Short Book Reviews: Mrs Ronnie, The War That Ended Peace, & Not For Turning

More book reviews. Enjoy!

Mrs Ronnie The Society Hostess Who Collected Kings by Sian Evans
A short biography of Margaret Greville, one of the greatest society hostesses of the early 20th century. She rose from obscure origins to become one of the wealthiest heiresses in Britain.
Mrs Greville was relentless in her pursuit of the wealthy and powerful people of her age. Among her friends, she could count King Edward VII, Queen Mary, and King George VI and his wife Elizabeth, to whom she bequeathed her marvelous collection of jewels. Mrs Ronnie (short for Ronald, her husband's name) loved to entertain lavishly and her hospitality was legendary. However, her fascination for power and charisma also led her to champion the likes of Hitler and Oswald Mosley, which she later regretted.
Although ambitious, Mrs Ronnie also had a big heart. She was very loved by her servants and she made sure that, after her death, they were all well-provided for. She also did many charitable deeds. Mrs Greville never had children, so, when she died, Polesden Lacey, her magnificent country house where she had entertained her circle of friends and powerful acquaintances was left to the country and can still be visited today.
Sian paints an accurate and fair portrait of this astonishing lady, pointing out her flaws, but also praising her good qualities. In addition, the author does a marvelous job at making the world in which Mrs Ronnie lived come to life again. It wasn't an easy task, as Mrs Greville's Head Steward had destroyed all her personal papers after her death, as his mistress had requested him to do. Overall, it's a very enjoyable and informative read that I highly recommend.
Available at: book depository
Rating: 4/5

The War That Ended Peace: The Road To 1914 by Margaret MacMillan
World War I reshaped Europe. It destroyed empires, and set the stage for everything that happened in the 20th century: Fascism, Communism, Nazism, World War II, mechanized warfare, the Cold War... We're told it was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip, but that's too simplistic an explanation. So, what was it that brought a peaceful and prosperous Europe to utter and complete ruin, savagery and war, leaving millions of people dead? Was it the system of alliances then in place? The navy and arms race? Nationalism? A bunch of war-mongering officials in the right (or wrong) places? A combination of all these factors? Why did the war break out?
Margaret MacMillan, in The War That Ended Peace: The Road To 1914, accurately and minutely describes all the steps that fatefully lead to the outbreak of the war, whose germs had already been planted decades before. The author doesn't offer any new theory or interpretation of events, but simply tells the story of Europe before the war, explaining how every decision that was made left rulers with always less and less alternatives until, finally, a war became inevitable. MacMillian, though, seems to believe that the disaster could be avoided, but fails to explains why or offer alternatives.
Despite this, this is a well-documented and extremely-detailed study of the years that led to World War I, a war that no one wanted and yet no one was able to prevent. The book is extremely interesting, but also very long and features so many characters and events that can it can feel overwhelming at times. Yet, it is written in a clear style and provides some interesting insights that will provoke debate. Overall, this is a great book for everyone who wants to know how and why the war that ended peace began.
Available at: amazon
Rating: 4/5

Not For Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher by Robin Harris
A biography of one of the most significant political figures of the 20th century, written by her adviser and speech-writer Robin Harris. Harris undoubtedly admires Margaret Thatcher, but he still manages to remain objective enough to paint a fair portrait of her, warts and all. She defends her policies, but also points out, and criticizes, her mistakes.
Harris clearly tells you from the start that he didn't write the book to describe what Margaret Thatcher was like, but to explain her views, her vision and what she was trying to achieve. He also examines the consequences of her reforms. Therefore, the book focuses mostly on her political life.
Not For Turning doesn't follow a strict chronological order. Instead, each chapter deals with a particular event or political issue that Mrs Thatcher faced during her time. This makes it easier for the reader to grasp the problems of the time and the way Thatcher faced them. However, some of these problems, in particular the economic ones, are more complicated, and therefore more difficult to follow, than others. That makes the book dry, but still interesting, in places.
Although her personal life takes a backseat, Harris still provides fascinating anecdotes and insights into it. Her struggle to juggle her work with her family life, the influence her father had on her upbringing, her weight problems are all mentioned and help us better understand the woman behind the politician. Harris also discusses her last years, and her health decline, in a dignified and sympathetic manner.
Overall, Not For Turning is a must-read for all those interested in Margaret Thatcher. Informative and captivating, it helps the reader to better understand one of most controversial and longest-reigning Prime Minister of the past century, and her legacy, which is still affecting British politics today.
Available at: amazon
Rating: 4/5

Disclaimer: I received these book in exchange for my honest opinion. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

Victoria Becomes Queen

On 20th June 1837, a young Victoria became Queen. Here's the account of this special day, in her own words:

"Tuesday, 20th June 1837

I was awoke at 6 o'clock by Mamma, who told me that the Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Conyngham were here, and wished to see me. I got out of bed and went into my sitting-room (only in my dressing-gown) and alone, and saw them. Lord Conyngham (the Lord Chamberlain) then acquainted me that my poor Uncle, the King, was no more, and had expired at 12 minutes past 2 this morning, and consequently that I am Queen. Lord Conyngham knelt down and kissed my hand, at the same time delivering to me the official announcement of the poor King's demise. The Archbishop then told me that the Queen was desirous that he should come and tell me the details of the last moments of my poor good Uncle; he said that he had directed his mind to religion, and had died in a perfectly happy, quiet state of mind, and was quite prepared for his death. He added that the King's sufferings at the last were not very great but that there was a good deal of uneasiness. Lord Conyngham, whom I charged to express my feelings of condolence and sorrow to the poor Queen, returned directly to Windsor. I then went to my room and dressed.

Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station, I shall do my utmost to fulfill my duty towards my country; I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more real good-will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.

Breakfasted, during which time good, faithful Stockmar came and talked to me. Wrote a letter to dear Uncle Leopold* and a few words to dear good Feodore**. Received a letter from Lord Melbourne*** in which he said he would wait upon me at a little before 9. At 9 came Lord Melbourne, whom I saw in my room, and of course quite alone, as I shall always do all my Ministers. He kissed my hand, and I then acquainted him that it had long been my intention to retain him and the rest of the present Ministry at the head of affairs, and that it could not be in better hands than his. He again then kissed my hand. He then read to me the Declaration which I was to read to the Council, which he wrote himself, and which is a very fine one. I then talked with him some little time longer, after which he left me. He was in full dress. I like him very much and feel confidence in him. He is a very straightforward, honest, clever and good man. I then wrote a letter to the Queen. At about 11 Lord Melbourne came again to me, and spoke to me upon various subjects. At about half-past 11 I went downstairs and held a Council in the red saloon.

I went in of course quite alone and remained seated the whole time. My two Uncles, the Dukes of Cumberland and Sussex, and Lord Melbourne conducted me. The Declaration, the various forms, the swearing in of the Privy Councillors of which there were a great number present, and the reception of some of the Lords of the Council, previous to the Council, in an adjacent room (likewise alone) I subjoin here. I was not at all nervous and had the satisfaction of hearing that people were satisfied with what I had done and how I had done it. Received after this, audiences of Lord Melbourne, Lord John Russell, Lord Albemarle (Master of the Horse), and the Archbishop of Canterbury, all in my room and alone. Saw Stockmar. Saw Clark, whom I named my Physician. Saw Mary. Wrote to Uncle Ernest. Saw Ernest Hohenlohe, who brought me a kind and very feeling letter from the poor Queen. I feel very much for her, and really feel that the poor good King was always so kind personally to me, that I should be ungrateful were I not to recollect it and feel grieved at his death. The poor Queen is wonderfully composed now, I hear.

Wrote my journal. Took my dinner upstairs alone. Went downstairs. Saw Stockmar. At about twenty minutes to 9 came Lord Melbourne and remained till near 10. I had a very important and a very comfortable conversation with him. Each time I see him I feel more confidence in him; I find him very kind in his manner too. Saw Stockmar. Went down and said good-night to Mamma, etc. My dear Lehzen*** will always remain with me as my friend, but will take no situation about me, and I think she is right." 

* King Leopold I of the Belgians
** Victoria's half-sister
*** Prime Minister
**** Victoria's governess as a child


While browsing the 1829 edition of The Ladies' Pocket Magazine, I came across quite a few conundrums. I thought it'd be fun to share a few with you and see how many of them you can guess. The answers are at the bottom of the post, but don't cheat! Try to answer them for yourself first. And don't forget to let me know how you did in the comments. Here we go:

1. Why is education like a tailor?
2. Why is a nobleman like a book?
3. What is the only thing a liar may be said to do after he is dead?
4. What is that which binds people together, and touches only one?
5. Why is a pawnbroker like the devil?
6. What is that word which contains all the six vowels in the regular order?
7. Why is an affectionate husband, who has lost his wife, like a man who has lost his hat?
8. Why is an umbrella like an annuity for life?
9. Which of the king's subjects is privileged to sit before him with his hat on?
10. What is that which goes from London to York without once moving?
11. Why is the nest of the smallest English bird like St. Paul's?


1. They both form our habits.
2. Because he has a title.
3. Lie still.
4. A wedding ring.
5. He claims the unredeemed.
6. Abstemiously.
7. Because each loss is felt.
8. Because it affords shelter in a rainy day.
9. His coachman.
10. The road.
11. Because it is built by a Wren.

Historical Reads: Stealing The Duchess Of Devonshire

Author Evangeline Holland tells the story of Adam Worth and of his most famous theft. To quote:

For a large part of the late 19th century, one man confounded, outwitted, and bemused the police forces of multiple continents: Adam Worth (1844-1902). So difficult was it to catch him red-handed, so wily were his swindles, and so brazen were his thefts that Scotland Yard called him the “Napoleon of Crime.” His greatest and most famous theft of all was that of Gainsborough’s portrait of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire in 1876. Worth, who was born to Jewish parents in Cambridge, Massachusetts, worked his way up from a bounty jumper during the Civil War (bounty jumpers were those who joined the Army and then deserted with their enlistment bounties), to bank robber, to gambling saloon owner, and finally to jewel and art thief. With his dapper good looks and excellent manners, Worth even managed to infiltrate English high society for a brief period–though of course he used his position to rob his esteemed and flattered aristocratic friends.

To read the entire article, click here.

Anne Boleyn: Beautiful Or Ugly?

Very few images, and none of them authentic (apart from her likeness in the ring her daughter Elizabeth I wore for her whole life), of Anne Boleyn survive, so it is very difficult to say what the second wife of Henry VIII looked like. We have to rely on descriptions written around her lifetime, but these are often so contrasting that it's impossible to believe they refer to the same woman. Some say she was beautiful, others that she was only average-looking and some describe her as a monster. Who's right?

Was Anne a beauty?
In his biography, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives quotes a couple of sources claiming Anne was a beauty. John Barlow, one of her clerics, said that she was "gracious, and reasonably good looking”, while Lancelot De Carles, a French poet who became Bishop of Riez, mentioned she was "beautiful and with an elegant figure" and praised her eyes "always most attractive which she knew well how to use with effect. Sometimes leaving them at rest and at others, sending a message to carry the secret witness of the heart. And, truth to tell, such was their power that many surrendered to their obedience."

Was Anne average-looking?
Not everyone had such praises for her looks. Francesco Sanuto, the Venetian diplomat, described Anne as "not one of the handsomest women in the world; she is of middling stature, swarthy complexion, long neck, wide mouth, a bosom not much raised and eyes which are black and beautiful." It is important to remember, though, that the ideal Tudor woman had angelic looks, with porcelain skin and blue, or green, eyes. Therefore, it is not surprising that many at the time believed Anne to be too "dark-looking" to be a real beauty.

Was Anne a monster?
There were also those who considered Anne to be a monster, with six fingers on one hand and a wen under her chin. Nicholas Sander, in his “The Rise and Growth of the Anglican Schism”, paints an ugly portrait of Anne: "Anne Boleyn was rather tall of stature, with black hair and an oval face of sallow complexion, as if troubled with jaundice. She had a projecting tooth under the upper lip, and on her right hand, six fingers. There was a large wen under her chin, and therefore to hide its ugliness, she wore a high dress covering her throat. In this she was followed by the ladies of the court, who also wore high dresses, having before been in the habit of leaving their necks and the upper portion of their persons uncovered. She was handsome to look at, with a pretty mouth.”

It is very unlikely that this description is true. First of all Sandler contradicts himself. He mentions six fingers, a wen, a protruding tooth and then finishes by saying Anne was handsome to look at. How could this be? Sandler was a Roman Catholic, and as such an enemy of Anne, whom he had never even seen (he wrote, in exile, during the reign of Elizabeth I). So, this description is just an attempt to blacken Anne's reputation.

It seems, though, that Anne had a small flaw. George Wyatt is quoted by George Cavendish in his "The Life of Cardinal Wolsey" claiming that "there was found, indeed, upon the side of her nail, upon one of her fingers, some little show of a nail, which yet was so small, by the report of those that have seen her, as the work master seemed to leave it an occasion of greater grace to her hand, which, with the tip of one of her other fingers might be, and was usually by her hidden without any blemish to it. Likewise there were said to be upon some parts of her body certain small moles incident to the clearest complexions.”

This flaw must have been insignificant or Thomas Boleyn, Anne's father, would never have sent her to serve Margaret of Austria, Queen Claude of France, and Catherine of Aragon. He would simply have kept her locked away at their house. There is also no way that a deformed Anne would have caught the King's eye and kept his interest for so many years. Not to mention that any deformity, at the time, was seen as a mark of the devil. Henry VIII would have never pursued a woman who had signs of being a witch and who could pass any defect to her (and his) offspring.

Elizabeth I's enamel ring
As I mentioned above, the only authenticated image of Anne Boleyn is the one housed in her daughter's enamel ring. It shows a woman with a long oval face, high cheekbones, a strong nose and a pointed chin, all traits Elizabeth I inherited.

So, what did Anne Boleyn looked like?
I don't believe that Anne Boleyn was a great beauty, but she wasn't ugly either. She was a pretty girl, but it was her wit and intelligence that really charmed people and made her stand out among the more submissive and angelic-looking beauties of her age.

Further reading:
The life and death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives
The Life of Cardinal Wolsey: From the Original Autograph Manuscript By George Cavendish
Rise and growth of the Anglican schism by Nicholas Sander

James Figg's Shirt Scam

James Figg was the first English bare-knuckle boxing champion. He was expert in the use of swords, cudgels and quarterstaffs, and opened a school to teach his craft. But he also sold many shirts, despite claiming he had never bought one in his life. Here's how he did it:

Chetwood in his History of the Stage relates the ingenious way in which Figg supplied himself with shirts at the expense of others. He told Chetwood that he had not bought a shirt for years. It was his practice when he fought in his Amphitheatre, to send round to some of his scholars to borrow a shirt for the ensuing combat. As most of the young nobility and gentry were in his train, he obtained a good many fine shirts from his admirers, the return of which was not accepted by the lenders, as they saw the cuts in the one Figg wore, and each man supposed this to be what he lent.

Further reading:
Hogarth's London: pictures of the manners of the eighteenth century by Henry Benjamin Wheatley

Book Review: The Assassination Of The Archduke By Greg King And Sue Woolmans

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Habsburg throne, and his morganatic wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Serbian nationalist, in Sarajevo. The tragedy sparked World War I, and yet Franz Ferdinand and Sophie have been relegated to footnotes in history. Greg King and Sue Woolmans bring their story, and their romance, back into the limelight. They paint an intimate portrait of the unfortunate and enigmatic royal couple and set the record straight on the myths that still surround the archduke and his wife.

The authors didn't have an easy task. The couple's oldest son destroyed most of their correspondence, and no one, not even their heirs, know important personal details such as how Franz Ferdinand met his wife for instance. King and Woolmans had to rely mainly on diplomatic correspondence, newspaper reports and letters written by the archduke's relatives, who weren't fond of Sophie. Actually, that's an understatement.

The romance between the heir to the Haspburg throne and a lady-in-waiting from an ancient aristocratic family scandalized the court. Sophie, not having a drop of royal blood in her veins, wasn't deemed a suitable bride for a Haspburg. But Franz Ferdinand didn't care. He made it clear he wouldn't marry anyone else so, eventually, the emperor begrudgingly gave his consent to the union. They were only allowed a morganatic marriage, though, meaning that Sophie wouldn't share her husband's rank and their children would be excluded from the line of succession.

Sophie was constantly humiliated by the Haspburgs, but she never showed any resentment. Her husband, though, was infuriated by this appalling behavior and it was Sophie's job to calm him. As a result, the couple, who was very dedicated to their three children, spent most of their time away from court. And when the visit to Sarajevo was announced, Sophie, knowing very well the risk her husband would be in (only the authorities underestimated it, the couple never did and even tried to avoid it), insisted on going with him. Her place was at his side, she argued.

King and Woolmans point out the many mistakes, lost opportunities and the poor security measures that led to the couple's death, and examine the various theories and interpretations about the tragic event. They also humanize Franz Ferdinand and Sophie. Often portrayed as a cold reactionary, the archduke had a complex, but reserved, personality and wanted, once on the throne, to transform the dual-monarchy into a federation of equal states, believing it was the only way to make the big empire, which ruled over different ethnic groups eager for independence, survive. Sophie, accused of being a greedy social climber, was really a devoted mother and wife and Franz Ferdinand's rock.

The stories of their three children, Sophie, Maximilian and Ernest, are just as tragic, if not more. Kicked out of their home by the republican Czech government, they took refuge in Vienna. Known for their opposition to the Nazi regime, Maximilian and Ernest were sent to concentrations camps, where they spent several years of their lives.

This is one of the best history books I've ever read and yet, one of the most difficult to get through because of how emotional it is. It is beautifully-written and extremely well-researched, but it tells such a sad story that you may often find yourself shedding a tear or two when reading the last chapters. But it's a must-read all the same. It sheds new light on one of the most tragic couples of their time and on how their deaths changed history and shaped our world today.

The Assassination Of The Archduke by Greg King And Sue Woolmans is a sympathetic, informative and beautifully written account of the tragic royal romance and the assassination that sparked world war I. Well-researched, the book provides valuable insights into the personal and political lives of the archduke Franz Ferdinand and his morganatic wife Sophie, sets the record straight on the myths that still surround them and examines the different theories about their murder. Highly recommended.

Available at: amazon and book depository

Rating: 5/5

Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for my honest opinion. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

Gabrielle De Polignac: Loyal Friend Or Greedy Social Climber?

Gabrielle De Polignac was Marie Antoinette's best friend. And just like the Queen's, her reputation too was completely destroyed. She was accused of being greedy, spendthrift, pleasure-loving, of using her friendship with the Queen to get favours for herself and her family, and of leading her royal friend into an extravagant and decadent lifestyle. But was this the real Gabrielle?

Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron was born in Paris on 8th September 1749, into a prestigious but impoverished family. When she was still a baby, her family moved to the family château of Noueilles, in the province of Languedoc in southern France. Her mother died when she was only three, so Gabrielle was entrusted to an aunt, Madame d'Andlau, who arranged to have her educated at a convent, as was customary at the time. Maybe it was here that Gabrielle's love for simplicity was born. She never wore perfumes or diamonds and preferred simple gowns. In her hair, she would often wear flowers.

Gabrielle grew into a charming and beautiful, but discreet, young woman. She had an angelic face, with fair skin, blue eyes, tilted nose and a high forehead. At 18, she married the Comte Jules be Polignac, a 22 year old captain in the Royal Pologne regiment. Because of his, the couple moved to Paris where they lived with the groom's father in the Louvre or at Claye. Gabrielle, who loved the country and the outdoor life, would have been content to spend all her life there, avoiding the court completely, but her sister-in-law had other ideas. Diane knew Gabrielle's simple tastes and easy-going manner would captivate the new young Queen of France. That's exactly what happened when the two women met.

Louis XVI, who wanted to keep his wife away from politics and court intrigues, encouraged the friendship. During his grandfather's reign, it had often seemed like France was ruled by his mistress Madame de Pompadour, which had been strongly disapproved by the French. If Marie Antoinette, who was a foreigner (and one that came from a country that up until a few years ago had been an enemy of France), was even just thought to meddle into political affairs, she would have become very unpopular, with disastrous consequences for the image of the monarchy. The best thing, Louis believed, was to have her to become friends with "politically safe" people (unfortunately, as we know, this precaution was useless).

Life at Versailles was too expensive for the Polignacs, though. Gabrielle discreetly let the Queen know that. Complaining about "the injustice of wealth", Marie Antoinette turned to Louis, telling him how much she wanted her friend near her. So, the King gave a high office to Comte Julies. The Polignacs' debts were settled too.

Gabrielle and Marie Antoinette became inseparable. Gabrielle influenced the Queen to adopt simpler tastes and encouraged her to spend more time at the Petit Trianon, provided advice on marriage problems and child care and soothed the Queen in her most desperate moments (during the affair of the necklace it was Gabrielle that a sobbing Marie Antoinette summoned to comfort her). And, of course, they would gossip about the people at court. Marie Antoinette often visited the Polignac's home, claiming she felt at home there. Even the King visited their house once. It was the only private visit he made during his reign.

However, the Queen's friendship with the Polignacs and their circle of intimates, which included Besenval and Fersen, soon aroused the envy and jealousy of those who weren't part of it. Jealous courtiers started spreading all kinds of nasty and vicious rumours about Marie Antoinette and her friends. The most innocent amusement was turned into something cruel and lascivious. Gabrielle was accused of being Marie Antoinette's lover and wasting the people's money on expensive and extravagant whims.

Although this wasn't true, being a close friends of the Queen had many perks. Gabrielle, her family and connections received plenty of money and rewards. The Queen, for instance, gave the Polignacs 400,000 livres to pay off their debts, and another 800,000 as a dowry for their daughter. Some historians believe that Gabrielle was cunning and loved the extravagant and luxurious life at court more than she let on, while others see her as a helpless pawn of her family, who used her to gain money and favours for themselves. Truth is probably somewhere in the middle. In any case, it was normal for royal favourites, and their families, to receive money, titles, lands and offices. In fact, Cronin has calculated that Madame De Pompadeur, Louis XV's mistress spent in just one year what Gabrielle spent in her 14 years at Versailles!

Gabrielle also infuriated her critics when she was appointed Governess of the Children of France when the princess de Guemene, after the bankruptcy of her family, had to give up the position. Rather than give the appointment to a woman belonging to a more prestigious family as custom demanded, Marie Antoinette decided to entrust her children to her friend, herself a devoted mother of three sons and a daughter. Gabrielle was also given a 13-room apartment at Versailles, while previous governesses had to make do with only 4 or 5 rooms. Gabrielle, though, took her job seriously. Madame de Tourzel, when she took over the appointment in 1789, found that the children had been well-cared-for and well-educated.

Eventually Marie Antoinette began to tire of the Duchess de Polignac and the ambitions of her family. There are mentions of quarrels between the two friends. But when the Bastille was stormed, Marie Antoinette, fearing Gabrielle may be murdered, begged her to leave. The duchess refused. She wanted to be there for Marie Antoinette and Louis in their hour of need. But the Queen wouldn't have it. "Remember that you are a mother," she told Gabrielle. Two days later, on July 16, the Polignac family left Versailles. They went first to Switzerland, then to Venice and finally settled in Vienna.

Gabrielle wasn't well. She was devastated by the news that kept arriving from France and the ordeals her friends were put through. And she had cancer too. Her conditioned worsened when she was told of Marie Antoinette's execution. According to Madame Vigee Le Brun, "her grief changed her to such an extent that her pretty face became unrecognisable, and every one foresaw that she had not much longer to live". Gabrielle died in Vienna, the city where Marie Antoinette was born, on 9th December 1793, exactly one month and a half after her friend. On her tomb these words are inscribed: "Dead from suffering' on December 9th, 1793."

Gabrielle was a loyal friend of the Queen. She, and her family, did benefit from the relationship, but not more than any other royal favourite did. When you rose, so did your family. It was a common, normal occurrence. What wasn't normal was the time Gabrielle lived in and the situation France was in at the end of the 18th century. Political enemies used calumnies to bring down the monarchy and Gabrielle, as a close friend of the Queen, became one of their victims too. Those lies were so disgusting and widespread that eventually people believed that Gabrielle had done something to deserve her reputation as a greedy and lewd lady. She didn't. Gabrielle wasn't perfect. But she deserves to be judged on her own merits and faults, not on the lies that still haunt her.

Further reading:
Louis and Antoinette by Vincent Cronin
Marie Antoinette: The Portrait Of An Average Woman by Stefan Zweig
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
The Memoirs of Madame Vigée Lebrun by Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun

Let Down Your Lappets, Or The Countess Will Expire

Madame De Noailles, Marie Antoinette's chief lady-in-waiting, was a stickler for etiquette. For that reason, her young mistress, who couldn't stand the rigidity of the old countess, nicknamed her Madame L'Etiquette. Madame de Campan in her memoirs relates an episode that shows just how obsessed Madame De Noailles was it:

This respectable lady, who was placed near her as a minister of the laws of etiquette, instead of alleviating their weight, rendered their yoke intolerable to her.

"Madame de Noailles," says Madame Campan, "abounded in virtues. Her piety, charity, and irreproachable morals rendered her worthy of praise; but etiquette was to her a sort of atmosphere; at the slightest derangement of the consecrated order, one would have thought the principles of life would forsake her frame.

"One day I unintentionally threw this poor lady into a terrible agony. The Queen was receiving I know not whom,—some persons just presented, I believe; the lady of honour, the Queen's tirewoman, and the ladies of the bedchamber, were behind the Queen. I was near the throne, with the two women on duty. All was right,—at least I thought so. Suddenly I perceived the eyes of Madame de Noailles fixed on mine. She made a sign with her head, and then raised her eyebrows to the top of her forehead, lowered them, raised them again, then began to make little signs with her hand. From all this pantomime, I could easily perceive that something was not as it should be; and as I looked about on all sides to find out what it was, the agitation of the Countess kept increasing. The Queen, who perceived all this, looked at me with a smile; I found means to approach her Majesty, who said to me in a whisper, 'Let down your lappets, or the Countess will expire.' All this bustle arose from two unlucky pins which fastened up my lappets, whilst the etiquette of costume said 'Lappets hanging down.'"

Further reading:
Memoirs Of The Court Of Marie Antoinette, Queen Of France by Madame Campan

Historical Reads: Three Ladies In Waiting Of Marie Antoinette

Who were Marie Antoinette's ladies-in-waiting? Author Melanie Clegg briefly remembers three of them:

Laure-Auguste de Fitz-James, Princesse de Chimay (1744-1804) was one of the numerous children of Charles Berwick, Duc de Fitz-James (1712-1787) and his wife Victoire de Louise Josèphe Goyon de Matignon (1722-1777). She was married to Philippe Gabriel Maurice Joseph d’Hénin Liétard, prince de Chimay on 28 September 1762 at the age of eighteen. Sadly, the couple did not have any children.

Madame la Princesse was known to be excessively devout, charitable, scholarly and sweet natured in personality and also inflamed with a passionate pride in both her romantic Stuart heritage and her military hero father, the Duc de Fitz-James. After her marriage she became a lady in waiting to Queen Marie Leczinska, Louis XV’s similarily devout wife who was fond of the young girl, who had a gravity beyond her years.

After the Queen’s death in June 1768, the Princesse like all of the other ladies in waiting found herself out of a job until the arrival in France two years later of the young Dauphine Marie Antoinette, who was eleven years her junior.Surprisingly the two young women seem to have hit it off and as soon as she became Queen, Marie Antoinette was to have her promoted to Dame d’Honneur, supplanting Madame de Noailles.

To read the entire post, click here.

Wedding of Princess Charlotte of Wales and Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld

On 2nd May 1816, Princess Charlotte of Wales married her soulmate, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfield. Robert Huish, in his Memoirs of Her late Royal Highness Charlotte Augusta, Princess of Wales, shares a very detailed account of the event:

The following were the preliminary arrangements for the royal nuptials, the ceremony to be as public as certain circumstances could render it—About fifty of the most distinguished personages to attend, besides the Royal Family, consisting of the Queen,the Prince Regent, the Princesses Augusta, Elizabeth, Mary, and Sophia, the Duchess of York, and the rest of the Royal House. All the members of the cabinet, with their ladies; the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the foreign ambassadors, and no other persons. In one of the crimson state rooms, the cabinet and foreign ministers were to be assembled; in another room, the Queen and the Princesses; in the third, the Prince Regent and his great officers of state.

A grand dinner was to be prepared at Carlton-House, after which the ceremony of the marriage, to take place about nine o'clock, in the state chamber of the palace, where the Prince Regent receives the addresses; the marriage ceremony to be performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and afterwards attested with the usual formalities. Her Majesty, the Prince Regent the bride and bridegroom, and the great officers of state, were to return to the council-chamber, when they and the foreign ministers would pay their compliments to the illustrious pair, who were soon afterwards to leave Carlton-House. [...]

The wedding dress was a slip of white and silver atlas, worn under a dress of transparent silk net, elegantly embroidered in silver lama, with a border to correspond, tastefully worked in bunches of flowers, to form festoons round the bottom; the sleeves and neck trimmed with a most rich suit of Brussels point lace. The mantua was two yards and a half long, made of rich silver and white atlas, trimmed the same as the dress to correspond. After the ceremony, her Royal Highness was to put on a dress of very rich white silk, trimmed with broad satin trimming at the bottom, at the top of which were two rows of broad Brussels point lace. The sleeves of this dress were short and full, intermixed with point lace, the neck trimmed with point to match. The pelisse which the royal Bride was to travel in, on her Royal Highness leaving Carlton-House for Oatlands, was of rich white satin, lined with sarcenet, and trimmed all round with broad ermine. [...]

The jewellery was of the most magnificent description, consisting of a beautiful wreath for the head, composed of rose-buds and leaves, of the most superb brilliants; a necklace of a single row of large brilliants of the finest lustre, with large drop ear-rings to correspond, and a brilliant cestus of great value. Her Royal Highness had also a pearl necklace, and bracelets with diamond clasps, equally splendid. Her Royal Highness's casket contained other ornaments, consisting of coloured stones, richly encircled with jewels. She had, besides, a rich diamond armlet, presented by the Prince of Coburg Saalfeld. It was computed that the wedding-dress alone cost above £10,000.

The important day at length arrived, looked forward to by many with the most anxious wishes, and by the nation at large with the fondest hopes. Early in the morning, all the streets in the vicinity of the royal residences were crowded with people anxious to obtain a view of the royal bride and bridegroom. But the eager curiosity and anxious desire of the people to see the Prince, with whose person they had hitherto had but few opportunities of being acquainted, constituted the grand and prominent feature of public feeling. The line from Charing-Cross to Carlton House, and those along the Mall in St. James's Park were fully occupied, and the fineness of the day corresponding with the interest of the occasion, contributed to increase the multitude.

The open space in the Stable Yard, in front of Clarence-House, the residence of the Prince of Coburg Saalfeld, was crowded to excess with well dressed people of all classes. The repeated cheers, and other marks of applause which they expressed, evinced an impatient desire to see his Highness, who, in the most condescending and gentlemanlike manner, frequently complied with their wishes, by coming out upon the balcony and politely bowing to the people, all of whom had a full view of his person. From ten in the morning till five in the afternoon, with the exception of two hours, during which he rode out in his plain green chariot, he made his appearance three or four times in an hour on the balcony of the first floor. [...] He was dressed in a blue coat, with a thin buff waistcoat, and grey pantaloons. [...]

The Princess Charlotte, who in the morning had sat to Turnerelli for her bust, dressed at Buckingham House; and a few minutes before eight in the evening, she descended the grand stair-case, conducted by the Princess Augusta on her right and Colonel Stephenson on her left, and proceeded to the entrance of the grand hall, where she was met by the Queen. They entered a carriage; the Queen and the Princess Charlotte sat behind; Princesses Augusta and Elizabeth occupied the front, Princesses Mary and Sophia of Gloucester followed in another carriage: they were escorted by a party of life-guards. As may well be imagined, the crowd in the park exceeded all description. Their numerous appearance occasioned the Princess Charlotte to exclaim, "Bless me, what a crowd !" The people cheered her loudly all the way to Carlton-House, but the greatest order and decorum prevailed. The royal ladies entered Carlton-House, through the garden-gate, where they were most affectionately received by His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, at eight o'clock in the evening.

The Prince of Coburg Saalfeld quitted the Duke of Clarence's house, about half-past eight, with two royal carriages. In the first was Lord James Murray, lord in waiting to his Serene Highness; Colonel Adenbroke, his Serene Highness's secretary; and Sir Robert Gardner, his Serene Highness's equerry. In the other carriage was Prince Leopold, accompanied by Baron Just the Saxon minister at this court, and Mr. Chester the assistant master of the ceremonies. When his Highness came out to get into his carriage, great enthusiasm was manifested by the female spectators, whose hearty good wishes were not confined to the waving of handkerchiefs, or other ordinary expressions of congratulation; but proceeded to the homely though sincere declaration of the interest they felt in his hopes and future felicity, by approaching him closely, patting him on the back, and invoking upon him blessings of every description.

Attempts were also made to take off the horses from the Prince's carriage, and draw him, in the accustomed spirit of English good-will, to Carlton-House. From these attempts, however, the populace were persuaded to desist, though Prince Leopold appeared perfectly ready to allow any indulgence which the joyful feelings of the populace inclined them to require. His Serene Highness received abundant proofs of public regard on his way to Carlton-House, in continual cheerings and congratulations; and, when he passed within the colonnade, the band played God save the King. [...] The attendants at Carlton-House, belonging to the royal household, guards, yeomen, footmen, &c, appeared in state costumes, and the great hall was brilliantly illuminated.

The following were the ceremonies within Carlton House:—The Queen and Royal Family, his Highness the Duke of Orleans, and the Prince of Saxe-Coburg Saalfeld, were introduced to the Prince Regent, on their arrival, in his Royal Highness's private closet. The royal servants, &c, lined the apartments from the grand crimson saloon, where the marriage service was afterwards celebrated. The saloon had been prepared and fitted up for the occasion with an elegant temporary altar, suitable to the august ceremony, which was covered with crimson velvet, and placed near one of the fire-places.

The crimson velvet cushions and the splendidly bound prayer-books, &c. were brought from the Chapel Royal, St. James's, as well as the massy candlesticks, and other church plate from the military chapel at Whitehall. The serjeant of the Chapel-Royal attended also in his office of verger. . The Prince Regent, and all the Royal Family, with his particular attendants, entered the three grand rooms next to the apartment in which the throne was erected. Her Majesty, with the female branches of the Royal Family, and their attendants, were conducted to the next anti-room. Among the attendants, were Lady John Murray and Lady Emily Murray, the cabinet ministers, the foreign ambassadors and envoys; and their ladies also attended by particular invitation, and proceeded to the grand crimson room.

At the time appointed for her Majesty to leave the closet, her full attendants were conducted across the grand hall; and also the full attendants upon the Prince Regent, except those in waiting upon the Queen and Prince Regent. The Princess Charlotte and Prince of Saxe-Coburg Saalfeld remained in the closet after the procession moved to the suit of rooms towards the altar. [...]

When the ceremony was to commence, the Lord Chamberlain returned to the closet, and conducted the Prince of Saxe-Coburg Saalfeld to the altar. His Lordship then went again to conduct the Princess Charlotte, and was accompanied by the Duke of Clarence, who conducted his royal niece, leaning upon his arm, to the altar, where she was received by the Prince Regent; his Royal Highness then took his place by the side of the illustrious pair. Behind the Royal Dukes stood the Lord Chancellor, Lords Castlereagh, Sidmouth, and Melville; the Earls of Westmorland, Harrowby, Mulgrave, and Bathurst; Mr. Vansittart, Mr. Bathurst, and Mr. Pole, the Cabinet Ministers.

On the other side of the altar was the Queen, for whom a chair of state was placed. On her right hand, were the Princesses Augusta, Elizabeth, and Mary, the Duchess of York, and her Royal Highness the Princess Sophia of Gloucester, Behind her Majesty were her Lord and Vice Cham berlains, and the Ladies of the Household. On the left of the altar, stood the Royal Dukes of York, Clarence, and Kent, (the Dukes of Cumberland and Sussex, and his Royal Highness, the Duke of Gloucester, were not present.) The Archbishop of Canterbury was close to the altar, and behind him the Archbishop of York; the Bishop of London was on the right of the altar, the Bishop of Exeter as Clerk of the Closet, and the Bishop of Salisbury the preceptor of the Princess Charlotte.

The Dukes of Orleans and Bourbon, the Foreign Ambassadors, and the great officers of the household, stood in front of die altar at some distance. Two crimson velvet stools were placed in front of the altar. The illustrious personages had all taken their stations by a little after nine o'clock, when the service began. The ceremony was then performed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, assisted by the Bishop of London. The Princess Charlotte was given away by her Royal Father the Prince Regent. His Royal Highness appeared in excellent health. He was dressed in regimentals, and wore all his Orders. [...]

The Prince of Saxe-Coburg Saalfeld wore at the wedding a full British uniform, decorated with the insignia of the new Hanoverian Order of die Guelphs, which was conferred upon him by the Prince Regent at the same time with the Duke of Wellington, Prince Blucher, Marquis of Anglesea, Lord Stewart, Prince Hardenberg, and Prince Metternich. He also wore the emblems of knighthood of Saxony, Austria, Russia, the Netherlands, Prussia, Bavaria, Wertemberg, and Denmark. His Serene Highness wore a magnificent sword and belt, ornamented with diamonds, and studded with various gems.

Her Royal Highness the Princess Charlotte advanced to the altar with steadiness, and went through the ceremony with a chastened joy, giving the responses with great clearness, so as to be heard distinctly by every person present. Prince Leopold was not heard so distinctly, and exhibited rather more than common diffidence. On the termination of the marriage ceremony, the Princess Charlotte embraced her Father, and went up to the Queen, whose hand she kissed with great respect. She also kissed the Princesses, particularly distinguishing the Princess Mary; she then shook hands with her uncles, and retired arm-in-arm with the Prince her husband.

The ceremony was scarcely concluded, when the brazen throats of the guns on the parade of St. James's Park, and the battery of the Tower, announced in royal salutes, to the metropolis, the auspicious event. The ladies who attended as bridemaids to the Princess Charlotte, were Lady Charlotte Cholmondeley, Lady Caroline Pratt, Lady Susan Ryder, the Hon. Miss Law, and Miss Manners, daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The royal pair remained but a short time at CarltonHouse after the ceremony was over, and set off about eleven o'clock for Oatlands, where they intended to reside during the honey-moon.

Her Majesty gave directions for bride-cakes, which had been preparing for some time, to be sent to the individuals of the royal establishments at the Queen's Palace, Windsor, her private establishment at Frogmore and at Kew Palace, amounting in the whole to nearly 500 persons, to commemorate the marriage of her royal grand-daughter. [...] It was not, however, only in the metropolis, but in many other parts of England, that the nuptial day of the Princess Charlotte was celebrated by every demonstration of joy. Wherever her influence had been felt, there the smile of congratulation was apparent; and the blessings of the poor and the unfortunate, whom she had assisted, were in secret pronounced upon her.

Queen Victoria's Early Reminiscences

Queen Victoria reminisces about her childhood:

My earliest recollections are connected with Kensington Palace, where I can remember crawling on a yellow carpet spread out for that purpose—and being told that if I cried and was naughty my 'Uncle Sussex' would hear me and punish me, for which reason I always screamed when I saw him! I had a great horror of Bishops on account of their wigs and aprons, but recollect this being partially got over in the case of the then Bishop of Salisbury (Dr Fisher, great-uncle to Mr Fisher, Private Secretary to the Prince of Wales), by his kneeling down and letting me play with his badge of Chancellor of the Order of the Garter. With another Bishop, however, the persuasion of showing him my 'pretty shoes' was of no use.

Claremont remains as the brightest epoch of my otherwise rather melancholy childhood—where to be under the roof of that beloved Uncle*—to listen to some music in the Hall when there were dinner-parties—and to go and see dear old Louis!—the former faithful and devoted Dresser and friend of Princess Charlotte—beloved and respected by all who knew her—and who doted on the little Princess who was too much an idol in the House. This dear old lady was visited by every one—and was the only really devoted Attendant of the poor Princess, whose governesses paid little real attention to her—and who never left her, and was with her when she died.

I used to ride a donkey given me by my Uncle, the Duke of York, who was very kind to me. I remember him well—tall, rather large, very kind but extremely shy. He always gave me beautiful presents. The last time I saw him was at Mr Greenwood's house, where D. Carlos lived at one time,—when he was already very ill,—and he had Punch and Judy in the garden for me.

To Ramsgate we used to go frequently in the summer, and I remember living at Townley House (near the town), and going there by steamer. Mamma was very unwell. Dear Uncle Leopold went with us.

To Tunbridge Wells we also went, living at a house called Mt. Pleasant, now an Hotel. Many pleasant days were spent here, and the return to Kensington in October or November was generally a day of tears.

I was brought up very simply—never had a room to myself till I was nearly grown up—always slept in my Mother's room till I came to the Throne. At Claremont, and in the small houses at the bathing-places, I sat and took my lessons in my Governess's bedroom. I was not fond of learning as a little child—and baffled every attempt to teach me my letters up to 5 years old—when I consented to learn them by their being written down before me.

I remember going to Carlton House, when George IV. lived there, as quite a little child before a dinner the King gave. The Duchess of Cambridge and my 2 cousins, George and Augusta, were there. My Aunt, the Queen of Würtemberg (Princess Royal), came over, in the year '26, I think, and I recollect perfectly well seeing her drive through the Park in the King's carriage with red liveries and 4 horses, in a Cap and evening dress,—my Aunt, her sister Princess Augusta, sitting opposite to her, also in evening attire, having dined early with the Duke of Sussex at Kensington. She had adopted all the German fashions and spoke broken English—and had not been in England for many many years. She was very kind and good-humoured but very large and unwieldy. She lived at St James's and had a number of Germans with her.

In the year '26 (I think) George IV. asked my Mother, my Sister and me down to Windsor for the first time; he had been on bad terms with my poor father when he died,—and took hardly any notice of the poor widow and little fatherless girl, who were so poor at the time of his (the Duke of Kent's) death, that they could not have travelled back to Kensington Palace had it not been for the kind assistance of my dear Uncle, Prince Leopold. We went to Cumberland Lodge, the King living at the Royal Lodge. Aunt Gloucester was there at the same time. When we arrived at the Royal Lodge the King took me by the hand, saying: 'Give me your little paw.'

He was large and gouty but with a wonderful dignity and charm of manner. He wore the wig which was so much worn in those days. Then he said he would give me something for me to wear, and that was his picture set in diamonds, which was worn by the Princesses as an order to a blue ribbon on the left shoulder. I was very proud of this,—and Lady Conyngham pinned it on my shoulder. Her husband, the late Marquis of Conyngham, was the Lord Chamberlain and constantly there, as well as Lord Mt. Charles (as Vice-Chamberlain), the present Lord Conyngham.

None of the Royal Family or general visitors lived at the Royal Lodge, but only the Conyngham family; all the rest at Cumberland Lodge. Lady Maria Conyngham (now dead, first wife to Lord Athlumney, daughter of Lord Conyngham), then quite young, and Lord Graves (brother-in-law to Lord Anglesey and who afterwards shot himself on account of his wife's conduct, who was a Lady of the Bedchamber), were desired to take me a drive to amuse me. I went with them, and Baroness (then Miss) Lehzen (my governess) in a pony carriage and 4, with 4 grey ponies (like my own), and was driven about the Park and taken to Sandpit Gate where the King had a Menagerie—with wapitis, gazelles, chamois, etc., etc.

Then we went (I think the next day) to Virginia Water, and met the King in his phaeton in which he was driving the Duchess of Gloucester,—and he said 'Pop her in,' and I was lifted in and placed between him and Aunt Gloucester, who held me round the waist. (Mamma was much frightened.) I was greatly pleased, and remember that I looked with great respect at the scarlet liveries, etc. (the Royal Family had crimson and green liveries and only the King scarlet and blue in those days). We drove round the nicest part of Virginia Water and stopped at the Fishing Temple. Here there was a large barge and every one went on board and fished, while a band played in another!

There were numbers of great people there, amongst whom was the last Duke of Dorset, then Master of the Horse. The King paid great attention to my Sister**, and some people fancied he might marry her!! She was very lovely then—about 18—and had charming manners, about which the King was extremely particular. I afterwards went with Baroness Lehzen and Lady Maria C. to the Page Whiting's cottage. Whiting had been at one time in my father's service. He lived where Mr Walsh now does (and where he died years ago), in the small cottage close by; and here I had some fruit and amused myself by cramming one of Whiting's children, a little girl, with peaches. I came after dinner to hear the band play in the Conservatory, which is still standing, and which was lit up by coloured lamps—the King, Royal Family, etc., sitting in a corner of the large saloon, which still stands.

On the second visit (I think) the following year, also in summer, there was a great encampment of tents (the same which were used at the Camp at Chobham in '53, and some single ones at the Breakfasts at Buckingham Palace in '68-9), and which were quite like a house, made into different compartments. It rained dreadfully on this occasion, I well remember. The King and party dined there, Prince and Princess Lieven, the Russian Ambassador and Ambassadress were there.

I also remember going to see Aunt Augusta at Frogmore, where she lived always in the summer. We lived in a very simple, plain manner; breakfast was at half-past eight, luncheon at half-past one, dinner at seven—to which I came generally (when it was no regular large dinner party)—eating my bread and milk out of a small silver basin. Tea was only allowed as a great treat in later years.

In 1826 (I think) my dear Grandmother, the Dowager Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, came to Claremont, in the summer. Mamma and my sister went on part of the way to meet her, and Uncle Leopold I think had been to fetch her as far as Dover. I recollect the excitement and anxiety I was in, at this event,—going down the great flight of steps to meet her when she got out of the carriage, and hearing her say, when she sat down in her room, and fixed her fine clear blue eyes on her little grand-daughter whom she called in her letters 'the flower of May,' 'Ein schönes Kind'—'a fine child.' She was very clever and adored by her children but especially by her sons. She was a good deal bent and walked with a stick, and frequently with her hands on her back.

She took long drives in an open carriage and I was frequently sent out with her, which I am sorry to confess I did not like, as, like most children of that age, I preferred running about. She was excessively kind to children, but could not bear naughty ones—and I shall never forget her coming into the room when I had been crying and naughty at my lessons—from the next room but one, where she had been with Mamma—and scolding me severely, which had a very salutary effect. She dined early in the afternoon and Uncle Leopold asked many of the neighbours and others to dinner to meet her. My brother Prince Leiningen came over with her, and was at that time paying his court to one of her ladies, Countess Klebelsberg, whom he afterwards married—against the wish of his grandmother and mother—but which was afterwards quite made up.

In November (I think, or it may have been at the end of October) she left, taking my sister with her back to Coburg. I was very ill at that time, of dysentery, which illness increased to an alarming degree; many children died of it in the village of Esher. The Doctor lost his head, having lost his own child from it, and almost every doctor in London was away. Mr Blagden came down and showed much energy on the occasion. I recovered, and remember well being very cross and screaming dreadfully at having to wear, for a time, flannel next my skin.

Up to my 5th year I had been very much indulged by every one, and set pretty well all at defiance. Old Baroness de Späth, the devoted Lady of my Mother, my Nurse Mrs Brock, dear old Mrs Louis—all worshipped the poor little fatherless child whose future then was still very uncertain; my Uncle the Duke of Clarence's poor little child being alive, and the Duchess of Clarence had one or two others later. At 5 years old, Miss Lehzen was placed about me, and though she was most kind, she was very firm and I had a proper respect for her. I was naturally very passionate, but always most contrite afterwards. I was taught from the first to beg my maid's pardon for any naughtiness or rudeness towards her; a feeling I have ever retained, and think every one should own their fault in a kind way to any one, be he or she the lowest—if one has been rude to or injured them by word or deed, especially those below you. People will readily forget an insult or an injury when others own their fault, and express sorrow or regret at what they have done.

* Her maternal uncle Leopold, widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales. He later became the first King of the Belgians.
** The Princess Feodore of Leiningen, afterwards Princess of Hohenlohe, Queen Victoria's half-sister.

Further reading:
The Letters of Queen Victoria, Volume 1

Short Book Reviews: Richard Wagner The Lighter Side, Max Ginsburg Retrospective & Richard III A Small Guide To The Great Debate

I haven't done some short book reviews in a while, so let's remedy that shall we? Here are three books that are worth checking out:

Richard Wagner: The Lighter Side by Terry Quinn
Richard Wagner has always been the most controversial genius in music. His critics hate him so much they refuse to even just listen to his music, while his fans greatly admire his talent and are able to separate it from his personal life and unpalatable views. I fall in the latter camp. The way I see it, he was, just like everyone else is, the product of his time and, although that doesn't justify his beliefs and actions, it helps us to understand them.
While there are many books that deal with Wagner and the controversies that surround him, Richard Wagner: The Lighter Side by Terry Quinn, as you can infer from the title, barely touches them. Instead, Quinn, a big fan of Wagner, shares the "trivia, the interesting facts, anecdotes, and quotations about the man and his opera" that he has collected over the years. This includes information on Wagner's family, his difficulties in creating and staging his operas, the modern productions of his works, the conductor and singers that help bring them to life, the festival and theatre he created in Bavaria, interviews with leading Wagner scholars and much more.
The book, which is amply illustrated, is also "musically" arranged: it begins with Vorspiel, followed by 5 Acts with Intermission and a Coda (that's cooler than chapters, isn't it?). Informative and entertaining, this book is a must for all Wagner and opera fans.
Available at: amazon
Rating: 4/5

Max Ginsburg Retrospective by Max Ginsburg
"I choose to paint realistically because I believe realism is truth, and truth is beauty." ~ Max Ginsburg
Max Ginsburg is one of the most respected and accomplished realist painters today. He entered the art world at a time when it was strongly opposed to anything realistic, but he never gave up his style. His art provides an insightful commentary on the everyday life of our time, focusing, in particular, on the inhabitants of New York, his hometown. His works, from his portraits to his nudes and to his war paintings, are full of vigour and so skillfully executed you often mistake them for photos. It is impossible to remain unmoved while admiring them.
Max Ginsburg Retrospective offers the reader the opportunity to take at look at the artist's works throughout his career, and to see how his style, but not his beliefs about art and society, has changed. However, to fully enjoy his paintings, I highly recommend you buy the board & paper book. I have the Kindle edition, but the format doesn't really do them justice. In addition, the book features essays about Ginsburg, his life and his career, written by himself, his colleagues and his students. These allow the reader to better understand the painter's art and what he is trying to express in his paintings. Highly recommended.
Available at: amazon
Rating: 4/5

Richard III: A Small Guide To The Great Debate by Anette Carson
Did Richard III usurp the throne? And did he kill the Princes in the Tower? This little guide (it is only 96 pages long) tries to answer these (and only these) questions. This is not a biography of this maligned king, nor an in-depth essay on the two issues it discusses. Instead, after explaining why and how Richard III's reputation was destroyed, Carson presents the evidence, in relation to the two terrible crimes he's charged with, both pro and against the King, leaving readers to draw up their own conclusions. The book presents only the bare facts, so you won't find any new information or theory here. But then this is not a book for Plantagenet experts. It is simply an introduction to the great debate about Richard III aimed at those who are new to the subject and would like to learn more about it in a simple, straightforward, clear-to-understand why. And it will definitely make you want to dig deeper.
Available at: amazon
Rating: 3.5/5

Disclaimer: I received these book in exchange for my honest opinion. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

Marie Antoinette Meets Count Fersen

Much has been made about the meeting between the charming Marie Antoinette and the dashing Swede nobleman Axel was Fersen, but, as Antonia Fraser relates in her book "Marie Antoinette: The Journey", it was all very innocent:

On 30 January, Fersen went to the opera ball in Paris, arriving at one o’clock in the morning. There was a huge crowd, and those present included the Dauphin and the Comte de Provence as well as the Dauphine. According to custom, the royal party and others were masked in order to preserve their incognito. It was in this way that the eighteen-year-old Fersen fell into conversation with a young and unknown masked woman. As he recorded in his Journal intime: “The Dauphine talked to me for a long time without me knowing who she was; at last when she was recognized, everybody pressed round her and she retired into a box at three o’clock: I left the ball.”

Thus the myth of the instant love affair, a coup de foudre (perhaps literally so) in the opera box, so beloved of novelists and film-makers, remains just that. What did happen was the conventional establishment of Fersen’s social credentials. He was subsequently asked to a few bals à la Dauphine before departing for England.

And no, the two never became lovers.

Mussolini's Essay On Lost Time

In 1907 Benito Mussolini took an exam that would, if he passed, qualify him to teach French and German. The first part of the exam required the candidates to write an essay in Italian. The topic was: "'For to lose time irks him most who most knows' - Dante said. - With what reason did he say it?" Here's what Mussolini wrote (the translation from a flowery, convoluted, archaic Italian is mine):

The supreme poet's maxim cannot be understood according to the utilitarian English ethics. A people of merchants and traders considers the use of time in relation to the rapidity of profit. For the brain of a solvent second-hand dealer a dissertation on the metric of ancient rhapsodies or on the research of the primitive Indian culture is a waste of time; the honest stockbroker believes to be "parasites all those who" speculate with thoughts and not with "industrial values"; it will be very difficult for a retired marshal to convince himself that the "Manzoni Studies" by d'Ovidio could "even" be worth the paper on which they are printed.

Today, despite the idealistic efforts of the new philosophical schools, it is widespread - especially among the masses - a feeling of disdain for those who can't show the by now too rhetoric and tribunicial horny hands, for those who produce intellectually and don't transform some goods. Giorgio Sorel looks down on les professionnels de la pensée who won't - according to his foresight - find it easy to find a place and bread in the future society composed exclusively of syndicated producers.

Conversely - we notice in Italy - since a few years a sort of "pronunciamiento" against this meanly utilitarian concept of time and of human life. There's a magazine, "Caenobium", written by a very learned man, that I remember with particular gratitude for the help he gave me in a critic circumstance of my life - and there are some young homines novi - that together with Giuseppe Renzi proclaim from the columns of "Caenobium" a sort of buddhism for the use of the Western world. Their doctrine is an open and sometimes well-conducted attack against the value current morals give to "physical" work. Life should be contemplative and employed in a series of "spiritual pleasures".

I don't want to discuss here the value of this conception. It can be another "sign of the times" but I very much fear that it will find some followers. To be "contemplative" without risking the penal code, you need to have a private income of at least 50 lire a day, otherwise you will be considered a "vagabond". Moreover, the traditional bourgeois ethics will never welcome in its bosom, however spacious, a doctrine that, in practice, will result precisely in a "systematic inaction", therefore in an absolute, huge, waste of time.

At this point, however, I can't resist the temptation to do a small raid into the land of philosophy. May the ancient and the modern, the supreme and lilliputian philosophers bear no grudges to me if I enter for a little while in their republic. Well, the sentence "to lose time" is absurd, a contradictio in adiecto, when it's not referred to human life, like a determinate and determinable phenomenon. Withdrawing from all immediate, utilitarian and practical considerations - from the empiricism namely from the enunciation - is it possible to lose time? And those who lose it could lose it not? And as an humorous appendix, if time can be lost, who finds it?

It seems to me that after having conveniently posed the question in its true logical terms it is right to conclude that: it is not possible to lose time, category of the spirit, philosophical notion; it is instead possible, and blameworthy depending on the cases, to neglect the best use of your own life. Utilitarian or idealistic people, builders of bridges or cenobites, physical workers or ascetics, they can't however differ from giving a supreme value to time in relation to our own life. One can disagree on the more or less value of the use of this time, but time in itself is life. Without the notion of space and time we wouldn't know we existed.

To lose time only means to partially or completely renounce your own life. Who feels this and is forced by events to inactive vegetation feels an acute hurt. Dante's verse is the result of meditations on the value and brevity of human life. Nature that arranges time can economize the effort but humans can't. To lose time or more exactly to lose some energies is a crime, it is a crazy dissipation of an incalculable treasure. The damage produced by those who beastly vegetate falls back on the offspring. It is a sort of theft which everyone can regret.

Our life is a brief parenthesis between two eternities. Tomorrow we'll be no more. Others will pass through these "fragrant hills" and will be shipwrecked in our cities. We'd recommend the oration: Ede, bibe, post mortem nulla voluptas?* This, what else matters? What matter is to live to the full - to spread oneself Gurjan would say - to conquer Nietzsche would say, to spend time not in childish futilities, but to follow an ideal of beauty, of might, of love... to draw from our souls like from a wonderful heptachord all the sounds, all the songs and the new and old harmonies... then - arrived to the last evening - with the calmness of the ancient stoics to descend in the realm of shadows.

His teacher gave Mussolini, for his efforts, a six plus, adding next to it "mentally deranged".

Oh, and in case you were wondering, he eventually got the qualification to teach French, but not German, despite being convinced to be able to speak it quite well...

*Eat, drink, after death there are no pleasures.

Further reading:
Riservato Per Il Duce by Arrigo Petacco

Historical Reads: The Honourable Mary Graham

Heather Carroll has written an interested article about the lovely Mary Graham, a friend of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. To quote:

Mary Cathcart was born to the 9th Earl of Cathcart who just happened to be the ambassador to Catherine the Great in Russia. This meant Mary enjoyed her upbringing with her brothers and sisters in the fashionable country. When she returned to England she was immediately married off to Thomas Graham at the age of 17. Thomas was not a peer but he was distinguished and owned a lot of land. He wasn't the brightest man but he dearly loved Mary. There is a story that when she forgot her jewelery box for a ball Thomas immediately jumped on his horse and raced 90 miles and back to fetch it for her. Indeed, she was beautiful and gentle and many found it hard not to like her which may have earned her the nickname The Beautiful Mrs. Graham.

One of the people to fall under her charms was Thomas Gainsborough. He found her beauty to be exotic and could not help to paint her as much as possible, even if she wasn't there. It is very likely he was head over heels for her. Unfortunately the much-loved Mrs. Graham was very sick. She had tuberculosis which caused her to be very frail.

To read the entire article, click here.

Gambling Clothes

In the 18th century, gambling became widespread and popular amongst rich men (and women) in England. They would play for hours at gaming clubs, and lose entire fortunes at their tables. At Brooke's, a club frequented by Charles James Fox, the men wore a sort of gambling uniform. The Whig politician was said to be rarely out of it. Here's a description:

The gamesters began by pulling off their embroidered clothes, and put on frieze greatcoats, or turned their coats inside outwards for luck. They put on pieces of leather (such as are worn by footmen when they clean the knives) to save their laced ruffles; and to guard their eyes from the light and to prevent tumbling their hair, wore high-crowned straw hats with broad brims, and adorned with flowers and ribbons; masks to conceal their emotions when they played at quinz.

Further reading:
Club Life of London, Vol. I (of 2) by John Timbs

Absurd Fashion Trends

One of the distinctions between the rational and irrational part of God's creatures is, that while the latter are clothed by his wisdom, in the manner best suited to their mode of life, the former are left to their own guidance in what relates to the covering of the body. It would seem that the gift of reason was intended to be a sufficient guide in the matter; and all sorts of materials being furnished by the bounty of Providence, and their various properties and modes of adaptation being beautifully exhibited in the clothing of animals, human beings were expected to exercise their reason and their ingenuity in turning these things to the best account.

As far as ingenuity goes, man has certainly fulfilled his destiny; the endless variety of fabrics for covering the body, and the diversity of shapes in which they are made up, show that his fertility of invention is fully equal to the task devolved upon him. Whether his reason is as successfully employed in adapting his clothing to the necessities of his body, may be questioned, as long as we see people crippled by tight shoes and boots, rendered stiff-necked by high and hard stocks, and youthful forms distorted, and the animal functions necessary to life and health impeded, by tight lacing.

In no way has civilized man played more fantastic tricks, and sacrificed his reason more entirely to folly, than in the matter of dress. The clumsy and inconvenient garments of the savage are attributed to his ignorance of domestic arts; but what can be said in excuse for civilized man, when he wears shoes that project half a yard beyond his feet, or exchanges his own locks for an enormous periwig, filled with powder and pomatum; when the graceful motion of a lady's head is sacrificed to the stiff movements necessary in balancing a tower of linen and wire, half a yard high, with draperies that flow from the top of it to the floor; when the wavy lines of a female form are disguised under a stiff circle of whalebone, which imprisons the body from the hips upwards, and a buckram cage so surrounds the lower limbs, that she can with difficulty walk or sit.

Some false standard of beauty, invented perhaps to conceal deformity, is set up, and then the very bones and muscles of the perfect body must be made to conform to it. When this is carried so far as it is in the case of small feet in China, its absurdity strikes us at once; but we may find nearer home instances of a standard as false, and even more fatal to health and happiness, than the little feet of the Chinese. The history of national costume in the civilized countries of Europe shows, that for many centuries the progress of art and manufactures only led to greater extravagances in dress, and more preposterous fashions.

One enormity was only displaced to make way for its opposite extreme, as in the case of the peaked-toed shoes already mentioned; these were followed by shoes of only the length of the foot, but as broad as they were long. At one time men's coats were so short that they resembled boys' jackets of the present day; and soon after they were so long and full, that they looked like female attire. Women's sleeves were sometimes made so long, that they were tied in knots, to prevent the wearer from treading on them; nine yards of cloth being a moderate quantity for each sleeve; then they were made quite tight, and reached no farther than the elbow. It would seem, that for centuries the ingenuity of nations was taxed to invent monstrous forms of clothing, as well as inconvenient and useless appendages, and that comfort and ease were the things most of all avoided in dress.

About the middle of the sixteenth century, stuff stays and hoops were first introduced into England; and though nothing could be more uncomfortable to the feelings, or a greater outrage upon taste and nature, they continued in fashion, except for a short period during the reign of Charles the Second, nearly two hundred years. The hoop often changed its shape and size, but was never discarded till some time after the accession of George the Third; and, as the fashion of court dresses is fixed at the commencement of a reign, and continues unchanged to its close, the long reign of that monarch caused the modes of 1760 to be witnessed in the beginning of the nineteenth century.

I have seen the ladies going to a drawing-room at St. James's palace, dressed in enormous hoop-petticoats, and have heard them say that it required great practice to move in them with any grace. These hoops were constructed of whalebone and millinet, of an oval shape, the length of the oval being across the figure from hip to hip, and of the same size at top as at bottom. That part which extended beyond the waist on either side was rounded off, and covered with ribs of whalebone and millinet, leaving a hole in the middle, through which came the living puppet that was to carry this load. When the waists were worn short, the hoop was lifted up till it interfered sadly with the elbows, and obliged the wearer to carry her arms in a very constrained attitude before it. Over such a machine were displayed the rich materials of the court-dress.

Looking upon this grotesque contrivance, after the general fashion of hoops had passed away, and when they were gazed at on gala days, as a raree-show, it was difficult to imagine rational beings reconciled to them, and considering them an indispensable part of female attire, or to believe that they were once so universal in London, that maid-servants were seen washing down the door-steps in hoop-petticoats! Yet such was actually the case, before they were left off by the higher classes. The knowledge of these past fashions should make us look with jealous eyes on those which prevail in our day, in order to discover whether we are not in the practice of something which will appear equally absurd to future generations.

The French nation has long been the arbiter of fashion for most civilized countries, and the political revolution of the last century was accompanied by a revolution in dress, almost as signal; for it banished wigs and buckles, powder and pomatum, stiff stays and full petticoats, long waists and high-heeled shoes. One extreme led to another; and the ladies who had been encased in whalebone, buckram, and abundance of quilted petticoats, stepped forth as Grecian goddesses, without any corsets, any petticoats, any fulness to their garments, or any heels to their shoes. White muslin dresses of the scantiest dimensions, drawn closely round the figure, with the shortest possible waists, and not a fold or a plait that could form any drapery, were the order of the day in France, and quickly spread into England and America.

Look at the portraits of females painted twenty-five or thirty years ago, as in the historical pictures of that period, such, for instance, as the coronation of Napoleon, and the tight sleeves, short waists, and narrow skirts of the women appear so unnatural, that it will be difficult to believe that such a style of dress ever looked well. I remember when full-grown women wore dresses only a yard and a half wide at the bottom, and sloped away at top to the size of the waist, so that it was difficult for a lady to step across a gutter, or into a carriage. The belt, too, was passed across the bosom, so as to press very injuriously upon it, and actually rode upon the shoulder-blades behind. The old ladies of that day, who remembered with partiality the flowing draperies and full petticoats they had worn in youth, used to groan over their degenerate daughters, and say that their scanty dresses made them look as if they were stuffed into bolster-cases.

Now that both these fashions have passed away, we can form an impartial judgment of each, as we see them in pictures; and certainly, with the exception of the hoop, the fashions before the French revolution were more dignified, decorous, and graceful, than those which immediately succeeded it. Those of the present day appear to me to hit the happy medium between both, and to unite the best part of each. If our ladies would cease to compress the waist as much as they now do, they need not fear the criticisms of posterity.

The influence of fashion is so strong in corrupting the eye, and perverting the taste, that it has led some persons to doubt the existence of any true standard of beauty, as applicable to costume; but as long as some forms of dress, when out of fashion, look better to us than others, we may fairly conclude that there are some immutable principles of taste connected with the subject, and that those articles which we admire after they have ceased to be the reigning mode, conform in some degree to true taste.

Such, for instance is the simple cap, called after the most beautiful and most unfortunate of queens. When the prevailing fashions are most opposed to the shape of the Mary-Queen-of-Scots cap, it still appears to us beautiful; and when adopted by a modern lady, as her costume in a portrait, or her dress at a masquerade ball, it is pronounced highly becoming. Now this is not the case with the monstrous constructions of gauze, ribbon, and wire, that were called caps fifty years ago; nor with any of those head-dresses which outrage common sense, and set all proportion at defiance. As soon as the enormous horse-hair cushions, over which the locks were combed and plastered with powder and pomatum, went out of fashion, that style of head-dress was condemned as hideous.

The occasional triumph of good taste over fashion, is shown by the frequent return of pretty shapes into fashion. Every few years the Scottish queen's cap is brought into vogue; and, were it not for the insatiable love of novelty, it would never be wholly laid aside. The surplice waist and Grecian bodice have an inherent beauty in them, which has caused their frequent revival, and has now kept them in fashion for several years. Now, if the principles of true taste are involved in the mysteries of a lady's toilet, is not the study of them worthy of a refined and intellectual being? and would not her time and thoughts be better spent in conforming her style of dress to them, than in eagerly following every change of the mode, dictated by the love of novelty, apart from real beauty?

I do not mean by this, to recommend singularity of dress, and a wide departure from the prevailing mode; singularity is to be avoided, and she is best dressed whose costume presents an agreeable whole, without anything that can be remarked. Dr. Johnson once praised a lady's appearance by saying, she was so perfectly well dressed, he could not recollect anything she wore. I would have young people of cultivated minds look at everything with an eye of taste, and, judging of the merits of a certain form of garment apart from the charm of fashion, so modify their compliance with the reigning mode as not to sacrifice to it their sense of beauty. Mere fashion should never be allowed to triumph over common sense or good taste, but be kept in check by both. [...] A pure taste in dress may be gratified at a small expense; for it does not depend on the costliness of the materials employed, but on the just proportions observed in the forms, and an harmonious arrangement of colours.

Further reading:
The Young Lady's Friend by Mrs John Farrar