Friday, 14 May 2021

How to be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis

 


Samantha Ellis has recently written a book about Anne Brontë called: Take Courage: Anne Brontë and the Art of Life.  I was rattending a zoom meeting with The Brussels Brontë Group a couple of weeks ago, where Samantha held a talk about the book, her research and her relationship with the Brontës. A must read. In the meantime, I found one of her earlier books in the library, How to be a Heroine - Or What I Have Learned From Reading Too Much.

"While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirtysomething playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she's been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.

With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives."

A wonderful, witty account of her reading and how it has formed her life. The heroines she has chosen to highlight has guided her through different phases of her life and also gave some comfort when times were hard. We get a good background to her life as a teenager and as a grown up. It is very well done and makes for interesting reading.

So, who are the heroines who have been such an important part and an inspiration in life? 

The Little Mermaid, Anne of the Green Gables, Lizzy Bennet, Scarlett O'Hara, Franny Glass, Esther Greenwood, Valley of he Dolls, Cathy Earnshaw, Flora Poste and Scheherazade. 

I can't say I know of all of them, but most. Some of them has also affected me during my reading. An easy read and a must for anyone with heroines in their life. 

For those of you interested in a summary of her talk for The Brussels Brontë Group, here are two links. 

A review by Pauline Ghyselen and by Helen MacEwan

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Morgan's Passing by Anne Tyler


 The Anne Tyler project is hosted by Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home. We read two books a month and this is the second book for May. So, slightly late here is my review. 

"Morgan Gower works at Cullen's hardware store in north Baltimore. He has seven daughters and a warmhearted wife, but as he journeys into the gray area of middle age, he finds his household growing tedious. Then Morgan meets two lovely young newlyweds under some rather extreme circumstances--and all three discover that no one's heart is safe..."

The young protagonists in this novel are Emily and Leon. Emily fell head over heal in love with Leon at university. Leon is a very extrovert young man, aiming to be an actor, while Emily is rather introvert. As we have seen in other Tyler novels, a relationship starts out with a strong and driving man, loved by a rather quiet but determined woman. Somewhere along the line this balance of power slowly changes. This love story reminds me of Evie and Casey in A Slipping Down Life

We first meet the young couple as they are managing a puppet show. In the middle of it all Emily, who is pregnant, goes into labour. Leon asks the public if there is any doctor there. After a short while a man gets up and says he is a doctor. He says not to worry, babies do not come that fast, I will take you to the hospital. On the way there the baby is also on its way and they have to stop midway. The doctor helps out with the birth and has everything in his hands by the time the ambulance comes. 

This is our introduction to Morgan Gower, a man of many talents. We soon learn he is not a doctor at all, but he goes around town pretending to be someone else. He dresses out in strange costumes, help out where is needed. Whatever need there is, he is the specialist needed. He is so convincing so people always believe in him.

With the birth of Emily's and Leon's baby he forms a special interest in them. He starts following Emily around, wearing different disguises. She soon discovers that he is there but pretends she does not know. Today we would call this behaviour for stalking and it is not a good thing. However it is, Morgan soon becomes a part of the couple's life.

At home he has a wife and seven, or is it eight(?) daughters so the house is full. Most of them have already got married and moved out. His mother and sister have moved in instead. As in other Tyler novels, here is a big house, described in detail, inhabited with strange characters. Everyone seems to be living life in their own style and occasionally they intermingle. A problem with Morgan is that he loves his daughters while they are young but when they grow up he looses interest. There is no indication of anything inappropriate, but today we are more aware of sensitive situations.

"She said, "Couldn't you still love the girls anyhow? You don't stop loving people just because they change size."

I am fascinated by Tyler's occupation with houses and their inhabitants. Here I find similarities with The Clock Winder which is also about a big house with strange inhabitants. Bonnie, the wife of Morgan, is like a queen holding the strings to keep the house on its course.

"He never saw the mysterious way the house started slipping downward, or sideways, or whatever it was that it was doing."

The story takes an unexpected turn when Morgan, rather tired of the unruly and loud environment of his house, more often venture out in different disguises. And when he and Emily become more entangled their lives take another turn.

The character of Morgan is quite different from other characters in her novels. He sticks out, just like Jeremy in Celestial Navigation. Two characters who live in their own world, but sometimes integrate with other people. Even if this is not my absolute favourite of her books, I enjoyed the story and to see what Morgan would do with his life. Emily and Leon, like Evie and Casey do grow apart and start new lives. Tyler always has an interesting approach to family ties and that is what her books are about. It will be interesting to see how I feel about the different family connections once I have read them all.

I cannot help finishing off with a letter Morgan wrote to one of his daughters. He writes a lot of letters but never send them off. Maybe it is some kind of therapy. Anyway, this letter reveals a lot of his character, and I would say, fits quite well into the thinking of modern people when it comes to belongings.

"Dear Amy,

I notice that you appear to be experiencing some difficulty with household clutter.

Understand that I'm not blaming you for this, your mother has the same problem. But as I've been telling her for years, there is a solution.

Simply take a cardboard box, carry it through the rooms, load into it everyone's toys and dirty clothes and such, and hide it all in a closet. If people ask for some missing object, you'll be able to tell them where it is. If they don't ask (now, here is the important part), if a week goes by and they don't notice the object is gone, then you can be sure it's nonessential, and you throw it away. You would be surprised at how many things are non-essential. Throw everything away, all of it! Simplify! Don't hesitate!

All my love, sweetheart,

Daddy"

A good advice even today for cluttered houses. 

 

Friday, 7 May 2021

How To Read Novels Like A Professor by Thomas C. Foster



I am not a professor in literature, but I would like to be. Unfortunately, this will never happen, so, I have to go along trying to read novels and literature like a professor. Thomas C. Foster's book is therefor a very useful tool. He has also written How To Read Literature Like A Professor, which sounds like another useful read.

It is not only a book for readers. I would say it is also useful for aspring writers. How do you make a novel interesting? What does it have to contain? Who should be the narrator and what should he/she do? The content gives a hint on what makes up a good book. 

Pickup Lines and Open(ing) Seductions, or Why Novels Have First Pages - are we not fascinated by how certain writers manage to hook you on the first sentence? This seems to be one of the most important sentences in a book and Foster mentions a few excellent openings. I love good openings and cannot help but quote them here, although I am sure you are already familiar with them (I only knew 2,4 and 5):

  • "What's it going to be, then?"
  • "Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself."
  • "This is the saddest story I ever heard."
  • "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."
  • "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife."
  • "At an age when most young Scotsmen were lifting skirts, plowing furrows and spreading seed, Mungo Park was displaying his bare buttocks to al-haj' Ali Abu Fatoudi, Emir of Ludamar."

"The first page, sometimes the first paragraph, even the first sentence, can give you everything you need to know to read the novel. How? By conveying some or all of the eighteen things the first page can tell you." Eighteen things to include in the first page! That must be rather tough. Let's see what he partly says (more reflections in the book).

  1. Style - short or long sentences? Simple or complex? Rushed or leisurely? "The first page of any Hemingway novel will impress us with short sentences and a strong sense that the writer was badly frightened in infancy by words ending in "ly"." Writers inspired by Hemingway; Ross Macdonald, Raymond Chandler and Mickey Spillane.
  2. Tone - Every book has a tone. Is it elegiac, or matter-of-fact, or ironic? A tonal masterpiece is the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice. 
  3. Mood - Similar to tone but not quite the same. Not like tone which is about what the voice sounds like, here it is about what it is telling. For example Nick Carraway's narration in The Great Gatsby. "So what is it, we wonder at once, that he's not quite saying here?"
  4. Diction - What kind of words does the novel use? Common or rare? Friendly or challenging? Are the sentences whole or fractured...? A Clockwork Orange set as example with the "deceptive simple query, "What's it going to be, then?".
  5. Point of view  - Who is the narrator? 
  6. Narrative presence - Is the narrator inside or outside the story? First person narrators are clear, but what about third-person narrators? In the old days the third person narrator was more someone of the world, amused by what was going on, while in modern times the narrator is often impersonal, detached and cool (Hemingway, Anita Brookner).
  7. Narrative attitude - toward characters and events. "Austen's are generally amused, slightly aloof, a little superior. Dickens's tend to be earnest, involved direct... Flaubert's narrator in Madame Bovary is famously cool and impersonal..."
  8. Time frame - When is all this happening? Contemporaneously or a long time ago? How can we tell? Does the novel cover a lot of time or a little? "That "many years later" of the García Marzquez opening is magical. It says, first of all, that this novel will cover a great deal of time, enough for a small child holding his farther's hand to rise to power and fall from it."
  9. Time management - Will time go fast or slow in this novel? Is it being told in or near the now of the story or long after?
  10. Place - Place is a sense of things, a mode of thought, a way of seeing. 
  11. Motif - Stuff that happens again and again. Motif can be image, action, language pattern, anything that happens again and again. Like miracles and the colonel's narrow escapes in One Hundred Years of Solitude. Like the flowers in Mrs. Dalloway.
  12. Theme - Story is what gets a novel going and what we focus on, but theme is one of the things that makes it worthwhile.
  13. Irony - Or not - some novels are in dead earnest. The entire nineteenth century springs to mind.
  14. Rhythm -There are two levels of rhythm in a novel: prose and narrative.
  15. Pace - How fast do we go? Foster quotes the opening from Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. This is not going to be a hundred-yard dash. Everything about the passage says "leisurely" - the long, abstract words, the embedded "some people never do," the sense that his should be no more rushed than the event, if you can call it that, that it describes. James is never frantic, never in a hurry.
  16. Expectations - Of the writer, of the reader. 
  17. Character -Not always on page one, but more often than not. The bottom line: people are helpful to start a novel.
  18. Instructions on how to read the novel - All of these previously mentioned elements go into teaching us how the novel wants to be read. Whether we read it that way or not is, naturally, our call. But every novel wants to be read in a certain way. 

Who's in Charge Here? - yes, narration could be difficult. "Perhaps the novelist's hardest task is deciding who should tell the story. Main character? Secondary character?" Can we trust the narrator? Is he/she reliable? Obviously more important than one usually realise. 

Wrinkles in Time, or Chapters Just Might Matter - "You pick up a novel, open to page one, and your heart sinks. Why? No number, no title. In other words, no chapters. You're facing the black prospect of life without breaks, the long, long slog through an untrammelled narrative wilderness." I understand the feeling. 

Drowning in the Stream of Consciousness - "Once upon a time, narrative was simple. You said what characters did, you quoted their dialogue, and, if need be, you told what they thought: ... But then, as Virginia Woolf points out. "On or about December 1910, human nature changed." Certainly the novelist's relationship to consciousness did. As a result of huge changes in the scientific and philosophical understanding of the mind - the by-products of work by Freud and Jung ... the depiction of consciousness became much more fluid. And messy."

Foster guides us through novels of various kinds. Often he comes back to Ulysses, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and Alice in Wonderland, but he refers to other novels as well, from classics having made a mark in literature, to more modern stories.

It is an easy, enjoyable read down literature lane. Lots of good advice how to interpret or find out what the author is trying to convey to the reader. It is written in a humorous way and sometimes I laughed out loud. A perfect non-fiction book about fiction books.




Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Loving Modigliani: The Afterlife of Jeanne Hébuterne by Linda Lappin

 


"Amedeo Modigliani, embittered and unrecognized genius, dies of meningitis on a cold January day in Montparnasse in 1920. Jeanne Hébuterne, his young wife and muse, follows 48 hours later, falling backwards through a window. Now a ghost, Jeanne drifts about the studio she shared with Modigliani—for she was not only his favorite model, but also an artist whose works were later shut away from public view after her demise. Enraged, she watches as her belongings are removed from the studio and her identity as an artist seemingly effaced for posterity, carried off in a suitcase. Thus begins Loving Modigliani, retelling the story of Jeanne Hébuterne’s fate as a woman and an artist through three timelines and three precious objects stolen from the studio: a diary, a bangle, and a self-portrait of Jeanne depicted together with Modi and their daughter. A century later, Jeanne Hébuterne’s artwork will be rescued from oblivion."

I am fascinating by historical fiction about artists. They seem to be people so different from the rest of us. As we admire their free spirits, the sacrifices they make for their art and the simple, and often, poor lives they live (at least before they become famous), we can stay outside and look in. 

 The beginning of the novel takes you straight into the action and into a paranormal and gothic world.

"The ringing in my ears ceased with the dull thud of a heavy weight hurled out from a high window, crashing into the courtyard. I blacked out as a wave of pain surged through my body, traveling to the tips of my fingers and the roots of my hair. I'd barely had time to glimpse my brother André's face gawking through the open window frame, to hear the neighbours cat yowling on the balcony below us or the precipitation of feet on the stairs. Then there I was, conscious again, rather bewildered but intact, suspended in the air a few inches above that bloody heap on the cobblestones. A taut, transparent string protruding from my belly seemed to be attaching me to it."

It is an excellent opening to the story. Jeanne's travel in the other world continues over time. She is looking for Modigliani with whom she wants to be re-united. With the help of a cat she wanders restlessly around this new, unknown world, searching for her man. Going in and out of different 'doors' she enters other time zones and dimensions, where she soon becomes aware of what is happening with her inheritance. It is magically written and we are there with Jeanne as she roams around the streets of Paris that is so well known to her. It is a mixture of fantasy, gothic and magic and Lappin makes it look so true. First I thought we were going to stay in this world the whole book, and I was a little bit disappointed. But, as the story continues I found it a rather genius way of telling the story. But Lappin does not let us stay there, she has two other story lines up her sleeve. 

In the second part the story moves to 1981 and an American art student in Paris on a scholarship. She encounters a woman who new Jeanne. As strange things are happening she is drawn deeper and deeper into the life of Jeanne and Modigliani. Underlying secrets coming up to the surface, and lost paintings see the daylight again. To find out the secret, the two of them goes on a trip from Paris, to the French Riviera, to Rome, in search of answers. 

The third part takes place some ten years later in Venice when an art critic is organising the first ever exhibition of Jeanne Hébutern's works. All of a sudden a lost painting is turning up. And, we hear from Jeanne again. She, still invisible to the world, but her art is about to come out of its hiding. 

After her death at only 22 years old, her brother, André, collected and kept her art in the family. Her relationship with Modigliani and her work was shameful for them.  Only after André's death could her drawings and paintings be shown to the public. Jeanne is one of all those muses to famous painters and sculptures that were talented and could have made a career of their own. 

Linda Lappin has written a magical and fantastic story of the life of Jeanne Hébuterne. Thorough research and dedication to the object, she has given us the pleasure, for a moment, to get to know Jeanne, her life, feelings and inheritance. The story is treated with love and sensitivity. Well written both in prose, story development and historical facts, it contains fantasy, magic, suspense and gothic elements. It is a tribute to Jeanne Hébuterne and her art. One of the best historical fictions I have read.  

I received the novel via NetGalley and Linda Lappin for an impartial review. The views above are my own. 

Friday, 30 April 2021

Book Beginnings on Fridays and The Page 56

 


This week's book I have not yet read. However, I have seen references here and there and I am really excited to start The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean. Here the summary.

"Why did Gandhi hate iodine (I, 53)? How did radium (Ra, 88) nearly ruin Marie Curie's reputation? And why is gallium (Ga, 31) the go-to element for laboratory pranksters?

The periodic table is a crowning scientific achievement, but it's also a treasure trove of passion, adventure, betrayal, and obsession. These fascinating tales follow all the elements on the table as they play out their parts in human history, finance, mythology, conflict, the arts, medicine, and the lives of the (frequently) mad scientists who discovered them.  The Disappearing Spoon masterfully fuses science with the classic lore of invention, investigation, discovery, and alchemy, from the Big Bang through the end of time."

Does it not sounds intriguing? Can hardly wait to start this book.  



Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader


"As a child in the early 1980s, I tended to talk with things in my mouth - food, dentist's tubes, balloons that would fly away, whatever - and if no one else was around, I'd talk anyway. This habit led to my fascination with the periodic table the first time I was left alone with a thermometer under my tongue."



The Friday 56 hosted by Freda's Voice



"In the end, it's probably impossible to tease out whether the heads or tails of science, the theory or the experiment, has done more to push science ahead. "

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Earthly Possessions by Anne Tyler

Here another instalment in the Anne Tyler project (hosted by Liz Dexter at Adventures in reading, running and working from home). This month's first book is Earthly Possessions, and it might be my absolute favourite so far. 

"Charlotte Emory has always lived a quiet, conventional life in Clarion, Maryland. She lives as simply as possible, and one day decides to simplify everything and leave her husband. Her last trip to the bank throws Charlotte's life into an entirely different direction when a restless young man in a nylon jacket takes her hostage during the robbery--and soon the two are heading south into an unknown future, and a most unexpected fate...."

Maybe you can say that being taken hostage is typical of Charlotte. People seem to be drawn to her. It was of course coincidental that the nervous young man grabbed her, but still. Charlotte being Charlotte meant that she trotted along as the robber ran away with her from the scene. As we follow Charlotte on her trip with the robber, Jake Simms, we get glimpses of her past life. Jake is a somewhat lost, a young man and Charlotte is a woman of experience and turns out to be the stronger of the two. 

Long before this specific point Charlotte's life never did go according to plan. Her parents were not like other parents; her mother so obese she could hardly move and her father a recluse who spent most of his time in his photo studio. Her main aim as a young girl was to get away from the family and the town. She enrolled to study at university, but had not even started when her father died and she had to take care of her mother who became more or less bedridden. 

This is when she feels she has to clean up her life, that is, get rid of her earthly possessions. Somehow they represent the burden that is lingering over her life and traps her. One day the oldest son of the former neighbours is back and rents a room in her house. Charlotte always loved his family, so different from her own. They start to go out together and end up being married to Saul without Charlotte really figuring out how it all happened.  Saul is very religious and educates himself to become a priest. Another burden on Charlotte who does not  believe in God. 

"Which is not to say I didn't go to church. Oh, no, I showed up every Sunday morning, sitting between my mother and Julian, smiling my glazed wifely smile. I believe I almost enjoyed it; I took some pleasure in his distance, in my own dreamy docility and my private, untouchable deafness. His words slipped past me like the sound of a clock or an ocean. Meanwhile I watched his hands gripping the pulpit, I admired his chiseled lips. Plotted how to get him into bed with me. There was something magical about the pew that sent all my thoughts swooning toward bed. Contrariness, I suppose. He was against making love on a Sunday. I was in favour of it. Sometimes I won, sometimes he won. I wouldn't have missed Sunday for the world."

When Saul moves in it comes with furniture from his old house and all of a sudden her almost empty house is now full again. Not only of furniture, but of people. When Saul encounters needy people he puts out a helping hand. 

Charlotte reminds me of Elizabeth in The Clock Winder. Like Elizabeth she seems to draw people to her. Nothing is too complicated for her to take care of.

"I didn't understand you. Now I see everyone grabbing for the pieces of you, and still you're never diminished. Clutching on your skirts and they don't even slow you down. And you're the one who told her the truth; I heard you. Said the word out loud. Cancer. You sail through this house like a moon, you're strong enough for all of them."

I think the last sentence above is a key to the whole novel. As before, Anne Tyler gives us a strong female character who, in the end, seems to be above everything else. The sun that shines in the lives of the people surrounding her, just like Elizabeth does. Reading all of Tyler's novels like we are doing now, clearly highlights her family stories. Strong female characters, seemingly dependent on someone; mother, father, brother or husband, but in the end, going through life with a perspective and drive to achieve something. Apparently having a plan. Reaching a point where they make a decision how to live their lives. It can be staying put and be happy with how things are, or choose another way.   

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Through Belgian Eyes by Helen MacEwan


Helen MacEwan is one of the initial founders of The Brussels Brontë Group. The Group is dedicated to research the years that Charlotte and Emily spent in Brussels. Helen has written another three books connected to the Brontës in Brussels; Down the Belliard Steps (about the founding of the Group), The Brontës in Brussels (a 'guided' tour of places and history connected to the Brontës), Winifred Ghérin, Biographer of the Brontës. Through Belgian Eyes, with the under title Charlotte Brontë's Troubled Brussels Legacy takes a look at how the Belgians handle/d Charlotte Brontë's attitude to Brussels and the Belgians. Mainly through her two books set in Brussels, The Professor and Villette. And, why it took so long for the Belgians to acknowledge her greatness. 

"Charlotte Brontë's years in Belgium (1842-43) had a huge influence both on her life and her work. It was in Brussels that she not only honed her writing skills but fell in love and lived through the experiences that inspired two of her four novels: her first, The Professor, and her last and in many ways most interesting, Villette. Her feelings about Belgium are known - her love for her tutor Heger, her uncomplimentary remarks about Belgians, the powerful effect on her imagination of living abroad. But what about Belgian views of Charlotte Brontë? How have Belgian commentators responded to her portrayal of their capital city and their society? Through Belgian Eyes explores a wide range of responses from across the Channel.

In the process, it examines what The Professor and Villette tell Belgian readers about their capital in the 1840s and provides the Brussels background to the novels. Brussels has inspired few outstanding works of literature, and that makes Villette, considered by many to be Charlotte Brontë's masterpiece, of particular interest as a portrait of the Belgian capital a decade after the country gained independence in 1830, and just before the city was transformed out of all recognition from the 'villette' (small town) that Charlotte knew. Her view of Brussels is contrasted with those of other foreign visitors and of the Belgians themselves."

Charlotte has been accused of being condescending and rude when it comes to the Belgians and Brussels. It took a long time for the Belgians to take her writing to their heart. Her infatuation with Monsieur Heger had a big impact on his family. It is now well established that the stay in Brussels had a huge impact on Charlotte's writing, if not on Emily's.  

A lot of research has gone into this book. It is quite impressing how Helen has gathered information from so many different sources, Belgian and foreign. There are references to articles and letters, archive documents as well as private ones. The book does not only deal with Charlotte and her relationship to Brussels and the Belgians, but it is also a history about the city and the country. Helen gives us a glimpse of life in those days, political as well as on private levels. What did Brussels look like in those day? How has it changed since Charlotte and Emily walked its streets? Is there anything left from that time? How did other exiled authors and well-known political persons look at Brussels? Helen has caught the spirit and atmosphere of that time.

Villette, Charlotte's masterpiece is the story about her Brussels, and based on the time she spent there. It is an interesting, but complicated book, and considered very personal as she had some difficult times there as well. However that is, Brussels somehow stayed with her for the rest of her life, and, in one way or the other, made it into her novels. Through Villette Helen shows us where Charlotte found inspiration for her writing. A little bit of detective work is coming into her account as she tries to locate paintings and venues which Charlotte wrote about. We meet Leopold I, we get an inside view on nineteenth-century boarding schools, her approach to Catholicism and much more. Even an anecdotal chapter on 'Charlotte in the Congo' (the Belgian colony at the time). 

If you are a fan of the Brontës you will find this book interesting (even without the Brontë connection it is an interesting account of Brussels in the first half of the 19th century), and it covers so much of Charlotte's stay and the time she spent there. There are still a few places left where Charlotte and Emily visited. They are included in The Brussels Brontë Group's guided tours that take place several times a year. If you are visiting Brussels have a look at the Group's web-site. 

Through Belgian Eyes includes many illustrations. Personally, I find the illustrations from old Brussels very interesting. Even if you know your way around Brussels, it can sometimes be difficult to get your bearings. So much has changed in these quarters. Helen guides you around the streets, squares and happenings with her engaging and well written account of a lost Brussels. I enjoyed it tremendously.

Tuesday, 20 April 2021

The Habsburgs by Andrew Wheatcroft

 


A book about the Habsburgs is certainly going to be a thick one. A family with a long history and part of the European history for over 1000 years. In spite of this, Wheatcroft has been able to give an account of the family in just under 300 pages (not including footnotes and timelines). Considering the number of Habsburgs that have passed by during this time span, it is a thorough historical account of their lives and deeds. Some gets a little bit more space and some less, and rightly so. It starts with the first Dukes of Austria, originating from, what is today, south of Switzerland, in 1020 and continues to the last emperor, Karl I who was dethroned in 1919.  

I will not even try to make a summary of this interesting family and its input on the history of Europe. As with most ruling dynasties, it is a matter of wars, conquering of land, survival through intrigues, influence as well as personal lives through marriage, children and the fight for survival of the dynasty. As regards the latter part there were both good and bad sides of the motto of Austria: Felix Austria Nube.

"The impact of this Spanish fixation with blood and race on the Habsburgs remains conjectural. But their marriage patterns in the century and a half of the 'Madrid-Vienna axis' are unique in the history of Western Europe. 'Happy Austria marries': and it is a matter of record that the Habsburgs had gained their patchwork of lands by marriage alliances underestimates the intense military activity undertaken, especially in Italy to sustain and consolidate their holdings. It also, wrongly, suggests that other families did not use marriage in the same way to cement of consolidate political alliances. But what distinguished the Habsburgs' marriage strategy especially after the death of Charles V, was its inventiveness and capacity to adapt to new circumstances. No other royal house had developed so coherent a notion of 'the power of the blood'."

Royal marriages have always been a political game, and did most of the time, but not always, lead to unhappy marriages. However, many of the Habsburgs seemed to have loved their spouse and their children, in a way which was not common at the time. 

"Many Habsburg marriages seemed despite their political origins to have turned into genuine love-matches, and the anguish that Habsburg parents felt at the death of their children, even as tine infants, also seems unfeigned, even if expressed in terms of a dutiful resignation to the divine will."

One of the most famous of the emperors, and the man who consolidated and extended the then rather small empire of the Habsburgs, Maximilian I, was very much in love with his first wife, He married Mary of Burgundy, a request by his father, Frederick III. The union turned out to be a union of love from both sides. They were married in 1477 and Maximilian was devastated when she died in a riding accident in 1482. Fate does not always turn out that good. In 1493 he married Bianca Maria Sforza who brought a rich dowry and rights as imperial overlord of Milan. It was an unhappy marriage and they had no children. It generated a huge number of bastards though, and he seemed to have been very fond of them and provided for them. 

Maximilian died on 12 January, 1519, and is buried under the altar steps of the church of St George at Wiener Neustadt. "Where he was buried, he said, he would feel the priest stand on his chest when he raised the host during the mass. But his chest was an empty cavity, for his last command had been that his heart be embalmed, carried to Bruges, and reunited with the body of his first wife, Mary of Burgundy." I find this terribly romantic, and not typical for the time. 

The other face, and not such a nice one, of the Habsburg's marriage policy was the inbreeding. 

"Ferdinand III dutifully produced a total of eleven children, but only two sons who survived infancy. The death of his elder son, Ferdinand, from the universal scourge of smallpox in 1654 brought the younger brother Leopold to the fore, as the senior surviving male in the Austrian branch of the house of Habsburg. After 1665, he was the only surviving male member of his immediate lineage. Thus despite all this prodigious begetting, the twin Habsburg thrones (in the male line) depended on two sickly cousins, Leopold and Carlos. Although much has been made of the dire genetic effects of inbreeding, much more dangerous for the Habsburgs was the devastating rate of infant mortality, and the prevalence of epidemic disease in the close confines of the courts, in Madrid and in Vienna, Graz and Innsbruck. Numerically, the Habsburgs seemed to produce a great many more daughters than sons, and these daughters tended to survive longer than their seemingly more vulnerable brothers. Of course, the life expectancy of Habsburg women was drastically reduced by early marriage, repeated pregnancies, and death in childbirth or from puerperal fevers."

The inbreeding (in the Spanish line) came to and end with Charles II of Spain. He suffered from ill health all his life, but did survive until the age of 39. His disabilities were more physical with the famous Habsburg jaw, where the lower jaw outgrows the upper one. The English ambassador, Stanhope, reported in 1697:

"His constitution is so very weak and broken much beyond his age that it is generally feared what may be the success of such another attack. They cut his hair off in his sickness, which the decay of nature had almost done before, all his crown being bald. He has a ravenous stomach, and swallow all he eats whole, for his nether jaw stands so much out, that his two rows of teeth cannot meet; to compensate which, he has a prodigious wide throat, so that a gizzard or liver of a hen passes down whole, and his weak stomach not being able to digest it, he voids in the same manner."

The last in the Spanish line of the Habsburgs, he died in 1700 without an heir, and chose Louis XIV's grandson Philip of Anjou as successor. France was no friend of the Habsburgs, during most of their history, and it did not go down well in Vienna. It led to the War of the Spanish Succession.  

I have chosen to mention a few notes dealing with the more personal side of the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs is so much more. It is a well researched and easy accessible biography over a family that fought for political control of their dominions for more or less a thousand years. Through the book we get to know the great and not so great achievements, their struggle for power and glory, for family and legacies. It is a tour through European history. Andrew Wheatcroft writes with knowledge and compassion and presents a fascinating story of a family's rise and decline.


Monday, 19 April 2021

Classic Club Spin #26



The Classic Club Spin #26 took place yesterday and gave us # 11. For me, that number is Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak. Since I do not have that book with me where I am now, I will take the next book on the list, which is The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. A favourite author and a book I wanted to read for some time, so please with that.

I hope you all got an interesting book as your number 11. Enjoy!


Friday, 16 April 2021

Book beginnings on Fridays and The Friday 56

The Content Reader

It is some time since I posted here on two of my favourite memes or challenges, but now it is time. I recently read W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence which I found wonderful. These memes are hosted by Rose City Reader and Freda's Voice.


Book Beginnings on Fridays hosted by Rose City Reader

I confess that when First I made acquaintance with Charles Strickland I never for a moment discerned that there was in him anything out of the ordinary.


The Friday 56 hosted by Freda's Voice

I had said all I had to say on the subject that had brought me to Paris, and though I felt it din a manner treacherous to Mrs. Strickland not to pursue it, I could not struggle against his indifference. It requires the feminine temperament to repeat the same thing three times with unabated zest. 

Do we discern a little bit of sexism in the last sentence?

A wonderful book, my review under link above.