Sunday, September 28, 2014

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey by Lady Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

My wife already read this book, and found it interesting. It had been on my list as well, and it seemed like a nice option to read while camping, so I grabbed it. I wasn’t able to finish it on the trip (although I did finish The Daughter of Time), but got through it eventually. (The book was good enough, but I have been swamped on evenings lately.) 

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey is the story behind the fictionalized PBS show Downton Abbey. I will have to confess that I have never seen more than short clips of the show. I have a number of friends who are big fans, and my wife has enjoyed the couple of seasons she has watched. It sounds interesting, but I am just not much of a TV watcher, and the chances of me actually committing to an entire season of something is probably not going to happen. There is a reason that this is a book-oriented rather than TV-oriented blog.

Lady Almina was the 5th Countess of Carnarvon. This book tells of her life during the time she occupied Highclere Castle - the real life inspiration and filming location for Downton Abbey - from the day she married the Earl of Carnarvon to the aftermath of his untimely death. A bit of her early life is told, as is a bit of her life afterward, particularly her efforts to found hospitals and establish modern medicine in England.

The very fact that Almina was able to become a Countess in the first place caused a bit of a stir. Almina was the love child of Albert de Rothschild, the immensely wealthy banker with Jewish German heritage, and Marie Wombwell, a Frenchwoman estranged from her worthless husband. The whole situation is a fabulous example of the sexual code of the Victorian upper classes. A divorce was a far bigger scandal than an affair - even one producing a child. Provided it was kept discreet. Never mind that everyone knew about it, as long as it was never official or acknowledged.

The social effects on each of the parties involved is rather interesting. Albert de Rothschild paid no social penalty whatsoever for the affair, except with his own family, who probably felt that their own social status was insecure, being one of the first Jewish families to be accepted into society - and even Parliament - without being forced to convert. Their worries notwithstanding, Albert suffered no social consequences for his affair. Marie, on the other hand, was never accepted into society. But this wasn’t so much because of the affair itself, but because her estranged husband was such a disgrace. Her ill-fated connection to him prevented her from social climbing, and the affair caused her more problems than it did him in the social sense.

Almina benefitted from being born in the latter part of the era, when bastard children weren’t subject to quite the same degree of prejudice. Her beauty - and the fact that Albert publicly made it known that he would give her his fortune - papered over her dubious birth to a degree. Nevertheless, it was a minor scandal that the Earl of Carnarvon would pick an illegitimate child for his bride. (Likewise, when the Earl’s younger sister married a man who was also a bastard, it was mentioned in the diaries of her relatives with tittering disapproval.) Fortunately for Almina, her mother-in-law, the Earl’s stepmother, would take a liking to her, and eased the transition by championing her to all concerned.

Another interesting social observation from reading this book was the reminder of exactly what the strict social hierarchy meant for the various players. The immense gap between what Almina spent in a month and the yearly wage of her servants was unfathomable. As were the long hours that the servants spent at their tasks and the degree of control that they were under in their personal lives. And a job at Highclere was considered to be among the best possible available, and servants would spend their entire lives - and many generations - in that service. The author - the current Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Fiona - writes in fascinating detail about the lives of the servants. According to the acknowledgments, she interviewed those of the servants still living who remembered Lady Almina, and some of their descendents who still work there and remember the stories from their long-departed ancestors. The author is sympathetic, with modern sensibilities about inequality, perhaps born in part from the irreversible changes to the fortunes of the English nobility in the wake of the Second World War.

One of the bits that stuck with me from this section was the fact that unlike many noble households, the Carnarvons actually encouraged and permitted servants to have romantic relationships. Many of their staff eventually married. This was by no means common. Servant girls in particular were liable to be dismissed if a man started showing them attention. After all, once she married, she would be expected to leave the service, caring for the home and children and maybe finding a different occupation. (In one case, a couple saved money to open a tavern before they married, so that they could both work at it.) There are reflections here, perhaps, of the old Roman law forbidding slaves to marry, because that would distract them from their greater duty to their masters.

It is an interesting reminder that the past seems most idyllic when we imagine ourselves as wealthy, and that life wasn’t like that for the majority of people. Even the servants, despite hours that would seem barbaric to us now, had it better than many others. One quaint custom at Highclere (and probably others) was that of using the drippings from the many extravagant meals as a way of feeding the lower classes while making a little extra money for the kitchen staff. A peasant could buy a tray of drippings for a penny - a good deal - and the servants would split the total pot at Christmastime.

In any case, however, Highclere was considered by the servants to be an outstanding place to work, and the Carnarvons to be pleasant, kind employers.

In connection with the estate, I really should mention a great name. The gardens and grounds were designed in the 17th Century by a well known landscape architect named Capability Brown. Perhaps his parents had high expectations for him?

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon was quite a character himself. A bit in the vein of Kenneth Grahame’s Mr. Toad, , he loved motorcars, and managed to get in several wrecks, one of which injured him so badly that he never quite recovered. As the book puts it, at age 35, he was no longer a vigorous man. As one on the wrong side of that number, that was a bit sobering to read.

The Earl’s passion was Egyptology, and he accumulated an extensive collection of antiquities even before marrying Almina. Before and after World War One, he financed and accompanied Howard Carter on his excavations. They both had an unshakeable belief that they could find archeological gold in the Valley of the Kings. In 1923, they finally made the discovery to beat all discoveries. King Tut’s unspoiled tomb. Neither before nor since has such a pristine and unplundered discovery been made in Egypt, and it was a worldwide sensation at the time.

Alas, soon afterward, and before the burial chamber could be opened, the Earl nicked a mosquito bite with his razor, and contracted an infection that led to his death a few weeks later. Ah, the golden age, before antibiotics.

Speaking of which, a large portion of this book tells of the conversion of Highclere to a hospital during World War One. It is easy to forget just what a debacle that whole war was. It didn’t have to happen. Had someone, anyone, been a clearer head, it might have been prevented. The petty assassination didn’t really matter except for all the treaties that guaranteed that a little Balkan conflict would draw in Russia. Then Austria and Germany. Then France and thence England. Just stupid. And if had stopped there, it would have been bad enough. But it didn’t. World War Two was really just a continuation of the first war, except now with Hitler and the Holocaust. While the Bolsheviks may well have had a successful revolution sometime down the road, it isn’t certain. World War One gave them an opening which they seized, giving us Stalin, and them Mao and others with their thirst for purges. Playing the “what if” game is interesting, which is why it is fun to wonder what might have happened to the world, had Russia not decided to try to expand its influence, or if the Austrians and Germans had realized how bad the war would be, or even if the French and English had negotiated a separate peace and let Austria and Russia battle it out. What if?

Every time I read something about World War One, I am reminded again of how awful the suffering was. The sheer numbers are horrifying, and the decimation of the young men of an entire generation is sobering.

The book also points out, however, that even those catastrophic numbers are dwarfed by those killed by the Spanish Flu in the aftermath of the war. (WWI: 16 million deaths, about 6 of which were civilians. Spanish Flu: 50-100 million estimated worldwide.)

Crazy times, to say the least.

This book alternated between compelling narratives and sections which were a bit tedious, due to the long lists of people and things. I didn’t for example, find all of the renowned guests at Almina’s wedding (or the other weddings) to be all that interesting. That is probably in part because I don’t know or care to learn who all the noble families of England are. Likewise, the details of the parties was a bit over the top, although that might have been the point. Lavishness is presumably boring to those not into that sort of thing.

Still, Lady Fiona writes rather well on the whole, and the story itself is quite fascinating. I have always loved strong women, and Almina certainly was that. Also admirable was her compassion and determination to use her wealth for the good of others.

I’m sure a Downton Abbey fan would find even more to like in this book than I did, but even those of us without that background can enjoy it.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Paid on Both Sides & Poems 1927-1932 by W. H. Auden

Source of book: Borrowed from the library
Date originally posted on Facebook: May 17, 2011

I’m finally done! This is the last of my old Facebook reviews to be re-posted on the blog. I still have a few guest posts on other blogs that I wish to reformat and post on my own blog, but am happy to finally be done with the old reviews.


These notes are a continuation of my poetry project. I borrowed this book from the library, but hope to find my own hardback Auden collection in the future.

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in England in 1907. He later moved to the United States and is thus considered, like T. S. Eliot, to be an Anglo-American poet.  

On the one hand, Auden is strikingly different from the earlier and more traditional poets I have read. His poems are dense, often difficult to understand, perhaps intentionally incomprehensible. This fits with his classification as a modern poet. On the other, he often uses familiar rhyme, meter, and stanza schemes. In particular, these early poems show a use of blank verse and the three line stanza.
In this collection, Auden will occasionally attempt political commentary, often with apocalyptic language. I suspect much of this would have resonated better with those of that time and place – I am not up on British politics from the ‘20s and ‘30s to understand all of his points and references.
I read two distinctly different works in this case. Paid on Both Sides is a one act experimental play about love and a feud – somewhat similar in plot to Romeo and Juliet. In this case, the setting is the Scottish highlands in older days, but the play itself is staged with nothing but a wall and chairs. Thus, the dialogue and poetry take center stage, without the distraction of costume or action.

In addition to the Scottish setting, the play contains inside references to the English boarding school system, only a few of which I can claim to have recognized.

This play is at its best in the musings of the characters about the feud. For example:

           I will say this not falsely: I have seen
           The just and the unjust die in the day,
           All, willing or not, and some were willing.

The second section was the collected poems from 1927 through 1932. These are the earliest poems published by Auden. There is great debate as to whether the early poems or the later poems are better. Since I have read only a few of the later ones, I will leave the debate to more experienced at this time.
Many of these poems tell stories, often in blank verse. Auden at times sounds similar to Milton in meter and use of blank verse and in his syntax. The themes and topics are different. Auden focuses on detail and obscure characters rather than the sweeping themes and familiar types in Milton.
Also similarly to Milton, Auden uses subordinate clauses and verbals as a style of writing. (English majors will, I hope, forgive my limited analysis of the grammar)
Auden (and Milton) both start a section with a series of subordinate participle or gerund based clauses, delaying the main clause with its stronger verb until the end of the sentence. This gives a sense of building the foundation before allowing the final meaning to emerge. While this is effective if done well, it requires quite a bit of rereading.

An example here from the opening of “Half Way” may be illustrative:

           Having abdicated with comparative ease
           And dismissed the greater part of your friends, [compound participle clause?]
           Escaping by submarine
           In a false beard, half-hoping the ports were watched, [gerund phrase?]
           You have got here, and it isn’t snowing:
           How shall we celebrate your arrival?

The structure itself builds the suspense as to what the end result of the action that occurred in the past was.

Perhaps my English major friends can explain the mechanics of this better than I have. In any case, I found it interesting in its effects. Auden, like Milton, was a craftsman of the English language – the form itself adds to and bolsters the meaning of the words.
There are far too many excellent quotes to use in my review, but I will select a few that particularly resonated with me.

In “The Letter”, these lines appear:

           Shall see, shall pass, as we have seen
           The swallow on the tile, spring’s green
           Preliminary shiver…

Then later:

           Always afraid to say more than it meant.

Well written indeed.

I also enjoyed “Too Dear, Too Vague”, a musing on the nature of love too long to quote, but worth looking up. Auden uses short lines and frequent rhyme to good effect in creating a feeling of love cut too short.

Another moving poem is “Between Adventure”, which I read as discussing the line between acquaintance and something deeper, and the danger it implies. This poem uses the three line stanza mentioned above.

One interesting poem, if it may be called that, is entitled “Shorts”, and consists of a series of short aphorisms which may be connected to each other in a thematic sense, but only loosely.

           Pick a quarrel, go to war,
           Leave the hero in the bar;
           Hunt the lion, climb the peak:
           No one guesses you are weak.

And then:

           The friends of the born nurse
           Are always getting worse.

           When he is well
           She gives him hell,
           But she’s a brick
           When he is sick.

And less amusingly:

I’m beginning to lose patience
With my personal relations:
They are not deep,
And they are not cheap.

And one of my all time favorites:

           Let us honor if we can
           The vertical man,
           Though we value none
           But the horizontal one.

Although these were definitely not the easiest of poems to read and understand, I found many gems of both language and meaning there. The time I invested to work through them slowly and carefully was worth the effort and yielded rewards.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Schumann on Music (Selected Essays) by Robert Schumann

Source of book: I own this.

One of the great resources for musicians is Dover Publications. They are well known for their affordable scores, but they also have a rich library of public domain works on music, including such gems in my own library as Berlioz’ treatise on orchestration. I should also mention that they reprint obscure classic literature for affordable prices too. One of my favorite quirky companies.
Anyway, this book was discounted, so I decided to buy it. 

Schumann was known during his lifetime every bit as much for his writing as for his composing. He edited a musical journal, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which was influential both in its time and afterward. In addition to his work as an editor, he wrote hundreds of essays and other articles, the best of which are collected in this book.

I didn’t plan it this way, but this season, the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra will be performing three works by Schumann. For our October concert, we will play the Manfred Overture, and the Piano Concerto. In the spring, we will play the 2nd Symphony, including the murderously difficult second movement. (Schumann loved the diminished arpeggio, which is awkward on stringed instruments.)

One of the joys of this book is reading about the composers of the past as they were experienced for the first time. Some of them are still popular today, while others have mouldered in the dustbin of history. Schumann wrote about them all, sometimes with admiration, other times with aggravation or dismissal. His judgment was pretty good, although not infallible. He wrote glowingly about Chopin and the young Brahms, approvingly of Mendelssohn and Berlioz, but disliked Meyerbeer, Wagner, and Liszt intensely. His opinions of the works of lesser lights were perceptive, both of strengths and weaknesses.

Throughout, his writings are full of wit, insight, and charm, even when discussing persons that nobody remembers.

Perhaps the best known line from Schumann’s essays is one which appears in an early review of Chopin’s Variations on 'La Ci Darem la Mano'. Schumann writes using a favorite technique, that of a conversation between fictional characters representing facets of Schumann’s own personality. The one bursts in, spreads out a score, and announces, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius!”

Another interesting bit was a series of “letters” between Schumann’s alter egos, Eusebius and Floristan, and another fictitious character,  regarding a performance of works by Mendelssohn, conducted by Mendelssohn himself. Schumann was definitely not a fan of a certain newfangled invention, the conductor’s baton.

For my part, I was disturbed, both in the overture and in the symphony, by the conductor’s baton, and I agreed with Floristan that in a symphony, the orchestra must be like a republic, subordinate to no higher authority.

Every orchestral player at this point doubles over in uncontrollable laughter. Yeah, that really worked out for you, didn’t it?

I won’t quote from it, but the essay on Symphonie Fantastique is quite good.

Also excellent is the short musing on the characteristics of the various key signatures. I believe he attains the balance between the fact that keys cannot be entirely pigeonholed, but that they do make a difference, and matching the mood to the key is a skill that great composers have always had.

There is much to be enjoyed in this collection, particularly for the musician or lover of classical music.

Note on Schumann:

It is difficult to think of Schumann without thinking of tragedy. First, he injured a finger which never recovered, preventing him from becoming a top-tier pianist. His compositions never became popular enough to provide a reliable means of support. He married his wife against her father’s wishes, having to engage in a legal battle in order to do so.

Most of all, however, was his tragic end. He suffered increasingly from some form of mental disturbance, and attempted suicide. (He was plucked from the Rhine by a boatman.) He then voluntarily entered a mental institution, gradually declining over the next two years until his death at the young age of 46.

Exactly what caused the illness is the subject of debate. One possibility is syphilis, which was all too common in those days. (It probably claimed the life of Schubert, and caused Smetana to lose his hearing.) For many men, they contracted it in their youth, from prostitutes. It is easy to forget it now, but for many years, it was the normal thing for young men to lose their virginities in a brothel - only females were expected to be chaste.

Another possibility is mercury poisoning. Mercury was a commonly administered “medicine” for a variety of ailments.

Others have suggested a brain mass, which is supported by some evidence from the autopsy, although the medical technology of the times prevents a solid conclusion.

Finally, he may well have suffered from a garden variety mental illness such as bipolar disorder.

Whatever the case, it claimed his health and life far too early.

Schumann’s compositions are often unjustly neglected as well. I find them to have an admirable emotional depth, and a melancholy beauty. Since he wrote so extensively for piano, I assume pianists tend to be more familiar with his works. We have played the first two symphonies at various times, but I am glad to have the chance to play Manfred, which is really quite delightful. 

Note on Clara Schumann:

Clara, Robert’s wife, was one of the most amazing women in history. She was quite famous and admired as one of the greatest concert pianists of all time. She was the primary breadwinner for her family from a young age, with her performance fees contributing to her father’s income while she was a child, later outearning Robert during the marriage - and then continuing to support their young children after his death. She even raised some of her grandchildren after the death of their parents.

She is considered one of the pioneers of concert performance as we know it today, memorizing her selections before it became common practice - beginning at age 13.

She also composed, but lost confidence in her ability, believing that women were not able to rise to those heights. In recent years, her compositions have regained their popularity and reputation.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Source of book: My wife owns this.

“Truth is the daughter of time.” ~ Old proverb

William Shakespeare committed at least one great slander during his illustrious career. The victim was Macbeth, who could hardly be called a villain according to the standards of his time. Far from murdering good king Duncan in his sleep, he defeated and killed him on the field of battle after Duncan invaded his territory. Also, Duncan was quite young, not the old, benevolent man portrayed in the Scottish Play.

In this book, Josephine Tey uses the vehicle of fiction - a murder mystery - to make her claim that Shakespeare also slandered a second victim: Richard III. Whether she succeeds depends on one’s belief about the fate of the princes in the tower, of course. Winston Churchill was not convinced by Tey’s book (he made a dismissive remark about it) nor by Horace Walpole’s more scholarly work. Peter Hitchens, on the other hand, considered it one of the most important books ever written. Your mileage may vary. More about the controversy below.

The Daughter of Time was the last work published during Tey’s lifetime, and was written near the end of her life. It features Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant, who is featured in several of her other books. Grant is recuperating from a broken leg in a rather dismal hospital, and decides to tackle the question of the fate of the princes as a diversion from his boredom. To this end, he enlists the help of a young American researcher, Brent Carradine, who assist him in locating primary sources. 

Richard III

As Grant quickly discovers, the very concept of “objective” history was hardly even considered back in the era of Richard III. History was primarily the propaganda of the victors to ensure their continued grip on power - and life for that matter. After all, as Henry IV would say in his own Shakespeare play, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” That head could easily be removed by a rival, and public opinion could be a fickle support to rely on.

The primary histories of the reign of Richard III were written by the historians of the Tudors, the first of which was none other than Henry VII, who defeated Richard and took his place on the throne. Thus, they naturally portrayed Richard as evil, and the Tudors as good. Likewise, Shakespeare wrote his play - and most of his others - during the reign of Elizabeth I, the last of the Tudors. Since he wished to keep his head firmly attached to his neck, he had to, shall we say, walk a fine line. This consideration also played into his portrayal of Macbeth and his associates - particularly the character of Banquo, who was an ancestor of James I, the ruler at the time of the Scottish Play’s writing.

Even now, history tends to be written by the victors, and it is only recently that historians have tried to see the other side, written by the victims, the downtrodden, and the powerless.

In Tey’s book, Grant comes to the conclusion that Richard was innocent of the murders of the princes, and posits that another person with weaker rival claims was the guilty party.

A significant portion of the argument centers around motive. Would Richard have significantly benefited from a secret murder? Would someone else have benefited more? This is the strongest part of the argument, particularly when combined with the way that Henry VII - and even more so, his son Henry VIII - ruthlessly eliminated all rivals.

From my point of view, the one thing that Tey does extraordinarily well in this book is point out the way that events are manipulated for political purposes. Alan Grant dwells extensively on the Tonypandy Riots, which were spun to achieve a particular objective, in direct contradiction to the actual facts. He eventually coins the term “Tonypandy” to describe any mythological spinning of an event. It would be highly useful if we could get this term admitted into the general vernacular. Anyone want to join me in this cause?

The other event that gets a good mention is the so-called “Boston Massacre,” a similarly mythologized event in our nation’s history. It was, as any serious student of history knows, absolutely nothing approaching a massacre. Furthermore, it was started by an insult to a soldier, and was substantially escalated by the colonists, already incensed about political grievances.

Let’s just say, to draw a modern political analogy, that had the incident occurred, say, in Ferguson, there would have likely been far more bodies - and it would have been largely agreed that the killings were justified. Seriously, read the account and think how it would go down today.

It was a bit of an aside within the book, but I thought it was a particularly compelling passage, in which Grant notes that a lot of the “martyrs” of the Covenanter movement in Scotland in the 1600s were better described as common criminals - or even as we might define them today, mobsters. No doubt, there have been plenty of genuine martyrs in history. Even today, one could certainly place the victims of ISIS in this category. But there are plenty of others who became “martyrs” more for a political cause than for a genuine moral one. A good way to tell is whether the “victim” would afford freedom to others who believed differently, something the Covenanters - and other religious movements of the time, such as the Puritans - were unwilling to grant to others. The claim that religious “freedom” included the right to slaughter or at least oppress those who believed differently was endemic to the time - and has never really gone away

A few other things that are worth mentioning from this book:

I don’t think Tey much liked hospitals. Not that I do, despite the fact that my wife practices her profession at one. A great line is, “[I]n hospitals symmetry ranked just a short head behind cleanliness and a whole length ahead of Godliness. Anything out of the parallel was hospital profanity.”

Also good was the description of “The Midget,” Grant’s moniker for the small nurse who was one of his attendants. She reminded me a bit of my own favorite nurse, the lovely (and crazy strong) Amanda. “The Midget” was a mere five foot two inches, but “She tossed the mattresses around with the absent minded grace of a plate spinner.” My own wife is barely bigger than that, but she routinely turns 400+ pound patients. (True story: before I asked her out, she helped me move an old refrigerator out of my kitchen to the curb. Don’t mess with her…)

Tey also writes a terrific send-up of genre fiction. With the exception of the murder mystery - my weakness - I have a low tolerance for pulp genre fiction, so I heartily agreed with Grant’s snarky dismissal of these books.

The top one, with the pretty picture of Valetta in unlikely pink, was Lavinia Fitch’s annual account of a blameless heroine’s tribulations. In view of the representation of the Grand Harbour on the cover, the present Valerie or Angela or Cicile or Denise must be a naval wife


The Sweat and the Furrow was Silas Weekley being earthy and spade-conscious all over seven hundred pages. The situation, to judge from the first paragraph, had not materially changed since Silas’s last book: mother lying-in with her eleventh upstairs, father laid-out after his night downstairs, eldest son lying to the government in the cow-shed, eldest daughter lying with her lover in the hay-loft, everyone else lying low in the barn. The rain dripped from the thatch, and the manure steamed in the midden. Silans never omitted the manure. It was not Silas’s fault that its steam provided the only up-rising element in the picture. If Silas could have discovered a brand of steam that steamed downwards, Silas would have introduced it.

That makes me laugh every time I read it.

Tey’s ultimate argument may or may not be convincing. There is evidence that she does not bring into the book - and may well have not been aware of when she wrote it - that goes against her thesis. But she does write a good story, and makes a remarkably strong claim.

So, when did the princes in the tower permanently disappear? And who killed them? Was it Richard, the last of the Plantagenets? Or was the whole tale a concoction of the Tudors? Read it and decide for yourself.

Note on Richard III:

If you haven’t read - or better yet, seen live - this play, I highly recommend it. A number of years ago, my wife and I saw this at Bakersfield College, with the title role played by professor Randall Messick. Amanda took a few Shakespeare classes from him while in school, and he is always a pleasure to watch. He was delightfully lugubrious in this role. (I also remember him being memorable as Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, and as Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet.)

My favorite line from the play is this one, spoken by Richard as he plots to destroy his rivals and justify it as moral.

But then I sigh and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil;
And thus I clothe my naked villainy
With odd old ends stolen out of Holy Writ,
And seem a saint when most I play the devil.

Thus have all villains done since the dawn of time.