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Friday 29 October 2010

The Bizarre Idea of Suffering and Martyrdom

On the beautiful and interesting blog: “Cross of Laeken” there is a quotation from the Belgian Queen Louise-Marie, who was undoubtedly a saintly and ‘good’ woman, who had the best interests of her people at heart. She wrote - quoted from that blog - : “We live in hard times...we must be able to suffer and think only of those dear to us.” (Please see http://crossoflaeken.blogspot.com/2010/10/claremont-house.html for the whole story).

This is not at all about criticising any royalties or others of the past (or present) who dedicated themselves and risked their lives in service of others; it is about seeking to understand what drove these people and why their lives turned out as they did. It has been an age old question for all of us, “Why, if there is a loving God, do good people suffer?” and it becomes more apparent all the time, that so many of the most religious or devout people suffer more than any other group of people. How many who spent their lives in service of others became martyrs? (Check out any dictionary of saints and count the martyrs!). How many of the most admirable royalties came to a horrid or rather sad end? So many of the loveliest, most saintly people – and this is particularly noticeable among the most dedicated royalties of past centuries – seemed to have an almost subconscious idea that martyrdom or suffering was inevitable and holy, and in this they seemed to create their own sad fate. I do not believe they actively sought martyrdom but on some level they had absorbed the idea that suffering was a necessary part of holiness and the more one suffered, the holier and closer to heaven one was.

If I may give a personal example, my point will be easier to explain. I, for some strange reason, grew up obsessed with saints’ lives. I read and copied and absorbed quotations such as: “We must suffer in order to go to God. We forget this far too often.” (St. Madeleine Sophie Barat) or “We can only go to heaven through suffering...” (St. Vincent de Paul) or “If God causes you to suffer much, it is a sign that he has great designs for you...” (St. Ignatius Loyola) or “Jesus gives his Crown of Thorns to his friends....” (St. Bernadette) - and there are hundreds more such quotations! Even though these ideas were no longer generally taught as I grew up, (they were far more prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries and earlier), I worked often in Lourdes – one of the loveliest places in the world – and found there that the sick and suffering are exalted. I appreciate how contentious that sounds but it is my experience. I wrote in an earlier post of the way in which everyone is roused to a hope and a cure by the litany of wonderful quotations from the Gospels but it always ends with the rather sad and resigned, “Thy will be done.” as though the will of God is something nasty. For years and years it never occurred to me that this was absolute nonsense but when it did occur to me, it was like a Damascus-road experience! Good heavens! From a Christian perspective, if suffering is good, why did Jesus heal the sick? Why didn’t he bless them instead and say, “Oh, this is good...this is the will of God! You are blessed!” ? He spent 3 years telling people: “You are the Light of the world” and “You are the salt of the earth” and “every hair on your head has been counted” and “the works I do, even greater works will you do....” But somehow, someone wanted power and rather than concentrating on his 3 years of good news about how brilliantly beautiful we all are, twisted it to concentrating on his 3 hours of suffering...and since then, particularly in the 18th/19th centuries, holiness was synonymous with suffering. The very opposite, I contend, is true. Suffering is our own creation. We believe in it and we experience it and then either blame God for it, or see ourselves as holy because of it.

Here are some examples, which are open to debate. Queen Victoria’s second daughter, Princess Alice – one of my favourite royalties – was profoundly spiritual. Like her father, Prince Albert, she was deeply aware of the poverty around her, and wrote, “Life is not pleasure...it is duty...” She went on a spiritual search, denied herself pleasure, and died of diphtheria at 35 years old. Grand Duchess Elizabeth, her daughter – and someone I admire still more – was also deeply spiritual and dedicated her life to the service of the poor. She wrote many times of the ‘need to bear the cross’ and was eventually murdered. Tsarina Alexandra had the same mystical sense of suffering (read Princess Marie Louise’s touching account of her), as did Nicholas II – both devoutly religious people (Nicholas often mentioned being born on the Feast of Job, the long suffering – and both were murdered. Karl of Austria, sickened by war, and deeply devout, died so young and so sadly. Louis XVI of France, Henry VI of England...on some level there was a belief that they had no right to happiness as long as others were suffering and they met a lot of suffering and were murdered. They believed in martyrdom, and so it came upon them.

It doesn’t seem to demonstrate any idea of a loving God, beyond the idea that what we think about, we become. The happy truth, to my mind, is that through these ‘martyrs’ we learn the lesson that suffering is nothing to be revered. It is absolutely the opposite of Life and holiness. Life isn’t about duty or suffering or anything of the sort....You are the Light of the world...I came that they might have Life and have it to the full! As for the martyrs of the past, it is again like the wonderful quotation from Lady Constance Lytton’s book "Prisons & Prisoners" :

"Have you seen the locusts, how they cross a stream? First one comes down to the water's edge and is swept away. Then another comes and another, and gradually their bodies pile up and make a bridge for the rest to pass over." She ended by saying, "Well, perhaps I made a track to the water's edge."

Monday 25 October 2010

A Tender-Hearted Tyrant?

“I have not spent a day without loving you; I have not spent a night without embracing you; I have not so much as drunk a single cup of tea without cursing the pride and ambition which force me to remain separated from the moving spirit of my life.”
What an interesting line from one of Napoleon’s letters to his wife. In other letters he writes of the distance between them and again blames his pride – it almost seems like he was driven beyond reason to be constantly conquering somewhere or other for fear of being conquered. When he discovered that during one of his terribly long absences Josephine had taken a lover, he was beside himself with grief but rather than treating her with physical cruelty, he returned home and when she swore it would not happen again, he accepted it....on condition that he could take what mistresses he chose – and he did. What a need to be in power...and such a tender heart. He must have lived in constant conflict between his head and his heart – his driving ambition that made him quite ruthless, and his natural tendency to love and the need to feel loved in return. Even as he invaded other countries, he tried to convince himself that he was doing so to liberate them but it was surely was merely a symptom of his need to liberate himself from the many unresolved issues from his childhood and beyond.

In spite of myself, I really do find something attractive and intriguing about him – something of the lost little boy who disguised his need to feel loved behind a display of machismo. In this he reminds me a lot of Kaiser Wilhelm II, but Napoleon had the added intellectual brilliance and personal drive to be able to achieve so many of his aims. Unlike the vile Robespierre, he didn’t insist on the slaughter of innocent bystanders- he fought only opposing armies - and he did seize a crown, but only when that crown was already there for the taking. His support for the French Revolution is something I dislike but he didn’t support all that unnecessary slaughter or the paranoia that was so characteristic of ‘The Terror.’

He divorced Josephine when he considered her too old to bear him a son to continue the dynasty but he was heart-broken by that decision and he saw that Josephine was well cared for. When he heard later of her death, he retired to his room, refusing to be seen for two days. There was a man who had the wherewithal and opportunity to achieve all that Nicholas II would have liked to have achieved – a quiet life with his wife and family – but who was so driven by ambition that he could not live that ideal. Nothing except Napoleon stopped him from living a happy life with his wife but he remained driven and unhappy. Doesn’t it show how everything is in the mind of the individual? None of us is a victim of circumstance. We are victims only of our own thoughts and beliefs and, since we have power over those, the world is our oyster!

I set out to learn more of Napoleon, believing I would dislike him but in fact, I find him fascinating. (Incidentally, as a light aside, my mother told me today that when she was a small child her grandmother, for some odd reason, had a very large portrait of Napoleon hanging on the wall. My mother – being a small child – assumed it was a picture of her late grandfather! Funny...my mother’s name is Josephine!)

Here is a fascinating site with some of Napoleon’s letters to Josephine....and then to his mistresses and to his second wife.


Sunday 24 October 2010

Napoleon and Nicholas

(Another interlude from the Queen’s granddaughters...)

Napoleon is ‘before my time’ as it were but I’ve been learning more about his life and found it rather sad at the end to see him fall and die as he did in exile. Although he was, in my opinion, a desperate little boy still having to overcome the bullies and humiliations of his childhood - and so became so obsessed with power over others to make up for the lack in himself, consequently leading to the death of 13 million soldiers across Europe – there is something attractive and inspiring about him. He was absolutely driven by ambition to the extent that when everything went wrong for him, he never stopped and complained, he simply did what he did and came back again! Exiled to Elba, for instance, after having been so successful a general and Emperor of France, he simply turned himself into Emperor of Elba (small island that it was) and did what he had done in France – made the place beautiful with trees and roads etc. etc. and when he had done all he could do there, he returned to France and by the sheer power of his personality and charisma, won the hearts of those who were sent to prevent his return. Unlike many revolutionaries, I think he had a heart – he genuinely loved Josephine – but, as with everything else in his life, he would not allow that heart, which could sometimes be so tender and he was not a cruel man, to stand in the way of his ambition.

Ultimately he fell...and that is the way of those who seize power, isn’t it? They all seem to spend their lives looking over their shoulders because they know that what they have done to others, others will do to them (Trotsky’s end...William the Conqueror, even, died alone and naked...Stalin left to die alone...). It surely comes from deriving power from others. It becomes like an insatiable hunger. Napoleon achieved greatness, but was never satisfied. He had to go on and on and on, even when he knew it was hopeless, trying to fill the need to feel secure, although such a need was insatiable since he sought that security from others and was never able to find it in himself.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, is Nicholas II. A man who never wanted power but had it thrust upon him and, while working just as hard as Napoleon did to maintain an Empire, dreamed always of a simple life with his wife and family. Napoleon was prepared to sacrifice Josephine, the love of his life, in order to continue his dynasty. Nicholas, a man who was secure in himself and did not need power from others, was prepared to sacrifice everything for the love of his wife and family.

Who was the greater leader and who was better off in the end? A man who achieved so much and is seen always as a hero...and who died alone and sad seeing his life’s work taken from him, or a man who is always seen as weak but who ended his life secure in his own faith, surrounded by his family and with a clear conscience? Napoleon ended his life writing his memoirs and reliving his former glories. Nicholas’ life was cut short by murderers before he had the chance to do that but I doubt he would have felt any need to justify himself anyway. I really believe that these lines from ‘King Lear’ (ah! the joy of two passions intertwined – Shakespeare and the Romanovs in one post!) could have been written for what Nicholas said to his wife when they were in captivity...

Come, let's away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i' the cage...
...so we'll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we'll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who's in, who's out;
And take upon us the mystery of things,
As if we were God's spies: and we'll wear out,
In a walled prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon

It’s all so endlessly fascinating!!

Friday 22 October 2010

History and Stories

(A brief interlude from “Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters”, which will continue shortly...)

I love history! I just love it with a passion! And I think its appeal isn’t so much the awful cloistered professors-in-towers passing judgement on individual people of the past or the way that old text books make statements such as ‘Germany invaded Poland’ (as if this bit of land could suddenly uproot itself and become that bit of land?? What is Germany? What is Poland? Pieces of land marked out by mankind) but rather it is a never-ending unfolding fascination with what it is to be human. Everyone seems to love a good story – be it in sermons, radio plays, snatches of films – as soon as the beginning of a story is heard, it captures your attention. History is filled with amazing stories and maybe we love stories of other people because basically we are all one and learning to understand ourselves.

Here’s a thing that dawned on me today: isn’t it interesting that virtually all revolutions are born of a self-righteousness which is a mask for hatred and jealousy? And which people are, for the most part, the leaders of revolutions? Little boys with unresolved issues from their childhood acting out their theme on the world stage.

When young, Napoleon Bonaparte, the ‘little Corsican upstart’ who was treated with disdain, ostensibly despised the French. (I think Napoleon was a brilliant general but a very unhappy man who came to an unhappy end - the painting of him was propaganda to continue his myth). He was so jealous of the power of France that his overwhelming desire was to rule that country no matter who stood in his way. He adpated himself to the revolution, spoke up for revolutionary values....and made himself a tyrannical Emperor of France. So much for his 'equality and freedom'.

I wonder if Austrian-born Hitler, knowing that during WW1 the Germans believed their alliance with Austria had them ‘shackled to a corpse’ felt the same inferiority complex about Germany. Interesting how both those men were driven by hatred to rise above their circumstances and ultimately to self-destruct. Lenin and Stalin hated the Tsarist regime but were so quick to move into the Tsar’s palaces (once they had murdered him and his family) and play at being Tsars – and acting out a far more violent and cruel tyranny than the Tsars ever exacted.

Napoleon and Hitler both were devoted to their mothers but disliked their fathers and saw them as weak (Oedipus?). They railed throughout their childhood against perceived slights, and rather than learning to regain the power over their own feelings and self esteem, found a need to dominate others in order to feel secure. No one cane really control anyone else...so obviously when they realised that, they both moved into self-destruction.

What is most fascinating of all is the idea that ‘ordinary’ people believed and continue to believe that their wellbeing lies in the hands of others. Napoleon, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and every other leader who has ever seized power, was able to do so – and to go on to commit terrible atrocities - because a great number of people felt a need for someone else to take control of their lives and make decisions for them, and these ‘leaders’ (lost little boys) were glad of the adulation and enjoyed the power trip.

I think humanity has grown up a bit recently, but there are still people who view their leaders as the controllers of their lives. People create leaders whom they worship (did you see the election of President Obama?) or love to hate (did you see the applause at Tony Blair's election victory, or Mrs. Thatcher's...and did you watch them depart?). Bizarre how people believe that anyone else has any real control over their lives!

Today and yesterday, endless news articles report ad nauseam of the effects of the government cuts to public spending but I think we give too much attention to what is decided among politicians. It really doesn’t have so large an effect on our lives as people like to believe. It’s all just stories and we have far more power over which stories we choose to listen to, and how we choose to live our lives, than most of us realise.

Thursday 21 October 2010

A brilliant new book!

Before continuing with “Queen Victoria’s Granddaughters”, today I received word of the imminent availability of a new book which is going to be wonderful. No matter how many biographies appear, nothing ever quite compares to the feeling that comes with reading the actual letters exchanged between people. Queen Victoria’s letters to her daughter are far more interesting than any biography, as are the original letters of any other historical person. This book is entirely new as these letters have not been seen before. The book is: The Correspondence of the Empress Alexandra of Russia with Ernst Ludwig and Eleonore, Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse. 1878-1916 collected, edited and compiled by Petra H. Kleinpenning. Below is a description of the book, which will soon be available on Amazon:

“As young people, Princess Alix of Hesse and by Rhine (1872-1918) and her brother, Hereditary Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig of Hesse and by Rhine (1868-1937), were always together. They remained on close terms when Alix married Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and became the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna. This book presents the complete collection of letters and postcards, written in English and German, that Alix wrote to her brother over the years 1878-1916, from moving children's notes to poignant letters written during the cataclysm of World War I. Also included are Alix's letters to Ernst Ludwig's second wife, Grand Duchess Eleonore, some letters from Tsar Nicholas II to Ernst Ludwig, and the few letters and postcards from Ernst Ludwig and Eleonore to the imperial couple that survived the days of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Alix's letters to Ernst Ludwig and Eleonore focus on the weal and woe of her family and friends, on official receptions and military manoeuvres, the concerts and performances she attended, her charities and her war work. This unique private correspondence between Alix and Ernst Ludwig and Eleonore provides additional first-hand details about the everyday lives of these important people in the history of Russia and Hesse and increases our understanding of their characters, interests, and relationships.”

I can’t wait to read it!

Wednesday 13 October 2010

The Praslin Affair

Shortly before dawn on Monday 18th August 1847 blood-curdling screams shattered the silence of the Hôtel Sébastiani, the Parisian residence of the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin. Startled into action, servants scrambled along the corridors to the rooms of the thirty-year-old Duchesse, only to find the doors bolted. As they struggled to force the locks, the screams gradually faded until at last the door opened from the inside and the Duc appeared in the entrance. Behind him lay an appalling scene: amid overturned furniture covered in blood, the Duchesse - her throat half-cut, her hands slashed and her head bludgeoned by a candlestick - lay gasping her last. The Duc, feigning shock, was quick to state that this was the work of an intruder but, within minutes of the arrival of the Sūreté Nationale, it was established the Duc himself was the culprit. Not only were his blood-stained clothes and hunting knife found in his adjoining room, but the whole of Paris knew he had a definite motive for murder.
Behind of their façade of domestic harmony, the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin had, for more than five years, endured a strained co-existence. Amid rumours and hints of child abuse, the Duc had forbidden his volatile wife from playing any part in their children’s upbringing, handing over all authority for their welfare and education to their English-trained governess, Henriette Deluzy, who was rumoured to be his lover. While the hysterical Duchesse ranted and raved, French newspapers gloated in reporting details of the supposed affair until at last under pressure from his father-in-law, the Duc was compelled to send the unfortunate Henriette on her way. Far from easing the situation, her departure served only to increase the tension in the household, culminating in the frenzied attack on the 18th August.
“What a mess!” sighed King Louis Philippe as the Duc de Praslin, still protesting his innocence, was brought before a Court of Peers and found guilty of murder. To appease the public’s demand for justice, he was condemned to death but before the sentence could be carried out he poisoned himself with arsenic and died after six days of agony.
There the domestic tragedy might have ended, but these were unsettling times in France and the scandal involving a well-known aristocrat was enough to shake public confidence in an already teetering monarchy.
Queen Victoria wrote, “This horrid Praslin tragedy is a subject one cannot get out of one’s head. The Government can in no way be accused of these murders, but there is no doubt that the standard of morality is very low indeed in France, and that the higher classes are extremely unprincipled. This must shake the security and prosperity of a nation.”
Within six months the security of the nation - and its monarch - would be shaken to the core.

I remember, as a small child, watching the old film, based on this event,: All this and Heaven Too and thinking it was very beautiful Alas, the reality was far less romantic and it is interesting how often in history a government is toppled or a king overthrown by some event over which he has no control but which either appears to be symbolic of the discontent of the age, or is used as an excuse by those who are desperate for change.

Monday 11 October 2010

Cold Callers and Match Sellers

In Victorian times, small children were sent out into the street to sell flowers and matches and – according to Hans Christian Andersen’s lovely story – were told not to ‘come back until you have sold them all.’ It must have been a dire existence, standing on street corners in all weathers, searching for possible buyers and perhaps, sometimes, feeling driven to approach and even harass people into buying.

Nowadays, it’s all so much more civilised. Now, adults sit in Indian call centres and just phone around the world trying to sell something. Perhaps they have been told they must make their daily quotient of sales but it’s one thing to approach a person in the street and try to sell them a box of matches or some flowers, and another to constantly and repetitively approach someone in their own home.

Five or sometimes six times a week someone from a call centre in India phones, trying to sell a new mobile phone package. Originally, I listened to their sales talk (always the same – “Good evening, Madam. I am calling from (whatever company). How are you today? Do you have a mobile phone etc. etc.” ), then I began to interrupt and say I wasn’t interested, then I asked them to stop calling, and still they call, quite often when I am in the middle of something to do with my own work or some other business. So I developed a new plan and decided to adopt multiple personae in response.

When they asked, “How are you today?” I replied first, “Oh, I am so glad you asked! I have been so lonely and was longing for someone to call...” before rambling at length about a mythical dead rabbit.

The next time, when they asked if I had a mobile, I replied, “Yes indeed! It hangs over my cot. There are little trains on it...” and rambled at length about trains (obviously the callers do not understand the alternative meaning of a mobile and invariably hand me over to their supervisor). The next time, I pretended to be stuck up a chimney.

Next time, when they ask if I have a mobile, I shall simply begin reading to them from one of my novels – after all, they are wasting my time, why not waste theirs? I think it is a rude imposition that they call so frequently and wish there were a ‘spam’ button on the phone. I wonder who pays these people to do this, who sells them the phone number, and why they think it is alright to constantly call and try to prise personal information out of someone. Not long ago, such a call began very brightly then the caller asked how much I earn. “Mind your own business!”

Having said that, I cannot help thinking that the poor souls in the call centre are in the same position as the match sellers of old and if you called me and read this, please know that my response is not aimed at you, but aimed at the whole notion of it being alright to constantly phone people to try to sell them something they don’t want and haven’t asked for. If I want a new mobile, I will go to one of the many mobile phone shops (there are 5 within walking distance) and make enquiries there!

Tuesday 5 October 2010

The Mudlark

Thinking more of whether or not that wax cylinder is possibly a recording of Queen Victoria (please see the previous post), I was thinking of how wonderfully Irene Dunne portrayed Queen Victoria in the 1950s film: "The Mudlark". Her very slight German accent (the not-quite-rolled, almost guttural 'r's) seemed so perfect - though not at all like the voice on the wax cylinder.

Of all the films in which Queen Victoria has ever been portrayed "The Mudlark" - though clearly a fictional and beautiful story - really seemed to capture the Queen to perfection. It was made in the days when conversation was more important than action and the conversations between Disraeli and Queen Victoria, particularly capturing her stubbornness and stubborn refusal to cease mourning dear Prince Albert years after his death, were so spot on! I wish I had the entire script because it was so beautifully similar to Queen Victoria's own letters written after the Prince Consort's death. Still more impressive were the expressions on Irene Dunne's face - so like how I am sure Queen Victoria expressed herself. It also showed her romantic side and how, despite her stubbornness, she nearly always thought better of it and gave way in the end - just such a beautiful portrayal of her! It also includes some fabulous 'rainy-Sunday-afternoon-black-and-white-film' (you get the picture?) pathos and is a really feel good film. One example of the brilliant script is the line spoken by Disraeli:

Such proposals as slum clearance, public housing, educational facilities for the poor, are all wise and worthy measures and consequently will be opposed vigorously. The British are a proud and independent people, ma'am, and will not yield to improvement without a stout struggle.

There have been many presentations of Queen Victoria on the stage and screen and, alongside Dame Judy Dench's portrayal of her in 'Mrs. Brown' (more the facial expressions than the accent) I truly believe Irene Dunne comes closest. With or without the German the accent, this film is really beautiful and the settings (even to the incidental background pictures on the walls - the portrait of Bertie, the future Edward VII, in his sailor suit and Vicky and others) are spot on! I love that film!

Sunday 3 October 2010

Recording of Queen Victoria

On a radio programme yesterday (most of which, unfortunately I missed), Queen Victoria's biographer, Giles St-Aubyn was talking with the presenter of a wax cylinder of the recording of Queen Victoria's voice. The little I heard of the programme led me to believe it is a strong possibility that the recording is genuine and, what was definitely genuine, was a BBC archive recording of an interview with Queen Victoria's granddaughter, Princess Alice of Albany (later Athlone) beautifully describing her grandmother's voice which, to my slight surprise, she said had no hint of a German accent. The Queen's voice, she said, was light and bright and youthful, as indeed was the Queen herself - and not at all like the sombre woman of popular imagination.

This fits, of course, with Marie of Roumania's lovely description of her grandmother's child-like enjoyment of many of the events she organised to entertain her grandchildren, and Marie Louise of Schleswig-Holstein's mention of the warmth and humour of her grandmother.

It often seems that one of the most endearing characteristics of Queen Victoria, is that she never really lost a child-like heart. Perhaps that was due to insecurity and unhappiness of her own childhood but, rather than becoming a miserable old woman, she seems much more to me a tender and open-hearted person, with a sort of childlike innocence. Like a child, too, she could be petulant and stubborn but she was such a romantic, and sometimes quite naive in, for example, her wishing to publish the second 'Leaves from a Highland Journal' in which she wrote effusively of her servant, John Brown, in a way that less innocent people might interpret quite differently. It is interesting that the older she grew, the more tolerant and understanding she became. After the dreadful gaffe of the Flora Hastings affair (when she was still very young) perhaps she learned a lesson, or perhaps she stopped listening to advisors! She stood by her granddaughter, Marie Louise, during a scandalous divorce and she encouraged the Duchess of York (later Queen Mary) to go to Mecklenburg to ride alongside the disgraced daughter of a relative, who had been disowned for becoming pregnant by a footman. Again, she offered a home in England to a Hanoverian princess who had been refused permission to marry the man she loved, and who was cast out by her father for so doing; and she enjoyed what her daughter, Vicky, considered frivolous romantic novels.

I like to think that is Queen Victoria's voice on the recording - the snatch of it that I vaguely heard reminded me a little of the earliest recordings of our present Queen. She allowed herself to be filmed (albeit briefly) so it seems likely that she would be equally willing to allow herself to be recorded.