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?"