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15 December 2014

Midwinter Music


We’re in the midst of the mid-winter holiday season. We celebrate different holidays or just the winter season itself, with family, friends, and co-workers at events ranging from cocktail parties to cookie exchanges to potlucks (above Mélanie and I are celebrating with our good friend, the fabulous writer Veronica Wolff (also known as Auntie V) at a lovely holiday luncheon hosted by Catherine Coulter). But the events share warmth and celebration of those we care about – and many involve music. I recently wrote a blog for the Merola Opera Program in which I asked my co-workers and some of our board and alumni to share their favorite holiday or winter-themed music. Some common themes emerged but also wonderful variety (notably Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas) but also wonderful variety ranging from Beethoven's Ninth to The Chipmunks Christmas.

This prompted me to think about music my characters might associate with the season. A lot of holiday music comes from the Victorian era and the 1940s (eras that did not shy away from sentiment). One of my more embarrassing errors was to use Stille Nacht in Vienna Waltz when it wasn't written until 1816, two years after the 1814 setting of the novel (I always set in trouble when I assume I  know research facts).  However I can use God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen (the earliest known publication is a 1760 broadsheet).

My choices for the Merola blog post were distinctly 20th century, I, too, love Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. But two pieces of music this time of year have special associations for me with my mother and my daughter. My Mom and I always sang Rodgers & Hart’s The Shortest Day of the Year on the Winter Solstice. I still sit down at the piano and play and sing it, now with my daughter. My three-year-old daughter, Mélanie loves Diana Krall’s holiday CD, particularly Jingle Bells which she calls “Jingle Bells Away.” We put it on and dance around the house. We started doing this last holiday season and have been playing it all year (it’s says something about Diana Krall’s talent and my own love of holiday music that I’m not tired of it :-).

What music evokes the season for you?

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08 December 2014

Travels in England, 1782: Visiting Parliament.

I'm really enjoying all the tidbits this book contains. Here's one about going to the House of Commons (and yes, women were allowed to visit and watch the proceedings!).

"I had almost forgotten to tell you that I have already been to the Parliament House; and yet this is of most importance.  For, had I seen nothing else in England but this, I should have thought my journey thither amply rewarded…

Westminster Hall is an enormous Gothic building, whose vaulted roof is supported, not by pillars, but instead of these there are, on each side, large unnatural heads of angels, carved in wood, which seem to support the roof.

When you have passed through this long hall, you ascend a few steps at the end, and are led through a dark passage into the House of Commons, which, below, has a large double-door; and above, there is a small staircase, by which you go to the gallery, the place allotted for strangers.

The first time I went up this small staircase, and had reached the rails, I saw a very genteel man in black standing there.  I accosted him without any introduction, and I asked him whether I might be allowed to go into the gallery.  He told me that I must be introduced by a member, or else I could not get admission there.  Now, as I had not the honour to be acquainted with a member, I was under the mortifying necessity of retreating, and again going down-stairs, as I did much chagrined.  And now, as I was sullenly marching back, I heard something said about a bottle of wine, which seemed to be addressed to me.

I could not conceive what it could mean, till I got home, when my obliging landlady told me I should have given the well-dressed man half-a-crown, or a couple of shillings for a bottle of wine.  Happy in this information, I went again the next day; when the same man who before had sent me away, after I had given him only two shillings, very politely opened the door for me, and himself recommended me to a good seat in the gallery.

And thus I now, for the first time, saw the whole of the British nation assembled in its representatives, in rather a mean-looking building, that not a little resembles a chapel.  The Speaker, an elderly man, with an enormous wig, with two knotted kind of tresses, or curls, behind, in a black cloak, his hat on his head, sat opposite to me on a lofty chair; which was not unlike a small pulpit, save only that in the front of there was no reading-desk.  Before the Speaker’s chair stands a table, which looks like an altar; and at this there sit two men, called clerks, dressed in black, with black cloaks.  On the table, by the side of the great parchment acts, lies a huge gilt sceptre, which is always taken away, and placed in a conservatory under the table, as soon as ever the Speaker quits the chair; which he does as often as the House resolves itself into a committee.  A committee means nothing more than that the House puts itself into a situation freely to discuss and debate any point of difficulty and moment, and, while it lasts, the Speaker partly lays aside his power as a legislator.  As soon as this is over, some one tells the Speaker that he may now again be seated; and immediately on the Speaker being again in the chair, the sceptre is also replaced on the table before him.

All round on the sides of the house, under the gallery, are benches for the members, covered with green cloth, always one above the other, like our choirs in churches, in order that he who is speaking may see over those who sit before him.  The seats in the gallery are on the same plan.  The members of parliament keep their hats on, but the spectators in the gallery are uncovered.

The members of the House of Commons have nothing particular in their dress.  They even come into the House in their great coats, and with boots and spurs.  It is not at all uncommon to see a member lying stretched out on one of the benches while others are debating.  Some crack nuts, others eat oranges, or whatever else is in season.  There is no end to their going in and out; and as often as any one wishes to go out, he places himself before the Speaker, and makes him his bow, as if, like a schoolboy, he asked tutor’s permission.

Those who speak seem to deliver themselves with but little, perhaps not always with even a decorous, gravity.  All that is necessary is to stand up in your place, take off your hat, turn to the Speaker (to whom all the speeches are addressed), to hold your hat and stick in one hand, and with the other to make any such motions as you fancy necessary to accompany your speech.

If it happens that a member rises who is but a bad speaker, or if what he says is generally deemed not sufficiently interesting, so much noise is made, and such bursts of laughter are raised, that the member who is speaking can scarcely distinguish his own words.  This must needs be a distressing situation; and it seems then to be particularly laughable, when the Speaker in his chair, like a tutor in a school, again and again endeavours to restore order, which he does by calling out “To order, to order,” apparently often without much attention being paid to it.

On the contrary, when a favourite member, and one who speaks well and to the purpose, rises, the most perfect silence reigns, and his friends and admirers, one after another, make their approbation known by calling out, “Hear him,” which is often repeated by the whole House at once; and in this way so much noise is often made that the speaker is frequently interrupted by this same emphatic “Hear him.”  Notwithstanding which, this calling out is always regarded as a great encouragement; and I have often observed that one who began with some diffidence, and even somewhat inauspiciously, has in the end been so animated that he has spoken with a torrent of eloquence.

As all speeches are directed to the Speaker, all the members always preface their speeches with “Sir” and he, on being thus addressed, generally moves his hat a little, but immediately puts it on again.  This “Sir” is often introduced in the course of their speeches, and serves to connect what is said.  It seems also to stand the orator in some stead when any one’s memory fails him, or he is otherwise at a loss for matter.  For while he is saying “Sir,” and has thus obtained a little pause, he recollects what is to follow.  Yet I have sometimes seen some members draw a kind of memorandum-book out of their pockets, like a candidate who is at a loss in his sermon.  This is the only instance in which a member of the British parliament seems to read his speeches…

The little less than downright open abuse, and the many really rude things which the members said to each other, struck me much.  For example, when one has finished, another rises, and immediately taxes with absurdity all that the right honourable gentleman (for with this title the members of the House of Commons always honour each other) had just advanced.  It would, indeed, be contrary to the rules of the House flatly to tell each other that what they have spoken is false, or even foolish.  Instead of this, they turn themselves, as usual, to the Speaker, and so, whilst their address is directed to him, they fancy they violate neither the rules of parliament nor those of good breeding and decorum, whilst they utter the most cutting personal sarcasms against the member or the measure they oppose.

It is quite laughable to see, as one sometimes does, one member speaking, and another accompanying the speech with his action.  This I remarked more than once in a worthy old citizen, who was fearful of speaking himself, but when his neighbour spoke he accompanied every energetic sentence with a suitable gesticulation, by which means his whole body was sometimes in motion…

Among these spectators are people of all ranks, and even, not unfrequently, ladies.  Two shorthand writers have sat sometimes not far distant from me, who (though it is rather by stealth) endeavour to take down the words of the speaker; and thus all that is very remarkable in what is said in parliament may generally be read in print the next day.  The shorthand writers, whom I noticed, are supposed to be employed and paid by the editors of the different newspapers.  There are, it seems, some few persons who are constant attendants on the parliament; and so they pay the door-keeper beforehand a guinea for a whole session

A proposal was once made to erect a gallery in the House of Peers also for the accommodation of spectators.  But this never was carried into effect.  There appears to be much more politeness and more courteous behaviour in the members of the upper House.  But he who wishes to observe mankind, and to contemplate the leading traits of the different characters most strongly marked, will do well to attend frequently the lower, rather than the other, House."

03 December 2014

Travels in England, 1782: Ranelagh Gardens

I used Ranelagh Gardens in RIPE FOR SEDUCTION, so it's very interesting to come across this first-hand account.


"Often as I had heard Ranelagh spoken of, I had yet formed only an imperfect idea of it.  I supposed it to be a garden somewhat different from that of Vauxhall; but, in fact, I hardly knew what I thought of it.  Yesterday evening I took a walk in order to visit this famous place of amusement ... At length I arrived at Ranelagh; and having paid my half-crown on entrance, I soon enquired for the garden door, and it was readily shown to me; when, to my infinite astonishment, I found myself in a poor, mean-looking, and ill-lighted garden, where I met but few people.  I had not been here long before I was accosted by a young lady, who also was walking there, and who, without ceremony, offered me her arm, asking me why I walked thus solitarily?  I now concluded, this could not possibly be the splendid, much-boasted Ranelagh; and so, seeing not far from me a number of people entering a door, I followed them, in hopes either to get out again, or to vary the scene.

But it is impossible to describe, or indeed to conceive, the effect it had on me, when, coming out of the gloom of the garden, I suddenly entered a round building, illuminated by many hundred lamps; the splendour and beauty of which surpassed everything of the kind I had ever seen before.  Everything seemed here to be round; above, there was a gallery divided into boxes; and in one part of it an organ with a beautiful choir, from which issued both instrumental and vocal music.  All around, under this gallery, are handsome painted boxes for those who wish to take refreshments: the floor was covered with mats, in the middle of which are four high black pillars; within which there are neat fire-places for preparing tea, coffee and punch; and all around, also, there are placed tables, set out with all kinds of refreshments.  Within these four pillars, in a kind of magic rotundo, all the beau-monde of London move perpetually round and round.

I at first mixed with this immense concourse of people, of all sexes, ages, countries, and characters; and I must confess, that the incessant change of faces, the far greater number of which were strikingly beautiful, together with the illumination, the extent and majestic splendour of the place, with the continued sound of the music, makes an inconceivably delightful impression on the imagination; and I take the liberty to add, that, on seeing it now for the first time, I felt pretty nearly the same sensations that I remember to have felt when, in early youth, I first read the Fairy Tales.

Being, however, at length tired of the crowd, and being tired also with always moving round and round in a circle, I sat myself down in one of the boxes, in order to take some refreshment, and was now contemplating at my ease this prodigious collection and crowd of a happy, cheerful world, who were here enjoying themselves devoid of care, when a waiter very civilly asked me what refreshments I wished to have, and in a few moments returned with what I asked for.  To my astonishment he would accept no money for these refreshments; which I could not comprehend, till he told me that everything was included in the half-crown I had paid at the door; and that I had only to command if I wished for anything more; but that if I pleased, I might give him as a present a trifling douceur.  This I gave him with pleasure, as I could not help fancying I was hardly entitled to so much civility and good attention for one single half-crown.

I now went up into the gallery, and seated myself in one of the boxes there; and from thence becoming all at once a grave and moralising spectator, I looked down on the concourse of people who were still moving round and round in the fairy circle; and then I could easily distinguish several stars and other orders of knighthood; French queues and bags contrasted with plain English heads of hair, or professional wigs; old age and youth, nobility and commonalty, all passing each other in the motley swarm.  An Englishman who joined me during this my reverie, pointed out to me on my enquiring, princes and lords with their dazzling stars; with which they eclipsed the less brilliant part of the company.

Here some moved round in an eternal circle to see and be seen; there a group of eager connoisseurs had placed themselves before the orchestra and were feasting their ears, while others at the well-supplied tables were regaling the parched roofs of their mouths in a more substantial manner, and again others, like myself, were sitting alone, in the corner of a box in the gallery, making their remarks and reflections on so interesting a scene.

I now and then indulged myself in the pleasure of exchanging, for some minutes, all this magnificence and splendour for the gloom of the garden, in order to renew the pleasing surprise I experienced on my first entering the building.  Thus I spent here some hours in the night in a continual variation of entertainment; when the crowd now all at once began to lessen, and I also took a coach and drove home.

At Ranelagh the company appeared to me much better, and more select than at Vauxhall; for those of the lower class who go there, always dress themselves in their best, and thus endeavour to copy the great.  Here I saw no one who had not silk stockings on.  Even the poorest families are at the expense of a coach to go to Ranelagh, as my landlady assured me.  She always fixed on some one day in the year, on which, without fail, she drove to Ranelagh.  On the whole the expense at Ranelagh is nothing near so great as it is at Vauxhall, if you consider the refreshments; for any one who sups at Vauxhall, which most people do, is likely, for a very moderate supper, to pay at least half-a-guinea."


17 November 2014

Remembering Dorothy Dunnett

The weekend before last, my daughter Mélanie and I spent the afternoon at a wonderful lunch party celebrating the Scottish Historical Novelist Dorothy Dunnett. All around the world, Dunnett readers gather on International Dorothy Dunnett Day (the Saturday closest to November 9, the date of her death) to celebrate her work. At 1:00, we toast in her favorite Highland Park Whisky. The pictures above shows our group toasting and below you see Mel and me with our lovely hostess Olive DePonte.

Dunnett has been a huge influence on me as a writer, and this seems a good time to repeat a post about her work and her influence on my writing that I first put up in 2007. 

I first discovered Dorothy Dunnett’s books the summer between high school and college. I picked up “The Game of Kings”, the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, and spent a couple of days curled up on the sofa, glued to the page. I promptly devoured the rest of the six volume series. I told my mother she had to read them. It took her a bit of time to get into “The Game of Kings”, but soon she was as hooked as I was.

For those who haven’t yet discovered the Lymond Chronicles, the series begins in 16th century Scotland (when Mary, Queen of Scots, is a young child) and ranges all over the Continent. At the heart of the series is Francis Crawford of Lymond, mercenary, scholar, musician. Brilliant, tortured, an enigma to the reader and to most of the other characters. A lot of the fun of the series is trying to find the key to the fascinating code of who Lymond is, both literally (his parentage is in question) and in psychological terms. There’s a wonderful supporting cast of characters, both real historical figures and fictional characters blended seamlessly together. There’s adventure, angst, political intrigue, witty dialogue, and poetic allusions. The writing is wonderfully rich (Dunnett was also a painter), the pacing breakneck.

After the Lymond Chronicles, my mom and I both read Dunnett’s stand alone novel “King Hereafter” and her contemporary mysteries. And then to our excitement, she began a new series, the House of Niccolò, set in the 15th century, beginning in Bruges but again ranging all over, this time as far as Timbucktu and Iceland. The hero of the new series was a young dyeworks apprentice named Nicholas, dismissed as a buffoon by many but with abilities which lead him to rise in the commercial world and pull him into political intrigue in more than one country. Again, fictional events are blended with real historical events and mysteries abound. Reading the Lymond Chronicles, I thought, “it would have been really hard to read these as they were written and have to wait for each book.” With the House of Niccolò we had to do just that, with two years or so between each book. With their complex characters, intricate plots, and cliffhanger endings, the Dunnett books cry out for discussion. My mom and I talked about them endlessly, but we didn’t know anyone else who read them. I was thrilled to meet fellow writer Penelope Williamson and discover she was also a Dunnett reader. Penny and I spent many long lunches analyzing Dunnett’s books and speculating about what would happen next in the Niccolò series.

Then, in the mid-nineties, Penny and I both got online. We discovered there were whole online groups devoted to discussing Dunnett’s novels. Suddenly we could analyze and speculate with people all over the world. Dunnett readers tend to be a wonderul group–warm, friendly, well-read. I’ve had a great time geting together with fellow Dunnett readers both in the Bay Area and while traveling. In 2000, Penny and I and a number of our other Dunnett-reading friends went to Scotland for a conference in honor of the publication of the last book in the House of Niccolò series. Even now the series is finished (and Dunnett sadly passed away a few years ago) we love to get together online and in person to discuss Dunnett books and other books (not to mention tv shows from “Deadwood” to “Spooks/MI-5″ to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (which seems to be a particular favorite with Dunnett readers) :-).

Dunnett talked about reading and being influenced by other writers I love–Sabatini, Orczy, Heyer (certainly you can see bits of Andre-Louis Moreau and Percy Blakeney in Lymond, no to mention a touch of Peter Wimsey). She’s been a huge influence on me. I can see a number of echoes of her books looking at “Secrets of a Lady”–the conflict between brothers, questions about parentage, the loss of a child. I still pull out her books and reread certain scenes when I have to tackle an action sequence or a sword fight (“The Game of Kings” has the best sword fight I’ve ever read).

Have you read Dunnett? Do you enjoy discussing her books? Are there other authors you discuss with friends, online or in person?

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10 November 2014

Travels in England, 1782: The Theatre in the Haymarket


Last week I went twice to an English play-house.  The first time “The Nabob” was represented, of which the late Mr. Foote was the author, and for the entertainment, a very pleasing and laughable musical farce, called “The Agreeable Surprise.”  The second time I saw “The English Merchant:” which piece has been translated into German, and is known among us by the title of “The Scotchwoman,” or “The Coffee-house.”  I have not yet seen the theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane, because they are not open in summer.  The best actors also usually spend May and October in the country, and only perform in winter.

A very few excepted, the comedians whom I saw were certainly nothing extraordinary.  For a seat in the boxes you pay five shillings, in the pit three, in the first gallery two, and in the second or upper gallery, one shilling.  And it is the tenants in this upper gallery who, for their shilling, make all that noise and uproar for which the English play-houses are so famous.  I was in the pit, which gradually rises, amphitheatre-wise, from the orchestra, and is furnished with benches, one above another, from the top to the bottom.  Often and often, whilst I sat there, did a rotten orange, or pieces of the peel of an orange, fly past me, or past some of my neighbours, and once one of them actually hit my hat, without my daring to look round, for fear another might then hit me on my face.

All over London as one walks, one everywhere, in the season, sees oranges to sell; and they are in general sold tolerably cheap, one and even sometimes two for a halfpenny; or, in our money, threepence.  At the play-house, however, they charged me sixpence for one orange, and that noways remarkably good.

Besides this perpetual pelting from the gallery, which renders an English play-house so uncomfortable, there is no end to their calling out and knocking with their sticks till the curtain is drawn up.  I saw a miller’s, or a baker’s boy, thus, like a huge booby, leaning over the rails and knocking again and again on the outside, with all his might, so that he was seen by everybody, without being in the least ashamed or abashed.  I sometimes heard, too, the people in the lower or middle gallery quarrelling with those of the upper one.  Behind me, in the pit, sat a young fop, who, in order to display his costly stone buckles with the utmost brilliancy, continually put his foot on my bench, and even sometimes upon my coat, which I could avoid only by sparing him as much space from my portion of the seat as would make him a footstool.  In the boxes, quite in a corner, sat several servants, who were said to be placed there to keep the seats for the families they served till they should arrive; they seemed to sit remarkably close and still, the reason of which, I was told, was their apprehension of being pelted; for if one of them dares but to look out of the box, he is immediately saluted with a shower of orange peel from the gallery.

In Foote’s “Nabob” there are sundry local and personal satires which are entirely lost to a foreigner.  The character of the Nabob was performed by a Mr. Palmer.  The jett of the character is, this Nabob, with many affected airs and constant aims at gentility, is still but a silly fellow, unexpectedly come into the possession of immense riches, and therefore, of course, paid much court to by a society of natural philosophers, Quakers, and I do not know who besides.  Being tempted to become one of their members, he is elected, and in order to ridicule these would-be philosophers, but real knaves, a fine flowery fustian speech is put into his mouth, which he delivers with prodigious pomp and importance, and is listened to by the philosophers with infinite complacency.  The two scenes of the Quakers and philosophers, who, with countenances full of imaginary importance, were seated at a green table with their president at their head while the secretary, with the utmost care, was making an inventory of the ridiculous presents of the Nabob, were truly laughable.  One of the last scenes was best received: it is that in which the Nabob’s friend and school-fellow visit him, and address him without ceremony by his Christian name; but to all their questions of “Whether he does not recollect them?  Whether he does not remember such and such a play; or such and such a scrape into which they had fallen in their youth?” he uniformly answers with a look of ineffable contempt, only, “No sir!”  Nothing can possibly be more ludicrous, nor more comic.

The entertainment, “The Agreeable Surprise,” is really a very diverting farce.  I observed that, in England also, they represent school-masters in ridiculous characters on the stage, which, though I am sorry for, I own I do not wonder at, as the pedantry of school-masters in England, they tell me, is carried at least as far as it is elsewhere.  The same person who, in the play, performed the school-fellow of the Nabob with a great deal of nature and original humour, here acted the part of the school-master: his name is Edwin, and he is, without doubt, one of the best actors of all that I have seen.

This school-master is in love with a certain country girl, whose name is Cowslip, to whom he makes a declaration of his passion in a strange mythological, grammatical style and manner, and to whom, among other fooleries, he sings, quite enraptured, the following air, and seems to work himself at least up to such a transport of passion as quite overpowers him.  He begins, you will observe, with the conjugation, and ends with the declensions and the genders; the whole is inimitably droll:


“Amo, amas,
I love a lass,
She is so sweet and tender,
It is sweet Cowslip’s Grace
In the Nominative Case.
And in the feminine Gender.”


Those two sentences in particular, “in the Nominative Case,” and “in the feminine Gender,” he affects to sing in a particularly languishing air, as if confident that it was irresistible.  This Edwin, in all his comic characters, still preserves something so inexpressibly good-tempered in his countenance, that notwithstanding all his burlesques and even grotesque buffoonery, you cannot but be pleased with him.  I own, I felt myself doubly interested for every character which he represented.  Nothing could equal the tone and countenance of self-satisfaction with which he answered one who asked him whether he was a scholar?  “Why, I was a master of scholars.”  A Mrs. Webb represented a cheesemonger, and played the part of a woman of the lower class so naturally as I have nowhere else ever seen equalled.  Her huge, fat, and lusty carcase, and the whole of her external appearance seemed quite to be cut out for it.

Poor Edwin was obliged, as school-master, to sing himself almost hoarse, as he sometimes was called on to repeat his declension and conjugation songs two or three times, only because it pleased the upper gallery, or “the gods,” as the English call them, to roar out “encore.”  Add to all this, he was farther forced to thank them with a low bow for the great honour done him by their applause.

One of the highest comic touches in the piece seemed to me to consist in a lie, which always became more and more enormous in the mouths of those who told it again, during the whole of the piece.  This kept the audience in almost a continual fit of laughter.  This farce is not yet printed, or I really think I should be tempted to venture to make a translation, or rather an imitation of it.

“The English Merchant, or the Scotchwoman,” I have seen much better performed abroad than it was here.  Mr. Fleck, at Hamburg, in particular, played the part of the English merchant with more interest, truth, and propriety than one Aickin did here.  He seemed to me to fail totally in expressing the peculiar and original character of Freeport; instead of which, by his measured step and deliberate, affected manner of speaking, he converted him into a mere fine gentleman.

The trusty old servant who wishes to give up his life for his master he, too, had the stately walk, or strut, of a minister.  The character of the newspaper writer was performed by the same Mr. Palmer who acted the part of the Nabob, but every one said, what I thought, that he made him far too much of a gentleman.  His person, and his dress also, were too handsome for the character.

The character of Amelia was performed by an actress, who made her first appearance on the stage, and from a timidity natural on such an occasion, and not unbecoming, spoke rather low, so that she could not everywhere be heard; “Speak louder! speak louder!” cried out some rude fellow from the upper-gallery, and she immediately, with infinite condescension, did all she could, and not unsuccessfully, to please even an upper gallery critic.

The persons near me, in the pit, were often extravagantly lavish of their applause.  They sometimes clapped a single solitary sentiment, that was almost as unmeaning as it was short, if it happened to be pronounced only with some little emphasis, or to contain some little point, some popular doctrine, a singularly pathetic stroke, or turn of wit.

“The Agreeable Surprise” was repeated, and I saw it a second time with unabated pleasure.  It is become a favourite piece, and always announced with the addition of the favourite musical farce.  The theatre appeared to me somewhat larger than the one at Hamburg, and the house was both times very full.  Thus much for English plays, play-houses, and players.

03 November 2014

TRAVELS IN ENGLAND 1782: Vauxhall

More from Mr. Charles P. Moritz, this time his visit to the famous pleasure garden:

"I yesterday visited Vauxhall for the first time.  I had not far to go from my lodgings, in the Adelphi Buildings, to Westminster Bridge, where you always find a great number of boats on the Thames, which are ready on the least signal to serve those who will pay them a shilling or sixpence, or according to the distance.

From hence I went up the Thames to Vauxhall, and as I passed along I saw Lambeth; and the venerable old palace belonging to the archbishops of Canterbury lying on my left.

Vauxhall is, properly speaking, the name of a little village in which the garden, now almost exclusively bearing the same name, is situated.  You pay a shilling entrance.

On entering it, I really found, or fancied I found, some resemblance to our Berlin Vauxhall, if, according to Virgil, I may be permitted to compare small things with great ones.  The walks at least, with the paintings at the end, and the high trees, which, here and there form a beautiful grove, or wood, on either side, were so similar to those of Berlin, that often, as I walked along them, I seemed to transport myself, in imagination, once more to Berlin, and forgot for a moment that immense seas, and mountains, and kingdoms now lie between us.  I was the more tempted to indulge in this reverie as I actually met with several gentlemen, inhabitants of Berlin, in particular Mr. S--r, and some others, with whom I spent the evening in the most agreeable manner.  Here and there (particularly in one of the charming woods which art has formed in this garden) you are pleasingly surprised by the sudden appearance of the statues of the most renowned English poets and philosophers, such as Milton, Thomson, and others.  But, what gave me most pleasure was the statue of the German composer Handel, which, on entering the garden, is not far distant from the orchestra.

This orchestra is among a number of trees situated as in a little wood, and is an exceedingly handsome one.  As you enter the garden, you immediately hear the sound of vocal and instrumental music.  There are several female singers constantly hired here to sing in public.

On each side of the orchestra are small boxes, with tables and benches, in which you sup.  The walks before these, as well as in every other part of the garden, are crowded with people of all ranks.  I supped here with Mr. S--r, and the secretary of the Prussian ambassador, besides a few other gentlemen from Berlin; but what most astonished me was the boldness of the women of the town, who often rushed in upon us by half dozens, and in the most shameless manner importuned us for wine, for themselves and their followers.  Our gentlemen thought it either unwise, unkind, or unsafe, to refuse them so small a boon altogether.

Latish in the evening we were entertained with a sight, that is indeed singularly curious and interesting.  In a particular part of the garden a curtain was drawn up, and by means of some mechanism of extraordinary ingenuity, the eye and the ear are so completely deceived, that it is not easy to persuade one’s self it is a deception, and that one does not actually see and hear a natural waterfall from a high rock.  As everyone was flocking to this scene in crowds, there arose all at once a loud cry of “Take care of your pockets.”  This informed us, but too clearly, that there were some pickpockets among the crowd, who had already made some fortunate strokes.

The rotunda, a magnificent circular building in the garden, particularly engaged my attention.  By means of beautiful chandeliers, and large mirrors, it was illuminated in the most superb manner; and everywhere decorated with delightful paintings, and statues, in the contemplation of which you may spend several hours very agreeably, when you are tired of the crowd and the bustle, in the walks of the garden.

Among the paintings one represents the surrender of a besieged city.  If you look at this painting with attention, for any length of time, it affects you so much that you even shed tears.  The expression of the greatest distress, even bordering on despair, on the part of the besieged, the fearful expectation of the uncertain issue, and what the victor will determine concerning those unfortunate people, may all be read so plainly, and so naturally in the countenances of the inhabitants, who are imploring for mercy, from the hoary head to the suckling whom his mother holds up, that you quite forget yourself, and in the end scarcely believe it to be a painting before you.

You also here find the busts of the best English authors, placed all round on the sides.  Thus a Briton again meets with his Shakespeare, Locke, Milton, and Dryden in the public places of his amusements; and there also reveres their memory.  Even the common people thus become familiar with the names of those who have done honour to their nation; and are taught to mention them with veneration.  For this rotunda is also an orchestra in which the music is performed in rainy weather.  But enough of Vauxhall!"






27 October 2014

What Do the National Football League and the Medicis Have In Common?

It goes a lot deeper than bling and big houses. If you were to say “trophy wives,” you’d be warm, but the Medici women were prizes themselves, at least as wealthy and glamorous in their own right as any starlet or supermodel.

The rather sordid and sinister answer is: domestic violence.

During the course of my research for INGLORIOUS ROYAL MARRIAGES, when I came to the chapter on the 16th century unions of the stunning heiress, Isabella Romola de Medici to Paolo Giordano Orsini, the scion of a prestigious Roman family; and that of Isabella’s incredibly warped younger brother Pietro de Medici to their beautiful and spirited cousin Eleonora di Garzia di Toledo, little did I realize how relevant their stories would become to current events.

To me, the horrific events of these two Medici marriages were shocking. I have written about countless royal unions, both connubial and extramarital. Because most royal marriages were arranged, and therefore not love matches, it’s no wonder that they failed to some extent—that there was acrimony, or adultery. But murder? And not the Henry VIII-trumped-up-charges-of-high-treason sort. But the kind of spousal assault designed to look like an accident where the husband then weeps crocodile tears. And gets away with it.

Fast-forward to the O.J. Simpson trial in 1996. Or only recently, when Ray Rice seemed to think it was ok to sock his then-fiancée-now-wife (who therefore can’t testify against him) in an elevator. Rice was steamed that a gossip blog released the hotel’s security camera footage. Because otherwise he would have gotten away with attacking his woman. The NFL was prepared to put their heads in the sand over the entire incident until the commissioner was compelled to go to the videotape.

We don’t have actual royalty in America. Those who are doomed to remember history will recall that we fought a war to NOT have a king. But we still love the idea of royalty, so we anoint football players (or other pro-ballers). Or pop/rock/hip-hop, etc., stars. Or Hollywood icons. Queen Bey. Prince. The money they earn from their talent on the gridiron or catwalk or soundstage buys untold riches, glitter, and power. And more often than not, a get-out-of-jail-free card as well, just like the Medici men of the Italian Renaissance, who whored and dueled and murdered with impunity, although their wives were hardly permitted to live by those same social codes.

Isabella Romola de Medici was a Daddy’s girl, protected during his lifetime by her father, the powerful Cosimo, Duke of Florence. But after Cosimo died in April 1574, Isabella’s oldest brother Francesco became Duke; and he had no use for his flamboyant sibling. Not only did he refuse to aid her when she complained of her husband’s mistreatment, he abetted Paolo in covering up the circumstances of her death. Francesco would do the same when his brother Pietro strangled their cousin Eleonora with a dog leash. The girl was a flirt, they concurred. She deserved it. Instead of Pietro being punished, Eleonora’s name and reputation were smeared and the family honor was considered tarnished by her behavior.

The Ravens’ Ray Rice is not the only NFL player in recent memory to physically abuse his partner. In 2012, K.C. Chiefs’ Jovan Belcher murdered his girlfriend, then committed suicide in the stadium parking lot, in front of his coach. If only he’d started with himself, instead. In June of 2013, Pacman Jones of the Cincinnati Bengals was arrested on assault charges for punching a woman outside a nightclub. In the summer of 2012, Chad Johnson of the Miami Dolphins was charged with head-butting his newlywed wife outside their home. He was released on bond a day or so after his arrest, but the team cut him within 24 hours of his release. That same summer, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant was arrested on a domestic violence charge involving his mother. Evidently, during a family visit, Bryant’s mother had become upset at him and asked him to leave, whereupon he allegedly assaulted her.

The power and privilege conferred upon these princes, whether by birth, marriage, or their ability to get the ball into the end zone has all too often given them a pass when it comes to the issue of domestic violence. Months ago, when I wrote my chapter on the two Medici marriages, I thought I’d encountered a “one-off.” But recent headlines tell another story. Whether the perpetrators wear the red, white, and green of the Medici, or the colors of an NFL franchise, their behavior is not much different. Title or not, these men feel entitled. And is it because we, as a society, have conferred the mantle of royalty upon them, that they somehow believe themselves above the law—and their women beneath contempt?


As “Linda Richman” used to say on SNL’s “Coffee Talk”—discuss!

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