Category Archives: Reads

Review of ‘The Flower of Empire’

The Flower of Empire

To call the Flower of Empire an exhaustive work on “how it [the Amazonian water lily] touched nearly every aspect of Victorian life, art, and culture,” is not an understatement.  It is a 328 page promise.

And this promise is a good thing, mostly.  Beyond writing an elegant account, Tatiana Holway ties a thread round a diverse group of characters and events surrounding the Amazonian water lily, from eventual extraction in the wild to arduous bloom in captivity. For those who enjoy the historical intricacies of progress, have a soft spot for botany and adventure, and are intrigued with personality quirks of say, a bachelor duke, a taciturn German plant hunter, and an ingenuous head gardener, this is a welcomed book in the enthusiast’s library.

Victoria Regia from 1851 text

The story begins during an 1837 geographical expedition into British Guiana when Schomburgk, the German plant hunter, discovers a monstrous lily in the Berbice River.  His plan?  Name the discovery in Queen Victoria’s honor and have it sent back to England, but what follows is extreme plant bureaucracy.  The water lily was not just a botanical specimen, but emblematic of a national passion for imperialism.   It caused bitter fights among scientists, contributed to England’s revival as a public garden nation, and influenced the building of the Crystal Palace.  All on account of a flower?  Well, sort of.

The Flower of Empire focuses on the water lily in the same manner the tulip mania of 1637 focused on tulips: it’s the backdrop for character study.   The mad scurry to get the water lily to germinate and flower in England delves into the hearts involved, and sparks the public’s hunger for virgin discoveries.  Ultimately, The Flower of Empire presents a cultural climate of obsession, power, and triumph.  It’s not for the impatient or for those who dislike process, but for the most part Holway balances the scholarly with flashes of pop entertainment, offering character idiosyncrasies when the wait for the water lily feels drawn out.

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Romances or History? A Belle-Esprit and a Marchionesse Debate Novels

As it is my custom to troll through the Lady’s Magazine, looking for tidbits of writing inspiration, I came across a discussion of novels circa 18th century France.  I’ve written previously on how novels were openly scorned in the Georgian era. Even instructive fictions on the deviltry of rogues like Clarissa and Pamela by Samuel Richardson were considered suspect.  History was the only subject worth reading in public spheres, but not everyone, including this open-minded Belle-Espirit, was an opponent of novels.  Rather, like Jane Austen, he advocated that men (and women) of sense would favor a romance* over the ever-popular annals of history.

Visit to a Library, 1760 | Pietro Longhi.
Visit to a Library, 1760 | Pietro Longhi.

A Contrast Between Romance and History

The Belle-Espirit and Marchionesse Debate

A Fine lady in France has generally two toilette; the first is rather reserved, because the cosmetics made use of should be secret; the second is the reign of coquetry.  At the marquise’s second toilet was her confidante madam Lorval, a counsellor and a belle-espirit.

The subject of conversation was novels, and the Marquise [Belle-Espirit] addressed himself to the counsellor on that subject.  His answer was, that there were a great many new ones.  “True,” said the Marchionesse, “but I might soon by satiated at hearing their very names.”

Belle-Espirit:  “Excuse me, my lady, there is no choice–they are all abominable.”

Marchionesse:  “Is it possible? — Why cannot there be a good romance? the subject is easy enough.  Imagination is under no restraint; the field is copious; it may seize on every object that offers, and may gather every flower it meets with in its progress.  A man must really be a —- if he cannot succeed in this line of writing.”

Belle-Espirit:  “My lady, the greatest authors have shown that it is very difficult, a very arduous attempt in this line.   To blend costume and probability; to invent a fable that is simple, fruitful in events, and full of naivete; to please, to rouse, to affect, to surprise, and be able to spin out a long narrative, is an undertaking which few writers are qualified for.  Of all the gifts with which heaven honours mortality, the imagination is the most precious, and the most universally agreeable.  It is a token of our want of reason, not to attribute much esteem to the writer of romances as to the historian.”

Marchionesse:  “Dear Sir, what a paradox!  It is true that history either satiates or shocks me; but the Historian, in the sublimity of his style, is by far superior to the composer of Romances, let him be what he may.”

Belle-Espirit:  “Why, my lady?  The question does not turn upon sublimity, but on sympathy and true.  A Romance is very often more true than a history, without intimating that it is more interesting.  How often does the Historian invent his details; they do not shock the truth, but they are cold, useless and puerile.  What obscurity, with respect to the leading causes!  The writer of Romances gives you a detail of every thing; he assigns a motive for every step which his hero takes.  The thread of events, if he be a skillful writer, is never broken.  He digs deep, he invents, he avoids contradictions, and the improbabilities which about in history, wherein we frequently cannot discover any relation.  The perusal of a romance is not unworthy of a man of sense.   I know nothing more amusing to the most florid undertaking, or to cherish the sensibility of the human heart.   There at least we view men that are good, generous, and full of virtue, and the contemplation of them diverts us from the miseries of humanity.  There is not, perhaps, any thing  of the beautiful, which does not reside in the imagination.  How many persons are there of my acquaintance, who affect to despise romances, and yet do not cease to read them!”

Marchionesse:  “You have then read them passionately, Sir?”

Belle-Espirit:  “Yes, my lady.  This kind of study, I am not ashamed to confess, has formed the most agreeable avocation of my life.”

*Definition of Romanticism in C18/C19 literature

In Defense of Novels: Jane Austen’s Perspective

In December 1817 Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey was published posthumously.  She’d been a novelist in print since 1811, and presumably, like all novelists, had occasioned to meet with derisive, if not outright patronizing, commentary when she’d discussed that activity which had brought her the most joy and possibly the most angst: writing novels.

The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer
The New Novel, 1877 | WInslow Homer

In the 18th century, as well as throughout the 19th century, reading fiction was a questionable avocation.  It led the mind toward fancies and illusions; for weak-minded females, reading romances could turn the potentially perfect wife into an Elizabeth Bennet, a bluestocking, a virago with irrepressible opinions.  Gentlemen cautioned against these idle amusements, but Jane Austen and erudite intellectuals like herself offered their vehement replies.  Her sentiments on the matter appear within Northanger Abbey.  Couched within is a soliloquy in defense of novels, and I can put her argument in no cleverer words than she already has.  The passage of interest appears shortly after a description of Catherine’s and Isabella’s progressing friendship and informs how novels allow for invaluable ingress into the human condition:

” . . . and if a rainy morning deprived them of other enjoyments, they were still resolute in meeting in defiance of wet and dirt, and shut themselves up, to read novels together.  Yes, novels; for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel-writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding–joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages in disgust.  Alas!  If the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?  I cannot approve of it.  Let us leave it to the reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans.  Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition have been so much decried.

Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs
Lady Reading in a Wooded Park, 1770 | George Stubbs

From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers.  And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens–there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.  ‘I am no novel reader — I seldom look into novels — Do not imagine that I often read novels — It is really very well for a novel.’  Such a common cant.  ‘And what are you reading, Miss –?’ ‘Oh! It is only a novel!’ replies the young lady, while she lays down her books with affected indifference, or momentary shame.  ‘It is only Cecelia, or Camilla, or Belinda’; or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Now, had the same young lady been engaged with a volume of the Spectator, instead of such a work, how proudly would she have produced the book, and told its name; though the chances must be against her being occupied by any part of that voluminous publication, of which either the matter or manner would not disgust a young person of taste: the substance of its papers so often consisting in the statement of improbably circumstances, unnatural characters, and topics of conversation which no longer concern anyone living; and their language, too, frequently so coarse as to give no very favourable idea of the age that could endure it.”

Hurrah for Jane!  The above is a total smack-down, and I can’t say I blame her for the rebuke, but I do adore history. Of course today’s society is much more approving of novels, but I, too, have heard many an opinion on the uselessness of fiction–from people who have obviously never read Austen! The bottom line is: can we not applaud both pursuits and be all the more finely tuned by what the two subjects have to offer each other? I like to think so, but I also can’t help but wonder that if Austen were alive today, would she be writing incisive commentary on modern day life, something along the lines of (don’t smack me) Lena Dunham’s Girls? Or even Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary?

An 18th Century Perspective on Elizabeth Bennet

In anticipation of an upcoming review I’ve been reading Susannah Fullerton’s Celebrating Pride and Prejudice: 200 Years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece.  I’ll be posting the full review on December 16th, Jane Austen’s 237th birthday, but in the meantime, I wanted to share with you an 18th century perspective that shows just how incredible the character of Elizabeth Bennet truly was.

Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny
Unproven portrait of Jane Austen at Bath, age 15 | Johann Zofanny

Jane Austen started writing Pride and Prejudice in October 1796 at the age of twenty.  She would no doubt have been exposed to the popular publications of the period, including the ever so entertaining Lady’s Magazine: or, Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex.  A few years prior to Austen putting pen to paper for what was then called First Impressions, The Lady’s Magazine published in their 1791 edition “A Letter from a Father to his Daughter on Relative Duties,” part of which is excerpted below.

“Of all the weaknesses the younger part of your sex are most prone to are pride and affectation, and there are none scarce which render more contemptible in the eyes of the thinking and sensible part mankind; therefore as you value the esteem of your friends, crush them in the bud.  The ingenious Mr Addison says “Pride in a woman destroys all symmetry and grace; and affectation is a more terrible enemy to a fine face than the small pox.  

And yet there is no passion so universal or steals into the heart more imperceptibly than pride; at the same time, there is not a single view of human nature, under its present condition, which is not sufficient to extinguish in us all the secret seeds of pride.  As nothing appears more odious and disgusting than pride and affectation, to nothing is more amiable in your sex than humility; it adds a beauty to every feature and a luster to all your action.”*

These epistolary tutelages served as continual nudges against youthful waywardness, advising sons on achievement in politics and education, and daughters on obedience and humility.  Based on works they produced, writers like the young Jane Austen must have felt the thorn in these infuriatingly narrow instructions at one time or another.

From 'Pride and Prejudice' film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005
From ‘Pride and Prejudice’ film showing Jane and Elizabeth | 2005

Elizabeth Bennet was a character written from the breed of proud, independently-minded women who were mightily disapproved of by the majority of gentlemen (and a whole lot of gentlewomen) during the 18th century. She is, in many ways, diametrically opposed to the ideal gentlewoman and her genius, of course, is in being appealing nevertheless.  As Fullerton says, “She was a highly unconventional, new sort of heroine, and it is easy for modern readers to underestimate just how astonishing she was for readers of the time.”  What’s interesting is that Austen made Elizabeth THE favorite daughter of her father and despite all obstacles of temperament, she is our heroine.  As Fullerton points out, according to the values of the time Jane Bennet would’ve been the appropriate choice.  I think we can all say thank goodness she wasn’t Austen’s choice, as today only Elizabeth would be ours.

*Find the full letter on page 42 here

A Family Affair: Mozart’s Sister

Eclipsed by her brother’s prodigious talents, constrained by the limitations placed on her sex, and fueled by her passion for music, Maria Anna Mozart’s forgotten story is positively brimming with conflict. 

Or is it?

As the eldest child, the woman her family affectionately called Nannerl was originally the family star, but she soon took a second seat to her  brother.  In the 18th century, women didn’t compose; they performed.  Likewise, they were restricted as to which instruments they were permitted to play, including the violin–what her father calls a “boy’s instrument.” 

Nannerl pursued her music, regardless.  At an early age, she became accomplished at the harpsichord and the fortepiano, but no matter her talents, social impediments prevented her from what might have been a distinguished talent.  Marriage was of the utmost importance to Nannerl’s future, and she was expected to fulfill her obligations like every other woman alive.  That pesky little problem aside, Nannerl’s relationship with music was a source of joy in her life.  Mozart looked up to his big sister, from childhood desiring to be like her, and they enjoyed a close relationship for many years.  Sources disagree as to whether this mutual adoration continued until Mozart’s death in 1791.

Talent-wise, evidence of her composing is mentioned in her letters to Mozart, but these informal compositions would not have been approved of for a public concert.  As her work has withered out of existence, we can no longer know the true scope of her talents, but the film allows us to imagine Nannerl being dragged across European courts, playing second piano as it were, and experiencing a full spectrum of emotions of which we shall only have to guess.  I personally think the lady looks like she’s got a bit of moxie beneath that mischevious smile.

A lush period piece, Mozart’s Sister is an imagined portrait of Nannerl, the question being “what if?”  The film is in French and currently has a limited U.S. release .  If you can’t wait for the dvd, there have been a number of books published, including Mozart’s Sister by Rita Chabonnier, Mozart’s Sister by Nancy Moser, and In Mozart’s Shadow by Caroline Meyer (YA). 

Watch the movie trailer

Watch the exclusive clip

 

The Secret Diary of a Princess: A Review

All week I have sneaked in moments to read Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess and I must say it was worth every minute of lost sleep.  I adored Clegg’s interpretation of Marie Antoinette, and considering that this is a review and not a gush fest, I’m going to try my best to forgo repeating just how much I think every Antoinette fan should read it.

What I loved:

Clegg really made Antoinette’s early life come alive for me.  The voice was so authentic to Antoinette’s spirit I fancied I had in my possession her long-lost diary and was gaining private insight into the misunderstood queen.  For me, this emotional engagement was huge.  Although life at Versailles and Antoinette’s reign, in particular, has always fascinated me, I usually experience dissonance between my disliking the queen and my appreciation for her as an historical character.  Her personality is full of contradictions, which generally keep my attention, but unlike her mother, history has seldom regarded her as intelligent or a master of strategy.  She was instead a leader of fashion, a spendthrift without regard for consequence, and all around girly girl.

Clegg’s novel offers a closer look at the makings of France’s infamous queen.   If you’ve wondered how Maria Antonia, an awkward, uneducated girl who was never supposed to be a queen of France, became the belle of the fashionable world, this secret diary is a marvelous imagining of Antoinette’s inner thoughts while remaining firmly rooted in research.

1769, Joseph Ducreux

As any fan of the genre knows, historical fiction first and foremost needs to be more than a recitation of facts and events.  Clegg happily succeeds in this.  Her simple yet descriptive style transported me from the palaces of Schönbrunn and Hofburg, where Antoinette spent her childhood and adolescence, to her first steps into the glittering court of Versailles.

Today Antoinette seems quintessentially French, but in her time she was thought never fully Austrian or French.  This lacking is what defines her. Austria was home, but also a place of harsh instruction and intense pressure.  On the one hand we have Antoinette’s life of silk gowns, mischief, and loving sisters and on the other, a plague of early deaths coupled with the emotional austerity of her mother, Maria Theresa.  Despite the juxtaposition of the royals’ distinct personalities, a real sense of family resonated throughout novel.  I adored Antoinette’s sisters Amalia and Christina and sympathized with Antoinette’s feeling that she lacked consequence in such a large family.  As she says early on,

“I am not witty like my sister Christina or funny like Elizabeth or interesting like Amalia or clever like our eldest sister Marianna or sweet like Josepha.  I am just me, the youngest and some might say, most insignificant daughter of the Empress Maria Theresa, the most powerful female monarch in the world.”

The Austrian Royal Family

As the ultimate goal of Maria Theresa was to marry off her daughters and concrete Austrian alliances, the novel showed a procession of arranged matches with the sisters wondering who was next and when.  Given the doubt surrounding her future, Antoinette understandably longs for direction.  She wants to please her mother by doing her duty, but suffers under constant demands, which at times seem impossible for her to meet.  She is painfully naive and undisciplined, but also modest, funny, and sweet.

The first picture of Antoinette seen by the Dauphin

Numerous improvements were required to make Antoinette suitable for Versailles.  Sharing in her resistance to (and eventual delight in) those changes was an absolute joy to read.  Clegg deftly tackles the transformation as Antoinette catches a glimpse of herself après a French hairdressing:

“I had always seen myself as the youngest, least pretty and most insignificant of Mama’s girls but now suddenly I believed that I too could be beautiful and important.  I hope I never forget how I felt at that moment: powerful.”

This steady eye on the Antoinette we all know so well makes the novel a page turner.  We know what happens at Versailles and we know the dismal end swept in by the revolution.  What Clegg does is humanize Antoinette, making her the little sister, full of hope and giddy laughter and minor rebellions, with the internal reflection long due France’s most enigmatic queen.

A much recommended read for Marie Antoinette fans but also for anyone interested in what life was really like for princesses in 18th century Europe.

You can find out more about the author Melanie Clegg by visiting her popular art, history and writing blog at http://madameguillotine.org.uk/.

Novel Recommendation: The Secret Diary of a Princess

If you are a Marie Antoinette fan and find yourself wondering what her early years before Versailles would have been like, consider reading Melanie Clegg’s The Secret Diary of a Princess.  For one, it’s on sale for kindle through Monday for 99c or 86p in celebration of Bastille Day.  Yay!  Two, it’s written by the fabulous blogger Madame Guillotine

I started reading last night and the voice of young Maria Antonia really shines through–Melanie got it just right.   I’ve read a lot of novels about MA and thought the market was saturated, but Melanie proves there’s still more to offer.  MA’s childhood and adolescence is a fascinating and formative period of the queen’s tragic life and should not be missed.

I’ll post the review late next week!

P.S. If you miss the sale, Melanie’s novel is usually priced at $3–still a steal!