Just to reassure anyone who may have been concerned about Abby’s wellbeing, this is what she’s doing now, after lunch. There’s a lovely concert on the radio – Vivaldi & Handel – the sun is out after a grey, rainy morning, all’s right with the world.
I have a confession to make. I’ve reached an advanced age without reading anything by P G Wodehouse. I was challenged by Simon in my online bookgroup to do something about this appalling hole in my literary knowledge so my lunchtime reading this week has been The Inimitable Jeeves. It was the perfect choice & I know I’m going to read more Wodehouse after this first dip.
Everyone knows about Jeeves & Wooster, either through the books or, more recently, through the TV series with Hugh Laurie & Stephen Fry. I haven’t seen the series but as I read, I could imagine both actors in the roles. I was a great fan of Blackadder & Hugh Laurie’s Prince Regent & the Honourable George would have been perfect preparation for playing Bertie Wooster, rich, vacuous, the original silly young ass-about-town. I don’t know whether Dorothy L Sayers had read any Wodehouse when she created Lord Peter Wimsey, but I was reminded very much of Wimsey in his most piffling moments as I read this book.
Jeeves is the perfect servant, although he’s really Bertie’s keeper. Bertie would have lost all his money at the races, been swindled by every crook in London & wear the most unsuitable clothes imaginable (purple socks, really!) if not for Jeeves. Jeeves also reads improving books, has a network of informers the length & breadth of the country & anticipates all Bertie’s follies, stepping in at the crucial moment to save the day.
Every story in this volume is linked but they’re seperate stories rather than a continuous narrative. I’ve had a quick look at the P G Wodehouse website & it seems that a lot of stories were first published in the Strand magazine. Bertie finds himself involved in the tangled love affairs of his friend, Bingo Little. In the process he finds he’s proposed to the object of Bingo’s affections. Fortunately, Bingo has fallen in love with someone else in the meantime. Bertie’s terrifying Aunt Agatha summons him to France to meet a young woman who is destined (by Aunt Agatha) to be his bride. Jeeves saves Bertie from a very sticky situation involving fraud & blackmail & Bertie is still unattached at the end of the story. Undaunted, Agatha sends him down to the country to meet Honoria Glossop, the perfect wife for scatterbrained Bertie, but Bertie himself is less enthusiastic.
Bertie flees to New York to escape the wrath of Aunt Agatha after his engagement to Honoria ends & becomes involved with the theatrical ambitions of Cyril Bassington-Bassington. On his return to England, he becomes involved in a handicap race for parsons organised by his cousins, Claude & Eustace, & needs Jeeves’s help when the favourite goes lame & it looks as though Bertie will lose his money yet again.
The charm of the stories is in the voice of Bertie & the imperturbability of Jeeves. The 1920s slang is very funny & the recreation of that period of excess is just gorgeous. Bertie is stupid but he means well. He usually gets into trouble trying to help a friend or because he’s too polite to snub someone who imposes on his good nature. Aunt Agatha is a wonderful creation. Rude, overbearing, a grande dame, an Edwardian relic, maybe even a Victorian relic. I think she’s wonderful. I have the first novel in the series, Thank You Jeeves, on the tbr shelves & I think it will be coming down sooner rather than later. We also have a lot of the books on audio at work so I look forward to reading & listening to more Wodehouse very soon.
…as a starving cat. This is Abby looking truly pathetic as she tries to shame me into feeding her instead of posting about The Inimitable Jeeves, which was my plan for the next little while. She doesn’t look as though she’s on her last legs, which isn’t surprising as she ate breakfast not all that long ago. I was taking a photo of the cover of Jeeves to illustrate my review when Abby decided she was being neglected. I’m a soft touch though, so we’re both going to have an early lunch & I’ll be back to post about my first encounter with Jeeves, Bertie Wooster & Aunt Agatha later.
I was very pleased & surprised to read a comment on my post about Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey a few weeks ago. The comment was from Rosy Thornton, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed very much in the past. Rosy kindly offered to send me a copy of her new book, The Tapestry of Love, which is set in the Cevennes region of France where Stevenson & his donkey, Modestine, travelled over a century ago.
Catherine Parkstone is in her late 40s, divorced, her children grown up. She decides to sell her home in England & move to La Grelaudiere in the mountainous Cevennes region. Her family had spent holidays there when she was a child & she wants a complete change & the opportunity to start up in business as a seamstress & upholsterer. The novel follows a year in Catherine’s new life. She arrives as the farmers are bringing their sheep down from the mountains for the winter. Gradually she meets her neighbours, adjusts to the power cuts, the torrential rain, the lack of mobile phone reception & the rhythms of village life. On a walk exploring the countryside, she discovers a property owned by the enigmatic Patrick Castagnol, a businessman who rents out holiday cottages. A man who speaks excellent English, whose accent is subtly different to the other inhabitants, a man has lived all his life in the area except for “university, city life. I came back.” Catherine becomes part of the community, begins taking orders for her soft furnishings, makes friends with the locals & adjusts her life to the rhythms of a vanishing way of life.
The modern world does intrude, even in this remote place. The area is now a National Park & only rural businesses are permitted, which causes problems when Catherine wants to register her business. There are few jobs for the young apart from agriculture & tourism so the farmers watch their children move away. But, as much as Catherine becomes absorbed in this new life in the mountains, she can’t ignore the life she left behind. She worries about her children, self-contained Tom & enthusiastic Lexie. Her mother is in a nursing home with dementia. When her younger sister, Bryony, an overworked lawyer, comes to stay for a few days, Catherine’s old & new lives collide. Bryony makes an immediate connection with Patrick that threatens his growing friendship with Catherine & when Bryony decides to come back to La Grelaudiere for a three month sabbatical, Catherine is disturbed by Bryony’s intrusion into her life.
There’s so much to enjoy in this book. Catherine is a sympathetic character & I loved all the detail of her life in La Grelaudiere. I’m not crafty at all, I can barely sew on a button, but I enjoyed learning a little about upholstery in the way Catherine gradually showed the locals that they needed new curtains or chair covers. Catherine takes on the restoration of a processional banner of St Julien for Pere Amyot, the priest of the local church which leads her to visit a local silk museum with Patrick & learn more about the techniques of medieval tapestry work. She is given a swarm of bees & learns how to keep them & extract their honey. The scene where Catherine tells the bees in time-honoured tradition of a death is very moving.
Catherine’s friendships with her neighbours are so realistic. The farmers & shopkeepers are welcoming but not effusive. This is not a novel in the posh-Londoner-goes-native-in-France-or-Italy-with-comical-villagers style. Catherine’s tact & her obvious talent with the needle are crucial in making a success of her new life. The steps by which Madame Bouschet & Madame Parkstone become Marie-Josephe & Catherine, true friends, are portrayed with almost Victorian restraint & delicacy. Catherine’s relationship with Patrick is similarly restrained. They’re mature people with past lives that they’re not altogether ready to share. I enjoyed this chapter where they have dinner & she realises what a strain it can be to live your whole life in a new language,
There was something liberating about talking her own language for an evening. It was funny how, for all her competence, she never felt entirely her real self when conversing in French… It wasn’t the search for words – or not always or only that. It was more a feeling of everything being filtered, somehow, like communicating through gauze. She almost felt she was speaking a part. But here, in English, it was all so much more direct. What of Patrick, though – was he quite himself, in this language which was not his own?
This scene sums up their relationship for most of the book, warm but wary. It’s like a slow medieval dance, coming together then moving apart. The Tapestry of Love is a really satisfying book. I was excited to be offered my very first review copy & I’m pleased to be able to recommend it so highly.
Desperate Reader’s enthusiastic review of The Blush by Elizabeth Taylor a few weeks ago sent me to the tbr shelves to grab my own copy. I’m sorry to say it had been languishing there since 1994. I’ve certainly proved the worth of my tbr shelves this year. This year of buying fewer books has been studded with the discovery of books I bought so long ago with every intention of reading immediately but, only now, after reading a review or suddenly being seized with an enthusiasm for the author or period, getting around to reading them. Elizabeth Taylor is an author I’ve read with great enjoyment over the years. I’ve read several of her novels, At Mrs Lippincote’s is an especial favourite, but although I have a couple of volumes of her short stories on the shelves, until this year I haven’t read many short stories. I always thought I wasn’t a fan although I seem to have collected quite a few volumes. Like many fellow bloggers, I find it almost impossible to leave a Virago in a second-hand bookshop & The Blush was one of these. I often choose short stories as my lunchtime reading at work & last week, I read The Blush.
Desperate Reader highlighted Perhaps A Family Failing as her favourite story & I certainly agree that the picture of a disastrous wedding night was funny & tragic. I found the picture of the bride, reading women’s magazines to find out how to be a wife so sad. Her pathetic insistence on all the proprieties during their courtship, keeping him at arms length, conducting the whole relationship as instructed by Women’s Own was heartbreaking. The wedding was everything, the reason for the relationship. She hadn’t given a thought to what came after, apart from buying a chiffon nightie to tempt her husband on the honeymoon. She thought that would guarantee the success of the marriage. Did these two people know each other at all?
My favourite story was The Letter Writers. Emily, a spinster living in an English village, has been writing to Edmund, a writer living in Rome, for years. They’ve never met until now, when he’s visiting England & proposes a visit. They’ve built up an image of each other & of their lives & Emily is apprehensive about meeting him. She lives her life in anticipation of writing to him. Incidents of village life become amusing stories for her letters. Even when she visited Rome, she had avoided seeing him, unwilling to break the spell. As she prepares for his visit, Emily remembers their wonderful correspondence. She becomes almost frightened of the meeting, they know each other so well yet not at all,
‘He knows too much about me, so where can we begin?’ she wondered. She had confided such intimacies in him. At that distance, he was as safe as the confessional, with the added freedom from hearing any words said aloud. She had written to his mind only. He seemed to have no face, & certainly no voice… She had been so safe with him. They could not have wounded one another, but now they might.
This story was based on a relationship Taylor had with a young writer, Robert Liddell, who lived in Greece. They were both apprehensive about meeting after a long, intimate correspondence. Luckily, they liked each other in person as well as on the page. Emily & Edmund’s meeting isn’t as successful as Emily descends into small talk & confusion, not helped by her cat eating the lobster that was destined for lunch. There are several cats in these stories. Elizabeth Taylor was obviously a cat lover & knew the havoc they can wreak.
I enjoyed reading these stories & if you’re a lover of the middlebrow short story, I’d recommend The Blush. If you would like to explore Taylor’s short stories in more depth, I can also recommend Nicola Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor. As well as a fascinating biography of a very private woman, Beauman concentrates on the short stories as they have been very little written about in the critical works on Taylor.
Macbeth is my favourite Shakespeare play. I’ve read it dozens of times. I’ve seen several productions on DVD. My favourite is the 1970s RSC production with Ian McKellen & Judi Dench. I plan to watch it again this weekend. The most expensive book I own is a Folio Society Letterpress edition of Macbeth. I bought it a few years ago & it’s a beautiful object as well as being a book I really treasure because of the contents. I’ve never worried about first editions, mainly because I can’t afford to collect them & also because I buy books to read not as investments. I know some collectors do both, keep their first editions pristine & also have reading copies but I’m not a collector, just a reader.
The Folio Society edition is gorgeous, hand-bound with creamy, mould-made paper & handmade marbled paper on the cover so no two copies are the same. You can see the famous opening lines of the play above. It lives in a presentation box along with another volume by Nicholas Brooke, discussing the origins of the play, Shakespeare’s sources & influences & some of the real history behind the fiction. This has always fascinated me. I’ve known for a long time that Shakespeare’s history plays aren’t to be taken seriously as historical documents. Look at what he did to Richard III! He used the chronicles & histories available to him & sometimes cannibalised other plays to create his own works.
I’ve always been interested in the real story behind Macbeth. I knew it had been written to please the new English King James I who was also King James VI of Scotland. It reflected James’s well-known interest in witchcraft & painted his legendary ancestor, Banquo, in a flattering light. So, I was looking forward to reading Fiona Watson’s new book on Macbeth to find out more about the reality behind Shakespeare’s great tragic figure.
The real Macbeth lived in the 11th century. He was a contemporary of the English kings Cnut & Edward the Confessor. He was the first King of Scotland known to have visited Rome. Far from a brief & bloody reign, he was King for 17 years, a time of some peace & prosperity for his kingdom. He did murder the previous king, Duncan, but he wasn’t the venerable old man of Shakespeare. Most kings of Scotland at this time were murdered by their successors, it was a brutal fact. Scottish history of this period is still quite obscure. There are very few sources, unlike in England, where there is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle among others. Fiona Watson sets the scene with an in-depth look at Scotland in the 11th century & its place in Europe. Gradually the focus narrows to Scotland & the influence of England, the Romans, Ireland & Scandinavia on her politics & economy.
The Scottish succession had passed from Kenneth mac Alpin, the legendary 9th century King of Scotland to his sons, Constantine & Aed. For the next 200 years, the succession alternated between the descendants of these two kings, the choice always falling on an adult male who had proven himself a warrior & leader of men. This didn’t prevent kings being murdered by those too impatient to wait or unsure if the choice would fall on them but it did prevent the perils of child heirs & the problems associated with powerful men vying for influence over them. The rise of the House of Moray under Macbeth’s father, Finlay, interrupted this tradition. Moray was within Scotland but considered itself outside it. Finlay ruled his fiefdom & didn’t see himself as subject to the King of the Scots as other mormaers or earls of parts of Scotland did. A marriage between a daughter of the line of Kenneth mac Alpin & a ruler of Moray led to Finlay asserting his maternal heritage when the line of Constantine died out at the end of the 10th century. Finlay’s supporters decided to push his claim as the next King of Scots as he was descended through the female line from Aed, the line of the alternate kings. This is all very complicated but I hope I’ve got it right. This was Macbeth’s claim to the throne, & as Watson claims, it was really a continuation of the existing arrangement of rulers from alternate lines of descent from Kenneth mac Alpin.
Macbeth, however, after killing Duncan to take the throne, was unable to perpetuate his dynasty. He had married Gruoch, the widow of Macbeth’s own cousin whom he had killed in battle. Gruoch had a son, Lulach, brought up as Macbeth’s heir as they failed to have any children of their own. Gruoch, made infamous as Lady Macbeth by Shakespeare, was herself descended from the royal line & would have enhanced Macbeth’s position as King. Macbeth’s reign was relatively peaceful & as he made a pilgrimage to Rome, he must have been confident that the realm would be safe without him, perhaps leaving Lulach as Regent.
Macbeth seems to have retired, or been persuaded to retire by Lulach or his nobles after a reign of 17 years. Lulach succeeded to the throne but Duncan’s son, Malcolm, had been growing up in the Orkneys & chose this moment to invade from the north. Lulach was killed & it is speculated that Macbeth then came out of retirement for the final confrontation with Malcolm, where he was killed. As is always the case, history is written by the victors & the short-lived Moray dynasty were soon vilified in the chronicles as wicked Macbeth & his inept stepson, Lulach. Malcolm’s descendants consolidated their position & ruled Scotland until the 13th century & their version of history is the one that prevailed.
There is much more in Fiona Watson’s book than I’ve mentioned here. I’ve hardly touched on the influence of the Celtic & Roman Churches in the way Scottish history was told, or mentioned the achievements of Macbeth’s reign. My only quibble with the book is the insertion of fictional reconstructions which are quite clunky & add little to the story. Apart from that, Macbeth: a true story is fascinating & entertainingly told. If you’re at all interested in this murky period of Scotland’s history then I would recommend Fiona Watson’s book.
What a joy it is to visit 44 Scotland Street again. The Importance of Being Seven is the sixth collection of episodes from the daily novel that Alexander McCall Smith writes for The Scotsman newspaper. The short chapters are about 3pp long & it can be disconcerting when you’ve been following a story for several episodes & suddenly the scene changes. Still, it’s comforting to know that you’ll meet the characters again a few pages on & resolve that cliffhanger ending that McCall Smith is so good at. I’ve always wondered how the 19th century readers of Dickens coped with the weekly or monthly wait for the next instalment of Little Dorrit or Bleak House. I’m an impatient reader, rushing to read just one more chapter to find out what happens so I can’t think of anything worse than having to wait a month for the next instalment. A day is probably as long as I could bear to wait but having the whole year’s instalments in one volume means I can read the lot in a couple of days & sigh with satisfaction at the end.
All the characters from the previous books are here & it only takes a couple of pages to remember their stories. There’s newly married Matthew, the art gallery owner who famously wore a distressed oatmeal jumper & crushed strawberry trousers. Luckily, they’re nowhere to be seen in this book. His kind, competent wife, former teacher, Elspeth Harmony, has probably consigned them to the back of the wardrobe. How long will it be, though, before Matthew’s over-protective solicitousness drives her crazy? Especially as she’s now pregnant & they’re looking for a bigger flat. Elspeth won my heart in a previous book when she taught at the Steiner School & pinched the ear of a particularly awful little girl. Of course, she had to resign but I was cheering her on.
Anthropologist Domenica Macdonald continues her friendly feud with her neighbour Antonia Collie as they plan a trip to an Italian villa. When Antonia invites artist Angus Lordie & his dog Cyril (he of the golden tooth) along as well, Domenica is immediately suspicious of her motives. Does Antonia have designs on Angus? Bruce, the narcissistic surveyor, has a new fiancée, Lizzie, but is he just after her money? Lizzie’s friend, Diane, lays a trap to discover Bruce’s true feelings. One of the funniest chapters in the book involves Bruce as the surveyor of Matthew & Elspeth’s expensive new flat. Matthew had met Bruce before as they’re both former boyfriends of Pat Macgregor, & they disliked each other on sight. Bruce’s snide comments about the price Matthew paid & the unstable structure of the house have Matthew in emotional meltdown until Elspeth takes control & creates order out of chaos.
In the Introduction to this volume, McCall Smith says that he’s amazed by the many people he meets who are concerned about the characters of Scotland Street, but especially about Bertie Pollock, the put-upon six year old son of the dreadful Irene, the worst mother in modern fiction. Bertie is at the heart of this book & of the whole series. The other characters are adults & however much we feel for Big Lou or Elspeth or Pat, they can look after themselves. Bertie is at the mercy of a mother who doesn’t understand him. She’s devoted to the theories of Freud, Jung & Melanie Klein but her worst sin is that she never listens to Bertie. She is the classic over-achiever who refuses to let Bertie be a child. She wants him to grow up too soon & in her own image. Bertie goes to a Steiner School & the other children are horrible. Olive is the bossy, vindictive little girl whose ear was pinched; Tofu is a liar; Hiawatha has smelly socks. Bertie’s life is filled with saxophone lessons, Italian conversazione with his mother & visits to his psychotherapist. His one spot of joy is his weekly Scout meeting although the other children are also members of the pack so he can’t escape them entirely. Bertie’s little brother, Ulysses, has an unfortunate resemblance to his previous psycho-analyst, Dr Fairbairn, & a habit of throwing up whenever he looks at his mother. Bertie’s father, Stuart, is pretty ineffectual, as much a victim of Irene as Bertie is. The high spot of their lives is a fishing trip they take that leads to them meeting a young boy who represents everything Bertie wants for his own his life. Andy plays rugby, has a collection of penknives & has never heard of yoga or psychotherapy. There’s definitely some hope at the end of the book that Bertie & his father might make a stand against Irene – & not just by moving to Glasgow when they’re older, a dream they both share.
Scotland Street is an absorbing place to visit. I love the fact that McCall Smith has become famous for writing such gentle, moral tales. All his books have similar themes of right & wrong. His good characters are striving to do the right thing & his bad characters get their comeuppance sooner or later. The books are full of humour too. McCall Smith pokes fun at his pretentious characters with such enthusiasm. I think it’s heartening to think that this gentle humour is what readers want. Not everyone wants to read misery memoirs or violent thrillers. Bertie is longing for his seventh birthday, thinking his life will change, that people will respect him more when he reaches this great milestone. He doesn’t get there in this book, but that only gives us something to look forward to in the next.
I’m continuing the Scottish theme in my reading with The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. I’m reading this with my 19th century bookgroup. I’ve also just started reading Fiona Watson’s new book about the real Macbeth, stripping away the myths to reveal a more complex picture of Dark Age Scotland. I’m looking forward to both of them.
Abby has spent another Sunday morning in her favourite spot, engaged in her favourite activity – sleeping on the couch. It’s a sunny morning but the wind is bitterly cold & rain is predicted for this afternoon. We’re both enjoying Melbourne’s first proper winter for some years. Chilly mornings, even a few frosty mornings; sunny, cold days & rain at decent intervals. My water tanks are full & the garden is looking lovely. The spring bulbs are pushing through & the Earlicheer daffs are blooming already. The single camellias are over for another year but the pretty pink one above still has lots of buds. I planted a couple of daphne, one pink & one white, & they both have buds & the geraniums are unstoppable. While Abby slept, I made some lentil & veggie soup which smells delicious. Enough for lunch & plenty for the freezer. I love this time of year. After lunch I’ll settle in for an afternoon’s reading & Abby will move from the couch to my lap & settle in for another snooze. I hope you’re enjoying your Sunday, whatever you’re doing.
Reviewing short story collections is difficult. It’s hard to talk about the stories without giving too much away. I’ve enjoyed reading this collection of Daphne Du Maurier’s stories very much but I’m just going to concentrate on one of the stories. Two of the stories in this collection, the title story & The Birds were made into movies. Don’t Look Now by Nicolas Roeg & starring Julie Christie & Donald Sutherland, is generally considered a successful adaptation. The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock may be a successful horror movie (I haven’t seen it) but from what I’ve read, it’s only loosely based on the original story. Du Maurier hated it & couldn’t understand why the setting had been changed from Cornwall to California.
The Birds is the story of an ecological disaster. Nat Hocken is a farm worker, a solitary man despite being married with children. He enjoys his work, hedging & thatching, lonely work that leaves him free to enjoy his own company & observe nature. He especially enjoys watching the birds in all weathers along the coast. One day, at the beginning of winter, he notices that the birds seem to be restless, hovering over the sea, massing together. He thinks it’s just the early onset of winter & gets on with his work. That night, he’s woken by the sound of a bird tapping on the window, trying to get in,
He listened & the tapping continued until, irritated by the sound, Nat got out of bed & went to the window. He opened it &, as he did so something brushed his hand, jabbing at his knuckles, grazing the skin. Then he saw the flutter of the wings & it was gone, over the roof, behind the cottage… He shut the window & went back to bed, but feeling his knuckles wet put his mouth to the scratch. The bird had drawn blood.
Soon, the children’s bedroom is full of birds & Nat is fighting against them in the darkness, desperate to get them out of the house. Next morning he tries to tell his neighbours of the birds’ strange behaviour but they laugh at his fears. Later, on the radio news, he hears of similar incidents all over the country. The birds have banded together & are attacking humans & other animals. Nat sees hundreds of gulls sitting on the waves, just waiting. Waiting for what? Nat’s wife thinks the Government should “do something”, get the Army out to shoot the birds, drive them away. Nat isn’t confident that the authorities can do anything & begins barricading his family into their house, blocking all the windows & stopping up the chimneys. He plans to get in supplies as if to withstand a siege. He looks out to sea,
The gulls had risen. They were circling, hundreds of them, thousands of them, lifting their wings against the wind. It was the gulls that made the darkening of the sky. And they were silent. They made not a sound. They just went on soaring & circling, rising, falling, trying their strength against the wind.
Next day, he visits his boss’s farm & finds the family still defiant, planning to shoot the birds & have pigeon pie for supper. Later, he returns to the farm & finds everyone dead, killed by the birds. He takes what supplies he can & retreats to his house with his family. A National Emergency has been declared but there’s no sense that anyone in authority is coming to help. The sense of menace in this story is incredible. Du Maurier builds up the suspense from Nat’s first sighting of the birds massing on the cliffs to the final, indeterminate ending, with the family waiting for something to happen & the sound of the birds tapping on the windows & the larger birds attacking the door.
The ordinariness of the setting & the threat makes it more frightening. I don’t like horror stories full of serial killers, zombies & vampires. The stories I find scary are those, like The Birds, that are rooted in the everyday. It’s never spelled out what turns the birds from benign creatures to killers. Has humanity’s carelessness of the environment led to a lack of food for the birds? Are they revenging themselves on the people who have ruined their habitats? There seems no reason, no explanation for their aberrant behaviour. Nat is Everyman, fighting for survival. The story is all the more powerful for the uncertain conclusion & the lack of explanation. Like a good ghost story, the ambiguity is what makes it frightening. Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale & John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, The Birds is frightening because it’s possible. The world it depicts is recognizable. It wouldn’t take much to see it come true.
I love reading eyewitness accounts of historical events. Helene Hanff in 84 Charing Cross Rd puts it beautifully when she says (after reading, & being underwhelmed by, the Canterbury Tales), “Now if Geoffrey had kept a diary & told me what it was like to be a clerk in the palace of Richard II – THAT I’d learn Olde English for…I’m a great lover of I-was-there books.”
Jean-Baptiste Clery was valet-de-chambre to Louis XVI & was the only servant permitted to accompany Louis & his family to the Temple where they were imprisoned in 1792. Louis & his family – Marie Antoinette, their children, the Dauphin & Madame Royale & his sister, Madame Elizabeth – were kept in very strict imprisonment. Their guards delighted in enforcing every petty rule & being rude & disrespectful. It was decided that the family should not have access to anything that could be used as a weapon so as well as knives & scissors, the guards removed pins, needles & bodkins from the women so they could no longer sew to occupy themselves. The guards took pleasure in taunting the King & being deliberately rude to provoke him but they were rarely successful. He remained calm & polite to his captors to the end.
Clery was able to see his wife occasionally & he devised many ingenious ways to pass on any news he learned to the King who was almost never alone. The family were eager to know what was happening in Paris & they were not allowed to have visitors or see newspapers. The guards did manage to leave lying around any newspaper articles attacking the royal family & Clery often tried to hide these to avoid distressing Louis.
Whatever one thinks of the causes of the French Revolution, the abuses perpetrated by the ruling class & the dreadful poverty of the working people, the punishment of the aristocrats was truly horrible. The royal family were quite fatalistic, having seen the fate of many of their friends & courtiers at the hands of the revolutionaries. Louis was eventually tried for treason & executed in January 1793. Marie Antoinette & Madame Elizabeth suffered the same fate. The little Dauphin died in prison, after suffering physical & psychological deprivation. Only Madame Royale left the Temple alive.
Clery’s account is brief, only 130pp. He revered Louis & the whole family & was obviously overcome by the honour of serving them so intimately. Clery reports every instance of kindness or condescension he receives from them. Louis is presented as an almost Christ-like figure, nobly suffering & always turning the other cheek, accepting his fate & going to his death with dignity. But, this is not just a hagiography. Clery also shows Louis as a loving husband & father, teaching the Dauphin, playing with him & acting as an example of strength to the whole family. It is these anecdotes of a loving family that are so very moving.
Louis is a much more dignified figure than the lumpish dolt so often presented in biographies & movies, more interested in taking clocks apart than making love to his wife & so removed from events in his kingdom that he wrote “Rien” in his diary on the day the mob stormed the Bastille. I’ve always thought Louis & Marie Antoinette were the unfortunate inheritors of their class prejudices & the social conditions created by the policies of former kings. The regime was unable or unwilling to change & when social conditions deteriorated, & the people’s suffering became unbearable, revolution was inevitable. This is a very moving account of dignity & loyalty under great stress.