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The curious case of Karolina – a real Sleeping Beauty

Karolina 800px-DornröschenOnce upon a time there was a curious little girl who cut her finger on a spindle and fell into a deep, deep sleep—until prince Charming rode by and kissed her back to life again. A fairy tale we’re all familiar with, right?

How about Once upon a time there was a little girl who was skipping across the frozen lake when she slipped and fell, banging her head on the ice. Some time later, she went to bed and fell into a deep, deep sleep lasting several decades. Haven’t heard that one? Well, first of all it isn’t a fairy tale—as demonstrated by the total lack of a Prince Charming—secondly, the ice thing is only one version of what might have happened that day back in 1876 when Karolina Olsson returned home complaining of a ferocious headache.

Allow me to take you back to the late nineteenth century and the little island of Oknö, situated just off Sweden’s eastern coast in the Baltic Sea. The Olsson family were simple folk, deeply religious but also prone to believing in witches and spells, in things that go bump in the night. Come to think of it, at the time they weren’t alone in doing so – education was still rudimentary for most Swedes and where there’s no education there is superstition. The family consisted of eight people—Karolina had five brothers and was the second eldest.

As the only girl, Karolina was kept at home to help her mother with the household. When her brothers went to school, she learnt to read and write in between doing the laundry and cleaning and cooking and mending that was required for such a large family. But somewhere in 1875 Karolina was finally enrolled in the nearby school—probably so as to comply with the requirement that Karolina learn her catechism, a must in the very Lutheran (and rather intolerant) Sweden of the time.

On a February day of 1876, fourteen-year-old Karolina slipped on the ice—or so she said. She was alone at the time, but came home sporting bruises and an injured head. Some days later, the headache was augmented with a splitting toothache. Mama Olsson decided this was all the work of witches and sent her daughter to bed. Karolina was not to rise from it until 1908…

At the time, the story was that Karolina slept. Her mother washed her and cared for her, ensured she drank at least two glasses of milk a day, but other than that, Karolina just slept and slept. She was a local phenomenon, a real-life Sleeping Beauty, lying so well-tended in her bed while year after year slipped away.

These days, such behaviour would have led to some sort of intervention. After all, it isn’t normal for a young woman to lie in bed while life passes her by. At the time, the local doctors came and visited and in 1892 they diagnosed Karolina with a severe case of hysteria so the poor girl was transported to a nearby hospital where she was treated with electrical shock treatment.  This had no effect whatsoever, neither did all the pricking tests with a sharp needle, where the hospital staff hoped to at least elicit a reaction to pain. Nada. Karolina was returned home to her bed and her loving mother, having been incorrectly diagnosed with dementia paralytica which is a late stage symptom of syphilis.  Other doctors came and went, but in general no one could explain her comatose condition.

karolina Henry_Meynell_Rheam_-_Sleeping_Beauty

During all this time, Karolina never spoke—at least not when accompanied by anyone but her mother. Yes, at times she would moan and toss in her sleep, sometimes she whimpered and wept, but there were no words, no communication. According to her brothers, they had no recollection of her doing anything but sleeping, impervious to all the life that surrounded her in the one-room cottage the Olssson family called home. She slept, safe in her own little world of dreams.

Now, there are a lot of strange aspects to all this—beyond the basic problem of believing a human being can hibernate for thirty-odd years. First of all, two glasses of milk is not enough sustenance to keep a growing teenager or an adult woman alive. Secondly, wouldn’t her muscles totally have atrophied had she lain in bed all that time? According to descriptions, other than her being fast asleep, Karolina was in remarkably good shape when she was examined at the hospital in 1892. Assuming she wasn’t hibernating, maybe the real reason for all this pretence was that Karolina Olsson was hiding from the world at large, and that her mother helped her do so. We will come back to this a bit later…

In 1905, Mama Olsson passed. In her sleep, Karolina wept copiously. Her aging father took over the care of her, but he was too old to cope and so a housekeeper was installed to watch over our sleeping beauty. The housekeeper found some things that surprised her, such as the fact that Karolina’s hair was always clean and her nails and hands always well-tended. The housekeeper also claimed that whenever she brought candy with her to the cottage, pieces would go missing when she stepped outside for a moment. But despite the housekeeper’s suspicions, despite the family’s efforts to wake her, Karolina still seemed to spend her days in a deep sleep.

For obvious reasons the housekeeper was not quite as devoted to Karolina as her mother had been. The TLC which Mama Olsson had expended on Karolina was a thing of the past. Where Mama Olsson had made it something of an artform to keep Karolina looking her best, a true sleeping beauty, her new caretakers did what had to be done, no more. I imagine that after thirty years of watching her sleep, the novelty had sort of worn off, making Karolina more of an imposition than a loved family member.

Karolina_OlssonIn 1908, Karolina woke up.  Early in April that year, the housekeeper heard strange sounds from her room and rushed up the stairs to find her staggering about, crying. Karolina was forty-six years old and had no memories whatsoever of her last thirty-two years. She didn’t recognise her brothers, she was totally bamboozled by the Bright New World to which she’d woken.

Obviously, all sorts descended upon her to test her. She was remarkably unaffected by all those years of inertia, albeit that she had lost an awful amount of weight the last few years of her hibernation (which sort of corroborates the theories that when they were alone, Mama Olsson and Karolina ate and talked like normal people, only for Karolina to scurry back to bed at the sound of approaching people) As days became weeks she regained her strength and her speech, even if she was a hesitant speaker. Tests showed her to be above average intelligent and she could still read and write, even if she had no knowledge of such basics as geography.

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Karolina, the local attraction adorning a post card

The press had a field day, enchanted by this innocent woman who rather liked all the attention. One of the more famous Swedish psychiatrists of the day, Harald Fröderström, visited her in 1910 and spent a lot of time trying to understand what had really happened to her. He was quite charmed by this woman who behaved as much, much younger than her actual age and who shyly flirted with him whenever they met. Fröderström quickly ruled out total hibernation, saying it would have been impossible for her to sleep through such a long period of time without starving to death. Instead, he thought Karolina had suffered some sort of psychosis, brought on by a harrowing event. Her loving mother permanented the situation by supporting her daughter in her need to escape the world. Maybe the mother enjoyed the attention too.

The big question then is what really happened to Karolina that long-gone day in 1876 when she came home bruised and injured? Well, obviously that is something we’ll never know, but many believe she was the victim of severe abuse, maybe by many perpetrators. So traumatic was this event that it destroyed her mental equilibrium and caused her to pull the blankets over her head to shut out all the bad stuff in the world.

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One of Mr Vallien’s heads

One person who does believe Karolina experienced a truly terrifying experience is the Swedish glass artist Bertil Vallien. Mr Vallien uses a sand casting technique to create his work, and initially he did mostly amorphous shapes and colours. Someone asked him why he didn’t cast faces or humans, but Mr Vallien wasn’t interested. Until he heard the story about Karolina from Oknö. For some reason, this story hooked him, and at his next exposition he revealed a set of human faces. Male, harsh faces, cold and unemotional. The faces of the perpetrators, Mr Vallien explained, the faces of the monsters within. These days, these aloof representations of human faces have become emblematic for his work—and he no longer perceives all of them as potential perpetrators, which is a major relief.

Whatever dark events triggered Karolina’s retreat from the world in 1876, once she woke up she embraced life to the full, living another forty-two years before dying in 1950.  people who met her described her as a hard worker who seemed content with her life. An odd life, in many ways a stunted life, permanently distorted by those unknown events in her distant youth.

The good reasons behind strict courtship rules

MG 2014 posterToday, I turn my blog over to Maria Grace. She has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, but those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate in Educational Psychology. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

She has one husband, two graduate degrees and two black belts (which I find most impressive!), three sons, four undergraduate majors, five nieces, six new novels in the works, attended seven period balls, sewn eight Regency era costumes, shared her life with nine cats through the years and published her tenth book last year. Phew: just reading that makes me exhausted, even if I keep even pace both on the sons and books front. No nieces, though…Anyway: without further ado I turn you over into Maria’s capable hands – did I mention she’s something of an expert on the Regency era?


I’m so excited to be visiting with Anna today. I love her blog and all the wonderful stories she tells. Often, she writes about the consequences and intrigues associated with arranged marriage.
I can’t say I long for a return to those days myself, but it is really interesting to look at what a tizzy parents went into when society moved away from the practice.

MG pnp-man-courting-woman Felix Friedrich von EndeUntil around 1780, arranged marriages were de rigueur. It made sense – more or less – considering that marriage was a business and often political arrangement. But then the Enlightenment happened and philosophers made a mess of things that were working perfectly well – more or less.

The pesky notions of reason and individualism over tradition got people thinking that perhaps personal preference should play a role in one’s marriage choices. That led to considering love and – ack! – romance as possible players in the field and that lead to something near panic for parents and anyone else who cared about social order and stability.

But never fear, enter the conduct literature writers to rescue humanity from itself. Authors readily offered advice on how to judge character, how to behave in public toward the opposite sex, how to attract the opposite sex, even the proper way to make or refuse an offer of marriage.

Out of this advice, strict rules for behavior during courtship developed. The rules safeguarded both sexes. Gentlemen required protection from being trapped into matrimony and ladies needed to be guarded from becoming attached to men who were not honest in their intentions toward them.

Arguably, the cardinal rule of courtship became to seek compatibility and friendship rather than romance, since the former might stand the test of time and could provide far more enduring and stable relationships than fleeting passion. Young men were counseled not to embark upon courtship lightly, and young women not to give affections too easily.

MG regency englandI cannot even understand how it is flattering to a man’s vanity, to gain the affections of a deserving and too credulous woman, whom he never intends to marry. He ought to lose more in his character for integrity, than he can gain as one successful in courtship. His manner of address, consisting of a visible attachment. While his heart is not engaged, is most detestable hypocrisy. And to say that he is not bound in honour, because he has subjected himself to no specific promise, is the highest aggravation of his guilt. Were he to act in the same manner in his common transactions with mankind, his character would be forever blasted. (Gener, 1812.)

A woman is often placed in a very delicate situation. She may be distinguished by a kind of attention which is calculated to gain her affections, while it is impossible to know whether the addresses of her pretended lover will end in a serious declaration. (Gener, 1812)

Female conduct manuals universally cautioned women not to be forward in their dealings with men or to encourage their advances. A woman must never confess her feelings until absolutely convinced of his intentions. Some went so far as to insist a woman must never look at a man unless he made the first advance.

Other rules to help squelch the possibilities of romantic passion included forbidding the use of Christian names, paying compliments, driving in carriages alone together, correspondence, and any kind of intimate contact.

Young, unmarried women were never alone in the company of a gentleman or at any social event, without a chaperone. (Who knew what kind of ideas she or he could get!) Except for a walk to church or a park in the early morning, a lady could not even walk without an appropriate companion. (Of course a potential suitor would not be appropriate!) Though a lady might drive her own carriage or ride horseback, if she left the family estate, a groom must attend her.

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Not the done thing…

Naturally, all forms of touching were kept to a minimum. Sakes alive, what kind of unrestrained behavior might that lead to? Putting a lady’s shawl about her shoulders, or assisting her to mount a horse, enter a carriage or climb stairs were acceptable. A gentleman might take a lady’s arm through his, to support her while out walking. But he must never try to take her hand, even to shake it friendly-like. If he did, she must immediately withdraw it with a strong air of disapproval, whether she felt it or not.
Conversations had to be extremely discreet leaving much to be interpreted from facial expressions alone. Even those were proscribed by many advice writers.

There is another Character not quite so criminal, yet not less ridiculous; which is, that of a good humour’d Woman, one who thinketh me must always be in a Laugh, or a broad Smile, because Good-Humour is an obliging Quality… . (The Whole Duty of a Woman, 1737)

Not surprisingly, it was difficult for either party to truly discern the feelings and intentions of the other. Only at the moment an offer of marriage was made could a man declare his feelings and a woman her own in return. This was arguably the desired effect and what makes it all sound so laughable to modern viewpoints.

But there were some genuinely good reasons for all of the restrictions. While philosophy did alter some perspectives about marriage, some things did not change. At the core, marriage was still a business arrangement, men and women each bringing their part to the matter. Real property, dowries and fortunes, trades, skills (including those of keeping house), social connections (of course those might be good or bad, just saying… ) and the provision of heirs were all very real commodities in the transaction. One needed to make sure that arrangements offered equitable compensation as it were, for all involved and no one, including the extended families, was being shorted in the exchange.

It light of all the fuss, modern minds might argue in favor of simply staying single and being done with it all. However, in the day staying single was definitely not a good alternative. Society did not look with great favor upon the unmarried adult. Spinsters were considered the bane of society, but bachelors were also looked down upon as still not having come into their own in society, not quite fully participating in adult life. (Vickery, 2009) A great deal rode on establishing oneself in a comfortable married state.

MG signing-the-register-by-edmund-leighton-blairIf this weren’t enough reason for anxiety, add to it that divorce was nearly impossible to obtain. It was entirely possible that one might have only one opportunity to ‘get it right’ as it were. Granted, widowhood was common enough, and some married multiple times because of it, but it probably wasn’t a good thing to count on.

No wonder parents were in a dither that their children might make a tragic mistake choosing a marriage partner. With so much on the line, can you really blame them for supporting rules designed to keep runaway passions at bay and encourage level-headed decision making?


Thank you, Maria, for that informative piece. Must say I feel relief at not having had to negotiate such convoluted courtship rules 🙂 Now, Maria does not only write posts, she also writes books – many of them Jane Austen spin-offs, and having read one or two I can assure you she does that very well. Her latest release is called The Trouble to Check Her, and here we have that disobedient sprite, Lydia Bennet having to handle the consequences of her reprehensible behaviour (well, as per the standards of the day) in Pride and Prejudice. As per the blurb:

MG The Trouble to Check Her MEDIUM WEBLydia Bennet faces the music…

Running off with Mr. Wickham was a great joke—until everything turned arsey-varsey. That spoilsport Mr. Darcy caught them and packed Lydia off to a hideous boarding school for girls who had lost their virtue.
It would improve her character, he said.
Ridiculous, she said.
Mrs. Drummond, the school’s headmistress, has shocking expectations for the girls. They must share rooms, do chores, attend lessons, and engage in charitable work, no matter how well born they might be. She even forces them to wear mobcaps! Refusal could lead to finding themselves at the receiving end of Mrs. Drummond’s cane—if they were lucky. The unlucky ones could be dismissed and found a position … as a menial servant.
Everything and everyone at the school is uniformly horrid. Lydia hates them all, except possibly the music master, Mr. Amberson, who seems to have the oddest ideas about her. He might just understand her better than she understands herself.
Can she find a way to live up to his strange expectations, or will she spend the rest of her life as a scullery maid?

Buy links:

Should you want to know more about Maria and her books, visit her excellent blog, Random Bits of Fascination, her other blog Austen Variations or her Amazon page.

And the finalists are…

Those of you who follow my blog will know that one of my proudest moments as a writer was when I won the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Award in 2015. Seeing as it all happened in Denver, that particular city will always have a special place in my heart.

HNSIndieFinalist2016The Historical Novel Society does an awesome job when it comes to spreading the word regarding good historical fiction – both traditionally published and self-pub. This year, I have the honour of being one of the final judges for the HNS Indie Award 2016, and I thought it might make sense to allow the four finalists to introduce themselves. Having read all four books I can conclude the quality is impressively high – which does not exactly make my job any easier 🙂 Not that I’m surprised: to reach the finals, these books have gone through a rigorous selection process, and what remains is la crème de la crème as one says in French. All are worthy winners, and at this point it comes down to the subjective preferences of the judges – a bit like selecting the winner in the Olymic Women’s ice-skating event.

HNS BARBARA_S-3800(web)Today, I’d like you to meet Barbara Sjoholm. An American lady with a Swedish name – but with a large dollop of Scottish blood, she tells me. Barbara’s book is called Fossil Island and is set in the late 19th century in Denmark. For me, as a Swede, it was a pleasure to read about Georg Brandes, Carl Nielsen and Victoria Benedictsson. I suspect these are not household names elsewhere in the world, but for us up here in the north they most definitely are. Not that knowing about these people is fundamental to enjoying the book: Fossil Island is a lovely story featuring a young teenager and her first, faltering steps towards adulthood. Ms Sjoholm writes in small letters throughout, her intense scenes crawling in under your skin and leaving you short of breath. There is one particular scene involving a desperate woman, a man, and his handkerchief that is among the best I have ever read. Ever.

I’ve prepared a set of questions for all four of the finalists, and without more ado, I hereby give you Barbara!

Tell us a bit about the inspiration behind your finalist book
Fossil Island is set in late 19th century Denmark at a time of great changes in women’s roles in society and is loosely based on the real life character “Nik,” otherwise known as Emilie Demant Hatt, who later became an artist, writer, and an ethnographer in Lapland. I had earlier translated Demant Hatt’s delightful travel book, With the Lapps in the High Mountains, and had read a memoir she’d written but that wasn’t published in her lifetime. This memoir told the previously unknown story of her adolescent romance with the composer Carl Nielsen, which began when she was fourteen and he was twenty-two. There were just enough details in the memoir to awaken my interest and think what a marvelous novel it would make. Fossil Island allowed me to write about music and art, natural history, rural Denmark and Copenhagen, bicycling, and repressed and expressed sexuality, subjects just hinted at in the memoir and Carl Nielsen’s collected correspondence.

Did you know already from the beginning how the plot would progress, or did “things happen” as the story trundled along?
The basic plot was set: talented boy meets girl, and boy eventually moves on, leaving girl behind. I didn’t change Nik’s situation in life, but brought out as much as I could based on the limited facts and my knowledge of Danish society and culture. That said, I felt free to invent other characters and give them different fates, and yes, I was surprised at times at what everyone got up to.

For me, it is with the re-write of the first draft that the story goes from black and white to technicolour – i.e. this is my favourite part of the writing process. Which is yours?
I love all aspects of novel writing, from early inspiration and research to revision and polishing. Rewriting is satisfying because it’s possible to work more deeply with the underlying themes and metaphors. For instance, in real life, Nik had an uncle who owned a bicycle factory and she lived in a small village on the Limford, across the water from the island of Fur, very well known for its Eocene fossils. Both bikes and fossils play a role in the novel; it was in rewriting I explored their connections to freedom and to the layers of the past.

What was the most difficult scene to write in your novel?
It’s often the subtle scenes that are more taxing to write than the more dramatic ones. Fossil Island reproduces the repression of the 19th century novel, but also tries to suggest what Nik and her older sister might actually have been feeling about their impossible loves and longings. I felt I had to walk a line in some scenes—not saying too much, but allowing the reader to guess what emotions were stirring below the surface.

Describe your protagonist in maximum five words.
Tomboy, passionate, uncertain, high-spirited, curious.

Are you planning any sequels to your book?
Fossil Island has a published sequel, The Former World, which carries on Nik’s story through age eighteen.

What were your main reasons for going down the indie route with this book?
My agent, Robert Lescher, died while I was writing the novel, which eventually became two shorter novels. I had difficulty attracting a new agent for Fossil Island, perhaps because of the length or the relative obscurity of the subjects. I’d previously published with mainstream, independent, and university presses, but I was curious about the new technologies of printing and publishing on demand, and thought I’d like to explore them.

Going forward, do you see yourself as remaining an indie author? Which are the pros and cons?
I wouldn’t rule out doing another indie publication. I really liked the copyeditor I hired and enjoyed the whole process of making an attractive-looking book. Actually, books, plural, because my process allowed me finally to accept that I had a novel and a sequel in hand. The production, through IngramSpark, was surprisingly easy and professional looking. I had the usual indie problems afterwards with publicity and distribution, in particular getting Fossil Island into bookstores and libraries, even though I had some good reviews, but I found some ways to overcome at least some of the obstacles. It helped that I published the novel in 2015, when Carl Nielsen’s 150th anniversary was being celebrated.

Finally, what does it mean to be a finalist for the HNS Indie Award 2016?
This is my first historical novel. It’s always been a genre that I’ve enjoyed reading and it’s been lovely to be in the company of other novelists working in this field. It’s an honor to have been chosen as a finalist by HNS.

Thank you, Barbara! And for those of you who want to know about Barbara, I suggest you pop by her website. If you’re curious about Fossil Island, here is the blurb:

HNS Sjoholm_FossilIsland_Cover194xDenmark, 1887. Nik Hansen is a fourteen-year-old tomboy who spends her time dreaming and fossilizing on the nearby island of Fur, a geologic marvel. Her older sister, Maj is starting to entertain ideas of women’s rights. The summer begins with a visit from the girls’ aunt, accompanied by a young man she calls her foster son. Carl Nielsen has just finished his music studies and plans to become a composer. Flirtation turns to a secret romance between Nik and Carl, as Maj weighs an engagement to Lieutenant Frederik Brandt. The following summer brings the sisters’ intertwining stories to a head during a month in Copenhagen with their aunt, where they juggle passion, jealousy, and violent events with their search for independent lives of their own.

On Amazon US

On Amazon UK

The other finalists are Maria Dziedzan, Lucienne Boyce and Alison Morton

UPDATE! Barbara was one of the joint winners. CONGRATULATIONS!

On the road to Salt Lake City

SLC Gilbert Davis Munger - Great Salt Lake Utah and the Wasatch Mountains 1880

G D Munger – Great Salt Lake & the Wasatch Mountains

One of the benefits of working for a multinational company is that one gets to see a lot of places one might never have visited otherwise. Like Salt Lake City. Had it not been because of work, chances are I’d never have gone there – it sort of didn’t make my bucket list, no matter that I knew it was a city founded by Mormons back in the 19th century when everyone was persecuting Mormons. The tenacious forefathers of today’s Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) decided to go really, really far west, which is how they ended up in Godforsaken desert by a huge body of salt water.

wi23 George Martin SLC Ottinger (American artist, 1833-1917) The Great Salt Lake From The Foot of Ensign Peak 1864

G M Ottinger – The Great Salt lake

Not so Godforsaken, it would turn out. Once Brigham Young et al decided to settle in this arid wasteland they performed irrigational miracles, and soon enough the desert flowered. It still does, come to think of it, and Salt Lake City is not only a nicely green city, it is also one of those cities that is readily accessible to those that walk – assuming, of course, you can handle the heat. Hot enough to fry that proverbial egg – or so it feels when you’ve committed the mistake of going out for a walk around noon in July.

These days, Salt Lake City is a city pushing the million or so, and approximately 50 – 60% are practising members of LDS. Once upon a time, it was nothing but a plain of shimmering heat – and flies, because the Great Salt Lake attracts them in droves. When those first intrepid settlers crossed the daunting Wasatch mountains, they found a harsh land, the Ute Indian eeking out a sad hand-to-mouth existence.

But let’s take a step back, and try to understand just what it was that drove these men – and women – to undertake an arduous journey over unchartered terrain to start a colony in the back of beyond. The obvious starting point would be Joseph Smith, founder and first prophet of the Mormon church, but I actually think we need to look even further back, to the social tensions and unrest caused by the combination of the industrialisation and the end of the Napoleonic wars.

As a consequence of the industrialisation, people moved from the country to the cities, thereby severing their ties to the communities and customs that had regulated human life and interaction for centuries. Promises were made, a bright new world was there for the taking, and labourers came in their thousands to work in the factories – only to realise this new world of theirs was mostly dirty and harsh, endless hours spent working one machine or another. The wars at the turn of the 18th to 19th century created an increasing demand for more weapons, more cloth, and factories popped up like mushrooms.

And then, to quote Abba “at Waterloo, Napoleon did surrender”. The wars that had consumed such a huge share of the industrial output were over. Some factories had to close down, and when the men returned from the front it was to a world where there were no jobs to be found. Social unrest followed – in England, the Peterloo Massacre was a result of all this, the powers that were refusing to recognise the needs of the downtrodden.

SLC Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_The_Earthly_Paradise_(Garden_of_Eden)

Hieronymus Bosch – one vision of Utopia

When societies go through difficult times, spiritual movements thrive. Desperate people who cannot find what they need here, on Earth, turn more and more to God, hoping to find in Heaven what was denied them while alive. Others decide to take matters into their own hands, attempting to recreate perfect, egalitarian societies that emulate Utopia. And voilà, here – albeit in a very simplified form – you have the background for the Utopian movement that swept the world – and in particular America – in the 19th century.

Utopian movements were generally the brainchild of one very convinced – and convincing – person, who succeeded in attracting a number of lost and restless souls by promising them a new start in life. Some of these prophets were not interested in starting a new religion, they just wanted to create a community that lived by its own rules – like the New Harmony commune in Indiana, founded by a Welsh industrialist named Robert Owens. Others had religious overtones, such as the Amana Colony, led by the charismatic German Herr Metz, who brought his Christian flock with him from Germany to escape religious persecution and start anew, first in Buffalo, NY, and subsequently in Iowa.

And then we have the most successful of the utopian movements, namely the Mormon Church – the present day Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – which rather neatly brings us back to Joseph Smith, born in 1805. When he was about eleven, his family moved to Palmyra, NY. At the time, the American nation was in the grips of the global religious fervour sweeping the Western world – the so called Second Awakening – and various branches of the Christian church were proselyting somewhat aggressively. Joseph is described as being a seeker in his youth, but he was purportedly more than confused by all these preachers representing various denominations.

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A revival meeting, H T Peters

Smith came from a devout family, and both his father and grandfather had experienced visions, so I’m guessing the fifteen-year-old Joseph took it in stride when God appeared to him in the woods, telling the adolescent to eschew all religious teaching but that contained in the Holy Book. The gospel, God said, contained the truth – the only truth. Not a controversial statement for a confirmed Christian, but it did give Joseph some spiritual guidance in the years to come.

Some years later, Joseph was visited by the angel Moroni – a new acquaintance for those only familiar with the angels of the Bible – and directed to a spot near his home where the angel said he’d find a book of golden plates containing the history of a lost American people. Initially, the angel did not allow Joseph to dig up the plates – and it was not until Joseph was twenty-two and married that he was finally able to unearth the buried treasure. The Book of Mormon had seen the light of day.

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Moroni, Joseph and the golden tablets

Very many people – 20 million, give or take – believe in the Book of Mormon. They genuinely believe that Joseph Smith found several golden plates engraved in a language akin to ancient Egyptian. They also believe that Joseph, guided by heavenly inspiration, translated these plates into English and published them. While the plates themselves disappeared once Joseph had finished the translation – Moroni took them back – as many as eleven witnesses have attested to seeing them. Personally, I remain somewhat doubtful as to the whole gold plate thing – nor do I find the Book of Mormon an easy read, the language cumbersome and repetitive – but undoubtedly many, many people find guidance in Joseph Smith’s publication.

The Book of Mormon is the story of one Lehi, who with his sons sets out on a journey across the ocean, guided by God. He arrives in present day Mexico, where the new arrivals establish a colony. Over the years, the previously so godly people divide into Nephites and Lamanites, fall into sin and war constantly with each other, and despite a visitation by Jesus after his resurrection, ultimately the descendants of Lehi destroy themselves, the whole story committed to the golden plates by Mormon, last scion of this ancient race. Well, second to last, as Mormon entrusts the plates to his son, Moroni – who, after his death, becomes an angel – and he adds a few final bits and pieces before burying them in northern USA.

Obviously, the above carried quite some resonance with the people of America, most of whom were descendants of colonists. Here was a religion rooted ON the American continent, and people were intrigued. Not everyone, seeing as Mr Smith did not have an unblemished record – he had supported himself as a treasure seeker and had even been hauled before the court for fraudulence – and many therefore saw this as yet another money-making scheme. Besides, the notion that the Bible was not the only God-given text did not always go down well, and so Smith and his acolytes saw no other option but to establish their settlements elsewhere.

SLC Joseph_Smith,_Jr._portrait_owned_by_Joseph_Smith_III

Joseph Smith

Mr Smith was a charismatic man – and a handsome man, who attracted more than his fair share of female interest. He was also driven by the need to build a good society, a world in which those that had would gladly share with their less fortunate brethren. All in all, a commendable ambition, and it is no wonder so many people joined this fledgling church, even when it meant striking out into unknown lands to build a community centred round the teachings of God and Joseph.

The Mormons spent the first few years in a somewhat nomadic existence. Several years in Ohio (the first Temple was built in Kirtland) ended under something of a cloud in connection with a Mormon-run bank endeavour that went bust and after a detour through Missouri that ended rather violently in the so called Mormon War (and with Smith kicking his heels in prison for several months), Smith and his followers came to Nauvoo, Illinois, where an impressive town soon began to take shape – by 1844, it boasted 12 000 inhabitants, making it one of the more sizeable towns in the U.S.

No matter their community-building skills, the Mormons were often viewed with suspicion by other settlers who were wary of these people with their high ideals of setting the well-being of the group before that of the individual. Plus they were doubtful to this so called religion: was it not some sort of heresy to declare there were other holy texts than the Bible? And then there was the issue of polygamy.

To this day, you say the word “Mormon”, and people will say “aha, the polygamists.” This is wrong. Modern day Mormons do not hold with polygamy, have not done so since back in the 19th century. But is undoubtedly one of those things that stick in your mind, the notion of one man surrounded by a harem of wives.

As early as 1835, Smith reputedly denied charges of adultery by saying the woman in question was his wife – albeit another wife than his original wife, Emma. Over the years, there were incidents where other men accused Joseph of having designs on their wives, and in 1843 Mr Smith put in writing the revelations that made polygamy the norm for the members of his church.

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Emma Smith in 1844

Not everyone agreed. In fact, many of the members of the church were shocked to their core by the notion – both men and women. ( One of those very upset by this was Emma Smith – rather understandably, IMO) Besides, polygamy came with the major, major drawback of being socially unacceptable. The majority of the people living in the United States of America were horrified by a practice so att odds with what the established Christian churches preached, and soon enough forces were on the move to make it illegal to take multiple wives.

In one fell swoop, Joseph Smith had handed his detractors the moral weapon with which to persecute and hound his following, and hound they did, to the point that the Mormons felt obliged to fight back. (Just to clarify: Mormons were not meek and turn-the-other-cheek types. They were more than willing to take up arms in defence of their beliefs as would be proved in the Utah War in the 1850s)

In some cases it was a matter of internal strife, former close colleagues to Smith protesting volubly (and in print) against his various doctrines – including polygamy. Smith brutally squashed the protesters, and in the following aftermath Joseph Smith was arrested and locked up. Come dark, an angry mob broke into the jail and murdered Smith. The Mormon Church had lost its founding prophet – and acquired its first martyr.

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Mr Young

It was because of all this unrest, coupled with a determination to live their lives according to what they perceived as God’s will, that the Mormons, now under the leadership of Brigham Young (and yes, he had many, many wives) decided to go west – into Mexican territory. The so called Mormon Trail starts in Nauvoo and snakes its way across Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming, crossing everything from wide open plains to craggy mountains. Not exactly a Sunday jaunt, this was an endless toiling months on end – for many of the faithful a journey undertaken on foot with their belongings in a handcart. And at the end, as they finally crested the peaks of the Wasatch mountains, there was the promised land: Salt Lake City, shimmering in the heat and, as of 1892, with the golden statue of Angel Moroni atop the temple. For those who had travelled for months on end, fuelled by their faith, I suppose it must have been one of the more beautiful sights in the world.

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The Salt Lake Temple with Moroni atop the capstone

Thousands upon thousands of believers made the hard trek to Salt Lake City in the latter half of the nineteenth century. People from all over the world pulled up their roots and sold everything they had to move to the desert heat of Utah, there to participate in building a better place for themselves, their children and the future generations. They came with the word of God ringing in their head, they came with the Book of Mormon clutched to their heart. They came because they believed, because they hoped.

It was a harsh life. The desert flowered only due to perseverance and hard work. The heat was an issue, some years the crops failed, and on one occasion the entire Salt Lake Valley was infested by locusts – but from somewhere swooped huge flocks of gulls and ate them all. Over the last few decades of the 19th century there were also mounting tensions between the pioneering Mormons and the Federal government of the United States, which had annected Utah from Mexico.

Eventually, some sort of accord was reached – this is when the Church of Latter Day Saints abandoned polygamy and Utah became a member state of the United States – and today, the Temple Square of Salt Lake City is a tranquil oasis of white buildings, a lot of water and magnificent flowerbeds. If you are given to pondering the greater issues of life and the hereafter, this is an excellent place to do so, no matter your beliefs. And it is my very own personal opinion that no matter what denomination God holds to – and I dare say He has a pluralistic approach – He is on occasion to be found in the brightness of the Utah sky!

Of love and loss

Some months back, I posted about the unhappy Juana of Castile and her erratic behaviour when her husband died. Grief, it seemed, pushed her over the edge, and life would never again be the same. In Juana’s case, very much the truth, what with her spending over four decades locked up.

Victoria and AlbertThere are, of course, various other examples of people who have loved so much it left them vulnerable to immense heartache upon the loss of the other, and one example that immediately springs to mind is that of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

I must come clean and admit from the beginning that I am not much of a Victoria fan – or rather, of the Victorian age as such. IMO, it suffices to look at the clothes to understand why – that, and what I perceive as the hypocrisy of the age. Since some weeks back, however, I’ve had to revise my opinion of Victoria substantially – while the immediate image that pops to mind is the grieving widow in black of her latter years, she was once a spirited young woman with an amazing combination of guts and wits. And then there was Albert, and as most of you know by now, I am a sucker for love stories…

For those who know little of Victoria, one can start by stating it must have seemed very unlikely that she would one day become queen – her father was the fourth son of George III, and his chances of inheriting the throne were therefore slim. However, the future George IV only fathered one legitimate child, the Princess Charlotte (who died tragically in childbirth), the second son died without issue and while King William IV had ten illegitimate children, he had no legitimate issue. Victoria’s father, Prince Edward, therefore won the jackpot in this genetic gamble: his child would be the one to ascend the throne.

Edward was married to a German princess, Victoria of Saxe-Coburg Saalfield. The lady in question does not seem to have been the life and soul of a party, being of a serious disposition. Seeing as Prince Edward died while his daughter was as yet a baby, he had little influence in shaping his daughter’s character, which may not necessarily have been a bad thing, given that he doesn’t exactly come across as a paragon of virtues.

Victoria 800px-Denning,_Stephen_Poyntz_-_Princess_Victoria_aged_Four_-_Google_Art_ProjectInstead, Victoria was raised by her mother, and due to Victoria Senior’s overprotective behaviour, no one but the mother (and her trusted comptroller – a rather vile character called John Conroy who, together with loving Mama, tried to coerce Victoria into appointing him her private secretary. Didn’t work…) had much of a say in how Victoria was brought up. One gets the impression of an isolated child, always watched, always supervised, her every day carefully regimented. It is testament to Victoria’s inner qualities that she emerged from this dreary childhood and youth relatively unscathed.

William IV disliked his sister-in-law, a sentiment returned in full by the lady in question who considered William IV a depraved monarch, what with all those bastard children of his that grew up at court. (And kudos to William’s wife, the gracious Adelaide, for seemingly finding it in her to welcome all these offspring when she herself was destined to remain childless) Specifically, William was very concerned by what might happen should he die before Victoria’s 18th birthday – he was determined to survive long enough to ensure Victoria Senior did not become regent. Happily, he did, clinging to life until Victoria was safely beyond her 18th birthday.

Victoria became queen in 1837, stepping out of the shadow cast by her mother to begin forging her own destiny. A young queen – but by no means a stupid queen. However, there was no getting by the fact that she was a girl, and as everyone knew, women were the weaker sex. Clearly, Victoria needed a man by her side. Hmm. Victoria rather enjoyed her new-found freedom, and was in no hurry to wed.

On the other hand, there was gorgeous Albert.

Victoria 800px-Prince_Albert_-_Partridge_1840Albert was Victoria’s first cousin – a marital candidate eagerly promoted by Victoria’s mother and maternal uncle. They hoped to control the young couple and thereby influence the political development in Britain. While Albert may initially have been party to his uncle’s ambitions, soon enough the young man was genuinely in love with his prospective bride – and she with him.

They married in 1840 – after Victoria proposed to Albert (She had to: she was higher in rank). They were both twenty – very young as per our way of thinking. They also had what we in Swedish call äktenskapstycke, which translates into “marital affinity” and essentially means the bride and groom share values, interests and also certain physical aspects. Looking at Albert and Victoria, it is obvious they are related. Likewise, they were both proficient musicians, they both enjoyed drawing and shared an interest for culture in general. A marriage made in heaven, one would think.

But it wasn’t always a bed of roses: Albert was frustrated by being relegated to being “the husband, not the master”. A man of many talents and a well-developed social conscience, he went mildly stir-crazy living a life in which he was mostly expected to be decorative. Fortunately, Victoria quickly came to realise just how valuable an advisor her husband could be, and soon enough their partnership extended beyond bed and parlour to the office and beyond.

Victoria-Winterhalter_-_Queen_Victoria_1843All in all, this was a successful marriage. She had herself painted in deshabillé for him, he reciprocated by always being there for her. Together, they had nine children. Albert was a firm believer in bringing up children with plenty of light and air, and in difference to Victoria’s isolated childhood, her large brood grew up in a home full of noise and laughter. I believe both Victoria and Albert wanted to compensate for their own unhappy childhoods – Victoria’s we have touched upon above, Albert’s was somewhat more dramatic, seeing as his mother was exiled from court and he was never allowed to see her again.

By the time the couple was entering into their forties, life was good – even very good. Yes, Albert suffered from some sort of chronic disease to his bowels, but it was a manageable matter. In 1861, Victoria’s mother died. She was quite affected by this, and Albert moved in to take over more of her duties so as to give her time to grieve. There was also the matter of the worrying rumours concerning their eldest son – apparently the future Edward VII was engaging in an affair with an actress. Victoria and Albert were horrified, and Albert set off post-chase to knock some sense into junior. (And for those of us who enjoyed the TV series Lily Langtry, we know just how well that worked out…)


The whole happy family

Whatever the case, all these extra duties had a negative impact on Albert’s health. In December of 1861 he contracted typhus, and some days later he was dead. Dead. Gone from this world in the prime of his life, and Victoria was utterly devastated. The person she had come to rely on in all matters, the father of her children but first and foremost her husband, her companion through life, was no more, and she couldn’t quite fathom how she was to go on. Life, Victoria surely felt, had ended for her as well.

It hadn’t. In fact, she was to live on for 39 more years – always dressed in black. Her stockings were black. Her gloves were black. Her bonnets were black. Not so sure about her underwear…Initially, she retired almost completely from public life, incapable of facing the world without Albert at her side. As her isolation continued, people began to mutter. After all, the queen had duties to attend to, and all this grieving was considered excessive – borderline hysterical. Typical of a woman, to allow herself to be so dragged down by the loss of her husband, yet again underlining the relative frailty of the female gender.

NPG 708; Queen Victoria by Lady Julia Abercromby, after  Heinrich von Angeli

Some years later, Victoria rallied. A bit. She began to make public appearance in 1866 – but they were few and far between. Criticism mounted, and the once so popular queen was viewed askance – she should pull herself up by her bootstraps and get on with things. Ironically, her popularity rebounded after a failed assassination attempt, and by the time of the Jubilees she was restored to the position of Very Beloved Queen. Plus, of course, we have the presence of Mr Brown, Victoria’s faithful servant and (some say) potential lover. Did this mean she missed her dead husband less? I don’t think so…

Over time, Victoria’s family expanded as her children married and presented her with forty-odd grandchildren. More or less all modern European royalty is descended from this rather imposing lady and her so beloved husband. A big, bustling family, and at its midst, Victoria, always alone despite all the people that surrounded her. Alone.

To some it is granted to meet that one in a million person. Eyes meet, hearts click, and life goes on in joyous symbiosis. But such love comes at a price – all things in life come at a price – and when the other half dies, he (or she) leaves the partner torn apart, bleeding from wounds no one can see – or comprehend.

IMG_0168Over time, scabs form – humans are nothing if not resilient – but the pain, the loss is always there. At first, one lives in the hope that it is all a nightmare, that soon enough one will wake up and there he’ll be, smiling tenderly as he wipes away the tears. With time, one reconciles to the fact that he is gone, but at times, out of the corner of the eye, one sees a familiar shape, and hope clutches at the heart, throngs the throat with tears. That, I believe, is how it was for Victoria. That is how it is for all who love and lose. But, as a certain Tennyson put it, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” And you know what? I think Victoria would agree.

The historic consequences of rainy summers

IMG_0314So far, this summer isn’t exactly hitting top of the pops when it comes to the weather. June disappeared in rain. July has mostly been the same, except for a week of heat. For those of us on summer vacation – and us Swedes have a religious approach to our four weeks of statutory vacation – this means more time spent indoors than outdoors, and yes, some of us complain. A lot.

This is when yours truly clears her throat. (Yours truly doesn’t much mind the rain, but that is neither here nor there) To have your vacation rain away is an irritant. No more, no less. And, yours truly adds with some severity, imagine what it was like for our poor forebears, say two centuries ago. A summer like this was not an irritant. It was a promise of famine come winter, of having to bury the babies and the old ones.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, weather conditions throughout northern Europe were pretty dismal. Sweden was to experience the worst years ever in the late 1860s, one year after the other of failed harvests. One year farmers could survive. Two were a stretch – parcels of precious land had to be sold, the plough horse ended up on the table. Third year, and the children started dying.

Now when the crops rot in the fields, when entire families are left without sustenance, those who have sufficient funds – or strength – take off. The rest die – or are reduced to menial servitude. In Sweden, family after family made their way down to Karlshamn and the waiting ships, hoping for a better life on the other side of the Atlantic. Years of seeing their harvest rot on the stalk, of too much rain, too little rain, had left them thin and hollow, sinewy people who had nothing left to lose.

Did they want to leave? To judge from letters, not really. Most of them left under duress, what future they’d had here wiped out by bad luck and rainy summers. Some left due to religious persecution – Sweden was very big on ensuring people conformed to the Swedish Lutheran Church, well into the late nineteenth Century. All of them left because they had to. All of them left family behind, people they would never see again, at most exchange an annual letter with. It was a painful severing of roots, ancient family structures rent apart. And still they went, clinging to the dream of better tomorrows.


Anti immigration propaganda: Dream vs reality

The Swedish authorities were less than pleased. They needed the farmers to remain, yoked to their lands. Strong able-bodied men were needed in Sweden’s embryonic industries, they were the backbone of the agricultural system whereby farmers were obliged to work certain days for free on the fields of the rich landowners. The priests offered long and fiery sermons, attempting to dissuade their parishioners from leaving. God would be displeased, the priests said, God did not like it when the order of things was questioned. Sitting silent and hungry in their pews, the people listened. Some quailed and lost their nerve. Some became even more determined to leave, tired of tugging at their forelock whenever their betters rode by.

By the 1860s, almost all Swedish people could read. Mandatory school had been implemented in 1842 (for both boys and girls) most of the time at school spent learning the Bible, the glorious (and censored) history of Sweden and a dutiful approach to your elders and betters. No languages other than Swedish were taught. As a consequence, the people leaving for the beckoning shores of North America knew no English, would be incapable of communicating in their new home. Silent Swedish men became even more silent, nervous Swedish wives wondered how on earth they would survive. And still they went…

Immigrants gravitate towards landscapes that remind them of home. The Swedes were no exception, happy to disappear into the forests that covered large parts of present day Minnesota and Illinois. They were familiar with the hard work involved in clearing land, of uprooting tree stumps and shifting rocks. It suffices to study the landscape of Southern Sweden to realise just how much rock Swedish farmers had moved over the years.

These our forebears (well, not mine. Mine stayed put in northern Sweden, half-dead of starvation but so poor a ticket to the New World was an impossible dream) worked their butts off in their new homeland. No vacations for them, no matter the weather, but at least they were taming land with their name on it, building a better future for their children.


Leaving home for ever

Hard work was never an issue for the Swedish immigrants. They bowed backs and shoulders, added more and more land to their holdings, and the letters back home spoke of endless fields, of land there for the taking. What was only a dream in Sweden could become a reality in America, and young Swedish men left by the boatload, eager to carve themselves a new life.

It is estimated close to a million Swedish people left Sweden during the last decades of the nineteenth century. Close to 25% of the population up and left – a veritable exodus – and by the end of the century Chicago was the second largest city in the world when it came to Swedish speakers. Over a couple of decades, Sweden was drained of people – mostly the ones visionary enough, determined enough to try again, elsewhere.


Emigrants, E.Petersen

For many of them, their journey started because of a summer like this. Days of rain, of seeing the barley flattened in the fields, the potatoes rotting in the ground. Some despaired, fell to their knees and prayed for divine intervention. Others pulled themselves together, light eyes lost in the western horizon. A new life, a new home – right at the end of the rainbow.

Of old roads and dead men


An old medieval road, no less

Whenever dear hubby wants to go off on some sort of excursion, he always dangles the carrot of history before my nose. Being a predictable sort, I always bite. (This, of course, leads me to consider just how much he has manipulated me throughout the years. Quite a lot, I suspect…)

Anyway, this time round he suggested we set off on a hike that would take us along an ancient medieval road. It would also, he said, lead us to something called Kastagropen (a deep crevice which, tradition has it, was used to dispose of old people in. One simply shoved them over the edge). Now, I know for a fact that my forebears did not throw the old and infirm off a cliff (phew!) but I was curious as to Kastagropen for an entirely other reason: this was where Swedish authorities purportedly hanged Danish rebels in the 17th century, leaving their rotting bodies to dangle like huge over-ripe fruit until they fell to the ground in pieces. This, unfortunately, does seem to be a true story.

So, off we went, with hubby throwing in yet another teaser. Once we’d done the medieval road and the Crevice of Death, we were going to hike to the Dead Village. Yet another cheerful little destination…

A short drive, a kilometer or so walking through the forest, and it was becoming quite apparent the road we were walking on was old – really old. I sort of shivered at the thought of all those ancient feet, shod in heavy wooden clogs for the most part, that had walked here before me, steadying the creaking wheel of their overloaded cart, pulling recalcitrant oxen along, or just dancing at the side of their loved one.


The Preacher’s Pulpit

The road followed the bottom of the crevice, with ancient stone-bordered channels on both sides to lead off the water. The further we walked, the steeper the sides of the gorge became, until we were standing beneath something called The Preacher’s Pulpit. Anyone standing up there to address the people would be heard for miles. A perfect place for a rebellious Dane to call his people together and urge them to fight the Swedish invaders unto death. Just as perfect a place to display that same Dane, now hanging at the end of a noose…

Those 17th century Danish rebels went by the name of Snapphanar – this due to their preference for snaphance lock muskets (for more, see here). They were fighting for their right to the land, for their customs and language. The Swedish aggressors were less than impressed, and the captured rebels were tortured and killed in the most horrible ways to instill fear and obedience in the rest of the people. Seeing your man nailed to a church door and there left to die must be a terrifying experience. Watching your relatives have their limbs torn apart before they were hanged was quite the deterrent. And yet, people still hid the rebels, still held on to their Danish roots, which was why the Swedish authorities decided to do some deportation, bringing in good Swedish people to replace the Danish families sent off to Swedish Livland (present day Baltic States).

I slipped my hand into hubby’s as we stood craning or necks back under The Preacher’s Pulpit. For an instant, I could see the surrounding trees adorned by hanged corpses, I could hear the raucous sound of crows and rooks as they pecked at unseeing eyes, unfeeling faces. Ugh.

After this unsettling experience, we continued along the old road. The water in the ancient ditches leapt and burbled cheerfully, wrens and robins darted back and forth, and the spectres of those unfortunate 17th century rebels faded from my mind. Instead, we set off in search of the Dead Village.

This part of Sweden is a harsh land. The ground is littered with stone, the terrain is a collection of hills and crevices, of sudden jutting cliffs and boulders. To clear a field would have been back-breaking work, and the people who lived here were probably always staving of starvation, never being able to grow quite enough to see them comfortably through the winter. Twenty kilometres to the south, things change. The earth is rich and fertile, the ground undulates towards the sea. Whoever owned those lands, could count on plentiful harvests, in difference to the poor folk who inhabited the forests and complemented their sad little fields with lumber and pigs.

In the mid 19th century, many of these poor Swedish people took the decision to leave. America beckoned, promising virgin land ready for the plough, endless acres just waiting for a new owner. It also promised religious freedom, an unknown concept in Sweden where the Swedish Lutheran Church ruled absolute and did its best to squash any alternative religion, such as the Methodist Church or the Evangelists. (Religious freedom is a relatively new concept in Sweden, where Conventicle Laws existed until 1858)

In the poorer parts of Sweden, these new expressions of faith resonated with the people. In response, the Swedish Church fined and punished, making the poorer even poorer. A vicious circle that ultimately drove entire communities to sell off everything they had and set off for the land of hopes and dreams come true.

The Dead Village is one such community. The inhabitants took a collective decision to leave in the 1860s or so, and off they went, leaving their houses behind. In a terrain littered by stone, the village was crisscrossed by dry stone walls, testament to just how much stone and rocks had been moved off the narrow fields.


Woods that once rang with the sound of axes, where boys chased after piglets and girls tended the precious cow, now lie silent. The wind soughing through the trees, the distant sound of water and birds – that’s all I could hear. A branch broke under my foot, a deer leaped off down a hillside, and the only thing that showed this was once inhabited land was the road beneath my feet – an old, old road – and the stone walls, now covered with moss. Nothing remained of the houses beyond the odd shallow indentation. Nothing remained of gardens and fields, nature having reclaimed its own. That’s how ephemeral our presence in this world is – give nature time, and it swallows back whatever we have wrested from it.

“Not these days,” my daughter said when we discussed this. “These days, we build in concrete.”
I merely smiled. A block of concrete left in the open will soon be perforated by grasses and dandelions, crumbling back into its basic components with the rain and the sun.


All that remains…

To me, it is somehow comforting. Life is so much more than us, the Earth is so much more than us. We may think we are the pinnacle of creation, that whatever we build will stand forever and more, but this is just us succumbing to that most ancient of sins, hubris. I stood in the middle of the bright green beech forest and rested my hand on an ancient granite gatepost. This is what remained, a piece of standing rock. Everything else had returned to being what it was – before man, before ploughs and axes.

All in all, it was a good hike. A walk through centuries of history, through woods as constant now as they were then. A lesson in humility, bringing home just how short and precious our time on Earth is. Because once we die, we leave very little behind – beyond the dreams we’ve passed on to the coming generations and the hope that somewhere someone will remember us, maybe even speak our name. The people who once lived in the Dead Village are nameless today. The valiant Danish rebels are just as anonymous, casual facts in a history book, no more. But they lived – just like us – and they died – like all men do. And somewhere, someone wept and called their name.

The Funerals of a Prince

Last year for Midsummer, I wrote a little post describing just how we celebrate this the shortest night of the year up here in Scandinavia. Tonight, I am sitting in the late twilight watching the antics of the swifts, and I am preoccupied with the ghost of a long-gone man – or rather his death. You see, tomorrow on June 20 it is 204 years since the death of Axel von Fersen.

Axel von Fersen, porträtt av Peter Dreuillon. Bild: Lars Ekelund/Östergötlands museum“Axel who?” some of you may ask. Other will shrug and think I should get over it – the dude’s been dead two centuries. I suppose it is the manner of his death that preys on me – such an undeserved ending to a magnificent life. I’m not sure Axel would have used the adjective magnificent to describe his life; after all, he never married, he never had children. It seems his heart died with Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, and while the man did not remain celibate for the rest of his life, he never expressed an interest for a long-term relationship.

We will never know how intimate Axel and Marie Antoinette truly were. I hope, for their sake, that there were days and moments of joy and utter bliss.

I am not the only one sending a thought or two Axel’s way today, and should you want to read more about this reputedly extremely handsome, vibrantly intelligent and generally very swoon-worthy man, why not visit Mme Gilfurt’s salon?

But now, without any further ado I give you my short story, The Funerals of a Prince. Requisceat in Pace, Axel von Fersen!

Axel von Fersen thanked the barber and dried his face before going over to select his waistcoat for the day. Not the red one, nor the one in pale yellow silk embroidered with rosebuds, but maybe the French one, grey with peonies in black and silver? His valet extended a black, simple waistcoat.
“I’m not in mourning,” Axel said, shaking his head.
“The country is,” the valet said with an edge to his voice.
The man should be reprimanded for his effrontery, but Axel chose not to – after all, Henrik had been with him for decades.

He fingered the grey waistcoat, thrown back to 1784 and a magnificent evening in Versailles. “Pour mon beau Suedois” the label had said on the package containing the garment. He raised the cloth to his nose and sniffed, imagining he could feel the scent of the peonies in her basket – large, heavy flowers in white and pink. Fool, he chided himself, if anything this smelled of dust and dry wood. But he had made his choice, and a few moments later he was standing before the mirror admiring his appearance.
“You’re a vain old goat,” he told his mirrored image as he tugged the embroidered sleeves of his black coat into place. He twirled and threw a look out the window, concluding that while the day had dawned bright, there would be rain later on – the cloud banks to the east promised as much.

Some moments later he entered the dining room. The polished walnut table, the silverware and fine French crystal threw sparkling reflections to dance on the light wallpaper, patterned with a discreet fleur-de-lis. As always, he stopped at the portrait that hung opposite his customary seat. Her blue eyes smiled at him and he smiled back, touched his fingers to her painted lips and turned to greet his sister.
“You should marry,” Sofia said, giving the portrait an irritated look.
“I don’t want to.” This topic was most tedious, with Sofia harping on about the joys of married life. He had his own conceptions of domestic bliss, a heady couple of months at the Petit Trianon back in the seventeen-eighties.
“What about children?”
He shrugged; the only woman he had wanted to have children with had been unattainable. Sofia exhaled but seemed to recognise the futility of further discussing this subject. Instead she sat back and inspected him.
“Most elegant,” she said.
Axel raised a brow. When was he not elegant?
“And sober,” she added, eyeing the grey waistcoat with a slight frown.
“Of course sober, this is a day of great sorrow for the nation.” But not for him or for the others who like him had protested at the election of a foreigner – and a Danish prince, no less – as heir to the Swedish throne. He grinned.
“It’s not funny! For days, men have been roaming Stockholm’s streets, screaming that you poisoned him.”
“But I didn’t, he died of a seizure.” Axel shoved away his plate. He no longer felt hungry.
“Maybe you shouldn’t go,” Sofia said, looking worried.
“I have no choice. As Marshal of the Realm it is I that must receive the Crown Prince’s body and lead the funerary procession.”
Sofia pursed her lips. “I don’t like it.”
He leaned forward to clasp her hand. “It will blow over. And maybe this time the king will do what is right and name his grandnephew as heir.”
“Axel…” Sofia sighed. “You know I agree with you – of course Prince Gustav should be heir – but to broach the subject again …”
“I must,” he said.
She rolled her eyes, making him laugh.
As he made to leave she rose and came over to kiss his cheek. “Be careful,” she said.
“I always am,” he replied before kissing her in return.

“This is not wise,” General Isaac Silfversparre said. “You would do best to return home – or ride south.”
“I can’t. It’s my duty to escort the body.” But Axel wasn’t looking forward to it, not when even in this secluded yard he could hear the mob baying his name.
“But …”
Axel waved him silent. “A rabble, Isaac.” He studied the six white horses that were to draw his gilded carriage and nodded his approval. The dark red harnesses were spotless, the horses had been groomed to a shine, and the lackeys that were to walk three to a side by the carriage were as resplendent in their white outfits as were the horses.
“A drunk, dangerous rabble,” Isaac protested. “A rabble that screams their prince has been murdered – by you.”
Axel shook his head. “To hide would be tantamount to admitting there’s truth in these ludicrous accusations. Besides, you and your men will see me safe.”
With Isaac at his heels he inspected the procession, starting with the simple cart on which rested the prince’s coffin. Dirty and mud spattered after the long haul from southern Sweden, it made Axel frown.
“Why hasn’t it been properly cleaned?” he asked. The contrast to his carriage was glaring, even more so given the winded appearance of the eight black horses that were to pull it.
“No time,” one of the officers said. “We got in very late last night.”
For some moments Axel considered whether to delay the proceedings and give the hearse an overhaul. He settled for yelling for some grooms and setting them to work on the horses.
“I still think it’s unwise,” Isaac said once the whole procession was lined up. He nodded at the ceremonial staff Axel was carrying. “At least go armed.”
“Not part of the protocol,” Axel said. He undid the ribbon that tied back his grey hair and arranged it to lie loose around his head. “I hate wearing it like this – it makes me look old.”
“Protocol,” Isaac said with a crooked smile before opening the door of the carriage for him.

He should have stayed at home – or at least gone armed. His carriage jerked forward one foot at the time, and all around were screaming, angry people that called him murderer and worse. This must have been what it had been like for her, that October day in 1793 when she was carted through the Parisian crowds. In a simple white dress, her hair hacked off, she had still retained her dignity, sitting immobile while people hurled eggs and rotten foodstuffs, screamed obscenities at her. He shook himself; not at all the same. Any moment now they’d reach the church and the soldiers would disperse the rabble.

They were well into the older parts of town, the street made narrower by the tall houses that lined it on both sides. Shops had been closed, most of the windows at the lower levels were shuttered and the teeming mass of people closed like a sea around the procession. The gilded carriage lurched to a stop. Axel cringed when yet another windowpane was broken by a flying stone. A hailstorm of stones, and with some surprise he registered he’d been hit, was bleeding from the head.
“My lord!” The door was yanked open, and a man Axel recognised as Sergeant Bartholin took hold of him. “This way, my lord.”
“I can’t, I must …”
“They’ll kill you!” the sergeant roared, pulling at him. They tumbled out of the carriage, and there was Isaac Silfversparre.
“Run!” Isaac screamed. Run? How, when surrounded by so many people with fingers tearing at his coat, his adornments? A doorway and Axel rushed for it, with Isaac on one side and the sergeant on the other.

Axel winced when he cracked his forehead against the door lintel. They were in a stuffy taproom, the dark beamed ceiling so low the whole space was suffused in permanent dusk, no matter the small windows that gave on the street. The room was full of men, most of them merchants given their well-cut if somewhat sober garments.

Pipe smoke stung Axel’s eyes, there was a smell of overcooked cabbage, and the table in front of him was sticky with spilled beer. At present, Axel didn’t care, sliding down to sit on the offered stool. He gulped air and leaned back against the wall. He was too old for this. His pulse raced through his head, his breathing loud and irregular.
Axel wiped at his face and stared down at his bloodied hand. “The body, the prince …”
“It’s you they want,” Isaac said, handing him a glass of schnapps. In general, Axel disliked the burning, oily taste of this liquor, but today it sent welcome warmth through his system.
“More,” he croaked, holding out the empty glass.

Axel closed his eyes, trying to regain some sort of control. From the street came angry howls, and to Axel’s dismay he couldn’t stop himself from flinching at the sound.
Courage,” he whispered. But he was having problems finding it, incapable of suppressing the tremors that rushed through him as the rabble outside chanted his name. He groped for the locket he always carried on his person and lifted it to his lips. “Give me strength, ma reine.” She swam before him, young and carefree, and he smiled at this faded image from his youth. It helped; he squared his shoulders and adjusted his clothes as well as he could what with the damage done to them.

“That’s him!”
The bellow had Isaac leaping to his feet, dragging Axel to stand behind him.
“Murderer!” someone yelled, and a bottle came flying through the room.
“I’m no …” Axel began, but Isaac was already shoving him towards the door, while the sergeant took up position before them, sword drawn. Instinctively, Axel dropped his hand to where his sword should have been. He gave Isaac a faint smile.
“I should have listened to your advice.”
“You should,” Isaac nodded. “But we can talk about that later.”
Axel hung back at the door. From behind came the grating sound of steel on steel, irate voices screaming his name. Outside, the crowd heaved and surged.
“No choice,” Isaac said. “If we stay here…” As if on cue, the sergeant shrieked.

Out through the door and into the press of men, with Isaac dragging Axel along in his wake.
“Don’t let go,” Isaac yelled over his shoulder. “Hold on to me.”
Easy to say, very difficult to do. Hands closed on Axel’s arms, they pulled and tugged.
“Unhand me!” Axel bellowed, and for some seconds the crowd complied, enough that Axel should be able to keep his grip on Isaac. A blow to his head made him reel, there was a ripping sound when his coat was torn off, and still Axel held on, one hand raised to shield his head, the other welded to Isaac’s belt.
He howled when the stout stick came down on his forearm. Again, and he could no longer hold on.
“Axel!” Isaac screamed.
Axel couldn’t reply, air driven out of him by a savage blow to his side.
“Make for the square,” Axel heard Isaac yell. “The troops there will help you.”
The square. A mere hundred yards away, an interminable distance filled with men that kicked and hit him, spat him in the face. Axel fought back, he bit and scratched. When he punched a lout in the gut he created a gap, enough for him to break free and run for the far end of the square where the Royal Lifeguards were standing in formation.
“To me!” he yelled, and one of the soldiers moved towards him but a sharp command had him shuffling back in line. What? No, this was not right, this was … Axel elbowed one of his assailants and screamed for help.

Axel v F dödHe yelled himself hoarse, yet the soldiers stood like rocks as the rabble attacked him, scourged him, yanked off tufts of his hair. Die like this? How was a man to meet his end with dignity and courage while being torn apart by a raging horde? God in heaven, but it hurt when cudgels rained blows on his back and unprotected head. He screamed. Hands lifted him high, carrying him like a trophy. Had she been as frightened, that last day? Had it been fear, not courage, that had his beloved sitting like a statue while the dancing, singing crowd jeered, chanting that soon the Austrian bitch would die?

He was thrown to the ground, grunting with the impact. A booted heel on his hand, and he called for his mother when the bones in his fingers were pulverised. He crawled, the crowd cheered.
Here at last came help. Two officers shouldered their way through the crowd and helped him up. He couldn’t quite stand, one leg folding beneath him for a couple of paces. His precious waistcoat was in tatters and there was a rip down his breeches that revealed too much of his thigh.
“Thank you,” he said, clinging to an arm. His head was ringing, so he didn’t fully follow what was being said, catching no more than the odd word. Accuse him of murder?
“What?” he said, blinking his eyes clear of blood and tears.
“A ruse,” the officer holding him mumbled. “We will see you safe, my lord. Just walk with us to the court house.”
Axel relaxed. It was over, he wouldn’t die, not today, not like this. And next time he saw that dratted Carl – pardon, His Majesty the King – he’d demand an explanation. No man but the king himself could have stopped the troops from interceding.

They were almost at the court house when someone yelled that why wait for a trial, why not kill the murderer now? A responding howl rose from the mob, shrivelling Axel’s guts. He gripped the officer’s arm and held on for dear life, but to no avail. He lost his hold, fell face first onto the cobbles. They dragged him backwards, the skin on his face tore on the uneven ground. Up, get up! He regained his feet, ducked a blow and retaliated with such force the man collapsed like a pricked pig’s bladder.
“Death to the murderer!” someone yelled.
“Death! Death!” the crowd cheered.
“No! Please, I …” The punch filled his mouth with blood and teeth. He couldn’t see properly. Mon Dieu! He fell to his knees. The gold chain round his neck broke. His locket … He groped, closed his whole hand around it, curling together as booted feet struck his back, his head.
“Marie Antoinette,” he whispered when they flipped him over. Her smiling face hovered above him. A savage kick to his genitals brought him back to the brutal present. He jerked with pain. How long had this gone on? There was a sickening crunch, an unbearable weight on his chest. I die… the thought fluttered through his brain. With a rattle the air from his crushed ribcage was expelled through his bloodied mouth. His hand flew open and the locket rolled away. 

This story was first written for the HNS Short Story competition in 2012 and I was very honoured when it won third place. It has been published together with the other shortlisted stories in The Beggar at the Gate and other stories, published by HNS. For those of you who enjoy a good short story in various historical settings, this may be just the book for you!


One last time – of impossible love and its consequences

Today, I thought I’d treat you to a short story – dedicated to Erin Davies –  detailing the sad fates of Lieutenant Sixten Sparre and his paramour, tightrope dancer Elvira Madigan. The below takes place in July of 1889, in Denmark. It is a perfect summer day…. 

the-summer-poppy-fieldHe took her by the hand when they left the inn. Her skirts swished through the dew-hung grass, their footprints dark patches in their wake. He tightened his hold on her hand. One last morning, one last day with her, and then it would all be over. It nearly broke his heart, even more so when she smiled at him, the reflection of an endless line of future days glittering in her eyes. Maybe he should reconsider – but he knew there was no choice. He knew, she refused to accept this truth of his, being too young, too filled with hope, to not believe in their love. His little Elvira, his circus girl. Sixten tightened his hold on her hand, casting his mind back to a day, more than a year in the past, when he had first seen her.

He’d had no intention of going to the circus. But his wife nagged and begged, wanting to see the American director, the elephant and the clowns. Sixten had no interest in clowns – or Americans – but when his wife told him there were horses, he reluctantly agreed to take her.

ElviraEveryone who was anyone in Kristianstad was there. There was an excited buzz that quieted into an expectant hush when the music began, ushering in the director, resplendent in red and polished boots. Sixteen quickly became bored – until she came in. At the sight of Elvira, Sixten forgot about horses, about his wife, about his commanding officer, sitting just behind him. Round and rosy, the girl seemed too plump to glide across the tightrope, but no sooner did she set her delicate little foot on the wire, and she transformed into a fairy, so light upon her feet one could think her made of down and air, no more.

“You’re gawking,” his wife had hissed, sounding most affronted.
“No I’m not.” It was all Sixten could do to remain seated, all of him yearning to leap off the bench, rush to enfold the girl presently twirling on the tightrope in his arms. He was sweating – strange, in mid-February – and his heart was thumping so hard in his chest he was sure everyone in his proximity could hear it. His wife gave him a look as if she could, narrowing her eyes into glacial slits. “I’m looking at the construction,” Sixten had explained. “How do you think they make sure it doesn’t collapse?” A stab of pain rushed through him at the thought of the tightrope dancer tumbling to the sandy ground. His wife wrinkled her nose, looking as if she didn’t believe him. But now that he’d given her a plausible excuse, he could continue with his open staring.

After the performance, Sixten and his wife stayed behind, invited by the major to meet Mr Madigan, the circus director himself. There was beer and wine, there were miniature pies and cheese – and there was her, the fairy, now reverted back to a girl with ample curves. Now and then, her almond shaped eyes would meet his over the crowd, and every time they did, he would smile, rewarded by a responding flash of teeth.

Next day, Sixten had strolled down from the barracks and over the bridge of the Helge river, to where the circus people had set up their camp. It was far too cold for a walk, and even colder to loiter round the collection of caravans and tents, but loiter he did, drawn by an inexplicable desire to see her again.

SixtenShe looked different in daylight. Her long dark hair was pulled into a tight braid, and where yesterday she had worn a creation of pink and yellow tulle, now she was in dark green skirts with a matching bodice. But when she saw him, she smiled, and Sixten bowed.
“Mr Sparre, is it not?” she said.
“Lieutenant,” he corrected.
“Ah, yes. A gallant officer, no less. And what brings you here, Lieutenant Sparre?”
You, he wanted to reply. But he mumbled something about taking a walk, and the girl laughed, a delightful gurgling sound that had him laughing with her.
“I was hoping for some conversation,” he admitted once he’d stopped laughing.
“With me? What can I possibly say that may interest a man like you?”
Anything, really – as long as he could hear the sound of her voice, that sufficed. She was standing a mere foot or so away, and when he inhaled, she smelled of cheap rose-water and horse liniment, not an entirely pleasant combination. But it didn’t matter, because she was young and pretty, her nose was covered in freckles, and her mouth was soft and plump.
“Hmm?” Sixten looked at her.
Elvira grinned. “I said, what do you do, when you’re not out walking?”
Sixten furrowed his brow. Being an officer during peacetime was rather tedious. “I train young men in the fine arts of shooting and disembowelling.” He’d only said that to shock her, but Elvira shrugged.
“Future soldiers – a handsome lot. Maybe you should come and visit me at the barracks one day.”
“To look at other men?” She gave him a sultry look. Sixten coughed and she laughed again. “You have horses as well, don’t you? In the barracks?”
“Well, in the stables, actually,” he replied.
“Do you have your own horses?” she asked.
“Three. One’s in foal, the other is as yet not broken to the saddle, so I’m stuck with my gelding for now.”
“A gelding?” She was suddenly close enough that he could feel the warmth emanating from her. “I would have though a man like you would have ridden a stallion.”
“A stallion?” The little minx was teasing him, her eyes, her mouth, far too close.
“Oh yes, you look like a man who knows how to ride. Those hands, those strong thighs…” Sixteen made the first truly spontaneous gesture in his life. He cupped her face and kissed her silent.

ElviraMadigan01That was how it all had begun. A married man – an officer, no less – seducing a chit of a girl, or maybe it was the other way around. Since that cold February day, well over a year in the past, Sixten’s life had shrunk to consist only of her, his Elvira. A girl made a woman – by him. A girl with no future – thanks to him.

He had not planned on anything but a short dalliance, taken over by images of her supple body entwined with his, but somewhere along the line he lost his heart to this woman with her throaty laugh and bright innocent eyes, eyes that adored him, made him glow as no other woman ever had. He shrugged as if to dislodge the sudden weight that settled on his shoulder; guilt, he analysed, guilt for what he had done to his wife, to his children. Guilt for what he was about to do to her, to his Elvira who danced by his side, humming softly under her breath.

Lieutenant Sparre drew himself up straight. Officers of the crown did not behave as he had done. He almost wished someone had called him out, demanded retribution on behalf if his betrayed wife. Swords clashing, the heavy panting of two men circling each other – yes, he would have relished the opportunity to show the world he was no coward. Instead he had fled, deserted his regiment, leaving behind wife, children and a reputation in tatters. All for a circus girl, a low born artiste who slid like an ethereal fairy over the tightrope, seemingly weightless as she hung suspended in space.

Vincent_Willem_van_Gogh_019”Sixten?” Elvira shook his hand, recalling him to the splendid July day, to fields of ripening golden wheat and pastures in which the grass was studded with dandelions and harebells.
”Yes?” Sixten looked down at her, and she leaned against him, as she was wont to do, those soft curves pressing against him.
”Where are we going?”
”I thought we’d have a picnic,” he said. Elvira skipped a couple of steps, detached herself from him and clapped her hands, looking like a happy child. He stretched his lips into an attempted smile. So young, so vibrant, and soon… He had to stop, drag a hand through his hair to regain some composure.
Her hand snuck into his. ”It will all work out,” she told him in a reassuring voice. ”It doesn’t matter if we don’t have any money, we have each other.”
No money? He owed the inn for the best part of a week, there was nothing left of value to pawn, and Lieutenant Sparre was persona non grata  – a deserter, a nobleman up to his ears in debt – both in Denmark and in Sweden. There was nowhere to go, no one to help, and here he was, with a young woman who regarded him with the trusting look of a dog, so certain he would take care of her. Sixten swallowed – painfully. His grip on the basket slipped, and he had to set it down to wipe his sweaty hand against the light grey wool of his trousers. Right at the bottom of the basket, nestling among the ham and the eggs, the rye bread and the cheese, was his pistol.

hösthimmelThey found a spot in the shade of a huge beech. A soft breeze had sprung up, rustling the leaves of the canopy above them, and to the far right was a little stream, a narrow band of glittering water that burbled and sang its way across the little glade. The shade shivered with the wind, sunlight streaking the blanket, Elvira’s skirts, Sixten’s legs.

One last time. He fed her raspberries and wine, kissed her until she was breathless and rosy. One last time. Her skirts came off, her bodice joined it, and there she was, lying on her back with her arms extended towards him, inviting him to take her. He laid his coat aside, undid his cravat and joined her on the grass. One last time. These round breasts, her soft gurgling laugh, her breathless exclamations when he touched her where she liked it the most. One last time. One last time, one last time, one last time. Sixten fell to lie beside her, panting. He gripped her hand and raised it to his mouth, voicing a silent thank you for all the moments of joy she had given him. With a contented sigh, Elvira rolled towards him and pillowed her head on his chest. She slept, safe in his arms. One last time.

He sat up carefully, trying not to wake her, and rummaged through the basket until his hand closed on the loaded pistol. Such a beautiful day, such a perfect ending note to their mesalliance.
”Sixten? What are you doing? Why…” Her voice broke off, mouth falling open. Wide, wide eyes gazed at him, and she shook her head, slowly.
”There is no choice,” he groaned. Elvira scooted backwards, away from him, and the movement caused her thin cotton shift to ride up her legs, bunching around her hips.
”No,” she begged, ”I don’t…”
”Shhh, my love.” He embraced her, kissed her, and she twisted in his arms, struggling against his hold.
”I don’t want to die!” She pushed at him.
”I don’t either,” he told her. ”I want to be with you, only with you.” He set down the pistol and smoothed at her hair, her back, gentling her as he would a restless filly. ”You’re right; I’m being foolish. Of course I don’t want to die,” he repeated, and it was the truth. He wanted to live, with her, but knew it was impossible. Elvira slumped against him, clenching her hands round his shirt.”As long as we’re together,” she murmured.
”Yes,” he crooned. ”You and I, together for ever.” She never noticed when he picked up the gun. The bang echoed through the woods, and Sixten collapsed, holding her body in his arms. He wept. For her, for him, for the futility of it all. The sun moved towards the west, sinking the glade in shadow, and still he could not relinquish her cooling body, stop kissing her face.

In the distance, Sixten heard voices, a laugh. With one last kiss, he laid Elvira’s body down, smoothing her shift down her legs and covering her with the blanket. Sixten put on his jacket, buttoned up his shirt and adjusted his cravat. He raised the gun to his head. It trembled, pressing uncomfortably against his temple. No more life, no more days in the sun with Elvira. His fingers tightened round the trigger. The shot went off. An instant of blinding pain, an agonising roar in his head. After that, nothing. Nothing at all.



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.


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)

Bolivar Congreso_de_Cúcuta

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- 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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