Historical Reads: The Myth Of The Dark Countess

Author Elena Maria Vidal debunks the myth of the dark countess. To quote:

Later, the legend claims, while Madame Royale was in prison, she was raped and impregnated. She was sent off to Germany to a small town where she was made to wear a green veil and given the name of "Sophie Batta," also known as The Dark Countess. Meanwhile, her wicked uncle Louis XVIII replaced her with her alleged "half-sister" Ernestine, who became the Duchesse d' Angoulême. The Dark Countess rumor was perpetuated by Marie-Thérèse's moroseness and lack of beauty. How could she be the daughter of the beautiful lively Marie-Antoinette? So they assumed that she was someone else.

Here are some glaring points as to why this story is untenable:

1) Louis XVI had no illegitimate children. There is no proof that he had an operation. He was known for his devotion to his wife, fidelity to his marriage vows and his religious scrupulosity. He did not have an affair with a chambermaid and beget Ernestine. There was an Ernestine, a child of servants, whom Marie-Antoinette adopted. (She adopted two other children as well. The queen came from a large family and liked having lots of children around.) There is no evidence that Ernestine was the secret daughter of Louis XVI or of any of the other princes.

2) Louis XVIII would have had to pay off a huge amount of people to buy their silence, and he really did not have all that much money - not enough for that kind of blackmail. He had been an impoverished exile for over 20 years. When he did get hold of some cash, he immediately deposited it in an English bank. The Bourbon family lived on his savings the next time they were all exiled.

To read the entire article, click here.

Little G

On 12 July 1783, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, finally gave birth to her first child. Much to the disappointment of her husband, it was a girl. Georgiana was just glad the baby was alive. During the delivery, thinking the baby had been born dead, she had become almost hysterical. The little girl was named Georgiana Dorothy, but her family called her Little G. Despite her sex, she was very loved by both her parents.

Georgiana breastfed her baby herself, something very unusual for the time. The Duchess had actually hired a wet nurse, but when she came to work drunk, she decided to fire her and personally take care of her daughter. Despite her lavish and hectic lifestyle, Georgiana was a devoted mother. Even so, Little G never inherited her charms and outgoing personality. Shy and introverted, the little girl took after her father.

Her mother's affair with Charles Grey made Little G insecure too. When Georgiana got pregnant with her lover's child, the Duke gave her an ultimatum: either give up her lover and their child, or she would never seen her three children again. Georgiana chose her family, but even so she spent a couple of years in exile after the birth of her illegitimate daughter. When she was finally allowed to return home, Little G was so scared her mother would disappear again that she started following her everywhere.

Little Georgiana was also very clever and loved books. When she made her debut in society, she was courted by both the Duke of Bedford, a Whig and a libertine, and Lord Morpeth, a 27 year old Tory. A staunch Whig herself, Georgiana had reservations about Lord Morpeth, but when Little G fell in love with him, she relented. So, Georgiana duly became Countess of Carlisle and led a quiet married life, away from the parties and social events her mother loved so much. She also gave birth to twelve children, one of which ended up marrying one of Charles Grey's sons! Georgiana died in August 1858, aged 75.

Further reading:
Georgiana Duchess Of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Their Wardrobes Above All Consume A Considerable Sum

Royals have always been accused of wasting a fortune on clothes, but, sometimes, that's inevitable. Take Queen Charlotte of England, for instance. With six daughters, her bills for their wardrobe, even exercising all the possible economy, were bound to be high, as she complained to her brother Charles:

"My expenses with five daughters*, of whom the older appear at Court and are always with us in public, require all the economy imaginable. A sum immense. Their masters, servants and wardrobes above all consume a considerable sum". The wardrobe, in particular, she estimated to cost between £1,500 and £2,000 pounds a quarter.

In 1786, for example, the Queen spent a £1000 on each of her young daughters, Mary and Sophia. The three elder sisters, instead, received double that sum. Little Amelia, only 3 at the time, had to "make do" with £500. It was on the dresses for the younger children, who didn't appear in public as often, that the Queen mainly economized. Their clothes were often made by country dressmakers.

The cloth used for the dresses of all the princesses was chosen by their mother, Queen Charlotte, in consultation with her milliners. The young girls, though, were allowed to pick trimmings, paint their fans and to buy cheap jewelery with their pocket money.

Usually, the princesses wore morning gowns till dinner. For a visit to Bulstrode in 1783, they all wore, for instance, "white muslin polonaises, white cheap hats, with white feathers." That same year, at the Queen's Lodge, the princesses wore "a uniform for the demi-saison, of a violet blue armozine, with gauze aprons".

For holidays and public appearances, instead, the princesses were "dressed distinctly, either exactly alike or in a same dress in different colours. As early as the Princess Royal's thirteen birthday, for instance, she was in 'deep orange or scarlet' [...] with Princess Augusta in pink and Elizabeth in blue." Furthermore, these dresses were either similar or replicas of the more elaborate and grander gowns worn by their mother.

Of course, their wardrobes, and its expenses were bound to increase as the princesses grew up and needed a wardrobe fit for their rank.

*When she wrote this letter, her last daughter, Amelia, wasn't born yet.

Further reading:
Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III by Flora Fraser

Short Book Reviews: Case Closed & Sisters Of The Bruce

Hello everyone,

today I'm reviewing two very different books. The first is an essay on the assassination on John F Kennedy, while the second a historical novel about the sisters of the Scottish king Robert The Bruce. Are they worth picking up? Let's see:

Case Closed by Gerald Posner
John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963. Since then, the tragedy has been surrounded with speculations and conspiracy theories. Posner in his book Case Closed, reissued for the 40th anniversary of the assassination, reviews all the evidence available and reaches the conclusion that Oswald acted alone. The book is long, extremely detailed and extensively noted. Posner examines every document, film, eye witnesses account, newspaper clipping and any other type of evidence related to the case, clearly explaining to what conclusions they point to.
A lot of people find it hard to believe that a single person, a "nobody", could have, on its own, murdered one of the most important and powerful individuals in the world, and yet that's exactly what happened. To better understand this, the book begins with a biography of Oswald, where the reader learns all the details of its life (his upbringing, defection to Russian, marriage to a Russian girl, return to the US, etc), his beliefs (critical of the US, he was fascinated with Communism but deeply disappointed by how it was implemented in Russia) and his disturbed personality. A huge chunk of the book is also dedicated to debunking the many, often bizarre, conspiracy theories, pointing out their mistakes and faults.
Finally, the book contains two appendixes. One features illustrations of the bullets, ballistics and the technical aspects of the assassination, while the other deals with the so called "mystery deaths" of the witnesses related to the case, which turned out not to be mysterious at all, but natural or accidental. Posner writes in a straightforward way that's easy to follow. Despite the sheer amount of facts and details the book examines, it never gets bogged down or boring.
If you firmly believe in a conspiracy theory then it is unlikely that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, you will change your mind after reading this book. But for those who aren't familiar with the assassination or simply want to understand what happened on that fateul day in this Dallas, Case Closed would be a great place to start.
Available at: amazon
Rating: 4/5

Sisters Of The Bruce by J M Harvey
It is very rare to come across a historical novel that deals with one of the sisters of Robert The Bruce, let alone all five. So, when I discovered this book, I couldn't wait to read it. These women led very interesting lives, which were deeply affected by the war of Independence Scotland was waging against England. Christina and Mary were captured by the English king. The first was imprisoned in a convent, while Mary in a cage outside a castle exposed, at all seasons, to the fury of the elements. The two younger sisters, Margaret and Matilda managed to escape to Orkney, where they lived in exile for several years. Only Isabel, the older sister wasn't directly affected by the war, having left her family at a young age to marry the King of Norway.
The rich and tumultuous historical background and the tragedies that befell these women provide the author with more than enough material to waive a compelling story and yet, very often, the book reads more like a boring textbook! Rather than making the characters live the events of their lives, the author has them write letters to one another where they summarize what happened. Not all the book is written in an epistolary form, though, but the tendency to briefly narrate events that could have been better described in detail through the actions and thoughts of the protagonists remains.
I understand that the history of this period, which covers more than 20 years, is very complex, and there are just so many characters involved, that it would be difficult for any author to fit it all in just one book. But it often seems like Harvey has chosen the easy way out. As a result, you're very impressed by the courage and bravery displayed by these women, and often feel sorry for what they had to endure, but you can't really relate to them or form a strong emotional attachment to them.
The lack of direct action and dialogue is, however, compensated by the many beautiful descriptions of Scotland, Norway and Orkney. Harvey also shines when she lets her imagination runs free and describes what life must have been like for Mary in her cage, for Christina in the convent, or for the younger sisters in exile. Unfortunately, these scenes are only few and far between.
The book is obviously well-researched, and features, at the beginning, maps, and at the end, a historical note, a glossary explaining the Scottish and Norwegian words used in the narration and the list of characters, which I had to consult several times. There are just so many that it is easy to get confused! Despite its shortcomings, I think this is a decent introduction to the sisters of Robert The Bruce and would recommend it to those who want to know more about them.
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.

Regency Slang

I've already written a post about the slang used in the Regency Era. But it is impossible to cover such a broad topic in one post, so here are 15 more words and expressions that were common at the time, but can now only be found in some old books:

Books: cards to play with. If someone placed the cards in the pack in an unfair manner, then they'd be "planting the books".

Cap Acquaintance: people who barely knew each other, only enough to salute with the hat or bow when they met.

Execution Day: washing day.

Family Man: a thief, or receiver of stolen goods.

Gentleman Of Three Outs: someone without money, wit and manners.

Kings' Pictures: coins

Master Of The Wardrobe: someone who pawns his clothes to buy liquor.

Mushroom: a person or family of humble origin who has suddenly become wealthy and influential.

On Saint Geoffrey’s Day: never (there was no St Geoffrey's Day).

Scandal Broth: tea.

Squash: a party you don't want to attend but must anyway.

Toad eater: an impoverished gentleman or female relation that was hired as a paid companion.

Unicorn: a coach drawn by three horses.

Watery-headed: prone to cry often.

Wife In Water Colours: a mistress, or a concubine; such an engagement, like water colours, could be easily dissolved.

Further reading:

1811 Dictionary in the Vulgar Tongue

Maria Cosway


Maria Hadfield was born on 11 June 1760 in Leghorn, where her father, an Englishman, acquired a fortune as an innkeeper (his three inns in Tuscany were frequented by noblemen taking the Grand Tour). Her mother was Italian. The Cosways had eight children, but only four survived childhood. The other four were killed by an insane nursemaid, who was finally caught when she was overheard talking about her plans to kill Maria too! She was sentenced to life imprisonment.

Portrait of Mrs Cosway by Richard Cosway

Maria was educated in a convent, but, showing an unusual artistic talent from an early age, she was sent to Rome to study painting. There, she became friends with the likes of Fuseli and Battoni. Maria, though, always remained a fervent Catholic. She had liked the convent life and, after her father's death, had hoped to become a nun. But her mother persuaded her to go to London to pursue her painting instead. Here, Angelica Kauffamn, a famous artist and a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, helped her to participate in the exhibitions where her works, depicting mythological scenes, were very admired.

Girl dancing by the sea

Maria was a beautiful woman and soon attracted the attention of Richard Cosway, a famous painter of miniatures in watercolors who had a good fortune and frequented the fashionable circles of London. He was also 20 years her senior and a libertine. Nevertheless, the two got married. After their marriage, Maria lived for a while in seclusion because her husband didn't think her Italian manners were refined enough to impress fashionable society. Once he thought she had acquired the necessary grace and polite manners, he allowed her to make her debut. It was a success.

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Beautiful, graceful, musically and artistically talented, Maria was greatly admired by the most famous and wealthiest people of her age, many of which commissioned her to paint their portraits. Even Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, set for the painter. However, Maria's husband didn't allow her to be paid for her work. As a result, her sitters gave her expensive presents instead. The couple also had to move to a bigger house in Pall Mall, where they established a salon attended by the most eminent poets, nobles and diplomats of their time. Their house was the place to be and, soon, Maria became known as "The Goddess of Pall-Mall".

The infant Bacchus

In 1786, Maria and Richard went to Paris, where they were introduced to Thomas Jefferson, the American Envoy to the Court of Versailles. 47 years old and recently widowed, he instantly fell in love with the 27 year old Maria. The two both loved art and architecture and attended many exhibitions together. After six weeks, though, Richard got tired of this, and sent Maria back to London. This was a hard blow to Jefferson, who wrote Maria a 4000-word love letter known as "The Dialogue of the Head vs. the Heart". The two started a correspondence that lasted to the end of Jefferson's life. But nothing more happened between them. Maria was a strict Catholic and her faith prevented her from having affairs.

Thomas Jefferson

Maria and Richard had one daughter, Louisa Paolina Angelica. However, he was constantly unfaithful to her and, eventually, the couple separated. Maria then travelled to the continent. She went to Lyon, and then made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin Mary at Loreto to fulfill a vow she had made after giving birth to a living child. Unfortunately, however, her daughter died aged about 10 while Maria was in France. She was devastated.

A View from Mr Cosway's Breakfast-Room Pall Mall, with the Portrait of Mrs Cosway

Maria then hit the road again, travelling to Lodi, where she founded the Collagio Delle Grazie, a Catholic convent and girls' school. Maria directed it until her death. In 1821, the artist briefly returned to England to take care of her ailing husband. After his death, she auctioned off his large art collection and used the funds to support her convent school. She then moved permanently to Lody, but continued paintings and exhibiting her pictures at the Royal Academy. She made illustrations for the works of several poets, including Virgil and Homer, and painted portraits of famous ladies such as Madame Recamiere and Madame Vigee Le Brun.

An Angel and Putti accompanying a child’s soul to Heaven

Because of her work at the school, the Austrian Emperor Franz I awarded her the rank of Baroness. Maria Cosway died in Lodi, at her school, on 5 January 1838.

Further reading:
Divided Affections: The Extraordinary Life of Maria Cosway, Celebrity Artist and Thomas Jefferson's Impossible Love by Carol Burnell
Richard and Maria Cosway: A Biography by Gerald Barnett

Historical Reads: Sally Salisbury

Heather Carroll remembers Sally Salisbury, one of the most famous courtesans of the early 18th century. To quote:

As a successful prostitute the viviacious and fiery Sally lived a typical hedonistic 18th century life. This landed her into prison a few times for short stays, usually for debt and minor crimes. One time she even got out of a prison stay because the judge had a huge crush on her.

But Sally got a little carried away one night in 1723. John Finch, second son of the Duchess of Winchelsea, had bought some tickets to the opera and had given them to Sally's sister and not to Sally. Well, it must have been a very good opera because Sally was pissed off that John had neglected her. An argument broke out between the two at Three Tuns Tavern and Sally, blinded by her anger, stabbed John in the heart! Ever the gentleman, John responded, "Madam, you have wounded me." Apparently, Sally wasn't aware of this and immediately began apologizing for trying to kill John. He was fine, by the way. John forgave her but the law didn't. She was sentenced to a year in prison and had to pay £100 fine.

To read the entire article, click here.

Anne Boleyn Places: Where She Lived, Where She Died

Where should you go if you wanted to retrace the steps of Anne Boleyn? Anne travelled quite a lot, and definitely a lot more than most women of her time, but there a few places that are most closely associated with her. These are the places were she was born, grew up, married, lived and died in. Sadly, not all are still standing...

Blickling Hall

The original family home of the Boleyns was a manor house in Blickling, Norfolk. It is here that Anne and her siblings, George and Mary, were born. Sadly, the house doesn't exist anymore. On its ruins, during the reign of James I, Blickling Hall was built. The house still contains a portrait and a statue of Anne, whose ghost is said to haunt its halls on the anniversary of her execution, 19th May.

Hever Castle

Located in the village of Hever, Kent, near Edenbridge, Hever Castle was the seat of the Boleyn family. Originally a country house, it was later converted into a manor. Thomas Boleyn inherited it in 1505 and moved there with his family. It was here that Anne grew up and lived until she was sent to the Netherlands to attend the Archduchess Margaret of Austria. After the Boleyn's fall, the castle was seized by Henry VIII, who gave it to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.

Palace of Whitehall

When Thomas Wolsey fell out of favour Henry, whose main London royal residence had been destroyed by fire, seized the cardinal's York Palace and, with the help of Anne Boleyn, turned it into a magnificent royal palace. The palace, which at the time of Henry's death was the largest in Europe, included sumptuous private and public rooms, beautiful gardens, a tennis court, a bowling alley, a tilt-yard for jousting and even a cockpit. It's here that Henry married Anne in 1533. Unfortunately, the palace no longer exists. In 1698, a fire destroyed it all, bar the Banqueting House, designed in 1622 by Inigo Jones.

Source: Richard James Lander

Hampton Court

Another magnificent residence that Henry VIII seized from Cardinal Wolsey. Henry spent a fortune extending and improving the palace, adding ornamental gardens and a hunting park, bowling alleys, tennis courts, a chapel, and a dining room fit for a king to entertain in. One of its gatehouses is now known as Anne Boleyn's gate. She was supposed to inhabit an apartment above it, but was executed before the works on it were finished.

The Tower of London

Anne first spent a night at the Tower of London just before her coronation. Her apartments had just been lavishly refurbished for her by her husband, Henry VIII. Three years later, Anne would briefly inhabit those rooms again, but this time as a prisoner, accused of having committed adultery, incest and treason. On 19th May 1536, she was executed on Tower Greens. Her remains are buried in the Church of St Peter ad Vincula, within the Tower walls.

Did I miss any important places associated with Anne Boleyn? And have you visited any of these palaces or would like to?

Marie Antoinette's Wardrobe

"The business of the chief Lady-in -Waiting was to see that the Queen was suitably dressed, and had all the dresses and clothes she required. She also paid the bills, an allowance o£ 100,000 francs being made for this purpose, which was supplemented when any extraordinary expenses were necessary, which frequently happened." Mme. Campan, who has given a detailed account of all these private matters, says that this lady used to sell dresses, muffs, laces, and cast-off finery, for her own profit, and the gain was very considerable.

"This lady," says Mme. Campan, "had at her orders a head lady's-maid to fold and iron the different articles of dress, two valets of the wardrobe, and a page of the wardrobe. The latter' s duty was to take to the Queen's room baskets covered with green cloth, containing all the clothes the Queen would require for the day. He gave the head lady's-maid a book containing patterns of dresses, state robes, simple dresses, etc., with a little piece of trimming of each. The lady's-maid gave the book and pincushion to the Queen, when the latter awoke. The Queen then marked with pins the patterns of the dresses she wished to wear."

One of these books of patterns is extant, and can be seen in the Archives Nationales; it is for the year 1782. "When the Queen's toilette was completed, the valets and pages came in and took away all the superfluous articles to the wardrobe, where they were
re-folded, hung up, and cleaned with such care that even the older dresses had all the brilliance of the new ones. Three rooms lined with cupboards, some with shelves, some to hang garments, were set aside for the Queen's wardrobe; large tables in these rooms served to lay the dresses on to be folded."

"The Queen usually had for winter twelve state dresses, twelve simple dresses, and twelve rich dresses on panniers, which she used for card-parties or intimate supper-parties. Summer and spring toilettes served for autumn wear also. All these toilettes were remodelled at the end of each season, unless Her Majesty desired to keep some as they were. No mention is made of muslin and cotton, or other dresses of that kind; these had only recently come into fashion, and they were not renewed each season, but were made to serve for several years."

In the French Court everything was done according to tradition: a certain stuff was worn in winter, another kind in summer. Fashion was carried to the extent of fixing certain colours for certain seasons, such as gold for frosty days, and silver for the dog-days. Anyone appearing in the gallery at Versailles attired in an unseasonable manner was looked upon as a person of bad style unused to the ways of society.

Further reading:
Rose Bertin, the creator of fashion at the court of Marie-Antoinette by Émile Langlade

Book Review: Tudor The Family History By Leanda De Lisle

Most books about the Tudors start with Henry VII firmly on the throne, focus on his son Henry VIII and his granddaughter Elizabeth I, and briefly mention the sovereigns in between. Not this one. Tudor: The Family History is really a throughout history of the family. De Lisle begins at the beginning, with Owen Tudor, whose marriage to Catherine of Valois gave the family a thin claim to the throne of England.

Then, De Lisle goes on to discuss the War of the Roses and how Henry Tudor conquered his crown. It is impossible to understand the Tudors and the decisions, right and wrong, they all made, De Lisle wisely argues, without understanding their, and their country, past. As the author points out, we tend to judge the Tudor monarchs based on how their decisions affected the future, but they themselves, in making those choices, were highly influenced by the past and the war that had torn their country apart.

The author also discusses all the subsequent Tudor monarchs, as well as the lesser known members of their family, including Margaret Beaufort, Margaret Tudor, Margaret Douglas, and Katherine and Mary Grey. Usually footnotes in history books, their stories are fascinating and deserve to be told. Here, they are. Rather than on battles, wars and the religious turmoil of the age, the focus of the book is mainly on the personal lives of the characters, the challenges they faced and how they dealt with them.

All this information is condensed in (only!) 400 pages. But if you think that De Lisle had to let out important events and details to achieve such a feat, you're highly mistaken. The book is very throughout and detailed, and, while telling the Tudor story, De Lisle also finds the space to dispell common myths about the family and provide new insights into the Princes in the Tower, the fall of Anne Boleyn and many other occurences. The author does have a gift for brevity, but never compromises accurancy to achieve it.

Fully referenced, the book also features, at the end, five appendinces that debunk myths such as Frances Brandon's reputation as a child abuser and the cold relationship between Jane Grey and her husband Guilford. But that's not all. The book also contains illustrations, family trees and maps of England and France at the time.

All written in a higly engaging and understandable writing style that makes the book flow easily and impossible to put down. The book discusses so many characters, which could easily have made the story very confusing for readers, especially since Tudor figures were known by different titles throughout their lifetimes, and often shared the same names. Knowing this, De Lisle has, for the first and only time, sacrificed accurancy for simplicity by picking a title for each character to identify him/her throughout the book.

Well-researched and highly entertaining, Tudor: The Family History is a balanced biography of one of the most interesting royal families in history, providing a fresh look on the dynasty and their actions. It's one of the few Tudor books out at the moment that really has something new to say about this fascinating subject, but also offers a great introduction to the Tudor period to those who aren't familiar with it. Highly recommended.

Tudor The Family History by Leanda De Lisle is an accurate, well-researched and throughout biography of all the members, including the lesser known ones, of the Tudor family. The author dispells myths on the Tudors and provides fresh insights on their actions in an entertaining and understandable way that makes the book a must read for experts and newbies alike.

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.

Movie Review: It's A Wonderful Life

Can you believe that I saw It's A Wonderful Life by Frank Capra for the first time only last week? The movie's a classic, but for some reason or another, I always missed it. As there's been a serious lack of interesting movies at the cinema lately, I decided to just catch up on some old classics I haven't seen yet and this was at the top of my list. So, did I like it? You bet I did.

The movie centers on George Bailey, played by James Stuart. He dreams of leaving his hometown, Bedford Falls, to explore the world, but is forced to put it off because of his responsibilities to his family, his business and the poor people of his town. George's family runs a savings and loans association that helps people move to better homes and prevents them from being exploited by the richest and meanest man in town, Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). He also falls in love with a beautiful and kind woman (Mary, played by Donna Reed), marries her and starts a family.

But when his uncle Bill loses a large fund for his company, George loses all hopes. He believes he's gonna end up in jail for fraud and thinks about committing suicide. At least that way his family, thanks to his life insurance, won't starve. Just when he's about to end his life, a second class angel (ie one who hasn't got his wings yet) appears to help him. Realising the seriousness and difficulty of the task, Clarence, the angel, decides to get creative and shows George what the world would be like if he had never been born.

It's A Wonderful Life is a sentimental but also dark fable. We see George trying his best to cope with one tragic event after another, until he becomes so discouraged that he starts believing he's worth more dead than alive. Of course, there are also enough happy moments to keep the movie from ever becoming too dark, but George's life is far from wonderful. And yet, despite all its problems and hardships, it is a lot richer than he thinks.

The movie touches some important themes, like good vs evil, lost hopes and shattered dreams, the incapacity of money to buy happiness, friendship and the spirit of community. All these issues are just as relevant today as they were in 1946. We all can relate to them. But its deepest, most powerful message, and the real reason, imo, which makes this movie such an universal success, is a simple truth we often forget about: that each of us, doesn't matter how insignificant we may think we are, can make a difference.

It's A Wonderful Life asks us the question, "What would this world be like if you had never been born?", and forces us to answer it. It reminds us, that each one of us touches the lives of many people. With a simple gesture, a generous act or a kind word we can improve the life of others, even if we don't realise it straight away. It's the way we live our life, not how much money we have in our bank account or how popular we are, that determines who we are and helps make the world a better (or worse) place.

The movie also reminds us that even when life doesn't turn out the way we planned, and throws at us things that get us down, yet we are still blessed in a thousand of little ways. Ways that can not be easily quantified and can therefore seem so small we tend to overlook them. But if we stop complaining and start looking at our lives with fresh eyes, we'd realize that we are all richer than we think. With its touching message, talented actors and inspiring plot, It's A Wonderful Life is definitely a movie everyone should see at least once.

Donkey Riding

When dauphine, Marie Antoinette was fordibben from riding horses in case she should fall and have a miscarriage (despite the fact that her marriage hadn't been consummated yet). So, she had to ride donkeys instead:

She had conceived a great desire to learn to ride. Her mother had been a great horsewoman; and, as the dauphin, like the king, was passionately addicted to hunting, which hitherto she had only witnessed from a carriage, Marie Antoinette not unnaturally desired to be mistress of an accomplishment which would enable her to give him more of her companionship. Unluckily Mercy disapproved of the idea. [...]

He wrote to Maria Teresa, who agreed with him in thinking it ruinous to the complexion, injurious to the shape, and not to be safely indulged in under thirty years of age; and, lest distance should weaken the authority of the empress, he enlisted Madame de Noailles and Choiseul on his side, and Choiseul persuaded the king that it was a very objectionable pastime for a young bride.

There was not as yet the slightest prospect of the dauphiness becoming a mother (a circumstance which was, in fact, the most serious of her vexations, and that which lasted longest): but the king on this point agreed with his minister, and after some discussion a compromise was hit upon, and it was decided that she might ride a donkey. The whole country was immediately ransacked for a stud of quiet donkeys.

In September the court moved to Compiegne, and day after day, while the king and the dauphin were shooting in one part of the woods, on the other side a cavalcade of donkey-riders, the aunts and the king's brothers all swelling Marie Antoinette's train, trotted up and down the glades, and sought out shady spots for rural luncheons out-of-doors; and, though even this pastime was occasionally found liable to as much danger as an expedition on nobler steeds, the merry dauphiness contrived to extract amusement for herself and her followers from her very disasters.

It was long a standing joke that on one occasion, when her donkey and herself came down in a soft place, her royal highness, before she would allow her attendants to extricate her from the mud, bid them go to Madame de Noailles, and ask her what the rules of etiquette prescribed when a dauphiness of France failed to keep her seat upon a donkey.

Further reading:
The Life of Marie Antoinette, Queen of France by Charles Duke Yonge

Historical Reads: 11 Terrifying Childcare Inventions From The Early 20th Century

From Popular Science. To quote:

Sleeping Porch: May 1916
A baby porch suspended a hundred feet above ground? What could possibly go wrong? As city populations grew, people grew concerned about raising young children in tight spaces. Inventors suggested the miniature sleeping porch, which could be installed outside any window. The device seemed sturdy enough -- an iron brace enabled it to carry 500 pounds of weight, while anchors protected the porch from strong winds. The compartment's barred windows and netting kept the baby from climbing out (and bugs from flying in), and as the image shows, it was roomy enough to hold a tiny carriage "so that the effort of the mother in taking the baby in and out is reduced to a minimum."

To read the entire post click here.

What were they thinking?!

Exhibition Stare Case

Victims of the steep staircase reveal all, says the heading of this satirical print. The steep staircase was located at Somerset House (now the Courtland Institute of Art) in Pall Mall, where members of the Royal Academy exhibited their paintings. Designed in 1776 by Sir William Chambers, who had been commissioned to create a new complex of government buildings with the Royal Academy as its centrepiece, the staircase was very elegant.

And very long. Thomas Rowlandson, the author of this satirical work, believed that the architect was more interested in the beauty of the staircase than in its practical utility. And he was probably right. It certainly mustn't have been easy to go up and down it when exhibitions were visited by big crowds of people, as it often happened.

Not everyone went to these exhibitions to admire the paintings, though. Some male spectators preferred to ogle the ladies, who exposed their ankles and parts of their legs to walk up the steep staircase. In Rowlandson's print, they expose so much more, though! The artist imagines the women falling down the stairs in a domino effect, revealing what's hidden beneath their delicate muslin gowns, while naughty old men look on with pleasure.

Poor ladies!

Death of King Frederick William IV Of Prussia

In a letter to her parents, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, their eldest daughter Victoria discusses the death of King Frederick William IV of Prussia:

The Princess Royal to Queen Victoria and the Prince Albert

Potsdam, 2nd January 1861

Beloved parents, at last I can find a moment for myself to sit down and collect my thoughts and to write to you an account of these two last dreadful days! My head is in such a state, I do not know where I am hardly whether I am in a dream or awake, what is yesterday and what to-day! What we have so long expected is come at last! All the confusion, bustle, excitement, noise, etc., is all swallowed up in that one thought for me I have seen death for the first time! It has made an impression upon me that I shall never, never forget as long as I live and I feel so ill, so confused and upset by all that I have gone through in the last forty-eight hours, that you must forgive me if I write incoherently and unclearly.

But to go back to Monday evening (it seems to me a year now). At a quarter to eight in the evening of Monday the 31st, I took dear darling Affie to the railway station, and took leave of him with a heavy heart. You know I love that dear boy distractedly, and that nothing could have given me more pleasure than his dear, long-wished-for visit. At nine o'clock Fritz and I went to tea at the Prince Regent's; we four were alone together. The Princess was rather low and unwell, the Prince low-spirited, and I thinking of nothing but Affie and of how dear he is. While we were sitting at tea we received bad news from Sans Souci, but nothing to make us particularly uneasy. Fritz and I went home and to bed, not being in a humour to sit up till twelve.

About half-past one we heard a knock at the door and my wardrobe maid brought in a telegram saying the King was given up, and a note from the Prince Regent saying he was going up immediately. We got up in the greatest hurry and dressed I hardly know how; I put on just what I found, and had not time to do my hair or anything. After we had hurried on our clothes we went downstairs and out for there was no time to get a carriage or a footman or anything it was a splendid night, but twelve degrees of cold (Reaumur). I thought I was in a dream finding myself alone in the street with Fritz at two o'clock at night.

We went to the Prince Regent's, and then with them in their carriages to the railway station we four all alone in the train. We arrived at Sans Souci and went directly into the room where the King lay the stillness of death was in the room only the light of the fire and of a dim lamp. We approached the bed and stood there at the foot of it, not daring to look at one another or to say a word. The Queen was sitting in an armchair at the head of the bed, her arm underneath the King's head, and her head on the same pillow on which he lay; with her other hand she continually wiped the perspiration from his forehead.

You might have heard a pin drop; no sound was heard but the crackling of the fire and the death-rattle, that dreadful sound which goes to one's heart, and which tells plainly that life is ebbing. This rattling in the throat lasted about an hour longer, and then the King lay motionless. The doctors bent their heads low to hear whether he still breathed and we stood, not even daring to sit down, watching the death-struggle; every now and then the King breathed very fast and loud, but never unclosed his eyes; he was very red in the face, and the cold perspiration pouring from his forehead. I never spent such an awful time!

And to see the poor Queen sitting there quite rent my heart three, four, five, six, seven struck, and we were still standing there one member of the family came in after the other and remained motionless in the room, sobs only breaking the silence. Oh! it is dreadful to see a person die! All the thoughts and feelings that crowded on my mind in those hours I cannot describe, more than in my whole past lifetime. The light of the morning dawned, and the lamps were taken away oh, how sad for the first morning in the year! We all went into the next room, for I assure you, anxiety, watching, standing, and crying had worn us out. The Princess fell asleep on a chair, I on a sofa, and the rest walked up and down the room asking one another, How long will it last?

Towards the middle of the day, Marianne and I went into the room alone, as we wished to stay there; we came up and kissed the Queen's hand and knelt down and kissed the King's; it was quite warm still. We stood about and waited till five o'clock and then had some dinner, and I felt so sick and faint and unwell, that Fritz sent me here to bed. At one o'clock this morning I got up and dressed, and heard that the King had not many minutes more to live, but by the time I had got the carriage I heard all was over. I drove to Sans Souci and saw the King and Queen. May God bless and preserve them, and may theirs be a long and happy and blessed reign.

Then I went into the room where the King lay, and I could hardly bring myself to go away again. There was so much of comfort in looking at that quiet, peaceful form, at rest at last after all he had suffered gone home at last from this world of suffering so peaceful and quiet he looked, like a sleeping child. Every moment I expected to see him move or breathe his mouth and eyes closed, and such a sweet and happy expression both his hands were on the coverlid. I kissed them both for the last time; they were quite cold then. Fritz and I stood looking at him for some time. I could hardly bring myself to believe that this was really death, that which I had so often shuddered at and felt afraid of; there was nothing there dreadful or appalling, only a heavenly calm and peace.

I felt it did me so much good, and was such a comfort. "Death, where is thy sting? Grave, where is thy victory? "He was a just and good man, and had a heart overflowing with love and kindness, and he has gone to his rest after a long trial which he bore with so much patience. I am not afraid of death now, and when I feel inclined to be so, I shall think of that solemn and comforting sight, and that death is only a change for the better. We went home and to bed and this morning went there at ten. I sat some time with the poor Queen, who is so calm and resigned and touching in her grief.

She does not cry, but she looks heartbroken. She said to me : "I am not longer of any use in this world. I have no longer any vocation, any duties to perform. I only lived for him." Then she was so kind to me, kinder than she has ever been yet, and said I was like her own child and a comfort to her. I saw the corpse again this morning; he is unaltered, only changed in colour, and the hands are stiffened.

The funeral will be on Saturday ; the King will lie in state till then. His wish was to be buried in Friedenskirche before the altar and his heart at Chariottenburg in the Mausoleum. Of course all will be done that he wishes. His servants are in a dreadful state. They adored him, and nursed him day and night for three years with the most devoted attachment. The King and Queen stay at Sans Souci till after the funeral, and Fritz and I here at Potsdam. . . . 

Ever your most dutiful and devoted Daughter, Victoria 

P.S. The funeral will only take place on Monday, and the body will be embalmed to-morrow. To-morrow evening there will be prayers at the bedside, and the day after the lying in state.

Further reading:
The letters of Queen Victoria, Volume 3

Book Review: Jane Boleyn By Julia Fox

Eric Ives once said that “what we know about Mary Boleyn can be written on a postcard with rooms to spare”. The same could be said for her sister-in-law, Jane Boleyn. We know so little about Jane that every biography of her must rely more on suppositions than facts. Therefore, when author Julia Fox set down to writing, she didn't have an easy task on her hands. She admirably rose to the challenge, and yet the final result, Jane Boleyn: The True Story Of The Infamous Lady Rochford, fails to bring the real Jane Boleyn to life.

What it doesn't fail to do, though, is debunk the myths and legends that, mainly due to popular culture and novels, have surrounded Jane Boleyn. Lady Rochford is often depicted in books and movies like a jealous and nasty woman who gave evidence against her husband and sister-in-law, thus sending them to their deaths, and who aided the romance between the young and silly Queen Catherine Howard and Thomas Culpepper, which cost them all their lives.

Fox argues that there is no proof that Jane hated her husband George or that their marriage was unhappy. She had no reason for wanting him dead. On the contrary, it was in her interest that George should be cleared of all charges and survive. The Boleyn family, of which Jane was a member, was very wealthy and powerful, so why would she have wanted to exchange her secure life for that, much more precarious and poorer, of a traitor's wife?

Fox also tries to explain Jane's role in Queen Catherine's affair. Jane had managed to get back into the King's favour after the downfall of her family and carve a successful career for herself at court. Her job was to serve the Queen and that's what she did. When she realised what her young mistress was really up to and had involved her into, it was too late. She decided to keep silent. It was the wrong choice and she paid for it with her life.

Although Fox manages to clear her tarnished reputation, the real Jane Boleyn still proves elusive. Rather than discussing what Jane did, said and felt, the book relates what Jane is supposed to have done and the events she is supposed to have attended. Because of this, the reader can feel like he/she's reading, instead of a biography, a summary of all the main events that occurred during Henry VIII's reign that Jane supposedly witnessed. While it is true that every event is seen through Jane's eyes and the role she would have had in them, the words "probably", "likely", and "possibly" appear so often in the text that they can make you doubt that Jane was there at all.

This, however, isn't Fox's fault. Fox has done a marvellous job at researching Jane's life and fitting the pieces (too many of which are too sadly still missing) of her puzzle together, so as to present the most accurate portrait possible. And she does so in a straightforward and entertaining way. Her writing style is very readable, which makes the book flow easily. I really can't fault her work and I look forward to reading more of her books in the future.

But, unfortunately, there just isn't enough information to write a biography on Jane yet (and there may never be). That's why I recommend this book only to Tudor newbies or to those who are convinced that Jane is really the infamous woman she's so often portrayed to be. Just don't expect any new information, groundbreaking theory or even just a better understanding of what kind of woman Jane really was.

Jane Boleyn: The True Story Of The Infamous Lady Rochford by Julia Fox is a readable and enjoyable biography that sets the record straight on the myths that surround this much maligned Tudor figure. However the book, rather than discussing what Jane did focuses on the events that she is supposed to have attended. It's a book based more on suppositions than facts, but that's due to the scarcity of information on Jane, not on any fault or shortcoming of the author.

Available at: amazon, barnes and noble, and book depository

Rating: 3/5

Rainy Day

Passer Payez, Louis Leopold Boilly, about 1803

Rain Shower in Patenkirchen, Heinrich Bürkel, 1838

Rue de Paris, temps de pluie, Gustave Caillebotte, 1877

Entering the Bullring, Rain, Eugenio Lucas Villaamil, about 1885 

Kutschenfahrt im Regen, Heinrich Gottfried Wilda, 1886

Rain Storm, Union Square, Childe Hassam, 1890

Rain in an oak forest, Ivan Shishkin, 1891

L' Entrée du pont de la Guillotière par un temps de pluie, Nicolas Sicard

Rue Saint-Honoré in the Afternoon. Effect of Rain, Camille Pissarro, 1897

Rainy Evening on Hennepin Avenue, Robert Koehler, about 1902

The Plaza After Rain, Paul Cornoyer, Before 1910

Auf dem Heimweg, Henri Schouten, about 1927

Malaya Sadovaya Street, Alexander Mikhailovich Semionov, 1979

Leaving In The Rain, Steve Hanks
After a rain. Rainbow, Arkhip Kuindzhi, before 1910