Anna Belfrage

Step inside and steal some moments in another place, another time. Welcome to my world!

Meet my main characters

17th century man 4My author friend and 17th century fellow enthusiast, Francine Howarth, has tagged me in an on-going blog hop, Meet my Main Characters. The idea for the bloghop as such is the brainchild of the tireless Debbie Brown, who started it all off by introducing Evangeline, her heroine in the beautifully named For the Skylark.

I should have posted my contribution already on the 17th, but due to a very nasty flu my brain has been an uncooperative mush this last weeks or so – well, more of a mush than it normally is.

Now, when thinking main characters, I have quite a number of WIPs cluttering up my computer – and brain – space, ergo there are a number of main characters I could introduce you to. Some are such close acquaintances by now I can tell you everything about them. Some remain somewhat enigmatic, having chosen to not fully reveal themselves in all their human glory. For the purpose of this exercise, I’ve chosen to go with Matthew and Alex Graham, my fictional protagonist couple in The Graham Saga.
Thereby, I have already replied to the first question, which simply requires me to name my character(s), and can bound onwards to the next question.

Capt_John_Smith's_map_of_Virginia_1624When and where is the story set?
The Graham Saga spans the years 1658 to 1690. Due to a series of circumstances, Matthew and Alex will do quite some globe-trotting, parts of it most involuntary (such as when Matthew is carried over the seas and sold as indentured labour in Virginia), others unavoidable (like when Matthew accepts he can no longer stay in Scotland due to religious persecution and thereby takes his entire family with him to Maryland). So, a story that starts out in Scotland ends up spending a lot of time in Maryland before returning to Scotland via a short detour in Seville. Matthew, of course, remains a hunk of Scottish granite no matter where he is set down – one of his more likeable qualities, if you ask me. As to Alex, well, she’s quite the complicated kettle of fish, but let’s get back to her a bit later.

What should we know about the main characters?
Matthew is a devout member of the Scottish Kirk, a man who has seen service in the Commonwealth armies and believes that man should rule himself, without the yoke of kings (or bishops). He is loyal and determined, will risk a lot for causes he believes in, and loves his wife to the point of distraction. Brave when he has to be, Matthew is no superhero, and is afflicted by fear and despair as much as anyone else would be in some of the scarier situation life puts him through. And when things turn truly black for him, it is the thought of his Alex that keeps him alive, a faint light in the tunnel that requires of him to go on breathing, go on living, when most of all he just wants to give up and die.

442px-Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_159Alex is a child of mixed heritages, her mother being a Spanish medieval witch, her father a Swedish botanist. To further complicate things, Alex was born in 1976, so all this 17th century drama is at times a bit too much for her, the unfortunate consequence of that most unexpected fall from time she experienced as a twenty-six-year-old. Still; agnostic, hard-nosed Alex does her best to adapt to her new life, ably helped along by Matthew, who despite having certain reservations as to how she ended up in his life, has no intention of ever letting her go. A good thing, in Alex’s book, as she isn’t about to relinquish her hold on the man of her life either, no matter just how many adventures and obstacles life throws in her way.

What is the main conflict?
Each book in The Graham Saga has its own conflicts, but one recurring theme is of course Alex’s take on life in her new time. She does find it difficult to comply with expectations as to how she should behave, and at times the sheer amount of work involved in living in the 17th century threatens to drown her. Plus, of course, she lives in constant fear that one day time will reclaim her and drag her back by force to a life she no longer wants – this fear further strengthened every time she comes across one of those small, painted time portals her witch mother Mercedes has littered the world with, this in Mercedes’ desperate attempts to get back to her original time… Very complicated, let me tell you!

In the first few books, tension is caused by Matthew’s more than infected relationship with his younger brother Luke (very infected; Luke is a volatile character that at one point in time severely beats Alex. In retaliation, Matthew slices Luke’s nose off, and then Luke… well; they get at each other, those two brothers). Further tension is supplied by the prevalent persecution of die-hard Covenanters (such as Matthew) after the restoration of Charles II.
Being sold into slavery causes quite some tension for Matthew, and the harsh reality of coping with life as settlers in Maryland is not exactly a walk in the park either, particularly not when some rather nasty individuals from Matthew’s past pop up, accompanied by the brothers from hell, the Burley Brothers.
Plus there is all the tension that arises out of Alex’s interaction with some of the more narrow-minded ministers they encounter, tension that has Matthew rolling his eyes while Alex spits like an angered cat. Matthew stops rolling his eyes and becomes a tad more grim the day one of those ministers accuses Alex of being a witch, let me tell you….
All in all, life is at times too adventurous – at least for Alex’s liking
To satisfy the amateur historian in me, several of the books have historical peoplein cameo roles, such as Sir William Berkley, Governor of Virginia, or Alexander Peden, renegade minister in the Scottish Lowlands. Likewise, I have woven in real historical events in my books – something I very much enjoy doing!

What is the personal goal of the characters?
“Retirement”, Alex would tell you with a groan. “No more adventures, please.” Fat chance…
On a more serious note, both Matthew and Alex want to keep their children safe and happy. Not always the easiest of aims to achieve, and Matthew and Alex live through considerable heartache because of this.
Matthew wants to build a prosperous farm for his family, Alex wants to ensure her children are somewhat more broadminded than average in the 17th century. And they both want to forget – or at least bury – Alex’s unorthodox background. But sometimes the past just won’t stay buried, will it?

Is there a working title for the novel, and where can we read more about it?
Five of the books in The Graham Saga have already been published – and if you want to read more about them, why not pop over to my website? The sixth book in the series, Revenge and Retribution, is due out on July 1 this year. In total, there will be eight books – let me tell you I am already suffering severe separation angst…

R&R webstampExcerpt – Revenge and Retribution
I thought I’d share a little excerpt from the sixth book in The Graham Saga. In this, you are introduced to Lucy Jones, Matthew’s deaf niece. She will play an important role in this book, because dear little Lucy happens to have one of those magical time portals Mercedes has painted. She shouldn’t have had it; had she been an obedient girl, she would have burned it, as her father told her to. But Lucy is willful and curious, and that little magical picture enthralled her from the moment she saw it. Why? Because when she holds the painting, Lucy can hear.

Lucy wasn’t delighted by the sudden arrival of her aunt and uncle. Ever since Matthew Graham had caught her reading his private correspondence some years ago, something of a chilly truce existed between them. But her mother brightened markedly in the presence of her brother, smiling as he teased her about her latest addition to her hen coop.

“She’s a good layer,” Joan said. “Every day during spring and summer.”

“She’s bald!” Matthew laughed. “You have to knit her something to wear, indecent as she is.”

“Who has ever heard of a hen in clothes?” Joan protested.

“And who has ever heard of a hen with no feathers?” Matthew said.

“It’s only round her rump.” Alex bent down to inspect the said hen.

“Aye, immodest little baggage.” Matthew nodded at the cock. “Not that he much cares, does he?”

“Maybe that’s why, you know, desperate females and all that.” Alex undid her hat, and dropped it onto the table, fiddling with her hair.

“Alex!” Joan eyed her new hen and sighed. “Now I won’t see her without noting her nudity. The pot,” she said, wagging a finger at the hen. “You go into the pot within the week.”

Lucy had only half followed this exchange, utilising the opportunity to study Matthew and Alex in detail. Her uncle was a handsome man, albeit that he was well over fifty: all his teeth, thick hair, and a face that was relatively unlined. At some inches over six feet, he was inordinately tall, as were all his sons, in particular Jacob. Lucy smiled. Of all her cousins, it was Jacob that she truly liked, impressed by how he’d gone to London on his own at only sixteen.

Matthew raised an eyebrow at her intense staring, and Lucy ducked her head. Why was it that he made her feel so transparent, as if all the thoughts that darted back and forth inside her brain stood plain to read upon her face for him? That Alex didn’t much like her was obvious, nor did Alex make much of an effort to hide her opinion, even if she always accorded Lucy the respect of treating her like an adult. Lucy didn’t much like Alex either, and in particular she didn’t like it that the woman looked so radiant, her skin an unlined pink, her dark blue eyes clear and glittering. Her hair was, as always, brushed to a shine, strands of grey highlighting a mass of brown and bronze and chestnut. Mayhap there was some truth in all that posturing around the importance of eating raw greens, Lucy mused, grimacing at remembered meals at Graham’s Garden that consisted of far too much spinach and beets, and far too little gravy and pie.

Lucy produced the little piece of sharpened coal she always carried with her and doodled while she waited for her uncle and aunt to leave. She drew swirls and whirlwinds, a small patch of something that heaved and sucked. She smiled down at her effort: the little picture, albeit muted now that it was all in grey.

Joan placed a hand on her sleeve, making her jerk upright. Her uncle’s face had gone a sickly white, and as to Alex, she was staring at the little drawing with revulsion.

“What is it you’re drawing, daughter?” Joan asked, her grey eyes wide.

Lucy tried to cover the scrap of paper with her hand, but Matthew was quicker, snatching it away to study it closely.

“Oh God!” He crumpled it together.

“Joan?” Alex said. “Has she seen one of those?”

Joan nodded. “We were sent one, three years ago.”

“Sent one?” Alex wet her lips with her tongue. “By whom?”

“We don’t know. It just came, aye? But we burnt it, didn’t we?” She met Lucy’s eyes. “We burnt it.”

Lucy nodded, several times. Of course she’d burnt it.

“Thank the Lord for that!” Matthew slumped in his chair.

“Amen to that,” Alex said, looking as if she were about to faint.

Lucy eyed them both with interest. They were frightened, badly frightened, and once again she found herself wondering what the little painting could possibly do. To ask outright was not going to work, she could see that in all of their faces, and seeing as neither her uncle nor aunt showed any indication of leaving, Lucy chose to cut her visit short. She rose, curtsied politely and left, promising her mother she’d be back on the morrow.

Time for a little confession: those authors that I had planned on tagging have either already participated in this little hop, or were somewhat strapped for time – and as I have spent the last ten days in bed feeling very sorry for myself, I have not worked as hard as I would normally do to replace them.

However; not all is dark in this tunnel, because I do have one taggee, namely the lovely Michelle Shine. Some of you may know Michelle as a homeopath – she has written a number of books related to homeopathy and healing  - but she is also the author of a historical fiction novel with the beautiful title Mesmerised, which is set in the late 19th century Paris and stars a homeopath, Dr Paul Gachet. Sounds quite intriguing, and I am sure Michelle will do her own introduction when she delivers her post, on Monday April 28. For more information about Michelle – and for her future post – please visit her blog.

 

Is freezing in a garret a prerequisite?

 

!cid_63217AD6-BD98-4D64-91A4-F01C336A3052Welcome to the SilverWood Books Blog Hop!

A few of our authors have come together to share a variety of articles and items of interest on their blogs for your enjoyment. There are some lovely giveaway prizes, and – to stay in keeping with the Spring and rebirth theme at this time of year – some colourful Easter eggs. Feel free to collect the eggs, and use them where you like. They were drawn by SilverWood author Peter St John who writes the ‘Gang’ series about a boy who was evacuated to a village near Ipswich during WWII. 

Have fun! 

Helen Hart
Publishing Director
SilverWood Books

Well, after that brief intro from Helen, let’s plunge headlong into my post (and let me tell you, people, that after a bedridden week and more, I am raring to go. Words sort of crowd my head after so many days of blog silence…):

Chatterton 1856 by Henry Wallis 1830-1916There is this rather romanticised (and antiquated) idea that great art is created by young (mostly) male wannabees who laugh cruel fate in the face while they continue with their creative endeavours, no matter chillblains and empty stomachs, ice-cold draughts and ragged clothes. Our literary hero hoards his candle stumps so as to light his nightly progress with his roman à clef,  but no sooner does dawn tinge the night skies pink but he blows out the little flame, preferring to strain his eyesight to wasting any more of his artificial light source.

Such young men write about PAIN. They write about anguish and despair, about setting off to brave the world alone. Their world is harsh, their female protagonists are generally peripheral, and all that introverted focus results in a rather heavy read – which is why said writer is languishing in a garret to begin with. Now, not all garret-bound writers have written unreadable books. In Sweden, we have our own most brilliant is somewhat depressive and misogynist August Strindberg, who rose from humble beginnings to become a writer of quite some well-deserved renown (and doubtful repute, what with all his women). Great art has undoubtedly arisen from strained circumstances, but is it a necessity to suffer to write/compose/paint masterpieces? No, I would say – rather emphatically. What is required to create masterpieces is talent, perseverance and inspiration.

Irises-Vincent_van_GoghCreating masterpieces does not always result in monetary compensation. Take Van Gogh, for example. Did he ever enjoy the monetary fruits of his labour? Nope. His painting of irises may be one of the more highly valued works of arts in the world, but dear old Vincent spent his latter years in mental confusion (hence the ear business, one assumes) and does not seem to have reaped much material reward, despite increasing recognition of his genius towards the latter years of his (short) life.

Also, there’s the interesting little fact that masterpieces are generally defined by a selected few – an intellectual elite, if you will – and may therefore not necessarily reflect the tastes of the broad masses – and if you want to become rich through your creative efforts, then you had better appeal to the masses. To be brief, one can conclude that while writing masterpieces does not exclude material success, neither does it guarantee the writer will be rolling in money. If you write to earn your living, there may therefore be a need of a certain level of… umm… well, what can we call it? “Prostitution”? (Oh dear; hearts go all a-flutter, don’t they?)

aston_martin_db9-pic-12758Writers who are looking for high level income should choose genre carefully. Crime is a safe bet. Silent male hunk (think Reacher) driven by an inner moral compass but uninterested in cluttering up his life with emotional baggage as he goes about saving the world always seems to sell – mostly to men, who probably nourish a dream of living the simple life and being heroes – at least once in their lives. Another safe bet is romance – but here the sub-genres are a veritable tangle to work your way through, and some are more successful than others, so do the research before deciding on whether your male protagonists will prance about in silk hose and breeches, a painted mouche on their cheek and a powdered wig atop their head, or slouch about looking delightful in an Aston Martin DB9 and cashmere (Aaaaaaahhhh…)

The alternative to prostitution – a.k.a. writing what you think the market may want –  is to write what you feel passionate about and to hell with remuneration. In my experience, this leads to much better writing. Much. Okay, so there may only be a minority of people around who want to read about the Sherpa who got on the wrong bus and ended up in Zanzibar (and boy, was that a happy Sherpa: not a freezing mountain in sight to climb, just beautiful pristine beaches and a nice warm climate) but that minority will – hopefully – become your fans. Which is why, of course, I write about love and history, and time travelling and love and the 17th century and love and religious controversy and … Did I mention love?

Gabriel_Metsu_-_Man_Writing_a_LetterThese days, writing is no longer done on paper with ink that leaves ugly blots, those manuscripts pages then rushed off to be typeset. No, dear people, these days writing is done on computers.Yes, yes; some of us draft – or even write – using pen and paper, but ultimately authors these days will keyboard their characters, their plot and setting, into a precious .docx file that exists in multiple back-ups. (WHAT? You have no back-ups????? Well, you clearly like living on the edge, don’t you?) And once the file is on the computer, it is quite easy to publish it without having to do the agent/publishing house thing – you can do it all on your own. (Luckily, as otherwise those people who really, really want to read about the Sherpa and Zanzibar would never get the opportunity as the target reader group is ridiculously small)

The classic business model regarding books for the latest decades has included the author, the agent and the publisher. Any profit made would be shared by the three interested parties, and so long as the publishing companies controlled what was being published, things worked out pretty well. After all, until recently, if you wanted to read a book you needed to buy the physical printed product, and as long as the publishing houses ensured the market wasn’t flooded by too many books in the same genre, readers would browse what was available and buy, thereby guaranteeing higher sales per title, ergo nice, steady profits. Enter the age of digital publishing. Enter the age of Amazon. (I feel a sudden urge to sing here: “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars…” Chorus: “This is the dawning of the age of Aaaamazon, the age of Aaaaamazon, Aaaamazon“)

behemotYes, Amazon is a behemoth that is causing rampant death among many smaller and larger booksellers. Yes, Amazon has reinvented the book industry. Yes, Amazon drives e-book sales. Yes, Amazon has created space (he-he) for unpublished authors to go for it. Yes, Amazon is doing all this for profit. No, Amazon won’t go away – and neither will Smashwords or Kobo or all other similar on-line retailers. Or e-books. Why? Because for the reader, Amazon offers a cheap and accessible service, with the added benefit of e-books being far more environmentally friendly than the printed book.

As a consequence, the traditional business model within the book publishing world is under pressure. This leads to publishing houses having to become more restrictive regarding what they publish. Guaranteed sales need to be relatively high for the company to recoup on its investments. Sales of 10 000 copies will generate approximately 20 – 30 thousand pounds in gross profit, but this is before any promotional costs, any salaries to the people involved in the production as such (you know; editors, jacket designer, proof-readers – plus the overheads, such as the cleaners and the managers and the accountants and the sales reps and…) The book sells 5 000, and the gross taking is roughly 10 – 12 thousand pounds, which doesn’t leave much of a profit – if any –  once all expenses incurred have been deducted. It’s a tough world, the book business – almost as tough as life was back then, in that freezing garret room, where the only source of light and heat was a fluttering candle.

When the basic tenets of an industry change, this creates opportunities for new players. Enter the quality-minded, professional small publishing companies that cater to all those authors who no longer have a chance in hell of getting a contract with one of the traditional publishing companies – not because their book is bad, but because they’re not celebrities, or well-known authors that have an established fan base, or have a book that hits a trending sweet-spot. Or are immensely talented.

So, the enthusiastic as yet unknown author wants to publish, the small publishing house offers a package for self-publication and you have a marriage made in heaven. (A word of warning: double check the publishing house before going with them. You want someone who is serious about what they do)  End result of this matrimony = a book, a lovely, lovely book that has the writer smiling like an idiot while he/she strokes the cover (been there, done that). But is it a quality product? Aha! Key question, ladies and gentlemen, best replied by “Judge not a book by its cover“, because no matter how pretty the cover, it’s the content that matters, right?

for-your-eyes-only-stampIf you write for your own pleasure, you don’t need to worry about edits and formatting, about odd POV shifts, about excessive usage of adverbs. You’re doing if For Your Eyes Only, and so it can be just as unfinished as you let it be. But. Major, major but. You put it out there as a book you expect people to buy, well then you owe all those people a certain basic quality. Formatting is nice, for example. Correct spelling helps ( “You now it’s true!” she said. Err… ). Consistent use of verb tense, of names, of dates – all of this is a minimum. I recently read a book where the protagonist is eighteen on one page, twenty-six three chapters later when two years have passed, and in actual fact he must be sixteen as we are told he is ten years younger than another twenty-six-year-old. Very confusing, let me tell you –  and far from a quality product.

This, I believe, is the rub in the entire self-publishing debate. Too many books are published at a deplorable standard, and IMO it is the company facilitating the publication services that somehow must take a stance here. All books do not appeal to all readers – and that’s okay. Personally, I’d hate reading a book about a Sherpa that ended up in Zanzibar (I think; maybe if Stephen Fry wrote it I might reconsider). But as long as the book lives up to a basic standard, I won’t feel shortchanged if I buy it and then simply don’t like it.  So, dear wannabe writers, do yourself – and your future readers – a favour. Hire an editor. Please. Pretty, pretty please? And as to all those publishing houses that cater to the self-publishing industry (including dear, huge Amazon), how about making editing a prerequisite, huh?

paris-charity-in-a-garret-grangerIf we float back in time to that chilly garret (in Paris, of course it’s in Paris, and Rodolfo is holding Mimi’s cold hand while singing his heart out to her, and…oops, sorry, slipped away there) with our industrious author, we will find the floor around his chair littered with pages, pages where words have been scratched out – whole sentences even. Mr long-suffering author is in the editing phase, and because he is dirt poor and convinced he is the best writer since Molière, he scoffs when his timid muse suggests he let someone else take a look at his finished opus. Grammar, he says in a patronising tone, is for lesser writers than he. He is an artiste, a creator of masterpieces, not for him the ridiculous rules of syntax and spelling. No wonder he’s still stuck in that garret of his, cursing the world for not seeing the beauty of his text.

In conclusion, dear people, writers don’t need garrets. But they do need editors – and readers. And books, they need publishing houses that take the craft of writing seriously – so seriously, in fact, that they won’t set their name to a book (self-published or otherwise) unless it meets a certain standard. Like an ISO 9001 approval, but for books. Can’t be that difficult to put in place, can it? Hello? Mr Bezoz? Did you hear that?

Oh, and if someone feels like developing my Sherpa/ Zanzibar story, I do have a rough outline lying about (you call, Mr Fry, and I’ll come running).

As we are approaching Easter, I thought I’d end this post with an international give-away: I will be giving away one e-book version and one paperback version of my latest book, Serpents in the Garden.  (And yes, of course it has been edited!) All you have to do is to leave a comment telling me what your favourite Easter treat is – and who sang For Your Eyes Only. And I need an e-mail so that I can contact the lucky winner.

JUST TO LET YOU KNOW THE GIVE-AWAY HAS ENDED: LUCKY WINNERS ARE CASSANDRA AND DENISE!

Egg 3Nearly forgot! Here is your Easter Egg to collect – there are six in all scattered throughout the Blog Hop – collect them all and feel free to use them on your own Blog or Facebook – or wherever you like.

And once you’ve entered the give-away, why not hop along to the other fabulous authors taking part?

 

  1. Helen Hollick :  Let us Talk of Many Things  - Fictional Reality.
  2. Alison Morton : Roma Nova - How the Romans Celebrated Spring
  3. Anna Belfrage : Step inside…   - Is freezing in a garret a prerequisite?
  4. Edward Hancox : Iceland Defrosted - Seaweed and cocoa
  5. Lucienne Boyce : Lucienne Boyce’ Blog - The Female Writer’s Apology
  6. Matlock the Hare :  Matlock the Hare Blog -  Pid-padding the self-published Pathway…
  7. Michael Wills :  Michael Wills - A Doomed Army
  8. Isabel Burt : Friday Fruitfulness  –  Flees for the Easter Hop…
  9. John Rigg : An Ordinary Spectator - Television Lines
  10. Debbie Young : Young By Name - The Alchemy of Chocolate
  11. Peter St John : Jenno’s Blog -  My Village
  12. Caz Greenham : Caz’s Devon Blog Diary – Springtime and hanging baskets
  13. Helen Hart : SilverWood Books Ltd

 

 

All that glitters…

In 1494, the then pope, the infamous Rodrigo Borgia, brokered the treaty of Tordesillas. As per this treaty, Portugal and the joined kingdoms of Castilla and Aragón divided up the world outside of Europe between them. Hmm. I wonder what the divided world had to say about that? Anyway, due to this treaty, a line was drawn through South America, with the easternmost future Brazil ending up Portuguese, while the rest of the continent suddenly became Spanish.

Landing_of_Columbus_(2)At the time of the treaty, most of the newly divvied up lands were utterly unknown to their new masters. Christopher Columbus had done a good job of spreading the propaganda that he’d made it to lands of endless riches (he finally got it that he hadn’t made it to India – actually, most mathematicians and astronomers of the age were quite convinced he would never make it to India, but Columbus was the stubborn type) and adventurous types from all over the Iberian peninsula – plus some – descended on the new lands. They weren’t there for an All-inclusive on Hispaniola, nor were they particularly interested in the native people. No, these driven adventurers came with one thing and one thing only in mind: gold.

santo-domingo-pirate-map-drakes-voyageSpain’s first hub in the New World was Santo Domingo on Hispaniola.  The Spanish were not particularly gentle when it came to conquests, and when there was no gold forthcoming it made them a tad irritated. These were men who had gambled everything on the hope of finding heaps of gold lying about, and when the indigenous Taino shrugged, trying to explain there was no gold – at least not in significant quantities, the conquistadores vented their rage on them. A couple of decades later, the Taino people were no more – unless they served as slaves on one or other of the huge encomiendas that dominated their previous island home.

Once they’d gotten over their disappointment regarding the meagre pickings on Hispaniola, the Spanish set their sights to the West. Rumours of immense riches came drifting across the Caribbean, and as we all know, Spanish adventurers came to conquer not only the Aztec Empire in Mexico, but also the huge Inca Empire in Peru, this through a combination of disdain for the “heathens” and nerves of steel.

A century or so after Columbus’ arrival on the shores of America, Spain was by far the richest country in the world. Galleons loaded with gold and silver creaked their way regularly over the Atlantic, fat rich prices for drooling privateers. Upon arrival in Spain, these riches were generally transferred to the skilled goldsmiths in the Flemish provinces of the Spanish Empire, where the metal was worked into exquisite pieces of jewellery or tableware – precious items that were then sold back to Spain, at prices far exceeding their metal value, and so the Flemish merchants got even more gold to work into even more masterpieces, to sell for even more gold and… Well, you get the picture, right? Spain was reduced to being a raw material supplier, buying back the produced goods at prices that resulted in a constant negative cashflow (Not into Finance? Trust me; negative cashflow is very, very bad).

Bartolomé_Esteban_Murillo_-_The_Young_Beggar

Murillo

Now, as long as Spain was in control of an endless supply of gold and silver, the cashflow wasn’t a problem. It was a bit like controlling the mint; “Ooops, I’m out of money. What do I do? Oh yes, I print some MORE money!” (Now isn’t that a delicious fantasy?) However, easy come, easy go, and where once gold had been plentiful, the greed of the Spanish very quickly depleted the South American continent of anything that glittered. Come the late 17th century, and Spain was beginning to feel the bite of that negative cashflow. Come the 18th century, and Spain began to sink into poverty – sort of ironic, given the sheer amounts of precious metals extracted from the American continent. But there you are; if you don’t employ good accountants, that’s what happens…

It wasn’t as if the Spanish gave much in return to their new dominions; yes, yes, we have all that beautiful colonial architecture that graces the older cities in Spanish America, all those churches with twin towers, signalling yet another congregation to sing the praises of the Christian god. But at what price? I somehow suspect those long-gone Incas would have preferred continuing to worship the sun without the presence of any nasty, hairy Conquistadores (and if you want to read more about this, click here).

Anyway; for a couple of centuries, the Spanish kings wallowed in gold. And before the country began to feel the pinch of poverty brought on by excessive greed and a hungering for pretty things, Spain experienced a cultural explosion which in Spanish goes by the name El Siglo de Oro (The Golden Century – most apt, if, with time, rather ironic)

Inmaculada_(Zurbarán)

Zurbarán

I don’t know how many of you are into religious painting. No? Well, if you are, Seville of the 17th century would have been your own personal Mecca. Now, I am no major fan of painting after painting depicting the blushing young face of the Virgin, but when standing before the sheer brilliance of Zurbarán or Murillo, I can but gape. Both these gentlemen made a mint out of their religious paintings, depicting numerous Virgins and as many saints. Zurbarán was a master of contrasts between light and dark, while Murillo had a more realistic bend, now and then lowering himself to depicting normal people. Whatever the case, had it not been for all that gold flowing into Spanish church coffers, there would have been no commissions to paint, and the world would not have been left with masterpieces such as Zurbaráns Immaculate Conception or Murillo’s The Beggar boy.

Las_Meninas_(1656),_by_Velazquez
And had there not been money, well then Philip IV would not have been able to afford Diego Velazquez, and seriously, a world without Las Meninas? (But dear old Diego is much, much more than this iconic painting. The man must have chewed some sort of potent energizing drug what with how much he painted) Interestingly enough, Velazquez also hailed from Seville. Maybe it was the buzz of this cosmopolitan city, gateway to so much of Spain’s trade with its dominions that created an atmosphere conductive to cultural pursuits. Or maybe it was as simple as the people in Seville becoming filthy rich due to said trade with said dominions, and therefore able to buy talent to come and live in their city.

RokebyVenusWhatever the case, Diego Velazquez made good in Seville – painting a lot of religious motifs, of course – so good that he was called to the royal court, where he became the resident court painter (and head of the household). Philip IV was very proud of his painter, and Velazquez combined royal portraits with other work, now and then daring the displeasure of the Inquisition by painting a nude. Major no-no in 17th century Spain. The Inquisition frowned on such lewd depictions, and the Inquisition was a force unto its own, so people did best to toe the line when it came to this dour and scary institution.  Not that this prohibition against depicting nude female flesh seems to have had the desired deterring effect as we know for a fact that nudes painted outside of Spain were avidly collected by the Spanish nobility (They probably kept these little masterpieces hidden, a bit like those French cards of future generations).

Prince Felipe Prospero

Prince Felipe Prospero

To us, Velazquez is mostly known for his beautiful portraits of royal children – which includes Las Meninas as this painting showcases Princess Margarita Teresa. I personally find his later portraits more striking, but what I absolutely love about Las Meninas is Velazquez’s use of the mirror – and the fact that he has included himself in the painting.

Velazquez himself

Velazquez himself

If one peers closely at the difuse image of the painter at work, one notices that on his coat he wears a red cross, the insignia of the Order of Santiago. That is rather curious, as Las Meninas was painted three years before Velazquez made it through the proverbial needle’s eye to become a member of this illustrous company. To become a member of the Order of Santiago, one had to be many things, but first and foremost one had to be of impeccable Spanish lineage with not as much as a drop of Jewish or Moorish blood. Apparently Velazquez passed the test – despite being nothing more than a “craftsman”, painters were not held in high regard – and it has been suggested that it wasn’t the artist but rather his royal patron who had the temerity to add the cross to the painting. We will never know.

Don_Quijote_and_Sancho_PanzaNot only was the Spanish Golden Age an explosion in art, it also produced some of the finest writers of the Spanish language. Cervantes, of course, who gifted the world with his somewhat sad and confused Don Quijote. (I never got him as a child, more irritated than intrigued by this stupid man who charged windmills on an underfed nag. As an adult, however…) The period also saw a new genre invented, moving the novel away from the romances starring high-born women and courtly knights to the picaresque novel, where the protagonist was generally of low birth and even lower means, who survived due to his wits, not due to his bloodline (in Spanish, such an intrepid go-getter is called a pícaro). I can imagine these novels found a warm reception in an age were the myth of the self-made man, as exemplified by the dirt-poor emigrant who went to the colonies and returned loaded with gold, flourished. Interestingly enough, at one end of the spectrum we have these novels starring smart-arse urchins, while at the  same time San Juan de la Cruz and Santa Teresa de Ávila produced some of the more beautiful religious writing ever seen – intimate and yet trandenscending, somehow.

 

prado 3 Murillo El buen pastorAnd then we have the playwrights – many, many playwrights such as Lope de Vega and Tirso de Molina. Hands up those that have heard of these giants among Spanish playwrights. No? Tsk, tsk! Lope de Vega wrote like 1 800 plays (go figure, Shakespeare) of which close to 100 are considered masterpieces (who decides these things?). I’m not entirely sure Lope de Vega’s plays have fully survived the sharp teeth of time (but I do like a man who bases his plays on historical events) but there is one playwright – and especially one work by this playwright – that most definitely has. I am talking about my personal favourite, Pedro Calderón de la Barca, and his play La Vida es Sueño –  Life is a dream.  From this play come the lines below, some of the most famous in Spanish Literature. They can also be seen as somewhat prophetic; after all, as the Golden Age of Spain drew to a close, the country was to wake up from its dream of everlasting riches to find itself degraded to a poor outpost on the European continent. And all because some people just couldn’t get enough of stuff that glittered…

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño.
¡Que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son!

Translation:
What is life? It is a frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
It is a shadow and a fiction,
And the greatest good is small;
For life is nothing but a dream,
And dreams, are only dreams.

Imagine: all this because of a treaty back in 1494. No Treaty of Tordesillas, no gold. No gold, no wealth to fuel all this cultural endeavour. Spain may have ended up dirt poor once the gold and silver reserves were depleted, but spiritually and culturally the Golden Age forged the future Spain, bequeathing to the future generations a veritable treasure trove of art and literature. Not gold, not even silver, but something that sparkles and shines much, much more!

When the light gutters…

722px-DiwaliOilLampCropImagine that you are the flame of a candle, an oblong of orange heat that spreads light and comfort in a dark world. Well, I don’t know about you, but I like trying to spread warmth and comfort, keeping that little flame bright and chirpy.

Now and then, though, a gust of wind blows you sideways, and you flutter and gasp before regaining your equilibrium and getting on with your life, your little flame back to its normal upright position. Most of us are good at handling the occasional gust – one could almost say that some of us actually burn all the better for the odd, unexpected burst of air.

Sometimes, though, the gusts are too many and too frequent, and the little flame shrinks and ducks, gasping for life. Suddenly, there is no energy left with which to light up life. Suddenly, the flame is guttering on the brink of extinction. Suddenly, all you want to do is run away and hide…

Several years ago, I found myself in a wind-tunnel. Life was too hectic, too much. Four kids, a more than full-time job, running a daycare centre on the side, a husband I loved but never seemed to spend any time with… The wind increased and the flame that was me went out. Completely. Pitch dark, was how it felt inside of me. I was incapable of doing anything, had the attention span of a newt, and panicked at the thought of peeling the potatoes because I couldn’t quite remember how one peeled a potato – or what I was supposed to do with them once they were peeled.

For a person who had always valued myself on my achievements rather than on who I was, the following months were a nightmare – after all, I couldn’t DO anything (well, beyond peeling potatoes, which I did get the hang of after a couple of days). I couldn’t read a book, because when I turned the page I couldn’t for my life recall what I had just read. I couldn’t watch a movie, because somewhere halfway through I’d lose the plot. I couldn’t even sing, because all those lyrics that used to run like water through my brain were lost, impossible to remember.  I was trapped, forced to face up to the fact that I had been burning my candle at both ends, and now there was at most a little stub left.

rose

For him, my hand in the dark

But in all that dark, there was a hand to hold on to. There was a man who repeated he loved me, who walked by my side all the way. When I had no fire, he had it for me, when I was extinguished, he burnt all the brighter, his fingers closing on mine as he assured me – yet again – that this also would pass. I can’t say I believed him. I was quite convinced I would be stuck in the wasteland my brain had become for ever.

Okay, so he was right and I was wrong. Slowly the energy returned, and there was a morning two years on when I woke in the morning without feeling tired. Yet some months and I began singing in the shower again. But I will never forget those long weeks when I lived in the dark – inside my head – when every task, no matter how simple, was an almost insurmountable challenge.

Have I changed my life? Not much. I still do too much, I still rush like a demented rabbit from one task to the other. After all, life is SHORT and there is so much left to do right? But I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be here, be me, if it hadn’t been for him. When my light guttered, I was lucky enough to have someone beside me who loved me for who I was – not for what I did. Rather fortunate, as I never loved myself much to begin with – at least not then.

In many ways, we are all little candles that burn and flutter. Now and then, one of us pants and gasps, the flame shrinking to a minute fleck of almost invisible blue. That’s when the rest of us have to burn that little bit brighter to guide them back into the light – for the sake of all of us. Like John Donne wrote:
“No man is an island,
entire of itself.
Every man is a piece of the continent,
part of the main. “
I bet you John Donne was great at holding hands with people who wallowed in the dark. And who knows, maybe he broke out into his own little rendition of  “Let it shine” – even if I do believe he would have been quite appalled by the paucity of the lyrics as such.

 

 

 

 

 

All those fading colours in the wind

Hands up those that go sort of weepy when they watch John Smith romance Pocahontas in the Disney movie named after the Indian princess. No one? Ha, not quite sure I believe you… Anyway, apart from being a beautiful movie with some great music, Pocahontas as per Disney is also a historical mess.

Did Pocahontas exist? Yes. Did John Smith exist? Absolutely. Was John Smith a brave and intrepid adventurer who more or less singlehandedly established the colony of Jamestown? Umm… well, John would probably say “yes”. John was an early believer in self-promotion, and wrote a lot of books about his adventures. To be fair, John Smith was instrumental in keeping the fledging colony alive during the first few years and was an avid explorer.

Pocahontas-saves-Smith-NE-Chromo-1870Did Pocahontas and John Smith meet? Yup. According to John, the adolescent Pocahontas threw herself over him to save him from certain death. Very brave, don’t you think? Whatever the case, John did interact with Pocahontas’ tribe, and as she was the daughter of the chief, chances are they would have met. Maybe she was curious about this man, so different from her own people. Maybe his eyes lingered a bit longer on Pocahontas than on other Indian girls, but from there to the full-blown love story described in Disney’s movie, it’s a looong stretch.

John Smith left Virginia in 1609, when Pocahontas was about fourteen, and never returned. She, on the other hand, was captured by the English in 1613 (hostilities between her people and the colonists flared up as regularly as clockwork) and was held prisoner for two years. After her captivity, she converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe, a prominent member of the Virginia colony. John Rolfe, by the way, was the man who brought the tobacco to Virginia, thereby converting the struggling colony to one of the richest places in the world.

John R in red, Pocahontas in white

John R in red, Pocahontas in white

There is no record of Pocahontas and John Rolfe running hand in hand through the woods while singing about the colours of the wind – even if I hope they did, accompanied by a raccoon or two. Rather, their marriage seems to have been an attempt to establish some sort of treaty between her people and the colonists, and for a short period it worked. Pocahontas gave John a son and then she embarked with him to England, where she sickened and died of a mysterious ailment.

This sad and premature death is something Pocahontas shared with many, many of her brothers and sisters. Upon the white man’s arrival to the North American shore, there were approximately 7 – 10 million Native Americans. A century later, the numbers had been reduced by 40-80% depending on the region, and most of this decimation was caused by the diseases the Europeans brought with them, notably measles and smallpox.

415px-Powhatan_john_smith_mapPocahontas was a Powhatan, a confederation of tribes that had their powerbase in present day Virginia. Over time, these tribes would be more or less wiped out due to a combination of epidemics and hostilities with the white settlers. Many more Indian tribes would succumb to the same deadly combination, and in my book A Newfound land, the Indians in question are Susquehannock, northern neighbours of the Powhatan.

The Susquehannock were to suffer a similar fate to that of the Powhatan. Disease and warfare – both with their fierce cousins the Iroquois and the white settlers – would leave a once flourishing nation near on extinct. In fact, today we have no idea what these Indians may have called themselves, because there is no one around who speaks their language anymore. Once a language dies, the culture that flourished with it dies as well, and so we have no idea as to what beliefs, what myths the Susquehannock held dear. It’s almost as they never existed – well, apart from the odd artefacts that are presently displayed in one or other museum.

johnsmiths_illustartionBut the Susquehannock did exist, a power to be reckoned with, masters over a large swathe of land that stretched from Delaware, through parts of Pennsylvania and into Maryland. They were one of the people visited by John Smith as he went exploring along the Chesapeake Bay, but from this encounter there are no anecdotes of pretty girls protecting John with their own bodies. Maybe there was no need for such drastic measures, as the Susquehannock were friendly towards the white men. John Smith was very impressed by the Susquehannock, claiming they went around dressed in wolf and bear pelts and were all of them big and strong, fully capable of beating the brains out of a man. Despite these ferocious qualities, for the first few decades of their co-existence both the Susquehannock and the colonists prospered – a win-win situation for both.

In the 1670’s, the constant skirmishes between the Powhatan and the Virginia colonists escalated into open warfare, and through a series of unfortunate events, the Susquehannock were dragged into the conflict. A decade later, the once so mighty Susquehannock had ceased to exist. Their wooden forts had been razed to the ground, their men had been slain, their women enslaved, and what few remnants remained had fled due north-west, seeking the protection of the Iroquois.

Some Susquehannock made it over to Pennsylvania and founded a community there, Conestoga Town. There they eeked out a living far removed from their former life, hiring themselves as labourers to adjoining farms. But in 1763, the last three dozen or so of true-blooded Susquehannock were massacred by the Paxton Boys, a militant group of white bad boys that killed whatever Native Americans they could get their hands on in retaliation for the recent French-Indian war. Less than two centuries after their first contact with the European settlers, the Susquehannock had ceased to exist.

Paxton_massacre

The Conestoga massacre

Qaachow in A Newfound Land is a Susquehannock. He shares his name with one of the victims of the 1763 massacre (one of the few lists we have of Susquehannock names), and sometimes I worry that the little boy so brutally murdered in the 18th century is a great-great-grandson of my fictive Qaachow. But my Qaachow is not a defenceless boy, he is a leader of men, a chief, a man who views the white settlers on lands that were once his with more curiosity than ill-will – at least initially.

extracropped poppies

Van Gogh poppies, in remembrance of a people that no longer is

Qaachow is my homage to a people that no longer is, to a people that extended their hands in generous welcome to the palefaces that landed on their shores – a gesture they were to bitterly regret. As Qaachow says to Alex, “We should have listened to our wary brethren of the north and pushed you back into the sea.” In retrospect, of course they should. But then, most of us don’t know today what tomorrow’s consequences of our actions will be. That’s probably a good thing, I think. Just as it is a good thing if people do extend a helping hand to those that need it. Sadly, I’m not sure the restless shades of the Susquehannock agree. The price they paid was way too high.

 

Holding on to his heart – of grief and crazy queens

Maria_EleonoraOnce upon a time, there was a very pretty little girl who grew up pampered and cosseted by her parents. Because her blood line was quite impeccable  and because she was so very, very pretty, her parents had high hopes for a good marriage for Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg, and she seemed happy enough to go along with their plans. Not all that surprising, as this was the 17th century, and Maria Eleonora was brought up to show adequate devotion to her parents and God – or maybe that should be the other way around.

Born in 1599 in Köningsberg, Maria Eleonora combined her blonde good looks with a strong Protestant faith. Due to her father’s somewhat strained finances and her mother’s very strict Lutheran approach to life, Maria Eleonora’s education was not the best, restricted to practical skills and Bible instead of including French, Latin or the like. Despite this, she and her sisters were not short on offers of marriage – the house of Brandenburg was ancient and well-connected.

One of Maria Eleonora’s suitors was the young and energetic king of Sweden, Gustav II Adolf. Now this was a young man who combined an excellent education with impressive brain power and a gigantic ambition, thereby making him one of the movers and shakers of the time. One would therefore suppose Maria Eleonora’s parents would be thrilled to bits when he showed up on their doorstep, hoping to wed their daughter, but instead Maria Eleonora’s father flatly refused. Why, might one wonder, and the answer is to be found in the political instability of the time. The house of Brandenburg was dependent on good relationships with Poland, and in Poland king Sigismund III was still sulking because his cousins had wrested the Swedish crown from him a couple of decades earlier.

Gustav II Adolf needed a dynastic marriage. Had he been allowed to choose, he would have married Ebba Brahe, a Swedish noblewoman with whom he was head over heels in love with, but Gutav II Adolf’s mother said “no way” and being a dutiful son – or a pragmatic young king – Gustav II Adolf bid his beloved Ebba farewell and set off in search of other arms. Maria Eleonora was pleasing to the eye, and Gustav II Adolf figured that if he had to marry out of duty, he could at least combine some pleasure with it, so he was rather put out when his suit was refused. Fortunately, Maria Eleonora’s father died in 1620, and Gustav II Adolf decided to visit her incognito, determined to sway Maria Eleonora’s mother into giving him her daughter’s hand.

Gustav_II_of_SwedenObviously, Gustav II Adolf could be both persuasive and charming, because some months later Maria Eleonora’s mother arranged for her daughter (and herself) to be smuggled out of Preussen and to Sweden. Maria Elonora’a brother fumed and cursed, but by then it was too late as no sooner had Maria Eleonora set foot in Sweden but she was married to the most eager bridegroom. Not that Maria Eleonora was reluctant, not at all; she was madly in love with her dashing young king. In fact, it soon became very apparent that Maria Eleonora’s passionate love for her husband bordered on mental instability. In his presence, she glowed like the sun. In his absence, she was depressed and fearful, going into hysterics if he was delayed in returning home or – God forbid – was wounded. Given that Gustav II Adolf spent most of his time away from home, and most of that time embroiled in one battle or the other, poor Maria Eleonora must have led a dark and difficult life.

To make matters worse, Maria Eleonora seemed incapable of giving her husband the lusty heir he desired. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, and in the aftermath Maria Eleonora’s behaviour bordered on the seriously deranged. Her emotional volatility, her outbursts of rage and grief, caused most of the court to stay well away from her, and even her husband found her behaviour more than trying. One year into the marriage, and everyone knew that Gustav II Adolf found little solace and happiness with his wife, being more than a little concerned about her mental health.

Maria_Eleonora_of_BrandenburgStill; the king needed an heir, and now and then Maria Eleonora reverted to being the delightful young woman Gustav II Adolf had found so attractive. More pregnancies, one resulting in a girl that lived only a year, the next in a stillborn son. The Swedish government was getting worried; should Gustav II Adolf die without an heir, that Polish dude they’d ousted back in 1599 could potentially come into his own. Pressure built – on the king, but even more on his wife. Poor Maria Eleonora must have felt seriously deficient; the one thing she was expected to do, she couldn’t deliver on. And then in early 1626, the queen became pregnant again, and the court cavorted with joy. Well, not the queen, obviously, as this time the pregnancy had to succeed, so no cavorting allowed.

Sigismund_III_Vasa

The Polish dude, Sigismund

Everyone was sure it was a boy. The king, his Lord Chancellor, the queen herself, the court astrologers, the queen’s dwarfs, her ladies-in-waiting – all of them were quite convinced that this time the queen would be delivered of the male heir the kingdom so desired. In early December 1626 the baby was born, covered in a hairy pelt that only left face and arms uncovered. A boy! A healthy (if very, very hairy) boy! Who cared about the baby’s big nose, about all that hair that covered it? A prince, Gustav II Adolf had a son! Hang on a minute… Closer inspection revealed that under all that hair the little baby was a girl. Utter silence. No one wanted to tell the king the news. Even more, no one was volunteering to tell the queen – she was too weak after her recent ordeal.

The king took it quite well, all things considered. He ordered for the country to rejoice as if the baby had been a son, and was more than happy with his healthy little daughter whom he named Christina. (Want to know more about Christina? See my post on her here) Maria Eleonora, however, had a fit, screaming that she didn’t want to see this monster, this ugly daughter with which God had seen fit to punish her. It is said the queen actually tried to injure her child, and throughout Christina’s early childhood there were a number of odd accidents: the child was dropped head first on the floor, permanently injuring her shoulder; a beam fell over the cradle; little Christina tumbled down stairs. This, dear reader, was but a mild southerly breeze compared with the emotional distress Maria Eleonora would put her daughter through some years later..

Gustavus_Adolphus_at_the_Battle_at_BreitenfeldGustav II Adolf continued his expansive, somewhat bellicose policy. In 1632, things caught up with him, and Sweden’s foremost hero king was ignominiously killed on the battlefield of Lützen. First he was shot in the back, then he was dragged along by his horse, his foot caught in the stirrup. He seems to have managed freeing himself from the horse – despite his wound – but ended up shot in the head instead. After the battle – which the Swedes won – the king was found face down in the mud, robbed of everything but his shirt.

Maria Eleonora went bonkers. She wept, she tore her clothes, she wept some more. She shrieked in despair, she was inconsolable, lamenting her cruel fate, to be robbed of the light of her life when they were still both so young. At the time of his death, Maria Eleonora had been in Germany, and so she hastened to kneel by her husband’s body, insisting it was her right as his wife to see to his body. She had him embalmed (very much against his will), selected the clothes the corpse was clad in, the fabrics for his bier. All the while she wept and moaned, embracing her dead husband as if he were still alive. Most uncomfortable for the Swedish nobles who witnessed all this – such excessive grief was frowned upon, very far from the Lutheran ideal of silent stoicism in the face of adversity.

In 1633, the embalmed king and his widow returned to Sweden and were met formally by the little queen. At seven,Christina was a precocious and active child, who considered her mother more or less a stranger. Due to all those accidents in Christina’s early life, the king had entrusted his daughter to his sister rather than the child’s mother. Now, however, Maria Eleonora greeted Christina as if she was the only thing worth living for. In Christina’s words “I embraced the queen my mother, she drowned me with her tears and nearly smothered me in her arms”. Yet again, Maria Eleonora wept and bemoaned the death of her beloved husband, yet again there were instances when she had to be forcibly removed from the king’s body, fingers gripping at his clothes. Had Gustav II Adolf been alive, he would have been shocked by the spectacle she made of herself. As it was, it was left to little Christina to handle her deranged mother. Later in life, Christina was to comment that “my mother carried out the role of mourning to perfection”.

800px-Hellqvist_-_Gustaf_IITo make matters worse, Maria Eleonora did everything she could to stop Gustav II Adolf’s burial. His heart she kept in a separate casket, and for over a year she procastinated, demanding that the king be set in a coffin big enough for two as she had no intention of allowing him to be buried without her. At night, she slept in the marital bed, now bedecked in black as was her entire room, with the casket containing her husband’s heart hanging above her. Very often, she insisted Christina sleep with her, and one can only imagine what that must have been like for such a small child, to attempt to sleep while above her head swung the golden container that held her father’s heart…

In 1634, 19 months after his death, Gustav II Adolf was at last buried – despite his widow’s protests. Marie Eleonora developed a sudden fondness for her daughter and insisted she was to have a major say in her daughter’s upbringing and future marriage. Not at all in line with Gustav II Adolf’s instructions – he had little confidence in his wife’s capabilities. The council and the queen mother were in constant conflict, poor little Christina being the object of this lethal tug-of-war. When Maria Eleonora had the bad taste to offer Christina as a bride to Christian IV of Denmark, Sweden’s archenemy, things went from bad to worse. The Council had had enough; in 1636, Christina was removed from her mother’s custody and returned to the safety of her aunt’s household.

Swedish_queen_Drottning_Kristina_portrait_by_Sébastien_Bourdon_stor

Christina

From that moment on, Christina’s relationship to her mother was destined to be rather distant. Maria Eleonora retired from Stockholm to one of her castles and submerged herself in her own shadow court, rarely finding the opportunity to visit her daughter – well, unless she needed her royal daughter to bail her out, as Maria Eleonora went through money with the speed of lightning. (A trait her daughter to some extent inherited; Christina had an eye for life’s little luxuries)

Vädersolstavlan

Stockholm back then

When Christina was fourteen, Maria Eleonora decided to leave Sweden – she never liked the place anyway; far too much forest, far too many snotty men, far too few creature comforts – and spent the following decade in Denmark and present day Germany. But she was back in Stockholm in time to attend her daughter’s splendid coronation, and adult Christina seems to have had a far more relaxed relationship to her mother than young Christina ever did. In 1655, Maria Eleonora died, and was at last reunited with her husband. I’m not quite sure our embalmed hero king welcomed her with open arms…

In fairness to Maria Eleonora, she appears to us today as depicted in her husband’s letters to his Lord Chancellor and best friend, Axel von Oxenstierna, and  the minutes of the Swedish Council’s meetings. The king was frustrated by his overly devoted and unstable wife, Axel didn’t like her, and the Council found her a meddling woman with a negative influence on her daughter. Is this a fair depiction of Maria Eleonora? Probably not. Was she an entirely stable and supporting wife & mother? Nope. In retrospect, maybe it was unfortunate that Maria Eleonora’s mother succumbed to young Gustav II Adolf’s charms and gave him her daughter’s hand in marriage. On the other hand, no Maria Eleonora, no Christina, and I sort of like Christina.

My Writing Process

I have been tagged by Elizabeth Caulfield Felt to participate in a little blog hop related to my writing process. At present, most of this process seems to occur very late at night, leaving me somewhat sleep-deprived and grumpy, but that, I suspect, is what you get when Ms Inspiration is in one of her more generous moods.

So, with no more further ado, let us leap straight into the pre-set questions.

What are you working on at present?

Well, as is insinuated above, too much is the brief answer. I have this very nagging young lady at the back of my head who is telling me to get on with it and write down her story, all the way from when the queen purposely cut her face open with a rapier to when she stole those jewels.
“Sorry, honey, I don’t have time right now,” I say.
“Why is it always me you put on the back burner?” Sofia Carolina complains. “At this rate I’m going to be DEAD before you get to me!”
Umm… no, dear Sofia Carolina, you will not. I hold your life in the palm of my hand.

I’m also putting the finishing touches to a book set in the 14th century, depicting a love story against the grim background of baronial rebellions , and then, of course, I am constantly occupied with tweaking the remaining instalments of The Graham Saga, a series set in the 17th century that spans the life of Matthew Graham and his wife Alex, two people who should never have met, not when she was born three hundred years after him.

At times, I feel borderline schizophrenic, what with all these voices in my head, but boy would my life be boring without them!

How does your work differ from other in the genre?

I’m not all that sure it does. My novels are about love – well, almost all books are about love in one way or the other – and they are set in various historical times – not exactly unusual, most historical fiction is set in the distant or not so distant past.

The Graham Saga is not, however, set in courtly circles, so despite me writing about 17th century Britain you won’t find Charles II striding across my pages. Also, there is a fantasy element in my writing, seeing as Alex is a time-traveller. Someone once asked me why I’d included the “device” of having a 20th century woman falling backwards through time. Device? I had no idea what he was on about. Alex is a modern woman. She just had the misfortune – or not, depending on how you see it – of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and so…
Of course, Alex springs from my own deep-seated desire to time-travel, and I must say I’m getting somewhat desperate by now. Why has no-one invented the time machine yet? Time is running out for me people, because to travel back in time a glowing twenty-something is far more appealing than to do it as a plus fifty – geriatric care was not all that well-developed back then (Not so sure if it’s all that well-developed now either, come to think of it)

If I’m going to be somewhat more serious, I think all authors bring something different to their chosen genre, namely their writing style. I have a friend (D.W.Wilkin, whom I’ve tagged) who writes regency, and what he does to stamp his work with his distinctive characteristic is to write prose that to some extent reflects the time he writes about. I think it works well for him, but in my writing I have a somewhat different approach – my prose reflects me more than it does the time I write about. However, this does not mean I go all anachronistic – not a fan of anachronisms, unless they are done very much on purpose and with panache.

Why do you write what you do?

Okay, so I’m a sucker for a good love story. I am also a history nut. Have been since I was like five or so – I think that was when I first saw Errol Flynn as Robin Hood. (They don’t make them like Errol anymore, do they? What that man did for tights and short jerkins can never be over-estimated) Originally, this history interest was very much tied to my various attempts to time travel. They didn’t work very well, but one ritual involved too many candles at too close a range, so I exited my closet with my previously rather long fringe reduced to a stinking fuzz. My mother went a bit wild and crazy, let me tell you, and I was no longer allowed to light candles in my wardrobe. Once I got over the disappointment of realising I would never be Richard Lionheart’s page, I settled down to really read about history – both non-fiction and fiction.

Somewhere in my teens I discovered the addictive pleasure of writing – and what better way to combine my two passions (plus my somewhat bleeding heart) than to write historical fiction with a romantic touch?

How does your writing process work?

I think it’s all my reading that sets my brain off. I remember reading about the persecution of the Covenanters in Scotland, and I was thinking this is something we don’t read much about – fictional accounts of Scotland are to a large extent Highland geared, and very often 18th century or 14th century – for very obvious reasons (namely men in kilts, Culloden and Bannockburn). This was the tipping point for what was to expand into The Graham Saga, even if the Covenanter theme doesn’t really pop up until in book three of the series.
So, my research triggers my inspiration, and then that little idea will lie and germinate for some time until one day up pops a character and says “Hi, I’m XX, and I’m here to do the Covenanter stuff”. Chances are, by then the Covenanter stuff isn’t exactly at the top of my brain, but character XX is generally helpful, causing my synapses to go into overdrive, so now I have a potential historical background and a character.

In this particular case, the character was Matthew Graham, and he rattled around in my brain for some time until he (quite spontaneously) joined up with Alex Lind, who was a young woman I’d been chatting off and on with, what with her predilection for ending up in dangerous situations over and over again. Alex saw Matthew, he saw her, and wham! I had a time-transcending love story on my hands.
“Hang on!” I said. “You’re not in the same time-frame.”
“Well you’re the author,” Alex pointed out. “Surely you can fix the logistics.”
“The logistics?” I had to clear my throat. “You’re born like three centuries after him!”
“Fix it!” Matthew said. “Fix it, or we will both fade away.”
Sheesh! Overbearing, aren’t they? (OUCH! Don’t pinch me)

Characters, historical setting – then we’re into plot. I do not do detailed plotlines beforehand. I do, however, have a pretty clear idea of where I’m going, and when I’m working with a first draft there’s a large amount of text in CAPS which is my abbreviated storyline – I add to it as I go along. Often what happens is that I reach the end of the book and there’s plenty of stuff in CAPS left over – ideal for the next book. (I like series; I invest a lot of myself in my characters, and so I like having them around for some time)

Once my first draft is done, I set it aside. This is very, very difficult for me. It’s like giving a chocoholic one kilo of chocolate and telling them to place it on the kitchen table and not taste any. I suffer. I count days. I try to distract myself by writing something in the next book. I suffer some more. And then comes the day when I’m allowed to open the draft and start the re-writing process.
I re-write a lot. I love re-writes. I’d say I do on average fifteen to twenty re-writes – not on everything, but on relevant chunks of the book. This takes me ages and I love every single minute of it. It’s like being a sculptor; the first draft gives you the basic shape, and now you’re into refining the lump of rock into visible features. In difference to a sculptor, I can mess up quite badly and still salvage my work (I keep copies of all my re-write drafts, all of them labelled with dates)

Once I’m satisfied, off things go to the editor. And after the editor come the edits. After the edits, comes the publication process. And once it’s published, I go all weepy. But that’s me – somewhat too dependent on my fictional characters.

So there you are; my writing process defined. I think it is important to add that writing is a labour of love, it is about passion and commitment, about always wanting to refine and hone. It is about wanting to transport yourself and others elsewhere, about needing to capture all those vivid daydreams that colour my days in the written word. It is about making a leap of faith, in that I pour very much of myself into my work. To paraphrase a very famous Swedish writer, August Strindberg, writing is about displaying your heart to the world and hope they won’t tear it to shreds.

Onwards and upwards

Well, that was all for today about me, people. Let us instead move forward to the people I have tagged:

David.W.Wilkin is a man of many skills and interests. Not only is he a prolific writer, very much focused on his beloved Regency era, but he is also a skilled dancer, more than capable of taking over in all those dance sequences that seem to abound in Regency novels. Most of David’s books will feature a him and a her – a classical Romance concept – but what I really like about David’s writing is how skillfully he inserts his historical acumen into his books. Never heavy-handed, not an info-dump in sight, but still he conveys with precision all those details that make you believe you’re actually there, in the early 19th century. It is rather curious that this history fanatic also happens to be something of a computer whizz – or maybe that just goes to prove (yet again) that most of us are a complex bundle of contradictions. Join David on March 24th on his blog The Things That Catch My Eye and let him take you through his writing process!

Irina Shapiro is a lady you don’t want to mess with, people. This lady is an excellent shot, but so far I have never met her waving a shotgun about, so I suppose she confines this skill to the firing range. Just like me, Irina has a fondness for time travelling – just like me, she is compensating for the fact it can’t as yet be done for real by including a time traveller element in much of her writing. Just like David, Irina has written a LOT of books, spanning a number of eras. All her books somehow interlink the past with the present, through various devices such as time travelling, reincarnation or very vivid dreams. Thanks to her background, Irina has also promised me to supply whatever Russian dialogue I may need in my future books – I am therefore busily trying to work a dashing, Russian count into one of my WIPs. Irina shares her writing secrets with you here.

Linda Banche also has a long list of books to her name, all of them set in the Regency era. She also has a thing about birds, and as I found it rather odd to admit to a passion for ducks, I just had to buy one of her books featuring TWELVE ducks, after which I was quite hooked on her light-hearted and amusing writing style. One laughs a lot when reading Linda – and by now I am seriously considering a pet mallard or two. Linda takes her craft seriously and her romances are a fun blend of love and historical detail, now and then spiced up by the odd fantasy element or a cranky bird. Please visit with Linda on her blog on March 24th and let her tell you some more about how she writes.

From delusions of greatness to insanity – the sad story of James Hepburn

(c) Scottish Borders Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThere are some fates that remain forever ingrained in your mind, impossible to forget. One such fate is that of the glamorous Earl of Bothwell, Scottish nobleman, husband to the flamboyant Mary Queen of Scots. It seems to me James Hepburn was larger than life from the moment he entered it, and to have all that vibrant energy , all that swaggering maleness reduced to an insane wreck chained to a post feels wrong, somehow.

I’m not saying James Hepburn didn’t have something coming his way – of course he did. Men can’t go about the world, ordering it to fit their purposes, without there being a price to pay. Hang on a minute; quite a few men do, don’t they? And quite a few of those power brokers never end up caged like a beast. But James Hepburn did, and all because his youthful indiscretions finally caught up with him. A woman scorned is indeed a fearful thing, and a Scandinavian woman scorned is something most men prefer never to become acquainted with.

James Hepburn was born in 1534 to Patrick Hepburn and Agnes Sinclair. James’ father deserves a post all of his own what with his exciting life, including such ingredients as switching allegiances between England and Scotland about as often as modern men change their underwear. He was also somewhat of a weather-cock when it came to his marital arrangements, and therefore divorced James’ mother because he wanted to marry well above his own position. (A failed venture)All in all, one can but conclude that Patrick Hepburn, for all that he was known as the “Fair Earl” was not much of a role model.

Early on, James displayed an adventurous streak, something that came in handy when he inherited not only his father’s titles and lands but also his office as Lord High Admiral of Scotland in 1556. James took to the seas, and in 1559 he arrived in Copenhagen, where he met Anna Tronds, a Norwegian noblewoman. Not that he knew it at the time, but the events that followed would ultimately lead to the horrors of his last years.

James handfasted with Anna – a ceremony that carried as much weight as a regular marriage in Denmark, evidenced by the fact that Anna’s family had no objection. But initial infatuation quickly wore off – at least for James – and poor Anna was returned to her family while James set off to navigate the turbulent political waters of Scotland, with the regent Marie de Guise on one side and the Protestant Lords –and the formidable John Knox – on the other. It is interesting to note that James remained loyal to the regent until she was deposed by the Scottish nobility, despite the substantial private loss this caused him.

By now, James had met Mary, Queen of France and Scotland, on a couple of occasions. Upon Mary’s royal husband’s death she returned to Scotland there to become reigning Queen. And in his role as High Admiral, James had a hand in the travelling arrangements. Whether it was love at first sight between those two we will never know. Was it love at all? Some say no, insisting that the Earl forced the Queen into their future marriage – as yet some years in the future. I am prone to believe there was something there; Mary seems to have liked and trusted James, and she was, by all accounts, quite the femme fatale when she wanted to be.(That’ what you get when you raise an attractive young woman in France – especially at the court of Henri II, complete with the king’s magnificent mistress, Diane de Poitiers. But I digress…)

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Mary Stuart

There followed a number of tempestuous years. The young Queen had problems ruling this country of hers, a country of which she knew little having spent most of her life in France. While the Queen remained Catholic, her country did not, and in Scotland the reformation was in full bloom, with John Knox as its foremost – and vociferous – representative. Mary was also required to fulfil her duty and present her realm with an heir, which was why she focused considerable attention on the election of a new husband. While the list of potential bridegrooms varied it does not seem to have included James. Instead, for whatever totally insane reasons, Mary decided to marry Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley.

Now, there is a lot that one can say about lord Darnley, very little of it complementary. (This was the man, after all, who had his wife’s secretary murdered before her eyes) To summarise, the man was a drunken, lecherous sort, already infected with syphilis and – at least in my opinion – with the intellectual agility of a toad. But he was handsome – and tall, which was important to Mary, who in general over-topped most of the women and men that surrounded her.

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Darnley

Anyway, the royal marriage quickly deteriorated from honeymoon joy to daily discord, and I dare say the queen regretted her choice of husband, eyes drawn to the dashing, dangerous and decidedly intelligent James Hepburn. In the summer of 1566, James was seriously wounded during an altercation with a John Elliot. It is said that upon hearing this, the queen galloped madly across the country to be at James’ side, but this is not substantiated. In the absence of a mad ride to be at her wounded man’s side, there is therefore no conclusive proof Mary and James were lovers at the time. Hmm. Is a hell for leather ride absolute proof of an amourous relationship? I think not. However, being an incorrigible romantic, I hope Mary and James were having an affair already in 1566 – if nothing else because their time together would be so short, and the aftermath so very long and trying.

In 1567 Lord Darnley was murdered. Someone had placed kegs of gunpowder under his room and blown Darnley sky-high, but this does not seem to have been the cause of death – rather it was said he’d been strangled. Whatever the case, he was dead and three months later, in May of 1567, the Queen married James Hepburn – the man most people suspected of murdering Darnley – this after an alleged abduction and rape. (Seeing as Mary miscarried twins in July, it’s a safe bet to assume she was already pregnant when this little episode played out.)

The newly-weds time together was to be very short. The queen’s marriage to one of the suspects in her husband’s death tore the kingdom asunder, and after a month of marital bliss (well, assuming there is some bliss to be found when the country takes up arms against you) the loving couple separated on the battlefield. One last embrace, one long lingering kiss and James Hepburn took off, promising his wife and queen that he’d be back soon – with reinforcements.

He never came back. James was, one could say, detained. An alternative description would be to say his history caught up with him. It began with a storm that blew his ships off course. James’ intended destination was Denmark, but instead he ended up in Bergen, and who might be sitting in Bergen, still nursing a broken heart? Anna Tronds, of course, and in Bergen she had the upper hand, being related to the powers that were. James was thrown in prison while Anna’s case was heard, but after some wheeling and dealing he got himself out of that mess.

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Fredrik II of Denmark

Just as he was about to be released from imprisonment in Bergen, the Danish king, Fredrik II ordered him to be taken prisoner – again. James must have protested, he must have yelled and demanded his rights, but to no avail. Fredrik wanted to make an impression on Elizabeth of England, and what better gift could he offer than the potential murderer of Elizabeth’s cousin, Lord Darnley?

In the event, Elizabeth showed no interest. But Fredrik held out hope – or maybe he took a dislike to his prisoner and decided to hold on to him, indefinitely. James Hepburn spent five long years in confinement in Malmö, years spent trying to get someone to take an interest in his plight and help him regain his freedom. His wife was not in a position to aid him – she was imprisoned in England.
The last five years of his life, James Hepburn spent in horrible conditions in Dragsholms Castle in Denmark. It is said James lost his mind in there, shackled like an animal in a miniscule cell. It is also said his soul prowls the castle to this day, as restless in death as he seems to have been in life.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Supposedly a depiction of the Earl’s mummified head

James Hepburn was 44 when he died. It seems to me he paid a very high price for what little joy he found in his life. Was he a self-seeking cad who left jilted women along the way while he set off in pursuit of the next? Maybe. But he was also a loyal subject to the regent and his queen,he was brave and determined, and seems to have cared for his royal wife.

Mary Stuart was also 44 when she died, executed for her purported participation in the Babington plot. By then, she had spent almost half her life as Elizabeth’s prisoner, the last nine of them as a widow who would weep upon hearing her husband’s name.

Leucojum vernumTwo larger than life personalities, two tragic ends. Did James, in a rare moment of lucidity, cry out for her as he died? Did she think of him as she placed her head on the block? We don’t know. We never will.

As a rather sad codicil to all this, the Earl was to suffer the further humiliation of having his bodily remains put on show in a remote little church in Denmark. Of course, at the time, James was well beyond caring.

From ballroom dancer to Tyrannosaurus Rex

I suppose no one has missed the recent Winter Olympics. One of my dear US colleagues made it his duty in life to send out daily bulletins as to the medal count – very much in favour of the US, let me tell you. Not that it much bothered me, as personally, I only watch two events: cross-country skiing and figure skating. My family finds my interest in these sports hilarious. Had I been obliged to traverse as much as 5 kilometres on skis, I would probably have collapsed – or slid backwards. And as to figure skating… I go all star-eyed when I see the ice-dancers, and now and then I’ll stand and ape along, which is when my husband rather sweetly tells me that I might – just might – be able to keep my balance on ice if I were on double-bladed skates. Well hello; it’s not my fault I grew up in tropical climates with not an ice rink in sight, is it?

Back to the ice-dancers. Skip the skates, and I’d be able to give them a run for their money. Err… yes, yes, I hear you chuckle. It’s called ice-dancing for a reason. My point is rather that what I don’t have in skating techniques, I have in dance moves – and in passion & enthusiasm.

wedding_danceDancing must be one of the older of human social entertainment. Picture that cave clan, forty thousand years ago, celebrating the spring equinox. A large bonfire throws shadows and flickers of light to adorn the rugged walls, the shaman is beating his drum and shuffling his feet, and all around him, the tribesmen and tribeswomen are dancing along, moving in time to the beat. The dance is a ritual, an attempt to appease the gods into providing more game, more fresh roots, days of sun and warmth. But I can bet you that the younger members of the tribe are using the opportunity to flaunt themselves. Young girls in skins shake their booties with as much abandon and skill as their modern day sisters, young men prance and strut, displaying abs (much easier if you’re only wearing a pelt) and well-toned biceps.

imagesCAMD69BLAs we hopscotch through history, dance retains its importance as a ritual and a mating game. Sometimes things start out in an organised ritualistic way and degenerate into wild fests, nights of panting mayhem as people dance and dance and dance. No set steps, no pre-arranged routines, just an immersion in the pleasure of movement, in the heat that courses through your limbs when you grind your arse against someone else’s groin. Other times, the dancing takes place under the hawk-eyes of chaperones and courtiers, and so people twirl and bow, they skip and leap without missing a beat. But even then, now and then a hand clasps another hand with too much fervour, a finger is drawn across the sensitive skin of an inner wrist, making young women blush and quiver, men smile and hope.

Some societies viewed this dance thing with disfavour. The Puritans, for example, found such behaviour quite unacceptable, and dancing, singing, carousing in general was forbidden under the Commonwealth. Did that mean people in 17th century England stopped singing, dancing and carousing? Of course not; they just became far more careful as to where and when and with who. Dancing is too much fun to give up entirely – something I think even a number of very devout Puritans would agree with (in private, of course).

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir,_Le_Moulin_de_la_GaletteStill, there were dances and there were dances. Waltzing was considered most inappropiate in Regency times, allowing for far too much body contact between him and her. Sort of amusing, I find, given that a waltz is … sigh… so utterly, wonderfully romantic (unless the bloke keeps on treading on your feet). The tango was long viewed as borderline solicitation. A good tango is hot – and steamy. Passion leaks out of the ears of the dance partners, eyes throw darts, legs do battle. Not at all romantic, too much sizzle, too much potential future heart-ache. And then, dear people, came rock ‘n roll, and all the worried mamas in the world threw their hands up in the air and bemoaned this utterly hedonistic dance. What would it do to their young daughters, and where would all this depravity end? They had clearly not heard of disco, had they?

Jane_Avril_by_Toulouse-LautrecAs a student, I partied. And danced. While totally in love with my future husband, he did have the drawback of two left feet, so I would now and then partner up with Mr Ballroom Dancer, and we’d rumba and samba and generally wipe the dance floor. At times, all this dancing caused far too many tingles down my back, too many blushes and simpers, which was when Mr Future Husband would come stalking across the floor and rather curtly tell Mr Ballroom Dancer to move on, as he would be doing whatever dancing remained to do. Generally slow dances, very slow dances where it doesn’t matter one whit if you’ve got two left feet, because it’s all about being held very close, about hands in the small of your back, lips that whisper things in your ear. Aaaahhh… those were the days.

I still dance a lot. Most of it is in private, with me bounding about the apartment to the inspiring sounds of “It’s raining men” or “September” or… Now and then, I waltz and foxtrot, a kitchen towel my acquiescing partner.  I do moves, people. I put on Saturday Night Fever and imitate John Travolta, go all weepy at “How deep is your love” and (it is a tad boring to do slow dances with a kitchen towel) decide to do some Puttin’ on the Ritz instead.

I actually dance quite a lot at work as well. (I see an eye-brow or two rising in mild surprise) Well I do. When in need of a good think, I’ll close my door, put on some music and dance. Works every time. Now and then, I dance for the people at work. Short snatches, no more – I don’t want to shock them permanently with my dancing skills – mostly at their door. It makes most of them grin. Some regard me as an outer space alien. One of the benefits of being the CFO is that I don’t need to worry about the space alien tag – guess who controls the purse strings, huh?

Degas_-_The_Ballet_Class_-_Google_Art_ProjectMy kids have always seen me dance – and joined in. We’ve gone wild and crazy in the kitchen doing our own routine of Shall we Dance from The King and I, we’ve danced in the sitting-room, in the hallway. Pointer Sisters, Spice Girls. Mark Anthony, Shakira – we’ve shaken hips, people. Which is why it came as something of a shock when the youngest of our children one day came strutting in with his arms held rather stiffly, forearms at right-angles with his upper arms, hands dangling at waist level.
“Look, Mamma,” he said, “I’m doing your dance, see?”
“My dance? I don’t dance like that!” Definitely not. I move my arms, I don’t transport them across the floor as appendages.
“Yes you do,” traitorous eldest son put in. “You look just like a Tyrannosaurus Rex when you dance.” He joined his brother on the kitchen floor, moving along to something playing on the radio. Hips moved, feet moved, arms dangled.
“I do not!” (I must admit to squeaking. But I was terribly, terribly hurt)
Second son gave me a hug. “Yes you do. But never mind, we love you anyway.”
Huh! At that precise moment, I didn’t love any of them. At all.

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NOT me!

Despite this horrible calumny, I still dance. And I DO NOT resemble a Tyrannosaurus Rex. No way! To paraphrase one of my favourite songs “I flit, I float, I fleetly flee, I fly”. No stomping about with dangling arms, not me. Now why do I hear all four of my kids laughing? Best be careful, sweeties, or mama may just decide to cut back on prezzies for the foreseeable future. Remember who controls the purse strings, okay?

Gloria al bravo pueblo

Bolívar_2 Ha! I can see you reading the title, a small crease between your brows. Spanish? Now what is she on about? Those among you who hail from Venezuela, will of course recognise the line as being from the National Anthem, glorifying the people and its leader who broke the yoke of colonialism, back in the early 19th century.

The leader at the time was Simón Bolívar, wealthy scion of one of the pure-blood criollo families in Venezuela. A criollo is a person who has undiluted Spanish – or at least European – blood in his/her veins. And for all that he led a revolution, Bolívar was no democrat in the modern sense – he wasn’t out to empower everyone to vote, after all women and other such weak-minded creatures were best kept at a fair distance from any influence on government. Don’t get me wrong; Bolívar liked – loved – women, but preferably in a horizontal position and definitely nowhere close to the offices of power. In particular, Bolívar loved Manuela Saenz – quite ironic as this particular lady was a most active participant in the revolution against Spain. Not that it helped; in Venezuela, women won the right to vote as late as 1946…

As we speak, the people of Venezuela have yet again risen against oppression. Ironically, the vociferous students, the opposition lead by Henrique Capriles, are protesting against “La Revolución Bolivariana”, which is how Hugo Chavez chose to label his democratic dictatorship, built on a flagrant populism liberally dosed with home-made socialism and quite the pinch of personal idolatry. Hugo Chavez had no problem with women voting – as long as they voted for him. He encouraged the disenfranchised to speak up for themselves (must be applauded), he spoke of education for everyone (yet again; applause) and along the way he strong-armed the Venezuelan constitution into extending the number of terms he could serve as president (bad, bad behaviour), he used his presidential powers to gag the opposition (tsk, tsk) and he eliminated all potential threats to his own power, thereby creating a following of sycophants with few original ideas of their own, and even fewer convictions.

So of course, when Chavez died, Venezuela was left in the hands of a less than competent government – that still went on talking about “La Revolución Bolivariana“. Let me tell you, dear old Simón must be spinning like a top in his grave at hearing his name so misused… There; done with the very abbreviated version of the background to the present situation in Venezuela. Let us instead return to that glorious leader, El Libertador, Simón Bolivar.

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Caracas in the early 19th century

Simón Bolívar was a patrician, a well-educated rich young man who fell under the influence of the liberal ideas that flourished in the late 18th – early 19th century. Inspired by what had been done in the U.S., more and more of the South American criollos began thinking about breaking away from Spain, at the time a rather sick empire.

The Bolívar family was filthy rich. Seriously, seriously rich, with sugar plantations and gold mines, and more plantations, even more mines. The family empire depended on slave labour – as did most colonial enterprises at the time. The family could also count itself among Venezuela’s ancient families, having been in situ since the 16th century.

Little Simón, burdened with the full name of Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios Ponte y Blanco, was born in 1783, in Caracas. Quite a mouthful, those names; when I was/am very angry with my children, I call them by all their names. If Simón’s poor mother had tried the same, she’d have sprained her tongue – sadly, this was not going to be an issue for long, as she died when Simón was nine, thereby leaving the little boy an orphan. Simón’s father had died six years earlier.

Growing up, Simón only had one constant in his life, the slave Hipolita. After the death of his mother, a series of tutors were engaged to ensure he was properly schooled. One of these tutors, Simón Rodríquez, was to have a profound impact on his pupil, inculcating a fervent desire for freedom, for independence from under the Spanish yoke, in his young adept. So vociferous a proponent of revolution was Rodríguez that he was forced to flee Venezuela in 1797, and our adolescent hero was therefore enrolled in a military academy – probably in the vain hope of steering the misguided young man away from ideas of subversion and revolution. Didn’t work. But the years at the military academy gave Bolívar a strong grounding in military strategy, which was to come in useful in his later life.

Bolívar,_1800It wasn’t only the rich English aristocrats who did the Grand Tour back then. As a matter of course, Simón was dispatched to Europe somewhere in his late teens, and spent a number of heady years travelling the European continent. This was at the peak of  Napoleon’s career, and a wide-eyed Bolívar watched Napoleon’s coronation as emperor in Notredame. Did he dream of similar glories for himself? Probably.

In 1810, Venezuela took advantage of the political upheaval in Spain (Napoleon again. That man knew how to stir things up) and declared itself an independent country. Bolívar was sent off to England to request aid against an aggravated Spain – and to entice Francisco de Miranda to return to Venezuela as its first President. Not a very successful republic, this first attempt, and by 1813 Miranda was out of the picture, rather callously betrayed by Bolívar. Oops: I see some of my readers frown, not liking my depiction of their hero. Tough. Bolívar was a man who set himself goals and set out to achieve them. Such men always leave casualties along the way.

With Miranda in the hands of the Spanish, the Venezuelan republic teetered on the brink of extinction. Well, if we’re going to be correct, the republic was as dead as a door-nail, with Spain in control of all major cities and ports. And yet the fight went on. On the Spanish side, leaders such as Boves terrorised the opposition by murders, rape and pillage. So effective was this terror that in 1813 Bolívar  felt obliged to issued his decree of “War to Death”. Not at all a nice document, as it allowed for anyone of Spanish birth to be summarily killed unless he could prove he was collaborating with the rebels. Nice; now BOTH sides were using indiscriminate violence to intimidate the civilian population. But then, as Abimael Guzmán, leader of Sendero Luminoso, once said “A revoultion requires rivers of blood”. Or not, depending on your inclination… (Sendero Luminos was a marxist guerilla group that wreaked havoc in Perú during the 1980′s)

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Bolívar in the foreground

It would take until 1821 for Bolívar to rid his native land of its colonial oppressors. He won, he lost, he fled, he returned, he won again, and again. At the Battle of Boyacá, present day Colombia was liberated. At the battles of Carabobo and Pichincha, Ecuador and Venezuela were similarily liberated, and a new republic, Gran Colombia was formed, comprising all these states (Which is why, even today, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela have the same tricolor flags).

Bolívar was hailed, glory was heaped upon him, and he was accorded the title El Libertador (the liberator). He also became president of Gran Colombia, was active in supporting the freedom fighters further south on the continent, drafted the constitution of the country named after him, and in general was quite the busy bee. But, as we all know, popular opinion is a fickle thing, and the once so adored liberator was suddenly a much less admired president, accused of being far too power-hungry.

Manuela_Sáens_Thorne

Manuela- intrepid mistress

Gran Colombia was an unstable construction. So unstable, in fact, that Bolívar saw no option but to make himself dictator. Not a popular move, and had it not been for fair Manuela Saenz, who saved her lover in the nick of time, Bolívar would probably have been assassinated. As it was, he became disenchanted with all these ungrateful louts who demanded influence and power now, but who had not as much as lifted a finger to help during the revolutionary wars. In 1830 he resigned and prepared to leave for Europe. He was sick of strife, of “ploughing the seas” as he bitterly described his revolutionary efforts. Maybe he was hoping for some years of intellectual pursuits in civilised company, far from the heaving cauldron of passion and conflict that was his native land. If so,  he was to be disappointed. In December of 1830, Bolívar died of tuberculosis in Santa Marta, a rather nondescript village in northern Colombia.

Years later, his bodily remains were moved to Caracas. Centuries later, the remains of Manuela Saenz were interred beside his, a belated recognition to all those women who risked their lives together with their men in the revolutionary wars.

To end where I began, I believe Bolívar would, had he been alive today, been very upset at having his name linked with Hugo Chavez’ “revolution”. Neither President Maduro nor Hugo Chavez would have met with his approval, being far too uneducated, too unsophisticated for a man of Bolívar’s intellect (Yes, he was a snob – or a product of his age). And as to present day Venezuela, well, I think Bolívar might have sighed, wondering why on earth he bothered.

Gloria al bravo pueblo que el yugo lanzó, la ley respetando, la virtud y el honor.
May Venezuela, this country of so much beauty, so many natural riches, one day realise all its potential. May the people of Venezuela one day have the leaders they deserve and need, leaders who step away from opportunistic populism and settle down to create a country that lives up to that first line in the National Anthem, a country that respects law, virtue and honor. One can always hope.

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