Monday, August 15, 2011

Review of Natasha's Dance

Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes

A magnificent book of great scope and worth
is Orlando Figes story of the cultural history
of Russia. A wonderful book to read! I am still
in awe of such a wonderful and scholarly work.

This book is full of magnificence, great wealth and
splendour with stories of princes, tsars and paupers.
I found this book fascinating for its insight and
sensitivity in writing
of its people, mountains, scenery and countryside
of Russia. It is a book of great
beauty, in the writing and also in the content of the book.

There are powerful and evocative descriptions
of pieces of poetry or prose which had been
written by some of the great
writers in Russian literature included in the story.

I am reminded that there is a review on the back cover of
the book which states that the reviewer does not like to
say too much about the book so as not to spoil it for the

This book is enlightening and wonderful.
Also educational. It is majestic in its scope, describing
palaces of princes, lives of great writers,
folk-lore and customs.
I loved the folk-loric nature of the
book with majestic stories and beliefs concerning cities, towns
and cities of
imagination and legend which were believed to have existed at times under a
lake, the healing properties of certain places
or of the gripping detail provided in stories by Gogol or
Dostoevsky. Tales of imagination abound for St Petersburg
with its bronze horseman. Fascinating! Great story-telling. I will
have to read some of Gogol's tales which certainly give an aura of the
fantastic, colour and
atmosphere to the history of the culture of Russia.

The colours and culture of Russia seem so different from
the rest of Europe. This may have been due to the eastern influences.
St Petersburg was built in more traditional Western European concepts
and architecture. This is a beautiful city which I visited in 2009. Moscow
is different again, and yet the architecture from Muscovy is a splendour with the
magnificent gold domes of cathedrals and churches which can often be seen from afar
when travelling about the city or the countryside.

In the earlier days before Russia became a Soviet
state the aristocracy was often encouraged to build palaces.
These palaces often became a place of learning, culture and
Prince Potemkin built
an exotic palace on the Crimea and in a note there is a mention of a book written
about him titled “Prince of Princes” by Simon Sebag Montefiore
which I would like to also read.
Great warmth and humanity, dignity and valour and personal conflict and endurance are revealed in the stories of Count Sheremetev and Prince Volkonsky.
Wonderful descriptions are given of the music, ballet, prose, poetry, gifted artists, musicians and
film makers with stories of their lives which gives an added appeal to the book for the humanity and personalities of the people involved. The book is on a personal level with the characters and it is not difficult
to often sympathise with the characters and their personal situations. Their lives were very real and the times very true. Colour plates of characters and illustrations of the
colour of arts, theatre and design provide interesting detail into aspects of the culture and arts.

The theme of the book is enduring beauty and even in the bleakest moments, sorrows and sadness,
the spirit and strength of some of the great artists who may have been living in difficult times in Russia still shine through.

In his notes the author has admitted that it did take him a long time to write this book but I am
so glad that he wrote it and also glad that I have read it. It is difficult to imagine that so much wonder, splendour and beauty can be written in one book but this certainly is the case with “Natasha's Dance” the title of which comes from Leo Tolstoy's “War and Peace.”
Full accolades for the author. At the introduction a Russian countess who had been brought up
by French governesses knew how to dance a Russian dance and picked up the rhythm. All things
French were wonderful and admired until Napoleon came to Russia. Thereafter, as described in
the chapter of “Children of 1812” some of the nobility turned away from European values and
concepts and returned to the beauty of the land and rural countryside of the Steppe and wished to
revert to more Russian ways of life. Some of the aristocracy had befriended soldiers of the peasantry in the army and had gained a renewed respect for these people who had come from the rural villages and land of Russia.
A wonderful achievement to write a book of such grand scope.
The beauty and descriptions of the times in Russia are portrayed vividly. The colours and scope of the landscape, the Siberian Steppe, the nomads and various clans and khans who conquered the territory in the 12th century, the folk-lore, songs and dances, traditions and the times of the tsars and a later
more fraught time which is depicted in a chapter of “Russia through a Soviet Lens” is a magnificent and scholarly accomplishment by the author. The book is quite compelling full of lively descriptions and anecdotes which makes “Natasha's Dance” fascinating to read.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Rare moments of beauty- glimpses in time

Rare Moments of Beauty-
A glimpse in Time:

One evening I was walking from the library
to the shopping centre and between apartment
buildings there are lovely palm trees in pots
and water ponds. It was a cold windy night
without too many people about. Even so, I was
quite entranced by the little plays of water displays
from the little fountains with illuminated lights
glowing from the water. Just beautiful! As not
many people were around I thought that these
majestic little displays must be for the people
living in the apartment buildings.

Another time one evening not long before Christmas
I was walking through Aotea Square in Auckland.
This was also a cold wind-swept night with not too many
people there. I was surprised as there was a group
singing on a stage and the few people watching were
wrapped up against the cold. The music was so
wonderful and haunting, it remains with me even
today. A beautiful song which the group was singing
and the sound seemed to follow, one line from the song
of which
I remember: “from the cradle to the grave.”

Rare moments of beauty:

I have been looking at some of the wonderful images
from le bal de Versailles where people dress in costume.
After looking at some of these pictures I can readily
imagine how beautiful and magnificent it must have
been when the king, Louis XIV, would walk around the gardens
of Versailles with his courtiers.

I can visualise the magnificent colours of the ladies' dresses
in the picturesque and wonderful settings. Even in the
stifling hot of the summer weather (when sometimes the restricted
clothing may have become uncomfortable) these occasions must have been
rare and wonderful glimpses of beauty in time. The beautiful
fountain displays may have had a cooling effect with the spray
from the water jets. A softly blowing breeze from the direction of the trees
may also have
tempered the scene. On one occasion
the scent from the flowers was so heady that the king and his courtiers
had to leaved. This was in the vicinity of the Trianon.

I remember vividly a scene of Marie Antoinette in the gardens at Versailles
near her hameau from the film “Marie Antoinette.” At this time Marie
Antoinette had chosen white cotton clothing which may have been more
comfortable for her in the hot weather. She also had a portrait painted
dressed in this fashion which was unfortunately
not approved of as the clothing was not in keeping
with the expectations of how the queen of France
was supposed to be. However, even in this film,
the moments of beauty and truth did shine through.

This piece of music seems to me to reflect the quality
and beauty of time and its passing nature: Mary's Song
played by Nick Cave which I came across yesterday
on face book:

Elizabeth I must also have looked magnificent at times:
her rainbow portrait is a favourite and she lived up to to
her image of "the faerie queen" as depicted in the poetry
of Edmund Spenser.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Princess of Versailles

Princess of Versailles

Princess Marie-Adelaide of Savoy was quite a bright spark
in the generally staid and conventional court of the later years
of the life of the Sun King.
Arriving at the court of Versailles as a young girl of 10, with strict instructions
from her family to obey Madame de Maintenon when she arrived at court,
Princess Marie-Adelaide
readily made friends of Madame de Maintenon and the king, Louis XIV.
endearing attributes and natural precocity and exuberance of child-hood, she was
a fresh and lively personality in the hallowed halls of Versailles.

Charles Elliott's book of “Princess of Versailles” offers a fresh and wonderful
perspective of life at Versailles during the reign of the Sun King, the life of
Princess Marie-Adelaide who had come to the court to marry the grand-son
of the Sun King, the Duc de Bourgogne.

The book follows the fortunes of Princess Marie-Adelaide's father, Victor Amadeus II,
Duke of Savoy, who often seemed to be living in the shadow of the Sun King and as a
consequence could at times be fickle with his loyalties. There are wonderful
descriptions of the court of Savoy given in the book describing the beauty and refinement
of the court and also
a spiritual essence as Princess Marie Adelaide's mother with her ladies would
painstakingly repair the Shroud of Turin with golden thread. The world of the
court of Savoy was far removed from the more worldly court of Versailles.

Princess Marie-Adelaide was in effect brought up by the king and Madame de
Maintenon. Perhaps because Marie-Adelaide had become accustomed to the king
and Madame de Maintnon over the years she would also interrupt the king in important
meetings, but also over time the king did come to rely on Princess Marie-Adelaide to
attend entertainments in the evenings, even when she was not well with tooth-ache.

Marie-Adelaide also suffered from a mis-carriage at one time as she travelled against
doctors' instructions so as not to displease the king. This may or may not have been a
cause of her miscarriage and the king most likely felt very guilty about this as afterwards
he did seem not to be quite so affable and people did not like to approach him for about
15 minutes. The king was most likely very upset. At another time when his soldiers had
been defeated with many losses Madame de Maintenon had to bring this sad news to him.
Madame de Mainenon and the king spent many years together and for much of the time
these must have been happy years. Madame de Maintenon became involved in her school
of St Cyr and the education of the pupils. The pupils put on a play of “Esther” on the stage which the king attended. The king often attended the plays
with Madame de Maintenon and would have enjoyed these shows. The king was supportive
of Madame de Maintenon's involvement and work at the school.

St Cyr had been established by
Madame de Maintenon to support and educate impoverished young girls of the nobility. Their
future prospects were assured as they had the opportunity of becoming a teacher, entering a
convent or becoming married, in which case a suitable husband would be found for them.

Entertainments and balls were often held in Princess Marie-Adelaide's honour. She was bright and happy.
Princess Marie-Adelaide was as the belle of the ball. Dances and music brought back an echo
of earlier times when Versailles was a bright and welcoming place full of amusements
and entertainments. In later years the wonderful spectaculars and plays of earlier times
had waned. Earlier there had been Lully and Quinault who had staged magnificent
music and opera. There were beautiful sets and magnificent costumes.

There is a coloured
illustration of a dream scene from Lully's opera “Atys” depicted as a wool and silk tapestry
in the book “Baroque” Style in the Age of Magnificence 1620-1800 by Michael
Snodin and Nigel Llewellyn and assisted by Joanna Norman. The colours and displays
of the stage look magnificent. “Atys” had first been performed in 1676 and became known as
the king's opera. “Phaeton” which became more popular in Paris became known as “the people's
opera.” There were so many wonderful entertainments of the earlier times at Versailles.

In the same book there is also a wonderful depiction of an engraving of the inauguration of the
equestrian statue of Louis XIV in place Louis-le-Grand, which is now the Place Vendome. It looks
to have been a magnificent occasion and I am also reminded of a similar occasion for the unveiling of the Bronze Horseman in St Petersburg. This also looks to have been a spectacular occasion from the pictures which have have been depicted.

The duc de Bourgogne had been brought up by a religious tutor, Fenelon, who later
had been banned from the court because of his views. However, his teachings had
influenced the young duc de Bourgogne, who would have liked nothing better than to read
and study religious texts and writings. At one time when the duc de Bourgogne was not
present at an evening's entertainment the king was known to say that as a prince of the court he
should be present at the royal functions. The king was probably not impressed or put out
by the duc de Bourgogne's absence.

At one time, during severe economic hardship, the Duke and Duchess of Bourgogne
sold their jewellery to assist less fortunate people.

After the demise of Monseigneur, the king's son, from smallpox, the duc de Bourgogne
was being made ready for his time to take over the crown from Louis XIV as next in line
of succession. Great things were expected of him and Louis XIV proudly did introduce
him to clerics and people of the church.

Unfortunately, in those times, there were not vaccinations available for small-pox and
many people also in Paris succumbed to this disease.

Princess Marie-Adelaide fell ill and passed away with the duc de Bourgogne also passing
away not long after. This couple seemed ideal and would have made a wonderful king
and queen. Two of their children were also lost from small-pox and a governess, Madame de Ventadour, refused
to allow the doctors to treat another son, who was very young at the time. This child subsequently
reigned as King Louis XV many years later.

I found “Princess of Versailles” to be rich in content and wonderful to read. The book shows
Versailles to its best advantage, the wonderful place which at times it could be. Charles Elliott
did devote a few pages to the earlier years of Versalles as a background to the story.

Princess Marie-Adelaide was popular at court, loved and admired by many people and sadly missed as also had been her grand-mother
Princess Henriette, Madame, who was known as “Minette” who had also died at a young age many
years earlier.

More fascinating characters from the court of the Sun King

The Duc de Lauzun: a picture from wikipedia:

The Grand Mademoiselle

I believe that this is a very elegant portrait of the Grande Mademoiselle
from wikipedia: the gold and blue colours are exquisite:
The Grande Mademoiselle towards the end of her life wrote that
with all of her wealth she would have been expected to live a very happy
life but that this was not the case.

Born Anne Marie Louise d'Orleans, Duchess de Montpensier, a wealthy heiress of the Bourbons, whose mother
had died not long after she was born, lived with her father Gaston d”Orleans at Blois Castle. She became
involved in the Fronde, fired a canon at the young Louis XIV, who could have
become a possible future spouse, was sent away into exile and returned to court at a later time.
In the book “Royal Flush” by Margaret Irwin, it was reported by the widow
queen Henrietta Maria, queen of
Charles I, that one should not be the cause of one's own misfortune.

The Grand Mademoiselle fell in love with the Duc de Lauzun, wished to marry him,
which the king consented to initially but because of pressure from other members of
the royal family the king decided to withdraw his consent a few days before the wedding.
The Grande Mademoiselle felt greatly let down by people whom she was relying on for
support with the king.

The Duc de Lauzun spent many years in prison.  A fellow prisoner was Nicholas Fouquet,
also rumours of a prisoner who may have been The Main in the Iron Mask, though this may
have been a fallacy, even being a prisoner who occasionally wore a velvet mask.

The Grande Mademoiselle was required eventually to sell important properties to the king, the principality of Dombes and the county of Eu and the Duchy of Aumole for the Duc
de Maine, a son of the king and Madame de Montespan.  This was to effect the release of
the Duc de Lauzun finally from the prison.

I will return to more characters of the court at a later stage.  The Duc de Lauzun did seem to make 
enemies of both the king and Madame de Montespan for various reasons.  He also seemed to have sometimes acted in an erratic and unconventional manner though this may have been more when he was held a prisoner at a remote prison.   

To Serve Them All My Days

A wonderful image of the heath of Devon from wikipedia:  the beautiful green countryside
of Devon added to the appeal of the television series "To Serve Them All My Days."  It
ceertainly would be nice to visit the place where the film was set and view the magnificent
scenery.   I did once visit Cornwell and the south of England which is quite beautiful. 

To Serve Them All My Days  (A review)

A wonderful thirteen part series from the BBC
set in the beautiful English countryside of Devon.
This story is written by R F Delderfield who also
lived in the south of England.

I have recently finished viewing the series and for people
who are interested in the old school system, the English public
boarding schools and education the series is well worth watching.

It is set during the peace time after the First World War over a
time span of many years before the Second World War.
The politics
of the time is very much also in the forefront as the lead character of
the series, David Powlett-Jones, (often referred to as PJ) is from a
coal-mining family from Wales and has endured hardships, tragedy
and also serving time during the First World War (the war which PJ
believed was the war to end all wars.)
PJ enters the
education system as a teacher at a young age.

His life revolves around the school and its pupils, the head-master
and teachers.

It is interesting that later in the series PJ is informed that Bamfield
School cannot be isolated and that what was occurring in Germany
was very close. The school gives refuge to a Jewish boy who has
been brought to England by the good intentions of a girl-friend who
at the time was involved in politics and contested a
nomination for a parliamentary seat but was unsuccessful. There
were difficulties at the time for women trying to enter politics. After
a second unsuccessful attempt she gave up politics, however, she felt
that on the second occasion it was because she had been too outspoken
regarding foreign affairs at the meeting. She could not see an amicable
peaceful solution
prior to the Second World War and at the time was not in favour of
disarmament. This may have been because she had
been in Germany and had seen the consequences of what was happening
to people.

The political background and dramas do not take over the film. It is also on a
more humanist and personal level.  PJ's life and  romances very much also
play a major role in the film and the authenticity of the subject matter,
the school, girl-friends, marriages, other teachers and another head-master,
their foibles and personality conflicts make this a very interesting drama.

PJ does at times spend more time often on school matters at the expense
of his elderly mother and also his wife.  At one time his wife may have felt
insecure and at a loss as to what to do with her day
until she became involved in school activities, Christmas concerts,
plays and also teaching. 

 Coming as he did from a coal-mining
family in a Welsh village, his life was quite a success story, of which he was told later
that his mother was always very proud of him, though he was not always enamoured of his brother who had remained in the Welsh village with his elderly mother. If there was not a letter one month for the mother to read to a visiting parish minister she would re-read a letter from a previous month.
The mother's pride in her son may have been a source of discontent with the other brother
who had remained at home or perhaps is was difficult for the brother to see PJ seemingly
leaving his socialist loyalties to live in a different world. However, in this different world
he was making a difference and contributing to the welfare of the school boys and the successful
running of the school, eventually becoming a Head-master.
Bamfield School became PJ's life.
It was a great academic institiution as well as focussing on rugby and cricket
for the boys.
 Humour is also apparent in the film, especially with speeches given from
the first Head-master also his cheerful manner and way of life at the school with his wife, which may have seemed like a closeted life but also happy, and also towards the end of the film when an elderly teacher told PJ that he believed
that he had spent many previous incarnations in cold class-rooms and draughty
corridors and that in his next incarnation he wished to be a lizard reclining on
a rock in the sun.

The film also portrays England from another time, a time which seemed
very different. Class distinctions were evident and I am reminded of a book
which I have been reading “The Shifting Fog” by
Kate Morton, which is also set in England during these times.
It certainly
was a time of change and it is fascinating to read and see films depicting
England in magnificent rural settings before the Second World War and
the vagaries and life-styles of people of different social classes.