History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

29 October 2010

In Honor of Halloween: What Scares You?

I'm not a fan of horror movies---you know the chase-em and chop-em up kind of scream/shock movies that are just violent for the sake of being violent. Hate em in fact. Boring, abusive, and I admit I've never seen a whole one.

I do, however, enjoy a good Gothic romance, with a big old haunted mansion and ghostly dead (or sometimes not so dead) first wife in the attic. I also like the spooky grave side scene in Wuthering Heights (poor, crazy Heathcliff), and I even quite enjoyed the oldie "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir." Truly, a love story like no other.

I am also always interested in the history, the ghostly history, of battlefields, old houses and castles, maybe because the ghosts are from long ago and there is a human element to the story I can relate to as a historical writer---great loves and losses, tragedy and triumph, with heroes and heroines who were real. Civil war ghost stories draw me in. Civil war and Victorian ghost and sightings are so sad (particularly of women and children), but often not scary.

So what does scare me? I think Stephen King said it best (paraphrased): To walk into an empty room and find a rocking chair rocking...

And I would add finding that rocking chair rocking when you assumed you were alone in the house...now THAT is scary. THAT is also why I don't read some of Stephen King's stuff. It keeps me up at night. But, damn he is good. I just wish he'd write a Gothic romance (keep wishing, Kathrynn).

How about you? What makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Ever read anything that scary? Do you have a favorite scary passage from a romance?

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27 October 2010

Thoughts on Hamlet

I just got back from an idyllic weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I soaked up crisp air and brilliant autumn leaves, caught up with friends, ate some great meals, did some productive writing and plotting. And–the point of my trip–I had the chance to revisit two of my favorite productions from the 2010 OSF season. An enchanting, delightful She Loves Me, directed by Rebecca Taichman, and a riveting, electric Hamlet directed by Bill Rauch, with Dan Donohue in the title role. Two truly phenomenal productions with amazing casts that left me with the rush of exhilaration and wonder I get from really spectacular theater.

The night I arrived in Ashland, I picked up my tickets, then ducked out of the rain into the Member Lounge where I had a chance to read the fascinating Hamlet production notes by Judith Rosen. I’ve always seen Hamlet as a Renaissance man caught up in the warrior’s world of the older generation (the conflict between the older generation of warlords and the Renaissance politician is one I wrote about in my honors thesis). I always thought the moment when Hamlet says “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” is a key turning point in the play. But I never quite made the leap Ms. Rosen made in her notes to Hamlet’s adoption of a more warrior-like approach (his father’s approach) in the latter part of the play being a negative transformation. Yet once I read it, it made so much sense.

The philosopher prince becomes the man who coolly arranges the deaths of his former friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and shows no qualms (to the evident discomfort of Horatio, who in many ways is Hamlet’s conscience). Watching the play with this in mind, so much fell into place for me, including the bitter irony of Fortinbras’s lines about “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the platform” and the fact that the play ends with the line “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”

Hamlet has always fascinated me. There's the sheer propulsive excitement of the story, which is both political thriller and family drama. The multitude of fascinating characters and relationships. The richness of the language. The mordant wit (which came out strongly in the OSF production). Lauren and I saw a great production in New York last fall, directed by Michael Grandage with Jude Law in the title role. Every time I see the play I discover new things in it. Hamlet has echoes of the Oresteia. I see echoes of Hamlet in all sorts of contemporary stories. There's the Lymond Chronicles with Francis Crawford haunted (metaphorically) by his dead father, questioning the behavior and past of his adored mother, driven to suicide at times. In The X-Files, Fox Mulder is similarly haunted by his his parents' legacy and questions about his father's death. Early on in the series Scully is set up to spy on Mulder, such as Polonius and Claudius use Ophelia to spy on Hamlet. In the series finale, Mulder sees ghosts that are invisible to the other characters. Not to mention that he's frequently suspected of madness...that is, mental illness.

The last time OSF did the play (another wonderful production directed by Libby Appel with Marco Barricelli as Hamlet), I was plotting Beneath a Silent Moon. I tend to pick one or two Shakespeare plays which influence each of my books, and Beneath was definitely a Hamlet book. In fact, my working title for the book was Time Out of Joint (I even have an early draft of the UK cover with that title). Charles’s struggle with his father (and ultimately the legacy of his father’s death), his questions about his parents’ generation, his suicide attempt as a young man were all inspired by Hamlet to one degree or another. Thinking about the Hamlet production I just saw at OSF, I’m particularly struck by the fact that Charles is a man with a very different world view from his father.

Do you have a favorite production of Hamlet, whether on stage or film? What books can you think of that Hamlet seems to have influenced? Writers, do Shakespeare plays (or other plays) influence you when you write?

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25 October 2010

Pappillons, Lap-dogs, and Squirrel Spaniels

When I posted about Newfs, Diane asked about Pappillons. From what I can tell, there were certainly tiny toy spaniels around the courts of Europe that could have been the ancestors of today’s Pappillons. You see plenty of them in art dating back to at least Titian in the 15th century (detail of his Venus of Urbino to the right). The upstanding “butterfly” ears of the modern dog however are Victorian, and I don’t see the name used until the early 20th century (OED: 1907 R. LEIGHTON New Bk. Dog XVII. lxi. 536/1 A very engaging little dog is the Papillon, or Squirrel Spaniel). Before the late 1800s, all the spaniels have floppy ears (what are now called Phalene [moth]). Both Phalene and Pappillons are still born in the same litters, so it would seem the Paps area are a Victorian sport that caught on.

From Wikipedia: "The history of the papillon is traced through works of art. The earliest toy spaniels resembling the papillon are found in Italy. Tiziano Vicelli painted these small dogs in many famous paintings beginning around 1500[3] including the Venus of Urbino (1542). Other well known artists who included them in paintings are Watteau,[4] Gonzalez Coques, Fragonard, Paolo Veronese,[3] and Mignard.[3] In a painting after Largillierre in the Wallace Collection in London, a papillon is clearly shown in a family portrait of Louis XIV. "

We know that Madame de Pompadour had small spaniels (there's one on the bench below her right hand in the painting on the left), as did Marie Antoinette. Buffon, in his 1766 series of engravings, shows a toy spaniel of the type we're talking about (bottom right image, L'Epagneul). Dr. Caius’s Synopsis of British Dogs (1816) has a “type” that would contain these toy spaniels: “The spaniel gentle or comforter . . . the modern lap-dog.” Lap-dog is also a good catchall, dating to the 1640s.

I think this is going to be one of those areas where you’re either going to have to fudge the history and use the modern name (though that could be misleading, as the modern version of the dog didn’t exist), or you’re going to have to settle for a more period, and more general, description, such as lap spaniel (which I do find in use by the 18th century per Goggle Books).

21 October 2010

Swing your partner!

Have you ever wondered how the slow, measured, graceful steps of the English country dances portrayed in Pride and Prejudice morphed into the raucous, stomping, ya-hooing square dances of the American West?

The English ancestor of the modern square dance was probably the Morris dance, an exhibition dance by teams of six men in two rows of three. In fact, country (contra) dancing became popular in 17th century England; some believe the word “contra” derived from a mispronunciation of “country”. Dances were done in two opposing lines, facing each other.

The French modified the English country dance and introduced the quadrille - which is the likely source of modern square dancing, done in a square formation with eight dancers (4 couples). “Dull Sir John” and “Faine I Would” were popular, and John Playford’s “The English Dancing Master - Plaine and Easy Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with Tunes to Each Dance” enjoyed 17 editions between 1650 and

Square dancing grew out of English and French country dance, which was transported to the colonies and combined with various other national dances - folk dances - popular in the countries of immigrants’ origin, including Scotland, Ireland, Germany and Bohemia (Czechoslovakia). The schottisches, jigs, reels, quadrilles, and minuets were decidedly “country” dances, and as the new nation of America grew and expanded, the dances rolled westward and southward to Appalachia right along with the wagons. In Appalachia, the “running set,” complete with a caller to shout out the steps, established itself as a direct forerunner of old-time square dancing.

Particularly in the west, hardworking pioneers hungered for recreation and social contact with neighbors who might sometimes by 30 miles away. As people intermingled, so did their dances.
Western square dancing took off. Requirements were a wooden floor, music, and a caller. A barn, the town hall, a large living room, or the grange hall provided the place. The rest was Yankee ingenuity. Dancers who lived and grew up in the West learned the dances and knew the figures of many square dance calls: Birdie in the Cage, Lady Round the Lady, Dive for the Oyster.

When the quadrilles and contras began to fade and the polka, the varsouvienne, and the schottische were being forgotten, western dances got an additional kick-start from an unexpected source. The “barn dance,” a rowdy event favored in the Old West eventually spurred Henry Ford in 1923 to import a dancing master, one Benjamin Lovett, to teach dancing: gavotte, mazurkas, schottische, minuet, Virginia Reel, and others. Ford established a program for teaching squares and rounds in schools and published an instruction book, “Good Morning.”

One devotee, Lloyd “Pappy” Shaw, began to research the dances by interviewing old-timers in farming and mining communities in the West, collecting dances and music along the way. In 1939 he published “Cowboy Dances,” and later a round dance book. Then he began exhibiting trained teams of dancers and conducting classes.

Square dance callers. A “call” is the name of a dance movement and is used to cue the dancers. Most calls take between 4 and 32 counts (a count equals roughly one step). And traditional square dance calls draw from a repertoire of between 10 and 30 dance figures. Very rarely are two modern Western square dances ever like.

Originally, square dances had a caller for each square, the only way to hear the calls over the music. With microphones (or callers with loud, penetrating voices), dancers settled for just one caller. With dozens of possible dance figures to choose from, larger dances employed a “caller” to come up with dance sequences with good timing, surprises for dancers, and still end up with the original partners. The best callers are inventive and quite often roughly poetic: “Swing your partner to the right, And do-si-do - don’t take all night!”

Square dance music. Traditional square dance is danced to traditional “country dance” music: Irish jigs and reels, folk music from Quebec, England, Scotland, and wherever else a musician haled from. Almost always the instruments included a fiddle or two, banjo, guitar, and double bass. Maybe an accordian, as well.

Square dancing expanded after 1939 and took another huge leap in the decade after World War II. California and Colorado led the evolution of modern square dancing, and today there are thousands of square dance clubs in almost every American community.

20 October 2010

Bedeviled by the Details: Ming Dynasty Edition

Hello, ladies and gentlemen, hellions and rogues, and whatever that person in the purple pith helmet wants to call him-/her-/itself. Your regularly scheduled Diane couldn’t make it today. I’m your substitute hoyden. My name is Jean Marie Ward. I write in many genres, including historical fantasy, and it’s a pleasure to have the chance to discuss some of the odder byways of historical research.

Long ago, at a mystery convention far far away, Sharan Newman opined that the hardest thing about writing historical mysteries was getting her characters across the room. In other words, it’s the simple things that trip you—and your characters. She’s so right.

About a year ago, I started writing about a (relatively) young Asian dragon named Lord Bai. His first appearance was in a story so short and simple, historical period was irrelevant. There was Bai, there was his traveling companion and there was a pig, and everybody was stuck in a field by the side of a dirt road. It could’ve been Anywhere, China, anytime in history, including the twentieth century’s Cultural Revolution. Then people started asking for more stories, stories with specific features such as “pirates and magic” or “practitioners of the world’s oldest profession”.

I decided to fix Bai’s period as the early Ming Dynasty, around 1420. The period featured Japanese pirates, known as the Wokou, harassing shipping in the Yellow Sea, as well as the admiral the Yongle Emperor sent against them: Zheng He, whose seven voyages are the best historical model for the Arabian Nights tales of Sinbad. There were courtesans and prostitutes, farms and manufacturing, and well-developed urban life. Plus, the highly bureaucratized government presents an irresistible opportunity for metaphor, especially for this former government wonk.

Grounding my big picture items was easy. All hail Wikipedia. In addition to copious, well-documented articles on everything from the Ming Dynasty to foot binding, to the embroidered insignia the government’s scholar officials wore on their blue violet gowns, it boasts great pictures of people, places and costumes, most of them available to reproduce under Creative Commons licenses—absolutely essential if, like me, you need visual references for description. Plus, following the internal and external links is the world’s best time sink. When you’re a writer trying to avoid writing (and don’t we all?), there’s nothing better than following the Oooh, the Shiny trail of research to places you never imagined. Plus, it’s free—a very important consideration when you’re writing for small press anthologies paying royalties instead of advances.

But eventually, the deadline looms and the details whip around to bite you. What the hell did a Ming-era pirate ship look like? What was it like to sail on one—or be locked in its hold? Suddenly the links aren’t so easy to find, at least not via U.S. search engines. But you do have two things working in your favor: the conservatism of Chinese technology and China’s desire to portray itself as a friendly and nonthreatening tourist destination.

The last was a big help when I was creating the first draft of Bai’s magic pirate story. In anticipation of the 2008 Summer Olympics, China spent a lot of time and money casting Zheng He as a historic goodwill ambassador, to the point of creating a Treasure Voyage theme park in Nanjing, Zheng He’s homeport. When I was drafting the story, the site featured an interactive gallery of the ships which formed Zheng’s fleet. The web site has since changed dramatically, which highlights another aspect of web research: be sure to take advantage of the Fair Use doctrine. Not to be a content pirate, but if you don’t copy what you need for research purposes, you risk it won’t be there when you return.

With China, however, one thing you can rely on is the fact that people have been doing the same things the same way for at least centuries, often millennia. Confucianism strongly encourages an “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Take ships. The classic Chinese junk evolved into something close to its present form around 200 CE, and remained the best, most efficient oceangoing sailing vessel in the world until the 20th century. Even in the 21st, the romance remains. There are still folks building and sailing them—and writing about it on the Internet, thank goodness.

While you’re at it, it’s always helpful to keep you’re antenna peeled for other sources of free information. At this point, I should confess I’m a TV junkie. If the History or Travel Channel, NatGeo or PBS are broadcasting anything with an exotic locale or archaeological theme, I’m there. I’ll watch Ancient Discoveries four and five times to wring out every detail…then go check it all out on the web and (whenever possible) my local library, because most TV producers take a freer view of history than Hollywood movies of the 1930s.

Another surprisingly good source of information is fairy tales. The most complete compendium of traditional Chinese folk tales is available in a good public domain translation: P’u Sung-ling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Why fairy tales, you ask, I don’t write fantasy. Casting aside the whole “ten plots in the world” thing, can you think of anything which more succinctly represents European attitudes towards male/female relations and time-specific societal norms than Perrault or the Brothers Grimm? The same applies to other cultures. And if you happen to write romances with a fantastic element or need a touch of the eerie to spark a plot, folk tales are your best one-stop shop for a culture’s bugbears.

But even with all this, sometimes the detail you need eludes you completely. I never did write that story about Bai and the world’s oldest profession. One tiny, everyday detail did me in. I couldn’t find an English language source, with a good description or illustration, for domestic heating during the period. You see, I needed to burn down the Forbidden Palace.

Well, it did burn, and I figure my reason was just as good as the much romanticized version presented in the History Channel special on the subject.

Unfortunately, household heating arrangements simply aren’t as sexy as a red-sailed junk. Based on what I could find nosing around Wikipedia and the China History Forum, the Chinese have been using braziers forever, but try to find a picture—or a description of how they dealt with venting the smoke. The descriptions are there, only they’re written in Mandarin. My bad for never learning it, but that doesn’t help me finish the story.

There is one source that could help, one source that is not only time- but site-specific, one source my greedy little paws positively itch to play with: the Virtual Forbidden City. There’s just one problem: my aging computer can’t handle the site. And a new computer costs even more than a good resource library.


Thanks again to the History Hoydens—and you, dear reader—for letting me share my experiences writing about a history and a culture not my own. If you want to read more about me and the strange worlds I inhabit, please, check out my web site at JeanMarieWard.com

Jean Marie Ward

All of these Creative Commons images can be found in Wikipedia:

The Gate of Divine Might in the North Wall of the Forbidden City, Beijing.

Zheng He returned from his voyages with numerous wonders, including at least one giraffe, an animal the Chinese of that time identified with a creature of good omen called the qilin.

The luxurious life-style of Ming aristocrats was portrayed by Qui Ying (1494-1552) in a painting known as "Spring morning in a Han palace".

This portrait of Chinese official Jiang Shunfu (1453-1504) displays both the embroidered insignia denoting his rank and the black silk scholar's cap signifying his successful completion of the most advanced civil service examinations.

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13 October 2010

The Real Vlad Dracula: the Toothsome Truth

As we count down the days to that unofficial national holiday, Halloween, I thought it might be fun to share some of the facts about the life of the man who inspired that old roasted chestnut of the horror genre, Count Dracula.

In 1897 London stage manager–turned-author Bram Stoker had an international bestseller on his hands with his novel about a vampiric Transylvanian count named Vlad Dracula. The inspiration for Stoker’s doomed romantic antihero was a fifteenth-century Romanian prince. But the real Vlad was far more of a monster than any Victorian gothic novelist could have imagined.

Vlad III of Wallachia (1431-76), known in his day as "Vlad the Impaler," is one of the unsavory characters I profile in ROYAL PAINS: A Rogues' Gallery of Brats, Brutes, and Bad Seeds, coming to you from NAL on March 1, 2011. He is one of the few royals in the book who scores the perfect trifecta of nouns referred to in my subtitle.

Capricious, vicious, and malicious, Vlad Dracula was born in the citadel of Sighişoara, Transylvania, to an exiled member of the Wallachian nobility, known as Vlad II, and his wife, a Moldavian princess.

In the Middle Ages Wallachia (now the southern part of Romania) was a principality located to the immediate south of Transylvania, separated by the rugged Carpathian Mountains.

In 1431, the year of little Vlad’s birth, dad Vlad had taken an oath to protect and defend the Holy Roman Empire against the encroaching Ottomans, becoming one of only twenty-four knights in Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund’s Societas Draconis, or Order of the Dragon. This meant that the elder Vlad was permitted to spiff up his knightly wardrobe and accessories with the emblem of a dragon and was henceforth known to his people as Vlad Dracul—Vlad the Dragon, in Romanian.

When he returned home to Wallachia he discovered that his half brother Alexander Aldea had usurped his throne. On the outs with his people, not to mention his own family, Vlad senior fled to Sighişoara, a walled medieval city, fortified by guard towers at its gates. It was there that his second son, baby Vlad, was born.

From his own father, little Vlad, called Vlad Drăculea or Dracula—“son of Vlad the Dragon”—would learn the hard way that vows were made to be broken.

Young Vlad lived in a world where three vast empires vied for dominion over the geography as well as the religion of its subjects. Most of western Europe was part of the Holy Roman Empire, which practiced Roman Catholicism. Wallachia and Transylvania were located in the increasingly shrinking Byzantine Empire, a realm that incorporated elements of the exotic East and the Christian West, practicing a religion known as Eastern Orthodoxy.

In 1436, when little Vlad was barely five years old, his father decided it was high time to reclaim his throne. The only problem with this grand idea was that he lacked the forces to do it. Although Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund offered his moral support, no military support was forthcoming. So Vlad Dracul formed a strategic alliance with princes Ilias and Stefan of neighboring Moldavia. The price for their support was that the elder Dracul should espouse their sister Eupraxia (and begin a new family with her).

Obviously, that meant he’d have to ditch his current wife, the mother of little Vlad and his older brother Mircea, even though she had also been a Moldavian princess (albeit from a family that had fallen from power). Evidently Vlad didn’t think this was such an onerous demand. Historians assume that she was sent packing—possibly back to her parents—and out of her young sons’ lives forever.

With the aid of Moldavian troops, Vlad senior marched into Wallachia’s capital city of Târgovişte. After grabbing the crown from his dying half brother, he relocated his family, which by now included little Vlad’s baby half brother, Radu the Handsome.”

In Wallachia, Vlad junior received the typical education of a medieval princeling, tutored by an old boyar, a noble from the realm’s ruling class. The boy learned literature and languages and the skills required to become a knight. That same year, 1436, although he would not turn five until November, Vlad Dracula was initiated into the Order of the Dragon. He would grow up to be the ruthless son of a ruthless father.

The elder Vlad had a fluid concept of loyalty. He routinely cut deals with his enemies and consistently betrayed his friends. After Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund died in 1437, Vlad violated his oath to defend the empire and instead signed a peace treaty with the Holy Roman Empire’s archenemies, the Ottoman Turks. Their combined forces promptly invaded Transylvania.

But the new emperor had a champion, János Hunyadi, a Hungarian nicknamed “the white knight.” In 1441 Hunyadi journeyed to Târgovişte to parlay with the elder Vlad, inviting him to join a crusade against the Turks. Vlad hedged his bets, as he often would (a tactic his namesake would adopt as well), and opted to remain neutral, blithely looking the other way as the Ottoman army invaded Transylvania.

But Hunyadi successfully repelled their forces. For good measure he kicked Vlad senior off his throne and out of Wallachia. When Vlad fled to the Turks seeking asylum, they imprisoned him instead. He must have been surprised to learn that everyone else was as duplicitous as he was.
Having handily sacrificed his first wife to political expedience, Vlad didn’t blink when one of the terms of his release in 1443 was the forfeit of his two youngest sons, Vlad and Radu, as hostages.

The two boys found themselves imprisoned in a fortress seven hundred miles away while their double-crossing father was permitted to return home and reclaim his title as prince of Wallachia.
The youthful Vlad proved himself to be quite the astute student, alertly observing events around him. While he was a captive in Turkey he picked up some nifty tips on torture and mutilation and witnessed his first impalements. This method of execution commonly practiced by the Ottomans would eventually become the Wallachian prince’s bloody and brutal signature.

In 1446, at the age of sixteen, Vlad Dracula was released. But he would never see his traitorous father again. At the end of December 1447, Vlad received the news that his father and elder half-brother had been brutally murdered by a rival clan. Vlad’s young life now had a purpose: to avenge their murders.

In September 1448, while Hunyadi was busy launching yet another crusade against the Turks, Vlad Dracula seized his opportunity to grab the throne of Wallachia without a fight. But his triumph was short-lived, and by the end of the year, the barely seventeen-year-old Vlad was both homeless and throneless. The next few years were fraught with political assassinations and ever-shifting alliances.

In 1451 Vlad found himself on the run from Hunyadi’s army for several months, yet the following year, the Hungarian leader changed his tune entirely, offering the twenty-year-old Vlad a job guarding the southern border of the Holy Roman Empire from the threat of Turkish invasion. Vlad spent the better part of the next five years on the battlefield.

Bubonic plague was sweeping the region, and citizens were fleeing in droves. On August 11, 1456, Hunyadi, too, became a victim of the deadly disease. It was sweet revenge. But Dracula was far from satisfied. Everyone who’d had any connection to the deaths of his relatives would pay the price. Vlad seized the opportunity to grab the throne. He marched over the Transylvanian mountains with a modest force and confronted Vladislav II on the battlefield. His adversary retreated but was cut down on August 20 by Dracula’s supporters.

Vlad entered Wallachia’s capital city, Târgovişte, in August 1456. Taking up residence in the stone castle where he had spent his boyhood, he declared himself prince.

As Prince of Wallachia, Vlad began to make peace treaties with his neighbors and even agreed to pay the Turkish sultan an annual tribute, permitting Mohammed’s armies to march through Wallachia on the way toward distant territorial conquests. However, the new voivode was far less welcoming to the boyars, Wallachia’s aristocratic, landowning ruling class who for centuries had been accustomed to sharing power with whoever happened to be prince. They had long made trouble for the voivodes by seeking to control the workings of the government themselves.

On Easter Sunday, 1457, Vlad invited two hundred boyars and their families to an enormous feast. His guards surrounded the boyars as they were getting up from the table. Vlad scanned their faces in an effort to guess their ages, or asked them pointed questions about how many princes’ reigns they had lived through. He was trying to determine who among them was old enough to have participated in the plot ten years earlier to oust his family from Wallachia, and who might have had a hand in the assassination of his father and brother.

Several dozen of the older boyars were immediately ushered outside and taken to a place beyond the city walls, where one by one they were impaled upon stakes. The ground became stained with blood. But Vlad wasn’t finished. Instead of leaving the mangled corpses where they lay, he had their bodies artistically arranged in rows along the hillside as a warning to other would-be traitors. The site soon became known as the Forest of the Impaled.

What emerged as Vlad’s favorite method of dispatching his enemies was a particularly slow and brutal form of torture and death. Vlad Dracula was by no means the only medieval ruler to favor impalement (the Turks used it to great effect as well), but he was certainly the only autocrat to raise it to an art form, and it was observed that he took particular enjoyment in it.

Vlad’s overweening distaste for the aristocracy led to his preferment and promotion of members of the laboring classes. He drew from the lower ranks of society to staff the three types of defense forces he created to police his principality: The viteji was the military unit that would lead the Wallachian army into foreign wars. The sluji were Vlad’s national guard, also in charge of chasing criminals and flushing out his domestic political enemies. And the force that no one wanted to encounter was the armasi—Vlad’s institutionalized execution force. The armasi were highly trained in various forms of weaponry, but the tool they wielded with the most zeal and frequency was the stake, the hallmark of Vlad’s cruelty. For this the prince would eventually earn the nickname Vlad Tepes, or “Vlad the Impaler” in Romanian. He was an equal opportunity impaler as well. His victims came from all walks of Wallachian life, from corrupt noble to cheating merchant to petty thief.

Another cornerstone of Vlad’s reign was his crackdown on morality, with a particular focus on maintaining female chastity. Adulteresses as well as unmarried girls and widows who deigned to have sex had their breasts hacked off or were impaled on a hot stake inserted into their vaginas and forced through their body until it emerged from their mouths. Even Vlad’s mistress (so much for his own morality!) wasn’t spared. After her purported pregnancy turned out to be either a lie or merely a false alarm, he slit her open from belly to breasts, and declared, “Let the world see where I have been.” Vlad allowed her to wallow in her agony, contemplating what he saw as her falsehood as she suffered a painfully slow demise.

But Vlad’s brutal treatment of his mistress wasn’t personal; he was equally cruel to complete strangers, if he judged the women guilty of immorality. Before one man’s unfaithful wife was impaled, she was skinned alive in Târgovişte’s public square, and her skin was set aside on a nearby table for all to gawk over. A peasant woman was impaled for being an indifferent housekeeper after Vlad encountered her shabbily attired husband. To compensate the man for his loss, Dracula found the widower a new wife, but first he made sure to show her what he’d done to her predecessor for failing to properly look after her mate.

What did Vlad’s own wife think of this, one wonders. Somewhere along the line, he did acquire a spouse, though historians differ as to her origin. She may have been a Moldavian noblewoman or she may have been a highborn Transylvanian. In any case, her opinion, if she dared to voice one, is as lost to posterity as her name, although she was reputed to be lovely, innocent, and kind. Their marriage was most likely an arranged (or forced) one, and it is doubtful that she had any choice in the matter.

Unsurprisingly, Vlad’s method of ruling with an iron fist (or stake) didn’t thrill everyone. The peace he had made with the neighboring Transylvanian cities of Brasov and Sibiu upon claiming the throne didn’t last long. Within the year many of the citizens revolted against his tyranny. Most of the rebels were Saxon German craftsmen who had been accustomed to trading freely in Wallachia and who therefore objected strenuously to the high tariffs Vlad had imposed on their wares.

The Impaler decided to teach the Saxon upstarts a lesson. He stopped their carts at the borders and had the goods inspected. He made the items available to Wallachian merchants for next to nothing. And when the craftsmen objected, Vlad’s troops descended on their villages like Cossacks, pillaging, looting, and burning them to the ground. The following year, 1458, he decreed that any Transylvanian villagers caught sheltering his enemies be mercilessly slaughtered.

The few Germans who somehow managed to survive the first wave of the 1457 onslaught were marched back to Târgovişte, where they were impaled. Those who were lucky enough to have evaded Vlad’s grasp fled to Austria and other regions within the Holy Roman Empire. There, they spread stories of Vlad’s brutality. One of these colorful narratives opens with the words: “Here begins a very cruel, frightening story about a wild bloodthirsty man Prince Dracula. How he impaled people and roasted them and boiled their heads in a kettle and skinned people and hacked them to pieces like cabbage. He also roasted the children of mothers and they had to eat the children themselves.”

Thanks to the printing press, the German pamphlets received widespread distribution during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, perpetrating the image of a bloodthirsty psychopath long after Vlad was dead and buried. According to another booklet, “He had some of his people buried up to the navel and had them shot at. He also had some roasted and flayed. . . . He had a large pot made and boards with holes fastened over it and had people’s heads shoved through there and imprisoned them in this. And he had the pot filled with water and a big fire made under the pot and thus let the people cry out pitiably until they were boiled to death. . . . About three hundred gypsies came into his country. Then he selected the best three of them and had them roasted; these the others had to eat.”

During the winter of 1459, Vlad launched what would be the most vicious raid of his reign thus far. On the hunt for an enemy, Dan III of Transylvania, he burned the town of Brasov to cinders, refusing to spare even its church. Then he impaled everyone he could find regardless of their age or gender. Surrounded by their dead and dying bodies, he sat down to enjoy a hearty dinner. An extant woodcut commemorates this grisly event. And perhaps this is where the legend of Vlad Dracula drinking the blood of his victims began—with the widespread assertion that he had dipped his bread in the blood of these massacred Transylvanians.

Having unsuccessfully led a revolt against Vlad, Dan III met a gruesome fate as well. Vlad caught up with him, and invited the man to his own funeral, where he made Dan recite his own eulogy and dig his own grave. Then Vlad beheaded him.

In 1461 Vlad decided to stage an attack against the Turks, cutting a bloody swath through Bulgaria, beheading and burning his victims. He kept meticulous tallies of the numbers of people he slaughtered in each town he ravaged. The total number of deaths in some places reached nearly seven thousand—probably close to the entire population of some of the villages. In the winter a surprise raid along the southern bank of the Danube considerably raised his body count. Vlad couldn’t resist the urge to brag about his bloody triumphs to the Hungarian king. “I have killed men and women, old and young . . . 23,884 Turks and Bulgarians without counting those whom we burned alive in their homes or whose heads were not chopped off by our soldiers.”

As proof, he sent along samples of his handiwork: two sacks stuffed with heads, ears, and noses.
With a force of 60,000 men at arms, the Turkish sultan, Mohammed II, launched a counterattack against Vlad in the spring of 1462. Vlad was outmanned militarily but he managed to repulse the sultan by repelling him. An unknown Turkish chronicler wrote of the sight that greeted the Muslims upon their arrival at the gates of the capital city of Târgovişte: that of twenty thousand impaled corpses.

The sultan turned back, but assigned one of his military leaders (who just happened to be Vlad’s half brother, Radu, now a Muslim convert) to lead the Turkish forces in Wallachia. “Radu the Handsome,” as he was known, managed to convince the terrified Wallachians to abandon their bloodthirsty prince and declared himself voivode of Wallachia, putting Vlad on the run. The sadist was out of allies. He managed to reach Castle Dracula by the end of 1462, but Radu’s forces followed him. What supposedly happened next may belong more to the realm of legend, or at least apocrypha, because the specific feat of archery at the core of the story is virtually impossible to achieve.

Vlad was purportedly tipped off that Radu’s army was waiting for him. The informant was a former servant of Vlad’s who was now a Turkish slave. This brave slave is said to have fired an arrow from the ground (near the army’s camp, presumably) that managed to sail through just the right window (and medieval turrets have narrow arrow slits for windows), landing—thwomp—in the middle of a candle, as the whoosh of air extinguished the flame. The virtuous but unnamed Mrs. Vlad, noticing that the candle was out, went to relight it and discovered a note attached to the arrow shaft, warning Vlad that his half brother had the castle staked out.

Unwilling to be taken prisoner by Radu and the Turks, Vlad’s wife threw herself from the turret into the riverbed below. Vlad then fled the castle with Mihnea and twelve of his retainers; but when the boy’s horse was spooked by cannon fire, leaving the child clinging to his mane, Vlad pressed on and never looked back. His goal was to meet up with the king of Hungary, Matthias Corvinus, and demand the king’s aid in exchange for having defended his territory in the past.
But Matthias didn’t exactly welcome Vlad with open arms. Instead he threw him in prison, The Impaler spent the next twelve years in Buda as Matthias’s prisoner in a fortress known as Solomon’s Tower. To keep his talent for torture from becoming rusty, Vlad allegedly amused himself by brutalizing rodents and birds in his cell.

Accounts regarding the duration of Vlad’s incarceration vary. His twentieth-century biographer Radu Florescu believes that Dracula actually spent only four years—from 1462 to 1466—in captivity and that over the dozen years he remained in Hungary he and Matthias reached an accord. A fifteenth-century Hungarian court chronicler, who noted that Vlad was rather popular among certain segments of society, wrote that by imprisoning him, Matthias had “acted in opposition to general opinion,” and consequently reversed his decision to detain him. During Vlad’s incarceration he received guests from all over Europe, who regarded him as a hero mostly for his vigorous and largely successful efforts to keep the Turks at bay.

So Matthias offered Vlad a deal: Convert to Roman Catholicism and marry into the Hungarian royal family and you will be released. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Vlad renounced the Eastern Orthodox religion into which he was born, became a Catholic, and married Matthias’s cousin, Countess Ilona Szilágy.

By 1474 Vlad had been released. He and Ilona and their two young sons moved across the river to Pest, where they set up housekeeping. The older boy was named after his father, while the name of the second son has been lost to history.

The following year Vlad was back in the saddle, joining forces with Matthias and Vlad’s Transylvanian cousin Stephen to defeat the Turks in Bosnia.

A legate to Pope Pius II recorded the only surviving physical description of Vlad Dracula: “He was not very tall, but very stocky and strong with a cruel and terrible appearance, a long straight nose, distended nostrils, a thin and reddish face in which the large wide-open green eyes were enframed by bushy black eyebrows, which made them appear threatening. His face and chin were shaven, but for a moustache. The swollen temples increased the bulk of his head. A bull’s neck supported the head, from which black curly locks were falling to his wide-shouldered person.”

After another battle, Vlad briefly regained the crown of Wallachia in November 1476, but a few weeks later, on December 14, 1476, his luck finally ran out. The forty-five-year-old Impaler was killed near Bucharest during another skirmish with Basarab’s army.

Two different accounts of his death have emerged. In one, Vlad was beheaded and his head was, fittingly, mounted on a spike and delivered to the Turkish sultan as a trophy, while his body was buried in the nearby monastery at Snagov, which rests in the middle of an island. At the time of Dracula’s death, Snagov was a fortified complex like any other typical medieval town. The monastery may have had darker uses then, too. Decapitated skeletons with the heads placed in the hollows of their owners’ abdomens were discovered in an area beneath the floor that Dracula may at one time have used as a prison and torture chamber. Local peasant lore includes lurid tales of prisoners being thrust through a trapdoor in the floor, where they’d immediately become impaled on the spikes erected below.

An alternative version of Vlad’s demise has more credence. According to a remark made on a 2005 British television documentary about Vlad’s life by his twenty-first-century biographer, the Romanian historian Matei Cazacu, the Turks did not decapitate their enemies. The alternate theory regarding the manner of Vlad’s death therefore supposes that he was not beheaded but scalped, most likely via the eastern European and Asian technique of slitting the face and removing the skin, rather than slicing off the top of the head.

Facts support this method of execution, because what was believed to be Vlad’s corpse (given the lore regarding the location of his burial) was discovered at Snagov by the grandfather of another of the Impaler’s recent biographers, Radu Florescu. However, when the tomb was pried open, and the remains were exposed to fresh air and sunlight, within minutes they began to crumble to dust. The corpse’s face had been covered with a cloth, suggesting that it may indeed have been hiding the grisly results of a scalping. The fact that there was a face at all (or, for that matter, a head) should eliminate the beheading theory. The remnants of a crown were also discovered beside the skull within the tomb purporting to be that of Vlad Dracula. While there is no conclusive evidence that Florescu did indeed locate Vlad’s remains, enough of the elements tally to make the discovery a plausible one.

Although Vlad was prince of Wallachia for only seven years, spread over the course of three reigns—1448, 1456 to 1462, and 1476—he may have been responsible for causing the deaths of as many as a hundred thousand people, the equivalent of one-fifth of the population of Wallachia at the time.

And yet, in one corner of the world—the very region where Vlad Dracula perpetrated his bloody atrocities—being a royal pain remains in the eye of the beholder. To many Romanians, as well as to the Russians, despite his vicious cruelty, Vlad was no worse than many medieval rulers, and in many respects, he was somewhat better.

Vlad kept his subjects in line through fear and intimidation rather than through love. Yet the man who so terrorized Wallachia’s aristocracy was a champion of the craftsmen and the laboring classes. A Romanian Robin Hood, he reduced taxes and redistributed the boyars’ property to his poorer subjects, a move that yielded a double benefit: It won Vlad support from the lower social strata while systematically weakening the economic power of the nobility.

Albeit violently, Vlad swept Wallachia of political corruption. And he was the only leader in the region brave enough to successfully take on the enemy Turks as well as the encroaching Hungarians. To this day he remains a local hero, rather than a villain, even gracing a Romanian postage stamp issued in 1996.

Ten years later, on a 2006 Romanian TV series broadcast, Vlad Dracula was voted one of the “100 Greatest Romanians.” He didn’t transform himself into a bat, didn’t spend his days sleeping in a coffin, and probably never did drink the blood of his victims (or at least not much of it). Nevertheless, the real Vlad Dracula remains as immortal as his legend.

What’s your impression of the whole vampire craze? How do you like your fictional vampires? Sexy? Gory? Or are you “over” the whole literary trend that (all too fittingly) won’t die already!

11 October 2010

The art of reading aloud

I'm poking my head out of the superawful deadline hell (but I should be grateful, right?) and kicked myself for missing such interesting posts over the last week or so. With my track record of missing days you might be amazed to see me here at all--generally my excuses are of the pathetic I forgot, sorry sort. But here I am and I want to talk about reading aloud.

Recently, I organized a whole day of writers talking about what they do and reading aloud from their work for my local RWA chapter, Maryland Romance Writers (where Pam Rosenthal is speaking on Oct. 21!) last month at the Baltimore Book Festival, and also had the pleasure of reading earlier this week for Lady Jane's Salon in NYC, which was a lot of fun. You can see some of the pics from the Baltimore Book Festival on MRW's Facebook page.

What I found surprising was the reluctance of many writers to read aloud from their work, and this seems a phenomenon of the genre. Writers in other fiction genres read aloud at the drop of a hat. Yet I think it's one of the most empowering things you can do, because it is also one of the most revealing of yourself:
Reading aloud recaptures the physicality of words. To read with your lungs and diaphragm, with your tongue and lips, is very different than reading with your eyes alone. The language becomes a part of the body, which is why there is always a curious tenderness, almost an erotic quality, in those 18th- and 19th-century literary scenes where a book is being read aloud in mixed company. The words are not mere words. They are the breath and mind, perhaps even the soul, of the person who is reading. Verlyn Klinkenborg, New York Times.
And here's a fabulous example of this eroticism, from Austen's sexiest book, Mansfield Park, when Henry Crawford reads aloud from Shakespeare. I love the voyeurism as Edmund watches Fanny's reactions:

... whether it were dignity or pride, or tenderness or remorse, or whatever were to be expressed, he could do it with equal beauty. -- It was truly dramatic. -- His acting had first taught Fanny what pleasure a play might give, and his reading brought all his acting before her again; nay, perhaps with greater enjoyment, for it came unexpectedly, and with no such drawback as she had been used to suffer in seeing him on the stage with Miss Bertram. Edmund watched the progress of her attention, and was amused and gratified by seeing how she gradually slackened in the needle-work, which, at the beginning, seemed to occupy her totally; how it fell from her hand while she sat motionless over it -- and at last, how the eyes which had appeared so studiously to avoid him throughout the day, were turned and fixed on Crawford, fixed on him for minutes, fixed on him in short till the attraction drew Crawford's upon her, and the book was closed, and the charm was broken. Then, she was shrinking again into herself, and blushing and working as hard as ever; but it had been enough to give Edmund encouragement for his friend, and as he cordially thanked him, he hoped to be expressing Fanny's secret feelings too.
As well as an acceptable form of parlor entertainment, reading aloud was also showbiz and wildly popular, particularly when Dickens and Thackeray got into the act. Thackeray used readings as promotion for new books, whereas Dickens read aloud "household words" already dear and familiar to the public. The London Times claimed that the vogue for public readings began in 1844 and by 1868,
"Readers are abundant; there is not a literary institution that does not in the course of the year publish a programme of entertainments in which some plays or poems to be 'read' by some person of celebrity, general or local, do not hold a prominent place, and for the innocent amusement of the poor, 'penny readings' in the parish schoolrooms are now commonly encouraged by every clergyman who takes a practical interest in his flock." Quoted in Voice and the Victorian Storyteller by Ivan Kreilkamp.
Charles Dolby, who managed Dickens' reading tours in England and America, wrote an account of them in 1885, which you can find on Googlebooks. Here he describes the immense excitement Dickens' readings produced:
Hundreds poured into a hall already crowded to suffocation, amid rent garments, expostulations, threats, cries for " the manager," and " Where is Mr. Dickens?" It was a surging, roaring sea that overflowed everything, even the platform on which Mr. Dickens was to read. The attendants and men at the doors suffered much—to use Mr. Dickens's own words in telling the tale: "They were all torn to ribbons; they had not a hat and scarcely a coat amongst them." Indeed, so futile were the efforts of the attendants to control or in any way to stem the tide, that Mr. Dickens found it necessary to come forward and address those who were already in the hall, while an intimate friend, from a prominent position, endeavoured to instil reason into those who were outside.
Mark Twain in 1868, was less than impressed with Dickens' appearance in San Francisco:
He is a bad reader, in one sense -- because he does not enunciate his words sharply and distinctly -- he does not cut the syllables cleanly, and therefore many and many of them fell dead before they reached our part of the house. ... I was a good deal disappointed in Mr. Dickens' reading -- I will go further and say, a great deal disappointed. The Herald and Tribune critics must have been carried away by their imaginations when they wrote their extravagant praises of it. Mr. Dickens' reading is rather monotonous, as a general thing; his voice is husky; his pathos is only the beautiful pathos of his language -- there is no heart, no feeling in it -- it is glittering frostwork; his rich humor cannot fail to tickle an audience into ecstasies save when he reads to himself.
Do you enjoy reading aloud or listening to authors read? And why do you think the practice is not widespread among romance writers?

p.s. in the spirit of blatant self promotion, I'm at vampchix today talking about JANE AND THE DAMNED and at Word Wenches with the BESPELLING JANE AUSTEN gang, Mary Balogh, Susan Krinard and Colleen Gleason. There are books to be won!

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09 October 2010

Another Bit of History I'll Never Get to See!

If I had the hours to spend a weekend in a museum, just about any museum, I would be there in a heart beat. I read about the Diaghilev ballet costume exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and sadly know this is another bit of history I'll never get to see. Imagine staring at Nijinsky's costumes and watching vintage footage of him dancing in that very outfit. I'm a museum junkie and think this exhibit is worth a little extra promo by the Hoydens, even though most of us won't get to travel to London to see it (maybe the exhibition will come stateside someday!). This from The New York Times: ttp://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/arts/design/24antiques:

"The ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev hired boldface names like Picasso, Matisse, Georges Braque and Coco Chanel to design his costumes. While traveling to several continents with the Ballets Russes, Diaghilev was mercurial and demanding, and his tastes in fabric patterns ranged from Russian folk art to Rococo curlicues and Art Deco sunbursts. The dancers’ outfits ended up stitched with tinsel and mica, trimmed in lace and fur and puffed out around metal and wicker frames.

The company disbanded right after his death in 1929, and a few of his colleagues and fans stored away chunks of the costume collection until the 1960s. Sotheby’s in London then dispersed it in a series of sales. Diaghilev’s paperwork was also broken up over the years.

“It was all very scattered,” said Jane Pritchard, a curator of “Diaghilev and the Golden Age of the Ballets Russes, 1909-1929,” which opens on Saturday at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

The museum has reassembled about 60 outfits, many of them purchased decades ago at Sotheby’s auctions. The curators had to decide which ones would be strong enough to exhibit, and conservators have repaired rips and sweat damage, straightened bent flaps and reinforced shoulders for draping on mannequins.

“It’s like the costumes had to audition for us, to see if they’d get in,” Ms. Pritchard said.

Vintage footage of dancers streams in the galleries, and two stage drapes displayed measure up to 45 feet long: one shows a pair of Picasso semi-nudes on the run, and on the other, the Russian-born artist Natalia Goncharova laid out a tableau of gilded onion domes. The museum has also brought out ballerinas’ makeup tubes, castanets and satiny shoes, as well as paperwork that survived the Ballets Russes archival diaspora. The museum owns receipts for wigs and restaurant meals, and a 1924 contract letter from the dancer Vera Savina, one of at least two women who enraged Diaghilev by marrying one of his bisexual ex-boyfriends.

The exhibition catalog discusses Diaghilev’s messy personal life and his professional “constant search for novelty” and need for cash. He sometimes resorted to a kind of elite pimping. To wrangle donations from Lord Rothermere, a newspaper magnate, Diaghilev threw parties while “fostering Rothermere’s close relationship with the dancer Alice Nikitina,” the historian Sarah Sonner writes in the catalog.

Diaghilev invested some of his profits in costumes that turned out to be impractical. Chanel’s loose-fitting knit swimsuits were “potentially dangerous,” writes the dance historian Sarah Woodcock; a male dancer would have trouble keeping “a firm grip on his partner in the complex throws and catches.” Hoop skirts cut dancers’ shins and left them tottering during spins, and arched headdresses “slipped and were then impossible to adjust,” she writes.

As the ballet company traipsed through 19 countries, from Monaco to Uruguay, she adds, “Excess baggage costs were a major drain.”

Several other Ballets Russes studies have come out in the last few months. In addition to a gossipy Diaghilev biography from Oxford University Press by Sjeng Scheijen (an adviser to this show), the historian Mary E. Davis’s “Ballets Russes Style: Diaghilev’s Dancers and Paris Fashion” (Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press) traces the costumes’ influence, from Paul Poiret’s 1910s harem pants and togas to Karl Lagerfeld’s 2009 collection with Russian models wearing Cossack boots.

The Antique Collectors’ Club and Hatje Cantz have both released monographs about Goncharova, one of Diaghilev’s favorite designers. An architect’s daughter from a village south of Moscow, she helped invent a style of furiously crisscrossing lines called Rayism. In 1915 Diaghilev lured her to Paris, and then the Russian Revolution marooned her in the West.

She based her Ballets Russes designs on flamenco dancers’ ruffles, Byzantine art and Russian Orthodox priestly robes and icons. The museum, in addition to hanging Goncharova’s huge stage backdrop, is showing her sketches of flowered peasant outfits, her costumes embroidered with sea creatures and a Cubist caricature of Diaghilev she drew. She abstracted his image into what looks like just an ear, a rotund belly and a sternly outstretched arm."

Imagine having to repair sweat stains and bent flaps on costumes...as if they were worn just yesterday! Cool.

Anybody have any museum exhibits they've been to recently they'd love to share?

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06 October 2010

Austen on Film - 1940 Pride and Prejudice

This weekend I rewatched the movie that began my fascination with the Regency era – the 1940 Pride and Prejudice with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier as Elizabeth and Darcy and a wonderful screenplay by Aldous Huxley and Jane Murfin, directed by Robert Z. Leonard. I’m aware of the irony that the movie that set me on the path to writing Regency-set books is set in the 1830s, but the movie sent me to the novel and then to other Austen novels and to Georgette Heyer and Bernard Cornwell and Regency and Napoleonic history books and ultimately to creating my own stories.

I love a number of adaptations of Pride and Prejudice, but in many ways this one remains my favorite. I’ve sometimes wondered if it seems to be so true to the mood and tone of the book to me because I saw it (at the age of six) before I read the book. But I’m currently in the midst of rereading Pride and Prejudice and watching the movie this time I was struck by how well it captures the spare, dry irony of the book, the keen wit, and the understated emotion.

I also think the film does a brilliant job of taking the book and telling it in cinematic terms. There’s the opening sequence in which Mrs. Bennet and her daughters and Lady Lucas and Charlotte learn about Bingley’s and Darcy’s arrival in Meryton, and the two women have their coachmen race each other home, so their husbands can be the first to call on Mr. Bingley. A wonderful way of demonstrating cinematically that “it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a large fortune must be in want of a wife.”

There’s the archery contest between Darcy and Elizabeth that captures, also in cinematic terms, the tensions in their relationship and their growing attraction. There’s the lovely, heart-melting scene (which Leslie and I have discussed) in which Darcy tells Elizabeth the story of Wickham and Georgiana, a scene that is essentially Darcy’s letter, turned into a dialogue between two people.

When I blogged about Pride and Prejudice recently and mentioned the film, Isobel brought up the fact that the movie softens Lady Catherine. “In the Olivier/Garson P&P I was always very bothered by the transformation of Lady Catherine into a benevolent do-gooder who’s promoting the match between Lizzie and Darcy. It changes the story too much for me. It removes one of Darcy’s major moments of character growth.” I blogged about the film this week on my own website, and JMM brought up this same point, saying " The whole point of Darcy’s growth was him learning to let go of his snobbery and seeing people as they are. (IIRC, it’s Lizzie’s mother’s relatives that impress him when he meets her again at Pemberly after his insulting proposal.) He marries Lizzy with the knowledge that his aunt might never speak to him again."

This always bothered my mom (who loved the movie) as well. The changes to Lady Catherine bother me, too. I actually like the scene between Darcy and Lady Catherine after Lady Catherine speaks with Elizabeth (Darcy is so wonderfully exuberant), but I agree the arc of the story is better with Lady Catherine not changing and Darcy marrying Elizabeth knowing he is cutting ties with his aunt (who seems to be his only remaining relative from his parents’ generation).But it’s not enough to ruin (or even damage) the movie for me.

Then there are the performances, a series of finely etched portraits. Very much including Olivier as Darcy. He’s so wonderfully aristocratic (with so much emotion smoldering beneath). And yet if you watch the way he moves, his arms are always held close to his sides, as though he’s hemmed in by his role. Even as a romantic leading man, Olivier was a fabulously physical character actor. He and Greer Garson have great chemistry (watching the movie this time I was particularly struck by the intensity of the romantic tension). Edmund Gwenn captures Mr. Bennet’s dry wit, Mary Boland has Mrs. Bennet’s giddiness and determination, Melville Cooper is an hysterical Mr. Collins, Maureen O’Sullivan is a sweet but not cloying Jane…

In the comments to my post on my website, there's been wonderful discussion about favorite adaptations of Pride and Prejudice. There were votes for the 1980 1995, and 2005 versions, with many noting a preference for the first version they saw. The discussion moved on to other Austen adaptations, particularly different versions of Emma, and other film versions of literature, such as the fabulous Anna Karenina with Nicola Pagett, Stuart Wilson, and Eric Porter that was on Masterpiece Theatre years ago (and which is now firmly fixed in my mind when I think of the book, though I read the book first). What are some of your favorite novel-to-film adaptations, Austen or otherwise? If you like the Regency/Napoleonic era, what book or movie or other source introduced you to it?

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01 October 2010

19th Century "Smalls"

Underwear, that is. Smalls, short for “small clothes,” in the 19th century underwent a change as drastic as conquering the West and building bridges and cities. Of course, these changes reflected the changing status of women and - most certainly - their location: Eastern and Southern ladies wore gowns from Paris, laced-up corsets, and petticoats so bouffant getting through doorways or perching on settees could be problematic. Women walking across the country with a covered wagon had no time for such fripperies.

Even so, a German writer in 1865 noted peasant girls working in fields in crinolines, and one Arnold Bennett captured the hazards in a scene from “Old Wives’ Tale: Two young girls unpack their mother’s new crinoline, and Sophia tries it on. “Her mother’s newly delivered crinoline ballooned about her in all its fantastic richness and expensiveness.... Then Sophia fell, in stepping backwards; the pyramid was overbalanced, great distended rings of silk trembled and swayed gigantically on the floor, and Sophia’s small feet lay like the feet of a doll on the rim of the largest circle, which curved and arched above them like a cavern’s mouth.”

Layers of petticoats meant more washing, so women going West dispensed with all but one layer. The camisole top was de riguer, as was the tight-laced corset, though I cannot imagine how one survived in dust and 100 degree heat trussed up like a turkey. But in town populations, “ladyness”was judged in terms of whalebone and lacings.

One English woman, not tightly laced until she was married, tells in the “Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine” (1868), how she started doing so because her husband was “so particularly fond of a small waist.” Her waist was 23 inches, but she ordered a 14-inch pair of stays and “managed the first day to lace my waist in to eighteen inches.” She slept in it all night and got her maid to tighten it once inch each day until her waist was 14 inches. “For the first few days the pain was very great . . . ”

An interesting footnote to this story is the experiment by Doris Langley Moore, a leading [historical] costume expert, who searched for the 18 inch waist in fashion museums. She measured 1000 women’s costumes from the Victorian period and failed to find any less than 20.5 inches around!

Dr. William Barrylord in his book “The Corset and the Crinoline” cautioned that lacing shoved the organs around, weakened stomach support muscles and induced much “temporary”suffering.

What began in the 1860s as loose, oversized chemises with wide necklines, drawstrings, and wide sleeves, (often in wool for warmth), were worn over large-sized drawers, called knickers, open in the back and tied at the waist with a drawstring.

By the 1880s, corsets became longer and petticoats were “bustled” with twill stiffened with whalebone or stiffly starched ruffles at the back. Quilted petticoats were worn for warmth, many made of red flannel. Later, the “princess” petticoat appeared, combining a camisole or bodice with a petticoat. Corsets were now available in yellow, apricot, and deep blue and were more decorative, often made of satin and lace. “Suspenders” kept up one’s stockings, and these were often attached to a waist belt or even the corset itself.

The camisole was not an effective bust-enhancer, so the French developed pink rubber “poitrines” and women adopted bust pads, celluloid and rubber bust shapes, and “lemon bosoms.” The bustline was a rounded bolster, with no division or “cleavage.” The heavily boned “bust bodice” was the beginning of our modern brassiere.

Invention of the “combination,” combining chemise and drawers in linen, cotton, or even merino flannel, corresponded with the growth in women’s emancipation (Marriage and Divorce Act of 1857 (Scotland); Married Women’s Property Acts of 1881(England) but at first such social progress did not affect women’s undergarments. Tight-lacing, bustles, voluminous petticoats, constricting underwear, and skirts that trailed on the ground coexisted for years with women seeking freedom for higher education and the right to vote. For decades women looked outwardly the same, following established conventions of fashion - slimness, well-developed bustline, small waist, large hips. But underneath . . .

The underwear revolution began mid-19th century with a health craze: women were advised to stop lacing themselves into tight corsets, wear wool undergarments next to the skin, wear only one petticoat, and adopt loose bloomers. Interestingly, in the skirt-and-shirtwaist era, women’s blouses imitated men’s shirts, with high collar and tie. This look was standard until the introduction of oversized sleeves - the “Gibson girl” look. The “walking dress” of the 1880s had become a tailor-made, worn with knickers closed at the back and “sanitary underclothing,” (wool “combinations” next to the skin). Waists were still sharply defined.

By the 20th century, underwear was coming into its own, resulting in 21st century wisps of lace and rayon “thongs” and bikini briefs with matching, wildly colored, minuscule bra-tops. What next?

Source: Elizabeth Ewing, Fashion in Underwear, From Babylon to Bikini Briefs, Dover, 1971.

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