The Past is Myself – Christabel Bielenberg

Christabel & Peter Bielenberg were married in 1934. She was English but she gave up her British citizenship to live in Hamburg with Peter, a would-be lawyer from a liberal family. The Bielenbergs & their friends thought that Hitler was a joke; they couldn’t believe that his crude appeal to xenophobia & nationalism could really succeed. However, as time went on, they became more & more distressed by the direction Germany was taking. Peter qualified as a lawyer & joined his father’s firm but, when a client who had been acquitted was immediately picked up by the Gestapo & rearrested, he could no longer see any point in practising law.

By the time war broke out in 1939, Peter was working for the Ministry of Economics, eventually spending most of the war managing an aircraft factory in Graudenz. Christabel & their three sons were living in Berlin until the bombing became too intense. They spent most of the war in a village in the Black Forest. Peter’s friends including Adam von Trott, one of the group who planned the July 20, 1944 assassination of Hitler. When the plot failed, Peter was caught up in the aftermath, arrested & eventually imprisoned in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. Chris was able to get an interview with the Gestapo officer in charge of Peter’s case & convinced him of Peter’s innocence. He was released & went into hiding for the rest of the war to avoid being called back to his Army unit. The book ends with the arrival of Allied troops at the end of the war.

This is a fascinating memoir that shows a different side to the war. I’ve read many books about the Home Front in England but very few from the German side, let alone by an Englishwoman in Germany. The threat of the Nazis becomes more evident as the years pass. Soon, the Bielenbergs are wary with new people, sounding them out before they can speak freely. Even a joke about Hitler or an unguarded comment can lead to prison. Living under such constant strain must have been wearing. Peter was involved on some level with the German Resistance who opposed Hitler & must have been under surveillance. I found it astonishing that Chris didn’t suffer from discrimination because she was English, even as the Allied bombing raids intensified. I can’t imagine that a German woman would have avoided internment in England during the war. It may have been due to class. The Bielenbergs were a comfortable middle-class family & when they move to Rohrbach, the villagers do all they can to make Chris & the children feel at home.

Life in Rohrbach goes on much as it always has, apart from the problems of rationing. There’s only one Nazi in the village but no-one pays any attention to him. When an American airman is shot down & finds his way to the village, the Mayor rings the nearest town for instructions. When told to lock him up, the only police cell is cleaned, the bed made with fresh linen & an enormous meal offered to the exhausted American. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in the movie Mrs Miniver when a German pilot is shot down & spouts Nazi propaganda to the last.

Once Peter is arrested, the pace of the narrative quickens & it reads almost like a thriller. Chris gets permission to see Peter in Ravensbrück & her journey by train (in a compartment with the wife & daughters of the Camp Commandant) & then the long walk around the perimeter of the camp is incredibly tense. Her journey to Berlin to see Lange, the Gestapo officer, & her interrogation, is also full of tension but the anger she feels drives away her nerves. She describes the ruins of the city, meets an old friend who now lives among those ruins, & realises how safe she has been in the country. She is saved from almost certain death when a stranger advises that she leave her train & take the Underground. Later she hears that the train was bombed & many people killed.

On her journey back to Rohrbach, she finds herself alone in a carriage with an SS officer. He tells her of his life in Riga in Latvia &, as his family was persecuted by the Russians, they thought the Germans had come to liberate them. He had Aryan looks so was recruited for the SS & participated in the massacre of Jews in Poland. Once he knows that Chris is not German (she tells him she’s Irish) he pours out his story. When Peter is released from prison, he tells Chris what happened to him through one long night. He never speaks of it again. He was extraordinarily lucky to be prevented by his work from being with the conspirators on July 20 & so was able, with Chris’s help, to be released. Until the war ends, Peter hides near Rohrbach & the whole village must be aware of what is happening.

Chris wrote The Past is Myself in the 1960s & she was criticized for what some critics felt she left out. She does mention the persecution of the Jews & she shelters a Jewish couple for a couple of nights. However, there’s no mention of the Holocaust at all. She acknowledges that she & her family were fortunate. Their life in Rohrbach was comparatively safe, away from the devastating raids of the major cities. The villagers seemed to be sensible, pragmatic people who turned a cynical eye on their government even though they weren’t free to express their feelings too openly. Even Peter’s involvement with the assassination plot was peripheral & he was lucky to be released. Luck seemed to be with the Bielenbergs at every turn. When faced with these criticisms, Chris said that she wrote the book with the knowledge she had at the time. Like many Germans she found it difficult to believe in the enormity of the camps. The newspapers were censored & she just didn’t know, even though she should have been in a position to know as Peter was part of the opposition to the regime. She wrote the book to show another side of Germany to counteract the stereotype of all Germans being Nazis. I think it’s valuable to hear stories from all sides & Chris’s perspective as an Englishwoman is very revealing. The book is a gripping read & I found it fascinating.

Christabel Bielenberg was on Desert Island Discs in November 1992 & I found it very interesting to listen to this after reading the book. I also have the sequel to The Past is Myself, The Road Ahead, on the tbr shelves which describes life after the war when the Bielenbergs lived in Ireland.

Jezebel’s Daughter – Wilkie Collins

It’s been much too long since I read a Wilkie Collins novel so I was very pleased to see that Oxford University Press were publishing a new edition of one of his lesser-known novels, Jezebel’s Daughter. This is a late novel, published in 1880 & a short novel by Victorian standards, only 250pp. However, it is full of all the themes & preoccupations of Collins’ other novels – the position of women in society, the growing influence of science for good & evil, social justice & a good proportion of superstition, sensation & intrigue, including a pivotal scene in a morgue.

David Glenney is looking back on the events of his youth from a distance of 50 years. In the 1820s, he was working in his uncle, Mr Wagner’s, business which has offices in London & Frankfort. Mr Wagner, a good businessman with a social conscience, dies, leaving his very capable widow to continue the business & to carry out his particular plan, the reform of the treatment of the insane in asylums such as Bedlam. To this end, & against the advice of lawyers, Mrs Wagner decides to take one of the inmates of Bedlam, known as Jack Straw, into her home. Jack Straw got his name because of his ability to plait straw which calms his nerves. Although the origin of his illness is unknown, some form of poisoning is suspected. He is soon devoted to Mrs Wagner & she treats him with kindness, giving him responsibilities in the business such as becoming Keeper of the Keys, a title he’s very proud of.

The Frankfort office is run by the other two partners in the business, Mr Keller & Mr Engelman. Mr Keller’s son, Fritz, is sent to the London office to get him out of the way of a young woman he wishes to marry. Minna Fontaine is the Jezebel’s daughter of the title. Madame Fontaine is the widow of an eminent chemist. She has the reputation of a spendthrift & her extravagant debts are said to have ruined her husband’s health. After his death, a medicine cabinet, said to contain dangerous potions, goes missing & investigations lead nowhere although suspicion points to Madame as the thief. Mr Keller is determined that Fritz & Minna will not marry & refuses to meet either lady. Madame Fontaine is just as determined that they will marry & her maternal devotion & her desire for Minna to marry a rich man who will pay her debts for fear of scandal, is the catalyst for the events of the novel.

David goes to Frankfort to implement another of Mr Wagner’s innovations. He wants to introduce female clerks into both the London & Frankfort offices. His conservative German partners are sceptical but treat David cordially & he does all he can to keep the young lovers in contact with each other. David is suspicious of Madame Fontaine whose outward appearance of kindness & solicitude is betrayed by an underlying tension & frustration which David glimpses several times. Eventually, Madame contrives to meet Mr Engelman, whom she fascinates & flatters until he’s hopelessly in love with her. This provides her entrée in the Keller household. She even becomes housekeeper to Mr Keller, after she nurses him through a serious illness. Mr Keller eventually agrees to Fritz & Minna’s wedding & it seems that Madame Fontaine’s problems are over.

Mrs Wagner decides to visit Frankfort, bringing Jack Straw with her. The two widows dislike each other on sight & Jack is also known to Madame Fontaine as he was once an assistant in her husband’s laboratory. Jack has knowledge of Madame’s past & she fears that this knowledge will ruin all her plans. The contents of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet give her great power & she is not afraid to use it, to devastating effect.

Jezebel’s Daughter began life as a play, The Red Vial, which Collins wrote in 1858. The play was a flop; reviewers acknowledged the sensational elements but felt that the play needed some comic sub-plot to avoid the audience sinking into despair & even some inappropriate laughter at the end of two hours of melodrama. Twenty years later, Collins reused the story in this novel. Collins excels at depicting strong women & Mrs Wagner & Madame Fontaine are wonderfully complex characters. The story doesn’t have many elements of mystery to it as we’re never really in doubt as to Madame’s duplicity. The first half of the story is told by David as an eyewitness & he is suspicious of her from the first. The second half, after an interlude consisting of three letters, is narrated by David from the testimony of others along with letters addressed to him (he’s in London through most of this part of the story) & a diary.

There may not be much mystery but there’s a lot of sensation in the plot. From the visit to Bedlam when Mrs Wagner meets Jack Straw, to the mysterious disappearance of Monsieur Fontaine’s medicine cabinet, illnesses & miraculous recoveries & the final scenes in the Deadhouse where superstitious Germans paid a Watchman to stay with their dead loved ones before their funerals in case they revived, there are enough shocks to satisfy any fan of sensation fiction. Minna is a bland heroine, sweet, dutiful & rather dim & her Fritz is boisterous & conventional. The real interest is in Madame Fontaine’s almost obsessive love for her daughter & the mixed motivations inherent in her desire for Minna’s marriage. She certainly wants her daughter to be happy & to marry the man she loves but she needs Minna to marry a rich man who will pay a promissory note that’s about to fall due. Madame Fontaine will do anything to bring about the marriage & it’s frightening to see the lengths that she will go to when it seems her plans are about to come unstuck.

Jezebel’s Daughter isn’t one of Collins’s best novels, coming near the end of his career & twenty years after the high points of The Moonstone, The Woman in White & Armadale. However, there’s a lot to enjoy in the portraits of the two widows, kindly Mr Engelman & rigidly correct Mr Keller & Jack, who often plays the role of fool or jester, presuming to speak the truth to his social superiors whether they want to hear it or not.

Oxford University Press kindly sent me a copy of Jezebel’s Daughter for review.

Victoria : a life – A N Wilson

The life of Queen Victoria is very well-known & I’ve read many books about her. I’ve read biographies, her letters to her daughter, biographies of her children, her servants, her Prime Ministers, her ancestors & books on many aspects of the Victorian period. So, another biography of Queen Victoria & especially a biography I listened to on audio for almost 20 hours, has to be fresh & different to engage my attention. Instead of retelling the story of the book, I thought I’d concentrate on what makes this biography different from the others I’ve read over the years.

First of all, it’s the writing style & the persona of the author. A N Wilson is a distinguished biographer & novelist. I’ve read several of his biographies & non-fiction books & enjoyed them all. I have his massive biography of Tolstoy on the tbr shelves & I’ve just bought the audio book version on Audible so I may listen rather than read as the book has been there for many years. Wilson’s style is amused, sympathetic, almost confiding. He obviously felt considerable affection for Victoria & he delights in quoting her most unreasonable comments from her letters. This isn’t done in a mean-spirited way, as though he’s showing how ridiculous she was, but as a way of showing how human she was, as inconsistent as any other person. He shows the Queen in all her contradictory moods. He also emphasizes parts of her character & personality that haven’t been emphasized enough.

The importance of the Queen’s German heritage is a major theme of Wilson’s biography. Victoria was three-quarters German, after all. Her paternal grandmother, Queen Charlotte, was a Princess of Mecklenburg-Strelitz & her mother, Victoire of Saxe-Coburg was also German. She married Albert, nephew of Victoire, & her closest advisors in her girlhood & the first years of her reign were Baroness Lehzen, her governess, & Baron Stockmar, Albert’s friend & advisor who became hers as well. She spoke German as easily as she did English &, when she was especially agitated or excited, her written English took on the grammatical constructions of German. Prince Albert’s dream of a liberal German state headed by Prussia was also Victoria’s dream. Victoria wasn’t very interested in European politics early in her reign but, especially after Albert’s death in 1861, as her children married into European royal houses, she grew more involved & more determined to do what she could to realise that vision. Her role as Grandmother of Europe allowed her to interfere in everything from the marriages of her grandchildren to whether or not a particular member of a German royal house should accept the crown of Greece.

Wilson also disputes the extent to which Victoria withdrew from public affairs in the years after Albert’s death. She certainly suffered from extreme grief & depression in the 1860s & she shrank from public engagements & speeches because of her shyness. However, she didn’t neglect her role as constitutional monarch & demanded to be kept up to date on all political matters – even if that meant that her ministers had to travel to Osborne or Balmoral to consult her & keep her informed. She could be stubborn & unreasonable but she had been well-trained by Albert & Stockmar in the duties of a monarch & she was determined to be involved in everything that concerned Britain & the Empire.

Victoria’s relationships with her Highland servant, John Brown & her Indian secretary, Hafiz Abdul Karim, known as the Munshi have always been controversial. One of Victoria’s most endearing qualities was her lack of racism or prejudice, her “lack of side” as Wilson calls it. She felt completely at home among her Scottish subjects, especially Highlanders, & she was fascinated by India. Her title of Empress of India may have been a bit of a joke to some politicians & critics but Victoria was proud of her connection with India & its people. Whether she was ever actually married to John Brown will probably never be known. Wilson sets out the anecdotal evidence for & against. I’ve always thought they had a genuine friendship. Victoria enjoyed being looked after & cared for & Brown was devoted to her care. He wasn’t cowed by her & spoke his mind, which she enjoyed. The Munshi was a more shadowy character. He taught Victoria Hindustani & was given access to documents that he probably should never have seen but he came to symbolise India to the Queen & she refused to believe the stories about his disreputable conduct & dubious associates. The more her children, servants & ministers tried to remove Brown & the Munshi, the more Victoria clung to them.

Victoria’s servants, especially her Private Secretaries & doctors, were especially important. A sensible Private Secretary with a sense of humour, like Sir Henry Ponsonby, was vital if the everyday business of government was to continue. Ponsonby knew how to manage the Queen. He had a genuine liking for her & knew how to handle her moods. He was a necessary go-between for the family & politicians. Of her doctors, Sir James Reid was a favourite. He was Scottish (always her first requirement in a physician) & was well-suited to the demanding post of caring for the Queen & her household. Amazingly he never saw the Queen undressed or even in her bed until her final illness. Wilson quotes from Sir James’s biography, written by Michaela Reid (she married his grandson) & based on his private papers, so of course, I’ve ordered a copy. I also have a biography of Henry & Mary Ponsonby by William M Kuhn on the tbr shelves. One book just leads to another…

I enjoyed reading about the Queen’s sometimes volatile relationships with her Prime Ministers & her controlling, sometimes truly deplorable behaviour to her children. She could be selfish, unreasonable, petty & ungracious (her last audience with Gladstone is an example of just how ungracious she could be) but I find her completely fascinating. A N Wilson’s biography is a joy to read & I really enjoyed Gareth Armstrong’s reading of it. If you think you’ve read enough biographies of Queen Victoria, maybe you should read (or listen to) just one more.

The English Air – D E Stevenson

Sophie Braithwaite & her daughter Wynne are preparing to welcome their cousin, Franz von Heiden, to Fernacres. Sophie’s cousin, Elsie, had married Otto von Heiden before the First World War & spent the rest of her life in Germany. Elsie was very unhappy & the marriage was not a success. Being an Englishwoman in Germany during the War was difficult & Otto wasn’t the kind of man to support his wife against the gossip & unkindness directed at her. Now, in 1938, Elsie’s son, Fritz, wants to visit.

Sophie is a kind, rather distracted woman, a widow with two children – Wynne & Roy, who is in the Navy. Her brother in law, Dane Worthington, also lives with the family. Dane seems to do very little to earn a living but he is actually involved in mysterious government work. Not quite spying but he seems to be used when delicate international negotiations are required. In that, although in no other way, he reminded me of Peter Wimsey. Dane even has a loyal manservant in the same efficient mould as Bunter. Wynne is a typical middle class young woman of her time. She’s left school & is involved with her local community but spends a lot of time with her friends, playing tennis.

Franz’s visit begins awkwardly as he adjusts to his English family & the English sense of humour. However, he’s soon being called Frank & finds himself learning a great deal about the English & their way of life that surprises him. Frank’s father is a committed Nazi & Frank has been brought up to believe in Hitler & his policies. Otto has sent his son to England ostensibly to improve his English but he’s really there to gauge the English attitude to Germany. Dane soon realises what Frank is doing but admires the young man’s serious attitude & is content to merely observe him. Frank realises that his English side, which he was always made to feel ashamed of, is more important to him than he imagined.

When Chamberlain returns from Germany declaring Peace In Our Time, Frank is relieved & delighted that his two countries have averted war. He is devastated when Hitler invades Czechoslovakia in 1939, in defiance of the Munich agreement. All his illusions about Hitler come crashing down with that one betrayal. He is even more upset because he has fallen in love with Wynne & realises that he cannot ask her to live in Germany & repeat the tragedy of his parents’ marriage. Frank & Roy are on a driving tour of Scotland when war is declared & he immediately leaves for Germany.

Frank (now Franz again) finds his Aunt Anna, his father’s sister who had looked after him as a child, ill & distressed, while his father is about to take up an important post in the Nazi Party. Franz decides to join a resistance group working to overthrow Hitler’s regime & he’s soon broadcasting to the allied countries, including England, where Dane hears him one evening. The Braithwaites have no idea where Franz is as he left without word. Wynne is in love with Franz even though they never discussed their feelings or their future. All she can do is wait for word, unaware that Franz is risking his life opposing the Nazis.

I loved The English Air (cover picture from here). Published in 1940, it gives a real sense of the atmosphere of the late 30s, the apprehension of another war & the relief that many people felt after Munich. Franz was such a sympathetic character & the story is almost entirely told through his experiences. It was interesting to see such an even handed presentation of a German character in a book written at such a fraught time. It’s lovely to see Stevenson showing us the English from an outsider’s perspective. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Stevenson novel without a trip to Scotland &, as always, her descriptions of place & nature are beautifully done. Wynne & her friends are fairly stock characters but Sophie was a delight & her relationship with Franz was delicately drawn. The scenes between Franz & his aunt were very poignant & the later scenes in Germany very tense. This is one of the best D E Stevensons I’ve read. It’s available to borrow as an ebook from Open Library & there are other recent reviews from The Captive Reader & Fleur In Her World (from whose blog I discovered Open Library).

Anglophilebooks.comEdited to add : The English Air has just been reprinted by Greyladies &

this edition is available for US readers from Anglophile Books.

The Benefactress – Elizabeth von Arnim

One of my resolutions this year was to get back to reading some of the authors whose books I’ve been collecting but not reading. I’ve read several books by Elizabeth von Arnim but that was some years ago & I have some Virago editions on the tbr shelves. Of course, when the mood struck, I wanted to read one of her books that I didn’t own so I bought a Kindle collection of 11 of her books which seemed to be the only way I could easily get my hands on The Benefactress. It was the reviews by Leaves & Pages & The Captive Reader that led to buying the Kindle version but it’s taken me another six months & my reading resolution to get around to reading this delightful book.

Anna Estcourt is unhappily living with her brother, Peter, his wife, Susie & their daughter, Letty. Peter & Anna are financially dependent on Susie & there is little sympathy between the two women. Anna is 25, attractive but totally uninterested in society & finding a husband. She’s unhappy at home but not unhappy enough to throw herself into marriage for the sake of escape. When she inherits a property & some money in Germany from her Uncle Joachim, she is determined to live there & do good in the local community. She doesn’t know much German but sets off accompanied by Susie, Letty & Letty’s governess, Miss Leech.

Anna arrives in Pomerania to find her house & servants waiting to greet her. The land agent, Dellwig, decides that he will have no trouble pursuing his own schemes with a young Englishwoman as his mistress. The servants are willing but not very intelligent & Anna’s basic German is another barrier. Susie is disgusted with everything & when her maid revolts & wants to return home, she goes as well, leaving Letty & Miss Leech to chaperone Anna. The parson, Herr Manske, is kind & her neighbour, Axel von Lohm, was a friend of Uncle Joachim & feels protective towards his niece.

Anna makes many mistakes in her first weeks at . She asks the parson to dinner without including Herr & Frau Dellwig. She walks around unchaperoned, although she employs an impoverished noblewoman, Princess Ludwig, as housekeeper & companion. She declines to listen to Dellwig’s advice. She decides that she wants to help other women who need independence & wants to invite twelve such women to share her home. The parson is happy to help & composes a letter to put into the newspaper. However, the first three applicants are not exactly what she was expecting.

Frau von Treumann & Baroness Elmreich  are snobbish women who look down on the third member of their company, Fräulein Kuhräuber. All three women are ill at ease, suspicious of Anna’s motives & disapproving of her manners, her clothing & everything about her. Anna’s basic German leads to upsets & misunderstandings. Axel von Lohm is also dubious about the antecedents of all the new inmates. There’s some family scandal in the backgrounds of both Frau von Treumann & the Baroness & nothing that Anna can do can make the three women friends with herself or each other. Plans for another nine beneficiaries are quietly dropped as Anna realises just how difficult a task she has taken on.

There are some very funny episodes such as Anna’s niece, Letty’s, interference in her aunt’s love life. Her meddling leads a young curate to imagine himself in love with Anna & that she returns his feelings. Frau von Treumann has a son, Karlchen, who she decides would be a perfect husband for Anna. Her pleas to Anna to allow Karlchen to visit her lead to several meetings where Karlchen’s comical attempts to impress Anna are completely ignored. Anna is more distressed when her friendship with Axel is changed by his proposal of marriage which she rejects. It takes a near-tragedy to open Anna’s eyes & heart to her true feelings.

I enjoyed The Benefactress very much. It’s another of those beguiling books where a house is inherited & we follow the attempts to make the house a home. There isn’t a lot of detail about new furnishings & landscaping gardens but Anna’s efforts do improve the house & by the end of the book, she has realised that her future does indeed lie in Germany. Her dreams of being a benefactress to those less fortunate than herself may be idealistic & impractical but she’s a kind-hearted young woman. She knows how miserable it is to be dependent on relatives or friends who provide the material needs of life but not the intellectual or spiritual needs. Perhaps inevitably for a book published in 1901, Anna is destined to realize that the obstacles she faces will be easier to overcome with a man by her side. Luckily she also realises that she will be happier with Axel than she could ever be on her own.

Anglophilebooks.comThere’s a copy of The Benefactress available at Anglophile Books.

Letters to Vicky – Queen Victoria & Victoria, Empress of Germany 1858-1901

I love reading other people’s letters. A long correspondence between two people is even better. If one of the correspondents is Queen Victoria, it’s irresistible. This sumptuous volume was the main reason that I renewed my Folio Society membership. I wish I could show you some of the plates, they are so lovely & include several photos of the Royal family I hadn’t seen before. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take decent photos of them as the paper is quite shiny. So, you’ll just have to take my word for it. The treasure of this book isn’t in the plates anyway, it’s in the words.

These letters are a selection of the enormous correspondence between Queen Victoria & her eldest daughter, Vicky. Vicky married Frederick (Fritz) of Prussia in 1858 when she was only 17. The letters begin immediately after the ceremony & don’t stop until just before Queen Victoria’s death in 1901. Vicky was her parents’ pride & joy. Their eldest child, her father, Prince Albert’s, favourite, Vicky was intelligent, clever & beautiful. She was everything that the Prince of Wales, Bertie, was not. Bertie was always compared with Vicky & always to his disadvantage. Surprisingly, Vicky & Bertie had a loving relationship & remained friends, apart from a few political differences, for the rest of their lives.

Vicky & Fritz’s relationship was a true love match which was becoming less of a rarity in royal circles as the 19th century wore on. Both liberals & patriotic Prussians, they were at odds with Fritz’s father, the King of Prussia (later Emperor of a united Germany) & his chief minister, the militaristic, reactionary Otto von Bismarck. Prussian society was suspicious of Vicky as an Englishwoman & always suspected her of influencing her husband in the interests of England.

People spread at Berlin that I was unhappy at the success of our troops. They comment on everything I say, do, and put on, to my disadvantage. I cannot do the simplest thing without its being found to be in imitation of something English, and therefore anti-Prussian… I feel as though I could smash the idiots; it is so spiteful and untrue. I am sure I would almost quarrel with my real and best friends in dear England rather than forget that I belong to this country, the interest of which I have so deeply at heart –  more deeply, I venture to say, than a great many born and bred here. Vicky to Queen Victoria May 11, 1864

Vicky & Fritz had a long, frustrating wait for the throne as Fritz’s father lived until he was 90. Tragically, Fritz’s reign lasted only three months as he was suffering from throat cancer. All his liberal plans for his country ended in nothing. He was succeeded by his eldest son, William II, best known for his role in WWI. Wilhelm had become estranged from his parents & was completely under Bismarck’s influence so Germany’s road to militarism & an arms race with Great Britain was set.

The relationship between Vicky & her son is full of misunderstandings & thwarted love. William (Willy) had a damaged arm, the result of his difficult birth, & Vicky’s attempts to find a cure for his disability fill her letters to her mother during his childhood. Her love for her son is obvious as she & the doctors try treatments from sea bathing to physical manipulation of the limb.

I have written to the King begging him to allow me to send Willie to Osborne (to stay with Queen Victoria for the sea bathing) and I hope to have the answer tomorrow, and in that case would send him next week. I am so grateful to you for receiving him; though he looks much better now – I am sure it will do wonders for him! Vicky to Queen Victoria July 2, 1864

Unfortunately as Willy grew older, he came under the influence of his grandfather & Bismarck & grew to despise his father’s liberalism as soft & blame his mother for his disability.

Willie goes daily to his Grandpapa for all he wants and cuts his Papa, because it is a great deal more convenient for them but for us it is most painful and disagreeable. Please keep this to yourself, dearest Mama. I am not complaining of them but, our life and position which never was easy at Berlin has only become more difficult and more complicated in consequence, and I dread going back there very much. Vicky to Queen Victoria December 1, 1883

He grew more resentful as he grew older &, by the time of his marriage to Augusta (Dona) of Schleswig-Holstein, he was barely polite to his parents although his grandmother still had the ability to shame him into good manners. On the birth of Willie’s first child, Queen Victoria wasn’t above a little sly manipulation,

How absurd of Willie and Dona to call the child William. As they have not told me, when I write to Dona to thank her for her letter and some of the child’s hair I shall say ‘Of course you will call him Fritz after his two Grandpapas,’ and shall see what they answer. Queen Victoria to Vicky June 22 1882

Queen Victoria’s letters are a fascinating mixture of royal dignity, neediness & common sense. When Vicky first goes to Prussia, her mother bombards her with letters demanding to know everything she wears every day & wants to know the arrangement of her rooms, her health etc in a mixture of imploring & reproach.

Pray do answer my questions, my dearest child, else you will be as bad as Bertie used to be, and it keeps me in such a fidget.
I asked you several questions on a separate paper about your health, cold sponging – temperature of your rooms etc and you have not answered one!… My good dear child is a little unmethodical and unpunctual still. Fritz always answers all questions. Just write them down on a bit of paper – when you have time – and put them in your letter; never mind if they are old – only pray do answer them. Queen Victoria to Vicky February 22, 1858

Queen Victoria soon had Vicky on the lookout for a suitable wife for Bertie. Vicky had to inspect every Protestant princess in Germany & her comments on these poor girls are often very sharp but also shrewd. She knew that her brother would never be happy with a plain wife & she worked very hard to overcome her mother’s objections to beautiful Alexandra of Denmark whose family Queen Victoria did not approve of.

We are anxious to know as much about Princess Elizabeth of Wied and Anna of Hesse as possible, I think future choice of Bertie must lie between them… You know, dearest, we must feel very anxious about this choice and the beauty of Denmark is much against our wishes. I do wish somebody would go and marry her off – at once. If Bertie could see and like one of the others first then I am sure we should be safe.
Queen Victoria to Vicky December 18, 1860

In answer to your question about Anna of Hesse. I do not think her pretty – she has not a fine figure but a passable one. She has a very flat, narrow and upright forehead…She has an incipient twitching in her eyes… and her teeth are nearly all spoilt… she was too awfully dressed. She has a very deep voice, and rather a gruff, abrupt way of speaking, frowning when she speaks, partly to conceal her shyness and partly to conceal her eyes which are perpetually twitching while she is talking. Vicky to Queen Victoria December 21, 1860

Bertie did marry Alexandra & Queen Victoria grew to love her dearly although she wasn’t able to restrain Bertie’s love of frivolous society.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this fascinating book. I could quote passages endlessly about all sorts of subjects. I haven’t even mentioned politics, although I must admit I find all the family relationships much more interesting. There are births, deaths, marriages, scandals & Victoria & Vicky have opinions on them all. Victoria was very supportive of Vicky through all the stresses of her life in Germany, the death of her beloved Fritz & her growing estrangement from Willy. Vicky is patient with her mother’s eternal complaints about her poor health & sympathetic about the Queen’s often strained relations with her Governments & her heir. Vicky is homesick for Osborne & Balmoral. They grieve together over the deaths of the Prince Consort & other close family & friends.

I must just quote one more letter from Queen Victoria. She had published a volume of reminiscences, Leaves from the Journal of Our Life in the Highlands from 1848-1861, and was very proud of it.

I have such quantities of beautiful and touching letters from people whom I don’t know, or have ever heard of – all about my little book, but I send you none, and indeed have been doubtful of sending you the Quarterly with a review by the Bishop of Oxford as you seem to take so little interest in it and only mentioned it once. Queen Victoria to Vicky January 29, 1868

I do not know why you should think I am indifferent about the appearance of your book and what is said about it in the press – whatever concerns you and our home is of vital importance and greatest interest not of indifference. Vicky to Queen Victoria February 1, 1868

That mixture of hurt pride & neediness from the Queen & soothing love from Vicky is very typical of the letters. To the end of their lives, they wrote regularly & always with great affection & love.

The ending of Victoria’s last letter to her daughter, just three weeks before she died is moving in its simplicity, “I must, I fear, end for today to save the post. God bless you, darling child.” Queen Victoria died on January 22, 1901 & Vicky, already suffering from cancer, died on August 5 of the same year.

The First Violin – Jessie Fothergill

As I mentioned in my post on Helen C Black’s Notable Women Authors of the Day, I was pleased to discover that I had downloaded Jessie Fothergill’s novel, The First Violin, from Girlebooks some time ago. Reading about the Library Association’s disapproval of this novel made me determined to read it sooner rather than later. I’m glad I did because it’s a melancholy, romantic story of love & music in a small German town in the 1870s.

May Wedderburn is the 17 year old daughter of a country vicar. She is being pursued by Sir Peter Le Marchant, the owner of the big house in the neighbourhood but she loathes him & refuses his offer of marriage. May is befriended by Miss Hallam, a woman who is thought to be eccentric because she lives an independent life. Miss Hallam is losing her sight to cataracts & she proposes to take May with her to Germany as a companion when she goes to the town of Elberthal to consult a specialist. Miss Hallam has another motive in helping May escape from the pressure to marry Sir Peter. Her own sister, Barbara, had been Sir Peter’s first wife & she died in misery & fear. Miss Hallam blamed Sir Peter & wants to save May from the same fate.

On arrival in Koln, en route for Elberthal, May becomes separated from Miss Hallam at the railway station. Knowing no German & without her purse, May is almost frantic when she is rescued by a handsome gentleman, Eugen Courvoisier, who takes charge of her for the afternoon. They visit the Cathedral, he buys her dinner & they travel on to Elberthal together by a later train. May is smitten with Eugen & he seems equally taken with her. As May settles in to the boarding house with Miss Hallam, she expects to see Eugen every day. She had made him promise to visit her so she could repay him for her expenses. However, the next time she sees him, she snubs him in a moment of confusion & surprise. On a visit to the opera, May is amazed to see Eugen taking his place in the orchestra as Concertmeister, the First Violin. Eugen sees her in the audience & is insulted by her snub. She is remorseful but, even after she discovers his lodgings & tries to apologize, he is cold & dismissive.

May has been encouraged to take singing lessons as a way of making a living when she returns to England. Her teacher is the renowned maestro Max von Francius, conductor of the town’s choir & orchestra. Von Francius is a perfectionist, a solitary man who is respected but not really liked by many, although the ladies who sing in his choir like to flutter around him. He is, however, an exceptional teacher, & soon becomes May’s friend as well as her very demanding teacher,

I understood now how the man might have influence. I bent to the power of his will, which reached me where I stood in the background, from his dark eyes, which turned for a moment to me now and then. It was that will of his which put me as it were suddenly into the spirit of the music, and revealed to me depths in my own heart at which I had never even guessed.

May’s voice is exceptional & she becomes part of Eugen’s circle as a pupil of von Francius & occasional soloist with the choir. Miss Hallam returns home after the eye specialist tells her that he cannot help her & von Francius convinces May to remain as his pupil. He finds lodgings for May in a house opposite Eugen’s rooms & May spends many lonely hours watching Eugen with his son, Sigmund, & great friend, Friedhelm Helfen.

At this point, just as I was immersed in May’s story, the next chapter begins the narration of Friedhelm Helfen. The time is now three years earlier (although, disconcertingly, there’s nothing to indicate the change of narrator or time) & we meet Helfen, a melancholy, Romantically suicidal 22 year old violinist in Elderthal’s orchestra. Eugen arrives to take up his post as Concertmeister & takes rooms in Helfen’s lodging house. Helfen is immediately taken with Eugen & his little boy & they become great friends. Helfen is looking for a family & he finds it in Eugen & Sigmund. Eugen, however, is a man with a secret. He is reserved & secretive. He never mentions his past life or loves. Where is Sigmund’s mother? Were she & Eugen married? Is she alive or dead? Helfen is too sensitive to question Eugen & Eugen makes mysterious comments about the need to one day give up Sigmund before he begins to see his father as he really is. What has Eugen done?

Three years pass. Eugen meets May &, eventually Helfen becomes aware of the connection between Eugen & the beautiful young soprano, Miss Wedderburn. Eugen remains distant & reserved about their relationship & his own past until the day he receives a mysterious letter & reveals that the time has come for Sigmund to leave him. His emotion at parting from his son is very moving but he tells Helfen nothing. The narration has moved back & forth between May & Helfen several times now so we’ve also discovered that May’s sister, Adelaide, has married Sir Peter Le Marchant & they are coming to Elderthal to visit May on their wedding tour. May is shocked by Adelaide’s looks & behaviour. Only a few months of married life with the cold, sarcastic Sir Peter have made Adelaide thin, nervous & brittle.

To a certain extent she had what she had sold herself for; outside pomp and show in plenty – carriages, horses, servants, jewels and clothes. Sir Peter liked, to use his own expression, ‘to see my lady blaze away’ – only she must blaze away in his fashion, not hers. He declared he did not know how long he might remain in Elberthal; spoke vaguely of ‘business at home’ about which he was waiting to hear… He was in excellent spirits at seeing his wife chafing under the confinement to a place she detested, and appeared to find life sweet.

Adelaide falls in love for the first time & realises just what she has sacrificed with her marriage for security & position. Jessie Fothergill’s sympathetic portrayal of Adelaide & her lover is probably what upset the Library Association so much. It’s a beautiful portrait of restrained passion.

Eugen’s past is revealed by ill-natured gossips & he & Friedhelm leave Elberthal. May falls ill; her other sister, Stella, comes out to Germany to nurse her & to take her home. May, however, cannot forget Eugen & she instinctively feels that his disgrace is unmerited.

It was bad enough to have fallen in love with a man who had never showed me by word or sign that he cared for me, but exactly and pointedly the reverse; but now it seemed the man himself was bad too. Surely a well-regulated mind would have turned away from him – uninfluenced. If so, then mine was an unregulated mind. I had loved him from the bottom of my heart; the world without him felt cold, empty and bare – desolate to live, and shorn of its sweetest pleasures… He had bewitched me… I did feel that life by the side of any other man would be miserable, though never so richly set; and that life by his side would be full and complete though never so poor and sparing in its circumstances.

Miss Hallam dies, leaving May enough money to return to Germany to study & she returns to Elberthal, hoping to find some news of Eugen & discover the truth about his past.

The First Violin is a beautiful story of love in all its forms – romantic love, loving friendship, the love of a father for his son – with a yearning melancholy at its heart. It’s not a perfect novel. The frequent changes of narration are disconcerting & sometimes rather clumsy. There are several coincidences that are a little too remarkable for belief including two occasions when Eugen saves May from peril. These imperfections don’t detract from the overall experience of reading the novel. The atmosphere of Elberthal, a small town centred on its choir & orchestra, is beautifully evoked. The students, landladies & chattering young ladies of the choir are great characters. Jessie Fothergill lived in Germany for some time. She began writing The First Violin in a boarding house in Dusseldorf & she immersed herself in German language & music. All this experience comes through in the book which is full of an intense love of music. I only wish I knew more about the great German composers. This is the kind of novel that needs its own soundtrack CD so you can listen to the relevant pieces of music as you read. The First Violin is compelling reading. I’m so glad I was able to read it. Thank you Girlebooks!

Evil on the Wind – Diney Costeloe


Diney Costeloe is a member of my online book group & she very kindly offered to send me a copy of her latest book, Evil on the Wind. Elaine at Random Jottings had already reviewed it very positively so I was interested to read it. I must admit I don’t read a lot of fiction about WWII apart from books written during that time. Since I discovered Persephone Books & the marvellous books they’ve published about this period, I’ve been reluctant to read anything else. I’ve also read a lot of non-fiction about this period & I’ve come to prefer it. However, I was quickly swept up in the drama of Diney’s book & I read it in virtually one sitting.

The Friedmans are a Jewish family living in Germany in the late 30s. The book opens with an anti-Jewish riot in which the Friedman’s shop & home are burnt down & Kurt Friedman is arrested. His wife, Ruth, & their four children escape the mob & begin a harrowing journey & struggle to survive. Ruth goes to Kurt’s brother, Herbert, for help. He’s a wealthy lawyer but he’s horrified when the family turns up on his doorstep &, although he reluctantly allows them to stay, he obviously feels uncomfortable. He decides to emigrate to Argentina but is caught smuggling diamonds out of the country & arrested. His former housekeeper, Frau Schultz had been stealing from him & spying on him & Ruth’s family & she denounced Herbert to the authorities then confiscates his apartment & evicts Ruth & the children.

Ruth then goes to her mother in Stuttgart but finds she has been forced to sell the family home & is living in poverty. They decide to go to Ruth’s sister, Edith, in Vienna, & after securing with difficulty the passports needed for the children, they arrive to a frosty reception from well-off Edith. Ruth finds work in a draper’s store, rents a tiny apartment & gets the children into school.

All this time, we’re also following Kurt’s journey. He’s sent to Dachau after his arrest &, after enduring deprivation & brutality there, he’s released after he agrees to sell his home & give the proceeds to the government. It’s really no choice at all, of course, but freedom is the important thing & he sets off on a journey that takes him to Munich & Stuttgart (where he finds he’s missed his family), Hamburg, Holland & eventually England, where he works to find sponsors to bring Ruth & the children to safety. This is especially important after the Anschluss in 1938, when Germany annexed Austria & the laws against the Jews were intensified.

Ruth’s brother-in-law, David, is shocked when his father is arrested & he takes his family to Shanghai. Ruth loses her job & has to make a terrible choice when there is an opportunity for only two of the children to go on the Kindertransport. This charitable plan saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish children taken to safety in England, but at the cost of separation from their families.

The most compelling thing about this novel is the way it depicts the atmosphere of fear & suspicion of the time. I really felt what it would have been like to live in Germany at a time when anti-Jewish laws & propaganda had turned neighbours into potential spies & enemies. The Friedmans are helped by many people on their separate journeys but always with a backward glance at who might be watching them. Some people help them willingly, some grudgingly, & they never know what response they will receive from family, friends or strangers. The persecution of the Jews didn’t begin in 1939 with the outbreak of war. The gradual process of removing the rights of Jews to education, work & private property was insidious but very purposeful. Many people took advantage of the new laws to exploit their neighbours & take their revenge for suspected or real past injuries. But, there were many others who resisted as much as they could to help friends & neighbours who were persecuted because of their race & religion. It’s important that we don’t forget the past & that we’re forever vigilant so that such persecution should never happen again. Evil on the Wind reminds us of the consequences of forgetting the past.