Monday, March 6, 2023

Deep Dive into Mary, Queen of Scots

 I go on tears. Ex-pat Kenya. Ex-pat Paris. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda. Hemingway. Martha Gellhorn. My tears veer between the literary and the historical. I was a history major at Berkeley, and there isn't a whole lot about 16th-century England that I don't have a fair grasp of. The latest deep dive is into the guilt of Mary, Queen of Scots. You can't really be interested in Elizabeth I's reign without treading on the well-worn toes of Mary Stuart. Her status first as Dauphine then Queen of France (briefly) and then her return to Scotland colored Elizabethan foreign policy until the day she was beheaded. Not that voodoo dolls were part of William Cecil's effects, but if it were possible, he'd have had one and would stick that doll every single night. Many times.

Anyway, the big question is, of course, did she know that her husband, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, was going to be murdered? Naturally, the tome of all tomes when mentioning Mary Stuart is Lady Antonia Fraser's biography, which even among her critics (who feel that Mary was as guilty as hell!) acknowledge that it is the most thoroughly researched treatment as a whole. Lady Antonia comes down on the side of, gee, she might have had an inkling, but surely not. Bollocks, I say.

I base this not on the actual events (bizarre as they are), but on the aftermath of the murder at Kirk O'Field. Mary couldn't even feign any sort of pretense, not even play-acting that she was mourning his death. This is a woman who was still wearing her white veil of mourning two years after her first husband's death! Yet she couldn't be arsed to curtain any of her activities upon Darnley's death, despite numerous missives from abroad castigating her for her lack of political acumen (notwithstanding her complete lack of grief). Not that I think that Darnley shouldn't have been dealt with. His death unleashed far more of a political nightmare than incarcerating him in a dingy cell would have done. And Mary's fears that throwing him in jail would compromise her son's legitimacy really doesn't hold much water. After all, less than a hundred miles away, a woman, whose legitimacy was an even bigger question, was managing her country just fine. Darnley was conspiring with foreign powers to dethrone her and place himself on the throne. He actually had a decent claim to it, and it seems a case of who murdered who first. Anyway, he's murdered, and she acts like it's just another day in Scotland. No forty days of mourning for her this go around. There were weddings and parties to attend!

But her lack of any (even if false) sympathy isn't what ultimately swayed me to land firmly in the, oh yeah, she knew camp. It was when she was once incarcerated in England and her never-ceasing conspiracies with foreign powers to bump Elizabeth I from her throne. It wasn't even a case of her "looking through her fingers" as she did with her husband's murder. It was outright, "I'm the rightful heir. That bastard is on my throne and if you invade and she just happens to be killed, London is worth it!" It was that blatant.

This was a bloodthirsty age. Elizabeth agonized over finally charging Mary with treason (after several uncovered plots), and based on Mary's letters to various conspirators, she wouldn't lose one moment of sleep if her "dear sister" had been dethroned and killed. I'm not basing this opinion on the Casket Letters. I really don't care about them, because the endless arguments are, in my opinion, pointless. And it was certainly in Mary's brother James's interest to blacken Mary to the point where Elizabeth couldn't possibly release her. The perpetrators of Darnley's murder (and what a worthless sod HE was) all had tragic ends. Darnley was strangled to death. Bothwell died insane in a Danish prison. Mary was beheaded. James Stuart, Mary's half brother, was assassinated. Darnley's father, the Earl of Lennox, was also assassinated. What's the saying? Men make plans, and God laughs. Elizabeth and Cecil died in their beds. 

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Lives of the Wives: Five Literary Marriages

This is a pretty interesting book if rather predictable because I've read this story a million times before--allow me the hyperbole--only the names are different. The author, Carmela Ciuraru, delves into a brief biographical recap of five literary giants, and then how their wives suffered under the weight of all that "genius." All of these writers are basically monsters who can write. I mean that sincerely. These are assholes with a capital "A." They are cruel, arrogant, vicious, and petty, people I would avoid at parties no matter how scintillating the conversation.

Having spent several years doing a deep dive into the Hemingway/Pfeiffer marriage with more than a layperson's grasp of his marriages to Hadley, Martha, Gellhorn, and Mary, I found myself just nodding in weariness at the shenanigans and utter ridiculousness of these relationships. I asked myself over and over again, why are you staying with this man? And even though I find Martha Gellhorn to be made in much the same mold as Hemingway (a narcissistic bully), I also was applauding her from the sidelines for her just saying, buster, I'm done, and dusting her hands off on her trousers as she exited that toxic relationship (as all his relationship with EVERYONE became toxic after a certain point). All of these vignettes felt very familiar and, frankly, tired.

The five marriages analyzed are as follows: Una Troubridge and Raddclyffe Hall, Elsa Morante and Alberto Moravia, Elaine Dundy and Kenneth Tynan, Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis, and Patricia Neal and Roald Dahl. I don't think it's surprising that the male authors in this house of literary horrors are English. The post-war years in Britain ushered in a type of unruly, arrogant, angry type of writer that glorified repudiating the values of pre-WWII Britain, and glorified the brutality of that rejection. Did they need rejecting/ Sure, but because women are often the scapegoats of any social or political movement, misogynistic is far too mild a word to describe these men. They are vile and angry for the sake of being vile and angry. This is what sold in post-WWII Britain. Even though they needed women to bed and run the mundane aspects of their lives because they couldn't be arsed to hire people, they also loathed them, exactly like Hemingway.

Tynan, Amis, and Dahl used their wives, who let themselves be used because either one walked or one cooked and cleaned and kept one's mouth shut. In between all that washing up, if you managed to create your own art, well, you'd better not get more accolades than your husband. These weren't partnerships. It wasn't, oh, Patricia, my darling, you won an academy award, and just received a whopping big paycheck, now we can spend six months in France. It wasn't like that. Nope. Tantrums, pouts, and general all-around nastiness followed because how dare you be AS talented as me. And that's the kicker to these stories. You couldn't even be equal. You were always a lesser light. You couldn't be even a candle to a spotlight, You could be the flame a match. Some days.  Between the three of them, Tynan, Amis, and Dahl, it's almost impossible to choose a more horrible husband. They were all lauded, all lionized, and all of them were absolute bastards to their wives and mistresses.

The relationships of Troubridge and Hall and Morante and Moravia are less fraught with these competitive dynamics. Troubridge, allegedly gifted in her own right as an artist, just gave it all up for John Raddclyffe Hall, and was perfectly satisfied in being bathed secondhand glory. The case of Morante and Moravia wasn't so much about two authors competing against each other as it was that Morante was an absolutely impossible person, and their relationship seemed more cerebral than anything else. They respected each other's writing.

The question that kept arising when I was writing my historical fiction on the Hemingway/Pfeiffer marriage was as a reader, do you accept the genius along with the cruelty? I was never much of a Hemingway fan (although at sixteen there were passages in For Whom the Bell Tolls that had me weeping) precisely because he only writes about men and how fucked it all is and how there is no honor anymore and how we should all put a gun to our heads because if you can't die with honor, what's the point? That said, I cannot deny his genius. I just don't have to read it. Same here with these authors. I don't want to read them. They might be amazing writers, but I cannot separate the man from the page. I think about the woman banging out meals and making beds, and tiptoeing out of bed at two in the morning to write a page or two or read a script. That is the person who has my admiration (but also my scorn because why did you put up with that nonsense for so many years?) That might be a character flaw, but so be it. 

Sunday, December 4, 2022

NaNoWriMo Recap

Well, I didn't quite make my 50,000 words, but I did pretty well. This was my first time doing NaNoWriMo (say that fast five times!). I've never quite understood the hype. You write 50,000 in the month of November. This would have been impossible had I still been working (oh, retirement, how I love thee), but in order to write that much every day, you have to speed through your chapters, and I don't really write like that. I tend to go back and try to grab inspiration or a potential plot point from what I've written before. But I decided to give it a whirl. My thoughts:

  • I think it's possible to do IF you have a good idea of what you want to write. I'm a seat-of-my-pants writer and this worked against me. I think that NaNoWriMo works best if you use the month of October to craft a brief outline for each chapter. By brief I mean, Maggie and Tommy have a boxing match. Nothing more than that. I started to do that by the middle of the month (of November, sigh), and my output increased.
  • Words of wisdom to live by: If you are committed to hitting that 50,000 words/month goal, don't go back and massage previous chapters. I did this and I lost words. Having said that, I also feel that the tweaking I did helped me figure out what in the hell I was doing with the middle of the current book I'm writing.
  • If you're writing a historical novel like I am, think about what you might like to include beforehand. The month of October is your friend. I didn't do this (partly because I didn't know what in the hell I was going to need in that stupid middle part of the book), and I lost time. But I also learned some cool stuff (like the Cow Hollow neighborhood in San Francisco is named that because the majority of the city's dairies were located there).
  • For me, the most important aspect of NaNoWriMo is that writing every day and trying to reach a goal makes you feel like a writer. I mean this seriously. You are committed. You have goals, You're not fooling around. You are sitting your butt in that chair and the laundry can wait. You are focused on your writing and it's no excuses time. Even if you aren't working on a novel or a short story or anything, it's about working with words. I don't think you even need an end goal like I did, which was to finish the novel I was working on. I did finish it. YAY! But more importantly, I felt absurdly writerly as I was writing it. 

And this might be the most important lesson of NaNoWriMo that you take away from this exercise. Not that these words are brilliant or wonderful or a potential contender for the Nobel Prize in literature, but it says to your psyche, you are a writer. Now write.

Saturday, July 30, 2022

We Return

After successfully avoiding COVID for over two years, I got COVID. It wasn't horrible. There were some complications that weren't life-threatening but very annoying, like fainting on the toilet and messing up my elbow and hip, but hey. I wasn't in the ICU fighting for breath or on a ventilator for weeks. It was like the flu.

In an effort to STOP with the computer so much, I have returned to reading up a storm. Like three hours a day. Hello, retirement, I do love thee. I usually go into a deep dive once I start something, and my current obsession is with the Durrells. I just finished a biographer of Nancy Myers, Lawrence Durrell's first wife, and another woman who suffered at the hands of a narcissistic writer who was lauded and feted. I'm on more of a non-fiction kick these days, but I did read one novel that knocked my reading socks off. My readings for the past month, note, it's top-heavy on biographies.

Five Decembers by James Kestrel (which won the Edgar this year). This was a little (okay, a lot) more violent than I usually read, but the writing was excellent. Don't be put off by the cheesy cover. The first few chapters are grim but the history and the storytelling outweigh the gore factor. Skip over the murder scene. What I find so fascinating about this book is that (SPOILER ALERT) the murder plot arc disappears halfway through the book and then doesn't pick up again until the end, and yet the entire book works beautifully. Kudos, Mr. Kestrel.

The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham: A Biography by Selina Hasting. One interesting fact that I gleaned from this book is that Maugham was considered a brilliant playwright, and I would venture to say that he was more lauded as a playwright than a novelist. I'd never known that about him. Self-exiled to Capri for most of his life because he was homosexual and was terrified that he'd be arrested if he set foot in Britain, he led a life of letters and lust. 

Charles Dickens: A Life
by Claire Tomalin. Well, that biography ruined for me one of my favorite novels, A Christmas Carol. Yet ANOTHER genius male writer who stomped through life with his bros (how Hemingway of him) and abused his wife. After siring ten children, he decided to abandon his wife (his twenty-year younger mistress probably had a lot to do with it), demanded that their children cut off all contact with her (only one son defied his father's dictate), and tried to have her committed so that he wouldn't have to pay for her maintenance. So now I think of ALL THOSE CHRISTMASES that Mrs. Dickens spent alone without her family while he frolicked with his mistress. 

In Pieces by Sally Field. Interesting biography. Very personal, little insight into the movie industry. Decently written. Family dysfunction up the wazoo. Worth a read, not a re-read.

Amateurs in Eden: The Story of a Bohemian Marriage: Nancy and Lawrence Durrell
by Joanna Hodgkin. Yet ANOTHER genius male writer who stomped through life with his bros (how Hemingway of him) and abused his wife(ves). What is so bizarre about Lawrence Durrell is his fascination/devotion/obsession with Henry Miller of Tropic of Cancer fame. I mean, really?

The Unquiet Englishman: A Life of Graham Greene by Richard Greene. Okay, I love Greene's novels. Of all the post-WWII English writers, he is miles above anyone else as far as I am concerned. He is one of those English people of letters who converted to Catholicism (like Waugh and Muriel Spark). This biography makes a point of not harping on Greene's sex life, with the argument that the man was a phenomenal writer, can we please stop talking about all the women he bedded? Well, no, we can't, because so much of his writing was about faith and the loss of it, and it seems to me that Greene converted to Catholicism precisely because he could repent his sins and then move on to the next woman. Anyway, decent biography. He's still one of my favorite writers, although his championing of the traitors in the MI trade is, IMO, inexcusable.

Evelyn Waugh: A Biography
by Selina Hastings. Oh, what a nasty man.  Well-written biography of possibly the most bitter men on this planet. A convert to Catholicism, he basically lost his "faith," if you could call it that, because of Vatican II. It seemed to me that he only latched onto Catholicism because it was probably the one institution that he could count on NOT to change in his lifetime. Joke is on you, pal. I've only read Brideshead Revisited, which I loved and which seems basically autobiographical. I haven't read any of his other novels, and now I won't. Like Lawrence Durrell, he was a man of much brilliant nasty wit.

As they say, that's it, folks. Now on to reading Gerald Durrell's book, My Family and Other Animals.

Friday, May 6, 2022

Elizabeth the Movie and a Cold

 I am recovering from the most hellish cold I have had in years. It’s not Covid, but aside from the not-insignificant infection factor, it might as well be. I am well stocked with *quils of every sort, and I still feel lousy. Despite this, I continue to ruminate on the movie I saw on the plane coming back from the Edgars. Yes, I went to the Edgars and had a fabulous time, with the exception that I couldn’t get my shoes to fit properly and teetered on unstable feet for four hours. It was nice to see that younger people were getting awards and that the nominations and awards were handed out to a diverse group of writers. I thank Laurie R. King for inviting me to sit at her table, and only after the event did I realize that I was sitting with a host of publishing giants. Anyway, my stay in New York was brief, my four days with my daughter and her husband was less brief, and I connected with one of my dearest friends. How do these people have the nerve to live on an opposite coast from me?

What is the point here? The flight from NYC to San Francisco is always long. I watched three movies, the most irritating of which was Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett. Really, you say. Yes, the acting was great. The production values wonderful. So why the large frown? Let me count the ways! They SO bastardized the history that I wanted to leap out of my seat and scream, NO, THAT IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED! But as I had my seat belt tightened to the point of it almost being a tourniquet—I am a very nervous flyer—I stayed put and merely screamed in silence. Not sure one can do that but bear with me.

First of all, you don’t need to mess with this history. It is filled with drama enough. The strongest aspect of this film is that you see Elizabeth move from a girl to a woman. Of course, in the real history, she is tested again and again over time. She is a seasoned political warrior  by the time she ascends the throne, but, regardless, I think that it was a compelling aspect of the film.

What wasn’t compelling was the jettisoning of William Cecil as a doddering old man put out to pasture by the far more conniving Francis Walsingham. Nonsense. Cecil was KEY to Elizabeth’s success. He and Walsingham were a formidable duo—not to mention fervent Protestants, which Elizabeth never was. Walsingham was, yes, her spymaster, but Cecile was her right hand for decades, and bears all the responsibility in the subsequent trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Second, Mary of Guise wasn’t fighting with the English. She had enough on her hands with the Scottish lords who were trying to usurp her authority and stamp out Catholicism, which is the reason why French troops were garrisoned in Scotland. Far more of a threat was her daughter’s, Mary, Queen of Scots, claim to the English throne. This was a big deal. A few scenes with the Walsingham and the Guise brothers would have had as much an impact politically as did the scenes with Mary of Guise, although it would be hard to combat Fanny Ardent’s beauty. By the way, Mary of Guise died of congestive heart failure, not by poison. If one wanted to hype the beauty factor, why not include a few scenes with Mary, Queen of Scots, who was a reputed stunner, and who’d been brought up to be purely ornamental as opposed to Elizabeth, whose sense of queenship and rule were evident by even the age of 25. By having a few scenes in France, it would have signaled that this was a global conflict. We have a smidgen of that with the scenes with the pope and Elizabeth’s eventual excommunication, but Mary, Queen of Scots’ claim to the throne was legitimate in the eyes of many (like everyone) except the English.

Last but not least and perhaps the most egregious was the trashing of Robert Dudley. I hated how they tagged on storyboard at the end, masquerading as “fact” that she was never alone with him again. Total nonsense. In FACT, Robert Dudley was another mainstay in Elizabeth’s life until his death. He was her general at Tilbury when she made her famous speech. He died like four days after the rout of the Spanish Armanda. She was devastated by his death. What destroyed their relationship was the death of his wife, Amy Robsart. He was never able to climb out from under the suspicion that he had her murdered so he could marry Elizabeth. I think that’s dramatic enough, isn’t it?

So perhaps I know too much about English Tudor history. Fair enough. But it took me out of the story and the rationale for the jettisoning of the real history didn’t make sense to me. Like I said. You don’t need to make up stuff about this period of history. It’s overflowing with intrigue enough. Also, no one goes about murdering ambassadors. Even in this bloodthirsty age, you kicked them out of the country. 


Friday, January 28, 2022

Mary Queen of Scots' Downfall: The Life and Murder of Henry, Lord Darnley by Robert Stedall

I am giving this book five stars because it very much clarified for me that many of the choices that Mary made that weren't so much out of passion but naiveite. Her Guise uncles never envisioned her as a real political force, merely a pawn in their machinations, and her upbringing and fawning by her father-in-law left her with an arrogance and innocence that rendered her incapable of ruling in the shark tank comprising the Scottish government. The Scottish lords, especially Moray, envisioned her as a similar puppet, but then her marriage to Darnley and his, frankly, sociopathic personality tipped the scales, and she was forced to work against Moray's best interests, which sealed her downfall.

I've read numerous books on this subject including Fraser's masterpiece, John Guy's excellent book, and Wormald's commentary on her governance (or lack thereof), and Stedall's book sealed all these differing opinions together in a satisfying conclusion. Part of the problem with trying to get a hold on this period is the sheer number of players in this saga and their shifting loyalties. This book also made clear what exactly was motivating the people around her regarding the Bothwell marriage, and how this was a long game on the part of Moray that certainly ended up turning trumps in the end. It is difficult to see Mary continuing as a monarch under ANY circumstances. England needed to break the back of the French hold on Scotland to keep its borders secure in light of potential invasion by Catholic powers, and, as long as Mary was queen, the auld alliance was still intact to a certain degree. England also needed a strong Protestant government, which, again, as a determined Catholic, made Mary a huge liability despite her many attempts to placate the Protestant lords. Plus, she was just so clueless and Cecil was just so ruthless, as was Moray. She was outgunned on every level. I very much enjoyed this book.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Retirement Begins

 I've now officially retired. My husband isn't quite sure, because even though I formally retired last month, I was still going into the office a couple of times a week to clean it out. We're looking at over thirty years of paper, a dead mouse that had actually mummified, and a collection of old computer equipment that could populate a small planet. It was daunting, not to mention terrifying, because my thoughts immediately went to contracting hanta virus when I saw that critter, stiff behind a server that had been sitting in the same spot for twenty years. Fortunately, I always wear a mask these days.

As I worked my way through ALL THAT PAPER, checks I'd written for conferences I'd put on, government contracts, and bank statements for the last twenty years, my initial thought was, goddamn, why did I do this for all these years? It felt trivial, not to mention very grimy, and, oh, I don't know, sad that I could have, should have, been doing something else. But I had kids to raise and parents to eventually take care of, and I had unparalleled freedom to come and go when I needed to. Like when my son smacked his head against pipe in middle school and cut his forehead open, or when my mother couldn't turn off her bathtub tap and the water was filling her tub, and she couldn't bail fast enough and the water was threatening to flood her bathroom. Those sorts of things happen, and when they did, I could shut my door and walk out. The convenience and ability to come and go as I pleased (and benefits!) outweighed any other considerations. I wrote in my spare time so that my brain wouldn't atrophy, and I worked with some cool people. Not cool in the sense, wow, they should have a podcast type of cool, but people who make the difference in our general lives without people noticing the difference.

I worked as a technical editor and general dogs body for a number of professors at U.C. Berkeley. I worked with a guy who you can blame or applaud for not being able to smoke on airline seats, and others who probably will, due to their research, make it very likely that when the Hayward fault erupts, you will walk out of the building you work in, shaken but not crushed to death. And I worked for another guy who's working on creating green concrete. Did you know that concrete production is a major factor in global warming?  Think about that the next time you walk down the sidewalk.

One day I was grumbling about my job and my upcoming retirement to a friend, and how I felt I'd skated through most of my life, while others racked up the applause, and that I thought my window for success as a writer had passed because I was filing and typing in between the kid duties and parental obligations. And, although I do think my window for success as a writer HAS passed, she pointed out to me that the achievements of these guys (yes, they were all men) hadn't been done in a vacuum. She was right. I was an important cog in that general wheel. And while all of these achievements would have happened more or less, maybe one research project wouldn't have become funded because I didn't edit it before it went to contracts, and that research spawned other research that spawned... Science and research builds on its self. It's a series of stepping stones, moving forward for the greater good.

As I was sweeping up the debris from hours and hours of shredding (those little squares get everywhere), I wondered about all those admin people like myself, who aided those researchers in coming up with vaccines to save people's lives in the time of COVID. People like myself, behind the scenes, probably not paid very well, and whose name will never appear in newspapers.

I closed the door to my office for the last time and put my keys in an envelope for a fellow admin, who I think is invaluable to the organization. Someone who is/was like me, not newspaper worthy, but who can also claim some secret glory for making this planet a better place to live.