Welcome to 'Lost in the Myths of History'

It often seems that many prominent people of the past are wronged by often-repeated descriptions, which in time are taken as truth. The same is also true of events, which are frequently presented in a particular way when there might be many alternative viewpoints. This blog is intended to present a different perspective on those who have often been lost in the myths of history.

Friday, 30 September 2011

Sisi and Valerie

The fourth and favorite child of the legendary Empress Elisabeth, Archduchess Marie-Valerie of Austria was a deeply religious, charitable and practical woman. She bravely faced many tragedies; a disappointing marriage, the "suicide" of her brother, the assassination of her mother, a world war, and the collapse of the empire of her forefathers, before dying of cancer at age 56. A charming, artistic soul, she seems to have been a delightful blend of the piety and common sense of the Habsburgs and the poetry of the Wittelsbachs.

Here is a description of Sisi's relationship with Valerie from Clara Tschudi's biography of the Empress: 
The year following the coronation in Hungary, and ten years after the birth of the Crown Prince, a little girl was born, the Archduchess Marie Valerie, in the royal castle at Buda, April 22nd, 1868. 
The joyful event was announced to the populace by the firing of cannon from every fortress at six o'clock in the morning. It was the first time for a century that a royal child had been born in Hungary, and the delight of the Magyars was unbounded. As night approached, the whole city was illuminated, and crowds filled the streets, hundreds of them on their way to the castle to send up a ceaseless cheer and "eljen" for the King, for the new-born Princess, but especially for the Queen.
Valerie was the youngest and most cherished of Elizabeth's children, not that she did not love Gisela and Rudolph, but her mother-in-law, aided by governesses and tutors, had alienated them from her, and she had not been serious enough in her efforts to have them with her. Her maternal devotion had been lacking in the firmness and quiet self-sacrifice that would have commanded respect for her rights as a mother, and this had led her to relinquish all, and forsake her children.
But this time her motherly love was there in all its intensity, and the recollection of past sorrow was obliterated by the unspeakable tenderness she felt for the fragile little being that nestled in her arms, and from the moment of the child's birth she resolved to superintend her bringing up and development herself.
The Hungarian author, Maurus Jokai relates the following incident:—
"In 1869 the Queen most kindly allowed me to dedicate one of my novels to her, and as the Royal Court was at that time in Buda, I was able to present a copy to her in person, and to enjoy a long detailed conversation on the literature of Hungary. As I was on the point of leaving, she said: 'Wait a moment! I will show you my daughter.'
She opened a side door and signed to a nurse, who brought the child into the room. The Queen took the little one in her arms and pressed her to her heart; I shall never forget the pretty sight."
Marie Valerie was very delicate as a child, and her mother was the first by her bedside in the morning, even after listening at the door more than once in the night to ascertain if she was asleep; and if the little one was ill her mother refused to leave her, and could with difficulty be persuaded to take needful rest."
She recognised with contrition that in consequence of the disagreement with her husband, she had neglected her children, and she was resolved to atone for her mistake as far as possible. 
Even as Valerie has often been neglected in favor of her beautiful, troubled mother or her notorious, tragic brother, so Elisabeth's personal eccentricities and marital and familial problems have been emphasized at the expense of her more positive relationship with Valerie. It is fair to note that the very intensity of her mother's affection, arousing the envy of siblings and the criticism of courtiers, caused Valerie some pain and embarrassment. Nevertheless, Elisabeth's devotion to her youngest daughter suggests a depth of love and generosity perhaps too easily forgotten.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Chemise à la reine

In the early 1780's, Marie-Antoinette abandoned the ostentatious styles which characterized her first few years as queen, substituting them with simple attire. Especially at Petit Trianon, the gowns of lawn or muslin were worn not only by the queen but by all the ladies present. As described in Rocheterie's biography:
At Trianon there was no ceremony, no etiquette, no household, only friends. When the queen entered the salon the ladies did not quit their work nor the men interrupt their game of billiards or of trictrac. It was the life of the chateau with all its agreeable liberty, such as Marie Antoinette had always dreamed, such as was practised in that patriarchal family of the Hapsburgs, which was as Goethe has said, "Only the first bourgeoise family of the empire." They all met together for breakfast which took the place of dinner afterward they played cards chatted or walked and assembled again for supper which was served early. No fine dressing no complicated head dresses whose exaggerated height had forced the architect to enlarge the dimensions of the doors and provoked the reprimands of Maria Theresa. A dress of white percale, a gauze fichu, a straw hat - such was the toilet at Trianon, a fresh and charming toilet which set off the supple figure and brilliant complexion of the goddess of place but whose extreme simplicity enraged the weavers of silk at Lyons deserted for the linens of Alsace.
Indeed, Marie-Antoinette's simple tastes drew even more criticism upon her than her former opulence. With her unpowdered hair and linen dresses, she was accused not only of trying to put the French silk merchants out of business in favor of her brother's Belgian and Alsatian weavers, but she was blamed for lowering the prestige of the monarchy by being too casual. According to an article on the queen's hairstyles by scholar Desmond Hosford:
Marie-Antoinette's excesses during the 1770s had been criticized, but when the queen curtailed such luxury she was again found to be at fault. In 1778, Marie-Antoinette gave birth to a daughter, which did not solidify her political situation, but the birth of a dauphin in 1781 meant that she had finally fulfilled her duty to France. Unfortunately, according to Léonard, "At the end of the year 1781, that is to say, when the queen had given to France the first Dauphin, who died in 1789 . .. Her Majesty was in danger of losing the charming locks whose suave color had passed into fashion under the name cheveux de la reine."42
Léonard's solution to the queen's predicament was no less than to cut her hair and to abandon the imposing coiffures that he had created. Instead, he invented the coiffure à l'enfant, a simple style frisé with curls in the back, which characterized the second half of the reign (fig. 5). This simplification of the queen's hairstyle was also effected in her attire as she entered the age of maturity. However, the queen's new simplicity was as unpopular as her former extravagance. One fashion that Marie-Antoinette adopted, a loose-fitting simple gown of muslin, became known as the chemise à la reine. In 1783, Vigée-Lebrun painted the queen in such a gown, and the work was so severely criticized when it was exhibited at the Salon of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture that year that the painting had to be withdrawn (fig. 6).43 One of the fundamental problems with this portrait was that Marie-Antoinette had allowed herself to appear as an individual woman, rather than as the queen of France, in a work shown to the public. This transgressed the laws of royal representation in France, destabilizing the performative elements of the queen's station. Marie-Antoinette "en chemise" lacks any external manifestation of her status as queen, and this was unnerving, because already, as l'Autrichienne, Marie-Antoinette was perceived as dangerous. Previously, the rumor had been that the queen's profligacy, dragging all French women in its wake, would ruin the country, but now the silk industry attacked the queen's simple attire. Marie-Antoinette was accused of attempting to destroy a vital part of the French economy by wearing imported fabrics including muslin and cotton44 for a gown whose style had originated in England, another of France's traditional enemies. In this portrait, Marie-Antoinette was even accused of appearing in her undergarments,45 and one might observe that her hair, too, is almost entirely undressed. With such importance placed upon the performative aspects of the queen's toilette, it is not surprising that this portrait, of which the queen's hair is an important element, was readily perceived as a blatant act of disrespect for French propriety concerning the external manifestation of royal dignity, a subversive rejection of queenly representation, and a national degradation which one commentator labeled "France, in the guise of Austria, reduced to covering herself with straw."46 The responsibility for this portrait was placed squarely on Marie-Antoinette without whose authorization the work could never have been displayed.47 Marie-Antoinette's attempt to exercise agency over her own hair and dress had failed, and the new version of the portrait painted by Vigée-Lebrun that same year is clearly a retreat. In the second version of the portrait, the queen's blue silk gown, as characterized by the baron von Grimm, is "a garment more appropriate to her station,"48 and her hair is carefully dressed and powdered (fig. 5).
No matter what she did, there were those who would complain and criticize. Some criticism is par for the course when one is a public figure. In Marie-Antoinette's case, her Austrian birth made her an object of suspicion from the moment she stepped onto French soil, even among the royal family. For those who sought political power by undermining the royal regime, the queen of Louis XVI, with her beauty and youthful imprudence, was the perfect target.
Elena Maria Vidal is the author of the historical novels Trianon, Madame Royale, and The Night's Dark Shade. Please visit Elena at her Tea at Trianon blog and on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Walter Tull - A Truly Moving Story

Race, gender, creed and class seem like some of the most bizarrely fabricated excuses to create division and discord between people and it often seems that when there is disharmony between people the response of the minority or ‘weaker’ group is either to rise up in anger or to fall into the role of victim. So-called ‘class wars’, for example, give rise to the most horrible revolutions wherein (as Matterhorn shows in the post before this) people can turn into savages in some mass-hysterical frenzy that excuses the murder of innocent people like the children and servants of Tsar Nicholas II; or people become ill or helpless and play a martyr role blaming their situation on their circumstances which, I think, is often pandered to by the ‘welfare state’ in which generation after generation see themselves in a hopeless situation and make no effort to change things for the better. In the same way, there were countless women who simply submitted to their presumed inferior status to men, hiding their talents and suffocating (falling into fainting fits or dying of consumption), while others became so aggressive in their extreme Feminism that all sense of womanly-ness (including motherhood) was seen as weakness. Equally, there are people who so aware of the history of the prejudice against their race that they jump at the opportunity of expressing a victim mentality wherein they recall events of centuries ago and blame the successors of their oppressors for their present ills. Harewood House is a case in point – it was built largely on the fortunes made through the slave trade, and not long ago someone claimed that the present Earl should compensate the descendants of those slaves today! (Well, if we get into that, where will it end? Should the French compensate us for the Battle of Hastings? Should we compensate the French for Waterloo? Do I owe my great-great-grandfather’s creditors’ descendants for any debts he didn’t pay?).

Last night I saw a wonderfully touching drama from the BBC about a man whom I had never heard of before, although, apparently, there is a statue of him now outside Spurs football stadium. Walter Tull – the first black professional footballer, and the first black commissioned officer in the British army in the First World War. This brilliant man encountered prejudice in his sporting and military career but, if you have the chance to see this video, it shows that he was too big a person to allow that nonsense to confine him. He was neither aggressor nor victim, but a ‘real man’ who rose above those silly labels to being the best he could be . Throughout this film, I did not think of him for a minute as a ‘black man’ (or a ‘white man’ for that matter!!) but simply as a very self-aware, dignified and thoughtful human being. This film – whether or not it is accurate - seems to transcend anything to do with those false divisions and just show a truly noble spirit. (Incidentally, I do not believe in war and most particularly I cannot think of a more futile war than the First World War but this is still a very lovely - and very moving - story of a wonderful man who breaks down the unnecessary barriers and shows what it is to be dignified and powerful without being either a victim or an aggressor.

The film is an hour long and in many parts on YouTube:

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Sophie Piper

Perhaps not lost in myth, but overshadowed by her brother, the famous Swedish soldier, diplomat and Marshal of Realm, Count Axel von Fersen the Younger, is his beloved younger sister and confidante, Sophie Piper. The daughter of Count Axel von Fersen the Elder and his wife, Hedvig Catherina de la Gardie, little Eva Sophie von Fersen was born on March 30, 1757. In addition to her brother, Axel, she also had an older sister, Hedvig Eleonora, who became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophia Magdalena of Sweden, and gained the reputation of a gifted intellectual and keen wit. As for Sophie, she matured into a handsome, proud young woman, considered to be one of the reigning beauties of the court of King Gustav III. At 17, she was courted by Prince Frederik Adolf, the King's youngest brother, but her father, a prominent parliamentary leader often in conflict with the Crown, forbad the match. Anxious to preserve his political independence, he did not want to be allied so closely to the royal family. In addition, Sophie herself apparently had doubts about the prince's mental health. Three years later, in 1777, she married Count Adolf Ludwig Piper.

Sophie was destined to witness many grand and tragic events on the national and international stage. A lady-in-waiting, close friend and confidante of the King's sister-in-law, the future Queen Hedvig Elizabeth Charlotte, she was also the confidante of her brother throughout the triumphs and tragedies of his career. Unlike his father, a stubborn proponent of aristocratic resistance to the Swedish monarchy, known for treating Gustav III with outrageous insolence, Axel von Fersen the Younger was a devoted royalist. He loyally served his own sovereign, while championing the cause of the ancien régime throughout Europe in an age of revolution.

During his long sojourns in France, as Gustav's envoy to the court of Louis XVI, Fersen developed a deep personal attachment to the doomed monarch and his consort, Marie-Antoinette, a lady of legendary charm. (Many have claimed that Marie-Antoinette and Fersen became lovers at some point. Yet, although Fersen had many mistresses, there is no proof of a liaison with the Queen.) Gustav III, also an enthusiastic admirer of the royal couple, tried his best to assist them during the French Revolution. Fersen played a central role in these secret diplomatic intrigues, designed to enable Louis XVI to regain control of his realm. Unfortunately, it was all a tragic débacle. Within a brief space of time, Fersen lost the three monarchs he had most loved. Gustav III was shot at a masked ball on March 29, 1792. Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette died on the guillotine, respectively, on January 21, 1793 and October 16, 1793. Fersen poured out his sorrow, mingled with a sense of humiliating failure, to his sister, in sad and desperate letters.

The spirit of revolution, moreover, also spread to Sweden, with terrible consequences for the Fersen family. In 1809, Gustav IV Adolf was deposed, and his ambitious, conniving uncle, Charles XIII installed in his place. Since Charles had no living, legitimate children, the Riksdag selected the Danish nobleman, Carl August of Augustenburg, as his heir. When Carl August died suddenly in May, 1810, the old Gustavian party, including Axel von Fersen and Sophie Piper, were falsely accused of poisoning him. During the funeral ceremonies, on June 20, 1810, Axel was savagely murdered by a mob. Sophie narrowly escaped a similar fate by fleeing Stockholm in disguise. Thankfully, however, an inquest subsequently revealed that the prince had succumbed to natural causes, and the Fersen family were rehabilitated. Axel received an honorable funeral, and Sophie spent her last years at the estate of Löfstad, where she passed away on February 2, 1816. Before her death, she had erected a touching memorial to her brother, bearing the inscription: "Åt en oförgätlig broder, mannamodet uti hans sista stunder den 20 juni 1810, vittna om hans dygder och sinnes lugn" ("To an unforgettable brother, whose courage in his last moments on the 20th of June 1810, bears testimony to his virtues and clean conscience").

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Marie-Antoinette the Mother

In October of 1793, when on trial for her life, Marie-Antoinette was accused by the revolutionary tribunal of sexually abusing her eight-year-old son. When the queen failed to answer, she was badgered for a response. She rose to her feet and faced the crowded courtroom, saying: Si je n'ai répondu, c'est que la nature se refuse à répondre à une pareille inculpation faite à une mère. J'en appelles à toutes celles qui peuvent se trouver ici. "If I do not respond, it is because nature refuses to answer such a charge made to a mother. I appeal to all the mothers who are here!" The spectators, especially the women, applauded the queen and hissed at the revolutionaries, who had overplayed their hand. (see Jean Chalon's Chère Marie-Antoinette)

The infamous charge elicited disgust even from those deeply committed to the Revolution. Whatever else her faults may have been, Marie-Antoinette was a devoted mother. As Maxime de la Rocheterie wrote in his biography of the queen: "There is not a letter to Marie-Antoinette's friends, not a letter to her brothers, which does not abound in details of the health and a thousand incidents in the life of her dear little ones. She goes to see them at every hour of the day and night...."

To the governess Madame de Tourzel she gave detailed instructions concerning the care of each of her children, saying:
I have always accustomed my children to have great confidence in me, and, when they have done wrong, to tell me themselves; and then, when I scold them, this enables me to appear pained and afflicted rather than angry. I have accustomed them to regard 'yes' or 'no' once uttered by me as irrevocable, but I always give them reasons for my decisions, suitable to their ages.... (from The Life of Marie Antoinette by Charles Duke Yonge)
According to Nesta Webster, Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI decided early in the Revolution never to allow themselves to be separated from their two surviving children. However, after the king's death, little Louis-Charles was taken away from his mother in August 1793 and infamously brutalized by his captors. In the fall of the year, the queen was removed from the Temple prison to the Conciergerie, away from her fifteen-year-old daughter Madame Royale, whom she never saw again. When interrogated in prison as to whom she regarded as her enemies, the queen replied: "My enemies are all those who would bring harm to my children."

In her last letter she wrote to her sister-in-law: "I feel profound sorrow in leaving my poor children: you know that I only lived for them and for you, my good and tender sister....My God, how heart-rending it is to leave them forever! Farewell! farewell!"

Likewise, she is quoted as saying: "I was a queen, and you took away my crown, a wife, and you killed my husband, a mother, and you took my children away from me. All I have left is my blood. Take it. But do not make me suffer long."

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Lincoln on the Spread of Slavery

This letter should serve to dispel the notion, which is becoming increasingly prevalent, that Lincoln only liberated the slaves for political expediency, rather than from moral conviction. Some authors dismiss his public statements against slavery as hypocritical rhetoric, but I see no reason for him to feign sentiments on the topic in a private letter to one of his closest friends, Joshua Speed.

The letter, written two years before the infamous Dred Scott Decision, five years before Lincoln's election to the Presidency and six years before the beginning of the Civil War, deals with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The Act, repealing the provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, allowed slavery to spread into the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska, if the settlers there so desired. Intended to diffuse tension between Northerners and Southerners, the measure actually gave rise to bloody feuding between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. In 1858, as part of a failed bid for the Senate, Abraham Lincoln would engage in a famous series of public debates with fellow Illinois politician Stephen A. Douglas,  the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, covering many of the same themes discussed in this letter.

The penultimate paragraph is also particularly interesting, because it alludes to a less well-known episode of Lincoln's career, his defense of Roman Catholics from persecution by the Know-Nothing party. It contradicts the myth, substantiated by a number of spurious quotes, and apparently started by a renegade priest, who wanted to usurp Lincoln's moral authority for his defection from the Catholic Church, that Lincoln was violently opposed to Catholics.

To Joshua F. Speed [1]

Dear Speed: Springfield, Aug. 24, 1855

You know what a poor correspondent I am. Ever since I received your very agreeable letter of the 22nd. of May I have been intending to write you in answer to it. You suggest that in political action now, you and I would differ. I suppose we would; not quite as much, however, as you may think. You know I dislike slavery; and you fully admit the abstract wrong of it. So far there is no cause of difference. But you say that sooner than yield your legal right to the slave---especially at the bidding of those who are not themselves interested, you would see the Union dissolved. I am not aware that any one is bidding you to yield that right; very certainly I am not. I leave that matter entirely to yourself. I also acknowledge your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. [2] That sight was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union.

I do oppose the extension of slavery, because my judgment and feelings so prompt me; and I am under no obligation to the contrary. If for this you and I must differ, differ we must. You say if you were President, you would send an army and hang the leaders of the Missouri outrages upon the Kansas elections; still, if Kansas fairly votes herself a slave state, she must be admitted, or the Union must be dissolved. But how if she votes herself a slave state unfairly---that is, by the very means for which you say you would hang men? Must she still be admitted, or the Union be dissolved? That will be the phase of the question when it first becomes a practical one. In your assumption that there may be a fair decision of the slavery question in Kansas, I plainly see you and I would differ about the Nebraska-law. I look upon that enactment not as a law, but as violence from the beginning. It was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence. I say it was conceived in violence, because the destruction of the Missouri Compromise, under the circumstances, was nothing less than violence. It was passed in violence, because it could not have passed at all but for the votes of many members, in violent disregard of the known will of their constituents. It is maintained in violence because the elections since, clearly demand it's repeal, and this demand is openly disregarded. You say men ought to be hung for the way they are executing that law; and I say the way it is being executed is quite as good as any of its antecedents. It is being executed in the precise way which was intended from the first; else why does no Nebraska man express astonishment or condemnation? Poor Reeder [3] is the only public man who has been silly enough to believe that any thing like fairness was ever intended; and he has been bravely undeceived.

That Kansas will form a Slave constitution, and, with it, will ask to be admitted into the Union, I take to be an already settled question; and so settled by the very means you so pointedly condemn. By every principle of law, ever held by any court, North or South, every negro taken to Kansas is free; yet in utter disregard of this---in the spirit of violence merely---that beautiful Legislature gravely passes a law to hang men who shall venture to inform a negro of his legal rights. This is the substance, and real object of the law. If, like Haman, they should hang upon the gallows of their own building, I shall not be among the mourners for their fate.

In my humble sphere, I shall advocate the restoration of the Missouri Compromise, so long as Kansas remains a territory; and when, by all these foul means, it seeks to come into the Union as a Slave-state, I shall oppose it. I am very loth, in any case, to withhold my assent to the enjoyment of property acquired, or located, in good faith; but I do not admit that good faith, in taking a negro to Kansas, to be held in slavery, is a possibility with any man. Any man who has sense enough to be the controller of his own property, has too much sense to misunderstand the outrageous character of this whole Nebraska business. But I digress. In my opposition to the admission of Kansas I shall have some company; but we may be beaten. If we are, I shall not, on that account, attempt to dissolve the Union. On the contrary, if we succeed, there will be enough of us to take care of the Union. I think it probable, however, we shall be beaten. Standing as a unit among yourselves, you can, directly, and indirectly, bribe enough of our men to carry the day---as you could on an open proposition to establish monarchy. Get hold of some man in the North, whose position and ability is such, that he can make the support of your measure---whatever it may be---a democratic party necessity, and the thing is done. Appropos of this, let me tell you an anecdote. Douglas introduced the Nebraska bill in January. In February afterwards, there was a call session of the Illinois Legislature. Of the one hundred members composing the two branches of that body, about seventy were democrats. These latter held a caucus, in which the Nebraska bill was talked of, if not formally discussed. It was thereby discovered that just three, and no more, were in favor of the measure. In a day or two Douglas' orders came on to have resolutions passed approving the bill; and they were passed by large majorities!!! The truth of this is vouched for by a bolting democratic member. The masses too, democratic as well as whig, were even, nearer unanamous against it; but as soon as the party necessity of supporting it, became apparent, the way the democracy began to see the wisdom and justice of it, was perfectly astonishing.

You say if Kansas fairly votes herself a free state, as a christian you will rather rejoice at it. All decent slave-holders talk that way; and I do not doubt their candor. But they never vote that way. Although in a private letter, or conversation, you will express your preference that Kansas shall be free, you would vote for no man for Congress who would say the same thing publicly. No such man could be elected from any district in any slave-state. You think Stringfellow & Co [4] ought to be hung; and yet, at the next presidential election you will vote for the exact type and representative of Stringfellow. The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you; and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are as completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes.

You enquire where I now stand. That is a disputed point. I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist. When I was at Washington I voted for the Wilmot Proviso [5] as good as forty times, and I never heard of any one attempting to unwhig me for that. I now do no more than oppose the extension of slavery.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that ``all men are created equal.'' We now practically read it ``all men are created equal, except negroes.'' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ``all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.'' When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty---to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy.

Mary will probably pass a day or two in Louisville in October. My kindest regards to Mrs. Speed. On the leading subject of this letter, I have more of her sympathy than I have of yours.

And yet let [me] say I am Your friend forever



[1]   ALS, MHi, copy IHi

[2]   See Lincoln to Mary Speed, September 27, 1841, supra.

[3]   Andrew H. Reeder, appointed governor of Kansas Territory by President Pierce in June, 1854.

[4]   Benjamin F. Stringfellow was a leader of the pro-slavery armed forces in the Kansas struggle; his brother John H. Stringfellow edited the Squatter Sovereign at Atchison and was speaker of the territorial House of Representatives.

[5] A failed attempt to ban slavery in any territories gained from the Mexican War.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Family of Marshal Mannerheim

Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim (1867-1951), the Swedish-Finnish nobleman and former Tsarist officer who defended Finland from Soviet aggression during the heroic Winter War (1939-1940), is often forgotten outside his homeland. Even less well known are his wife and daughters, but their stories are fascinating and rather remind me of a Tolstoy novel.

Anastasia Arapova (1872-1936) was a charming, flirtatious young Russian heiress, the daughter of General Nikolai Arapov, a former Chevalier Guards officer, and his wife, Vera Kazakova. She was also a relative of the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. Gustaf Mannerheim met Anastasia while serving in the Chevalier Guards in St. Petersburg, and Empress Maria Feodorovna, the mother of Tsar Nicholas II, reportedly, enthusiastically favored the match. Anastasia's wealth would prove a great asset to Mannerheim, who had suffered from financial insecurity ever since his father's bankruptcy during his youth. Gustaf's relatives, however, considered Anastasia emotionally unstable and disapproved of the marriage. Nonetheless, the wedding took place in May, 1892.

Initially, it was a happy union. The couple had two daughters, Anastasie (born 1893) and Sophy (born 1895) and a son who died at birth. Sadly, however, the marital relationship crumbled rapidly, kindling gossip and rumor. Some of the couple's disputes appear to have centered on the education of their daughters. Gustaf wanted them raised as capable, down-to-earth Finnish women, like his beloved sister and confidante, Sophie, a pioneer of modern nursing, while Anastasia sought to form them into glamorous Russian society ladies like herself. In 1903, after traveling to China to nurse Russian troops during the Boxer Rebellion, a task which proved to be beyond her strength, Anastasia left her husband, eventually settling with her daughters in France. Although it seriously depleted his own resources, Mannerheim provided his wife and daughters with a generous financial settlement. The separation remained unofficial for 16 years.

In 1919, after returning to Finland, and leading the White Army to victory in the Finnish civil war, Mannerheim obtained a formal divorce. At this point, according to one of his most best biographers, J. E. O. Screen, he intended to marry Catherine (Kitty) Linder, a beautiful Finnish noblewoman, 20 years his junior, with whom he was deeply in love. Kitty, however, decided against the marriage. After 1921, the pair were nothing more than friends. Feminine affection, understanding and emotional support were always important to Mannerheim, and he had a number of close friendships with distinguished and beautiful ladies throughout his life, although the extent of these relationships is often unclear.

Meanwhile, Mannerheim continued to provide financially for his former wife and his daughters. Finally, in 1936, shortly before her death, he was reconciled with Anastasia, much to the consolation of both. The couple met in Paris and agreed that life can be full of misunderstandings...After Anastasia's death, Mannerheim, although still formally a Lutheran, had an Orthodox requiem celebrated for her soul. He also personally prayed for her in an Orthodox church. He signed her obituary and took care to provide her with a fitting tomb. 
As for the Mannerheims' two daughters, they attended Catholic boarding schools in France, and received an Anglo-French education. Mannerheim was seriously concerned about his children, and tried to maintain contact with them, but his letters often went unanswered. Nonetheless, around 1910, the girls ceased living with their mother, and contacted their relatives in Finland and Sweden. At this point, their father was serving in Poland, and, given the tense political situation in Central Europe, did not consider it prudent to raise his daughters in his military surroundings. Instead, his sister Sophie, Matron of the Surgical Hospital in Helsinki, took the girls in. Neither Anastasie nor Sophy, however, felt comfortable in Finland.

As a young woman, Anastasie enthusiastically embraced Roman Catholicism and entered a Carmelite convent in London. (I am not sure what religion the girls were raised in, as their father was Lutheran and their mother Orthodox).  She left the convent - although without the loss of her faith- in the 1930's. Meanwhile, Sophy lived in England, Switzerland, and France. During his time as Regent of Finland (1918-1919), she visited her father and acted as his hostess. In 1919, when the University of Helsinki bestowed an honorary doctorate on Mannerheim, Sophy played a role in the ceremonies, as the binder of the bays. She later returned to France. During the Winter War, Sophy participated in the efforts to raise international support for Finland. Like her elder sister, she remained unmarried. 

Anastasie in her religious habit

Anastasia Arapova is dismissed by some of Mannerheim's biographers as an indolent society flirt and an unloved, unloving wife. Clearly, however, she had kind and even sacrificial qualities, as shown by her brave efforts in China. Ultimately, too, I think her marriage was a successful one, ending in peace and forgiveness and blessed with beautiful children. 

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

T.E. Lawrence: More Than Arabia

Thomas Edward Lawrence was born illegitimately in Wales in 1888 to Sir Thomas Chapman and Sarah Junner, who had previously worked at the Chapman home. As the two started living together, they took on the name Lawrence. Thomas Edward was the 2nd of 5 sons and was known affectionately by his nickname: Ned.

The family settled in Oxford by 1896 and the boys attended school there. Ned went on to study history at Jesus College, Oxford. At this time, he produced his thesis on the Crusader Castles, which included a long walking tour of both Syria and Palestine. After his graduation, he worked as an assistant at the British Museum’s excavation site at Carchemish. From 1910-1914 he helped with photography and pottery from the archaeological site. He was also in charge of directing and motivating the local workers – most of them Arab villagers. He clearly understood the life, the culture, the traditions and the language of the Arab people. These skills would prove extremely valuable for his later experiences in the war.

When war broke out in 1914, he was posted at the Military Intelligence Department in Cairo. It was during this time that he gained facts on the Arab nationalist movements against Turkish imperial rule. Both the British and Arabs were impressed with his reports and rapport, that he was given a role as a British liaison officer in the Arab Revolt. He served alongside Emir Feisal, one of Sherif Hussein’s son’s and leader of the Arab forces. During the revolt Lawrence helped devise strategies, plan guerrilla warfare, and sabotage parts of the Hedjaz Railway to stop supplies to the Turkish forces at Medina. By July 1916, with Lawrence’s help, the Arabs managed to overtake a major stronghold at Akaba. After that point, Lawrence’s role became increasingly important and the whole campaign eventually stopped when they captured Damascus and defeated the Turkish armies.

After the war, Lawrence returned home and became involved in the cause for Arab independence. He was at the Paris Peace Conference and continued to work alongside Emir Feisal. Despite his genuine and passionate efforts, the French imperialists and the British Government of India eventually won out. Iraq, Syria, and Palestine were all in essence, given up to France and Britain. Lawrence left disenfranchised, unhappy and returned to England. Many people became aware of his activities through the journalist, Lowell Thomas. He created travelogues which featured Lawrence and many people considered him a hero. He used this fame to further the cause of Arab independence. During this time, he also began work on his book which told of his involvement in the war and entitled it: “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”. It stands today as a classic, and (checked against other sources) still continues to be a very accurate picture of his involvement in the Arab cause.

After his war-time experiences, involvement in politics and book writing, he teetered on the edge of a breakdown. He then enlisted under an assumed name in the RAF. After a few months he was discovered by the press and discharged. He felt the only way he could continue to live was to be a private person serving in the ranks. Almost immediately, he found himself (with the help of friends) in the Tank Corps as “Thomas Edward Shaw”. Eventually he was able to transfer back to the RAF and in, 1926 took a position in India to be away from the press. At this time his book, "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom", and an abridgement, "Revolt in the Desert", were published and well received. Shortly after this, he wrote another book, “The Mint” which spoke of his experiences in the RAF and was published after his death, due to the harsh and true judgment accorded to the RAF in the book. He also completed a notable translation of Homer’s "The Odyssey". During this time he also kept up massive correspondence with many people including, George Bernard and Charlotte Shaw, Robert Graves, Winston Churchill, E.M. Forester, Siegfried Sassoon, John Buchan, Augustus John and many others. Among other things, he truly was a “man of letters”. There are whole books devoted to just his correspondence.

In 1928, he was sent back to England by the RAF where he was stationed in Plymouth to a flying-boat unit. He became very interested and committed to his new station in life and actively planned for the development and advancement of these crafts. Year later, when WWII came to pass, the RAF maintained a huge fleet of high speed launches, which saved many lives in rescue missions. In 1935 his enlistment ended and he planned to retire to his home in Dorset, called Clouds Hill. He had thoughts of starting a private press to produce his book: "The Mint". Unfortunately, none of this came to pass. Lawrence, a keen motorcyclist, was running an errand and swerved to miss two bicyclists and was thrown from his motorcycle. He was struck with severe head injuries and died days later in the hospital.

Lawrence was a man of many talents and accomplished many things in his short period of life. Even when he experienced depression and self-doubt, he was always very generous with his friends, helped them in their endeavors and was keen to ask their advice. He believed in the importance of being genuine, showing humility and striving for excellence in whatever field he found himself working in. A quiet hero, who seemed to want nothing more than to finally retire and live out a quiet life in his small English cottage……a hero that never really got his final wish.

Friday, 9 September 2011

The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

This summer, I read The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1882), the autobiography of the great African American orator and abolitionist, famous in his time but often neglected or forgotten today. Part slave narrative, part political memoir, the book is very touching and inspiring, as well as very insightful in describing the disastrous moral, religious, social and political effects of slavery on the United States.

Despite many bitter experiences, Frederick Douglass seems to have been a very noble and kindhearted person, who cared deeply for the elevation of his people. I also admired his willingness to learn and to change his views when appropriate. As a young man, after escaping to Massachusetts from a harsh life as a slave in Maryland, he became a staunch follower of William Lloyd Garrison. According to the Garrisonians, the Constitution of the United States, since it allowed for slavery in the South, was a pro-slavery document, and, therefore, any participation in the American political system was morally wrong. Abolitionists, Douglass thought, should refrain from voting, and the Northern states should immediately dissolve the Union with the Southern states. Later, after further research and study, Douglass broke with the Garrisonians. He concluded that the Constitution was actually an anti-slavery document, and that the American political system was intended to promote liberty and justice. Thereafter, Douglass' concern became preserving the Union and working to end slavery within the framework of the Constitution. He put this determination to great effect during the Civil War, actively recruiting black troops for the Union cause.

Like many abolitionists, Douglass initially despised Abraham Lincoln for tolerating slavery where it already existed in the South, and for merely opposing its extension into new territories in the hope that this containment would ultimately lead to the extinction of slavery.  After actually meeting Lincoln, however, Douglass developed a deep personal admiration and affection for the President. In the fragile and explosive political climate of the time, Douglass also came to appreciate the prudence of Lincoln's incremental approach to emancipation and black civil rights. (By contrast, Douglass thoroughly disapproved of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson). Nonetheless, Lincoln and Douglass still had their disagreements. On one occasion, Douglass arrived at the White House to seek justice for black Union prisoners murdered or sold into slavery by the Confederates. Outraged, the fiery Douglass recommended that Lincoln should immediately retaliate upon Southern prisoners, whether or not they had personally been involved in the crimes, but Lincoln was understandably upset at the idea of punishing the innocent for the guilty. He also worried that retaliation would lead to a vicious cycle of brutality and revenge. (Eventually, he did issue a retaliatory order, but it was not enforced). In his memoir, Douglass says he respected Lincoln's humane spirit, but still could not agree with him…

After the war, Douglass was naturally overjoyed that slavery had finally come to an end. Yet, he also felt a strange sense of sadness and regret, as if the noblest part of his life were over. He soon realized, however, that there was still much work to be done, and devoted the rest of his life to helping his fellow freedmen to rise.

Here is a short documentary about the life of Frederick Douglass. The actors are well cast, I think, and the film conveys the spirit of his memoir.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Queen Victoria Was Often Amused

According to her granddaughter, Princess Alice of Albany (Countess of Athlone), Queen Victoria insisted that she never said, “We are not amused” but that four-word phrase – alongside the perpetual mourning for ‘angel Albert’ - has seeped into the popular imagination and created a totally false picture of the Queen as a very sombre and dreary woman.
In fact, Queen Victoria was often highly amused. Lady Longford, in her wonderful ‘Victoria R.I.’ recounts a humorous story of a meal at which the Queen sitting next to an elderly admiral who was very hard of hearing. The Queen asked about the progress of repairs to a wrecked ship but the admiral did not catch her words. Out of the politeness, the Queen tried a different conversation, “How is your sister?”
“Ah,” said the admiral, suddenly realising what had first been said, “She’ll be fine, ma’am, when we turn her over and scrape the barnacles off her bottom!” The Queen was so overcome with laughter that she had to hide her face in her handkerchief.
There are numerous similar stories of Queen Victoria’s laughter, and her letters show her wit and humour. One amusing anecdote comes from Marie Mallet who says that a certain duchess presented the Queen with an ostrich egg on which she had written her own name. “You would think,” whispered the Queen, “that had laid it herself!”
Alongside her humour, there was a curious innocence and wonder about Queen Victoria. Perhaps because her own childhood had been so dull and she had been deprived of companions, she was particularly fond of children’s amusements. Her granddaughter, Marie of Roumania , wrote:
“So unspoilt was dear grandmamma in all things concerning amusements that her joy and interest in these performances was almost childlike.”

She also enjoyed ‘frivolous’ novels, circus troupes, travel, the pageants and plays performed by her children and she delighted – to the end of her life – in learning about different places and mastering different languages. One of her greatest pleasures was dropping into highland cottages near Balmoral to take a nip of whiskey and sit and talk with the local people.
She might have been ‘the widow of Windsor’ for six years or so following Prince Albert’s death but these six years of mourning are quite a small part of a life that spanned eight decades – a life that, for all its tragedies, was often filled with enjoyment and simple pleasures and a good deal of amusement!