Holly Tucker's Blog

June 23, 2017

By Susan Hiner, Guest Contributor

Figure 1

Bonjour! It’s me, Emma B.[1]

Looking for a good book? … well, your search is over! Just in time for your beach vacation on the Normandy coast (or, if you’re lucky, off to the Hamptons with your lover), or maybe to while away the hours of your “staycation” at home with the kids on those sweltering days in the burbs (my most likely scenario, alas), or possibly for those weekly commutes into the city for your “piano lessons”—for any time really when you have a few moments to yourself to fall into a book, as they say, I offer you my summer reading list!

If you’re feeling nostalgic for more innocent days (lord knows, I do), when the world was pure and nature was your playground, why not pick up Paul et Virginie? Try to find an illustrated copy so that the flora and fauna of the exotic jungles of Mauritius, the adventures on land and sea, and the sweet children’s bamboo hut will come alive for you. I recommend the 1839 edition (fig. 1).[2]

It’s a beautiful, passionate story of true love, even if it’s tragically sad at the end, but I won’t spoil the ending…you’ll have to read it for yourself. I’m only going to mention one poem, but it truly is the best, Lamartine’s “Le Lac,” even if it is so long it’s practically a novel! When I read it, I feel like I’m floating away on a beautiful lake, hearing the words “they loved” wistfully echoing over the waves. Poetry’s not for everyone, but this one is so romantic, and so tragic—give it a read.

Figure 2

Speaking of tragic romances, you really should try George Sand’s Lélia. It features a poet (be still my beating heart!) in love with a mysterious, older woman (lol!). Some of you might not realize this, but “George” Sand is actually a woman! Or maybe you’re more into worldly, contemporary novels. I’ve lately become hooked on Balzac—any of his Scènes de la vie parisienne will do quite nicely to take you straight into the drawing rooms, balls, and private restaurant rooms of the most fabulous city in the universe…Paris! And the dresses, the gowns, the hats! That Balzac really is a master at describing them very realistically, so illustration is much less important here. I’ve also been enjoying Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, just recently translated into English[3] for my Anglophone readers. I admit, it’s quite a long slog but with lots of adventure and derring-do, and its hero is super-dashing (… if only Charles were even half as hot). You can read it in weekly installments at a good price, so I think it’s well worth it, especially if you’re home-decorating, too, by the way,—great ideas for furniture (think pinterest).

Figure 3

Now, what if you’re interested in something with a bit more historical flavor? I’m partial to women’s history, myself, so I recommend diving into some light historical fiction on our wonderful French heroines—mademoiselle de la Vallière comes to mind, or Joan of Arc—they’re so popular you can find their likenesses everywhere, even on plates! I’d hate to eat off them, but I have!! It doesn’t have to be French history either—Marie Stuart is all the rage now (she was practically French, you know), and Sir Walter Scott’s The Abbot offers a deep dive into the poor queen’s imprisonment. Just as an aside, my favorite work of Walter Scott is definitely Lucy of Lammermoor, although I felt that the operatic production in Rouen fell apart at the end. Maybe history isn’t your thing, and you’re feeling contemplative. You might consider some spiritual reading—always good for the beach. Chateaubriand’s Génie du Christianisme is great for dipping in and out for a little mystical pick-me-up, but you could also just turn to an illustrated Bible—those little stories are so much more touching when you can picture (literally!) poor Jesus with his pierced heart, stumbling under the weight of a splintery cross. Who knows, you might even lose a little weight if you’re inspired to fast! (Vinegar water helps too, btw.)

Let’s be honest: everyone feels a little naughty sometimes and wants to read something a tad bit steamy. When I was a girl at school, I used to love to borrow the old laundress’s romance novels—so thrilling with damsels in distress, gorgeous heroes yearning to die for you, driving their horses at maximum speed rushing to your rescue! If only I could remember a single title. Unfortunately, wedded life to a country doctor and motherhood to a daughter…sigh… not a son… have exiled those exhilarating fantasies most of the time. But I’m sure you could find one of those romances at a used bookseller’s—they’re simply wonderful for escaping the dreadful routine of chores, or your mother-in-law’s constant droning, and … well, conjugal life, if you know what I mean. I’m quite sure that’s why the old laundress was reading them all the time. Her life was so dreary.

If you like pictures as much as I do, you really should splash out and treat yourself to a keepsake[4]–these lovely albums contain songs, stories, and pictures that send you dreaming! (fig. 3) Unlike the cads of Yonville, “keepsake” men are always kind, always handsome, and they never break your heart…

You should also consider subscribing to some magazines. Nothing is more relaxing, whether poolside or just lounging on the sofa while dinner is cooking, a glass of rosé in hand, than the latest from the press. I often leaf through l’Illustration. Since we don’t yet have television or the internet out here in the Styx, I find that it fleshes out those news, society, and political stories that would otherwise be just too hard and tedious to follow. Everything becomes a fait divers!

Figure 4

It’s a great conversation starter too—there’s always a story to talk about, and it’s nice to linger over the pictures with a friend (or a handsome stranger…

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Published on June 23, 2017 07:13 • 13 views

April 28, 2017

Interview with Crystal King

How did you come across this story? What inspired you to write about it?

I came across an anecdote about the ancient Roman gourmand, Apicius, in a book that I was reading, Feast by Roy Strong. The passage described how Apicius died and I found it to be so fascinating that I thought I needed to write the story of how it came to pass.

What were your main sources for your research? How did you organize everything? (That is, got any tips for fellow writers?)

The main source for me was the ancient cookbook, Apicius de re Coquinaria, translated by Sally Grainger. I also read as much as I could from texts of that time, Seneca, Tacitus, Pliny and even Virgil. Then came the history books on food, architecture, politics, slavery, etc. I organized everything using Evernote and I did most of my writing in Scrivener and Google Docs.

What were the biggest challenges you faced either in the research, the writing, or structuring the plot?

In the beginning, I really struggled with determining whose story it ultimately was. It’s a tale of Apicius but told by his cook, Thrasius. I rewrote the first 15 chapters three times from different points of view before I finally figured it out.

Every writer has to leave something on the cutting floor. What’s on yours?  

I chopped a lot out of Feast of Sorrow because it was so long and when I was looking for agents no one wanted to touch it for that reason. But there is a scene that I was particularly fond of that I am still sad it was left behind–a bath scene in which Apicius’s body slave, Sotas, is at the baths and hears about elephants, an animal unknown to him, at the Colosseum for the first time. There was just something curious and charming for me about that scene. Also, on the Debutante Ball, I share another deleted scene that I’m very fond of, a scene from Apicius’s point of view in which he is buying Thrasius a set of knives. 

Tag you’re it! What historical fiction author do you most admire? Why?

This is so difficult! There are far too many for me to name (Margaret George, Sarah Dunant, Jenna Blum, Philippa Gregory, Anthony Doerr among many others). But if I have to really narrow it down, it’s an author that I know, Anjali Mitter Duva, who is one of my writing group partners and my dear friend. She has a beautiful novel, Faint Promise of Rain, set in medieval India that I wish the whole world could read. I admire her because she is so driven, because she is a beautiful writer, because she is the master of description, because she finds time to write when her world is chaos, and because she always inspires me to do more and to do better.


Photograph © Wayne Earl Chinnock

Crystal King is a writer, culinary enthusiast, and marketing expert. Her writing is fueled by a love of history and an obsession with the food, language, and culture of Italy. She has taught writing and social media at GrubStreet and several universities including Harvard Extension School and Boston University. Crystal received her master’s degree in critical and creative thinking from University of Massachusetts Boston. She lives in the US with her husband and two cats, Nero and Merlin. She is the author of Feast of Sorrow.

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Published on April 28, 2017 08:49 • 24 views

April 24, 2017

By Pamela D. Toler (Regular Contributor)

Not all the heroes of the First World War fought in the trenches.

Forty-nine year old British nurse Edith Cavell was the director of the first nurses’ training school in Belgium. When Germany occupied Brussels in the first month of the war, Cavell refused to leave. She turned her clinic into a Red Cross hospital and cared for wounded soldiers from both armies.

On November 1, 1914, Cavell took her heroism to a new level when a Belgian resistance worker brought two British soldiers to her door. Hiding Allied soldiers was punishable by death, but Cavell took the soldiers in without question. She hid them for two weeks while plans were made to take them across the border into the Netherlands, which remained neutral throughout the war.

These two soldiers were the first of more than 200 Allied soldiers whom Cavell helped escape from German-occupied Belgium during the first year of the war. Working with a resistance network, she provided medical care for wounded soldiers, hid the healthy until a guide could escort them over the border, and made sure they had money in their pockets for the journey.

Catching Cavell in the act became a priority for the German political police, who assigned an officer to the task full-time. Searches of the clinic became more frequent. (On one occasion she hid a wounded soldier in an apple barrel, covered with apples.)

On August 5,1915, the Germans arrested Cavell. Told that the other prisoners had confessed, she admitted during interrogation that she had used the clinic to hide Allied soldiers. Ten weeks later, Cavell and 34 other resisters were tried for assisting the enemy. Five, including Cavell, received the death penalty.

American and Spanish diplomats tried to get her sentence commuted without success; her execution was scheduled to be carried out the next day at dawn. When an English chaplain visited her that night to offer her comfort, he was surprised to find her calm and collected. She told him, “I realize that patriotism is not enough, I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.” As he left, Rev. Gahan said “We will always remember you as a heroine and a martyr.” Cavell answered “Don’t think of me like that. Think of me only as a nurse who tried to do her duty.”

Cavell’s hope to be remembered “only as a nurse” was idealistic–and unrealistic. The British propaganda office at Wellington House used her story both to increase enlistment in Britain (the number of volunteers doubled in the weeks after her death) and to increase anti-German sentiment in the United States.

Pamela D. Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history and a large bump of curiosity. She is the author of Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and is currently working on a global history of women warriors, with the imaginative working title of Women Warriors.

Find Pamela on Twitter at @pdtoler

Read more of her writing on her personal blog

Heroines of Mercy Street



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Published on April 24, 2017 06:41 • 68 views

April 12, 2017

By Michael Garval (Regular Contributor)

Friederike Garval (née Kajapic), with her parents Friedrich Kajapic and Anna Kajapic (née Wrba).

My mom was born in Vienna, in 1929:  a bad time in a place known for good food.

Her parents embodied the twin pillars of Viennese cuisine:  cosmopolitanism and terroir.  Her dad came from the Bosnian city of Mostar, the son of a Slovenian-born Habsburg tax collector; her mom, my Oma, grew up in a small farming village in the Weinviertel, the wine-producing region outside Vienna.  Like provincials everywhere, my maternal grandparents came to the capital seeking a better life.  But times were tough, and they struggled.

When people learn of my Viennese heritage, visions of Wiener Schnitzel, goulash, and Sachertorte waltz in their heads.  The reality of my grandmother’s cooking was far more frugal, but no less delicious.  I know, since at least some of it was familiar fare for me as a kid in suburban New Jersey in the 1970s.  My American dad’s fertile imagination exceeded his business acumen, so money could be tight, and my Viennese mom made ends meet with economical dishes from her childhood.

Viennese table

What kind of food did my grandmother prepare in the 1930s and 40s?

There were vegetable-based soups, purees, and stews, like bean goulash, or lentils spiked with whatever bits of smoked meat could be afforded.   And there was an impressive assortment of starches, oft served not as sides but as gut-filling main dishes: all manner of dumpling, both savory and fruit-filled; thick crêpes called Palatschinken, filled with marmalade; potatoes prepared many ways, including as Eräpfelschmarrn, a kind of hash, sometimes mixed with cubes of streaky bacon; and toothsome homemade noodles that I watched my Oma make in her modest Vienna apartment, the dough rolled thin across the kitchen table, then sliced with the deft fingers of one who’d cooked professionally (in the 1920s, this country girl in the big city worked at a restaurant in the upscale Annagasse, then at a canteen for soldiers, which is where my grandparents met).

Meat was scarce.  For my mom’s mid-morning snack at school (Gabelfrühstück), Oma might pack her a Wurstbrot, an open-faced sandwich made with Burenwurst, a garlicky, rustic, and above all inexpensive sausage. Her persnickety teacher would sniff out the pupils’ garlic sausage provisions, and exiled these to the space in between the classroom’s double windows, to be returned only at snack time.  Much of the time, however, there was only lard to spread over bread (Schmalzbrot), and my mom didn’t like this as much, even if it gave her schoolmistress’ fussy nose a rest.

Despite hard times, this was Vienna, and Sundays still meant schnitzel, though with horse cutlets, since ration coupons bought twice as much horse meat as any other kind.  Perhaps betraying his bourgeois origins, or just out of sympathy for the fine animals, my grandfather objected to horse meat, so my grandmother didn’t tell him.  The flesh was lean, tender, and tasted much like veal, so her secret remained safe.

Pork Wiener Schnitzel prepared by Friederike (“Fritzi”) Garval, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Christmas 2016.

Only on Christmas Eve did they have pork schnitzel, dredged in homemade bread crumbs (stale bread couldn’t go to waste), and fried to crisp, golden perfection.

Home front

Toward the end of the war, things got tighter still.  There was a windfall of sorts however when a local factory was bombed, and the owners gave their stock to neighbors, rather than abandoning it to the advancing Russians.  For months, my mother’s best friend Hermi and her siblings consumed their share of the factory’s noodles and jam:  an all-carb diet that left them wan and pasty, but alive.

Anna Kajapic, kitchen notebook (mid-20th century)

Mom’s family was luckier. Oma’s country roots meant they could go work on relatives’ farms, in exchange for provisions, especially meat.  From the December pig slaughter they got preserved and fresh pork (whence the Christmas schnitzels), stored over the winter months in the snowy flower box outside the window of my grandparents’ tiny Viennese apartment.  They also brought back miraculous harvests of wild mushrooms, especially chanterelles (Eierschwammerl), from the Waldviertel, the wooded region just beyond my grandmother’s native Weinviertel.

After the war, the Marshall Plan sent nourishing though strange items:  cans of silver hake, no longer needed as military guard dog food; or peanut butter which my grandmother, recognizing the German word Butter on the label, tried unhappily to use for frying. The Russians sent surplus dried peas, so worm-ridden that they looked like beads, and needed a preliminary soaking to chase out the vermin.  The Austrians called them Russische Erbsen, or Russian peas.

Oma’s little blue book

If you’re Viennese, when life gives you Russische Erbsen, you make Erbsentorte.

Anna Kajapic, kitchen notebook (mid-20th century), with recipe for Erbsentorte (dried pea cake).

On a shelf in my mother’s kitchen, alongside Julia Child, James Beard, or Franz Maier-Bruch (author of Das Große Sacher Kochbuch, the bible of Austrian cuisine), sits a slim, blue notebook, its yellowed pages filled with my Oma’s handwriting.  There are recipes for Kriegslinzertorte (a wartime version without the costly ground walnuts) or baked Griesschmarn (farina and grated potato hash – starch upon starch! – sweetened with sugar, and enlivened with lemon zest “to taste”).  In between these two, you’ll find the entry for Erbsentorte, with Oma’s laconic but precise instructions for making cake from dried – but freshly roasted, ground, and soaked – peas.

I am grateful to have grown up, and raised my own children, in comparatively good times, far from the rigors of Depression-era and wartime Vienna.  Since I write on French gastronomy, people also assume I’m a food snob, devoted to truffled galantines or other such fripperies.  But gratuitously fancy fare annoys me, and I love nothing more than to cobble together meals from unlikely leftovers.

When I cook, I’m guided by principles of thrift and ingenuity, passed across time and generations, like my Oma’s kitchen notebook.


Michael Garval, Professor of French and Director of the interdisciplinary Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at North Carolina State University, also serves as Associate Editor of the journal Contemporary French Civilization. His research interests include celebrity, visual culture, and gastronomy. The author of ‘A Dream of Stone’: Fame, Vision, and Monumentality in Nineteenth-Century French Literary Culture, and of Cléo de Mérode and the Rise of Modern Celebrity Culture, he is currently working on a new book project, Imagining the Celebrity Chef in Modern France.

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Published on April 12, 2017 06:19 • 40 views

April 7, 2017

By Kate Moore (Guest Contributor) 

This website is entitled “Wonders and Marvels.” At the turn of the century, perhaps the greatest wonder on the planet was Marie Curie’s newly discovered element: radium.

It glowed in the dark. It emitted vast radioactivity; then seen almost as a superpower. It was declared ‘the greatest find in history’ and quickly exploited by commercial entrepreneurs. Radium toothpaste and cosmetics lined the shelves of America’s drugstores, sitting alongside medicinal radium treatments for ailments such as hay fever and impotence. It was sung about on Broadway and glamorised in novels and comics; one could buy radium jockstraps and lingerie … and cleaning sprays.

Into this fevered environment sprang a new profession: dial-painting. Young working-class women were recruited to paint watch-faces and military dials with luminous radium paint; the latter now in great demand thanks to the First World War. The girls were taught to lip-point: to place their paintbrushes between their lips to suck the bristles to a tapered point for the fine handiwork.

It was a lucrative job – the women in the top 5 percent of female wage-earners – and very sociable. Part of the appeal was also the radium itself. The women couldn’t help but get covered in the luminous element and they would deliberately apply it to their bodies before their dates so that they would shine in the dancehalls, where the Charleston was taking the world by storm. They had checked with their bosses that radium was safe; they were told there was no need to be afraid.

Yet by its definition, a wonder may be so because of its mystery. Though the girls were told it was safe, their bosses were ignoring evidence to the contrary: the skin burns suffered by staff who handled large quantities; the deaths that occurred before the first dial-painter even picked up her brush.

Before long, the girls themselves became the wonders. Medical marvels: destroyed from the inside out by some unknown substance. Those profiting from selling the wonder of the world hushed up evidence that linked the dial-painters’ devastating injuries to that glowing substance. The wonder, from this distance in time, is that they could act so callously. For even as the first girls died from radium poisoning, others took up the job. A factory line of fatality was underway, with a distressing rate of productivity.

The story of the radium girls, however, is not simply a tragic tale of corporate greed or a warning regarding the unwise commercialisation of wondrous elements about which we know little. For the women were marvels in other ways, too: working-class girls who stood up against the might of powerful corporations; people prepared to fight to the death to protect others and leave a lasting legacy.

The women shine through history for these achievements. Yet there is also a final twist in the tale; one last wonder to marvel at. After they sucked those bristles and swallowed the paint, the radium settled in the women’s bones. While lying on their sickbeds, the radium still shone from them, now beaming from their bones with its unearthly light.

You may know that radium has a half-life of 1,600 years. Even as I write, the radium girls will be glowing in their graves.

You can find extended e-book excerpts of The Radium Girls online at Google Play, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble

Kate Moore is the author of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women (Sourcebooks; May 2017).

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Published on April 07, 2017 05:00 • 56 views

April 5, 2017

by Kasia Stempniak, Guest Contributor

In August of 1892, several French and British newspapers reported a curious incident that had purportedly taken place that summer:

Princess Pauline de Metternich and the Countess Kielmansegg, two members of the Committee for the Vienna Exhibition of 1892, settled a dispute by fighting each other in a duel with rapiers that lasted three rounds. No men were present and the women suffered minor injuries.

The news report reads like a fait divers, a type of sensational story often published in newspapers in the nineteenth-century. Apocryphal or not (Pauline de Metternich would have been 56 years old at the time), the story is just one of the many spurious anecdotes surrounding the princess. Born in Austria on February 26, 1836, to a Hungarian count and an Austrian princess, Pauline Clémentine von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein became a veritable celebrity in mid nineteenth-century Paris where she had a significant influence on the cultural and social scene.

“La fête impériale”

In a century full of conflict and revolutions, the Second Empire stands out as a period synonymous with spectacle, ostentation, and lavish spending. At the center of this culture of the “imperial feast” or “fête impériale” one could easily find Pauline de Metternich. When her husband Prince de Metternich (who happened to be her uncle as well) was appointed Austrian Ambassador to Napoléon III’s court in 1859, the twenty-three year-old moved to France, where she quickly adopted the Parisian lifestyle. A fashion aficionado and socialite, Pauline was considered by some to be “more Parisian than the rue de la Richelieu,” despite being a foreigner. She was famous in her time for her sharp wit and love of cigars — a habit that was ordinarily unheard of for a woman of her position. While her unconventional qualities charmed many of her contemporaries, including Napoléon III’s wife, the Empress Eugénie, with whom she became close friends, others were less taken. Some, like the Count Horace de Viel Castel, disapproved of the way the diplomat’s wife “drinks, smokes, swears, [and] is scarily ugly”— not to mention “the stories she tells!”[1]

The Metternichs were frequent guests of Napoléon and Eugénie at their chateau retreats in Compiègne and Fontainebleu, where they took part in balls, elaborate dinners, hunting escapades, tableaux vivants, and even plays.

Winterhalter, 1860

By the mid-1860’s, the Metternichs were well-known for their salon gatherings and for hosting elaborate balls themselves. “She had the rare gift,” wrote one contemporary observer, “of bringing animation and life to wherever she appeared.” [2] During the 1867 Paris World Exhibition, Pauline secured funding from her home country for the construction of the Austria-Hungary Pavilion as well as for hosting a prestigious ball for the Exhibition, in which Johann Strauss debuted his “Blue Danube Waltz.” She cultivated relationships with prominent musicians and writers of the time including Alexandre Dumas, Franz Liszt, and the composers Richard Wagner and Charles Gounod. In fact, it was thanks to Pauline that Wagner performed for the first time in Paris in 1861 with his production of Tannhauser. The premiere was a failure, however, and sparked the (false) story that Pauline had been so angry at the crowd who had booed the performance that she broke her fan. [3]

Boudin, Princess Pauline Metternich on the Beach ca. 1865-67 (Courtesy of the Met)

While the press often mocked her looks, Pauline embraced this aspect of her appearance by self-deprecatingly referring to herself as a“fashionable monkey” (un singe à la mode) and even exclaiming sometimes, “Wherever I go, people follow me, but when I turn around, they flee!” Despite any misgivings she and others may have had regarding her appearance, she was the subject of several notable artistic and photographic works. In addition to Winterhalter, Pauline was painted by Impressionist Eugène Boudin as well as Edgar Degas.

A photograph of Pauline by André Adolphe Eugène Disdéri from 1861 inspired Degas to produce a striking portrait of Pauline. Her blurred facial features and canary yellow corsage take center stage in what is considered to be one of the earliest examples of art inspired by photography.

Degas, “Princess Pauline de Metternich,” ca. 1865

Each of these paintings and photographs managed to capture one of Pauline’s biggest claims to fame– her sartorial ingenuity.


Metternich in La Vie Parisienne (courtesy of Agorha, INHA)

“Whoever says: “Mme de Metternich” says innovation, whimsy, and the unexpected,” wrote the journal La Vie Parisienne in 1863. Pauline’s penchant for eccentricity and rule-breaking translated into her wardrobe, which became a regular talking point in the fashion and society columns. The same report in La Vie Parisienne describes an outfit Pauline wore in the resort town of Biarritz, one that she had accessorized with a particularly avant-garde hat: “Yes, a cap, mischievous, roguish, provocative that no woman would have dared be the first to wear, but that all will adopt today.”

Like her cap, Pauline was unafraid to push the boundaries with fashion, having complete confidence in her dressmaker, the Englishman Charles Frederick Worth. Considered today to be the “father of haute couture,” Worth set up his shop at 7 rue de la Paix in 1858. But it was not until he cultivated a relationship with Pauline that he was catapulted into the annals of fashion history. In her memoirs, she recalls the day Worth’s wife approached her with drawings he had sketched for her. Pauline initially refused to look at them, shocked that he was male and English. But after noting the originality of his drawings, she decided to test him with an order of two dresses, each one for the low price of 300 francs. She wore one of the dresses, a white tulle gown “trimmed with crimson-hearted daisies,” to the ball at the Tuileries. Legend has it that the Empress Eugénie was so taken with the dress that she requested a meeting with Worth the next morning. Pauline jokingly laments that at that moment, “Worth was launched and I was done for; no dress costing three hundred francs ever again saw the light of day.” [4]

“Lorette” or Grande dame?

Pauline de Metternich regularly attended what were considered low-brow entertainments like café-concerts and operettas. Her theater preferences, coupled with her reputation as a socialite and fashion icon, provided fodder for the press, who turned her into a nineteenth-century celebrity. Prosper Merimée, the famous author of Carmen, described Pauline as “a genre of originality composed of two parts lorette and one part grande dame.” [5] “Lorette” was a nineteenth-century ‘type’ that referred to usually lower-class, fashion-conscious kept women.  Merimée’s observation, along with those of other (males) of the period, shows an unease with the way in which Pauline, a wife of a diplomat, took advantage of the wide variety of entertainment Paris offered. For some, Pauline embodied what they saw as the dangerous mixing of the aristocratic world and the demi-monde.

End of an Era

Although Austria and France had been enemies in battle in 1849 and as recently as 1859, the Metternichs and Napoléon III enjoyed a close relationship up until the events of 1870. That year, the splendor and festivities of the Second Empire came to a screeching halt with the Franco-Prussian War, a conflict that saw Napoléon III ousted from power. Pauline, along with most of Napoléon’s court, fled from France, an event she recounts in detail in her memoirs.

After 1871, Pauline stayed out of the limelight until her death in 1921. Her name, however, consistently appears in society columns well into the 20th century, with some rehashing apocryphal anecdotes (like the report of her duel) that Pauline would later refute in her memoirs. Indeed, her decision to dedicate her last years to writing suggests a desire to have the final word in crafting the narrative of her life. A non-conventional woman who challenged the norms of the time with her eccentricity and outsize personality, Pauline de Metternich remains a fascinating figure in nineteenth-century history.

Kasia Stempniak is a PhD student in Romance Studies at Duke University. Her research examines the relationship between fashion, urban space, and the body in nineteenth-century French literature and culture.

Further reading:

[1] Viel Castel, Horace de. Mémoires du comte Horace de Viel Castel sur le règne de Napoléon III. Vol. VI. Paris, 1884.

[2] Mme Carette, Souvenirs intimes de la Cour des Tuileries, Ed. Paul Ollendorff, Paris, 1889.

[3] See Emmanuel Haymann’s biography Pauline Metternich, la jolie laide du Second Empire. Paris: Perrin 1991 and Philippe Luez’s biography Pauline de Metternich, l’éventail brisé, Payot, 2004.

[4] The only memoir by Pauline Metternich in English is My Years in Paris.

[5] Mérimée, Prosper. Lettres à une inconnue, ed. Michel Lévy, 1874, 2 vol.


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Published on April 05, 2017 05:37 • 18 views

March 31, 2017

By Philip Freeman (Guest Contributor)

Celtic mythology is full of strange and wonderful stories unlike the tales of ancient Greek gods and heroes most of us grew up with. One theme that appears repeatedly is the power of women in a world of men—and how men should never take a woman for granted.

One favorite story from ancient Ireland tells how a woman named Macha made the warriors of her tribe pay for their lack of sympathy for pregnant women.

There was once a lonely and not very bright widower named Cruinniuc who lived with his sons in the mountains of Ulster. One day when he was alone at his farm he saw a beautiful woman walking toward him. She went into his home and began to do the household chores as if she had lived there for years. When night came, she climbed into Cruinniuc’s bed and made love with him.

The woman stayed with Cruinniuc after that and took care of him and his sons. While she was there, the farm was prosperous and there was never a lack of food, clothing, or anything else they needed.

One day the king, Conchobar, called all the people of Ulster to a great festival, but Macha stayed on the farm since by then she was nine months pregnant.

“Don’t boast or say anything foolish at the festival,” she warned Cruinniuc.

At the end of the celebration there was a great horse race on a nearby field. Everyone in the crowd said that no one could best Conchobar’s team.

“But my wife can run even faster than the king’s horses,” boasted Cruinniuc.

When the king’s men heard him say this, they hauled him before Conchobar, who was stung by the claim and demanded Cruinniuc make good on his boasting. He sent a messenger to the farm to fetch the woman.

She begged the king not to make her run, but he refused to listen. She turned to the warriors gathered there and pleaded with them, but no one would hear her.

“Very well,” said the woman. “But I warn you that a great evil will come upon Ulster because of this.”

And then the race began. Macha flew around the field like the fastest of horses alongside the chariot of the king until she crossed the finish line just ahead of the team. When she reached the end of the course she gave birth to twins.

In her labor pains Macha screamed at the king and his warriors that thenceforth in the hour of their greatest peril they would fall into the pangs of birth for five days and four nights. From that day her curse held for nine generations. Whenever danger came upon the province, all the men of Ulster would collapse in terrible labor pains, all because they would not listen to a woman.

Philip Freeman is the Fletcher Jones Chair of Western Culture and Humanities at Pepperdine University and is the author of Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes.

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Published on March 31, 2017 05:00 • 17 views

Interview with M.J. Carter

How did you come across this story?  What inspired you to write about it?

 The Devil’s Feast is the third in a mystery series I’m writing  set in the 1840s —a fascinating decade, full of change and turmoil (horses to railways, letter to telegraph), with lots of parallels with now—featuring two detectives, Jeremiah Blake and William Avery. But each is set in a different ‘world’ of the period.

In the course of my general research into the 1840s, I discovered the extraordinary French chef Alexis Soyer, a culinary genius and brilliant self-publicist who became the first great celebrity chef. He was such a vivid, funny, eccentric character he practically walked off the page. I decided I had to write about him and Victorian food itself. Food was a particularly complicated and vexed subject in the 1840s, a decade when technological advances —faster transport, gas ranges, better temperature control among other things—meant the rich could enjoy all kinds of new culinary experiences, while severe economic depression and failed harvests meant the poor often literally starved. And there was another big subject attached to food at the time In Britain (and indeed all over the world), and that was the subject of food adulteration: from chalk being added to bread to make it go further, and boric acid to milk to stop it from smelling as it went off, to the common addition of actual poisons to food, like copper to tinned vegetables to make them look greener.  It seemed such a rich area to explore — and so it proved.

 What were your main sources for your research?  How did you organize everything?  (That is, got any tips for fellow writers?)

I’d already built up a pretty good store of information about the period from my reading for the previous books. For this one I read all the biographies of Soyer, of which there are several of very varying quality — the best, and it’s terrific, is Relish by xxxx. I looked at Victorian food in general, there’s a lot written about it, and I explored the writing of several very good food historians, including the great Ivan Day who among other things recreates period menus which incredible accuracy and elan. Soyer also published several terrific cook books, from the incredibly complex and hilarious pompous The Gastronomic Regulator, to A Shilling Cookery for the People which is an amazingly thought-through cookbook for working class families and has the first recipe for British fish and chips. I also read food writer Bea Wilson’s excellent Swindled, about the history of food adulteration.

What were the biggest challenges you faced either in the research, the writing, or structuring the plot?  

Actually research is the thing I find relatively straightforward. As a historian  it feels like my comfort blanket and safety net, I’m very comfortable with it, but I have to remember it’s the frame and foundation of my story, not the thing itself. The thing I find hardest is the plotting. When I started writing thrillers it was the most daunting thing, coming up with a plot and then simply getting my characters from plane to another. I found myself getting caught up in all kinds of cul de sacs and getting ridiculously obsessed with continuity – my characters seemed to spend a a lot of time getting up and sitting down and walking in and out of rooms – until I realised that I could cut all that stuff out! Now I try and plan as much of my plot as possible before I start writing, I’m not as good at it as I’d like, but I’m getting better. As for the writing – oh well, it’s a nightmare! 

Every writer has to leave something on the cutting floor.  What’s on yours?

I hope, as the great Elmore Leonard said, ‘the boring bits’. I write too long, and my weakness is—you guessed it— too much historical detail. I tend to do three drafts and much of the work of the second and third is to take out the history. It often creeps in when I’m either too overexcited about it and want to put it all in, or I’m not yet quite sure  what’s supposed to be happening and overcompensate with too much fact. There’s still a lot of food and workings of a professional kitchen in The Devil’s Feast, but I tell you I still took out a few courses! Otherwise, there are always plot cul de sacs I go up in the first draft that don’t work and I end up having to navigate myself out of. In this book, there were too many cooks— no really, I started out with a bunch of grumpy French chefs and they just got too boring and unwieldy so I had to give them the chop (to coin a phrase).

 Tag you’re it! What historical fiction author do you most admire?  Why?  

 Such a hard question! There’s a long list, but I’ve just reread after twenty years a novel I consider a masterpiece and tremendously admire — An Instance of the Finger Post by Iain Pears. I loved it when it came out in 1997, and it has really stood the test of time. It’s set in Oxford in the 1660s just after the restoration of King Charles II, where academics, inventors and experimenters, ex-spies and religious dissenters are jostling to establish themselves under the new regime, and concerns the events surrounding a murder and its consequences told from four different perspectives. Pears builds a fascinating world, each different voice completely throws the reader so you have to keep reorientating yourself (it’s so well structured), he pitches in all kinds of eccentric 17th century ideas, gives the reader a meditation on belief, truth and obsession, and you just can’t put it down. I wish I’d written it!

MJ Carter is an English historian, writer and biographer. She is the author of the Blake and Avery thrillers – The Strangler’s Vine & The Printer’s Coffin. She lives in London with her partner and two sons.

Missed our previous Five for Friday? Read last week’s interview with Imogen Robertson. Want to binge read our interviews with fantastic authors? Check out our interviews with Sophia Tobin, Georgia HunterAnna MazolaEssie Fox,  Ami McKay, and Eva Stachniak.

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Published on March 31, 2017 05:00 • 15 views

March 27, 2017

By Pamela D. Toler (Regular Contributor)

Isabella of Spain (1451-1504)* is best known to American school children–and consequently to American adults–as the woman who funded Christopher Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic.

Those who were taught a slightly darker version of history* associate Isabella, together with her husband Ferdinand of Aragon, with the conquest of the last Muslim kingdom in Spain, the formation of the Spanish Inquisition, and the expulsion of  Jewish communities from Spain.  Depending on where you stand on the subjects of cultural tolerance and Muslim Spain, Isabella appears in this version as either the founder of several centuries of Spanish greatness or the bigoted destroyer of a culture of relative tolerance.  I would argue that she was both. And more.

Isabella was a reigning queen at a time when reigning queens were rare.  She transformed herself from a pawn in the power politics of fifteenth century Europe into one of the players with a brilliant combination of political savvy, military aggression and just plain bluffing.

I would argue that her success in seizing and holding her throne–at a time when women who inherited a throne were expected to turn their power over to their husbands and dwindle into consorts–depended on the fact that she was actively involved in waging war.   Castile was at war for most of her reign.  While Isabella did not lead her troops onto the battlefield,  sword in hand,  she traveled with every campaign and was responsible for plotting strategy and tactics for her generals.  By any measure, she was Castile’s commander-in-general.  She also was one of the great quartermasters of history;

Here are a few of my favorite incidents in Isabella’s life:

–In the fifteenth century, princesses were seen as assets that their fathers/uncles/brothers could use as bargaining chips for building political and economic alliances.  While Isabella’s brother offered her in marriage first to the King of Portugal and later with the Duke of Berry, the heir to the throne of France, Isabella was determined to marry the man who would be best for her own political future.  After sending her chaplain to look over possible husbands, she chose her own husband and  married him in secret. Ferdinand of Aragon was young, good-looking, and heir to a kingdom considerably smaller and less powerful than Castile.  While negotiating their secret marriage, Isabella insisted on the fifteenth century version of a pre-nuptial agreement that allowed her to govern Castile in her own right, with Ferdinand as her consort.  Over time, the two forged a true partnership, ruling their two kingdoms together under the motto tanto monta, monta tanto, “the one as much as the other.”

–On the death of her brother, Enrique IV, Isabella seized the throne from the young girl known as Juana La Beltraneja, who was certainly the daughter of Enrique’s wife though there were rumors that Enrique was not her father.  Enrique himself had wavered between acknowledging the girl as his own and setting her aside.  At the time of his death, Juana was his acknowledged heir, a fact that did not stop twenty-three-year old Isabella from claiming the throne and defending that claim against Portugal and France.

–In her role as quarter-master-in-chief, Isabella was responsible for an important innovation in military medicine:  mobile field hospitals that came to be known as “the queen’s hospital”.

Perhaps it’s easiest to sum up her career in her own words:  “monarchs who wish to govern must also work.”  And work she did.

*More correctly Isabella of Castile.

**Obviously the arrival of Columbus in the New World kicked off a series of historical events that was dark by any standard.  But the dark side of that history isn’t normally taught in American grade schools.  Or at least it wasn’t when I was a junior history buff soaking up stories about the past in Mrs. Bates’ third grade class room.

Pamela D. Toler is a freelance writer with a PhD in history and a large bump of curiosity. She is the author of Heroines of Mercy Street: The Real Nurses of the Civil War and is currently working on a global history of women warriors, with the imaginative working title of Women Warriors.

Find Pamela on Twitter at @pdtoler

Read more of her writing on her personal blog

Heroines of Mercy Street



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Published on March 27, 2017 06:50 • 22 views

March 21, 2017

By David Bellos (Guest Contributor)

To write Les Misérables, Victor Hugo stood at his desk on the top floor of Hauteville House with a view of a harbour, the raging sea and, on the far horizon, the shadow of the coast of France. You could not possibly guess that from the text of the novel. For months on end Hugo buried himself in the claustrophobic hovels, prisons, convents, sewers, streets and sights of Paris, and not once did he let slip through an image, a reference, a metaphor or an aside that every time he looked up from his inky scrawl he set his eyes on broad vistas of the opposite kind. Such tight control of the pen and the mind is almost inhuman. So I was relieved to discover that when the creative effort was over and Hugo could relax, he let his long-suppressed maritime environment burst through. He wrote promptly to his old comrade, the publisher Hetzel, to announce that he’d finished but not quite completed his great work.

I [still] have to do a proper inspection of my monster from head to toe. What I’m going to launch on the high seas is my Leviathan: it has seven masts, five funnels, paddle wheels a hundred feet across, and the lifeboats over the sides are the size of liners; it won’t be able to dock anywhere and will have to ride out every storm on the high seas. There can’t be a single nail missing!

Now, in the Book of Job (41.1) leviathan is the untranslated Hebrew name of a sea-monster (though in the Louis Segond bible in French, it is given as “crocodile”). But Hugo, whose characters never quote from the holy book throughout Les Misérables, did not have that sea serpent in mind. As he trumpets his great achievement to Hetzel he’s thinking of something bigger: the largest naval vessel ever constructed and only recently launched, the SS Leviathan. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel to steam from London to Australia without putting in to any port to refuel or take on supplies, the Leviathan had a mere six masts and paddle-wheels only fifty-six feet in diameter. Renamed the Great Eastern, it plied the Atlantic, laid undersea cables and spent its retirement as a floating music hall before being broken up in 1889. So Hugo was right. Les Misérables has sailed much further for far longer than Brunel’s ship ever did.

The book has had a bit of help from the sixty-five or more film adaptations and from a pop-opera version—but these entertainments don’t themselves explain why in Japan, Turkey, Egypt and Iran as well as in Paris, London and Los Angeles, Les Misérables gets recycled again and again. In The Novel of the Century I’ve told the story of how Hugo’s masterwork came into existence, but I also show how delicate, complex and tightly woven it is. Hugo’s social ideas and human sympathies remain powerful motives for reading and rereading his novel, but the reason why the characters and situations he created in Les Misérables stay in our minds and will no doubt reappear on our screens is that there isn’t a single nail missing from the five parts, forty-eight books and 365 chapters of the vessel that Hugo launched on April 4, 1862.

Book description: The book is officially published on Tuesday 3/21, and will be available on the same date as an audiobook read by the author and as a Kindle.

David Bellos teaches French and Comparative Literature at Princeton, where he also directs the Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication. He won the Prix Goncourt de la Biographie for his life of Georges Perec and has also written biographies of Jacques Tati and of Romain Gary. His introduction to translation studies, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? has itself been translated into many languages.

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Published on March 21, 2017 05:00 • 15 views