Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Versailles Christmas-tide by Mary Stuart Boyd

A pleasant little book. I downloaded it from Project Gutenberg without any of its illustrations, to save memory on my Kindle, but that may have been a mistake; judging by the space allotted them, half the point of the memoir seems to have been the  pictures. They were drawn by the author's husband A. S. Boyd, whose art appeared in Punch and who himself appeared in the Who's Who of 1900.

Even bereft so, it's a pleasant little book. The Boyds, an English couple, receive word that their teenaged son, away at school in Versailles, has come down with scarlet fever. They set out at once -- "it was full noon when the news came, and nightfall saw us dashing through the murk of a wild mid-December night towards Dover pier" -- and after about a day and a half, a boat, a train to Paris, a drive across the city, and another train bring them "jolting in a fiacre over the stony streets of Versailles."

The following nine chapters gently tell the story of the parents' observations and small adventures while they winter unexpectedly in this eerily forgotten corner of France. Only twelve miles from Paris, "Versailles is not ancient; it is old, completely old. Since the fall of the Second Empire it has stood still. Most of the clocks have run down, as though they realised the futility of trying to keep pace with the rest of the world." The Boy recovers, as we know he will (this is not a writer to stun us with a tragedy at the end). Since he is being nursed by the Soeur of the Red Cross hospital in town, who only seems to allow parental visits at mealtimes, Mr. and Mrs. Boyd simply wait, and knock about Versailles for the better part of a month. They watch the goings-on among their fellow hotel guests, or at the vegetable market, where they buy and decorate a Christmas tree as a surprise for the invalid. Because it is Christmas, they watch the goings-on at the local Notre Dame, where silent worshipers contemplate a crèche, or attend to private spiritual needs.

Here a pretty girl returned thanks for evident blessings received; there an old spinster, the narrowness of whose means forbade her expending a couple of sous on the hire of a chair, knelt on the chilly flags and murmured words of gratitude for benefits whereof her appearance bore no outward indication.

Most interesting for the modern reader are the Boyds' leisurely tours of the palace of Versailles in the days before it was -- I should think -- a full-on, cleaned-up tourist destination, as crowded and lockstep with routines and défendus as it probably ever was when the Sun King's court adored him there. Early on in her book, Mrs. Boyd quickly sketches memories of a previous, rubberneck visit -- "a palace of fatiguing magnificence" -- but now in the off season while she is living in the town, she goes there again and really explores. Now she is given a private tour of the hidden staircase, "dark, narrow, and hoary with the dust of years," by which Marie Antoinette fled the invading crowds in October, 1789, and she claims to have asked to see it only after surmising, all on her own, that it must exist. ("... I was puzzling over the transparent fact that either of the apparent exits would have led her directly into the hands of the enemy, when the idea of a secret staircase suggested itself.") She visits the hameau, the queen's little fake dairy farm, and records it still abandoned and unkempt because its previous owners had been dragged away. Her writing is very pretty, and deserves quoting at length.

About the pillars supporting the verandah-roof of the chief cottage and that of the wide balcony above, roses and vines twined lovingly. And though it was the first day of January the rose foliage was yet green and bunches of shrivelled grapes clung to the vines. It was lovely then; yet a day or two later, when a heavy snowfall had cast a white mantle over the village, and the litle lake was frozen hard, the scene seemed still more beautiful in its ghostly purity.

At first sight there was no sign of decay about the long-deserted hamlet. The windows were closed, but had it been ealy morning, one could easily have imagined that the pseudo villagers were alseep behind the shuttered casements, and that soon the Queen, in some charming déshabillé, woudl come out to breathe the sweet morning air and to inhale the perfume of the climbing roses on the balcony overloking the lake, where gold-fish darted to and fro among the water-lilies ....

The sunset glamour had faded and the premature dusk of mid-winter was falling as, approaching nearer, we saw where the roof-thatch had decayed, where the insidious finger of Time had crumbled the stone walls. A chilly wind arising, moaned through the naked trees. The shadow of the guillotine seemed to brood oppressively over the scene, and, shuddering, we hastened away.

I'm sure I don't know why, but perhaps some psychiatrist could explain why middle class, middle aged women, perhaps particularly Anglo women, stand ever fascinated by Marie Antoinette. Do French or for that matter Austrian women swoon over her quite as much? Do we recognize her as one of our own, though shrouded in far more than the glamor of mere foreignness? Stefan Zweig subtitled his biography of her "Portrait of an Average Woman," in keeping with his thesis that her fate and the fate of those around her might have been less tragic had she possessed any outsize abilities. Perhaps we like her because we see her as wife, mother, interested in friends, parties, rehabbing the house, elevated as a teenager to the highest and richest and most delightful sphere -- first Dauphine, then Queen of France! -- above all, innocent. Mrs. Boyd's book on visiting her ill son would have been far shorter had she not included two whole chapters on this woman and a great many of her compeers ("to me the Palace of Versailles is peopled by the ghosts of many women"). But her fascination with the queen fascinates also because, as a practical matter, from this witness in 1900 we enjoy the ghoulish little thrill of seeing the hameau as it can never be again. For her it was a crumbling but living thing. With her we can look at the rotting thatch and murmur inwardly, "just a little more than a hundred years ago ... not even repaired." I doubt it's quite so authentically, "oppressively" ghostly today.


Image from, the official website of the Château de Versailles.

Yes, the Boy recovers. Like the boy in the (oppressive) children's story The Velveteen Rabbit, his things all have to be burned once he is well -- which is why his parents, in all their hurry, took care to bring him only old outgrown toys from his playroom at home anyway. It was 1900. No antibiotics. Apparently time, luck, emotional succor, and a boiled milk diet saw him through. At the end of it he is able to say, in the speech patterns only a Victorian thirteen-year-old could muster, " 'Do you know, I've rather enjoyed it!' " And so have we.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Iliad, Book 2

School teachers spend their careers warning students against simply summarizing the plot of a book they've been assigned to write about. True enough. You're supposed to reflect on your book, not merely know how it's ordered. But the grandest classics are not like ordinary books. When coping with them, we still have to double check the course of action -- and often we're surprised at what we have already missed -- because to fail to do so is to go on ignorant of their complexities, and so miss the point of age-old reputations and age-old lessons. By the time we soldier through Book 24 of the Iliad ("and so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses") we'll hope to have processed the plot accurately enough for all the worthiest personal-and-yet-universal extracts to assert themselves.

So, Book 2.  

Zeus, having promised the sea-goddess Thetis that he would wreak some sort of havoc among the Greek (Achaean) troops outside Troy as vengeance for King Agamemnon having taken Achilles' woman away from him (Achilles is Thetis' son), -- lies awake on Olympus wondering how to accomplish this. He decides to send a dream to the king in the form of the Achaean wise man Nestor. The dream "Nestor" duly urges him to renew the war against Troy, because the gods have finally determined on Greek victory.

After he wakes, Agamemnon calls a council of his chiefs and tells them what has happened. All including Nestor agree that this dream must be trustworthy, and that now is the time for action. However, Agamemnon further decides that "according to time-honored custom" the troops should be tested before battle: he will announce to all of them that the siege of Troy has proved futile and that they should "cut and run."

When the king does this, the soldiers take him at his word and bolt for the ships. The goddess Hera is appalled and sends Athena down to stop the panic. The first man she goes to is Odysseus, who was furious at the panic to begin with. Commanded by Athena to calm the men, he ranges among them, exhorting his equals and lambasting the commoners to order. Last to be controlled is the strange,  deformed, obscenity-spewing Thersites, who finally earns a crack on the head with Odysseus' scepter and a relieved laugh from the armies.

With Athena beside him, Odysseus now speaks to the throngs and to Agamemnon. He acknowledges that the war has been long, but reminds them of the sign given to them at a sacrifice held before they sailed for Troy -- they all witnessed the omen of a snake devouring a nest of eight fledgling birds and their mother, and of the snake then being turned to stone; they all remember the explanation of this portent was that the war against Troy would last nine years, but that the city would in the end fall.

The men are cheered by this, and Nestor echoes Odysseus' encouragement. He seems briefly to allude to Achilles' absence from the scene -- "Let them rot, the one or two who hatch their plans apart from all the troops; what good can they win from that?" -- and he advises the king to marshal the men by tribes and clans so that any cowardice among them will stand out most shamefully. Agamemnon salutes Nestor for his advice,  comments briefly himself on his fight with Achilles ("imagine, I and Achilles wrangling over a girl"), and then the troops disperse to eat and make a sacrifice before battle commences.

The rest of Book 2 is a list of the legions making up the Achaean and then the Trojan army ("who were the captains of the Achaean army? Who were the kings?"). The largest Greek contingent is that from Mycenae, commanded by Agamemnon; his brother, Menelaus, leads the forces from Lacedaemon, "and his own heart blazed the most to avenge the groans and shocks of war they'd borne for Helen." Odysseus hails from Ithaca, Idomeneus from Crete. We get a glimpse of "Nireus the handsomest man who ever came to Troy," but who only commands three ships and is a lightweight. We see Achilles and his fifty ships' worth of men, out of action because of Achilles' rage at losing Briseis.

The goddess Iris now flies down from heaven to the Trojans in their assembly, demanding that the Trojan king Priam open the gates and send the army out to meet the invaders. Despite her disguise, Priam's son Hector recognizes divinity and obeys her instantly. He "breaks up the assembly," and the Trojans pour out onto the plain. They are much more quickly described, their two greatest heroes being Hector and Aeneas.