Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Incredibly fantastic

Lili Elbe, a Danish painter and famously a transgender woman, was born 140 years ago today. She wrote an autobiographical memoir - Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex - which was first published in English in 1933 and included substantial extracts from her diaries. Norman Haire, a medical practitioner and sexologist, who provided an introduction to the book, starts by noting that this story ‘must seem incredibly fantastic’.

Einar Wegener was born in Vejle, Denmark, on 28 December 1882, the son of a spice merchant. Little seems to be known about his early life, but he attended the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. There, he met Gerda Gottlieb. They married in 1905, and both worked as illustrators, Einar producing landscape paintings while Gottlieb illustrated for books and fashion magazines. Einar won the Neuhausens prize in 1907 and exhibited at the Vejle Art Museum in Denmark, among other places. In time, Gottlieb became famous for her paintings of beautiful women with haunting eyes and chic clothes. The story goes that Wegener first started dressing in women’s clothes to stand in for Gottlieb’s models.

The couple travelled in France and Italy, before settling in Paris, where Wegener felt freer to entertain at home or appear in public dressed as a woman. Over time, the female side of his personality became increasingly important, leading him to research his behaviour, and to consult doctors. In 1930, physicians found that he had more female than male hormones (and therefore may have had what is now known as Klinefelter syndrome). That same year, he began to undergo a series of experimental surgical procedures, to remove his testicles and penis and to transplant ovaries and a uterus into his body. In October 1930, a Danish court annulled his marriage, and he was able to have his sex and name legally changed, to Lili Ilse Elvenes. The pseudonym Lili Elbe first came from a Danish newspaper article. She died in 1931, not long after the fifth procedure. Further information can be found at Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Not long after Elbe’s death, in 1932, the story of his/her transition was published in Danish, and it was soon translated into German and English. The English version (translated from the German by  H. J. Stenning) was published in 1933 by Jarrolds as Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex with the subtitle The true story of the miraculous transformation of the Danish painter Einar Wegener (Andreas Sparre). The book is freely available at Internet Archive. An introduction is provided by Norman Haire who was a medical practitioner and sexologist. He writes: ‘To the reader unfamiliar with the unhappy byways of sexual pathology, the story told in this book must seem incredibly fantastic. [. . .]

The story of this strange case has been written by Niels Hoyer, partly from his own knowledge, partly from material dictated by Lili herself, partly from Lili's diaries, and partly from letters written by Lili and other persons concerned. The biographer states that the surgeon who performed the operation has passed his account of the case as correct.’

In fact, Niels Hoyer was a pseudonym for a friend of Elbe’s, but the text was written by Elbe herself. Throughout, and very confusingly, he/she uses various names for her male and female sides, as well as pseudonyms for everyone else. Much discussion of these names, and of the work in general and many other issues connected with it can be found in a scholarly edition of the work published in 2020 by Bloomsbury (edited by Pamela L. Caughie and Sabine Meyer). There is also a companion website where the texts can be read online - Lili Elbe Digital Archive.

In her original text, Elbe quotes from her diaries extensively and from those kept by Gottlieb. However, she never tells us much about her diaries, her diary-writing habit, nor does she date most of the quoted entries. However she does tell us a bit about Gerda’s diary: ‘During these days Grete began to keep a diary. Every evening she recorded therein her observations, and the experiences which crowded thickly upon her in the company of the new Lili, in simple, almost fumbling sentences, seeking the way of her friend - this difficult, wonderful way upon which Lili had scarcely ventured to take the first step. Here is a leaf from the diary that she started: “Lili bears everything with incredible patience. True, she whimpers every morning, and even yet believe. . .  Or is it that she will not yet show that she believes?” ’

Here is one example of how Elbe used her own diary in writing Man into Woman (NB: Evidently in the narrative, she refers to herself in the third person, with Andreas being her male side and Lili her female side.)

‘Only one thing troubled her rather more than she liked. In contrast to Grete’s and Andreas’ women friends, who had long since accepted Lili as one of themselves, with few exceptions, all the male friends of Andreas avoided Lili. Grete, who had expected help and sympathy for Lili from them most of all, and in this belief had revealed Lili’s existence to them, was very distressed over this failure on the part of Andreas’ friends, all the more so as just at that time the whole secret of Andreas and Lili was divulged in Copenhagen through the indiscretion of a Parisian woman friend and eventually published in unreserved fashion by an organ of the Press. Lili learned of this by accident. All her gaiety vanished again. For many days she would not stir out of her attic. She paid no heed to anything, and could not understand why none of Andreas' friends found their way to her. A little entry in her diary tells of this:

“How is it possible that all Andreas’ friends here have left me in the lurch? That they all avoid me as if I were a pariah? What have I done to them? Andreas was always ready to help them. He was always a reliable friend. And now one of them says that just because he esteemed Andreas so highly he could never recognize Lili. Lili would always stand between him and Andreas. He would shudder at offering her his hand. This sentiment is nothing but an eruption of overweening masculinity. And another excuses himself with other subterfuges. One could not be seen walking with Lili in the streets without compromising himself. Copenhagen was too small to show oneself publicly with such a pitiful creature, unmolested and unsuspected.” ’

And here is another example.

‘Lili now realized that the crisis through which she had passed, especially when she was first in Denmark, and from the effects of which she was still suffering, was a natural consequence of the implantation which had been carried out upon her. She perceived how her whole cerebral function had received a new direction.

She confided all this to her diary:

“In the first months after my operation it was necessary above all else to recuperate. When this had happened to some extent, the physical change in me began. My breasts formed, my hips changed and became softer and rounder. And at the same time other forces began to stir in my brain and to choke whatever remnants of Andreas still remained there. A new emotional life was arising within me.” ’

Saturday, December 17, 2022

For the expense of my time

‘I keepe a dayere . . . for the expense of my time, as I doe for that money I spend . . .’ This is Bullen Reymes - a courtier, diplomat and politician who died 350 years ago today - explaining why he kept a diary. Interestingly, he was a contemporary of, and friends with, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. Reymes’s diary didn’t come to light until the 1950s, when it was used by Helen Andrews Kaufman as the basis for her biography of the cavalier.

Reymes was born in 1613, the eldest son of Bullen Reymes of Westminster and his wife Mary Petre, daughter of William Petre of Torbryan, Devon. He was educated privately, at Merton College, Oxford, and at Middle Temple. He travelled widely on the Continent, was attaché at the Paris embassy from 1631 to 1632, and in Venice twice between 1632 and 1637. He married Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas Gerard of Trent, in 1640, an heiress with an estate in Dorset. They had three sons and two daughters. After Elizabeth’s death, he remarried in 1661.

Reymes was a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber from 1641 to 1646, and actively supported the King during the Civil War. He helped defend Exeter and was made a freeman in 1645. The city, though, surrendered in 1646 and he laid down his arms. He managed to hold on to his heavily mortgaged estate, and, by the time of the Restoration, had cleared his debts. He took no part in the second Civil War, but was imprisoned in Taunton Castle in 1650, and helped some Royalists to escape across the Channel after the battle of Worcester. 

In 1660, Reymes was elected Member of Parliament for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis in a by-election to the Convention Parliament. At the same time, he resumed his position as gentleman of the privy chamber. He served as commissioner for assessment for Dorset from 1660 to 1669. He was commissioner for sick and wounded in Hampshire and Dorset 1664 to 1667 and was appointed commissioner for Tangier from 1664 until his death. He became a freeman of Portsmouth in 1665 and was deputy treasurer of prizes at Portsmouth from 1665 to 1667. He also developed a sailcloth business, and supplied the navy at the time of the second Dutch war.

Reymes was friends with both the great 17th century diarists, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, and was a keen theatre-goer and gardener. He is mentioned several times in Pepys’s diary. For instance, on 24 January 1668, Pepys wrote: ‘I to the King’s playhouse, to fetch my wife, and there saw the best part of The Mayden Queene, which, the more I see, the more I love, and think one of the best plays I ever saw, and is certainly the best acted of any thing ever the House did, and particularly Becke Marshall, to admiration. Found my wife and Deb., and saw many fine ladies, and sat by Colonell Reames, who understands and loves a play as well as I, and I love him for it.’ Reymes died on 18 December 1672. Further information is available from Wikipedia and The History of Parliament.

In the second half of the 1950s, Kaufman, an English teacher at the University of Washington, came across the archived papers of Bullen Reymes, and edited them for publication as Conscientious Cavalier: Colonel Bullen Reymes (Jonathan Cape, 1962). She says in her foreword to the book: ‘Because Bullen Reymes kept a diary, wrote many and voluminous letters, and because he carefully preserved the scores of papers relating both to his public activities and his private life, there remains an unusually full and exact account of the man himself and of the background and personalities of the seventeenth century. In fact it would be difficult to find, in the first half of that century, an individual who has left so complete a record of himself.’ In the work - which is available to borrow digitally at Internet Archive - Kaufman quotes often from Reymes’s diary, but usually as part of her narrative - the diary entries are usually incomplete and without any date. 

Nevertheless, here are three short sections from her book with actual quotes (which I’ve italicised for clarity) from Reymes’s writings.

‘On the first day of the new year Bullen started his diary: “Heare beginneth my Diere it being the first of Janewary in the yeare of our lord 1632 . . .

I rise in the morning about 10 of the clock, when afterwards I heard prayers, and then theare dined with us Mr. Gosling and Mr. Barker and Courteane. After dinner La Peare came to see me and about eavning prayer Sr. Thomas Wharton came from Charington whear thear was kept a proclamed fast. And about supper I betoke me to my chamber for to writ into Ingland and came nomore downe that nite and sat up till 12 of the eavene writing.” ’


‘Although [a] long letter to his father - almost 1,600 words - was “frayghted” with the old problem of money, it spoke of other things as well. After asking again about his uncle’s legacy, and after pointing out once more that his quarterly payment is long overdue, Reymes describes his new lodgings, “right against Mr. Mervilles of whome I intend to learne of . . . on the lute . . . (who plays best of any one in Paris).” Then, apparently, in answer to some question of his father, Bullen turns to his diary, or rather, to his reason for keeping a diary. He does his best to explain this almost universal urge. Unlike many, he did not write with a wary eye on a possible reader. His scribbled, blotted, and well-nigh illegible entries, with their careless spelling and syntax, were obviously meant for no eye but his own. The reason he gives is neat, to the point, and completely characteristic. His diary is an expense account of his time. “I keepe a dayere . . . for the expense of my time, as I doe for that money I spend . . .” ’


‘Whatever their significance, the pages of Reymes’s diary are full of references to the ‘beautiful churches’ whose services he attended [in Venice].

We were at the church of Nostre Dame [Santa Maria della Salute], where there was a great service to commemorate the late deliverance from the plague. I saw many processions of many different members of all the different orders . . . I was with Mr. Carnarvon and Mr. Montagu at the church of St. Caterina, where I heard wonderful music. The church was beautifully decorated . . . I heard two masses.

And so on. Stirred though he was by the splendour of the Venetian churches, Bullen was even more profoundly moved by the music he heard in these candle-lit edifices. It is to this that he alludes most often, and little wonder, for much of the religious music of seventeenth-century Venice was inspired by great masters. To one of these, Claude Monteverdi, Reymes alludes often.

After dinner I was with Mr. Porter and Mr. Jacob to hear the music of the Friars . . . Signor Claude Monteverdi composed the music . . . I was at St. John de Paulau where I heard the beautiful music of Claude Monteverdi.

On two other occasions he must have seen Monteverdi himself, for one Sunday in December he writes, “I was at St. Johns [SS. Giovanni e Paolo] where I heard Claude Monteverdi and his music,” and another time, “I was at St. Juliano [Giuliano] where Monteverdi conducted.

The last days of December were crowded with festivities. It was the season of the fairs, of the carnival, of the plays - the theatres had opened on the 22nd - and of la guerre de poignée, the war of fists. “gare”, as Reymes calls it, was a battle on one of the bridges between young men from either side of the Grand Canal, in which no weapons, only fists, were allowed.

I saw a contest between certain of the common people which is fought now every day. One side is called the Castilean and the other Niccolet. The Castileans won.

On December 26th Bullen made his first visit to St Stefano, both “in the morning and after dinner”. What interested him was not the old Gothic church but the long, narrow piazza adjoining it. As in Paris at carnival time, he and his friends went in masquerade.

After dinner we were all at St. Steffino and then we went everywhere and to the house of ___ where we danced with the ladies. I played the lute everywhere we went. . . I paid six realls for our costumes. We went to the comedy but got there only in time for the end.

The last entry for 1633 reads:

I was at the Rialto where Mr. Rowlanson asked me to dine with him tomorrow . . . I went out again in masquerade and I played before the whole world in la piazza de St. Steffino. I was also at the Comedy.” ’

Tuesday, December 13, 2022

You feel like a knife

‘Late at night. Just back to the flat I’m staying in from reading the play at the [Glasgow] Citizens. It was sweet, sweet, sweet. A marvellous theatre. On its stage you feel like a knife. You can carve any word on any part of the auditorium.’ This is from a diary kept by Howard Brenton, the British playwright, while touring the country to raise funds to defend his play - Romans in Britain - against an obscenity suit. The master dramatist is eighty today - Happy Birthday.

Brenton was born on 13 December 1942 in Portsmouth, England, son of a policeman (and later a Methodist minister). Educated at Chichester High School, he read English literature at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge. He did well at poetry, and he wrote a play which was performed at the university’s theatre. In 1966, one of his plays was put on at the Royal Court in London, and in 1969 he joined Portable Theatre (founded by David Hare and Tony Bicat), for which he wrote Christie in Love. In 1970, he married Jane Margaret Fry, and they have two sons.

Through a long career, he has written more than 40 plays, some as recently as 2018, according to Wikipedia’s list of works. In 1973, he and David Hare were jointly commissioned by Richard Eyre to write a play for Nottingham Playhouse which resulted in Brassneck. In 1976, Hare directed Brenton’s Weapons of Happiness at the National Theatre’s newly commissioned Lyttelton stage; it won the Evening Standard award for Best Play. 

In autumn 1980, the National also staged Brenton’s controversial The Romans in Britain. The campaigner Mary Whitehouse brought a suit against the play’s director under the Sexual Offences Act. It caused a media storm, but was ultimately withdrawn. In 1985, Brenton again collaborated with Hare to bring the powerful Pravda to the National with Anthony Hopkins in the lead. Although Brenton wrote very little for the screen he did, oddly perhaps, write 14 episodes of the Bafta winning BBC spy series, Spooks (between 2002 and 2005). He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2017. Further information can be found at Wikipedia and the Old Cicestrians website.

Brenton has written only two books, both published by Nick Hern. The first was a novel in 1989 (Diving for Pearls) and the second was a collection of articles he’d authored along with extracts from his diaries - Hot Irons (1995). The full work can be borrowed digitally and freely at Internet Archive

In a ‘Note’, Brenton explains the book contains four diaries: ‘three are travel diaries, one kept while on tour in England doing a reading of The Romans in Britain, one while travelling in Australia in Far North Queensland’s rain forests and one while visiting the Soviet Union towards the end of the Gorbachev era. The fourth diary is, I suppose, a kind of travel piece also: it is the headlong rush through a rehearsal period of a play of mine at the Royal Court in 1992. I made some cuts in the diaries, but they stand as they were written.’

According to the publisher’s blurb: ‘Howard Brenton has long been stuck with the label ‘controversial’. Early in his career he was misquoted as wanting his plays to be like ‘petrol bombs through the proscenium arch’. His Churchill Play foresaw a Britain where political dissidents were interned in concentration camps. His Romans in Britain was prosecuted by Mary Whitehouse. And there have been plays on Rudolf Hess, Mikhail Gorbachev and the Rushdie affair. . . This volume of essays and diaries, however, reveals a much more complex, humane and thoughtful person than the headlines and snap judgments would allow.’ 

Introducing the first of the diaries, Brenton explains: ‘In 1982 Michael Bogdanov, the director of my play The Romans in Britain, which had been premiered at the National’s Olivier Theatre in 1980, was charged under a section of the Sexual Offences Act in a private prosecution brought by a ‘moral campaigner’, Mrs Mary Whitehouse. She objected to a scene in Act One of the play, an attempted rape of a male Celt by a Roman soldier. The case was a bizarre affair that dragged on for well over a year, through three hearings in a magistrates’ court before we ended up in the Old Bailey. Though it was Michael who was going on trial, one of the most wretched aspects was that it was my play that had put him there. I wanted to do something and decided to go on a one-man tour, reading the play, to raise money for the Theatre Defence Fund, which had been set up to raise money for what we feared was going to be a hefty legal bill.’

Here are two extracts from Hot Irons.

21 February 1982 

‘Late at night. Just back to the flat I’m staying in from reading the play at the Citizens.

It was sweet, sweet, sweet. A marvellous theatre. On its stage you feel like a knife. You can carve any word on any part of the auditorium. For half an hour I felt myself overworking, a mess, sweating and straining, knowing that all I had to do was - do it.

You could let the book levitate out of your hand and make the play up on the spot.

I’m high, I must calm down.

The northern audience laughed at the southern dialects, the Legate and Tom Chichester. British audiences have perfect pitch when it comes to regional speech and class.

I did feel tonight I was performing the play. Really I’m only sitting there for two and three-quarter hours, reading it. But by some kind of sleight of hand, or mutual agreement, it’s a performance. Odd.

Someone said to me afterwards, ‘How the hell did they stage it?’ Good.

In the dressing room 1 remembered an acting exercise to fix on characters by thinking of them as animals. A crude but fierce ‘talisman’ of a character. I did that and it helped. I remember the director, Barry Kyle, after eight weeks’ work with Ray Westwell in the RSC rehearsals of The Churchill Play, saying one word to Ray, about to play my Churchill on the opening night: ‘Bulldog.’

The Citizens have every show watched by the assistant director, Kim Dambaek, so notes are given every evening. My reading was no exception. A good system: the National have it, the RSC don’t. Kim said I could syncopate more, go further with throwing my voice about. He also soothed my paranoia about the reading being boring. It is not boring. (Why the hell isn’t it? It should be the most boring thing on earth, someone reading a play at enormous length. Perhaps the expectation is so low that you start on the floor, so everything and anything you can do for the audience, is a plus. I certainly sense the apprehension at the beginning of the reading: ‘Oh my God he’s going to read it - all of it.’ Then ten minutes on, ‘Oh. A woman with a strange hair-do and six dogs at her heels. Oh. I see.’ And you’re away.)

Now, food! Bath! The white wine the Citizens staff gave me to take to my lonely bed.’

1 March 1982
‘Now I’m at Warwick University, a guest of the Student Union. It’s raining. The concrete of the campus is sodden, and the windows are steamed up. I’m sitting in the Arts Centre coffee bar. It’s typical of the ‘Arts Centres’ built in the sixties on university campuses. It’s a white elephant, a car-drive away from any public and ignored by most of the students. It has an ugly main house but a good studio theatre.

I spent a happy and turbulent year here, 1978 to 1979, as ‘Resident Writer’. I got some free teaching. A maths teacher gave me an idea for my new play The Genius [premiered at the Royal Court in 1983], 1 ran a weekly workshop, wrote in the student newspaper, did a farewell improvised play and wrote most of The Romans, sitting in a sun-trap, concrete-walled, little garden at the back of my campus flat. It was an idyll. Rolf Lass, one of the teachers in the English Department and an old mentor from my Cambridge days, even got me reading Anglo-Saxon poetry for the first time.

Sadly all the students I knew in 1979 have left. The generations pass in a university, three years on and nothing of the young people I knew, what they did or thought, is left. There’s no transmission of memory amongst ‘the student body’. They have tradition, but no memory.

I’ve lost my tobacco. The rain’s drenched my trousers. There’s no advertising for the reading. Everything’s grey and smelling of rotting grass. And I have a premonition: they’ve got the day wrong!

Right. To the gents to clean up, to the University bookshop to cheer up, then I’ll go and find Dave Chumbley, organiser of this gig.’

It is also worth noting that Brenton appears often in the diaries of Peter Hall as edited by John Goodwin and published by Hamilton in 1983: Peter Hall’s diaries: The Story of a Dramatic Battle (also freely available at Internet Archive). Here are several extracts about Brenton.

11 July 1973
‘To the Royal Court to see Magnificence by the new writer Howard Brenton. This is bursting with talent although not fully achieved. He has no sense of overall form yet. But there is a great imagination at work and a wonderful power of speech and character. I also like the way he uses time: following a long first act when a group of young revolutionaries occupy a deserted house, there is an electrifying five minutes of action, a tumult of disaster, which overwhelms the audience after the naturalistic rhythm of what preceded it. Brenton is a writer worth watching. He is also very funny. He deals in caricature, but his voice is assured.’

17 June 1974
‘My first meeting with Howard Brenton. A huge man, shy, a little fat, delivering occasional knockout remarks like a gentle pugilist suddenly lashing out. He is very like his plays, a sure sign of a fine artist. He is the first of the new, young ones to be utterly enthusiastic about the new building and the possibilities of reaching a big audience at the new National. He will write a play for us and he wants David Hare to direct it.’

9 June 1975
‘Fascinating interview in Theatre Quarterly with Howard Brenton: I want to get into bigger theatres, because they are, in a sense, more public. Until that happens you can’t have any worth as a playwright... It’s like getting hold of a Bechstein, hitting a really superb instrument, when before you’ve been shouting about with a penny whistle or a mouth organ. You realise how powerful the new instrument is, and varied, and how much fun.

I think the Fringe has failed. Its failure was that of the whole dream of an alternative culture, the notion that within society as it exists you can grow another way of life which, like a beneficient and desirable cancer, will in the end spread through the Western world and change it. What happens is the alternative society gets hermetically sealed and surrounded. A ghetto-like mentality develops which is surrounded and in the end strangled to death. . . I think in that sense the Fringe was a historical thing. Where it went wrong was when the Fringe audiences became spuriously sophisticated. That was when it was time to get out - it was becoming arty.’

21 October 1978
‘Read Howard Brenton’s new play The Romans in Britain. It’s very exciting, and shattering in its power. The sequence where Caesar and his hordes suddenly turn into modem British troops in Northern Ireland sent shivers down my back. It sounds an obvious parallel, and cheap, but it’s not, and Howard takes no sides. But there is a lot of work on the play still to be done.’

For more extracts from Hall’s diaries see Happy days with Peggy.

Monday, December 12, 2022

I went with the Queen

The undistinguished British diplomat and courtier, Henry Greville, died 150 years ago today. Like his more famous brother, Charles, he kept a diary for most of his life, and this was published a few years after his death. However, unlike Charles’s diary, Henry’s is considered relatively dull in style and content. Nevertheless, Henry records many of the political and cultural events going on around him with a smooth style, showing a particular affection for the theatre.

Henry William Greville, the youngest son of Charles and Lady Charlotte Greville, was born in 1801. He was educated at Westminster School and Oxford, though much of his childhood was spent on the Continent, chiefly in Brussels. As an adult he worked as private secretary for Lord Francis Egerton, afterwards earl of Ellesmere, when he was chief secretary for Ireland.

In 1835, Greville entered the diplomatic service, as attaché to the British embassy in Paris, and retired from it in 1844. For many years, he held a minor post at Court, that of a gentleman usher, which gave him a small addition to his income. Never having married, he died, after a somewhat lingering illness, on 12 December 1872. Wikipedia has a short biography, but there is far more information about Henry’s brother, Charles Cavendish Fulke Greville, who is remembered as a major diarist of the 19th century.

Henry Greville, though, also kept a diary for much of his life. This was edited by his niece, Viscountess Enfield (afterwards countess of Strafford), and published in four volumes from 1883 by Smith, Elder & Co. under the title Leaves from the Diary of Henry Greville. All of these volumes are freely available at Internet Archive.

Henry’s diary is said to derive some importance from Greville’s position in Paris, but otherwise to lack the wit and malice found in his brother’s diary. Enfield says this in a preface to one of the volumes: ‘This work cannot aspire to the depth of thought, the carefulness of style, the pungency of satire which characterised the journals of my uncle Charles Greville. As a literary composition they are doubtless inferior to these, but still I venture to think and hope that in this volume there will be found something to amuse and to interest, with little or nothing to wound the most sensitive feelings.’

12 January 1840
‘On Tuesday there was a great ball at the Embassy. The Infants of Spain, Don Francisco and Dona Carlotta and their children, were present. The Infanta, a huge, fat, frightful woman, danced the whole evening like a girl of sixteen. Don Francisco is an ignoble stunted-looking man with a Bourbon face.

An interesting discussion is going on in the Chambers on the Eastern question. The feeling against Russia is very strong, but, on the other hand, the English alliance is not so popular as it has been.’

5 April 1840
‘I have been confined for a fortnight by a most excruciating rheumatism, and have been too ill to write. [. . .]

In England we have a war with China, and a motion of Graham censuring the Government with reference to this question stands for the 7th of this month. Government was beaten by sixteen on Stanley’s motion for revising and reforming the fictitious voting in Ireland, which was a great blow; they are consequently making a great whip for the debate on China. . .’

15 May 1840
‘The translation of Napoleon’s remains makes a great stir. Many people laugh at it, and think it a great piece of humbug - which no doubt it is - but it is a sort of humbug which goes down here exceedingly well. I am still confined to my couch, but people are very kind to me, [. . .]

The murder of Lord William Russell is still enveloped in mystery; and although there is evidence to connect the Swiss valet with the robbery, there is none to prove him guilty of the murder. Charles writes me word he had seen the prisoner in Tothill Fields prison; that he has a bad countenance, but was calm and even dejected, civil and respectful in his manner. Everything would tend to condemn him morally, but much doubt is entertained whether, legally, there be sufficient evidence to convict him.

The Duke of Wellington made an admirable speech the other night on a motion of Lord Stanhope on the Chinese question. It was well delivered, and, evincing an entire knowledge of the subject, and a total absence of all party feeling, he entered into a warm defence of Captain Elliott, showing that when an officer was, as he considered, unjustly attacked in the discharge of his duty, he never could allow any consideration of party warfare to prevent his upholding him against all detractors.

The Tories are very angry with the Duke, as their only object is to embarrass the Government, no matter at what hazard or cost.’

19 January 1841
‘Parliament was opened today by the Queen in person. The Speech, which is a good one, touches upon the state of Ireland principally, and upon the measures which are to be proposed for the amelioration of its social and physical condition; upon Cracow; and upon the Spanish marriages, but slightly, and merely saying that they had given rise to a correspondence between the two Governments. It is said in the town that Palmerston is much annoyed that stronger mention has not been made of this matter; that there had been a dispute in the Cabinet thereupon.

The debates were interesting.

I went to see Covent Garden Theatre, which is being newly constructed for an Italian Opera House. It was a very curious spectacle. M. Albano, the architect, showed it to me. It took them fourteen days to pull down the parts they wished to remove, so strongly was it built. Charles Kemble told me tonight the theatre had cost 300,000l.; that 100,000l. of this, his money and that of his family, had been sunk in the concern, and he should be very glad to sell his share of it for 10,000l.’

10 February 1841
‘One of the heaviest falls of snow I ever saw. It began yesterday, and continued all day and night, and the railroads are all but impassable. The snow is deep in the streets, and the Queen has just passed my window with her suite in three sledges.’

15 May 1841
‘Here is a large gap in my journal. My time has been entirely occupied by rehearsals and arrangements for the two plays we have acted at the St. James’s Theatre, for the benefit of the starving Irish and Scotch. They went off very well. ‘The Hunchback’ on the first evening and ‘Hernani’ and a farce on the second. The Queen and Royal Family and the elite of London were present, and the receipt was a very large one. Lady Dufierin wrote a beautiful epilogue, which was spoken to perfection by Mrs. Butler.

Jenny Lind has at last made her appearance at the Queen’s Theatre. She is decidedly a first-rate artist, a great musician, and a great executant. Her voice is of a peculiar quality, strong in the upper notes, but a good deal veiled in others. She is a good actress up to a certain point, and her style of singing is essentially German. Her success is prodigious, and perhaps greater than that of any other singer of our time; but she owes some of this to the skilful manner in which ‘the puff precedent’ has been brought into play, and by which public curiosity has been raised and kept up by artificial means. However, she is decidedly an artist of the first class, though not, as is asserted, the greatest that ever appeared.’

5 November 1850
‘The streets are more than usually filled with Guy Fawkes and images of Roman bishops. The ‘Times’ is entirely full of the sermons preached in the various churches, and of anti-Popery meetings in the provinces.’

5 February 1851
‘Yesterday I went with the Queen to the House of Lords. The day was magnificent, and the crowds of people far greater than I ever saw on any other similar occasion. The carriage in which I sat (the first) was too far from the Queen to judge of her reception, but the Duchess of Sutherland, who was in the State coach, told me the cheering was great, but the cries of ‘No Popery!’ were continuous. The House of Lords looked beautiful, filled as it was to overflowing by women in every sort of colour and sparkling with jewels.’

2 May 1851
‘Contrary to expectation, the Exhibition was opened yesterday with great solemnity and eclat. The day, though cold, was bright. The crowds were immense, and those who were to be present began going to the palace as early as six o’clock.

As I did not buy a season ticket I was not present, but all those who were unanimously pronounced it as one of the grandest sights they ever witnessed. I walked about the park, and never saw a more good-humoured multitude, and there was nowhere the slightest disorder or confusion.’

5 May 1851
‘The Queen has written a letter to John Russell, expressing her great satisfaction at the manner in which she was received, and in which everything was conducted on the 1st of May. There had been all sorts of rumours of probable disturbances and riots which were to be got up by foreign emissaries, &c., but for which there does not seem to have been any foundation.

The foreigners now in London were immensely struck by the order of the vast crowds which perambulated the streets, and which was maintained solely by the police.

Prince Albert dined at the Royal Academy for the first time, and made an excellent speech.

I never remember a colder spring. It constantly hails and rains, and the sun rarely shines!’

11 May 1851
‘I went yesterday for the first time to the Exhibition. It is really a marvellous place, beautiful and singular, but although filled with everything curious from all parts of the world, its immense size gives one a feeling of hopeless bewilderment. I did little more than walk through a part of it, glancing at the wondrous things it contains, and at the general effect of the building, and of the crowds of people who perambulated it without confusion or inconvenience, but I returned home jaded, with aching head and eyes from the glare, and with the sensation of being glad I had seen it, and (no doubt stupidly) with no desire to return there. Its success is great and universal, and when one recollects that seven months ago the building was not begun, and that now this stupendous edifice is finished, filled with everything most wonderful, and gathered from all corners of the world, it is nothing short of marvellous. The receipts are immense and daily increasing.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 12 December 2012.

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Vampira - The first Goth?

Maila Nurmi - considered by her biographer niece to be the ‘architect of the Goth phenomenon’ - was born a century ago today. For a few years, in the 1950s, her character Vampira famously became television’s first horror host, but, by the 1960s, she had faded out of favour. Of late two books - both claiming to access to her private diaries - have refocused attention on her brief career in the spotlight, and he role in the early days of the Goth movement. 

Nurmi was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, on 11 December 1922, into a family with Finnish roots (though as an adult she claimed for a while that she had been born in Finland). Her family relocated to Ashtabula, Ohio, before settling in Astoria, Oregon, a city with a large Finnish community. Her father worked as a lecturer and editor; her mother was a journalist and translator. On leaving Astoria High School in 1940, she moved first to Los Angeles then to New York to become an actress. She modelled for painters (not least Man Ray), and played roles on Broadway. Significantly, she appeared in the horror-themed midnight show Spook Scandals, in a role requiring her to scream, faint, and lie in a coffin. Wikipedia notes that in 1944 she was fired by Mae West from the cast of Catherine Was Great because West feared being upstaged.

In 1949, Nurmi married Dean Riesner, a screen writer and former child actor. She was to get married twice more to actors, John Brinkley in 1958, and Fabrizio Mioni in 1961. In the early 1950s, was supporting herself mainly by posing for pin-up photos in men’s magazines, and by working as a hat-check girl on Hollywood's Sunset Strip. However, one night she attended a masquerade - with her long raven black hair, pale white skin and a tight black dress (a costume inspired by The New Yorker cartoons of Charles Addams) - and caught the eye of television producer Hunt Stromberg, Jr.. Subsequently, he hired her to host a series of horror stories - and it was Riesner who came up with the name Vampira. She was an immediate success, and even earned herself an Emmy Award nomination in 1954 for Most Outstanding Female Personality. According to IMDB, fan clubs sprouted up all over the world. She appeared in Life and Newsweek among other magazines, and was generally much in demand as the ‘Queen of Horror’. 

By the end of the decade, though Nurmi had fallen out of favour, and she was only appearing in low quality movies. She turned away from entertainment to earn a living in trade, selling linoleum, for a time, and jewellery. In the early 1980s, she became involved in a TV project to revise the Vampira character. She fell out with the producers who renamed their programme Elvira’s Movie Macabre. Nurmi sued but, eventually, lost the case. However, her spirit had been awakened, so to speak, and she made some brief appearances on stage, and she recorded two singles. In 2001, she opened a website selling autographed memorabilia. Otherwise, she lived modestly in Southern California, where she dabbled in painting and became passionately involved in animal protection rights. She died in 2008.

Further information is available from a biography written by her niece Sandra Nurmi - Glamour Ghoul: The Passions and Pain of the Real Vampira, Maila Nurmi (Feral House, 2021). Some pages can be previewed at Amazon. Here is the blurb: ‘Maila Nurmi, the beautiful and sheltered daughter of Finnish immigrants, stepped off the bus in 1941 Los Angeles intent on finding fame and fortune. She found men eager to take advantage of her innocence and beauty but was determined to find success and love. Her inspired design and portrayal of a vampire won a costume contest that lead to a small role on the Red Skelton show which grew into a persona that brought her the notoriety she desired yet trapped her in a character she could never truly escape. This is Malia’s story. Her diaries, notes, and ephemera and family stories bring new insights to her relationships with Orson Welles, James Dean, and Marlon Brando. Sandra - Malia’s niece - fills in the nuances of her life prior to fame and her struggles after the limelight faded and she found a new community within the burgeoning Los Angeles punk scene who embraced her as their own.’

This book is a work of love, for Sandra long idolised her aunt from afar. She considers her a ‘pioneer’, ‘the architect of the Goth phenomenon’. The two were estranged for more than 30 years before re-meeting in 1989. Then, another 20 years or so later, Sandra learned of her aunt’s death, and was the one to deal with the ‘final arrangements’. She saved all of Maila’s writings, scattered about the floors, and in drawers, bags - including a diary. And it is with these that she put together Glamour Ghoul

The diary entries, though, are few and far between. There is one Sandra Nurmi refers to, from when Maila was 14. She couldn’t tell her father about an incident, Sandra explains, and instead wrote about it  - ‘in one of her journals’. She wrote, Sandra continues, ‘how the pastor’s roving hands affected the rest of her life making her more vigilant and distrustful.’ Otherwise, there is only one quotation of Nurmi's actual writing that Sandra provides which has a date (others are more memoir-like quotations), as follows:   

16 February 1956
‘Date at Thrifty with T.P. - one hr & 10 min. only - he played it sensuous. He left to rehearse with Piper Laurie. Is Osgood Perkins little boy playing hard to get?’

However, hot on the heels of Sandra’s book has come The Vampira Diaries, written and/or compiled by Jonny Coffin. This is available from the official Vampira website at a cost $89 for a limited edition of one of the 1,000 hand-stamped books. The publisher says: ‘This is sure to be a highly collectable Vampira treasure. The Vampira Diaries are a collection of Maila Nurmi’s personal diaries starting from the year 1953 during her Hollywood rise to fame with the groundbreaking Vampira Show. Featuring unearthed, never-before-seen photos, original scripts, news clips from her personal scrapbook, excerpts written in her own hand, and scores of rare photos from the inception of Vampira 1954-1956.’

A gushing review can be read at Vamp Jenn’s Corner blog; but, unfortunately, I can find no actual diary extracts from the book online.

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Route of Father Sarmiento

Martín Sarmiento, a much-admired Spanish scholar and monk, died all of 250 years ago today. He wrote on a wide variety of subjects, but he is mostly remembered for his book Viaje a Galicia, or Journey to Galicia, in which he recorded, diary-like, a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The route he took is now known as the Route of Father Sarmiento.

Pedro José García Balboa was born in 1695 and spent his childhood in Pontevedra, Galicia. Aged 15, he entered the Benedictine Monastery of San Martín in Madrid. There he became Father Martín Sarmiento and was mentored by Benito Feijóo, considered the most outstanding Spanish philosopher of the 18th century. There are few details of Sarmiento’s life readily available online, but Camino By The Way gives this brief assessment.

‘Father Sarmiento was an illustrious representative of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that promoted reason, individual liberty and religious tolerance. He fought superstition and ignorance throughout his life and encouraged the establishment of libraries in local towns. Father Sarmiento was an early champion of the necessity to understand, restore and preserve traditions and popular culture; as such, he made a strong contribution to the research and recovery of Galician culture. Improving his country’s economic status was also a major concern, which was typical of Enlightenment thinking at the time. [He] wrote on a wide range of disciplines including linguistics, theology, history, botany and medicine.’ Sarmiento died at the San Martin monastery on 7 December 1772. A little further information is also available at Wikipedia.

Sarmiento wrote several books during his lifetime, some even in the Galiican language. His most enduring legacy, however, is the diary he kept of a three-day pilgrimage he undertook in 1745, from Pontevedra, through the valley of Salnés to Santiago de Compostela. The 20 page manuscript formed the basis of a book edited by J. L. Pensado and published by the University of Salamanca in 1975 as Viaje a Galicia (Journey/Travels to Galicia). Much of this (in Spanish) can be previewed online at Googlebooks.

However, more recently the Salnés Union of Municipalities has published a comprehensive pictorial edition of The Route of Father Sarmiento to Santiago, across Salnés - in English and freely available online. The book contains a wealth of information about the route, as well as the architecture, culture, history, food etc, of the region. It also provides quotations from Sarmiento’s diary translated into English. Here are a couple of them.

‘On Monday 19 July I left Pontevedra for Santiago, travelling all across Salnés, Porto Santo, and Puntal point, Lourido, los Gallos point. Campelo, Río del Roboa, Río da Serpe. Combarro. Río de Cela. Chancelas and sand bank and Costoiras point. Samieira. Río de Ama. Arén. Ragió - Armenteira Priory. Bois de Raxó, Island of Tambo; from the sea peeks a tiny bud of an island, called Tenlo, facing Marín.’

‘I arrived on Thursday 22nd at Santiago, keen to beat the Jubilee. I did my diligences on the same Saint’s day and on the Saturday I went to the bulls or xovencos [young bull in Galician] in the morning and in the afternoon, to the college of San Xerónimo. I slept in the same college to see the fires by night, and they lasted nearly two hours. The multitude of people, particularly the Portuguese, was such that they didn’t pay us elders any attention. I heard the Penitentiary Father Goyri tell that on the day of the Apostle there were more than 30,000 people congregated in the cathedral, and many others gathered in other churches, and on the day of Pentecost, there were 22,000 people.

On the Saint’s day I made the offering to the judge of the court Saura de A Coruña. I registered at the archives of San Martiño where I am staying due to the kindness of Master Friar Pedro Mera, a Bishop and my co-disciple in matters of language. There are many precious Gothic instruments, and more than one hundred of them are judged useless.

I registered at the archives of the monks at San Pelaio or San Paio and I went inside two times. Most of the parchments, and there are many, are in the Galician tongue.’

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

A dead chicken in my chest

‘Suddenly, in the midst of all the people who crowded around me or spoke to me, I felt as if there were a dead chicken in my chest.’ This is Peter Handke - avant-garde writer and film-maker born 80 years ago today - writing in a diary he kept in 1976 during the early years of his literary fame in Austria. In recent years, he has courted much controversy by defending Slobodan Milošević, nevertheless, very recently, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Peter was born on 6 December 1942 in Griffen, then in the German Reich province Gau Carinthia, now in Austria. His Slovenian mother married Bruno Handke, a tram conductor (not Peter’s father), with whom she lived in the Soviet-occupied Pankow district of Berlin in 1944, and where she had two more children. In 1948, they moved back to Griffen. Peter was sent to a Catholic boarding school at Tanzenberg Castle. After high school in Klagenfurt, he began to study law at the University of Graz in 1961. There he teamed up with the Grazer Gruppe, an association of young writers, which published their own works in an avant-garde literary magazine -  manuskripte. He abandoned his studies in 1965 after the German publisher Suhrkamp Verlag accepted his novel Die Hornissen (The Hornets).

Handke came to public notice as an anti-conventional playwright with Publikumsbeschimpfung (Offending the Audience) in 1966; several more plays - lacking conventional plot, dialogue, and characters - followed. In 1970, he published what would become his best known novel, Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick). After leaving Graz, Handke lived in Düsseldorf, Berlin, Kronberg, Paris, the US (1978 to 1979) and Salzburg (1979 to 1988). Since 1990, he has lived in Chaville near Paris.

Handke collaborated with director Wim Wenders on several films, including writing the script for Wings of Desire, and he has also directed films, including adaptations from his novels. In 1978, The Left-Handed Woman was nominated for the Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival and it won the Gold Award for German Arthouse Cinema in 1980. From around 2006, Handke’s literary renown has been overshadowed by his public support for Slobodan Milošević, the former president of Yugoslavia accused of war crimes who died that year in a prison cell. 

The controversy surrounding Handke was rekindled in 2019 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literatur - even though four years earlier he had called for the prize to be abolished. The Swedish Academy chose it for being ‘an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience’. Further information on Handke can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The New Yorker, or in the Nobel Prize’s biobibliography.

In 1984, Secker & Warburg published Handke’s The Weight of the World (as translated by Ralph Manheim). This is described as: ‘A combination of professional notebook and personal diary that records - both in short, informal jottings and through more formal, extended meditations - the details of Handke’s daily life in Paris from November 1975 through March 1977.’ The book offers ‘a complete offering of Handke’s moods and insights, ranging from the outrageous, sarcastic, and bitter to the humorous and gentle’. But, it continues, ‘it is not, in the end, a retreat into himself, but a gesture of friendliness towards the world’.

Here is more from the publisher’s blurb: ‘Along with references to such mentors as Truffaut, John Cowper Powys, Robert DeNiro and Goethe, the journal recounts Handke's passing impressions of strangers; the deep and delicate nature of his relationship with his daughter; and a brief hospital stay which stirs his ever-present fear of death. Aspiring to a condition of “strained attentiveness”, Handke cultivates privacy and solitude, and deplores the all-too-frequent intrusion of the media (“Down with the news!”). His goal is to have a kind of creative “worksheet”, a vehicle through which he can preserve and explore sources of aesthetic inspiration, and also to have a place where he can “practice reacting with language to everything that happens”, a means of discovering a “universal moment of language”.

The Weight of the World can freely borrowed to read online at Internet Archive. Here are several extracts.

1 March 1976
‘Suddenly, in the midst of all the people who crowded around me or spoke to me, I felt as if there were a dead chicken in my chest

This evening I got back from Austria and Germany. Suddenly, at the dark Porte de la Muette on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, it seemed to me that my life - a kind of second, secret biography - was simultaneously continuing back home in southern Carinthia, continuing very concretely before the eyes of the villagers, and that my body at that moment was painfully, yet almost consolingly stretched over the length and breadth of Europe, that I became a standard of measurement and lost myself’

12 March 1976
‘Waking from sheltered sleep: like being tripped up while taking a quiet stroll

Waking with the thought that I’ve strangled the child; not daring to reach out and touch her; at last a sigh beside me

Ruins of memory: I try to remember the details of places, houses, faces, and all I see is ruins

Powdered sugar on my shoes from eating doughnuts (Austria)

The sensation of moving about like a sleeper who wants to look at the clock and in his dreams does indeed keep looking at the clock (because he has to get up soon), but never actually does look at the clock

If I could only look calmly at someone who hates me

A beggar holds out his hand in front of me and I shake my head angrily because he has put me into such a situation (other people just turn away in indifference)

People who have what’s needed for every emergency: umbrella, aspirin, etc.

A girl who for once does not ooze tears in that well-behaved way but lets the corners of her mouth droop and bawls out loud

The salesgirl in an empty shop that stays open at lunch hour is dreamily munching a sandwich (I wrote this outside the open shop door, which someone closed at that very moment)

The teacher who had just taken the children to the farm show (bus ride, street crossings) told me she was always in a bad humor on days when she was going to have to take the children out; at the beginning of the school year, she said, she refused to take them anywhere until she knew all about each one of them, their way of walking, etc.

The sheep at the farm show breathed mechanically, like pumps: it’s their sense of doom that turns them into machines 

“What would you like to accomplish by writing?” - “To make people laugh and cry” (I imagine being able to say such things in all seriousness)

Years ago, someone said the nice thing about me was that I had no habits. And now?

People are always claiming to be a mixture of “good and bad”; as for me, I am either all good or all bad

Nice, seeing my child with other children, as if she belonged with them

That day a pale, solemn, unknown child came in out of the rain with other children, and I didn’t recognize her as my own: horror, and at the same time marvel’

14 October 1976
‘Fantasy: an express train thundering through the suburban station; someone running ahead of it but refusing to scream

On the street today, the feeling that many people knew “who I am” but passed by without a thought of betraying me; some even tried to reassure me with a quick glance

The leaves racing over the ground; impression of a cavalcade, especially when I climb steps to reach the park where the leaves are blowing; there’s one place where the leaves disperse in all directions, leaving a clean empty circle in the middle of the park

How much more domesticated I am, after all, when I’m talking to someone than when I’m roaming around alone! (Fantasy: unaware that I’m watching them, some people, including my calm friends, made almost unrecognizable by their adventurous loneliness, race through the cities of the world with wild, glaring eyes)

Toward midnight, objects, seen out of the corners of my eyes, are starting to crawl again’

Monday, December 5, 2022

Slavery in Brazil

’Last evening, when the rain was over and the moonlight tempted every one on deck, we had a long conversation with our pleasant travelling companion, Mr. Sinimbu, senator from the province of Alagôas, on the aspect of slavery in Brazil. It seems to me that we may have something to learn here in our own perplexities respecting the position of the black race among us, for the Brazilians are trying gradually and by instalments some of the experiments which are forced upon us without previous preparation.’ This is from an excellent diary kept by Elizabeth Agassiz - born 200 years ago today - while travelling in Brazil with her naturalist husband Louis.

Elizabeth Cabot Cary was born on 5 December 1822 into a large Boston Brahmin family that originally came to Massachusetts during the 17th century. As a consequence of her fragile health, she was tutored at home. In 1850 she married the recently-widowed Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz (not to be confused with the later Louis Agassiz Fuertes who was named after him - see Puffins, pipits and plovers), becoming stepmother to his three children (though she had none of her own). From 1855 to 1863, she ran a school for girls in their Cambridge home. In addition to providing a needed supplement to the family income, this proved to be a pioneering effort in women’s education. She also became an indispensable assistant for her husband. Her notes on his lectures, for example, were the raw material of much of his published work, and she helped manage several of his expeditions, notably an expedition to Brazil financed by the Boston banker Nathaniel Thayer in 1865-1866 and the Hassler Expedition through the Strait of Magellan in 1871-1872. 

Together with her husband, Elizabeth founded the coeducational Anderson School of Natural History, a marine laboratory on Penikese Island in Buzzard’s Bay. For some years after Louis’s death in 1873, she devoted herself to the care of her grandchildren and to the writing of a memoir of her husband. In 1879 she helped open the Harvard Annex in Cambridge and was named president when it was incorporated as the Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women. In 1894 the college was named Radcliffe and formally linked to Harvard University. She remained president until 1899, when she relinquished her formal duties. She died in 1907. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, or the Dictionary of Unitarian & Universalist Biography.

Elizabeth Agassiz wrote and published a couple of books on natural history, but also Journey in Brazil (Ticknor and Fields, 1868). This latter was a diary kept by her mostly but also by her husband during their travels in Brazil. Indeed, Louis introduces the work as follows: ‘One word as to the manner in which this volume has grown into its present shape, for it has been rather the natural growth of circumstances than the result of any preconceived design. Partly for the entertainment of her friends, partly with the idea that I might make some use of it in knitting together the scientific reports of my journey by a thread of narrative, Mrs. Agassiz began this diary. I soon fell into the habit of giving her daily the more general results of my scientific observations, knowing that she would allow nothing to be lost which was worth preserving. In consequence of this mode of working, our separate contributions have become so closely interwoven that we should hardly know how to disconnect them, and our common journal is therefore published, with the exception of a few unimportant changes, almost as it was originally written.’ 

The full work - which is very readable and gives insight into early Brazil - can be read freely online at Project Gutenberg. Here are several extracts.

6 May 1865
‘Yesterday, at the invitation of our friend Mr. B——, we ascended the famous Corcovado peak. Leaving the carriages at the terminus of the Larangeiras road, we made the farther ascent on horseback by a winding narrow path, which, though a very fair road for mountain travelling in ordinary weather, had been made exceedingly slippery by the late rains. The ride was lovely through the fragrant forest, with enchanting glimpses of view here and there, giving promise of what was before us. Occasionally a brook or a little cascade made pleasant music by the roadside, and when we stopped to rest our horses we heard the wind rustle softly in the stiff palms overhead. The beauty of vegetation is enhanced here by the singular character of the soil. The color of the earth is peculiar all about Rio; of a rich warm red, it seems to glow beneath the mass of vines and large-leaved plants above it, and every now and then crops out in vivid, striking contrast to the surrounding verdure. Frequently our path followed the base of such a bank, its deep ochre and vermilion tints looking all the softer for their framework of green. Among the larger growth, the Candelabra-tree (Cecropia) was conspicuous. The strangely regular structure of the branches and its silvery-tinted foliage make it stand out in bold relief from the darker background. It is a striking feature of the forest in this neighborhood.

A wide panoramic prospect always eludes description, but certainly few can combine such rare elements of beauty as the one from the summit of the Corcovado. The immense landlocked harbor, with its gateway open to the sea, the broad ocean beyond, the many islands, the circle of mountains with soft fleecy clouds floating about the nearer peaks, all these features make a wonderful picture. One great charm of this landscape consists in the fact, that, though very extensive, it is not so distant as to deprive objects of their individuality. After all, a very distant view is something like an inventory: so many dark, green patches, forests; so many lighter green patches, fields; so many white spots, lakes; so many silver threads, rivers, &c. But here special effects are not lost in the grandeur of the whole. On the extreme peak of the height a wall has been built around the edge, the descent on one side being so vertical that a false step might hurl one to instant destruction. At this wall we dismounted and lingered long, unwilling to leave the beautiful view before sunset. We were, however, anxious to return by daylight, and, to confess the truth, being a timorous and inexperienced rider at best, I was not without some anxiety as to the descent, for the latter part of the slippery road had been a sheer scramble. Putting a bold face on the matter, however, I resumed my seat, trying to look as if it were my habit to mount horses on the tops of high mountains and slide down to the bottom. This is really no inaccurate description of our descent for the first ten minutes, after which we regained the more level path at the little station called “the Païneiras.” We are told to-day that parties usually leave their horses at this station and ascend the rest of the way on foot, the road beyond that being so steep that it is considered unsafe for riding. However, we reached the plain without accident, and I look back upon yesterday’s ride with some complacency as a first lesson in mountain travelling.’

15 July 1865
‘A long botanizing excursion to-day among the Tijuca hills with Mr. Glaziou, director of the Passeio Publico, as guide. It has been a piece of the good fortune attending Mr. Agassiz thus far on this expedition to find in Mr. Glaziou a botanist whose practical familiarity with tropical plants is as thorough as his theoretical knowledge. He has undertaken to enrich our scientific stores with a large collection of such palms and other trees as illustrate the relation between the present tropical vegetation and the ancient geological forests. Such a collection will be invaluable as a basis for palæontological studies at the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy in Cambridge.’

30 July 1865
‘Off Maceió. Last evening, when the rain was over and the moonlight tempted every one on deck, we had a long conversation with our pleasant travelling companion, Mr. Sinimbu, senator from the province of Alagôas, on the aspect of slavery in Brazil. It seems to me that we may have something to learn here in our own perplexities respecting the position of the black race among us, for the Brazilians are trying gradually and by installments some of the experiments which are forced upon us without previous preparation. The absence of all restraint upon the free blacks, the fact that they are eligible to office, and that all professional careers are open to them, without prejudice on the ground of color, enables one to form some opinion as to their ability and capacity for development. Mr. Sinimbu tells us that here the result is on the whole in their favor; he says that the free blacks compare well in intelligence and activity with the Brazilians and Portuguese. But it must be remembered, in making the comparison with reference to our own country, that here they are brought into contact with a less energetic and powerful race than the Anglo-Saxon. Mr. Sinimbu believes that emancipation is to be accomplished in Brazil by a gradual process which has already begun. A large number of slaves are freed every year by the wills of their masters; a still larger number buy their own freedom annually; and as there is no longer any importation of blacks, the inevitable result of this must be the natural death of slavery. Unhappily, the process is a slow one, and in the mean while slavery is doing its evil work, debasing and enfeebling alike whites and blacks. The Brazilians themselves do not deny this, and one constantly hears them lament the necessity of sending their children away to be educated, on account of the injurious association with the house-servants. In fact, although politically slavery has a more hopeful aspect here than elsewhere, the institution from a moral point of view has some of its most revolting characters in this country, and looks, if possible, more odious than it did in the States. The other day, in the neighborhood of Rio, I had an opportunity of seeing a marriage between two negroes, whose owner made the religious, or, as it appeared to me on this occasion, irreligious ceremony, obligatory. The bride, who was as black as jet, was dressed in white muslin, with a veil of coarse white lace, such as the negro women make themselves, and the husband was in a white linen suit. She looked, and I think she really felt, diffident, for there were a good many strangers present, and her position was embarrassing. The Portuguese priest, a bold, insolent-looking man, called them up and rattled over the marriage service with most irreverent speed, stopping now and then to scold them both, but especially the woman, because she did not speak loud enough and did not take the whole thing in the same coarse, rough way that he did. When he ordered them to come up and kneel at the altar, his tone was more suggestive of cursing than praying, and having uttered his blessing he hurled an amen at them, slammed the prayer-book down on the altar, whiffed out the candles, and turned the bride and bridegroom out of the chapel with as little ceremony as one would have kicked out a dog. As the bride came out, half crying, half smiling, her mother met her and showered her with rose-leaves, and so this act of consecration, in which the mother’s benediction seemed the only grace, was over. I thought what a strange confusion there must be in these poor creature’s minds, if they thought about it at all. They are told that the relation between man and wife is a sin, unless confirmed by the sacred rite of marriage; they come to hear a bad man gabble over them words which they cannot understand, mingled with taunts and abuse which they understand only too well, and side by side with their own children grow up the little fair-skinned slaves to tell them practically that the white man does not keep himself the law he imposes on them. What a monstrous lie the whole system must seem to them if they are ever led to think about it at all. I am far from supposing that the instance I have given should be taken as representing the state of religious instruction on plantations generally. No doubt there are good priests who improve and instruct their black parishioners; but it does not follow because religious services are provided on a plantation, the ceremony of marriage observed, &c., that there is anything which deserves the name of religious instruction. It would be unjust not to add the better side of the question in this particular instance. The man was free, and I was told that the woman received her liberty and a piece of land from her master as her marriage dower.’

Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Duchess, diaries, divorce

The Duchess of Argyll, a British socialite born 110 years ago today, troubles the history books little other than for the way her upper class promiscuity was given such public exposure. As a young woman, she was known for glamour and style. Not yet 30, though, she was divorced once, and married for a second time, to a duke, the Duke of Argyll. This relationship was much troubled. It lasted little more than a decade, and ended up in the courts, scandalous fodder for the tabloid and magazine press. Centre stage in the divorce proceedings were photographs and the Duchess’s diaries (stolen by her husband to provide evidence of her infidelity).

Ethel Margaret Whigham was born in Newton Mearns, Scotland, on 1 December 1912, the only child of George Hay Whigham, a self-made millionaire. However, she spent the first 14 years of her life in New York City, where she was educated privately. She had youthful romances with Prince Aly Khan, millionaire aviator Glen Kidston and publishing heir Max Aitken, and later the second Lord Beaverbrook. During a holiday on the Isle of White, when 15, she had a fling with the future actor David Niven, and fell pregnant. She was taken to a London nursing home for a secret abortion. 

In 1930, Margaret was presented at Court in London. Soon afterwards, her engagement to Charles Guy Fulke Greville, 7th Earl of Warwick, was announced. Nevertheless, it was a wealthy American businessman, Charles Francis Sweeny, that she married (after having converted to Roman Catholicism). For the wedding, she famously wore a Norman Hartnell wedding dress which attracted much publicity, and set her on course for a life of glamour and media attention. Interspersed with many miscarriages, she had three children with Sweeny (one of whom was stillborn). In 1943, she had a near-fatal fall down a lift shaft.

Margaret was divorced from Sweeny in 1947. She was then briefly engaged to a Texas-born banker, Joseph Thomas of Lehman Brothers, and she had a longer term relationship with Theodore Rousseau, curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1951, she became the third wife of Ian Douglas Campbell, 11th Duke of Argyll, but it was not be a happy union. He used her money (as he’d done with previous wives) to maintain the family seat, at Inveraray Castle; while she forged letters to throw doubt on Argyll’s paternity of his sons. Apart from various addictions, the Duke was also violent. 

The relationship turned extremely messy, and in 1963 Argyll filed for divorce, accusing his wife of infidelity. It was a huge scandal, attracting widespread media coverage. Granting the divorce, the judge stated that there was evidence to show the Duchess ‘was a completely promiscuous woman whose sexual appetite could only be satisfied with a number of men’ - her husband believed there had been 88 of them! In 1975, she published a memoir - Forget Not - but it was poorly received; by 1978, she was so short of money she opened her house for paid tours. She then moved to a hotel suite, from where, in 1990, she was evicted for failing to pay her bills. Her children placed her in a nursing home, where she died, in 1993. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Vanity Fair, Tatler.

In 1994, Pan Books published Charles Castle’s The Duchess Who Dared - The Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll. This was reprinted by Swift Press in 2021 (to coincide with the TV series A Very British Scandal). It provides some detail on diaries kept by the Duchess which were a key factor in the divorce case. Lyndsy Spence’s biography The Grit in the Pearl: The Scandalous Life of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, published in 2019 by The History Press, also examines minutely the role of the diaries in the divorce case.

Here is Spence taking up the story: ‘It was in Sydney that the saga of their marriage reached its penultimate conclusion when Ian, looking for a comb on Margaret’s dressing table, noticed her red leather engagement diary for 1956-59. He glanced at it, and among the notes of her travel arrangements and cheques he saw the names of half a dozen men, all of whom Margaret was meeting. It might have appeared harmless, for her duties as a duchess saw her meet with chairmen and other male officials, but the unusual format of her diary gave Ian reasons to think otherwise. She was fastidious about recording her daily life, and each page was divided into four sections, giving the same days of the month for four years, allowing her to compare what she had done on that day the year before and so forth - or to confuse prying eyes. ‘What are you doing with my property? Give it to me,’ Margaret said, as she tried to retrieve the diary from his grip. He accused her of adultery and she did not deny it.’

The Duchess then flew to New York to be with her father, but back in London, Spence says, Argyll searched though his wife’s private belongings, finding four diaries in a desk drawer, two more diaries behind a bookcase, and some polaroid photographs of the Duchess and a man, from the neck down, naked. Secret codes (for intercourse) in the diaries, and these photographs would be the undoing of the Duchess.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

I flied the highest

‘I ran in the wind and played be a horse, and had a lovely time in the woods with Anna and Lizzie. We were fairies, and made gowns and paper wings. I “flied” the highest of all.’ This is Louisa Alcott - famous for being the author of the American classic Little Women - born 190 years ago today. She was writing in the diary then as a young girl, aged 11, but would go on to keep a diary for  much of her life. This diary, apart from documenting her own life, says much about the New England Transcendentalist movement her father was involved with.
Alcott was born in Germantown, Pennsylvania, on 29 November 1832. She spent her childhood in Boston and in Concord, Massachusetts, being schooled, with three sisters, at home by her father, a New England Transcendentalist. For three years, they were part of the Utopian Fruitlands community. When this failed, they were helped out by her father’s friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson; money problems, though, were never far away. Louisa started writing early, mostly poetry and short stories. Flower Fables, her first book, was published when she was just 22.

In 1862, Alcott, an avowed abolitionist, went to Washington to work as a nurse during the Civil War, but her service lasted only a few weeks, as she nearly died from typhoid. She never recovered full health again. A book of her letters at the time, called Hospital Letters, brought her a first taste of literary fame. She began writing stories for Atlantic Monthly. Her most famous work, Little Women, written in 1868, and set at Orchard House, is still popular today. Alcott continued writing children’s books - though she yearned to do more serious fiction - because the family needed the income. In all, she published over 30 books and collections of stories.

Alcott died, aged 55, in 1888, just two days after her father. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the website for Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House (‘one of the oldest, most authentically-preserved historic house museums in America’) or The Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.

From an early age through to the end of her life, Alcott kept a diary which she never intended for publication. Parts of it first appeared a year after her death in Louisa May Alcott Her Life, Letters and Journals edited by Ednah D. Cheney and published by Roberts Brothers in Boston. This book was continually reprinted before and after the publisher was taken over by Little, Brown in 1898. A first unabridged edition of Alcott’s diaries appeared a century later in 1989 when University of Georgia Press brought out The Journals of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madeleine B. Stern. Her Life, Letters and Journals is freely available at Internet Archive, and some of the more recent publication can be previewed at Googlebooks and Amazon.

1 September 1843
‘I rose at five and had my bath. I love cold water! Then we had our singing-lesson with Mr Lane. After breakfast I washed dishes, and ran on the hill till nine, and had some thoughts, it was so beautiful up there. Did my lessons, wrote and spelt and did sums; and Mr Lane read a story, “The Judicious Father”: How a rich girl told a poor girl not to look over the fence at the flowers, and was cross to her because she was unhappy. The father heard her do it, and made the girls change clothes. The poor one was glad to do it, and he told her to keep them. But the rich one was very sad; for she had to wear the old ones a week, and after that she was good to shabby girls. I liked it very much, and I shall be kind to poor people.

Father asked us what was God’s noblest work. Anna said men, but I said babies. Men are often bad; babies never are. We had a long talk, and I felt better after it, and cleared up.

We had bread and fruit for dinner. I read and walked and played till supper-time. We sung in the evening. As I went to bed the moon came up very brightly and looked at me. I felt sad because I have been cross to day, and did not mind Mother. I cried, and then I felt better, and said that piece from Mrs Sigourney, “I must not tease my mother.” I get to sleep saying poetry, I know a great deal.’

14 September 1843
‘Mr Parker Pillsbury came, and we talked about the poor slaves. I had a music lesson with Miss F. I hate her, she is so fussy. I ran in the wind and played be a horse, and had a lovely time in the woods with Anna and Lizzie. We were fairies, and made gowns and paper wings. I “flied” the highest of all. In the evening they talked about travelling. I thought about Father going to England, [. . .]

It rained when I went to bed, and made a pretty noise on the roof.’

8 October 1843
‘When I woke up, the first thought I got was, “It’s Mother s birthday: I must be very good.” I ran and wished her a happy birthday, and gave her my kiss. After breakfast we gave her our presents. I had a moss cross and a piece of poetry for her.

We did not have any school, and played in the woods and got red leaves. In the evening we danced and sung, and I read a story about “Contentment.” I wish I was rich, I was good, and we were all a happy family this day.’

4 January 1863
‘I shall record the events of a day as a sample of the days I spend:

Up at six, dress by gaslight, run through my ward and throw up the windows, though the men grumble and shiver; but the air is bad enough to breed a pestilence; and as no notice is taken of our frequent appeals for better ventilation, I must do what I can. Poke up the fire, add blankets, joke, coax, and command; but continue to open doors and windows as if life depended upon it. Mine does, and doubtless many another, for a more perfect pestilence-box than this house I never saw, cold, damp, dirty, full of vile odors from wounds, kitchens, wash-rooms, and stables. No competent head, male or female, to right matters, and a jumble of good, bad, and indifferent nurses, surgeons, and attendants, to complicate the chaos still more.

After this unwelcome progress through my stifling ward, I go to breakfast with what appetite I may; find the uninvitable fried beef, salt butter, husky bread, and washy coffee; listen to the clack of eight women and a dozen men, the first silly, stupid, or possessed of one idea; the last absorbed with their breakfast and themselves to a degree that is both ludicrous and provoking, for all the dishes are ordered down the table full and returned empty; the conversation is entirely among themselves, and each announces his opinion with an air of importance that frequently causes me to choke in my cup, or bolt my meals with undignified speed lest a laugh betray to these famous beings that a “chiel’s amang them takin’ notes.”

Till noon I trot, trot, giving out rations, cutting up food for helpless “boys,” washing faces, teaching my attendants how beds are made or floors are swept, dressing wounds, taking Dr F. P.’s orders (privately wishing all the time that he would be more gentle with my big babies), dusting tables, sewing bandages, keeping my tray tidy, rushing up and down after pillows, bed-linen, sponges, books, and directions, till it seems as if I would joyfully pay down all I possess for fifteen minutes’ rest. At twelve the big bell rings, and up comes dinner for the boys, who are always ready for it and never entirely satisfied. Soup, meat, potatoes, and bread is the bill of fare. Charley Thayer, the attendant, travels up and down the room serving out the rations, saving little for himself, yet always thoughtful of his mates, and patient as a woman with their helplessness. When dinner is over, some sleep, many read, and others want letters written. This I like to do, for they put in such odd things, and express their ideas so comically, I have great fun interiorally, while as grave as possible exteriorally. A few of the men word their paragraphs well and make excellent letters. John’s was the best of all I wrote. The answering of letters from friends after some one had died is the saddest and hardest duty a nurse has to do.

Supper at five sets every one to running that can run; and when that flurry is over, all settle down for the evening amusements, which consist of newspapers, gossip, the doctor’s last round, and, for such as need them, the final doses for the night. At nine the bell rings, gas is turned down, and day nurses go to bed. Night nurses go on duty, and sleep and death have the house to themselves.

My work is changed to night watching, or half night and half day, from twelve to twelve. I like it, as it leaves me time for a morning run, which is what I need to keep well; for bad air, food, and water, work and watching, are getting to be too much for me. I trot up and down the streets in all directions, sometimes to the Heights, then half way to Washington, again to the hill, over which the long trains of army wagons are constantly vanishing and ambulances appearing. That way the fighting lies, and I long to follow.

Ordered to keep my room, being threatened with pneumonia. Sharp pain in the side, cough, fever, and dizziness. A pleasant prospect for a lonely soul five hundred miles from home! Sit and sew on the boys’ clothes, write letters, sleep, and read; try to talk and keep merry, but fail decidedly, as day after day goes, and I feel no better. Dream awfully, and wake unrefreshed, think of home, and wonder if I am to die here, as Mrs R., the matron, is likely to do. Feel too miserable to care much what becomes of me. Dr S. creaks up twice a day to feel my pulse, give me doses, and ask if I am at all consumptive, or some other cheering question. Dr O. examines my lungs and looks sober. Dr J. haunts the room, coming by day and night with wood, cologne, books, and messes, like a motherly little man as he is. Nurses fussy and anxious, matron dying, and everything very gloomy. They want me to go home, but I won t yet.’

27 April 1872
‘Mr Emerson died at 9 P.M. suddenly. Our best and greatest American gone. The nearest and dearest friend Father has ever had, and the man who has helped me most by his life, his books, his society. I can never tell all he has been to me, from the time I sang Mignon’s song under his window (a little girl) and wrote letters a la Bettine to him, my Goethe, at fifteen, up through my hard years, when his essays on Self-Reliance, Character, Compensation, Love, and Friendship helped me to understand myself and life, and God and Nature. Illustrious and beloved friend, good-by!’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 29 November 2012.

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Party at the palace

Eighty years ago today, Mary, youngest daughter of Winston Churchill, went to a party hosted by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. Expressions of pleasure and nervousness fill an entry in her diary for the day: ‘I suppose I must still be very young because I was simply THRILLED by the party & felt stupidly shy & overcome & excited.’  

Mary Spencer-Churchill was born in London on 15 September 1922, the same week in fact as her father purchased Chartwell, a country house in Kent, where she was brought up, and where she attended local schools. She worked for the Red Cross and the Women’s Voluntary Service from 1939 to 1941, subsequently joining the Auxiliary Territorial Service, serving in London, Belgium and Germany in mixed anti-aircraft batteries, rising to the rank of Junior Commander. She accompanied her father as aide-de-camp on several of his overseas journeys. In 1945, she was awarded an MBE in recognition of her military service.

Mary married the Conservative politician Christopher Soames (later created Baron Soames) in 1947 and they had five children. She accompanied him on his foreign postings to France and Rhodesia. She served many public organisations at various times in various positions (Churchill Society, Church Army, Royal National Theatre Board of Trustees, National Benevolent Fund for the Aged). However, she also published several acclaimed family biographical works, including Clementine Churchill: The Biography of a Marriage and Winston Churchill: His Life as a Painter. In 1980, she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her public service, particularly in Rhodesia. She died in 2014. Further information is available from Wikipedia, or from obituaries in The Guardian, The New York Times, and the BBC.

Mary Churchill began keeping a diary in earnest in January 1939, and kept up the habit during the war years. With motherhood and marriage, her diary became less detailed, and by the mid-1950s her entries mainly concern gardening (with the exception of the diary for 1979-1980 when she was with her husband in Rhodesia). All her diaries are open for public inspection at the Churchill Archives Centre, and its website has a detailed description of each volume. 

Mary’s daughter, Emma, has recently edited some of the diaries for publication as Mary Churchill’s War - The Wartime Diaries of Churchill’s Youngest Daughter (Two Roads, 2021). This can be previewed at Googlebooks. Here is her entry from 80 years ago today - describing a thrilling visit to Buckingham Palace!

6 November 1942
‘Thanksgiving Day and I’m thrilled at the thought of the party at Buckingham Palace. Caught 1.05 train & had picnic lunch. Found Mummie still in bed but quite well & very gay. Tidied up frantically. Car took me to No. 10 at 3. Found Papa talking to Adml Noble who is off to Washington on a mission. We set off about 3.10.

I felt so excited couldn’t have been more thrilled if I d been in white satin & feathers (tho’ of course that would have been rather gay). And I felt so proud going with Papa. When we arrived we were shown into a drawing room by Sir Alexander Hardinge. Here we waited - there was Mr Winant, the Mountbattens, Ladies in Waiting, Admiral Stark & so on. The other guests were being shown into the next door room. Then another door opened & the Queen followed by the King & the 2 Princesses came in.

Papa unnerved me by saying in a hoarse whisper as Patricia Mountb. kissed the Queen’s hand & then her cheek - ‘You don’t do that’ - I was feeling VERY nervous by this time & I do hope I curtseyed ok. The King asked me about the OCTU - which was rather nice of him I thought. Then we stood behind the R[oyal] F[amily] as they received the guests. Papa had the King’s permission to leave soon afterwards & left me under the friendly wing of Mr Winant - who was looking more like Abe Lincoln than ever. Sir Charles Portal also adopted me & introduced me to S[quadron] Leader Nettleton VC (so good-looking AND married - tant pis) & S Leader Scott Malden who’s just made a tour of the USA.

Then I suddenly got caught up in a whirl of American army - cols, gens, majors etc - Very kind & gay & charming. Also some charming marines, Admiral Stark’s ADC. Stood for about 2 1/2 hrs. King & Queen talked constantly to the Americans. They (the Americans) were very much impressed & I felt so proud that they are our King & Queen. She is so beautiful & fresh & gracious - she was wearing lavender & pearls & was quite perfect. Then they played ‘God Save the King’ & Mr Winant took me home.

I suppose I must still be very young because I was simply THRILLED by the party & felt stupidly shy & overcome & excited - & it was so full of colour - red & gold & beautifully lit & lots of uniforms & gold braid!’

Incidentally, and apropos of nothing other than the date, on the very same day, the film Casablanca (which went on to become one of the most famous and loved films of all time) was being premiered at the Hollywood Theater in New York City.’