Sheridan Canvasses At Westminster

One of my favourite pastimes is to read old magazines (yes, I'm weird like that, but they are much more interesting than modern magazines really) and, while perusing the August 1818 edition of La Belle Assemblée, I stumbled upon a fun episode involving Mr Sheridan canvassing for an election. It made me chuckle so I thought I'd share it with you all. Enjoy!

As Mr. Sheridan was coming up to town in one of the public coaches, for the purpose of canvassing Westminster, at the time when Mr Paul. was his opponent, he found himself in company with two Westminster electors. In the course of conversation, one of them asked the other to whom he would give his vote? When his friend replied; "To Paul, certainly; for though I think him but a shabby sort of a fellow, I would vote for any one rather than that rascal Sheridan." "Do you know Sheridan?" asked the stranger. "Not I, Sir," answered the gentleman: "nor would I wish to know him."

The conversation dropped here; but when the party alighted to breakfast, Sheridan called aside the other gentleman, and said, "Pray who is that very agreeable friend of yours? He is one of the pleasantest fellows I ever met with, and I should be glad to know his name." "His name is Mr. T__; he is an eminent lawyer, and resides in Lincoln's Inn- fields." Breakfast over, the party resumed their seats in the coach: soon after which, Sheridan turned the discourse to the law.

"It is," said he, "a fine profession: men may rise to the highest eminence in the state, and it gives vast scope to the display of talent; many of the most virtuous and noble characters recorded in history have been lawyers. I am sorry, however, to add that some of the greatest rascals have also been lawyers; but of all the rascals I ever heard of is one T__, who lives in Lincoln's Inn-fields." "I am Mr. T__," said the gentleman. "And I am Mr. Sheridan," was the reply. "The jest was instantly seen; they shook hands; and the lawyer exerted himself warmly to promote the election of the facetious orator. 

Further reading:
La Belle Assemblée, August 1818.

Canvassing for Votes by William Hogarth

Book Review: Venetia by Georgette Heyer

In all her twenty-five years, lovely Venetia Lanyon has never been further than Harrongate, nor enjoyed the attentions of any but her two wearisomely persistent suitors. Then, in one extraordinary encounter, she meets a neighbour she only knows by reputation - the infamous Lord Damerel - and before she realizes it, finds herself egging on a libertine whose way of life has scandalised the North Riding for years.

Venetia was the very first Georgette Heyer book I ever read and I'm glad of that as, for those who have never read any novels from this author, this is a great place to start. Venetia is a delightful, highly-enjoyable read with interesting and well-developed characters, witty dialogues and a great story, set in the Regency era three years after the Napoleonic wars.

Venetia is a beautiful, clever and cheerful girl who has lived a secluded life. At 25, she is still running her brother Conway's estate and taking care of their little lame but very intelligent brother Aubrey and has never left the country. She is very realistic about her situation. She knows she will have to either resign herself to spinsterhood or marry one of her boring suitors: the dull and pompous Edward Yardley who can't believe Venetia doesn't want to marry him despite her having told him so several times and the young, emo Oswald Denny who idolizes Lord Byron.

But one day, she meets Lord Damerel, a charming rake who scandalises the neighbourhood and the two become fast friends.. Actually, more than friends, and much to the dismay and desperation of her friends. Although at first Damerel considers her as just another girl to seduce, her frankness (she always says what she thinks), wit and the fact that she is willing to get to know him and judge him for who he is rather than believing all the bad rumours about him, soon gain his respect and affection. He knows that her reputation may be sullied by marrying a man with his reputation and the two part ways. I don't really wanna say too much about the end as I don't wanna spoil it for you in case you haven't read it, so suffice it to say that Venetia goes to London where there is a surprise in store for her.

This book is about meeting your soulmate. While you can clearly feel the sexual tension between Venetia and Damerel (there are no bedroom scenes, but sparks do fly and that's hotter than any more explicit sex scenes modern romance books are filled with), there is a lot more to their relationship than just sexual chemistry. These are two people who have led two very different lives but share the same interests, sense of humour, wit and they both have a certain disregard for social conventions (Damerel more than Venetia). Theirs is a meeting of souls.

Like always, Heyer vividly portrays the world in which her characters live, paying a lot of attention to historical details. The books also flows easily, but it might take you a while to get into the story if you're not familiar with the Regency way of speaking. Her characters, in fact, often use words and expressions that were commonly used in the Regency era but rarely or just not anymore used today. I actually love that as it makes the story even more real. In addition, Heyer's prose is lively, witty and sparkling and, once used to the Regency language, a true pleasure to read.

If you have never read a Georgette Heyer book before, Venetia is the perfect place to start. Venetia is one of Heyer's masterpieces and it has all the elements that make her books such delightful reads: a great story with well-developed characters, witty dialogue and prose full of Regency words and expressions (which may make reading a bit hard at first if you're not familiar with them) and a lot of attention to historical details. All in all, a very enjoyable read.

Available at:, Amazon UK

Rating: 4.5/5

The Birth of Madame Royale

After eight years of marriage, Marie Antoinette gave birth to her first child. Hundreds of courtiers were present at the birth. At the time at Versailles, Queens and princesses of the blood were required to give birth in public to prevent the baby being swapped and thus compromising the succession should he (French laws only allowed males to succeed to the throne) survive infancy and become king. This was an embarassing ritual and Marie Antoinette's first laying in such a harrowing experience that the Queen refused to give birth in public ever again. Let's see how things went.

Marie Antoinette began to feel the first contractions just after midnight on December 19, 1778. As soon as the news of the impending birth spread, crowds began to arrive.The King had the tapestry screens that surrounded the bed secured with cords to avoid them being thrown down upon the Queen. In the end, the room was so crowded it was impossible to move and, to get a better site of Her Majesty, two Savoyards even got upon the furniture! The Queen, however, was still able to walk around the room till 8am, when she finally took to her bed.

The baby was born at about 11:30 am, but it wasn't the eagerly, long-awaited hair. Marie Antoinette had given birth to a fair-haired, blue-eyed daughter, Marie Therese. The Queen still ignored the sex of the baby. The Princess De Lamballe was supposed to shout "Il figlio è nato" for a boy, or "La figlia è nata" for a girl to let the Queen know the sex of her newborn baby, but overwhelmed by emotion, she only managed to say "La regina è andato" (the Queen went) before fainting.

Marie Antoinette wasn't well either. The crowd of people in the room, the lack of air, the pain, were all too much for her. She had a convulsive fit and fainted. The King* sprung forward and opened the windows (they had been nailed to keep the cold winter air outside the drafty Palace). The Court’s chief surgeon used his lancet and sliced into her foot, causing it to bleed. The Queen opened her eyes and slowly, for some people didn't want to leave and had to be dragged out, the room started to empty.

Marie Antoinette learned the sex of her baby only an hour and a quarter after Marie Therese's birth, and said: "Poor little girl, you are not what was desired, but you are no less dear to me on that account. A son would have been the property of the state. You shall be mine; you shall have my undivided care; you will share all my happinesses and you will alleviate my sufferings . . .”

*Madame Campan recalls in her memoirs that it was the King himself who opened the windows, while Antonia Fraser in her biography of the Queen, Marie Antoinette: The Journey states that few sources mention the King had already left the room with Madame Royale, as the baby would be called, for her baptism and that it was some unknown person who opened the windows.

Further reading:
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
Marie-Therese: The fate of Marie Antoinette's daughter
Memoirs of the court of Marie Antoinette by Madame Campan

Sarah Wallis Bowdich's Ship Encounters Pirates

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, English ladies rarely travelled abroad, let alone sail to Africa with their baby daughters to meet their husbands. But that's exactly was Sarah Wallis Bowdich (1791-1856) did (only to discover that her husband had briefly returned to England!, and their poor daughter fell ill and died in Africa, but that's a subject for another post). Travelling at the time was full of dangers, including mutiny and pirates and poor Sarah was unlucky enough to experience both! Can you imagine how frightening that must have been? Here is the story of her encounter with the pirates while sailing back home as she told it in her book, Stories of Strange Lands:

Only a short interval took place between the south and north-east trades; and, in the latter, a glorious breeze was carrying us along at nine knots an hour, when a white sail appeared in the horizon. She bore down full upon us, and, to our dismay, we found her to be a pirate. A consultation was held, and our internal opponent in all things negatived our advice not to resist. This accorded with the captain's opinion (for he had been a lieutenant in the navy, and thought that he ought not to submit), and we therefore cheerfully prepared to follow his orders. Swiftly and steadily did the pirate near us on the larboard side, and, accordingly, measures were taken to meet her in that quarter. We had not enough ammunition to fit up two sides for an engagement, therefore every thing was brought over to one. The first step was to collect all the gold and silks on board, and, opening one of the hatchways, to bury them among the logs of wood in the hold. 

This being done, the scuttle was replaced, and fresh caulked, to avoid all suspicion of recent opening. Our four small cannons were cleaned and loaded, the sick men were placed among the rigging armed with pistols; the sails were set square, to give the appearance of an armed vessel; the union Jack was hoisted; and Mr. Bowdichvvas ordered to walk up and down the deck in his scarlet uniform, to be taken for a marine officer. The captain was in his element, and prodigiously grand, considering his force; and his constant expression, that "a British sailor knew not how to yield," seemed actually to inspire the men, though several had begun operations with a most significant smile. All was obedience, and the part assigned to me was the giving out the small arms and powder, taking notes of the portion assigned to each. Our black servant-girl cried bitterly, for she fancied she should be again forced into slavery, but employing her with me soon dried her tears. [...]

My task being at length completed, and the remaining ammunition locked up, I went above to see how matters stood, and when I presented myself, a momentary pause ensued, and each looked at the other, as much as to say, "What shall we do with her?" At length Mr. Bowdich suggested that I should retire to my cabin, and, lying in my berth, pretend to be very ill. In vain I urged the contradiction that my face, red with exertion, would present, he replied that it would be taken for fever, and there seemed to be no alternative, but I staid in the bustle as long as I dared. All was in readiness, and the men pompously standing at their guns, when suddenly the pirate ship altering her course, pounced upon us on our defenceless side, and it was perfectly laughable to see the surprise and consternation of the whole crew; she fired, and answering her signal, for resistance was now evidently hopeless, we hove to—she was a beautiful creature, as the sailors called her, built for sailing, and elegant in all her proportions; two tiers of guns stared from her port-holes, and a long brass gun, mounted on a swivel was placed on her deck, and which would have raked us fore and aft had we hesitated to obey her signal. 

Two boats were instantly lowered, and being filled with armed men, we were boarded in due form, but, at the instant these boats were in motion, I was hurried below, and before the strangers descended, Mr. Bowdich, seized with a new idea, hastily rushed into my cabin, threw over me a pile of great-coats, boat cloaks, &c., and, conjuring me to lie still, left my door wide open, to give an appearance of carelessness as to what was within. I thought I should have been stifled, but contriving a breathing hole, I caught a glimpse of the visitors, and heard all that passed. They proved to be Spaniards, and could not speak English; Mr. Bowdich then tried them in French, with which they were perfectly acquainted, and in which language the conversation was held. They said with the utmost indifference that they had three hundred slaves on board, but they were sure of getting safe to the Havannah, as they had a complement of one hundred men and were well armed. 

They asked whence we came, and care was taken to state the Gaboon river, and not Cape Coast, for fear of being forced to give up our gold dust. They then said they must have provisions, for they were afraid of their own not lasting; and using no ceremony, they ordered the goats, pigs, &c. into their boats, and, hinting that the severe illness of their captain alone prevented them from using their guns, they claimed a large portion of the salted stores and biscuit. Our captain was ready to do every thing they asked, and even added the last bag of white biscuit as a present to their commander; the hero of small arms bowed down to the ground, and I could not help fancying that the interpreter was anxious to ensure their civility by his own. They looked into most of the cabins, and observed, that mine being doubtless that of the English officer they should not inspect it. Having secured all they thought worth taking, they departed, and I crept up to take another look at their ship. 

She was painted white, with a narrow black streak, and seemed to skim the surface like an eagle; her planks almost appeared to move, and she bent so majestically to the motion of the waves, that we could scarcely bring ourselves to believe, that so beautiful an exterior covered so much misery. She was soon out of sight, and as some of us stood gaping at her till the last moment, we heard one of our sailors say, "She walks!" another, "there's a thing to live in!" a third, "she's a lady of quality;" and not a soul on board but seemed to lose their sense of danger in the contemplation of her extraordinary beauty. At length we recollected how grateful we ought to be for our escape, which was rare at that time, and which we probably owed entirely to the illness of the pirate captain.

Further reading:
Stories of strange lands: and fragments from the notes of a traveller by Mrs R. Lee

How People Spoke: The Regency Era

I'm a huge fan of Georgette Heyer's books and one of the things I love the most about them is the way the characters talk. Heyer makes them speak just like people in the Regency era, where her stories are set, spoke and thus use words and expressions that are now forgotten or rarely used. But if you are just starting reading her books, the language may confuse you and leave you feeling puzzled. While with some words it's easy to infer their meaning, with others it's just impossible to make out what they mean. That's why I decided to put together this little vocabulary with a few popular words commonly used in the Regency era and if you like it, I may write more posts like this in the future. Let's get started then:

Apes leader: an old maid or a spinster.

Coxcomb: a conceited and vain person. In origin, it meant "fool" as fools used to wear caps with bells and a piece of red cloth on top which was shaped like a cock's comb.

Corinthian: a dandy, a fashionable man, who is also good at sports. It can also mean a rake. But originally, it meant profligate and derived from the elegant but dissipated lifestyle led in Ancient Corinth.

Foxed: tipsy, drunk.

Fustian: bombast, pompous language, pretentious speech.

Gammon: nonsense (noun), to deceive or lie (verb)

Green Girl: a girl who is young and inexperienced.

Gudgeon: it derives from the name of a fish that gets easily caught and means someone who is easily duped or imposed upon.

Nanob: it comes from the Hindustani word "nawab" which was the name for the ruler in the Mogul Empire and means a rich man, especially one who made his fortune in India.

Snuff: a powdered, often scented, tobacco that was taken into the nose. It was usually carried around in small and decorated boxes.

Do you know any other words commonly used during the Regency period? Let me know in the comments and I'll add them to this post.

Further reading:
A Regency Lexicon

Robert Seymour, Four New Ways of Paying Old Debts
James Gillray, The Nabob Rumbled Or a Lord Advocates Amusement

Marie Antoinette: Revolution And Death

The financial situation in France in the late 1780s was disastrous. The debts accumulated to fight wars had brought the country on the verge of bankruptcy. To make things worse, very harsh winters in 1787 and 1788 resulted in crop failure, draughts and famine. The people were starving. To attempt to pass the financial reforms the country so badly needed, the Assembly of Notables was convened in 1787, but failed in its aim. It was at this time that Marie Antoinette started to become more involved in politics, as Louis XVI wasn't acting with as much decision and energy as he had shown in the past.

In a last attempt to solve the financial problems, the Estates General were summoned in 1789 (and sadly coincided with the death of the Dauphin). But when the representatives of the Third State (the common people) learned they only had one vote and could thus be easily outvoted by the First State (the clergy) and the Second State (the nobility), they got angry. Locked out of the meeting house, the representatives of the Third Estate convened in a tennis court and formed the Assemble National. Here, they took the "Tennis Court Oath" promising not to separate until the constitution of the country was established.

On 11th July, Necker, the financial minister, was fired. He was very popular among the people and they retaliated by storming the Bastille, which fell on 14th July. Many nobles and members of the royal family fled abroad but Louis refused to go away as well and Marie Antoinette decided to stay with him. In August the monarchy became constitutional and the Declaration of the Rights of Men was issued. But the people were still starving and an angry mob of women marched on Versailles to ask for bread. A group of them entered into the queen's bedchamber with the intention of murdering her, but she managed to escape just in time and find refuge in the king's apartments.

Now the crowd outside the Palace demanded the queen to come out and show herself. She took her kids and walked to the balcony but the people wanted to see her alone. The children returned inside and Marie Antoinette, now alone, bowed to the crowd. This seemed to placate them for the moment. However, the crowd demanded, and obtained, that the Royal family returned with them to Paris where they were housed at the Tuileries Palace. At first, life there was fairly normal. The royal family went to Mass and Marie Antoinette worked at tapestry with her ladies, played billiard with the king and spent time with her children. The kids were able to play in the garden while the Royal couple took care personally of their education. Sometimes, they also visited foundling hospitals. The royal family was also allowed to spend time in their residence of Saint Cloud every now and then.

In the meantime, several plans were thought of to take the royal family out of France but it was only in June 1791 that the king, who had up to that point tried to work with the new government and accepted some of their reforms, decided to go to Montmedy, where he hoped he could regain control of the country. But the plan failed: the king was recognized at Varennes and the royal family brought back to Paris. Now things got much worse for the royal family. Although Marie Antoinette was hated, the people, up until then, had loved and trusted their king. Now, they felt betrayed.

Back in Paris, the royal family was more closely guarded. The Queen would write to her family in Austria and to the other rules of Europe asking them to hold an armed congress to support the King without waging war on France. In 1792, though, it was France that declared war on Austria. The King, in the meantime, was using his power of veto to suppress new reforms. On 10th August 1792, an angry mob attacked the Tuileries Palace. Many people died and the Swiss Guards, loyal to the king, were slaughtered. The royal family managed to escape and took refuge with the Legislative Assembly. This was the end of the Monarchy.

The family was now placed under arrest at The Temple. They were strictly guarded night and day by their jailers who often inflicted humiliations and insults on them. On 21st September France was declared a Republic. During that month, the prisons were attacked and a lot of its prisoners murdered. Among the victim was the Princess De Lamballe, a close friend of the Queen. Her body was horribly mutilated, her head mounted on a pike and taken to the Temple so the Queen could see it. Thankfully, she didn't. In October the King was separated from his family and in December he was tried. Found guilty, he was sentenced to the Death and, after a heart-rending farewell to his family, guillotined on 23 January 1793. Marie Antoinette was now "The Widow Capet".

Marie Antoinette was devastated by the death of the king. She ate very little and wouldn't go outside to catch some fresh air anymore. On 3 July, she was separated from her son too. She fought like a tiger to prevent it but had to give in when the revolutionaries threatened her daughter Marie Therese. This caused her even more grief. She could hear from her room the cries of her child being abused by the revolutionaries but could do nothing to help him. She only lived for the moment when she could see him from a little window being taken outside to catch some fresh air.

On 3rd August, Marie Antoinette was taken to the Concergerie prison to await her trial. Soon, plans of escape were made, but again she refused. She wouldn't leave France without her children. On 14th October, after only one day was allowed to her lawyers to prepare for it, trial began. Marie Antoinette was accused of crimes against France, including having dilapidated the finances of the nation, conspired against the liberty of the French people and even to have committed incest with her own son. Marie Antoinette refused to answer this last terrible and false charge, but being pressed to do so, she said: "If I have not replied, it is because Nature itself refuses to respond to such a charge laid against a mother". This reply moved the people present and brought her some sympathy, but, on 16th October, she was found guilty and sentenced to death. She would be executed that same day.

She was taken back to the Concergerie in the early hours of the morning where she wrote a last heart-wrenching letter to her sister-in-law. A few hours later, her hair was cut, her hands tied, and she placed on a cart and taken to the Place De La Revolution. The crowd jeered at her but Marie Antoinette, who was wearing a simple white dress with a white cap, kept her composure. While she was walking up the steps to the platform, she accidentally stepped on the executioner's foot and apologized saying: "I did not do it on purpose". She was then strapped in. The blade fell. Her head was cut off and shown to the cheering crowd. So dies Marie Antoinette.

Further reading:
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

A Medieval Love Story: Abelard and Heloise

The love story of Abelard and Heloise is one of the most famous, romantic and tragic of all time and one that still moves us today. Abelard was a French philosopher and considered one of the greatest thinkers of his time. But because his teachings were controversial, he was accused of heresy. Heloise was the nice of a cleric named Canon Fulbert, and a well-educated young woman.

Despite both of them being occupied with their studies (and Heloise being under the protection of her uncle), Abelard managed to catch sight of her and decided he wanted to meet her. He told Fulbert that the upkeep of his own house was a hindrance to his studies and convinced the cleric to allow him to live in his house. In exchange, he would teach Heloise, who was twenty years his junior.

Soon, Abelard and Heloise became lovers. Her uncle was furious when he found out what was going on under his roof and separated the couple. But Heloise was pregnant by this time and when Fulbert was away from home, the couple fled to Abelard's sister where she remained until she gave birth to their child, Astrolabe. At this point, marriage seemed the simplest solution and Abelard proposed it, but Heloise refused.

The marriage would, in fact, impede Abelard's career and bring disgrace upon him. Still, love prevailed and after leaving Astrolabe with Abelard's sister, the couple secretly married in Paris. Soon afterwards they parted and saw each other only occasionally but Fulbert wasn't happy with this. He wanted their marriage to be public and known to repair the damage done to her niece's reputation but Heloise refused to confirm the marriage ever took place.

To protect Heloise from her uncle's wrath, Abelard sent her to a convent in Argenteuil but this made things worse. Fulbert sent some men to break into Abelard's lodgings and castrate him. Once recovered, Abelard entered the convent of St. Denis, while Heloise took the veil, rose in rank and became prioress but the couple kept in touch. When they died, their bodies were buried together in a single tomb.

Further reading:
Historia Calamitatum by Peter Abelard
The Letters of Abelard and Heloise by Peter Abelard, Betty Radice

Abaelard und Seinen Schulerin Heloise by Edmund Blair Leighton (1882)
Abelard and Heloisa surprised by Master Fulbert by Jean Vignaud (1819) 

Book Review: The Hidden Diary Of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson

Imagine that, on the night before she is to die under the blade of the guillotine, Marie Antoinette leaves behind in her prison cell a diary telling the story of her life—from her privileged childhood as Austrian Archduchess to her years as glamorous mistress of Versailles to the heartbreak of imprisonment and humiliation during the French Revolution.
Carolly Erickson takes the reader deep into the psyche of France’s doomed queen: her love affair with handsome Swedish diplomat Count Axel Fersen, who risked his life to save her; her fears on the terrifying night the Parisian mob broke into her palace bedroom intent on murdering her and her family; her harrowing attempted flight from France in disguise; her recapture and the grim months of harsh captivity; her agony when her beloved husband was guillotined and her young son was torn from her arms, never to be seen again.
Erickson brilliantly captures the queen’s voice, her hopes, her dreads, and her suffering. We follow, mesmerized, as she reveals every detail of her remarkable, eventful life—from her teenage years when she began keeping a diary to her final days when she awaited her own bloody appointment with the guillotine.

The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette is Carolly Erickson's first effort at a historical novel and a very poor one at that. While the book is a light read and quite enjoyable for those who don't know much about Marie Antoinette, those who are familiar with her story will be very disappointed at how historically inaccurate this book is.

As the name states, this book is written in a diary form. In this diary, Marie Antoinette tells the story of her life, from her idyllic childhood in Austria, to her arrival in France full of hopes for the future, to the difficult years of her marriage and life as Queen, the joys and sorrows of motherhood, the outbreak of the French Revolution and to her imprisonment. Some of the entries are long, others short, but most are frivolous and superficial. Only when she becomes a mother, and later when the Revolution starts, the entries start getting a bit more serious but overall, the Queen comes across as self-absorbent, vain and immature. Her kindness and good heart are sometimes mentioned too, but overall, I found it hard to feel sorry for the woman portrayed in this book.

The other characters are pretty bland too. Louis XVI is portrayed as a complete idiot, the Duchess Of Polignac, who was one of Marie Antoniette's best friends, barely makes an appearance, while the Princess de Lamballe is always referred to as Lou Lou, so if you don't know that that was her nickname, you'll have to wait till the end of the book to find out who this character is. Instead than focusing on the real characters at the court of Louis XVI, Carolly Erickson felt the need to invent new ones: Eric, a servant the young Marie Antoinette has a crush on  and his twisted and jealous wife Amelie who is the villain of the story. Both are just boring, far-fetched and don't enhance the story in any way.

On the contrary, to focus on them (and on the affair with Count Fersen which very likely never happened and he certainly never took the Queen to Sweden), we miss important events in Marie Antoinette's life. The Affair of the Necklace isn't talked about at all, which was a huge disappointment, nor there is any mention on how the queen felt about the lewd rumours and pamphlets circulating about her. Details of her friends, her habits and the world she lived in are also lacking. I would have enjoyed this book a lot more if it had focused more on what really happened instead than making nonsense up to spice things up. I find Marie Antoinette's life interesting enough without having to invent anything.

The hidden diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson is a mediocre novel. The book is not very historically accurate, important events like the Affair of the Necklace are missing to make room for fictitous ones that just aren't credible at all. There is a severe lack of information about life at the French court and its protagonists. Instead, new characters are made up, although they don't add anything to the story. They actually cheapen it. Those who don't know anything about Marie Antoinette may enjoy this book, but if you are like me and like historical novels to be accurate and the fictitious parts to be at least plausible, then you should skip this as it'll only disappoint you.

Available at:

Rating: 1/5

Marie Antoinette: Queen

Louis XVI was crowned king on July 11, 1775 at Notre Dame de Reims. His wife, Marie Antoinette, was present but she wasn't crowned with him because a double ceremony would have been too expensive considering the bad financial situation the country was in. The new king and queen were very popular at the beginning of their reign. The French people had high hopes that their young virtuous prince and his glamorous wife would bring about a moral regeneration and improve the economy. Marie Antoinette though, didn't have any political power. Her husband and most people in his government distrusted the Austrians and the queen didn't have any interest in politics and court intrigues.

Childless and with no political power, the queen spent her time partying, gambling and spending lots of money on clothes and renovations on the Petit Trianon, donated to her by her husband in 1775. The Queen was very criticised for it and pretty soon seditious libels started circulating about her promiscuity, affairs and frivolous spending, despite the fact that she was actually very chaste and that the disastrous economic situation of the country was to blame on wars expenses. And Louis XVI's decision to aide the American Revolution against Britain made things worse.

Marie Antoinette still hadn't fulfilled what everyone considered to be her main purpose: giving France an heir. In 1777 her brother Emperor Joseph visited Versailles to sort things out. His advice led to the royal couple finally consummating their marriage and on 19 December 1778 the Queen, in a room full of courtiers, gave birth to her first child. It wasn't the long-awaited heir, but a baby girl called Marie-Therese, who was nonetheless very loved by her parents. The baby was also proof of the fecundity of the royal couple and about three years later, in 1781, Louis Joseph, the heir to the throne of France, was born. The whole country rejoiced.

Motherhood changed the queen's lifestyle. Marie Antoinette gave up partying and settled down. She also dressed more simply, preferring to wear white muslin dresses, and spent more and more time at the Petite Trianon, where no one could go without an invitation. There, she enjoyed private theatre performances (the Queen herself would sometimes act too) and spending time in the gardens. Jealous courtiers who weren't invited harshly criticized her for it and implied that something lewd and dodgy was going on at the Petite Trianon. Her friendship with Yolande De Polignac also attracted criticism, because of the gifts and fortune the De Polignac family acquired thanks to it.

But Marie Antoinette was just a woman who loved a simpler style of life and lived for her children. Her letters are full of news and anedoctes of her children, she personally saw to their education (the Duchess De Polignac was appointed Governess to the Royal children) and she was very concerned about their health, especially with that of the Dauphin. The poor child struggled all his life with ill health. In 1785, Marie Antoinette gave birth to another boy called Louis Charles. That same year, the Affair of The Diamond Necklace broke out, which, despite the fact the Queen was an innocent victim in the scam, completely destroyed her reputation.

In 1786, the Queen gave birth to another daughter, Sophie but she died the following year. In 1789, the king and queen lost another child: the Dauphin Louis Joseph died too. But the distraught parents weren't given much time to mourn their loss. The country was on the verge of bankruptcy and the people were starving...

Further reading:
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

Mark Twain visits Versailles

I have only recently finished reading The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain. The book chronicles the journey the American writer undertook from the USA to Europe, the Middle East, the Holy Land and Egypt. This travel book is certainly different from the rest because Twain describes the places he sees in a witty and ironical, satirical and sometimes cynical style, focusing on the negative parts of the journey instead than simply mentioning the beauty of the places he visits. It seems like nothing ever pleases, satisfies or awes him. Nothing except Versailles. Here's what he has to say about it:

VERSAILLES! It is wonderfully beautiful! You gaze and stare and try to understand that it is real, that it is on the earth, that it is not the Garden of Eden—but your brain grows giddy, stupefied by the world of beauty around you, and you half believe you are the dupe of an exquisite dream. The scene thrills one like military music! A noble palace, stretching its ornamented front, block upon block away, till it seemed that it would never end; a grand promenade before it, whereon the armies of an empire might parade; all about it rainbows of flowers, and colossal statues that were almost numberless and yet seemed only scattered over the ample space; broad flights of stone steps leading down from the promenade to lower grounds of the park—stairways that whole regiments might stand to arms upon and have room to spare; vast fountains whose great bronze effigies discharged rivers of sparkling water into the air and mingled a hundred curving jets together in forms of matchless beauty; wide grass-carpeted avenues that branched hither and thither in every direction and wandered to seemingly interminable distances, walled all the way on either side with compact ranks of leafy trees whose branches met above and formed arches as faultless and as symmetrical as ever were carved in stone; and here and there were glimpses of sylvan lakes with miniature ships glassed in their surfaces. And every where—on the palace steps, and the great promenade, around the fountains, among the trees, and far under the arches of the endless avenues—hundreds and hundreds of people in gay costumes walked or ran or danced, and gave to the fairy picture the life and animation which was all of perfection it could have lacked.

It was worth a pilgrimage to see. Everything is on so gigantic a scale. Nothing is small—nothing is cheap. The statues are all large; the palace is grand; the park covers a fair-sized county; the avenues are interminable. All the distances and all the dimensions about Versailles are vast. I used to think the pictures exaggerated these distances and these dimensions beyond all reason, and that they made Versailles more beautiful than it was possible for any place in the world to be. I know now that the pictures never came up to the subject in any respect, and that no painter could represent Versailles on canvas as beautiful as it is in reality. I used to abuse Louis XIV for spending two hundred millions of dollars in creating this marvelous park, when bread was so scarce with some of his subjects; but I have forgiven him now. He took a tract of land sixty miles in circumference and set to work to make this park and build this palace and a road to it from Paris. He kept 36,000 men employed daily on it, and the labor was so unhealthy that they used to die and be hauled off by cartloads every night. The wife of a nobleman of the time speaks of this as an "inconvenience," but naively remarks that "it does not seem worthy of attention in the happy state of tranquillity we now enjoy."

I always thought ill of people at home who trimmed their shrubbery into pyramids and squares and spires and all manner of unnatural shapes, and when I saw the same thing being practiced in this great park I began to feel dissatisfied. But I soon saw the idea of the thing and the wisdom of it. They seek the general effect. We distort a dozen sickly trees into unaccustomed shapes in a little yard no bigger than a dining room, and then surely they look absurd enough. But here they take two hundred thousand tall forest trees and set them in a double row; allow no sign of leaf or branch to grow on the trunk lower down than six feet above the ground; from that point the boughs begin to project, and very gradually they extend outward further and further till they meet overhead, and a faultless tunnel of foliage is formed. The arch is mathematically precise. The effect is then very fine. They make trees take fifty different shapes, and so these quaint effects are infinitely varied and picturesque. The trees in no two avenues are shaped alike, and consequently the eye is not fatigued with anything in the nature of monotonous uniformity. I will drop this subject now, leaving it to others to determine how these people manage to make endless ranks of lofty forest trees grow to just a certain thickness of trunk (say a foot and two-thirds); how they make them spring to precisely the same height for miles; how they make them grow so close together; how they compel one huge limb to spring from the same identical spot on each tree and form the main sweep of the arch; and how all these things are kept exactly in the same condition and in the same exquisite shapeliness and symmetry month after month and year after year—for I have tried to reason out the problem and have failed.

We walked through the great hall of sculpture and the one hundred and fifty galleries of paintings in the palace of Versailles, and felt that to be in such a place was useless unless one had a whole year at his disposal. These pictures are all battle scenes, and only one solitary little canvas among them all treats of anything but great French victories. We wandered, also, through the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon, those monuments of royal prodigality, and with histories so mournful—filled, as it is, with souvenirs of Napoleon the First, and three dead kings and as many queens. In one sumptuous bed they had all slept in succession, but no one occupies it now. In a large dining room stood the table at which Louis XIV and his mistress Madame Maintenon, and after them Louis XV, and Pompadour, had sat at their meals naked and unattended—for the table stood upon a trapdoor, which descended with it to regions below when it was necessary to replenish its dishes. In a room of the Petit Trianon stood the furniture, just as poor Marie Antoinette left it when the mob came and dragged her and the King to Paris, never to return. Near at hand, in the stables, were prodigious carriages that showed no color but gold—carriages used by former kings of France on state occasions, and never used now save when a kingly head is to be crowned or an imperial infant christened. And with them were some curious sleighs, whose bodies were shaped like lions, swans, tigers, etc.—vehicles that had once been handsome with pictured designs and fine workmanship, but were dusty and decaying now. They had their history. When Louis XIV had finished the Grand Trianon, he told Maintenon he had created a Paradise for her, and asked if she could think of anything now to wish for. He said he wished the Trianon to be perfection—nothing less. She said she could think of but one thing—it was summer, and it was balmy France—yet she would like well to sleigh ride in the leafy avenues of Versailles! The next morning found miles and miles of grassy avenues spread thick with snowy salt and sugar, and a procession of those quaint sleighs waiting to receive the chief concubine of the gaiest and most unprincipled court that France has ever seen!

Oh, I would really love to go to Versailles one day! What about you? Have you ever been there? What did you think of it? Were you blown away too?

Further reading:
The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain

Versailles Palace by VinayakH
L'orangerie et la Pièce d'Eau des Suisses by Gilles Messian

Samuel Pepys on Midsummer Night's Dream

I'm a huge fan of Shakespeare and have just finished reading for the second time A Midsummer Night's Dream. Although not my favourite play of his, I still find it a very pleasant and enjoyable read and would love one day to have the chance to see it performed in a theatre. Someone who had that opportunity was the seventeenth-century diarist Samuel Pepys, but he didn't seem to enjoy it much. In his diary, he briefly shares his disappointment thus:

Monday, 29th September 1662

Michaelmas Day. And then to the King’s Theatre, where we saw “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream,”which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that ever I saw in my life. I saw, I confess, some good dancing and some handsome women, which was all my pleasure.

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a comedy play written by William Shakespeare probably between 1590 and 1596. It is a bit complicated as we have several points intertwined throughout it: the marriage of the Duke of Athens, Theseus, and Ippolita, Queen of the Amazons; the adventures of four young Athenian lovers; a group of amateur actors preparing to perform at the wedding; Oberon, the king of the fairies, fighting with his queen Tatiana over a changeling and interfering in the lives of the other characters.

Now widely performed around the world, the play didn't seem to enjoy much success during the Restoration. During this period, plays were evaluated based on the classical standards set by Aristotele (a series of events centered around one character). A Midsummer Night's Dream, with all his interlocked plots, was likely considered too messy and thus, adaptations of it were performed, seldom, in theatres. It was probably one of these very adapted versions that Pepys saw and disliked.

Further reading:

Picture above:
The Reconciliation of Tatiana an Oberon by Joseph Noel Paton, 1847, National Gallery Of Scotland, Edinburgh

Marie Antoinette: Dauphine

It took several weeks to reach France, but on 7th May 1770, Marie Antoinette finally entered her new country. There was a ceremony to mark the occasion and afterwards, she met her French attendants. Marie Antoinette was now officially French. Seven days later she met the King Louis XV, who was charmed by this young girl, her future husband, Louis, Dauphin of France and the rest of the royal family.

On 16 May 1770, the wedding of Louis and Marie Antoinette took place at the Palace of Versailles. The ceremony was followed by lavish celebrations, including a firework display that ended in tragedy with people getting trampled over and killed. After the festivities, the ritual of the bedding took place. The young couple was put to bed and everyone expected they would consummate the marriage straight away. However, 8 years would pass before that would finally happen.

The French people seemed to really love Marie Antoinette at first, but not everyone at court approved of the marriage and the alliance with Austria.Louis XV's daughters, who had a great influence on the young Dauphin Louis, made fun of Marie Antoinette and Adelaide, the oldest, labelled her L'Autrichienne. Madame Du Barry also complained that the Dauphine wouldn't speak to her. Du Barry, having a lower rank, couldn't be the first to speak and Marie Antoinette didn't want to have anything to do with the king's mistress, finding her position at court appalling. But snubbing the king's mistress was snubbing the king and criticising his behaviour so Marie Antoinette had to give in in the end.

Having grown up at the informal Austrian court, Marie Antoinette also found it difficult to get used to the strictly regulated life at Versailles. In the morning, there was the ritual of the lever (morning dressing) where the toilette was performed with the assistance of several people, and at night, there was the ritual of the coucher (evening undressing). The royals also had to dine in public. Everyone who was decently dressed could go to Versailles and look at the royal family eating. Marie Antoinette hated these rituals but had no choice but go through with them.

In a letter written to her mother, the Empress Maria Theresa, in 1770, Marie Antoinette described her daily routine: she woke up between nine and ten, dressed informally, said her morning prayers, ate breakfast and visited the royal aunts; at 11 o'clock she had her hair done and at noon, she applied her rouge and got dressed in front of a lot of people; then she attended Mass and dined with her husband in front of the whole world. And every month, she had to write to her mother.

Marie Antoinette went hunting with her husband (although she herself didn't hunt) to try and get closer to him by sharing his favourite pastime. She also gave little dances in her apartments. In the meantime, she made a couple of lifelong friends: Marie Louise de Savoy, the Princess de Lamballe, and Yolande, Duchess de Polignac. The Princess de Lamballe was more intellectual and cultured, while the Duchess de Polignac more frivolous, but also a devoted mother and friend. 

To alleviate her homesickness, her marital problems and sadness, Marie Antoinette adopted a lifestyle full of enjoyable distractions: she began gambling, spending lots of money on clothes and visiting the theatre and the opera more often. Although all this would change when Marie Antoinette became a mother, the bad reputation gained in the first years of her marriage would never go away. But at the moment, the lively Dauphin is leading a pleasant, if not happy, life at Versailles. A life that ended on 10 May 1774 with the death of Louis XV.

Louis and Marie Antoinette were now King and Queen of France..

Further reading:
Louis XVI And Marie Antoinette Before The Revolution by Nesta Webster
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser

Mark Twain

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (who would one day be known as Mark Twain), the sixth child of John Marshall Clemens and Jane Lampton was born in Florida, Missouri, on 30 November 1835. In 1839, the family moved to their Hill Street Home (it is now a Mark Twain museum), in Hannibal, situated on the bank of the Mississippi river and a frequent stop for steam boats.

Due to poor health, Samuel spent most of his childhood inside the house. When he was 9, his health improved and he was allowed to play outside with other children. He also attended a private school in Hannibal. He had to leave in 1847 to get a job because the death of his father left the family in a precarious financial situation. He started working for several newspapers and magazines in New York, Philadelphia and St. Louis. He enjoyed writing and also started writing stories and novels.

In St.Louis he became a river's pilot apprentice, getting his license in 1858. Part of his job was to sound the depths of the water to know when they were safe for passage. This action is called "mark twain", which means safe to navigate. The term was chosen by Samuel Clemens as his pen name in 1863. Life on the boat and river also provided lots of inspiration and material for his future work.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, access to the Mississippi was limited, which brought river trade to a halt. So Samuel started to work for several newspapers across America. He travelled the country and went abroad to Europe, visiting Italy, France, Greece, and the Holy Land. He narrates his experience in the Innocents Abroad (1869). In 1870 Mark Twain married Olivia Langdom and the couple had 4 children. Sadly, only three survived infancy and two died in their twenties. Their only surviving child was a daughter called Clara. Although the family travelled often, their home was in Hartford, in Connectict.

Mark Twain wrote numerous stories, novels and essays and started to gain fame as a writer. Among his most famous works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). Although they are sometimes still labeled as racist, Mark Twain was against slavery and any form of injustice. He simply described life as it was at the time and highlighted the irrationality of human beings and how absurd some social and political norms are.

Although Mark Twain made a lot of money through his writing, he also lost of a lot due to a series of bad financial investments. To solve his financial problems and pay off his debts, he embarked on a lecture tour around the world. Mark Twain died on 21 April 1910 in Reading, Connectict. He is buried beside his wife and children in the Woodlawn Cemetery in Elmira, New York State.

Further reading:
The Innocents Abroad
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Adventures of Hackleberry Finn

Edith Wharton

Edith Newbold Jones, the daughter of George Frederic Jones and Lucretia Rhinelander, was born on 24th January 1862. She had two brothers, Frederic and Henry Edward. The family was rich and when Edith was 4, travelled around Europe, visiting Italy, France, Spain and Germany. They returned to America six years later where the family spent the winters in New York and the summers in Newport, Rhode Island. Edith was educated by a governess. She learned history, science, art, philosophy, French and German. She always loved reading and writing. She wrote short stories and poetry from a young age and her first novel, Fast And Loose, when she was only 14.

Edith debuted in New York society in 1879. At 23, she married Bostonian banker Edward Robbie Wharton. Edward came from a similar social background, was attractive, kind and shared with Edith the passion for travelling and country life. However, he didn't share the same artistic and intellectual interests as his wife and the marriage wasn't successful. They both took lovers (Edith had an affair with journalist Morton Fullerton while in Paris) and the couple divorced in 1913. After the divorce, Edith settled permanently in Paris, returning to America only occasionally.

In the meantime, she started publishing her works. The Decoration of Houses (1897), cowritten with architect Ogden Codman was her first published work. During the years she wrote poems, short stories, writing on travelling, design and gardens, and several novels including The House Of Mirth (1905) and The Age Of Innocence (1920). Her works were heavily influenced by social and natural scientists like Darwin, Lock, Tyndall and Huxley. This influence is obvious in the use of language and themes she chose to write about. In her novels, Wharton portrayed the mores, values, social ambitions and changes, the conventionality and hypocrisy of New York society during the Gilded Age, using a style that was at times satiric and ironic.

Edith Wharton was in North Africa when World War I began. She was dedicated to the Allied cause and led a commitee that founded hospitals and schools for refugees and orphans in France and Belgium. She also helped women with no means of support to get jobs and raised funds for both these projects. Moreover, she travelled to the front lines to observe the fighting and tend to the sick, writing about this experience in a few essays. Because of this, in 1916 she was awarded the title of Chevalier in the French Legion of Honour.

In 1921 Edith travelled to America to receive the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Innocence, published the year before. She went to America one last time in 1923 when she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Yale University. In 1930, she entered the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Edith Wharton died of a stroke on 11th August 1937 and was buried in the Cimetiére des Gonards in Versailles.

Further reading:
Edith Wharton's World
The House Of Mirth
The Age Of Innocence

Marie Antoinette: Childhood

Maria Antonia Josepha Joanna was born in Vienna on 2 November 1755. She was the 15th child of Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and her husband Emperor Francis Stephen. Soon after the birth, the baby was put into the care of a wet-nurse named Constance Weber, the wife of a magistrate. As she grew, she would still keep in touch with the Weber family. During her childhood, her mother Maria-Theresa would bring her to visit them and bring them gifts. She was also encouraged, as were all her siblings, to play with "common" children.

The relationship with her mother was one of "awe-inspired fear" mixed with love. Years later she commented: "I love the Empress but I'm frightened of her, even at a distance; when I'm writing to her, I never feel completely at ease". Antonia, as she was called by her family, was closer to her father, who was cheerful, indulgent and good-natured. He transmitted to his daughter his passions for plants, flowers and gardens. Sadly, he died of a stroke when Antonia was only nine years old.

The family was close-knit, but with so many siblings there were bound to be some jealouses and rivalries. She and her siblings were particularly jealous of Marie Christine, who was their mother favourite and the only daughter allowed to marry for love. Instead, Antonia was very close to Maria Carolina, the sister closer to her age, being only three years her senior. The two lively and mischevious little girls grew up together almost like twins.

The atmosphere at the Autrian court was very informal and etiquette was lax. Antonia and her younger siblings would often perform, singing and dancing for the court, and in the long Austrian winters would go sledging. But the young archduchess had to study too. Her education was centered on the need to perform gracefully at court events. But because Antonia was only the youngest daughter in a big family and her parents so busy, her education was neglected and her governess spoiled her, helping her a bit too much in her studies.

While Antonia excelled at dancing, loved embroidery and learned to play the harp well, at 13 she couldn't read nor write well yet and didn't know much history either. Her French wasn't fluent and was full of German constructions and phrases. This became a huge problem when after her sister Marie Josephine died of smallpox and her sister Marie Elizabeth was left scarred by the disease, she became the only available candidate to marry the heir to the throne of France. To improve her education, in 1768, the Abbé Vermond arrived to the Austrian court and became her tutor. A year later she could speak French fluently.

Her education wasn't the only thing that needed to be improved to become, one day, Queen of France. Antonia was a pretty, lively and graceful girl with a beautiful pink white complexion but her teeth were far from perfect. She had to wear a pelican, a form of braces created by the dentist Pierre Fauchard, for three months to fix them. Next was her uneven hairline. Parisian hairdresser Larsenneur was called to Austria to turn her unruly hair into a stylish, powdered do that disguised her high forehead. Antonia's transformation was now complete and she was ready to marry the Dauphin.

The wedding by proxy was celebrated on 19th April 1770 and two days later, on the 21st, she said goodbye to her family, friends and the people of Austria, got into the carriage that would bring her to France and left her native country, never to return.

Further reading:
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser