Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Madame du Barry by Stanley Loomis

Madame du Barry was the last of a long line of official royal mistresses of the French kings. She followed Madame de Pompadour into the affections and the lit of King Louis XV, and lived splendidly with him at Versailles for the last six years of his life, from 1768 to his death in 1774. The monarch was succeeded by his grandson, the unfortunate King Louis XVI, who for a variety of reasons not least of which was marriage to Marie Antoinette, seems to have kept no mistresses of his own.

When Louis XV and Madame du Barry met, he was in his late fifties and she was in her early twenties. The circumstances of their meeting, the role she played, the whole course of her life, all was so extraordinarily alien to us and our world that it seems one can't really write a review of a biography of her. One must muddle along and almost rewrite the biography, not because it wasn't good enough but simply to get all the information straight.

The position of royal mistress at Versailles was virtually a ministerial one. Exactly as in the Tudor court of sixteenth century England, powerful or merely grasping or merely needy people scouted out beautiful women to place before the king's eye, hoping that a new and grateful "Favorite" would be able to persuade him to grant favors, lands, incomes, religious sanctions, best of all official government posts, among the faction to whom she owed her elevation. (In Madame du Barry's case, this was one Jean du Barry, called "the Roue," a provincial comte who was making a living in Paris by schooling and then essentially selling pretty girls to wealthy men.) A difference between Tudor England and eighteenth-century France was that Henry VIII would never find himself seriously baited with a woman who was not herself of some genuinely powerful landed family; Louis XV, in contrast, met Madame du Barry because the palace of Versailles was open to the public. One spring day, because her patron, the Roue, had a kind of small-claims-court issue to pursue with the royal bureaucracy, she arrived, and his Majesty saw her in the crowd.

She was breathtakingly beautiful, voluptuous, ash-blond, large-eyed, and it seems sweet- natured and gentle, too. (It's a pity really that she should have been portrayed in Sofia Coppola's film Marie Antoinette as a belching gypsy.) Within a few months, she was ensconced in that vipers' nest of a palace, where every faction faced a counter-faction fighting to the death for position and power, and the personal really was political. She lived in a blazing whirl of jewels, glorious dresses, fabulously appointed private chateaux, gambling parties, hate and gossip. And like all previous "Favorites," her position ultimately depended on the health of the king. As long as he lived in sin, his Catholic Majesty could not hear Mass or take Communion. Yet, he could not die without having returned to the forgiveness and sacraments of the church, and he could not return to them unless he first dismissed the Favorite forever. In those days of sudden mortal illness, La Dubarry, like all her predecessors, never knew when a royal "indisposition" might become a "maladie," and spell the end of her "Left-handed" reign. When the time came, etiquette required that she leave instantly, without goodbyes.

It happened in the spring of 1774. The king died after a horrific two week siege of smallpox, professional bleeding, and finally it seems gangrene. Madame du Barry lived most of the next two years in a local exile, put under house arrest in a convent because the new king and especially his queen, Marie Antoinette, took a high moral line about the former Favorite's purpose at the former court. Once forgiven and released, however, she next entered into what was perhaps the happiest part of her life. King Louis XV's settlements on her had been generous and she still owned a fortune in jewels as well as her lovely and famous home of Louveciennes, not far from Versailles. She had many friends, a busy and elegant social life such as only the eighteenth century French aristocracy ever enjoyed, and a long and happy love affair with the handsome and noble duc de Brissac.

Then came the Revolution. A few years into the turmoil, Madame du Barry's house was broken into, and almost all her jewelry stolen. Her lawyer made the mistake of circulating a kind of "reward" poster throughout Paris, inventorying the hoard in great detail. The virtuous revolutionaries who wanted everyone to be equal got a new look therefore at "the woman DuBarry's" lifestyle. And when the jewels turned up in London she made the mistake -- if it was a mistake -- of traveling there not once but four times in the next few years, ostensibly to recover her property and settle lawsuits about it. While there, she happened to make large donations to exiled French aristocrats and churchmen allied with the foreign powers ready to surround and destroy republican France. Most of the stolen jewelry seems never to have been found.

On her fourth return home, she found her house confiscated. The last months of her life were spent battling a mysterious figure, an Englishman named George Greive who had turned up at Louveciennes and its local village, and had set about agitating the populace and Madame's own servants against her. In those days when revolutionary violence had become the norm and its scythe had in turn put government into the hands of less and less experienced men, anybody could bring death to a neighbor by publishing any article in any broadsheet accusing him of "aristocratic tendencies" -- or simply by calling him an aristocrat. Greive pursued Madame du Barry with "wolfish ferocity." She evaded him for a while by carefully defending her legal rights under the new legal systems of the country, but when in September of 1793 the government was captured by the Jacobin party -- the left-est of the left -- she found herself doomed. Greive asked for her arrest on grounds of aristocratic leanings, and the Committee of General Safety agreed. In her letters written from prison, she hints that Greive raped her when he took her into custody.

She was tried and condemned to death, along with her bankers, in December of 1793. Her shrieks of terror and her struggles on the guillotine have often stood in marked contrast to the " 'icy disdain' " (more likely the shocked stupor, the author thinks) of other victims. But in her very last hours Madame du Barry had tried to save herself by telling her jailers the locations of buried treasure at her chateau, in exchange for her life. She believed she had succeeded in the bribe, up until the executioner came to her cell to cut off her hair and bind her arms. "The merciful drug of resignation did not have time to paralyze her senses," Loomis writes. "Neither emotionally nor physically did she go to the guillotine a dying woman." She was fifty.

It's an excellent book filled with what must be some of Loomis' best prose. The passage describing "the last of the great Versailles receptions," on the occasion of the wedding of the Dauphin to Marie Antoinette in 1770, is especially beautiful. Historians of the ancien regime are always at pains, and usually at a loss, to fully convince us of the incomprehensible sophistication of this civilization. " 'Of their kind they were perfect,' " -- he quotes Taine -- " 'there was not a gown, not a turn of the head, not a voice or turn of phrase which was not a masterpiece of worldy culture and the distilled quintessence of everything exquisite which the social art has ever elaborated.' "

The very fact that we need to have this explained to us -- good grief, they were people, how otherworldly can they have been? -- probably shows how divorced we are from any real understanding of it. For me it finally comes through, faintly, in excerpts from Madame du Barry's letters. She writes to her friends with a calm simplicity on all sorts of occasions, each word a simple pulse beat of meaning, whether she is announcing a party or saying "I love you." She writes to her lover's daughter, with whom she is of course on good terms: "No one has felt more than I the great loss which you have just suffered. I hope you will understand the reason for my delay in mingling my own tears with yours. The fear of adding to your grief prevents me from speaking to you of it. Mine is complete ...."

This was a few days after the duc de Brissac had been murdered outside her chateau by a mob, his body mutilated and partly eaten, and his head thrown through a window into her living room where it rolled to her feet. " 'One does not die of grief,' " she wrote, simply, a little later.

In the end, I am surprised by one thing, and that is the last two paragraphs of Loomis' book. After writing a lyrical and sympathetic biography, he nevertheless regretfully but officially condemns Madame du Barry on behalf of his modern reader. She slept with the king for money, he says, and also she was unforgivably rich when others were poor.

True. But that is not the same thing as hurting other people. Even the king was a widower when she met him. It's a tricky thing to judge whether it was criminal of her to, perhaps, aid the enemies of her country, when her country had transformed politically and legally into something entirely new and continually free-forming. And fantastically, officially violent. It was the cusp of a new world; which explains why an upcoming monarch of France's future would be "king of the French," not king of France. Loomis does not explore this in his last two paragraphs. He only acknowledges: in the end, "she was kind."

More importantly, since we live now under a deep-dyed leftist President whose disciples are legion, who also hates bankers and wants everyone to be equal, I can't help but read La Du Barry's story with a certain funny chill. A new and free-forming government is not particularly a good thing. Under the veneer of any civilization, human beings are all alike. But surely it can't happen here.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

King Henry IV, part I

It may have been a help or a hindrance to have seen Kenneth Branagh's film of Henry V years before reading, to give it its long title, The First Part of King Henry the Fourth. The film is interlarded with specially created flashback-style scenes lifted from this latter play, so that the viewer of all the action leading up to the battle of Agincourt, involving all those kings and dukes, can understand what is going on with un-noble characters like Bardolph, Pistol, and Hostess Quickly as well. And Falstaff.

It may have been a help because it ensured that some of Falstaff's lines from 1 Henry IV were already in my mind, as the actor playing him delivered them. It helps to be able to recall a professional making sense of Shakespeare's language. "Do thou amend thy face, and I'll amend my life;" "Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world." (As a matter of fact the actor was Robbie Coltrane, later of Hagrid fame in the Harry Potter movies. And the newest Batman, Christian Bale, showed up then as the Boy. Yes, this movie is twenty years old.)

Remembering the droll meet-the-peasantry scenes in Henry V may have been a hindrance to reading Henry IV, however, because those scenes in their vividness prepared me to descry one particular theme in the play, and that is the theme of legitimacy. Those same droll scenes become tragic, when mighty Prince Hal abandons his peasant friends, as he must do in order to take up his father's crown and simply to become completely what he is -- king, in fate and in soul. He hangs Bardolph for theft on the road to Agincourt ("Do not thou, when thou art king, hang a thief" -- "No. Thou shalt"). He goes nowhere near Falstaff's deathbed (Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world -- "I do. I will."). Branagh may have played fast and loose with the niceties of Shakespeare's meanings in these flashbacks, but they do stay in the mind either because they are filled with a human sorrow that remains true, or because we modern little democratic types are so appalled by the sixteenth century's definitions of nobility that we fixate on them. Either way, they obstruct our view of other possible themes. Or do they? Are there other themes in 1 Henry IV besides legitimacy -- besides who belongs where?

What other themes could there be? Legitimacy seems to trump all. The action in the play shifts rhythmically between noble and commoner. We see the king and his court in palaces, then Falstaff and Prince Hal and their cronies in inn yards and taverns. Then back to king and dukes, then back to Eastcheap. After a while, this firm switching in scenery and action seems nearly pedestrian, as if we are reading a young playwright who has been told to mix it up and not bore people, but also to remember to tie his characters together somehow. They are tied by the Prince and Falstaff -- who, after all, is Sir John Falstaff, and therefore himself a titled link between Hal and the commoners -- but the Prince in his very first soliloquy announces his distance ("I know you all, and will awhile uphold The unyoked humor of your idleness"), while Falstaff is only permitted to enter Hal's world in the fifth act and even then, is told to be quiet in the presence of majesty ("Peace, chewet, peace"). Who belongs where may not even have been a question that sixteenth-century playgoers would have asked, as they watched a Prince of Wales and a happy sack-swiller pal about together. They knew that was temporary. They were probably far more exercised by the question of who belongs on the throne in the first place.

The storyline of 1 Henry IV concerns this more important legitimacy, that of the king, Hal's father, and his right to the crown he usurped from King Richard II. As the play opens, rebellion is underway, among other powerful lords of course, not among the common folk. The Earl of Northumberland and his son, Harry Percy (Hotspur), are at the head of a confederation including Scots and Welsh nobles and no less a magnate than the Archbishop of York, angry at the death of a brother in battle. We learn that one of these lords, Mortimer, had been proclaimed next in line to the throne by the deposed Richard before he was, it seems, murdered by the present king Henry himself; the reader can either read history or read Richard II or both in order to get all the details, but suffice it to say that this noble confederation has it in for Henry IV. All have grievances, but fundamentally all think they can do better as king, and that they deserve the position more.

The story wends its way to the battle of Shrewsbury (July 21, 1403), where the rebel lords will meet the forces of the king, his two sons Prince Hal (a refugee from the taverns) and John of Lancaster, and the loyal Earl of Westmoreland. We see almost nothing of the common soldiers who are the fighting forces there, except through the eyes of Falstaff. He is ordered by the Prince to raise a levy of men, and of the one hundred and fifty "rag-of-muffins" he presses into service, "not three are left alive" at the end (V., iii.). As it happens, three important rebel lords don't come to Shrewsbury in time, and so treason fails. The prince kills his opposite number, Hotspur, in single combat, after having rescued his father from assassination. The play ends mid-story. The king sends his two sons in opposite directions, to fight the barons who missed the battle but who still stand in defiance of his rule.

Never having seen 1 Henry IV performed, I can't say what it looks like, but Falstaff must be great fun to watch ("Go hang thyself in thine own heir-apparent garters!" he shouts at his future sovereign). Hostess Quickly's shrieking arguments with him about the safety of her inn not only make the reader smile, but make him cheer for her as she holds her own against him and in the presence of the Prince, too. There is a part for Mortimer's wife, the "Lady" who speaks only Welsh but whose words are not set down. How is this handled? And it seems, theater troupes must know and carry on the tradition that Bardolph has some sort of disgusting skin problem; he is the butt of all sorts of jokes about his face being fiery or lamp-like. What is supposed to be wrong with him?

And above all, who, what, is legitimate and what is not? Prince Hal is the son of a man who should not necessarily be king, yet we are to understand that he is a magnificent person not only in his own right, but also because this is natural in the son of a king. He is gentle, brave, chivalrous, and quiet. When noble circumstances arise, like insurrection and war, he behaves nobly amid them. Falstaff is a commoner, loud, drunken, witty, good-hearted. When noble circumstances arise, he behaves like an ordinary man who wants to stay alive. Before the battle, he and his royal friend have a simple exchange:

FALSTAFF: I would 'twere bedtime, Hal, and all well.
PRINCE: Why, thou owest God a death. [Exit.]
FALSTAFF: 'Tis not due yet ....

The Prince loves honor, and is not afraid of that simple thing he owes God. He will stake his life honorably, royally, on defending and possessing power. Falstaff, the common man, expresses the simple wish of all common men who have ever gone into battle for the sake of their betters -- or their own, to be fair ("every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head" -- Henry V, IV., i). When it comes to mortal combat, he fakes his own death and then rises up happily a moment later, bragging that he has killed Hotspur himself after a fight lasting an hour.

PRINCE: Why, Percy I killed myself, and saw thee dead!
FALSTAFF: Didst thou? Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying.

For all the space and fun given to Falstaff, the reader can't help but think, as soon as Hal speaks in his own voice (that first soliloquy is in blank verse, of course) -- this man is not your friend. You're not legitimate, not enough. Of course, the reader with memories of watching Henry V knows the road these characters are taking, and it's especially the modern, democratic reader who finds Hal's abandonment of the people at Eastcheap to be almost the heart of all the action. Sixteenth-century readers, or theater-goers, may have known better. Perhaps to them it was Shrewsbury and Agincourt that mattered, and perhaps they couldn't wait for Hal to do what was right, and for everyone's sake get there.

Battlefield at Shrewsbury. Photo from englishmonarchs.co.uk

The Stones of Florence by Mary McCarthy

I had hopes of enjoying this book. As I flip through it now, it still looks interesting and erudite. I am glad to learn that dreams and visions were popular subjects of Florentine art, "where the great fresco cycles of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries drew chiefly on the Golden Legend of Jacopo della Voragine and the life of Saint Francis." I am glad to know also that perspective in navigation and perspective in art are linked: "Toscanelli, who taught Brunelleschi, also advised Columbus and the king of Portugal. ... Many of the landscapes of the quattrocento, especially Baldovinetti's, have the character of aerial maps; the bare Tuscan hills ... are now shown furrowed by husbandry." Interesting. Maybe it would be best to flip through the book backward.

Read forward, properly, The Stones of Florence unfortunately becomes annoying in a hurry. The author begins with the obligatory chapter announcing what Florence is really like, circa 1963 -- hot, drab, and unwelcoming -- and insulting tourists essentially for not knowing what she knows. Why do intellectuals hate tourists? Is this a Western phenomenon, or do Japanese tourists, for example, also hate fellow Japanese tourists abroad, and write books about how dumb they look?

By page 49, I had reached this, after wading through a short discussion on the popularity of the classic Greek look in Renaissance sculpture -- "Naturally, in none of this statuary, which was once a la mode (nor in the graceful Cellini either), is there a grain of that local tender piety, religious or civic, that appears in its purest, most intense concentration in Donatello ...." And my brain now up and spoke of its own accord. Woman, it asked, who has told you all this? You are not a native Florentine, no more than the tourists. And what in blazes is "local tender piety"?

After that, I did a bit more skimming, forward, but then gave up. The book has no theme or story of any kind to tell, and the author herself seems to have no voice. If she was aiming for the cool detachment that the reviewers quoted on the back of the book praise her for, then I suggest she succeeded too well. She has many wonderful facts at her disposal, and I can vaguely tell that the chapters are meant to cover certain topics -- painting here, history there, at the end art restoration, and how wrong Ruskin was about the essential Giottos he thought he saw -- but reading the book only inspired me to ask that dread, necessary question which all writers should ask themselves, many times, and then forestall in others by the quality of their answering performance. So what? For me, and despite her obvious abilities, she had no answer.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and Frances Gies

About ten years ago, Commentary published an article on the demise of the secondary source intellectual. It was too bad, the author wrote, that standards in the publishing world had become not so much very professional, as so very professorial. Nowadays, anyone with a book to write on some topic or other, anyone who wanted a prayer of being taken seriously, had first to do what historians looking for a Ph.D. and tenure at a university do: go and unearth primary sources and write from original research, even though the resulting book might develop the same theme and reach the same conclusions as it would have done from the support of secondary sources only, bound and ready in good public libraries. Oh, and to have a prayer of being taken seriously, it was best to already have a Ph.D., before getting to work.

Indeed, it was too bad. Secondary source intellectuals, urbane and entertaining writers whose "Acknowledgements" used to be profuse in thanks to librarians and typists, had often produced delightful, unusual stuff which amused and educated the general reader. And they did, even if only for the satisfaction of their own muse, what I suppose could be called the Lord's work. (The muse's work?) Look at the flyleaf of an older book, and see the long variegated lists of topics "By the same author." A biography of Disraeli might precede a book on gardening and follow a personal travel journal or a history of Dutch art. The muses were wonderfully busy.

Life in a Medieval Castle is an example of the kind of secondary source history whose demise Commentary's author regretted. Its bibliography contains nothing like the Calendars of State Papers that all of today's "real" professionals consult. In it we also find those entrancing old references that the secondary source writer takes seriously, but that the professional today would either ignore or eagerly set aside to explore at some later time in order to write a new, original source monograph dissecting that source for its own sake. Who on earth, for instance, was Ella Armitage, and why did she write and publish Early Norman Castles in 1912? No matter. Joseph and Frances Gies found her worthwhile, and not as a specimen.

The Gieses were a married couple who concentrated on medieval history in their long and, let me say speedily, respected professional career. It may be that in all their other books they worked from original sources, and only relaxed a bit with this one. It's a good book, but is essentially a compilation of good, secondary source information lacking that new theme or major conclusion, exclamation point, with which a scrabbler-through of state papers would want to astonish the world. It's the kind of book that an advanced high school student or undergraduate would use if he needed information on "A Day in the Castle" (chapter VI), "The Villagers" (chapter VIII), or "The Castle at War" (chapter X).

Having said all this, let me assert that this deceptively brief book is packed with information, including long passages from other people's translations of primary medieval sources, that teaches the reader anew about the complexity and sophistication of the medieval world. Sometimes we are so anxious not to romanticize a glamorous-looking former time and place that we fail to do it justice -- we muddy it up with truthful assertions about its misery and filth and disease, forgetting that not everybody was miserable and sick all the time. The chapter on falconry alone raised my respect for this society and what it had the patience and passion to accomplish, merely for amusement. Then castles with stone walls twenty-four feet thick for a start, and the intricate workings of laws and rights governing village life and the common people's relation to authority, the hard labor of pre-industrial farming and the hard play of pagan-tinged holidays, -- all are recorded here and all combine to make the modern person feel he is skating along on the froth of life, held up by a web of blessed technology but completely ignorant of what survival, medieval-style, really meant. Electro-magnetic pulse attack, anyone? No, it's not the name of a rock group.

There are a few small surprises here. Little things, bits of information that we would think someone would have explained to us by now. (Perhaps this is why the Gieses are respected professionals.) The castle, the authors write, served a specific purpose. It was a private fortress sheltering a lord, his family and servants, and his small private army against larger outside forces during troublous times. Castles were first built by Byzantine Greeks campaigning in isolation in North Africa in the sixth century A.D. Adapted by the Muslim conquerors of medieval Spain and perfected by the barons and kings of northern Europe, the castle was the supremely powerful piece of medieval military technology as long as medieval conditions, military, economic, and social, obtained. It was nothing if not rural, nothing if not in command of rural life. Farm and village needed the castle's protection; the castle needed the farms' food and the villagers' labor and occasional service in war. When those conditions changed, when cities and merchants amassed more wealth in coin than the countryside could produce in kind and when centralized government took up the reins of power, the rural private fortress became obsolete. The introduction of gunpowder and cannon also helped batter it to pieces.

One more small surprise among all this professional information concerns the seemingly bizarre nature of European farming in the middle ages. I declare I will never understand this. Northern Europe is startlingly far north. Paris lies at about the same latitude as the Canadian-U.S. border, farther north than Lake Superior. The famed castles of Wales lie still farther north, at the same latitude as Newfoundland. Yet Chapter XI, "The Castle Year," describes an agricultural cycle by which crops were sown in "the winter," from late September to Christmas, and then different crops sown from Christmas to Easter, "the spring." Summer came after Easter week, and lasted till the first of August. The harvest, autumn, fell from August 1st to the end of September. Then a new agricultural year started with the winter planting.

I can certainly understand harvesting crops in September, and I understand that our American, continental climate is far harsher in general than Europe's, but I still stand in amazement at records showing that ground could be worked and seeds planted in December, January, or February. Yea verily, it almost sounds like evidence of global warming. If so, I would think the more of it, the better.

And where are today's equivalents of the Gieses, hardworking scholars who produced reliable, enjoyable secondary-source stuff for the erudition and enjoyment of the general reading public? Have they been driven out of the publishing world by gatekeepers competing for scarce dollars, and unwilling to offer the public, for those dollars, anything that seems unoriginal -- relaxed, unastonishing, unprofessorial? The author of Commentary's article compared the breed, if memory serves, to a butterfly, bright and lovely while it lived but evidently too fragile to survive. Too bad. The approved professionals nowadays sometimes seem all so uniformly moth-ish.