2

Portrait of a Husband

Back when I first read The Scent of Secrets, Jane Thynne’s series centred on a German movie star/spy, I expressed an interest in learning more about the Nazi wives.

Well, when I was at Powell’s last year, I found Magda Goebbels: The First Lady of the Third Reich by Hans-Otto Meissner. I didn’t even hesitate picking it up.

This book was published in German in 1978. Meissner begins the book by telling readers that although his own father, Dr. Otto Meissner was the head of the Reich Presidential Administration from 1919 until 1945, he and his father were both acquitted of wrongdoing during the de-Nazification tribunal in 1947.

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That’s part of what makes this book so compelling: the author knew his subject. They socialized together! Her friends felt comfortable telling him stories afterwards because they were all part of the same social circle.

This was always going to be an interesting book – Magda Goebbels was married to the man in charge of Nazi propaganda! She died with him at the very end, taking their six young children with them. The fact that the author knew Magda and her friends added something to this book that I wasn’t expecting.

However.

This also limited Meissner. I got the sense that parts of his portrait of Magda were softened, intending to make her more of a victim than a perpetrator. In speaking with some of her friends, he agreed to keep some names out of the book because they were still living and quite well known. In this way, Meissner reminds readers that he was on the inside, and we are not.

The biggest issue I had with this book though (and if you’ve kicked around here for a while, you won’t be surprised) was that for much of the book Meissner looks at Joseph Goebbels.

Look, obviously Joseph Goebbels was a big deal. But I didn’t pick up the book Magda Goebbels to read all about Joseph’s hopes, dreams and frustrations. Like, is it so impossible for those who write biographies about women to just write about the women? Yes, sometimes their husband’s work or personality has bearing on what happens (and that’s certainly true here) but the focus should still always be on the women. Whole chapters of this book were dedicated to Joseph Goebbels and his education and how he became a Nazi. Overall, I still don’t feel like I know anything more about Magda.

In the end, Meissner scored some points with me for ending his book thus:

If there is a hell and its ruler incarnate, Goebbels would presumably have been greeted warmly as a kinsman. A place at the devil’s table must long since have been kept for the monster who so richly deserved it, right next to the Prince of Darkness himself.

I mean, damn. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a biography where the biographer inserts himself so fully into the book. It was an interesting experience and no doubt I would have enjoyed it so much more had I actually come to understand Magda Goebbels herself at all.

I’m still on the lookout for more books about Magda and the other Nazi wives…

8

Non-Fiction November: Be the Expert

This week as part of Non-fiction November, we’re thinking like experts. We’re either being the expert, asking the experts or becoming an expert.

I have been most looking forward to this week, hosted by Julz @ Julz Reads.

For as long as I’ve been reading, I’ve been obsessed with Royals, mainly female Royals. I’ve read about Tudors and Yorks, Romanovs, Stuarts, Windsors, even a Bernadotte or two. I’ve read about minor German duchies, Spanish Infantas, French Queens, and Austrian Empresses. I’ve read about Elizabethans, Georgians, Edwardians, and the Restoration.

I will forever be drawn to Royals.

Here are some of my favourite  books about Royal women (in no particular order):

The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport. I’d read a lot about Nicholas and Alexandra by the time I read this one. Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were always mentioned as their lives intersected with their parents’. Their deaths at such young ages meant that they were never really known as their own people. Rappaport’s book was the first time I was introduced to the sisters as individuals. The whole thing is of course, totally sad, because ultimately you know how their story ends.

The Mystery of Princess Louise by Lucinda Hawksley. Princess Louise, was the sixth child and fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. She was unusual in that she convinced her parents to let her have an artistic education. She was quite a talented sculptor, married a commoner (as much a commoner as the era would allow anyway, he was still in line to a Dukedom), and spent part of her life in Canada when her husband was appointed Governor-General. The province of Alberta is named for her.

Anything by Julia P. Gelardi. She is, hands down, my favourite Royals biographer. She has written three books looking at multiple Royals. Five Granddaughters, which looks at the lives of the Queens of Norway, Russia, Spain, Romania and Greece, each of whom was a granddaughter of Queen Victoria; In Triumph’s Wake, which looks at the lives of incredibly successful Queens (Victoria, Maria-Theresa and Isabella of Spain) and their very tragic daughters (Vicky, Marie-Antoinette, Katherine of Aragon); and From Splendour to Revolution, which takes on some of the Romanov women, from 1847-1928. Anyone of them is so very worth your time – I can’t even pick a favourite.

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. Catherine was Empress of Russia but she was also a woman. Massie’s portrait of her manages to do justice to both sides of this august historical figure.

Ambition and Desire: The Dangerous Life of Josephine Bonaparte by Kate Williams. Before reading this, my knowledge of Josephine was that she was always really well dressed. Williams introduced me to a completely different person, a woman who was born on a remote island, who kicked and scratched her way through life. It was exquisitely researched and I loved every page. (Williams is actually a prolific author. She has many books about royal woman, as well as fiction books like the WWI series that starts with The Storms of War. I totally read it – also quite good)

The Reluctant Empress by Brigitte Hamann. The first time I ever became aware of Empress Elisabeth of Austria was when I was actually in Austria. Her portrait, the Winterhalter one of her in a white dress with diamond stars in her hair, is everywhere. I bought this biography of her while I was there. Empress Elisabeth wasn’t supposed to marry Franz-Joseph, her sister was. But he fell in love with Elisabeth and she with him. Life at the very formal Austrian court turned out to be a lot to handle for a young woman raised in an informal Bavarian household. She spent the rest of her life searching for ways to avoid court life, to live as free as possible away from the gossip and the rules that otherwise governed her life.

Well those should get you started should you feel the need to better acquaint yourself with some of these Royals. If you know of a good one, please let me know. I’m always looking for more.

19

2016 TBR Pile Challenge: Matriarch

We’re getting pretty close to the end of the year! Which means holidays, darker days, lots of eating scheduled, and that I’m running out of time to complete the Unofficial 2016 TBR Pile Challenge.

I’m not quite throwing in the towel, but I’m starting to resign myself to the fact that it might not happen this year.

But the year isn’t quite over, so I dug into Matriarch: Queen Mary and the House of Windsor by Anne Edwards.

So Queen Mary was the real deal. She was born a Princess, but was one of those impoverished relatives who spent her youth putting off creditors and relying on other, more well-off relatives for extended visits.

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At some point, Queen Victoria decided that lovely, clever, dignified Princess May (she was born Victoria Mary Augusta Louisa Olga Pauline Claudine Agnes but was called May after the month of her birth) would be the perfect wife for second-heir Prince Eddy (eldest son of heir Bertie, who would become King Edward VII). But then Eddy had to go and die (he was an odd duck, a possible homosexual and rumoured to have been Jack the Ripper) and after a suitable period of mourning, her “affections” were transferred to Prince Eddy’s younger brother, Prince George (who would go on to become King George V).

Here’s the number one thing I learned about Queen Mary: she believed in the power of Monarchy. She was dignified, a core of strength for her family during some dark days and she revered the position of Monarch.

“Queen Mary had lived her life with dedication to the principle of Monarchy, and she died as she had lived, as her Sovereign’s most devoted subject.”

Seriously – Queen Mary is the reason Queen Elizabeth II is as dedicated as she is. She was the role model for duty before everything else. Also, early pictures of Princess May show a remarkable resemblance to QEII, and now to Princess Charlotte.

She wasn’t a warm mother and most of her children had a distant relationship with her. But everyone agrees that in any capacity (as Princess May, Princess of Wales, Queen Consort or Queen Mother) she was always the very personification of dignity. She loved to dress well and because of her incredibly regal bearing, she was able to wear an insane amount of jewels (ropes of pearls, diamond necklaces stacked all up her neck, tiaras, jewelled stomachers, bracelets, rings and any number of jewel encrusted orders) and look just right.

Queen Mary’s life covered an incredible amount of history: born in the Victorian era, she lived through the reigns of Edward VII, George V, Edward VIII and George VI. She died just before the coronation of her granddaughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

And while Anne Edwards’ book is very thorough and clearly well researched, the whole time I couldn’t help but think “but this is Queen Mary’s book.”

A lot of this book looks at the reigns and troubles of the men in her life: her father-in-law, husband and later, her sons. And while there’s no way to tell Queen Mary’s story without also talking about the wars, relationships with various Royal relatives (she never got over the fact that they weren’t able to save their cousin Tsar Nicholas II and his family), and her son’s Abdication, their stories aren’t hers. I found myself frustrated  by all the time spent talking about the education of her sons , their loves and travels.

I wanted Queen Mary only.

That said, I’m glad to have finally read this book. It’d been on my list for ages.

10

Internet Rabbit Hole: The Cushing Sisters

After I finished Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue, I found myself down an internet rabbit hole. I started by looking for pictures of Babe Paley and friends, and ended up smack dab in the middle of images of the infamous Black and White Ball.

It became clear pretty quickly that I was going to have to read more about Babe and friends.

A quick google pointed me in the direction of David Grafton’s The Sisters: The Lives and Times of the Fabulous Cushing Sisters. This book covers the lives and loves of Minnie Astor Fosburgh, Betsey Roosevelt Whitney and of course, Babe Mortimer Paley. My library pulled it out of storage for me (this book was published in 1992, when Betsey was still alive!) which made me kind of feel like a historian and reminded me, again, of how much I love my awesome library.

(Also, 1992 does NOT feel that long ago but it IS!)

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Minnie and Betsey aren’t mentioned that much in Benjamin’s book – it’s definitely more focused on Babe, the most famous of the three, her relationship with Truman Capote and his “Swans.” But Betsey and Minnie were interesting in their own right. At a time when marriage was a woman’s highest ambition, Betsey, Minnie and Babe managed to turn their upper “middle class” origin (their father was a pre-eminent neurosurgeon but whatever) into the kind of lives that most only dream of. Groomed from birth to marry well by their ambitious mother, each ended up marrying into the very highest echelons of American society.

I enjoyed this book, especially once we get to the Truman sections and learn all about how that all went down (honestly, Benjamin pretty well nails it in her book), but it still didn’t feel like the first story. It felt like Grafton himself was a fan, and was scared to dive too deep into the truth for fear of offending his subjects and their friends. For example, there are hints in Benjamin’s book that Babe’s first husband hit her but Grafton only mentions that after the war, Stanley Mortimer came back different and that he drank too much and was prone to dark moods. And then he just kind of fades into the background.

It’s also not a balanced biography. Obviously, one of the sisters was more famous than the others but, while Betsey’s early marriage to President Roosevelt’s son gets early play, Minnie, who married an Astor,  barely gets any page time. Once Truman enters the scene, we rarely hear from the elder Cushing sisters. I would have also liked to read more about how the sisters interacted with each other.

Grafton also as a tendency to be repetitive. I was fairly certain that I was going to scream if I read about “top drawer” American society again. Same with “scions”, “upper echelons”, “society hostess Elsa Maxwell” etc. Again, you get the sense that Grafton is completely blinded by the wealth and prestige of his subject matter to want to paint anything but the most flattering portrait. And it’s really not all good – by all accounts, Babe was a neglectful mother, intent on her persona in society at the expense of time with her kids, Minnie married an “avowed” homosexual and potentially never consummated either of her marriages and Betsey’s relationship with her sisters was fraught, at best.

And yet, my interest has been piqued. I still want more. Someone tell me that J. Randy Taraborrelli is planning a biography of the Cushings! Or someone who is excellent at sister biographies:  Mary S. Lovell? Julia P. Gelardi? Can I interest you in subject matter for a new book?

9

Jennie Churchill

Mary S. Lovell wrote an incredible biography of The Churchills as a whole. It ably covered Sunny and Winston and Randolph and Clemmie and Winston’s kids and Consuela but it was Jennie that I wanted to know more about.

(Lovell also wrote an equally fantastic book about The Mitford sisters that is absolutely worth reading)

I accidentally found myself in the library again last week and came across Anne Sebba’s Jennie Churchill: Winston’s American Mother. I’d read Sebba’s That Woman about Wallis Warfield Simpson and really liked it so I was confident that her handling of Jennie’s story would be just as good.

Jennie Churchill, like Wallis after her, was a bit of a controversial figure in her time. It wasn’t until much later, years after her death in fact, when her son became The Winston Churchill, that she underwent a kind of makeover, to show her to be some kind of saintly mother who believed in and loved her son above all else. After all,

In 1921 [when Jennie died] the scale of Winston’s importance could only be guessed at by most. He himself feared that his career might already be over. It took another thirty years before he was hailed as ‘The Greatest Briton’. Jennie already knew it.

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Jennie Jerome was beautiful, clever and rich. Her father, Leonard, had a gift of making money but he was equally adept at losing large amounts of it. Eventually his wife Clara and their daughters, Clara, Jennie and Leonie, decamped to Paris where the cost of living was lower. It was also easier for upstart Americans to be admitted into the right society in Paris – society was so much stricter in England.

Still, eventually the Jeromes found themselves at Crewe, which is where Jennie met Randolph Churchill, second son of the Duke of Marlborough. By now we’re all familiar with the scores of rich American women that married into the British aristocracy as an attempt to finance and save their properties. But when Jennie met Randolph, this wasn’t yet common; Jennie was actually one of the first to do it.

This book is only 331 pages but Jennie (and Randolph and Winston) lived a LIFE. So a lot went on. In an effort to pique your interest but not have your eyes glaze over from details, here are some of the more interesting points:

  • Jennie was married three times. First to Randolph, with whom she had two children. The second and third times to men MUCH younger than her. One was said to have been the handsomest man of his generation (although to look at his picture, of a balding man with a moustache who looks at least 15 years older than his age, we have very different standards of beauty now)
  • She is said to have had around 200 lovers. Sebba doesn’t think it was that high but for a woman of her generation she definitely had more than the average. Probably at least 30, including Prince Albert Edward, later King Edward VII.
  • She was always poor. Her father ended up losing all his money and from then the Jerome sisters have to kind of shift for themselves. Not so easy when you think about the confines society placed on women at the time. And yet, they still managed to go to Paris, to go to house parties for fancy dress, to rent incredible homes that were fully staffed…
  • She was an incredibly horrible mother to Winston and Jack when they were kids. In later years, yes she became devoted to her boys, especially Winston. But when they were small and needed the attentions of their mother, when Winston was having the sh*t beaten out of him by his teachers at school and BEGGED for a visit or a letter, she completely ignored them.
  • She travelled all around the world. She organized for a hospital ship to go to South Africa during the Boer War and ended up going on it to help out. And when her husband, Randolph, was dying in 1894, she went on a round the world trip with him.
  • Before she died she had her leg amputated above the knee. She loved high heels and was wearing a pair when she hurried into dinner and slipped and fell down some stairs. It was quite a bad fracture and two weeks later, although the swelling had gone down, her skin had gone black from gangrene. She hemorrhaged to death as a result of the amputation.

Oh yes, Jennie Jerome was quite the woman. I appreciate that Sebba looked at her as her own woman, not as the wife of Randolph or the mother of Winston, despite the title. She lived and loved on her own terms and I suspect that she was really quite ok with the way her life turned out.

17

Reading Italy: The Deadly Sisterhood

In a week’s time I will finally be heading out on my honeymoon! Three glorious weeks away from regular life. We have a wedding to attend in Barcelona and then we’re going to Italy for two weeks before spending several days in Amsterdam, one of our very favourite cities.

So to prepare, I decided I’d better read up on some Italian history. And since I love reading about historical women most of all, I thought Leonie Frieda’s The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance 1427-1527 would be right up my alley.

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This book is mainly about Caterina Sforza, Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella D’Este, but we also meet some of their more overlooked contemporaries like Isabella D’Aragona, Clarice Orsini and Beatrice D’Este. The biggest issue I had when I tried to read a Lucrezia Borgia biography in the past was that her life was told as it related to the men in her life. The men made the decisions about who she should marry and where she should live. It made it seem like she had nothing to do with anything. What I appreciated about Frieda’s book was that she showed that these women did play a more active part in politics and business, as well as family life.

That said, this book was not easy to read. Italian history is complicated. During the Renaissance, modern day Italy was a collection of independent duchies and kingdoms, each fighting to be the most powerful. Generations of Medicis, Gonzagas, Ferarras, Sforzas and D’Estes intermarried to try and create a most perfect political alliance. Seriously, the intermarrying! It made everyone related somehow and so many were called Isabella or Alfonso or Giovanni it was hard to be sure who she was talking about. I think that Frieda’s attempt at covering the lives and loves of no less than seven Renaissance women was ambitious. In order to understand the connections between the houses and why things are significant the reader needs to know a LOT of information about a LOT of different things: popes, battles, politics, the French, money, religion etc. I found it really difficult to keep it all straight.

Here are some other things I thought while I was reading The Deadly Sisterhood:

  • We need to bring back some of these names! Rodrigo, Cesare, Ippolita, Ferrante, Ercole, Lucrezia, Girolamo, Ludovico, Giodobaldo!  These need to come back.
  • Hey, they were on The Borgias! I was surprised at how much of the subject matter was already familiar to me from when I watched The Borgias last year.
  • Caterina Sforza was a badass. Seriously. Her husbands were useless so she had no issue running out and doing battle herself.
  • Getting married off at 15 would suck. I know that’s how things were back then and people live longer now but still. Getting married at 15, probably to someone who was 40, would suck.
  • People got stabbed to death a lot. Such a treacherous time to be alive. Mostly for men. But Caterina Sforza probably arranged a stabbing or two in her lifetime.

I liked learning a little more about the women who were such an important part of the early Renaissance but I’m not sure that anything stuck. There were too many people to keep straight, too many politics to have to understand for anything to really sink in. I appreciate what Frieda was trying to do in shining a spotlight on all these incredible women but I think that there were too many to do justice to any one.

8

Royal Women: The Romanov Sisters

You guys know that I LOVE reading about Royals. Royal women are probably my favourite non-fiction subject to read about. For Christmas, you may remember I asked Santa to bring me The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport.

My letter must have missed him because, no dice.

But then for my birthday, my friend got it for me! I actually shrieked with delight when I unwrapped it because a) I really wanted to read this book and b) it was the only book I got for my birthday if you can believe that. I meant to savour it, I tried really hard to hold off reading it, just enjoy the having. But I couldn’t.

I posted about this on instagram but every time I read about the last Romanovs I’m just so sad the whole time. No matter how glamorous or beautiful or wonderful their lives might have seemed at the time, you know that it won’t last, that their end will be horrific. And it makes me sad.

This one was harder to read than anything previously because Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia were so young. They paid the ultimate price for things that really they had nothing to do with. I’ve read a lot about Nicholas and Alexandra, how their marriage was a true love match, how Alexandra’s debilitating shyness made her seem like a snob, their complete reliance on Rasputin, how they both hated the bureaucracy of governance and would have preferred the life of the landed gentry in England. But before this book I’d only read about the girls as their lives related to their parents’ – their births, some of the illnesses. But they were never fully formed people.

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The Romanov Sisters finally introduced me to the daughters as people in their own right. Olga, serious and intelligent, a worthy successor to her father if only the rules hadn’t favoured male offspring; beautiful Tatiana who found her calling as a nurse during the Great War, taking charge when her mother’s illnesses kept her in bed; charming, sweet, self-effacing Maria, the girl that boys who met her wanted to marry – Louis Mountbatten kept a picture of her in his room until the day he died; and mischievous Anastasia,who didn’t have a great love for the classroom but loved military parades and acting in plays for her family. Their lives were short and extremely sheltered – for years their biggest outing was a weekly trip to their aunt’s house for tea – but by all accounts they were polite, charming and totally devoted to each other.

There were a lot of mistakes that were made in the lives of Nicholas and Alexandra. There’s no way to know if anything done differently would have actually changed anything. I suspect that if some major things had been different (for example had they been honest with the Russian people about Alexei’s hemophaelia, they wouldn’t have needed Rasputin) their end might have been different too. They would have at least been able to escape. Rappaport has written other books about the last Romanovs where she follows them to the very end. In The Romanov Sisters she chooses to leave them right before the end. She writes that it was an emotional experience writing about them, spending so much time with them over the months that she was writing. I totally understand the decision. I’ve read about the ending – I prefer to think of the sisters as they were: in lovely white dresses with big white hats, laughing together.

One of the last letters that Olga wrote from Ekaterinburg really had me choking up. It was true then and it’s true today:

“…that they should remember that the evil there now is in the world will become yet more powerful, and that it is not evil that will conquer evil – only love.”