Thursday, October 31, 2013

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hildegard of Meaux: medieval mystery woman

Sometimes it seems like everybody and their mother is writing historical mystery fiction, but I've found an author and a heroine I'm definitely sticking with. It's British novelist Cassandra Clark and her Cistercian nun Hildegard of Meaux, the latter a denizen of the 14th century. Parliament of Spies is the fourth novel in the series, so happily I have some backtracking to do (as well as seeking out this book's sequel).
Clark creates an almost cinemagraphic evocation of time and place, with vividly drawn characters, convincingly authentic language, and scads of period detail. Why this hasn't been picked up for a PBS series, à la Cadfael, beats me. I concur with the Guardian's assessment that "Hildegard is an engaging protagonist, sensible, kindly, resourceful and believable."
After the death of her husband, a knight in the service of the young King Richard II (right), Hildegard enters the Cistercian order, one of the wealthiest in England due to its involvement in the European wool trade. Its abbots and prioresses were the advisers of kings and princes. There's plenty of material for Clark to mine in her series because the abundance of plotters and factions of the time would make one's head spin. As the Financial Times wrote, "Clark capably draws out the turmoil of rebellion and fealty boiling under Richard II's insecure reign." This page gives some great background on the series and its context.
Cistercian nuns; detail of Yates Thompson ms 11 f.6v, c.1290, British Library
In Parliament of Spies, the King is beset by his rapacious, power-hungry uncles; his wife, Blanche of Castile, is having trouble conceiving an heir; ominous rumblings continue from the House of Lancaster; and the French are threatening to invade by sea. Visiting London for the opening of Parliament along with the retinue of the Archbishop of York, Hildegard is drawn into a network of spies at Westminster, while a certain unwelcome person from her past rises dramatically from the dead. Even my beloved Geoffrey Chaucer makes a fleeting cameo! Plus, Hildegard makes guiltless, passionate love with a gorgeous Spaniard. What? A nun breaking her vows in such a flagrant fashion? How can this be?? You'll have to read the book to find out!
Tall, handsome, and intelligent, Richard cultivated art and culture at his court. In this manuscript illustration to his poem Troilus and Cressida, Chaucer is shown reading to the King and his courtiers (c1415, Unknown Artist. MS 61, fol 1v, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge).
Need a handy reference for the reign of a particular British royal personage? Try this fully illustrated new arrival: The Kings and Queens of England by Ian Crofton. Below, a full view of the Yates Thomson manuscript page. These nuns definitely appear to have a great deal of agency in their order's affairs.

Alice Munro: Nobel Laureate in Literature

When I open a new New Yorker, there are three women writers whose names I'm always thrilled to see on a short story: Lorrie Moore, Louise Erdrich, and Alice Munro. As regards the latter, bravo Nobel Prize committee for honoring the power and scope of her fiction! Who needs the novel when you can get the job done in a story? I personally own six collections of Munro's stories. In them, the vast landscapes of her native Canada combine with the often lengthy time periods covered in her narratives to create an almost mythical literary realm grounded, paradoxically, in ordinary life and non-showy prose.
Not that her stories are a one-note samba. As Charles McGrath wrote in a 2012 New York Times review of the collection Dear Life, "Unlike William Trevor, say, her only living rival ... Munro did not hit a characteristic note early on and then stick with it. Over the years her work has deepened and enlarged."
Daedalus Books has chosen selected works by the Nobel Laureate to inaugurate a new feature on our website called "Spotlight." You can choose from an array of Munro's most renowned titles, all at a discount. They include Lives of Girls and Women, The Moons of Jupiter, Something I've Been Meaning to Tell You, and Too Much Happiness.
After the Nobel Prizes were announced, The New Yorker reprinted Munro's sad and rueful yet sly story “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” (later made into a super film called Away From Her with Julie Christie, directed by Sarah Polley. We have the DVD.) In this New Yorker podcast, Lauren Groff reads Munro’s story “Axis,” and discusses it with the magazine's fiction editor, Deborah Treisman. And in this blog entry, Triesman writes about editing Munro's stories.

“What should we call the combination of obsessive scrutiny, archaeological unearthing, precise and detailed recollection, the wallowing in the seamier and meaner and more vengeful undersides of human nature, the telling of erotic secrets, the nostalgia for vanished miseries, and rejoicing in the fullness and variety of life, stirred all together?”—Margaret Atwood (Introduction to Munro's Collected Stories)


“If short stories are about life and novels are about the world, one can see Munro’s capacious stories as being a little about both: fate and time and love are the things she is most interested in, as well as their unexpected outcomes…. She does not overtly judge—especially human cruelty—but allows human encounters to speak for themselves. She honors mysteriousness and is a neutral beholder before the unpredictable. Her genius is in the strange detail that resurfaces, but it is also in the largeness of vision being brought to bear (and press on) a smaller genre or form that has few such wide-seeing practitioners.”—Lorrie Moore

10.30 Update:  This article about newly discovered letters in the Knopf publishing house archive at the Harry Ransom Center talks about Munro's fiction being rejected because of prejudice against short story collections, her nationality, and their perceived blandness.
One letter written in 1968 by Knopf’s editor Judith Jones after reading Munro’s first book of short stories, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” said her book had nothing particularly new or exciting, and it could be easily overlooked. In another letter from Jones to Munro on her first novel, “Lives of Girls and Women,” in 1971, she credited Munro’s style but still rejected the novel for publication. “There’s no question that the lady can write but it’s also clear she is primarily a short story writer,” Jones wrote.
I also forgot to include this link to a large group of short stories you can sample for free. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Saved by a table leg: "Operation Valkyrie" and the bomb meant for Hitler

"We took this challenge before our Lord and our conscience, and 
it must be done, because this man, Hitler, he is the ultimate evil."
—Claus von Stauffenberg
Think how many lives would have been saved if even one of the more than 40 plots to kill Adolf Hitler had succeeded. Ewald-Heinrich von Kleist (below left), who died last March at the age of 90, volunteered for two of them. In the first, the 22-year-old army lieutenant, who had been chosen to model a new army uniform for Hitler, volunteered to wear a suicide vest underneath it and to detonate a bomb while he stood next to the dictator. "Yes, you have to do that. A man who doesn’t take such a chance will never be happy again in his life,” his father told him when he heard of the scheme.
It fell through, however, because Hitler changed his plans, as he frequently did. Von Kleist's co-conspirator in this and a follow-up attempt was fellow officer and Hitler-loather Claus von Stauffenberg (above right), whom he met while recovering from injuries suffered in 1943 on the Eastern Front. The second, more famous plan almost worked—except for a simple twist of fate. Conceived by von Stauffenberg, it is documented thoroughly and fascinatingly in the DVD Operation Valkyrie: The Stauffenberg Plot to Kill Hitler. Although von Kleist volunteered to carry a briefcase packed with explosives to a meeting at Hitler’s Wolf’s Lair in occupied Poland, von Stauffenberg ended up bringing it in himself. On July 20th, 1944, he placed it under a table in the conference room where Hitler was meeting with aides and made an excuse to leave the room. The daring plot unravelled when someone at the table moved the briefcase next to a heavy oak table leg. Although four people were killed and virtually everyone in the room was injured, Hitler was shielded by the table leg and escaped the full force of the blast (you can see the rubble in this photo of the aftermath).
Von Stauffenberg was later tracked down to his offices in Berlin and executed (as were ~7,000 others thought to have been involved in the complete Operation Valkyrie plot to re-take control of Germany from the Nazis). Von Kleist was also arrested and interrogated at length, but for some reason he was sent back to the front.
Von Stauffenberg's offices were in the Bendlerblock, a complex of buildings taking up most of a city block that housed the main military offices in Berlin. In 1955, the street name was changed to Stauffenbergstrasse, and a plaque and statue were put up in the square to commemorate the heroic sacrifice of the German officers who tried to rid the world of Hitler.
A look at the museum there and in Lautlingen (the von Stauffenberg family estate in the country) are but two of the many extras in the Valkyrie DVD documentary, which also includes a discussion of other key assassination attempts on the Fuhrer; an interview with Baron von Boeselager (the last surviving member of the July 20 conspiracy—we also have his memoirs); and an hour of Eva Braun's color home movies showing visitors to and activities at Hitler's alpine retreat in Bavaria (where were the drones when we needed them?).

For much more on World War II intrigue, see our current Forum: Hidden in Plain Sight: Espionage and Conspiracy from the American Revolution to the Cold War.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The discovery of Jeanne Baret: 18th-century scientist, healer, and adventurer

Guest blog by Linda Thornburg
With its showy, magenta bracts spilling over Hawaiian terraces and lanais, bougainvillea has long been one of my favorite plants, perfect for making leis. I had no clue it was discovered by a cross-dressing woman, hiding in plain sight among a crew of 300 sailors, on a high-stakes French voyage of discovery—let alone that she was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Jeanne Baret, disguised as a man, sailed with her lover/employer, botanist Philibert Commerson (Commerçon), aboard Étoile, the supply ship for Louis Antoine de Bougainville's 1766 voyage around the world.
Baret was a rural herb woman—knowledgeable gatherer and dispenser of medicinal herbs—when she met Commerson, who was suffering from an ulcerated leg wound. Though she was a peasant and he was upper class, they formed a bond through their interest in plants. She became his housekeeper after his wife died and then found herself pregnant with Commerson's child. Unmarried  women of the time were required to obtain a "certificate of pregnancy." Filed in a town about 20 miles away, Baret's certificate survives. Signed by upper-class friends of Commerson, it does not name the father. Before the child was born, the couple moved to Paris, where she gave it up for adoption. There they continued to collect and classify various native French plants under the system of Linnaeus.
Because of Commerson's connection with Linnaeus and Voltaire, he was asked to be the official naturalist for a voyage headed by Louis Antoine de Bougainville (right) to circumnavigate the globe, the first such voyage by the French. Louis XV was anxious to offset the loss of French Canada to the British in the Seven Years' War by finding Terra Australis, the presumed Great Southern Continent, and new species of plants and animals to restore the French economy and image. Commerson, still suffering from venous ulcers and in need of a nurse and assistant, accepted the prestigious commission, but women were strictly forbidden on shipboard. They conspired that Baret would accompany him as his assistant, dressed as a man. To protect Commerson, Baret joined the crew at the last minute. They pretended not to know one another (although before Commerson left Paris, he made a will leaving 600 livre and his household goods to her). They concocted a story that Jean Baret, a wealthy lad educated in botany and Latin, had lost his inheritance and needed work. 
Though much is known of the de Bougainville voyage from his official diaries, including mention of Baret's expertise as a botanist, little is known about her personally.
Yesterday I checked on board the Étoile a rather peculiar event. For some time, a rumour had been circulating on the two ships that Mr de Commerçon’s [sic] servant, named Baré, was a woman. His structure, his caution in never changing his clothes or carrying out any natural function in the presence of anyone, the sound of his voice, his beardless chin, and several other indications had given rise to this suspicion and reinforced it. (de Bougainville’s Journal, 28–29 May 1768)
1816 drawing of Jeanne Baret, not from life
To answer De Bougainville’s charges, Jean Baret offered the story that he had been abducted by Muslims and had suffered the fate of “harem guards.” The story played into 18th-century stereotypes and many sailors’ greatest fear. It bought her some time. Whether Baret’s real identity was known or not, having a woman aboard ship was a punishable offense, and de Bougainville's diaries veiled much of Baret's activity. He was forced to include an entry revealing her identity when Baret was discovered and raped. His official account differs, however, from two other accounts. Captain de Bougainville says that Baret's sex was not discovered until the expedition reached Tahiti, where, he says, Tahitian men discovered Baret and then "explored every cavity"on her person. The ship's physician, Francois Vives, recalled that Baret was alone on the beach in New Guinea where she was gang raped by angry sailors from the expedition. Vives' journal speculates about Baret's true identity much earlier. His confrontation of Commerson early on jeopardized her safety and position. Still, she managed to stay aboard ship, sometimes forced to sleep among the male crew with a loaded pistol. Commerson's recorded bouts of illness and notes regarding Baret's trips ashore suggest that she collected most of the specimens, including the bougainvillea that Commerson named for the Captain.
In The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, The High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe, Glynis Ridley has pieced together a mesmerizing story of deception, intrigue, and adventure on the high seas from the journals of Captain de Bougainville, ship physician Francois Vives, the jointly written journal of Commerson and expedition astronomer Pierre-Antoine Verone, and Baret's surviving historical documents.
Map of de Bougainville's expedition
Though de Bougainville's high-profile expedition produced neither the desired new lands (impeded by the Great Barrier Reef, his ships turned North without catching sight of Australia, just 120 miles west) or any commercially viable new plants (think coffee, tobacco, spice), it did leave the story of an extraordinary female scientist, healer, and adventurer—even if she was obscured for a century or so.
Speaking of cross-dressing, don’t forget to submit your Glen or Glenda or Ed Wood–related  Halloween photos to to be eligible for the Daily Glean prize of a classic film DVD. The deadline is November 3, 2013.
Linda Thornburg is an award-winning filmmaker and playwright who occasionally writes her own blog.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Tudor/Stuart follies

Above is Georg Hoefnagel's 1568 watercolor of the south frontage of Nonsuch Palace. Henry VIII named it that to assert that there was no equal to its magnificence. In order to begin building it in 1538, he destroyed the church and village that were on the site. Henry had a mania for erecting palaces, bugger the expense and the damage to the realm; this one was especially constructed to rival Francis I's Château de Chambord and the cost was well in excess of £100 million in today's money. (At right is a detail from a 1610 map by John Speed showing the palace.)
It boggles my mind that 1) Charles II later gave it to his mistress (the courtesan Barbara Palmer, whom he made Duchess of Cleveland and Countess of Castlemaine) and 2) that  she had it dismantled in 1682–3 and sold the building materials to pay gambling debts. No trace of the palace remains on the site today. I found out the fate of Nonsuch from Behind the Palace Doors: Five Centuries of Sex, Adventure, Vice, Treachery, and Folly from Royal Britain. I was familiar with the palace's inception from reading one of the many Tudor-related books we always keep in stock, as the era remains a perennially fascinating one to historians and readers.
In perusing Behind the Palace Doors, I was taken by the pathetic story of Arabella Stuart (right), who as the great-great granddaughter of Henry VIII's sister Margaret had a viable claim to the crown eventually held by James I (thanks to the machinations of Lord Cecil).  Elizabeth I used Arabella as a pawn, dangling her before European suitors and keeping the succession open as a means to keep James VI from avenging his mother's execution. Living in suffocating isolation at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire with her domineering grandmother, Arabella seems to have gone a bit cuckoo, hatching a plan to marry a Seymour that was soon squashed and later writing rambling letters and refusing to eat.
When James I succeeded, she was invited to court but lacked the financial resources to flourish there and was dismayed that her intelligence counted little with the deeply misogynistic monarch. Her ability to marry was compromised because an heir posed a threat to his line, and she needed his consent to do so. Despite being warned against it by the King and council, she secretly married William Seymour (brother of her former intended) in 1610. The bridegroom was hauled off to the Tower for life shortly thereafter, and Arabella was put into custody. King James was not amused, querying "whether it was well that a woman so closely allied to the blood royal should rule her life after her own humor" and saying she had "eaten of the forbidden tree."
Arabella (above, with William at right) asked to be heard in court, but James would have none of it and sent her into exile in the countryside. On her way there, she daringly disguised herself as a man and rode off to meet William, who had disguised himself and escaped from a rather loose confinement in the Tower. Alas, their signals crossed as they attempted to meet and take a ship to France. He escaped to Bruges, but she was captured by the fleet of ships that a furious James sent out to retrieve her. She was put under house arrest (in the "Queen's House" in the Tower of London) and died four years later, after refusing to eat or drink.
Sara Jayne Steen, who edited a book of Arabella's 100 surviving letters, notes that Imogen, the virtuous, cross-dressed heroine of Shakespeare's Cymbeline, has sometimes been read as a reference to Arabella. A happier ending, n'est-ce pas?
Below, James I and a portrait of an unknown gentlewoman thought to be Arabella (National Portrait Gallery, London).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Jane Austen: more than a cottage industry

For a writer who claimed that she worked with a fine brush on a “little piece of ivory,” Jane Austen hasn't done too poorly for herself. Her novels of manners and morals in Regency England continue to send out waves in ways she never could have imagined. As her own brother Henry wrote, Austen's “was by not any means a life of event.” Yet oh, what she made of it, transforming her observations, experiences and thoughts into prose so perfect that it has people pouring over it to the last scintilla (and seeking biographical correlations hither and yon)!
Interest in all things Jane continues to expand, in ways both sensible and not. Scroll through our current list of Austen offerings in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Pride and Prejudice, and you'll see what I mean.
Besides myriad editions of her books (including scholarly and annotated ones), one encounters biographies, critical studies, Austen societies, Austen festivals, Austen blogs, feature films, tv series, commemorative balls, story competitions, fan fiction, sociological studies, books of excerpts, mysteries using her characters, "private diaries" of same, and bizarre mash-ups of her fiction featuring sea monsters and the like. Pop stars even pay big bucks for her memorabilia. (Kelly Clarkson sported an Austen ring for a while before the Brits could reclaim the $250,000 item as a national treasure.)
One book we have in both hardback and paper, Jane's Fame by Claire Harman, surveys what writers and critics have made of her work over the centuries. In a Daily Telegraph review, Frances Wilson wrote:
The material Harman has deftly put together makes two things strikingly apparent: no reading of Jane, however seemingly wayward, is a misreading; and Austen’s major effect is to inspire good writing. Harman proves the point of Lionel Trilling’s insight that “the opinions which are held of Jane Austen’s work are almost as interesting, and almost as important to think about, as the work itself”. Jane’s Fame is threaded through with 150 years of these opinions – a potential death-knell in a book for a general readership – but there is not a dull sentence among them. Annabella Milbanke, later Lady Byron, saw instantly that the skill of Pride and Prejudice lay in its absence of the usual novelistic gimmickry. Jane Austen, Milbanke reported, “depends not on any of the common resources of novel writers, no drownings, no conflagrations, nor runaway horses, nor lapdogs and parrots, nor chambermaids and milliners, nor rencontres and disguises”.
Another spot-on observation was made by the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately (Austen is one of the few woman writers who appeals equally to men), who dared to suggest that her “heroines are what one knows women must be, though one can never get them to acknowledge it”. For evidence, witness that brilliant joke in Pride and Prejudice, where Elizabeth Bennet tells her sister that her love for Darcy dated from “my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley”.
Mary Russell Mitford called Austen “a poker of whom everyone was afraid.” In the small drawing at right by her beloved sister Cassandra from about 1810 (National Portrait Gallery, London
), Austen looks like a person who did not suffer fools gladly … and who would skewer them at the earliest opportunity. By 1869, this image was refashioned into the more anodyne one below.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Celia Cruz: Ritmo En El Corazón

Did you catch this Google doodle celebrating "Queen of Salsa" Celia Cruz yesterday? I ID'd her right off, having recently blurbed a CD on the flamboyant Cuban legend that spanned her career (and she had a long one). It's called The Absolute Collection and includes top hits from Cruz's more than five-decades in show biz. Here she is with "Oye Como Va." And check out her dance moves on the vintage tape of her performing "Guantanamera"!

In 2006, the Smithsonian's American History Museum devoted a year-long exhibit to Cruz, showcasing costumes, wigs, shoes, photographs, album covers, posters, video, and music. Much of the material is preserved in this snazzy online exhibit, which has a lineup of audio samples and short videos portraying Cruz throughout her career.

Below: "la negra tiene tumbao" ("the black woman walks with grace").

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory"

“For the task of the spy is not so very different from that of the novelist: to create an imaginary, credible world and then lure others into it by words and artifice.”—Ben Macintyre, author of a trilogy of notable books on Allied espionage in World War II: Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies; Agent Zigzag; and Operation Mincemeat.
In one of the most ingenious bait-and-switch moves of military strategy in World War II, a corpse that washed up on the shores of Spain convinced Hitler that the Allies intended to deploy troops in Greece and Sardinia instead of in Sicily, as the Nazis had originally (and correctly) suspected. Dressed as a military officer and given all sorts of personal touches in addition to a briefcase of documents, this corpse was used to convey misleading "top secret" information to the Nazis.
Ewan Montagu
The story of the men and women who created the bogus character posthumously embodied in the corpse is worthy of the most fevered imagination of any fiction writer—and it's all true! In Operation Mincemeat, Ben Macintyre recounts the tale of how this body facilitated “the largest amphibious landing ever attempted” with appropriate gusto, as well as scads of documentation and photos. (Macintyre had access to a trunk of once-classified documents found  under a bed in the house of ringleader Ewan Montagu’s son.)
The idea for this history-altering, deadly serious caper—originally code named “Trojan Horse”— came from none other than intelligence officer Ian Fleming, who remembered it from a detective novel by Basil Thomson, an ex-policeman and redoubtable spy catcher in World War I. There were multiple ifs ands and buts in the scheme, but, miraculously, it worked. The proof of the pudding? In mid-May of 1943, Winston Churchill received this telegram from his code breakers, who had been monitoring German military transmissions: “mincemeat swallowed rod, line and sinker.”
At the hub of the Mincemeat plot was wealthy Jewish criminal lawyer Ewen Montagu, founder (along with his Soviet-loving brother Ivor) of the Cheese Eaters League. (A 1956 movie starring Clifton Webb, The Man Who Never Was, was based on Ewen's memoir.) Next to him in the above photo is M15  counterespionage agent Charles Cholmondeley, who “gazed at the world through thick round spectacles, from behind a remarkable mustache fully six inches long and waxed into magnificent points…. [He was] a distinctive figure around Whitehall, his arms flapping when animated, hopping along the pavement like a huge, flightless, myopic bird.” The photo was taken April 1943, just before their plan was set into motion. (Above right, the body of the fake British officer, being readied for the mission.) Another participant in the hoax was Charles Fraser-Smith, whom Ian Fleming probably used as the model for the character Q in the James Bond novels.
Ian Fleming, the future author of the James Bond novels. (About him, Montagu said, “Fleming is charming to be with, but would sell his own grandmother.”)

Friday, October 18, 2013

Here a spy, there a spy...

You may have noticed we have a rather wide-ranging Daedalus Books Forum going on now called Hidden in Plain Sight: Spies & Conspiracies. A posting I got from Very Short List on three "contemporary unsolved mysteries" seems quite relevant to the topic. The puzzles spotlighted include a dead man found on an Australian beach in 1948 bearing the code below; and a fragment hidden on his person reading "Tamám shud’  (Persian for "It is ended"), taken from a rare New Zealand edition of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. As a lengthy article in Smithsonian magazine reported
The dead man’s calf muscles were high and very well developed; although in his late 40s, he had the legs of an athlete. His toes, meanwhile, were oddly wedge-shaped. One expert who gave evidence at the inquest noted:
I have not seen the tendency of calf muscle so pronounced as in this case…. His feet were rather striking, suggesting—this is my own assumption—that he had been in the habit of wearing high-heeled and pointed shoes.
Perhaps, another expert witness hazarded, the dead man had been a ballet dancer?
How tantalizing not to know the answers to the "enigma of the Unknown Man," whose identity was so thoroughly scrubbed that he seems to have been a spy (yet why leave the code and the talisman?). I guess that's the downside of real life vs. spy fiction!
The illustrations at right and below by Jessie Hartland comes from her graphic bio Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child. Did you know that Child was a big ole spy? Yep, she and hubby Paul did their bit for democracy in World War II. You can read all about it in A Covert Affair, one of the many fascinating titles featured in the above-mentioned Forum.
Has anyone seen the BBC America series Spies of Warsaw? I'm thinking about giving it a whirl because Alan Furst, who wrote the book it's based on, is one of the authors we're featuring in the Forum, and I liked (and did a piece on) one of his other novels, Mission to Paris
Here an engrossing item worth a few minutes' perusal: a continually morphing map of Allied/Axis–held regions during World War II.