims, at the moment.  And the Rakonitzes, as I’ve said, don’t have that much financial influence: the multinational aspect of their family is more of a cultural thing than anything else, with children who don’t toe the line being packed off to stay with relatives abroad, and a lot of talk about everyone eating Central European food.  But still … it’s not the easiest of topics to write about.

Maybe it’s the idea of “The Other”. That expression’s come up a lot recently, following some of the ill-judged comments made by certain prominent politicians. And yet it’s all meant to be so positive in this book.  London is described as “Cosmopolis”.  OK, it was the name of a crap film with Robert Pattinson, but, other than that, I’ve never heard the term used before.  The author clearly means it as a compliment.  And she wants us to see the Rakonitzes as being glamorous and colourful and exciting, and she clearly means that in a very positive way … but it all kind of comes across as being “The Other”.

Two of the grandsons, Richard and Daniel, and especially Richard, can’t handle that. They don’t want to be colourful or different.  In 2018, I don’t think most people do.  There are always going to be some people who do, but I think most people are way past wanting to be seen as exotic or flamboyant or whatever because of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality, gender identity or anything else: people just want to be seen as themselves.

But the 1920s were all about flamboyance. This book doesn’t tell us that much about the 1880s, 1890s or 1910s, when most of it’s set, but it tells us a hell of a lot about the 1920s!   It probably couldn’t have been written at any other time.  I really don’t think anyone would write anything like this now.  Not a criticism, just an observation 🙂 .

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Vineyard in Andalusia by Maria Duenas

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This book made a lot of promising starts, but, frustratingly, jumped away from every scenario just as things were getting interesting!   It wasn’t just starts: sometimes it jumped into a plotline in the middle, leaving you wishing you’d got the background in more detail.  And I think the author must have read Jane Eyre just before reading it, because one of the storylines was distinctly Mrs Rochester-esque.  It wasn’t a bad read, although the Mrs R.-ish “madness” storyline really had no place in a book written in the 21st century, but Maria Duenas could have made several really good novels out of the material, rather than a single bitty and, by the end, slightly bonkers, one.

Our hero, Mario, has emigrated from Spain – with a complicated background involving the Basque country, Mallorca and illegitimacy – to Mexico, and, arriving as a young man with nothing, made a fortune from silver mining. It would have been fascinating to have heard how he did this, but we don’t.  We only meet him as a middle-aged man who’s borrowed a load of money to buy machinery from the United States, unluckily just as the Civil War/War Between The States was breaking out.  The guy he’d been dealing with has been killed at Bull Run/Manassas, and the machinery’s been requisitioned by the US government, leaving our man in deep doo-doo.

Mexico, 1861, then. Surely the scene is set (if we ignore the title!) for a novel about the French and Austrian intervention.  Bring on Archduke Maximilian!   Er, no.  We’re out of Mexico before the French have even invaded, never mind the Habsburgs getting stuck in.  And we’re off to Cuba – the glamorous Paris of the Antilles, where it’s all happening.  And where the slave trade is still legal: it wasn’t abolished there until 1867, and slavery wasn’t abolished there until 1886.  Mario then gets embroiled (in a business sense only) with his son’s fiancée’s auntie.  Again, there’s a back story, this time about how she “had” to marry someone unsuitable, but it’s never really gone into.  There are some wonderful descriptions of life in Havana, about its relationship with Spain and how that’s viewed by different groups – Cuba was to rebel against Spanish rule in 1868 – and about the effects of slavery, and it really gets interesting when the dodgy auntie tries to con Mario into getting involved with the slave trade, and he refuses.

But, just as the reader’s really getting into it, we’re off again!   Mario and the auntie’s husband play a high-stake game of billiards, and Mario wins the vineyard in Andalusia (well, the title was a bit of a giveaway there) which the auntie’s husband has recently inherited from a cousin.  Goodbye Havana, next stop Jerez!

And so we now get on to the fascinating tale of the importance of sherry to the Spanish economy in the 19th century – making up around 20% of total exports, most of them to Britain.  I was saying only recently, after a visit to Marsala and reading up on how the Marsala wine trade was developed by a Scouser and a Yorkshireman, a year after I went to Porto and read up on how the port wine trade was developed by a man from Ashton-underl-Lyne, that someone really needs to write a book about the effect on European history of British boozing!  Seriously, it has had a huge impact on the history of Portugal, the history of Sicily and, to some extent, the history of Andalusia.

And, yet again, a fascinating back story that we don’t hear enough about. The auntie’s husband came from a rather complicated background involving various cousins and friends who all expected to marry each other but didn’t.  One of them has ended up as the Mother Abbess as a convent.  One of them has married an Englishman and is trying to con her dangerous stepson, who keeps kidnapping people – cue a dramatic rescue by our hero and his Indian (“Indian” is the acceptable term when talking about the indigenous peoples of Latin America) servant.  The auntie’s husband thinks he killed one of his cousins by mistake, except that it turns out that it was someone else who killed him by mistake.  Our hero agrees, in order to con the cousin’s stepson, to pose as the cousin who’s recently died and left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband, but it all goes a bit pear-shaped, and a doctor who was going to marry the one who ended up in the convent gets involved.  Er, yes.  I said it was rather complicated, didn’t I?!

Oh, and he can’t flog the vineyard until a full year’s passed since the death of the cousin who left the vineyard to the auntie’s husband. And the one who’s married to the Englishman has got the needle because she thought she’d inherit it.  And the sister in the convent’s fallen out with them all because she wanted to marry the Englishman.  Well, she wanted to marry the doctor as well.  Presumably either or, not both.  It would have made a great story if we’d followed them all from when they were children and these complicated relationships were being formed, but, as it is, it’s all rather confusing.  Then the son’s fiancée’s auntie turns up, along with her slavewoman.  The slavewoman gets involved with the Indian servant, and they eventually live happily ever after.  And the son decides to dump the fiancée, which is irrelevant because neither of them are really involved in any of it – and it’s all complicated enough as it is, and really rather bonkers by this point.

It then transpires that the English husband is mad, and that he comes from a family of mad people. I really, really hate it when people put storylines like this in modern books.  It’s quite understandable that someone like Charlotte Bronte should have written a storyline about someone being “mad.  Gothic-type novels are full of “mad” people.  And that whole idea about “the taint of hereditary madness” – it was a huge thing, and a huge tragedy because it meant that people with mental health issues were shoved away out of sight for fear that the family name be tainted.  But for someone to write a storyline like this in the 21st century – no, no, no.  I appreciate that attitudes vary between countries and cultures, but I wouldn’t really expect to be finding a storyline like this in any book written within the last thirty years or so.  Can we please, please get past this?  Can we not talk about people being “mad”?  Can we please get past this idea about the taint of madness within families? Can we please stop stigmatising people like this?

I think that, in this case, what the husband actually had was early onset dementia. OK, that term would not have been used in the 1860s, but there are still far better ways of putting it than Maria Duenas did.  But I said it was Mrs Rochester-esque, didn’t I?  I don’t actually know how well-known Jane Eyre is in Spain, but I think it’s one of those books that’s well-known worldwide.  The part set in Cuba was really good, and the background story about the complicated family past in Jerez could have been really good had it been gone into properly.  But it all got very strange at the end.  No Grace Poole, but the “mad” husband gets packed off to stay at the convent where his sister-in-law, the one who’d once hoped to marry him (when she wasn’t hoping to marry their doctor pal) was Mother Abbess … whereupon he sets the place on fire, and kills himself, conveniently leaving the way clear for his wife to marry our hero Mario.  They then live happily ever after on the vineyard.

I’ve got a horrible feeling I’ve made this all sound rather silly. It wasn’t really.  Some parts of it were very … well, promising rather than good, because they weren’t developed properly.  If the book had been longer, and if the focus had been on either Mario or the vineyard family (both Andalusian and Cuban branches) and the background stories had been developed properly, it could have been very good.  As it was, it was rather frustrating.  By the end, it read like something that an over-enthusiastic teenager with an over-active imagination, desperate to pack in as much drama as possible, might have written.  Promising … but the promises were never really fulfilled.