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."