Sunday, July 29, 2012

The Royal Physician's Visit

The Royal Physician's Visit is a 1999 Swedish novel written by Per Olov Enquist, translated into English by Tiina Nunally on the love affair between Princess Caroline Mathila of Great Britain and Doctor Johann Struensee.

King Christian VII is a sensitive, intellectual boy who was emotionally and physically abused by his tutors in order to make him more malleable to their ambitions like his Father was. He is so damaged that by the time that his fifteen year old bride, Princess Caroline Matilda of Great Britain, arrives to her new country, he is little more than a raving lunatic. He is so terrified of intercourse with his wife that he only ever slept with her once but that was enough for Frederick VI to be conceived.

Instead of finding intimacy with his Queen, he turns to the comforts provided by the courtesan, Bottine Caterine, who he calls his "Mistress of the Universe". Christian's stepmother, Dowager Queen Juliana, deems Caterine to be a threat and sends her away, driving the King of Denmark into the deepest pits of despair. To appease his broken heart, he is permitted by the court to go on a Europeans tour to look for his lost love but only on the condition that he be tended to by a doctor. The doctor that is chosen is named Johann Frederick Struensee.

The doctor quickly makes it into Christian's high esteem and the King of Denmark soon hands him the reigns of power much to the chagrin of the old establishment, fully aware of that Struensee is a man of the enlightenment. Queen Caroline Matilda is fascinated by Struensee and he is the one that teaches her how to ride a horse; she does so riding astride like a man. The two become lovers. And in 1771, Caroline Matilda gives birth to Struensee's only child, Princess Louisa Augusta of Denmark.

The court and country's growing contempt for Struensee's reforms as well as his affair with the Queen reaches its boiling point in autumn of 1771 and he and Caroline Matilda are arrested. Dowager Queen Juliana and a group of reactionaries barge into King Christian's room and wake the sleeping monarch. In a daze, he is forced to sign the warrants for the death of Struensee and his divorce from Queen Caroline Matilda. The  pit the couple against each other and while Caroline Matilda's will is unbreakable, tricked into believing that the Queen confessed, Struensee admits to everything.

Johan Friedrich Strunsee is executed on April 28, 1772. Caroline Matilda is exiled to Celle where she dies on May 10, 1775. King Christian forgets that his wife ever existed and returns to his Mistress of the Universe. And the winner of this whole debacle is the Ove Hoegh Guldberg, the man who has been watching it all from the sidelines who know one that would succeed.

I give this book a 3/5. As we all know by now, I am not unfamiliar with the story of Queen Caroline Matilda of Denmark. Now I don't know if there it has something to do with the translation or this is actually Per Olov Enquist's writing style, however, it was very confusing to read (So confusing in fact that the first few chapters gave me a headache). I read a review of the book stating that "The erotic scenes are among the most beautiful I have read in modern literature" and I don't know about you but I don't find the word "membrane" very stimulating.

P.S. On the related note of the historical figure known as Johann Struensee, has anyone seen the movie "A Royal Affair"? Kermode gave the movie a wonderful review and so far it is his top film of 2012. I hope very much to see it soon!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Empress Orchid

Empress Orchid is a 2004 fictional novel by Anchee Min on the life of Dowager Empress Cixi from her humble beginnings her rise as Empress Dowager.

The novel begins with the death of a Manchu blue bannerman of the Yehonara clan, the Commissioner of Anhui Province. After his death, his widow and their three children move to Peking where they are taken in by his Brother. His eldest daughter, Orchid, takes a job with the wife of a Eunuch, Sister Feng, to help keep her family afloat. Along with work, Orchid gains an inside look into the Forbidden City and the story of the suicide of Empress Xiaoquancheng. It is also sister Feng who suggests that Orchid enter in the selection process to become an Imperial Consort to Xiaoquancheng's son, Emperor Xianfeng.

Orchid is created Imperial Consort Yehonara of the Fifth Rank. Xianfeng selects, or morely his foster Mother, Imperial Noble Dowager Consort Kangci, Niuhuru as his official Empress. Yehonara lives a life of opulence in the Forbidden City but beneath the splendor of it all, her life is marred by extreme boredom. Without the Emperor's favor, she is slowly slipping into obscurity. With the help of her loyal eunuch, An De Hai, she bribes Head Eunuch Shim into procuring a night in the Emperor's bed and spends her time preparing for that night learning the art of seduction in a brothel. When the Emperor finally calls her, it is Orchid's bold personality that wins Xianfeng's affections.

While Xianfeng opens up his heart to Orchid, he also opens up on the sorry state of China. Taxed by foreign powers, China has become an empty shell of its former glory. Exhausted by the demands of the western "barbarians", Xianfeng begins to seek Yehonara's advice on what to do. Yehonara takes her first steps into  the deadly world of court politics.

In 1855, Imperial Consort Yehonara becomes pregnant. Despite attempts by other concubines to cause Yehonara a miscarriage, she safely delivers a healthy baby boy on Apirl 27, 1856. She is raised to the title of Noble Consort making her second only to Empress Niuhuru. After the birth of his son, Emperor Xianfeng loses interest in Orchid, something that happens in part due to Nuihuru.

The Emperor grows ill as the political situation in China worsens. The Westerners begin demanding that he open more ports for trade with the West and when the Emperor refuses their request, they take up arms and invade China. Unable to protect his empire or his family, Xianfeng and the court flee Peking. He dies while in exile. As he lays dying, Xianfeng names his son as the heir to the throne and gives him the name "Tongzhi", playing Orchid and Niuhuru on the regency council with his advisor Su shun at its head.

Differences between Orchid, now created Empress Cixi, and Su shun were made obvious to all even while the Emperor was alive. Now that Xianfeng is dead the two duke it out for control over the Regency Council, coming to a head with Su shun attempting to assassinated the two Empresses. They are saved by the dashing Ronglu and with the help of the Xianfeng's brother, Prince Gong, they arrest Su shun and have him arrested for attempting to stage a coup d'etat.

As the book comes to its end, Xianfeng is buried in Peking and Orchid comes to terms with her feelings for Ronglu, realizing that they can never be together.

I give this book 4.5/5. Let me start off by saying that this is the first book that I have reviewed that I listened to as an audiobook so I had the experience of listening to Alexandra O'Karma for over 18 hours (Seeing as the car ride from Edmonton to Jasper is roughly 5 hours, I decided why not?). She has a good speaking voice and does a wonderful job at differentiating between the character. One thing that you should be aware of if you decide to listen to the audiobook is that you are able to hear O'Karma lick her lips several times in the recording. I understand that reading an entire book that your lips would be a little dry, however, the editing staff should have done a better job on that because at times it was quite unnerving.  
If there is one big con to listening to it versus reading it, it's that you have no idea how to write the names of the characters (which is essential if you intend to write a review on the book). Not only that but Anchee Min use a different spelling with the names so I had an incredibly fun time looking for their wikipedia articles. For example: The character of Yonglu, as is spelled in the novel, is in reality better known as Ronglu. How do you get one from the other, I have no idea so you can understand it was a nightmare to do.
Anchee Min's writing is fabulous and she does an amazing job of telling the story. I did notice that she put quite a few poems in the book - not that it takes away from the writing but it is something that I did notice. The thing I had to penalize Min on were the inaccuracies I found in the novel and there were quite a bit i.e. In the novel, Kurun Princess Rong'an's Mother, Consort Li, commits suicide after an attempt on Cixi's life but if you know anything about the Qing Dynasty (or read the wikipedia article) then you will know that she died in the fifties of an illness. It's the one thing I can criticize in an otherwise good book. 
Anyone who knows anything about Cixi is that she is most often portrayed as a ruthless, mastermind that will do anything to achieve and maintain power so this book is a very, very very sympathetic account of her life. But "Empress Orchid" was my first look into the controversial character that was Dowager Empress Cixi and it does leave an impression in my mind that Cixi wasn't just this heartless enigma but rather a human being with human emotions. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Imperial Dancer: Mathilde Kchessinska and the Romanovs

Imperial Dancer: Mathilde Kschessinska and the Romanovs is a 2005 biography on the Russian ballerina Mathilde Kschessinska written by Coryne Hall and foreworded by Natalia Makarova.

Matilda-Marie Felixovna Kschessinska was born on August 31 [August 19 OS], 1872 into a dynasty of Polish dancers. Her Father, Felix Kschessinska, was known as the "King of the Mazurka" and her Mother, Julia Dominska, was a ballerina before retiring to marry. Like her 2 elder siblings, Julie and Joseph, before her, Matilda entered into the Imperial Ballet School; graduating in 1890 with a score of 11 "very good" and 12 "perfect".   

The Imperial Family attended Mathilde's debut performance and it was there that she first laid eyes on the Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich. For her at least, it was love at first sight and she did everything humanly possible to get his attention - never mind that Nicholas was already in love with a German Princess. Mathilde managed to befriend the heir but that was as far as their relationship progressed. That is, until, having been rejected by his lady love, the Tsarevich reluctantly sought comfort in Mathilde's arms. Their relationship continued for three years, ending when at last, Princess Alix of Hesse accepted Nicholas' proposal of marriage in 1894. Mathilde was devastated. Hoping to break off the engagement, she sent letters to Alix in attempt to blacken the Tsarevich's name. Nicholas recognized the ballerina's writing and confessed to Alix his affair with Mathilde. Alix forgave Nicholas but never Mathilde.

Despite being heartbroken over the loss of her first love, Mathilde soon found herself a "protector" in Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich, who was also her lover. He provided generously for his mistress and was often the one to resolve issues between Mathilde and her ballerina competitors (always in Mathilde's favor, of course). In spite of all this, Mathilde did not love Sergei and only used him as a means to go further in the Mariinsky Theatre. In 1900, she met and fell in love with Grand Duke Andrei Vladimorovich, Sergei's cousin, and the two soon entered into a relationship. The three of them, Mathilde, Sergei and Andrei, lived in this menage a trois for some time but not without some tension. In 1902, Mathilde gave birth to a son, named Vladimir and called "Vova" within the family. Both men were convinced the child was his. Vova would never know who his Father was.

Mathilde rose high in the Imperial Theatre with her amazing technical skills (as well as her connection with the  Tsar), obtaining the rank of prima ballerina in 1896, but her career was always marred by her endless squabbling with maestro of the Imperial Ballet, Petipa, and fellow ballerina, most notably Anna Pavlova and Olga Preobrajenska. A notorious incident in 1906 was when Mathilde's coveted role in La Fille Mal Gardee was given to Preobrajenska, the prima ballerina released live chickens onto the stage prematurely. Much to Mathilde's chagrin, Preobrajenska finished her variation and received a storm of applause.

In 1917, three years after entering into the First World War, the Russian Revolution came into full swing, toppling the old regime and the Romanov family. Mathilde was forced to abandon her lavish home in St. Petersburg and flea to France. It was from her balcony that Vladimir Lenin delivered his speech after his return from Finland. She and Andrei were reunited on the way to France but Mathilde never saw Sergei again. He was murder in 1918 along with several of his relatives.

In 1921, Mathilde and Andrei married and she was given the title Princess Romanovsky-Krasinsky. Living a relatively modest life in Paris compared to what she had in Russia, she lived happily with her Grand Duke for several decades. In 1929, the former prima ballerina of the Imperial Ballet opened her own ballet school to keep the family afloat. She is credited with  teaching the famed Alicia Markova.

Andrei's death in 1956 caused Mathilde innumerable grief  yet she would outlive him by 15 years, dying on December 6, 1971 at the age of 99. Her final years were plagued with financial troubles but she remained indomitable just as she had been all her life.

I give this book 4/5. Hall has quite a similar writing style to John Van Der Kiste (They worked together on their shared biography of Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna in "Once a Grand Duchess) and that is A-Okay in my book. Like most of you, my only knowledge of Mathilde Kchessinska as the mistress of Nicholas II but that's just a fraction of her life and now that I've read Imperial Dancer I feel much more knowledgeable on her incredible life story. All in all, a rather nice read when you have the time.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics

Sex with the Queen: 900 Years of Vile Kings, Virile Lovers and Passionate Politics is a 2006 book by Eleanor Herman on adulterous queens and princesses and their lovers starting from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Princess Diana of Wales.

Why might a queen consort turn her back on her husband and jump into the arms of another man? In a time where marriages were not for love but instead for political reasons, the bride often had no say in who her husband was. Years of inbreeding within the family, might have made the groom ugly, deformed or insane - maybe all three. Quite possibly, he was a homosexual and disinterested in the female gender.  

Being the lover of the queen reaped many benefits as well as dangers. Unlike a mistress who was rewarded for her "services" with jewels and wealth, a male lover was granted with wealth and power. However, all of this came at a heavy price. With the image of the queen often synonymous with the Virgin Mary, any sign of taint upon her image could be damaging to her reputation if not her life. 

Even the mere accusation of could forever tarnish her Majesty in the eyes of the public as we see through Napoleon's spreading lies about Queen Louise of Prussia and her relationship with Tsar Alexander I of Russia. However it is not the woman who are accused of adultery but those actually commit the act that we are here to discuss.

Eleanor of Aquitaine and Raymond Poitiers

Anne Boleyn  and men

Marguerite Louise of Orleans and Charles of Lorraine

Diana Spencer and men

I give this book a 2/5 for content and 3/5 for writing. Eleanor Herman's writing is very amusing and enjoyed quite a few laughs while reading the book (I'm still chuckling over the "enlightening" conversation between Phillipe, Duke of Orleans, Elisabeth Charlotte of the Palatinate and their son) however, I must admit that I found her language a bit too graphic for my taste - which leads me to my next point. I was rather upset at the choice of women featured in this book especially in the cases of Alexandra Feodorovna, Queen Victoria and Marie Antoinette. Although Herman does take care to say that Alexandra's relationship with Rasputin was an emotional one, in a book titled "Sex with the Queen" there is much room for misinformation. Same for QV. And on the subject of Marie Antoinette's relationship with Axel Fersen, I am of the opinion that their relationship was purely platonic - so excuse me, if I did not enjoy reading about how she and Fersen (how do I put this politely?) bumped uglies. Although some people might disagree with me, on a subject as divided as this (although the majority of people I know agree with me) it is not wise to be so bold and assertive - same with the paternity of Louis XVII (Louis Charles was said to bear a strong resemblance to his Uncle and Grandmother).  To be quite frank with you, I felt as if Herman was shoving these stories down our throats; basing it more on rumor than sound, hard evidence. Can be quite misleading to the average reader and downright insulting to the monarchist crowd.