Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mangers may have been alright for Jesus, but certainly not for Victor Hugo

Happy holidays to the Gentle Readers that celebrate them, and the very best of luck with travel plans. Even today travel is somewhat dicey and one may always find oneself stranded in such insalubrious places as the middle of the Chunnel.

However, one must give thanks that one will never be stranded in 19th century Brittany. Victor Hugo once was (he had gone there to make up with his mistress, Juliette Drouet, who had fled Paris after a very violent row). He was in no very good humor upon his arrival, as Juliette Drouet was more-or-less the love of his life and he was uncertain if even he, Victor Hugo, the French Shakespeare and pretty much The Author of the 19th century, could say anything to win her back. Add that to the fact that Brittany was extremely poor, very uncultured (and therefore did not recognize Victor Hugo Himself, even after he explained who he was, because they all spoke the local patois instead of Parisian French), extremely dirty and full of superstitious peasants that neither spoke French nor bathed regularly.

Hugo was appalled by the very low standard of living and later wrote, very vitriolically, that the peasants and the pigs slept together in the same one-room hovels which, "as you can imagine, makes the pigs very dirty."

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Napoleon's Novel

In 1795, Napoleon wrote a novel. Why yes, gentle reader, you did read that correctly. It is not a very good novel, though it has a somewhat startling predictive value for any scholar of Napoleon's life.

Clisson and Eugenie is the name of Napoleon's masterwork, a nine-page (count 'em!) romance with an extremely awkward writing style, endearing earnestness and a very cliched plot. Clisson, our hero, is a humor-less twenty-year-old who "understood nothing of word play" and "whose power, sangfroid, courage and moral firmness only increased the number of his enemies". Isn't he a charmer?

Clisson meets two sisters and falls in love with the younger one, Eugeine (which happened to Napoleon right before he took up his pen; he and his brother Joseph met the sixteen-year-old Desiree Clary and her sister, Julie, in 1794. Joseph married Julie, after Napoleon steered him away from Desiree who- guess what!- he nicknamed Eugenie).

Clisson then apparently forgets that there's a war going on, marries Eugeine and starts producing an alarming number of sons within the span of six years. Napoleon then, somewhat unnecessarily, points out that his hero and heroine "remain lovers". Clisson, however, gets appointed a commander of the army and manages to win a string of victories that surpasses "the hopes of the people and the army". However, the victories come at a price and Clisson is wounded. He sends his "loyal" aide-de-camp to tell his wife the news and, expectedly, the aide-de-camp seduces Eugeine (no one is really sure why) and Clisson decides to die. After bitterly and passive-agressively demanding that Eugenie "live contentedly without ever thinking of the unhappy Clisson" and that his sons "may not have the ardent soul of their father, lest they be victims of men, of glory and of love". Clisson then gets "pierced by a thousand blows" (ouch) and dies. The End.

Whatever your personal feelings on Napoleon's epic military career, I think we can all agree that it's good thing that his literary career came to an end.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists

On the subject of scathing reviews, George Elliot, though not as vitriolic about one novel in particular, released her considerable hatred of silly novels in the absolutely brilliant essay "Silly Novels by Silly Lady Novelists". Though the Amateur Historian is not entirely sure if it was intended to do so, the essay also reads like a very good argument for female education. Educate ladies or they, in turn; will write incredibly stupid novels and give all female novelists a bad name.

The Amateur Historian almost wishes to copy-paste the entire thing, but have a few gems before going off to read this masterpiece yourself:

-The heroine's eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity.

-The men play a very subordinate part by her side. You are consoled now and then by a hint that they have affairs, which keeps you in mind that the working-day business of the world is somehow being carried on, but ostensibly the final cause of their existence is that they may accompany the heroine on her 'starring' expedition through life.

-The fair writers have evidently never talked to a tradesman except from a carriage window; they have no notion of the working-classes except as 'dependents'; they think five hundred a-year a miserable pittance; Belgravia and 'baronial halls' are their primary truths; and they have no idea of feeling interest in any man who is not at least a great landed proprietor, if not a prime minister. [Watch out Pitt the Younger!] It is clear that they write in elegant boudoirs, with violet-coloured ink and a ruby pen; that they must be entirely indifferent to publishers' accounts, and inexperienced in every form of poverty except poverty of brains.

-Their intellect seems to have the peculiar impartiality of reproducing both what they have seen and heard, and what they have not seen and heard, with equal unfaithfulness.

- We are not surprised to learn that the mother of this infant phenomenon, who exhibits symptoms so alarmingly like those of adolescence repressed by gin, is herself a phoenix... she can talk with perfect correctness in any language except English.

-This enthusiastic young lady, by dint of reading the newspaper to her father, falls in love with the prime minister, who, through the medium of leading articles and "the resumé of the debates," shines upon her imagination as a bright particular star, which has no parallax for her.... Perhaps the words "prime minister" suggest to you a wrinkled or obese sexagenarian; but pray dismiss the image. Lord Rupert Conway has been "called while still almost a youth to the first situation which a subject can hold in the universe," and even leading articles and a resumé of the debates have not conjured up a dream that surpasses the fact. [Either someone has fangirled William Pitt the Younger to an alarming extent and thus either 'forgot' that his emotional life more-or-less stopped developing as soon as he entered office and ignored the fact that he was more-or-less asexual, or they have decided that just any old 24-year-old can be Prime Minister without having a successful Prime Minister for a father, a genius for mathematics and economics, a childhood education structured around the goal of becoming Prime Minister or the extraordinary set of personality-driven power-struggles plaguing the House of Commons that paved Pitt's way to power.]

-(a quote from a novel): "Was this reality?"

Very little like it, certainly.

-He is not only a romantic poet, but a hardened rake and a cynical wit; yet his deep passion for Lady Umfraville has so impoverished his epigrammatic talent, that he cuts an extremely poor figure in conversation. When she rejects him, he rushes into the shrubbery, and rolls himself in the dirt.

-To judge from their writings, there are certain ladies who think that an amazing ignorance, both of science and of life, is the best possible qualification for forming an opinion on the knottiest moral and speculative questions. Apparently, their recipe for solving all such difficulties is something like this:–Take a woman's head, stuff it with a smattering of philosophy and literature chopped small, and with false notions of society baked hard, let it hang over a desk a few hours every day, and serve up hot in feeble English, when not required.

-In such cases, sons are often sulky or fiery, mothers are alternately manoeuvring and waspish, and the portionless young lady often lies awake at night and cries a good deal. We are getting used to these things now, just as we are used to eclipses of the moon, which no longer set us howling and beating tin kettles.

-A recent example of this heavy imbecility is, "Adonijah, a Tale of the Jewish Dispersion," which forms part of a series, "uniting," we are told, "taste, humour, and sound principles." "Adonijah," we presume, exemplifies the tale of "sound principles;" the taste and humour are to be found in other members of the series.

You can read the rest of Eliot's essay here.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

There were a lot of very stupid monarchs running around during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but, in the Amateur Historian's opinion, the award for "Wow, I Hope That Was the Fault of Inbreeding" goes to Marie-Caroline, queen of Naples.

Marie-Caroline was not a fan of Bonaparte, who she saw as a parvenu, undeserving of a place among all the Hapsburg-jawed monarchs feasting at the European banquet table. Moreover, she was the sister of Marie-Antoinette and never forgave France for killing off her favorite sibling. Therefore, Marie-Caroline (who ran Naples while her indolent husband went slumming) liked to pit Naples against France whenever the other nations were feeling up to forming a new coalition. However, Marie-Caroline did not seem to learn, as each coalition got their royal backsides handed to them with a side-helping of localized republican uprisings. Marie-Caroline actually lost her kingdom twice thanks to her ill-informed attempts at trying to make Naples into a world power (which royally pissed off everyone in Naples) and at fighting the French (which pissed off Napoleon Bonaparte, which is never a good idea).

After the collapse of the second coalition, Marie-Caroline apparently learned nothing and tried again to a. make Naples (which hated her) a world power and b. defeat Bonaparte. This led to quite possibly one of the stupidest stunts she could have pulled: trying to flatter Napoleon and therefore France into submission while forming a "secret" alliance with Great Britain. Or course, Marie-Caroline did an extremely poor job of covering her tracks and did not appear to notice that Napoleon had one of the best spy networks in all of Europe (coming in a very, very close second to Britain, who simply had more money to buy off officials and the like).

Napoleon sent her a very pointed letter, which she unwisely ignored: "Your Majesty has already lost her kingdom twice, would she like to lose it a third time?"

She did.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

On the subject of Napoleon and letters, the first year of his Italian Campaign produced some absolute doozies of love letters to Josephine, who was extremely turned off by Napoleon's phonetic spelling, dreadful grammar, abysmal diction and horrible habit of underlining erotic passages so violently that he occasionally scratched through the stationary.

She was therefore extremely disinclined to write back to Napoleon and even less inclined to write to him as he wished her to, i.e. "Make sure you tell me that you are convinced you love me beyond what it is possible to imagine."

Napoleon eventually went somewhat mad at the lack of response, to the point where the Directory began to worry that the Republic's best and most successful general might actually quit his post, abandon Italy and march on Paris. Barras personally sent Josephine to Italy, which at least saved Josephine the indignity of having to answer letters begging her not to bathe.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Bridge of Lodi

Napoleon kept up a voluminous correspondence, but, in doing so, provided future scholars with records of pretty strange and varying reactions to major life events. His earliest letters, written before Napoleon became the practial, almost Machevallian politician who enjoyed demolishing opposing armies that frightens English historians to this day, are particularly bewildering in range.

Take, for example, four reactions to the Battle of Lodi, one of Napoleon's first battles during his famous Italian Campaign:

1. To the bishop of Lodi, in response to a general, 'Oh, what was all that fighting yesterday, was it important?: "Non fu grancosa." (It was no big deal.)

2. To Carnot, the head of the Directory's military operations: "The battle of Lodi gives the whole of Italy to the Republic."

3. To Marmont, an aide-de-camp who later became a Mareshal: "They [the directory] haven't seen anything yet... In our time, no one has the slightest conception of what is great. It is up to me to give them an example."

4. To Josephine, his adored wife: "I shall go berserk if I do not have a letter from you."

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Should Have Listened to Barras....

During the chaotic, economically horrendous days of the Directory, the five member executive branch had a difficult time making decisions. They did not like the centralized republic that had come before, they did not like the constitutional monarchy that had come before that, and they did not like the absolute monarchy that came before that. The directors were generally aware that there needed to be Change, particularly since their really stupid economic and military policies led to disasters unheard of under the Committee of Public Safety and it was pissing off the Parisian mobs, the chouans (Royalist peasant armies), the Jacobins, the royalists, the peasants, the workers and just about anyone who was not more-or-less middle class or higher and who was not more-or-less corrupt and making money off of the chaos.

Thus, it came as no surprise that the directors hemmed and hawed and shuffled their papers when it came to making decisions about who would take up various governmental positions. Barras, who became a director after the fall of Robespierre and remained one until the fall of the directory, got immensely frustrated over in-directory quarreling over military positions, particularly as they pertained to one Napoleone Buonaparte, an upstart Corsican who was, shockingly, actually winning battles.

The directors were reluctant to make Buonaparte head of the Army of Italy, which was doing abysmally, mostly because Buonaparte, at that time, was considered to be Barras's pet project and the directors spent most of their time hating one another rather than doing anything more productive.

Barras, however, won the day by stating, quite flatly, "Promote this man or he will promote himself."

Unfortunately the directors did not listen later on, and Napoleone Buonaparte promoted himself to the position of Emperor.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


The talented and terribly funny Madame Berg has just won herself an internet by creating what one hopes will be a new internet sensation- the lolpitt. You too, can make William Pitt the Younger smile and preserve such a rarity for posterity!

The Amateur Historian wishes anew that she had photoshop skillz.

Go here to tell Madame Berg just how incredibly awesome she is or to see her incredibly cool costumes.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses

There is nothing the Amateur Historian likes more than a scathing review of a ridiculous novel and, though the British Romantics had some doozies, the prize for scathing reviews must go to Mark Twain, for outlining Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses, which, alas, were great indeed.

Fenimore Cooper was at the forefront of American Romanticism, whose variation on the return to nature and the exploration of the history of one's nation was an exploration (with varying degrees of success) of colonial days, where one could give blankets full of smallpox to natives so one could build oneself a little Roussean paradise in the now vacant backwoods. Cooper's adventure stories were extremely popular, but, in Mark Twain's opinion, an insult to the reader, to the Native Americans, to literature, to Romanticism, and to the English language itself.

Here are some particular gems:

- [The rules governing literary fiction] require that the personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale.

- [The rules also] require that crass stupidities shall not be played upon the reader as "the craft of the woodsman, the delicate art of the forest," by either the author or the people in the tale. But this rule is persistently violated in the Deerslayer tale.

-Cooper's gift in the way of invention was not a rich endowment; but such as it was he liked to work it, he was pleased with the effects, and indeed he did some quite sweet things with it. In his little box of stage-properties he kept six or eight cunning devices, tricks, artifices for his savages and woodsmen to deceive and circumvent each other with... He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn't step on a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn't satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can't do it, go and borrow one. In fact, the Leatherstocking Series ought to have been called the Broken Twig Series.

-In the matter of intellect, the difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious.

-To believe that such talk really ever came out of people's mouths would be to believe that there was a time when time was of no value to a person who thought he had something to say; when it was the custom to spread a two-minute remark out to ten; when a man's mouth was a rolling-mill, and busied itself all day long in turning four-foot pigs of thought into thirty-foot bars of conversational railroad iron by attenuation; when subjects were seldom faithfully stuck to, but the talk wandered all around and arrived nowhere; when conversations consisted mainly of irrelevancies, with here and there a relevancy, a relevancy with an embarrassed look, as not being able to explain how it got there.

-There have been daring people in the world who claimed that Cooper could write English, but they are all dead now.

-. Now I feel sure, deep down in my heart, that Cooper wrote about the poorest English that exists in our language, and that the English of Deerslayer is the very worst that even Cooper ever wrote.

- I may be mistaken, but it does seem to me that Deerslayer is not a work of art in any sense; it does seem to me that it is destitute of every detail that goes to the making of a work of art; in truth, it seems to me that Deerslayer is just simply a literary delirium tremens.

One can read the review here.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Going for a swim?

Ah, Bonaparte on the Bridge of Arcole, Antoine-Jean Gros's most famous work, and one of the earliest bits of propaganda for the Napoleonic legend! This portrait of Napoleon, looking much more handsome than he probably was in real life, leads the way across the bridge at Arcole to seize Austrian Italy and set up numerous sister republics within a more-or-less benevolent system of French cultural hegemony. Note how the zeitgeist of the era disorders his hair and how he moves forward, sword extended, carrying the French flag of quasi-republicanism and cultural dominance.

Please also note that, instead of tearing through the mist with sword and flag upraised, the future Emperor actually fell off the bridge at Arcole and into a swampy canal where he would have drowned had he not been fished out, with quite a lot of difficulty, by his panicked aides-de-camp.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

He had to resume hostilities to maintain the balance of power

William Pitt was an extremely reserved, almost haughty person in public, but, in private was extraordinarily affectionate. He did not make friends easily, but Pitt held on tenaciously to those who managed to break past his reserve, and to a point where his Romantic friendships still puzzle scholars (ex. William Wilberforce, who became an outspoken opponent of Pitt's draconian policies during the Wars of the French Revolution but whom Pitt still considered one of his closest friends, and with whom Pitt had an odd but extremely enjoyable amount of slashy subtext in the 2006 film Amazing Grace).

Pitt was willing to bend over backwards for his family, as well, and adored his nieces and nephews. At one point, his niece, Lady Hester Stanhope blacked Pitt's face, while some other family members pinned him down, to amuse the youngest members of the family. This struggle, which evolved into a pillow fight, was interrupted by several members of Pitt's cabinet, including Lord Castlereagh. Pitt's transformation of demeanor was remarkable; he wiped off his face, and straightened up to the point where Lord Roseberry said that, after Pitt had assumed his working personna, "his tall figure seemed to stretch to the ceiling and all these powerful men who came calling bent like willows before him".

Immediately afterwards, Pitt resumed the pillowfight. One wonders if the Cabinet Ministers were asked to join in.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Is the worse punishment living under Napoleon III or having to live with his textile choices?

On the subject of Napoleon III's questionable taste, the Amateur Historian cannot help but mention one Victor Hugo, author of Les Miserables, Notre Dame de Paris and more Romantic poetry than Coleridge, Shelley and Keats combined could have produced. Granted, of the three mentioned here, two died young and one was addicted to opium and probably spent days on end watching his hand move, but the point remains: Hugo was a prolific Romantic. Why say, "The cannon broke free of its restraints" when you can stretch out such an action for an entire chapter?

Therefore, when Hugo believed Napoleon III had questionable taste, he did not merely say, "I hate you and everything you stand for, Napoleon III", he:

a. single-handedly forced a revolution (it did not work)
b. got exiled
c. wrote a 300 page volume of poetry called Les Chatiments, which can be translated either as The Punishments or Dear Napoleon III I Hate You and Everything You Stand For, And You Exiled Me to Jersey, Where There Is Nothing To Do Besides Nurture My Deep Hatred For You In Alexandrine Rhyming Couplets Filled With Classical Allusions No One Else Will Understand.

In Les Chatiments, Hugo takes a gleeful delight in calling Napoleon III Napoleon le petit (as opposed to Napoleon Bonaparte, who gets the better moniker of Napoleon le grand), a hypocritical murderer with the blood of mothers and children on his hands, the Judas Iscariot of French political theory and a mustachioed Caesar. He also points out the the style Napoleon III looks as if it is a melange of all styles that came before it- or rather, a melange of all the worst parts of the styles that came before, much in the same way that Napoleon III's regime was a melange of all the worst parts of all the governments that came before.

However, it is best not to take Hugo's criticisms at face value as, if one goes to the Maison Hugo in Paris, one can see that Hugo's idea of style was to carpet his ceilings.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Style Napoleon III

The Amateur Historian is not a fan of the Opera Garnier, which, in the Amateur Historian's humble opinion, looks as if the Baroque Era ate a bit of Romanticism that disagreed with it, then puked it up in the form of a building, then got so ashamed of what it had done, it kept flinging gold leaf, drapes, tassels, mirrors, tapestries and paintings at its mess. The Empress Eugenie, the wife of Emperor Napoleon III, during whose reign the Opera Garnier was first commissioned, did not like the building either.

When Garnier first submitted the designs for the Opera, the Empress looked at the bizarre Versailles-gone-so-froo-froo-wild-on-a-gold-leaf-bender plan and demanded what the building's style was supposed to be.

Garnier, looking at the Emperor, replied, "The style Napoleon III."

Needless to say, his design won.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cato Street Conspirators: Thoroughly Impressive Idiocy

In the 1820s, the British government was still knee-jerk reactionary towards any sign of political radicalism. Napoleon had been defeated yes, but Ireland was still engulfed in various stages of repression and revolt, the Luddites were smashing machines, the vetrans of the Napoleonic wars were getting restless, the Peterloo Massacre had happened, rotten boroughs were beginning to smell and George III went off the deep end and told everyone he was related to a tree.

Thus, it does not come as a surprise to learn that a group of Spencean Philanthropists, so called because they followed the philosophy of the British radical Thomas Spence, tried to foment revolution and that the British government sentenced them all to death or deportation. However, this seems like something of an overreaction, given that, even in a time period full of constant revolt, riot and revolution that often did not operate along normal lines of logic, these Spenesan Philanthropists displayed the collective common sense of a box of hair and did not actually manage to be a threat to anything but themselves.

Their brilliant plan to overthrow the government was:
1. Kill Lord Liverpool and all his ministers at a dinner party.

That was it.

Technically, they had vague plans to form some sort of committee of public safety to oversee the radical revolution sure to follow, and who's to say it wouldn't've worked had there actually been a dinner party of all cabinet ministers to attack?

As the marichino cherry on top of thie sundae of fail!planing, the entire plot was created by none other than a police informant.

Good show gentlemen, good show.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Have a Wilde One!

Happy birthday, dear Oscar Wilde, wit until the end.

Though his witticisms and one-liners have so entered into the collective subconscious the Amateur Historian has been reluctant to post about them, she cannot help but mention her favorite.

Wilde spent his last few years in the Hôtel d'Alsace, where he kept up with his pleasures and with various intellectual circles. About a month before his death, Wilde quite glibly informed his friends, "My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go."

Friday, October 9, 2009

It also tastes delicious with butter

The French Romantic period had a number of authors who took Romanticism to its illogical extremes. One such poet was Gerard de Nerval, who, like many young writers, took it upon himself to shock the bourgoise in order to display the falseness of society and his role, as a poet, in breaking them free of their shackles. To this end, he joined the 'bosingos', which, though an important force in the 1830s Revolution, spent a lot of time doing the weirdest things they could imagine. Since the group de Nerval belonged to was an offshoot, the 'bouzingos', were mostly poets who placed art above politics and tended to annoy the monarchists just for the hell of it instead of out of legitimate political protest, they came up with some pretty bizarre stuff even for Romantics. The Amateur Historian believes that at one point the 'bouzingos' decided it would be a great idea to hold a literary salon in the nude and then any follow it up with a concert, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that none of them could play an instrument. The Amateur Historian believes that the 'bouzingos' were still nude when they did this.

De Nerval fit in with the bouzingos perfectly. He liked to go out walking with a lobster on a pale blue ribbon and, when asked why, replied that the lobster did not bark and that it knew the secrets of the deep.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Quit Monkeying Around

It is sometimes difficult to remember that, during the Napoleonic Wars, there still existed very isolated villages with little to no contact with the outside world, whom the Enlightenment appeared to have passed over in lieu of more interesting citizens.

The village of Hartlepool is a case in point (though, depending on who you ask, it might actually be Boddam). During the Napoleonic Wars, a storm destroyed a French chasse-marée, or a little fishing vessel, and the wreckage washed up on the shores of Hartlepool. Among the debris, there was one lone survivor, a monkey.

The crew had dressed up the monkey in a French uniform for their amusement, but this turned out to be a bad idea for poor Curious Georges. The villagers of Hartlepool had no idea what a French person might look like and decided to hold a trial for it on the beach. Despite the fact that the villagers had a. no idea what a monkey looked like, and b. no idea that there might be a language barrier even if the monkey had not been a monkey, the villagers concluded that since the monkey did not respond, it was probably a French spy, sentanced it to death and hung it on the mast of a fishing boat on the Headland.

One wonders how the villagers dealt with Darwin's theory of evolution later in the 19th century.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Sort of Romantic Avoidance

Being a medical student is a difficult, exhausting and sometimes disgusting process and being one in the nineteenth century was no better. Hector Berlioz (here showing that the neckbeard is a bad fashion choice no matter what century) was forced into the medical field, one in which he had no interest what-so-ever, by his parents and was thoroughly unprepared for the dissection room.

He writes in his memoirs: "The sight of that horrible human charnel house, these scattered limbs, grinning heads, open skulls, the bloody cesspool in which we walked, the revolting smell which emanated from it, the swarms of sparrows wrangling over scraps of lungs, the rats gnawing bloody vertebrae in their corner--all this filled me with such terror that I leapt through the window of the dissecting-room."

One hopes that the window was open, lest Berlioz be forced to return to the medical school in a still less agreeable position.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Hernani: The Play Where the Audience is SUPPOSED to Be More Interesting Than the Actors

The Romantic movement came to France much later than it did to England in Germany, and the backlash was correspondingly more severe. The elements of French culture that proved resistant to Romanticism, i.e. the Academie Francaise, and the wide-spread use and popularity of classical form, also proved extremely reactionary, as could be seen on Feb. 25, 1830, when a young Victor Hugo decided to stage a play.

Victor Hugo, who is pretty much The Romantic of the French Romantic movement, broke with tradition when he wrote Hernani, a play that can be summed up as, "Oops, I am in love with someone who is in love with/engaged to someone else and now I have killed myself for no easily discernable reason." Though the main cast was dead in the end, as happens with most French tragedy, Hugo made the great mistake of using forbidden words such as "handkerchief" and forcing the actors to express grand sweeps of Romantic passion while in period costume. One actress was so appalled by her period costume she refused to go onstage without wearing her contemporary but hideous 1830s hat. Since the Comedie Francaise, i.e. the Maison de Moliere, i.e. the oldest theatre company in Europe, i.e. The Be All and End All of French Drama, was deigning to stage a (gasp) Romantic piece, Hugo was understandably nervous about its reception. He therefore passed out red tickets (normally given to the author of any staged drama, like a courtesy copy of a book) to his friends, who formed a Romantic Army and invaded the Comedie Francaise on the opening night.

To make sure the production would begin on time and sans interference from the classicists, the Romantic Army got to the building at three-o-clock and locked themselves in for the next four hours with provisions and their cosplay get-up (Seriously, Hugo himself describes the Romantic Army as full of "wild whimsical characters, bearded, long-haired, dressed in every fashion except the reigning one, in pea-jackets, Spanish cloaks, in waistcoats a la Robespierre, in Henry III bonnets...and this in the middle of Paris in broad daylight"). Sometime before seven-o-clock, they realized that they had no bathrooms, as they had locked themselves into the auditorium, and just did their business in the boxes of the classicists.

The classicists were understandably pissy (in all senses of the word, thanks to the lack of bathrooms) and began having fistfights in the pit. The actors, already unhappy with having to go Romantic and forsake their 1830s habberdashery, were made further unhappy by the fact that they could not get through a single performance without someone in the audience :
a. challenging someone else to a duel,
b. starting a fistfight,
c. hissing at the stage loud enough to drown out the actors,
d. arguing over classical vs. Romantic forms and politics very, very loudly, or
e. getting up onstage in a red waistcoat and lime green pants before the curtain to sing praises of the Romantic, bohemian lifestyle. (Not like that, though. More the songs of angry men.)

Hernani ran for a hundred full-house performances. The Amateur Historian is willing to bet that the actors of the Comedie Francaise hated every one of them.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Congratulations, citizens, today is Day One on the French Republican calendar, one of the most interesting developments to come out of the desire to make order out of a previously arbitrary system of measurement. This desire also created the metric system, which is much more exact than any other system of measurement and which is still in use today.

During the French Revolution, the traditional system of patronage was overthrown and a number of artists (the most famous of which is David) and poets began to take an active role in participating in and shaping their government. One poet, Fabre d'Eglantine, was given the task of renaming French notions of time, or, in particular, days, weeks and the calendar year. Agronomist Charles Gilbert Romme and his team of astronomers, politicians, and mathematicians came up with the Republican calendar (i.e. a ten week day (based off the metric ten), with a ten-hour day, with a 100 decimal minute hour, with a 100 decimal second minute. An hour then becomes twice as long as a conventional hour, a minute becomes slightly longer than a conventional minute, and a second becomes slightly shorter than a conventional second. The More You Know!).

There were twelve months, comprised of three ten-day weeks (décades), with the tenth day, décadi, replacing Sunday as the day of rest and festivity. The five or six extra days left over when one approximates the solar year ended up at the very end of the year as holidays. Leap years became "Franciade" to commemorate how it had taken four years for the French Revolution to establish a republic. The leap year itself was called Sextile, because it contained a sixth complimentary day.

The names of the days of the week are pretty basic (Primidi, Duodi, etc.) but the names of the month are suitably Romantic and poetic, as the months, split up into four groups, rhyme three and three, to demonstrate the sonority of the seasons. The names of the months themselves are taken from nature (i.e. Brumaire is taken from the French 'brume', which means fog; ergo, Brumaire is the month of fog).

The months were:
1 Vendémiaire 7 Germinal
2 Brumaire 8 Floréal
3 Frimaire 9 Prairial
4 Nivôse 10 Messidor
5 Pluviôse 11 Thermidor
6 Ventôse 12 Fructidor

British detractors translated the months as Wheezy, Sneezy and Freezy; Slippy, Drippy and Nippy; Showery, Flowery and Bowery; Wheaty, Heaty and Sweety.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wow, that's a doozy of a charge....

In 1793, Mlle Montansier finished building a theatre, the Theatre Nationale on the Rue de Richelieu, facing the Bibliotheque Nationale, dedicated to new plays. Unfortunately for Mlle Montansier, construction finished just as the Terror started and someone accused her of deliberately building her theatre facing the Bibliotheque Nationale so that she could better blow up the Bibliotheque Nationale.

She was released from prison two years later.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Les Egots de Paris

The Parisian sewers are, in their way, one of the enduring legacies of Napoleon III, who is Josephine's direct descendant and not Napoleon Bonaparte's. (Bref, Josephine's daughter, Hortense, married one of Napoleon's numerous brothers. Hortense's son became Napoleon III when Napoleon's son with his second wife, Marie Louise, the niece of Marie-Antoinette, died very young.)

Still, like his uncle, Napoleon III loved Paris and saw its glory as a reflection of his own. Therefore, there came Haussmann, widening the streets so that no one could pry the paving stones loose and build barricades again, the gilded Baroque-Era-ate-a-bit-of-romanticism-and-then-vomited-forth-a-building Opera Garnier and the sewer septic system that so fascinated Victor Hugo. It is, in fact, extremely important to have seperate pipes for drinking water and waste products. This became extremely clear after the 1832 influx of cholera, the (hated) government's powerlessness against it, and the resultant revolts. Ergo, Napoleon III decided that, though Napoleon I had introduced covered sewers (then a very innovative idea), it was probably a pretty bad idea for said covered sewers to dump everything in the Seine, and the complex warren of today's Parisian sewers had its birth.

It was such a technological marvel that visitors to Paris would flock below the newly enlarged streets to take a boat ride through the sewers.

Though one can no longer catch a very Romantic skin disease while making the Grand Tour, one can now visit the Paris Sewer Museum and discover that the Parisian sewer rats have only one natural predator, the pet turtles regular Parisians flush down their toilets. Apparently, there used to be an alligator in the sewers to eat the rats as well, but the alligator has since been captured and put into an aquarium in England. The Amateur Historian is not entirely sure why, but supposes it was because the turtles simply couldn't keep up with the competition.

However, the Musée des égouts de Paris has a sign nearby that reads, "Je bois de l'eau de Paris!", which is "I drink the waters of Paris!"

The Amateur Historian now knows that the drinking water of Paris is piped in directly from a mountain stream to the north, albeit in pipes first laid down in the latter half of the nineteenth century, but is still tempted to rip of Descartes: "Je bois de l'eau de Paris, donc, j'ai de choléra!", or, "I drink the waters of Paris, therefore, I have cholera."

Friday, August 28, 2009

Canning, How Could You?

Pitt was naturally reserved and called himself "the shyest man alive", so he spent a great deal of time listening to speeches made in the House or in the committees without saying a word or allowing the speaker to approach him. Though this annoyed the House and the committees, it allowed Pitt to display his remarkable capacity for spotting political talent. Of the hundreds of MPs Pitt convinced to either join Parliament to begin with, or to vote along with Pitt's policies, there were two future Prime Ministers and five future Cabinet Ministers. Pitt's ministry in the 1790s even included four of the five Prime Ministers that would take up office after Pitt had left it.

Of course, Pitt focused almost solely on political accumen and not personality. He was not inclined to expand his social circle, he disliked having to meet new people and be friendly to them and resented any intrusion of his privacy by people he a. did not know or b. did not wish to know better. One of these people was George Canning, who, after being discovered by Pitt, developed a devotion to the Prime Minister that bordered on fanatical. Pitt eventually warmed to him, but it took several years for Pitt to consider him a friend, and Pitt was occasionally thrown by Canning's enthusiasm.

At one point, Canning did the unthinkable and touched Pitt on the shoulder in the House of Commons. The other MPs were shocked, Pitt was alarmed and Canning was forced to defend himself in his journal:

"Once I was seen, when I wanted to speak with him, and he was looking another way, to put my hand on his shoulder. How can you conceive a more silly thing to trouble people's heads than this? ... I know indeed that I have, with people whom I like, old or young, great or small, something of a caressing manner... and so have a great many other people--a great many have it not... they consider Mr. Pitt, naturally enough, as one of the latter class, the non-shakers--whereas he is in fact a very hearty, salutation-giving, shake hands sort of person--and one therefore whom I feel it is natural to take by the arm, or to touch upon the shoulder even (which is the great offence)... But if it be wrong it must be altered."

Pitt made it clear that it must be altered and Canning did not touch him on the shoulder again.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On Parliament

On visiting Parliament, by Carl Moritz:

"I was much shocked by the open abuse which Members of Parliament fling at each other... they enter the house in greatcoats, boots and spurs! It is not unusual to see a member stretched out on one of the benches while the rest are in debate. One Member may be cracking nuts, another eating an orange or whatever fruit may be in season; they are constantly going in and out... whenever one of them speaks badly or the matter of his speech lacks interest for the majority, the noise and laughter are such that the Member can hardly hear his own words."

This seems to be entirely accurate. Edmund Burke, today regarded as one of the best speech-makers of the 18th century, was violently hated in Parliament. The other MPs nicknamed him 'dinner bell' because when he got up to speak, everyone left.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Charles Ain't a Lamb After All

Coleridge was very fond of sentimental friendships, and, in fact, wrote several poems to those who were on the recieving end of his effusions of Romantic feeling. This, however, backfired when it came to Charles Lamb. In This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison, Coleridge describes all the wonderful things his friends (William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb) were out seeing on their walk while Coleridge had to sit alone in the garden with a burnt foot.

They, being alive to the wonders of nature, appreciated the countryside, but Coleridge was sure that the one who appreciated it the most was, his "gentle-hearted Charles!"

Charles may have appreciated nature, but he did not appreciate the epithet. He later wrote to Coleridge, "For God's sake (I never was more serious), don't make me ridiculous any more by terming me gentle-hearted in print, or do it in better verses."

Friday, August 21, 2009

How Un-Bearable

Though Lord Byron was a cad who, according to popular report "had natural relations with his sister and unnatural relations with his wife", was nevertheless a very good friend.

In school, even though he had a club foot and no money and was therefore bullied himself, he once tried to defend a friend of his against a bully. Said bully scoffed and told him to bugger off. Lord Byron switched tactics and asked him how many lashings said bully was going to give to his friend.

"Why?" asked the bully.

"So that I may have half the beatings," quoth Byron.

Once up at Cambridge, Byron bought a tame bear, at which point, bullies decided they would much rather pick on students who did not have tame bears living in their dorm rooms. The Amateur Historian does not quite know why the teachers allowed this, but presumably, they did not want to have to address their arguments to the bear in question.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Presumably not with your parents

The Amateur Historian apologizes for the break in regular postings, Gentle Readers and begs your indulgence for this summer slackness. She has been going on vacation, a pastime which many Romantic writers were similarly addicted, when they could a. get the money and b. refrain from spending it all on opium.

One such traveler was Charles Lamb, an essayist who, alas, stuck for cash, was one day forced to tour a graveyard in lieu of Southern Italy. Granted, his parents were buried there, and he writes that he, "prostrated [himself] before the spot... kissed the earth that covered them [and]... contemplated, with gloomy delight, the time [he] should mingle his dust with theirs."

This fit of histrionics over, Lamb looked around at the rest of the graveyard and, since he did not think to bring other reading material with him, began reading the tombstones and epitaphs. After passing some time in engraved twee reminiscences about the dead, Lamb turned to his sister and asked, "Where are all the bad people buried?"

Monday, August 3, 2009

Well, you just can't leave an ensemble incomplete....

As has been mentioned before, warfare is no reason to be impolite, and piracy isn't either, at least not in 18th century society.

Captain Benjamin Hornigold's tenure as a scourge of the seven seas lasted from 1715 to 1718, at which point his crew decided that they were not too keen on his never attacking an orphan (actually, never attacking a ship flying a British flag) and his second-in-command, Edward Teach took over. Captain Hornigold does not appear to have been a particularly threatening pirate either.

During one particular attack, Hornigold boarded the ship and, apologetically, asked the crew of the attacked ship for their hats. Captain Hornigold and his crew had overindulged the previous evening and tossed their hats overboard in an excess of drunken merriment. Once Captain Hornigold had recieved the hats, he thanked the crew and sailed away at once.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Madame Tallien

Speaking of Incroyables, the female counterparts, the merveilleuses, were led by the scandelous Theresa Tallien. Since her husband led the Thermidorian reaction that overthrew the Jacobin control of the National Assembly and installed the five-man Directorate, and since she was the lover of one of the Directors, Paul Barras, she was considered to be the It Girl of her day.

She particularly liked to push fashion to the very limit and turned the Neo-Greek and Roman fashions that had gained popularity under the French Republic into fun but frivolous pieces, made in see-through muslins and worn without petticoats (gasp!). Madame Tallien once appeared at the Paris Opera wearing absolutely nothing but a white silk dress. Talleyrand, after admiring her for a few minutes, remarked, "It is not possible to exhibit oneself more sumptuously!"
Considering that, a few weeks before, Madame Tallien had wagered that her earrings weighed more than all her clothes, immediately proved it in public and won, the Amateur Historian is inclined to agree.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Taking a Leaf out of Frederick William I's Book....

Yesterday was 9 Thermidor, when the Jacobins were overthrown, the Reign of Terror ended and the White Terror began. The White Terror is an oddly unknown historical movement during the Thermidorian Reaction, where monarchists and counter-revolutionaries continued on the Terror, only focused it on a. Jacobins, b. anyone who disagreed with the new government (the quickly corrupted Directory, whose political disorganization, economic screw-ups and general inefficacy paved the way for Bonaparte's take-over), c. the peasants, and d. the government of Paris.

Frankly, it was not very funny.

However, some of the disaffected youth who joined the movement were. Gone were the ardent revolutionaries who read Rousseau and Voltaire, who debated the sources of political legitimacy and jumped up on cafe tables to proselytize. The new group, the jeunesse dorée/the Muscadins/the Incroyables, were basically a roving group of angry fops in knee-breeches, exaggerated frock coats, collars so high one would today assume they were wearing neck braces, and powdered hair cut short to emulate the haircut given to a condemned person by the executioner.

To be very basic, the Jacobins had been working to what Robespierre called "the republic of virtue", so those whom the Jacobins considered to be the enemies of France/the republic of virtue decided to reject everything that the Jacobins had proposed (except the guillotining of political opponents). Ergo, virtue of all kinds was considered rather passé so, even though France, who was still entirely without trading partners or easy access to its colonies, was in the middle of a severe famine. They also decided that actually paying attention to political issues was a waste of time, as, to top an otherwise monarchist ensemble, they also wore their powdered hair as several revolutionaries did, with most pulled back in a queue, and a lock of hair on either side of the face. Similarly, they wore cravats with prints on them, which were working-class and generally showed that one supported the sans-culottes.

Thus armed, these gentlemen ran wild in the streets of Paris, drinking very load toasts to the monarchy in front of angry, starving sans-culottes, and beating people up with sticks.

The Amateur Historian believes that the disaffected youth just wanted to beat people up with sticks. The outfits were just an excuse. That, or the collars helped when the sans-culottes, hardened from years of work, grabbed the sticks from the idle members of the aristocracy and beat them up in return.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Too Bad He Didn't Have the Holy Hand Grenade....

After the 1807 Peace of Tilsit, Napoleon decided to relax by having a hunting party for the court and, to that end, asking his scarily efficient chief-of-staff, Alexandre Berthier, to organize a rabbit hunt.

Berthier, in charge of one of the most organized and effective armies in Europe, attacked this request with his usual foresight and planning, even bringing in hundreds of rabbits should nature prove so monstrously disobliging as to fail to uphold its end, hunting-wise.

Unfortunately, Berthier proved to be too good at making the rabbit hunt entertaining. As soon as the Emperor arrived, the keepers released the rabbits and the lepine horde rushed straight at Napoleon. The freaked-our generals of the court immediately formed a skirmish line to protect the Emperor, but the rabbits somehow had a better grasp of Napoleonic strategy than Napoleon's generals and, dividing into two wings, poured around the flanks of the skirmish line.

Napoleon had to run for his carriage, but the rabbits pursued and the Emperor had to physically toss rabbits out of the imperial coach. Rabbits apparently kept flying out of the windows as the coach drove off.

Later on, Berthier discovered that he had accidentally bought a horde of domesticated rabbits who assumed the gentleman walking towards them was their feeder, not the Emperor of France and the Conqueror of Europe.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Desmoulins later shared a cordial antipathy with the prettiest member of the French Revolution, Louis Saint-Just. Saint-Just was fond of the very stiff, high collars than in fashion and was also very cold and austere, in a manner that did not endear him to Desmoulins. Desmoulins is said to have said of Saint-Just, "He carries his head like the Holy Sacrament."

"And I," Saint-Just, not to be outdone, is said to have replied, "will make him carry his head like Saint-Denis."



Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Happy Bastille Day!

A very happy 14th of July to you all, commemorating the day when Parisians, spurred on by street orators like Camille Desmoulins, panicked about the economic crisis, the food shortage, the dismissal of the enormously popular finance minister, Necker, and the fact that the king had stationed foreign troops around the city. The king had done so to keep the Parisians from rioting at the loss of the only finance minister they had liked in the past five years, but this plan backfired catestrophically. The Parisians assumed that Necker's dismissal meant the triumph of the conservative faction and therefore the violent shut down of the National Constituent Assembly (the group that had broken off from the Estates-General and demanded a government with a constitution).

Several street orators jumped up onto tables to prolethyse the crowds, but the most famous of these is Camille Desmoulins, who jumped up onto a table whilst holding two pistols and shouted, "'Citizens, there is no time to lose; the dismissal of Necker is the knell of a Saint Bartholomew for patriots! This very night all the Swiss and German battalions will leave the Champ de Mars to massacre us all; one resource is left; to take arms!"

Unfortunately, the people didn't really have arms, so they raided where they could and, after about two days of continuous rioting, converged on the Bastille, where they heard there were arms and gunpowder. The Bastille was an old, costly fortress that was then housing a grand total of seven prisoners: four forgers, two lunatics, and one deviant aristocrat, the comte de Solages . The Marquis de Sade had been removed from the Bastille ten days earlier for harassing the people who walked too close to his window. Though the Bastille was not popular and was going to be shut down because it was too expensive to maintain, it was the place you were most likely to end up if you were arrested on a lettre de cachet, or rather, a letter signed by the king and a cabinet minister to enforce arbitrary legislation and effectively outlawing any possibility of an appeal.

After a shoot-out lasting several hours, in the Amateur Historian's personal favorite part of the proceedings, one man actually scaled the chains holding up the drawbridge of the Bastille and cut them down, allowing his fellow Parisians to seize the fortress and completely freak out the French aristocracy.

This culminated in the very famous dialogue between Louis XVI and the Duc de Rochefoucauld.

"Then it's a revolt?" asked Louis XVI.

"No, Sire," the duc replied. "It is a revolution."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What's in a name?

There is a popular saying that one should never engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent, but that never stopped Voltaire... often to a detrimental degree, but Voltaire seems to have possessed more resilience than rubber so it often didn't matter. In his early years as a poet, Voltaire's quick wit gained him entrance into French high society and quite nearly knocked him out of it again.

Voltaire somehow or other managed to annoy one Auguste de Rohan-Chabot, perhaps by the admittedly, not very difficult task of being cleverer than Auguste de Rohan-Chabot. While Voltaire was at the opera with a group of friends, de Rohan-Chabot dropped into their box to pay his compliments and to glance distainfully at Voltaire. "Ah," he is said to have remarked, "there you are M. Voltaire, or Arouet, or whatever it is you call yourself."

Feeling pretty clever for having brought up Voltaire's low origins and lack of an important family name, he attempted to join the party, but Voltaire forestalled him.

"Yes, I am the first to honor my name," said Voltaire, "but what have you done to honor yours?"
(de Rohan-Chabot's answer was to have his lackies ambush Voltaire and beat the poet up. Ouch. Voltaire challenged him to a duel later on and de Rohan-Chabot got Voltaire exiled to England, where Voltaire became a pan-European celebrity. Yeah, real cruel punishment, there, increasing his audience and book sales.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A Not-So-Romantic Friendship

The prominant literary critic Charles Lamb had an increasingly bad relationship with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge was fond of sentimental friendships, all grand, sweeping emotions, declarations of love and tearful embraces. Charles Lamb grew disenchanted and ultimately rather annoyed with them. Coleridge was also fond of the Romantic, metaphysical monologues about nothing in particular.

During one particularly rambling monologue about the life, the universe and everything, Coleridge, who had once been a Unitarian minister planning on founding a utopian commune on the banks of the Susquehanna interrupted himself to ask, "Charles, have you ever heard me preach?"

Replied the weary Lamb: "I have never heard you do anything else."

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy 4th!

Happy "Screw you King George III!" day to those that celebrate it! In honor of one of the more fascinating events of the 18th century, I bring you the following Founder, John Adams.

During the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, John Adams was "obnoxious and disliked", as he later wrote, and it's not entirely hard to see why the Continental Congress got so pissed off at him, since his opinion of congress was equally dismal. "In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three or more is a congress."

Adams was not generally one for aphorisms (that was Ben Franklin's forte and you bet he exploited it), but his letters to his beloved and generally kick-ass wife Abigail Adams have unexpected and enjoyable glimpses of wit. At one point he wrote, "I must not write a word to you about politics, because you are a woman." (ouch) He didn't let that stop him however/Abigail wasn't going to stand for that, even if his writings about politics got increasingly whiney:

"I have accepted a seat in the House of Representatives, and thereby have consented to my own ruin, to your ruin, and to the ruin of our children. I give you this warning that you may prepare your mind for your fate."

"My country has contrived for me the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived or his imagination conceived." (Adams got elected to be the first vice president. He was less than pleased he wasn't president.)

"The Declaration of Independence I always considered as a theatrical show. Jefferson ran away with all the stage effect of that... and all the glory of it." (No wonder these biffles stopped talking to each other for a couple of years! There are more complicated reasons behind it- Jefferson was a total Francophile (he was one of the first American ambassadors to France, save Franklin and Adams himself) and Adams decided not to help the French Republic against Britain (he was the first American ambassador to England, which the Amateur Historian believes must have sucked); the moralistic Adams was outraged by the rumors about Jefferson and Sally Hemmings, etc.- but this? Rawr, Adams, sheath your claws in this catfight!)

"No man who ever held the office of president would congratulate a friend on obtaining it." (Dude was never satisfied!)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Well, that was awkward for us all.

Not only is the title going to be the name of the tell-all autobiography by one of the Amateur Historian's friends, it is also the story of a rather, er... delicate matter concerning an august member (har har) of French history.

When Napoleon died on St. Helena, the Romantic period was in full swing, and with it, the resurgance of the medeval idea of carrying around saints' relics... with one noticable difference. Instead of saints, your average Romantic collected objects and organs of famous writers, artists and other Great Men. Keats went into a swoon over Milton's hair and Mary Shelley traveled around with her husband's powdered heart. It thus comes as no surprise that after Napoleon's death, Vignali, the priest who had given the former Emperor his last rights wanted a keepsake. Instead of cutting off a lock of hair, the priest decided he wanted Napoleon's penis.

Apparently, either after or during the autopsy, Vignali and his valet found themselves alone with Napoleon's corpse and did some very delicate anatomical restructuring. Vignali also inherited a number of Napoleon's personal effects (though the Amateur Historian respectfully doubts that Napoleon ever meant for Vignali's Napoleona to be that personal) and the lot of it was auctioned off in 1916. The collection was continually sold off but, in 1961, failed to sell. This lead to the amusing tabloid headline, "NOT TONIGHT JOSEPHINE" and a considerable blow to the pride of the owners of the collection. Said owner apparently spent eight years recovering fromt he indignity of not being able to sell Napoleon's penis and put said object on the auction block at Christie's in 1977. It sold for $3,000 to John K. Lattimer, professor emeritus and former chairman of urology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. He then took it to his home in New Jersey and stored it under his bed for the next thirty years.

It is not entirey clear whether or not it actually is Napoleon's penis or not; Professor Lattimer seems to think it is, and since he's a urologist, the Amateur Historian assumes he is familiar with his, er... subject and, frankly, does not want to personally investigate.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Warfare is no reason to be impolite

Despite popular reports from several years ago, General Washington was not made of radiation (Thank you, TV Tropes page for this disturbing video I thought I had forgotten), but he was a pretty impressive figure and wrote some vastly entertaining letters.

1777 was not a really great year for the American forces, as General Howe took New York and then the sort-of capitol of the colonies, Philadelphia. George Washington wrote that circumstances were so bad that, "if [he] could have justified the measure to posterity and [his] own conscience" it would have been better if he had "retired to the back country, and lived in a wigwam."

As amusing as such a phrase is, the Amateur Historian likes this letter best:

Octr 6. 1777

General Washington's compliments to General Howe. He does himself the pleasure to return him a dog, which accidentally fell into his hands, and by the inscription on the Collar appears to belong to General Howe.

Manners were important in 18th century society, after all. I'll bet Washington would have looked up the land permits before building his backwoods wigwam, too.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Erickson's "historical entertainment": Neither Historical Nor Entertaining

The Amateur Historian picked up a novel entitled The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon's Bird of Paradise from her local library, which was just the beginning of her intellectual torture.

"Hunh," said the Amateur Historian to herself. "The author seems familiar. Maybe I've liked her previous stuff? I'll check it out."

Unfortunately, the Amateur Historian was familiar with the author because she wrote, without doubt, the worst book I have ever read, the godawful excuse for a novel, The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette, which, upon reflection, deserves every nasty thing the Amateur Historian is insinutating.
Truth is, according to Kierkegaard, subjective, so someone may find redeeming features in The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette. The Amateur Historian does not.
Erickson prides herself on writing something called, "historical entertainment", which is neither historical nor entertaining. In these sad excuses for works of even dubious literary merit, Carolly Erickson picks a famous female historical figure, preferably one with a crown, and invents a really boring and simplistic world in which a simplified-to-the-point-of-inanity version of said historical figure makes the readers wish for the protagonist's painful demise with every page.

The Amateur Historian is a huge fan of the Empress Josephine and has read some marvelous historical fantasies about Josephine wherein the author actually does research, effectively simplifies the historical event to narrative form while keeping most of its complexity and presents a sympathetic but flawed character whose motives are understandable and who seems a genuine part of their society. Those books were the Josephine B trilogy by the marvelous Sandra Gulland.
It was not this wretched excuse for fiction by Erickson, which ought to have been named Josephine's Dear Penthouse Letter: A Bizarre Metaphor That Does Not Even Appear in the Text.

This book, though I hesitate to call it a book since it failed so much at being part of any genre but that of Gross Stupidity, has little to no relationship with historical fact, except that it appears Erickson once-upon-a-time read a general life-and-times biography of Josephine and decided that the characters were too complex and the time period too interesting and, furthermore, that the mentions of Josephine's love affairs weren't explicit and annoying enough.

Thus, this travesty of a novel was vomited forth into hardback.

I cannot begin to say how truly awful this book was. I hated it. I hated every historical inaccuracy, I hated every character Erickson introduced and I hated the fact that an intelligent, politically astute, clever woman was reduced to Miss Look-Who-I-Slept-With (which is apparently most of Europe). There was so much more to Josephine than the fact that she had sex! Unfortunately, Erickson either doesn't believe so, or feels that a complex emotional, spiritual and/or intellectual inner life makes for boring reading. Ditto with historical fact. Who cares how Napoleon's Grande Armee, the largest military force Europe had ever seen, met with disaster in Russia if there isn't sex involved?

And then, there is her godawful Napoleon. This is a man who is still revered as a hero, who inspired the poorest, worst-supplied army in Europe to capture Italy from the supposedly unbeatable Austrian forces, who created an entire legal system, who seized control of France when he was only thirty and whose army was so devoted they turned on Louis XVIII to support Napoleon at Waterloo. You'd be surprised by that if your only knowledge of the Napoleonic era came from this awful excuse for historical fiction. Napoleon is truly hateful and amazingly stupid. Though he hates Josephine (this from a man who, according to his generals, worshiped his wife, and whose existing letters to her are embarrassingly explicit) and grows to loathe her over the course of the novel, he bows to her every whim. God alone knows why, since this Josephine was one of the most unappealing characters I've had the misfortune to read. She is flat, one-dimensional, boring, and so annoying I still had no sympathy for her aafter the author attempted to force the readers to like Josephine by having someone rape the future Empress (which is just one of many "what the hell?" moments for anyone with a passing acquaintance with the historical time period or personnages).

I would like to give this novel a negative grade for not only failing to be even accidentally historically accurate, but also failing to have any of the conventional traits of fiction, like, well-rounded, interesting characters, a compelling plot, useful dialogue, wit, intelligence or proof of the author's basic literacy. What was the point of writing a prologue displaying that she had, in fact, done research, when absolutely none of it made it into the book?

There is nothing redeeming about this novel. If you can find it, Gentle Readers, pray inform me. I gave up when Josephine decided to travel to Russia after Napoleon.
... on second thought, that would mean forcing my Gentle Readers to expose themselves to such radioactive garbage. Forget the existance of this book. It will be better for everyone involved. I am personally attempting to find brain bleach to forget I ever wasted my time on something so hopelessly bad.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Why don't judges beg the pardon of Satan any more?

Sheridan wasn't the only scandalous writer with snazzy comebacks. John Wilkes, a mid-eighteenth century reformer and satirical pamphletist was one of the more scandalous personnages of the Georgian era. To illustrate, the amateur Historian humbly begs her Gentle Readers to inspect this share this gem from The King Who Lost America: A portrait of the life and times of George III, which is further subtitled, A Highly Entertaining Portrait of the Rather Endearing Prig Who Lost the Colonies.

"The incorrigible John Wilkes did not rest after this highly publicized libel trial and the closure of his newspaper, North Briton. Wilkes and his fellow Hell Fire member Thomas Potter had composed an indiscreet parody of Pope’s Essay on Man entitled Essay on Women. Whereas Pope had inscribed his poem to Lord Bolingbroke, commencing the dedication “Awake, my St John!” the Wilkes version was inscribed to Fanny Murray, a fashionable courtesan and began “Awake, my Fanny!” According to an outraged contemporary who was familiar with the text: “The natural abilities of the ass are made the subject of an unclean description… the sense of Pope’s Universal Prayer is perverted to serve the vilest purpose of unchastity… God is ludicrously insulted by a repetition of the grossest obscenity…” etc.

... the trial did not go quite so well for Wilkes. Bishop Warburton, purple with rage, ranted that the blackest fiends in hell would not keep company with the author of Essay on Women, adding that he begged the pardon of Satan for linking their names together.”

It is little wonder then, that the fourth Earl of Sandwhich met Wilkes later on, said Earl exclaimed, “Sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!”

To which Wilkes replied, “That, sir, depends on whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles or your Lordship’s mistresses.”

Monday, June 15, 2009

Beau Brummel: This Charming Man

Beau Brummel was almost The Celebrity of the early Regency period, even though, to the Amateur Historian's mind, his claim to fame was really only getting dressed in the morning. Granted, as Queen of Fashion or any biography will tell you, clothing was of significant symbolic importance during said time-period. Wear knee-breeches (culottes, in French) and you would be considered a part of the repressive Ancien Regime, and pretty much an open target to the sans-culottes who disapprove of your fashion choices. Wear a gaulle, and alternately be accused of immorality or be a paragon of Roussean simplicity. Wear a fox-tail in your hat to show your Whiggish leanings and support for Charles James Fox! I suppose Brummel was sort of the first hipster, making ironic detachment and cool, and a look of careless (but cultivated) elegance the way to go.

The film stars the amazing-in-period-costume James Purefoy, who seems to be contractually obligated by the BBC to end his roles in a dazed, drunken stupor while depressed, abandoned and crying. (Marc Antony, why did it have to end the way it did?). The man is gorgeous in a cravat and plays Beau Brummel with an understated charm and quiet friendliness. He is the epitome of a dandy. Hugh Bonneville plays a sadly realistic Prince Regent, and Matthew Rhys plays a very pretty Lord Byron. I have absolutely no complaints with the costumes, which were drool-worthy, or the sets, which were equally fantastic. I do, however, have some quibbles with the plot.

The biopic is a tragedy, wherein the viewer believes Brummel will win and then Brummel pretty much commits social suicide, and James Purefoy is left brokenly (and, the Amateur Historian must admit, beautifully) sobbing all by himself. To be more specific, Brummel starts out as biffles with the Prince Regent, to the point where the prince calls him over in the middle of the night to read Henry IV out loud. Brummel has to read Falstaff, whom he dubs, "Fat-staff", but gets to use his biffle status to spook his creditors into never collecting on his debt. Alas, however. The good times, symbolized by shaky, quasi-artistic shots that looked either like the camera or the cameraman was on speed, or that they had blown their budget on the totally fab costumes and were forced to use hand-held cameras, had to come to an end.

Brummel, while living the high-life, falls madly in love with Lord Byron, in an incredibly hot but historically dubious turn of events that alienates Beau from Prince George. Beau loses his reputation and his money, luck and friends, has an artistic flashback while watching's Sheridan's glorious School for Scandal, and then vanishes, leaving the credits to inform us that he fled to France. (To die in poverty, but they left that bit out. Considering what an angst fest the film because, with a tearful Brummel begging Byron to stay, and falling apart at the seams-- not literally, of course. Dandies don't let a little thing like total ruin affect their wardrobes-- the Amateur Historian did expect it. Seriously, one of the scenes was along the lines of:

Brummel: You were amazing in our historically inaccurate threesome with a courtesan named Julia, wherein she was the conduit for our socially unacceptable homoerotic passion for one another. I love you.
Byron: I love me too.
Brummel: Will you stay?
Byron: *poetic blather*
Brummel: Will you stay?
Byron: *poetic blather* Life is art, you are art in motion, Beau. You are art itself! That is why you are famous when you have contributed next to nothing to society. You are walking art.
Brummel: But will you stay?
Byron: I say, my half-sister's very pretty, isn't she?
Brummel: Will you stay, George?
Byron: ... let's see if we can start an orgy, eh? *wanders off*
Brummel: *tearfully* He won't stay.
Amateur Historian: NO DUH.)

The Amateur Historian's personal favorite part of the piece was the war to the death between the fops and the dandies. Two fops attempt to go head-to-head with Brummel on the street, at which point Brummel pummels them. Dandies, after all, do what they please whenever they please and look carelessly elegant while doing so. Though the Amateur Historian has a soft spot for fops (see The Scarlet Pimpernel as to why, and then tell me you don't love Sir Percy), it is amusing to see a bunch of them thumbing their noses at Brummel, who pioneered today's standard male dress-clothes in the form of a dark suit (with trousers), boots or black shoes, and a neat tie. Real men, you see, wore perfume, lace, high heels and rouge.

Now, what can we take from this film, aside from the fact that fops and dandies are mortal enemies and that Byron's love affairs just cannot be contained by such a silly thing as historical fact? The morals of the story seem to be: a. don't sleep with Lord Byron, b. don't call your biffle fat, and c. DON'T SLEEP WITH LORD BYRON. Seriously. You lose all your friends, fortune, and fame and flee to France to escape your creditors. Not a glamourous end, really.

The film itself is very glamorous, however, and has moments of wit (some from Brummel himself, some stolen from Oscar Wilde-- oh subtext, how the BBC doth love thee) in between the shaky good-times shots and the descent into wrist-gnawingly intense angst. As with Gothic, there are some lovely, tasteful scenes of a beautiful naked man and a nymphomanic Byron. However, unlike Gothic, there is a plot and actual logic to the story. It isn't the best period film I've ever seen, since I don't really enjoy maudlin pieces unless they are over-the-top and hilarious, but it is worth a rent for the costumes (and lack thereof. Oh James Purefoy! If Beau Brummel looked like you, no wonder people lined up to watch him dress each morning).

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Political beef, it's what's for dinner

Sheridan could be quite the wit in Parliament when he wanted to be (Old Sherry aside).

During the French Revolution, there was a massive governmental backlash against the democratic societies springing up around the country. Pitt ignored them until around 1793, when Britain and France declared war on each other. This was fantastic news for people like Edmund Burke, who spent pretty much all of his time in Parliament railing about the French mob and how dangerous revolutions were. Burke decided to talk about the revolutionary societies springing up around the country, shortly after Pitt gave his reluctant assent to the war (Tangent Time! Pitt wanted to focus on Britain's economic troubles instead of meddling in continental politics; part of what sparked the French Revolution were several years of very bad harvests. The French government actually begged Pitt to send over 20,000 sacks of flour, and Pitt refused, on the grounds that the British public would riot if there wasn't enough flour. The French rioted instead. I think--please be aware, Gentle Readers, that this is once again the opinion of an Amateur Historian--that Pitt's insistance on paying British allies to fight the French during the first coallition against the French was a sign of Pitt's lingering reluctance to start up a war.)

Burke was convinced that these societies were planning a British Revolution (which some of them were) and had stockpiled weapons (which most of them were not, save for the revolutionary groups in Ireland). He quite suddenly threw a dagger onto the floor of the House of Commons shouting, "There is French fraternity for you! This is the poignard which French Jacobins would plunge in the heart of our sovereign."

Sheridan brought a premature end to the speech by quipping, "Where's the fork?"

Friday, May 29, 2009

Don't Mess With Talleyrand

Talleyrand, the political chameleon of Europe, Napoleon's foreign minister even when Napoleon believed Talleyrand to be "shit in silk stockings", did not have the best of relationships with the military.

During one particular meeting between the emperor, Talleyrand and a top military advisor, the military advisor decided that he was going to use the word "weaklings" to describe the citizenry of Europe... including France. Talleyrand, the only civilian present, politely asked for clarification.

The advisor explained, "We call 'weakling' anybody who is not military."

Talleyrand's rejoinder: "Ah yes, as we call military all those who are not civil."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


Richard Brinsley Sheridan was as famous for his plays as he was for his liberal opinion and was equally as famous for his wit. Sheridan was strolling through Piccadilly Square one day when he met up with two English lords. They decided to join him on his walk and took a position on either side of him.

"I say, Sherry," said one of the lords. "We were just discussing whether you were a rogue or a fool."

Sheridan immediately linked arms with both men and replied, "Why, I do believe I am between both."

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Newspapers reached incredible levels of popularity during the latter half of the 18th century, with over a hundred newspapers being published in France during the first half of the French Revolution (i.e. before the Terror). Journalists were held in some esteem during the French Revolution. One of the greatest celebrities of the Revolution, Camille Desmoulins, was as famous for inspiring the people of Paris to direct their furious rioting towards tearing down the Bastille as for his newspapers, and it is impossible to seperate Marat from his L'Ami du Peuple or Herbert from his Pere Duchene. However, newspaper journalists were not quite so popular outside of France.

Sir Walter Scott told his son-in-law, "Your connection with any newspaper would be a disgrace and degredation. I would rather sell gin to poor people and poison them that way."

I believe Kierkegaard topped that when he wrote, "The lowest depth to which people can sink before God is defined by the word "journalist." If I were a father and had a daughter who was sedueced I should despair over her; I would hope for her salvation. But if I had a son who became a journalist and continued to be one for five years, I would give him up."

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Potential Scandals in Sheridan's School

The Amateur Historian, if you, Gentle Reader, have not yet noticed, is a huge fan of Sir Thomas Lawrence's portrait of the actress Elizabeth Farren, who later became the Countess of Derby. Elizabeth Farren was more famous for her re-interpretation of roles than any debut performances in them and more famous still for her propriety.

Horace Walpole, pretty much the go-to guy for nicknames, gossip and information about Georgian society, wrote to Mary Berry:

"In the evening we [himself and his life-long friend Field Marshal Conway] went together to Miss Farren's, and besides her duenna-mother, found her at piquet with her unalterable Earl. Apropos, I have observed of late years, that when Earls take strong attachments, they are more steady than other men."

Said unalterable Earl was the Earl of Derby, and the reference to Earls being more steady than other men is a not-so-subtle hint to Horace Walpole's own devoted friendship to Mary Berry, who later became his literary executrix and the editor of his correspondence.

According to John Fyvie's Comedy Queens of the Georgian Era, Lord Derby and Miss Farren occasionally did manage to meet without Mrs. Farren's chaperonage, usually during Sheridan's School for Scandal, where Miss Farren took on the part of Lady Teazle. Rumor had it that when Derby left his box during the screen scene in School for Scandal, (i.e. when Lady Teazle, visiting Joseph Surface's home with somewhat scandalous intentions in mind, hides behind a screen to avoid her husband, Sir Peter), he snuck onstage to see Miss Farren.

One diarist wrote that, "one always wished the screen would fall a little earlier than usual, so one might see Sir Peter confronted with a very different sort of lover than the one trying to keep him from knocking down the screen."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Why on p. 47, I lost all respect for the author.

The field of biography is a tricky one, fraught with many perils, the chief of which is falling in love with your subject. The other is coming off as an absolute idiot, either by failing to explain what was going on, by explaining too much, or by explaining in such a fashion as to make your readers doubt your sanity, your literacy, or your mastery of contemporary English.

I am sorry to say that this passage, from Eric Metaxas's Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery fulfils almost all of them. Since I fear, Gentle Readers, that you will not have any idea of Mr. Metaxas's subject based on what he wrote, allow the Amateur Historian to explain that Mr. Metaxas is describing a carriage ride in the Alps taken by William Wilberforce, he of the great mind and moral character, but diminutive stature, and Isaac Milner, an intellectual and physical giant elected to the Royal Society as an undergraduate at Cambridge. This is copied verbatim.

"The extraordinary felicity of this scene, of these incandescent minds meeting on this subject of eternal things, sailing in their horse-drawn coach through the mountains, seems like something out of a fairy tale, one in which a gnome and a giant on a journey in a sphere of glass and silver discover the Well at the World's End, and drinking a draught therefrom learn the secret meaning at the heart of the universe."

... a gnome? That's just mean.