Madeira Mondays: A Visit to Skara Brae (Orkney, Scotland)

Orkney is unlike any place I’ve ever visited before. It’s a wild, somewhat desolate island, with jaw-dropping views of windswept cliffs and rolling hills dotted in ancient stone circles. It’s a peaceful place that feels like it’s at the edge of the world, and where, if you’re lucky, you might catch sight of a giant or a fairy or some other type of mythical creature. While I didn’t see any of those, what I did get to see, on a recent trip there, was Skara Brae, the best preserved Stone Age village in Europe. Over 5,000 years old!

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Madeira Mondays: Marie Antoinette (2006) revisited

It’s hard for me to describe how excited I was when I first saw the trailer for Marie Antoinette directed by Sofia Coppola. I was about 15 when the trailer came out and I was riveted: cool punky modern music mixed with 18th century fashion and this glamorous story about a doomed queen in revolutionary France. Sign me up!! Remember, this was many years before Hamilton and while I totally found the 18th century cool and exciting and hip, I don’t think that was the consensus and a lot of period pieces I’d seen felt really staid and kind of stodgy. The idea of a fun, edgy, period film with a rock-and-roll vibe about, and presumably for, young people was really, really exciting.

When I saw the film though, I was disappointed. Assuming my expectations might have been too high, I watched it again a few years later: still didn’t like it. Now, when I was at home sick with a cold (not Covid btw if you’re wondering. I tested a lot), I decided that I’d give it a THIRD try, over 15 years after its original release, to see if the film, which had failed to win over fifteen-year-old Carly could win over thirty-year-old Carly. The answer was, sadly, no. It didn’t.

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Friday Finds: American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld (book review)

Welcome to the first Friday Finds: where I share mostly book recommendations (or recommendations of other cool things I’ve come across). For this week I wanted to chat about American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. This book came out in 2008 and it’s a novel inspired by the life of the former first lady Laura Bush. A friend of mine handed me the book when I visited York recently and while I was initially a bit unsure – I have no particular interest in Laura Bush and I don’t read a lot of political biographies or autobiographies – once I started it, I was totally swept away. It reminded me more of a sweeping 19th century novel – something like Anna Karenina maybe – that encompasses a coming-of-age story, explorations and reflections on love and marriage, a good bit of melodrama and tragedy, a smattering of politics, and a whole lot else in between.

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Madeira Mondays: Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens (book review)

A few weeks ago, a billionaire went to space in a rocket. I’m really not impressed. What does impress me is the work that scientists and actual astronauts have been doing for years to map the heavens and better understand our place in this vast, incomprehensible universe. On that note, I wanted to recommend a book which I read last summer that combines two interests of mine: history and outer space. It’s a non-fiction book about the first ever global scientific collaboration conducted on Earth, which actually happened in the 18th century!

The book is Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens by Andrea Wulf. It has adventure on the high seas, it has danger, it has rivalries, and best of all it has international cooperation (something that we could use a lot more of these days).

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Madeira Mondays: A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers (Book Review)

This book was such a pleasant surprise! I should say immediately that when I received it as part of my subscription to ‘How Novel’, which sends you a mystery book each month, I was a bit turned off by the ridiculous and goofy title: A Witch in Time.

The UK paperback version of it that I received had a lovely cover with intricate gold designs but the title…my initial reaction was to roll my eyes. I personally struggle with titles so – I get it. Titles are hard. And I know that titles should, ideally, from a marketing perspective, reveal something about the content of the book to those who haven’t read it. But to title a book about a time traveling witch…’A Witch in Time’? It’s actually a little bit insulting to this rather well written, well researched and overall interesting novel – to give it such a goofy title based on a bad pun! I am convinced the author did not pick this silly title!

That being said – I really enjoyed A Witch in Time (arg! I can barely write it!), which tells the story of a woman reincarnated in four different time periods (ranging from the 1890s through to the mid 2000s) and cursed to relive a doomed love affair in each. A lot of the book is about art (we meet several artists, painters, photographers, writers) and also about breaking the (sometime self-destructive) patterns of behavior that we find ourselves in – more on that in a second.

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Madeira Mondays: Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain (Book Review)

‘Imagine/you’ve spent hours walking the mountain/deeper and deeper in/until you’ve come to know its paths/its rocks and burns, its deer trails/as well as you know the surface of the leaf/held all day between finger and thumb’ – from Ben Dorain, ‘Part Five: Colour’

This is an immensely special book. It’s the sort of book where, as I was reading it, I kept putting little sticky notes next to phrases or words I liked – until the pages were too cluttered up with sticky notes and I had to force myself to stop.

Frequently I post on this blog about ‘historical fiction’ i.e. fictional works set in a previous era (usually the 18th century!). This book is not historical fiction per se but it certainly concerns history and approaches history in some pretty unique, challenging and ultimately really fascinating ways. It’s a book of poetry which is at once a loose translation of an 18th century Gaelic poem by Duncan Ban MacIntyre AND an entirely new poem by author Garry MacKenzie. Both poems explore a highland mountain called Ben Dorain, and specifically a herd of deer who live there. Both the old and the new poems are positioned next to each other – side by side – on each page. They intermingle, as past and present often do, into one new whole where, as MacKenzie writes in his introduction, ‘various voices and traditions speak alongside each other.’

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Madeira Mondays: Why 18th century pockets were pretty great

Lucy Locket lost her pocket

Kitty Fisher found it

not a penny was there in it

only ribbons round it.

When I first heard that nursery rhyme as a kid, I was confused. How could somebody lose a pocket? Aren’t they like…sewn inside your clothes? A pocket is not the sort of thing that could fall out of a pair of jeans.

It was only much later when I was researching 18th century women’s clothes that I discovered that women’s pockets of yesteryear were very different to the pockets that were sewn into my modern clothes. In the 18th century, women did have pockets, but they were separate pieces of clothing – they looked like little sacks that you tied around your waist with a bit of ribbon or string. Kind of hard to explain verbally, but it makes sense when you see them! Check out this image below.

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Madeira Mondays: The Lost Pirate Kingdom (TV Show Review)

This was really awful. 

You’re very welcome to stick around for the rest of this post (and I hope you do!!) but if you’re going to take one thing out of it, it’s the above sentence. Netflix’s new ‘docuseries’ The Lost Pirate Kingdom (2021) was really, really awful. 

It’s one in a new trend of ‘history’ documentary films which features interviews with historians interspersed with extended live action reenactments (aka imagined fantasies) of historical events. This format worked surprisingly well in The History Channel’s Washington last year (which I reviewed here). Washington worked because it had a really star-studded line up of leading historians. It also worked because it had, if I remember correctly, a higher percentage of historians talking and a lower percentage of reenactments than Pirate Kingdom has, although I could be wrong. In any case, I enjoyed Washington just fine and found the reenactments there quite restrained and engaging…rather than the sensational, graphic, needlessly violent and terribly CGI-ed reenactments we find here.

I can’t speak at all to the calibre or credentials of the people interviewed in Pirate Kingdom because I’m not as familiar with this historical community. The period that this ‘docuseries’ looks at is the early 1700s, after the War of Spanish Succession, when piracy flourished in the Caribbean. It looks at the lives (and, more likely, the legends) of some of the most famous pirates who lived then: people like Blackbeard (who was a real guy), Samuel Bellamy, Anne Bonny etc.

And, like I said, I’m no pirate expert, but I smelled a rat even in the show’s introduction, when a voiceover that sounds exactly like David Attenborough (but thankfully wasn’t!) told me that this series was about pirates who were the ‘real forefathers of modern America.’ What? I only watched the first episode, so I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what exactly that means, but are they trying to suggest that America was founded not by like, the actual founders, but…pirates? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. By the time they said that, which was about five minutes into the episode, I was already experiencing sensory overload from all the random action on screen and still reeling from the fact that I’d just seen shots of a woman being raped. In the introduction!! (This is how we’re introduced to the famous female pirate Anne Bonny. The not-David Attenborough voiceover says that ‘not all pirates were men!’ and then we see shots of a lady being raped, before holding a knife to her attacker’s throat. Presumably, this is Bonny.)

In addition to the sexual assault moment, there’s also a pretty lengthy torture scene and lots more violence. And I’m not averse to any of these things in film. In fact sometimes they’re necessary to tell a story! And I’m sure that life aboard pirate ships really was awful. But these things just seemed like sensational set pieces there to hold your interest. I felt so patronized by it: like the filmmakers thought I would lose interest if another violent thing wasn’t thrown at me every five minutes.

I actually wanted to hear what the historians were saying, but they cut away from them so quickly I had trouble keeping up. 

Honestly, don’t watch this. I don’t blame the historians, and I don’t blame the actors (who all seemed fine). I actually don’t even blame the people who scripted the reenactment scenes because sometimes the dialogue in them was pretty good, when it slowed down long enough to let people speak to each other. I blame the entire concept and the overall execution. I don’t need some guy yelling ‘I’m Blackbeard! Arrg!!!’ directly to camera for me to be interested. And I’m not alone. People like pirates. The material is inherently interesting. If they just slowed down and let it breathe (and let us breathe) for one minute, maybe we could have engaged with that material in some sort of real way. 

I didn’t even touch on the ‘historical accuracy’ of this because I don’t feel like there’s any need. Hopefully people know that what they’re watching is as ‘historical fiction’ as any novel, despite the historians present. 

I wish I could say The Lost Pirate Kingdom was ‘good bad’, because I love films that are so ridiculous they are good (see my review of Beyond the Mask). But this is tasteless. Can we call it an exploitation film? Maybe. I’ll say it’s exploitation adjacent. But, then again, that’s too high praise because the ‘exploitation’ in those films is often done in a knowing way and as part of a genre. This is just blood and guts, murder and mayhem which is un-self-aware and no fun. And in the guise of ‘education’ no less!! No thanks. 

I can confidently say that this is my least favorite thing I’ve ever watched for Madeira Mondays. At least nobody talks in ‘pirate speak’? Although I wouldn’t put it past them in future episodes. 

Recommended Further Reading/Viewing: 

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘A French Ship and Barbary Pirates’, a painting from 1615, accessed via Wikimedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every other Monday and thanks for reading!

Madeira Mondays: Is A Tale of Two Cities worth reading?

Charles Dickens was very much a man of his time.  Much of his fiction (almost all) was inspired by the world around him: specifically, the plight of the London poor. One of his most famous works (which happens to be a favorite of mine!), A Christmas Carol, was partly inspired by a visit to the Field Lane Ragged School, one of several homes for London’s destitute children. He famously used to take long walks alone, all around London, and observe the world around him, getting inspiration for his books. Dickens and his characters – Oliver Twist, Ebenezer Scrooge, David Copperfield etc. – are basically synonymous with 19th century London. Which is why I think it’s so interesting that one of his most famous novels – A Tale of Two Cities – isn’t set in Dickens’ familiar stomping ground, but rather in the late 18th century, during the French Revolution and The Terror.

A Tale of Two Cities is a work of historical fiction, and it takes place between London and Paris (those are the titular ‘two cities’) in the 1780’s and 90’s. I was drawn to it because I love A Christmas Carol (the book) and also because I was curious to see what Dickens, a man writing in the 1850’s, had to say about the late 18th century. The equivalent would be someone now writing about the 1960’s. There’s still a removal of time, but a much smaller one than if it were me or you writing about the 18th century.

A Tale of Two Cities is also considered a ‘classic’ and while I think that one shouldn’t feel any pressure to read any book simply because it’s well-known and famous – that goes for ‘classic’ as well as contemporary lit – I do think Dickens (like Shakespeare) is an author whose work has endured for a reason. Or several. One reason, I think, is that Dickens (again, like Shakespeare) can be read on two levels – for entertainment value (if you purely want a rollicking good read!) and also on a more analytical, thematic level. His books are amusing but also rich and thought-provoking. He’s a bit over-the-top sometimes, but he also writes with so much empathy and with close observation of humor behavior. And his outage at societal inequalities is sadly still quite relevant, just as it was in the 19th century.

So now you know what I think of Dickens generally, but how was A Tale of Two Cities specificially? A ‘classic’ worth checking out, or one to skip?

Overall, I really liked this novel. No surprise, because I like Dickens’ writing and I like the 18th century (as you know!). But there’s a lot to like here even if you aren’t crazy about either of those things.

It tells the story of one family that is caught up in the events of the French Revolution, and it asks a lot of questions about justice and guilt. One man is basically asked to pay for the crimes committed by his cruel, aristocratic family on the Parisian poor. He has rejected his family long ago and deplores their actions, but the revolution is imminent and the oppressed want blood. How do we make amends, when our ancestors and sometimes even our close relatives, have committed atrocities or acts of oppression? And how far is ‘too far’ when it comes to gaining justice and retribution for the crimes of the past?

My copy had brilliant black and white illustrations – like this one.

These questions are always interesting and I think they’re especially interesting in Dickens’ hands because this is a man who really fought for the rights of the London poor and has a clear empathy for the oppressed French poor and makes it clear why they revolted. We see that, to certain aristocratic nobles, these poor people’s lives are meaningless and expendable  A boy is crushed to death under a nobleman’s cart wheel and the noble doesn’t bat an eye. A noble looks down at one of his tenant farmers, on the verge of death, ‘as if he were a wounded bird, or hare, or rabbit; not at all as if he were a fellow creature.’

Yet Dickens also condemns the violence of the Revolution fairly explicitly. The primary antagonist of the story, the sinister Madame Defarge, is an embodiment of the Revolutionaries’ desire for revenge and for heads to roll (quite literally). She is a ‘ruthless woman’ with an ‘inveterate hated of a class’ which has turned her into a ‘tigeress.’ She’s violent, excessive and without mercy, but we do see why she’s this way and how she personally has been abused by members of the upper class. So her behavior is, at least, understandable. It’s this keen sense of specifically class-based oppression throughout that makes Dickens a good writer for this subject, because he’s quite ambivalent – the violence is reprehensible, but he gets why it happened. And he’s aware that it could happen again.

Crush humanity out of shape once more, under similar hammers, and it will twist itself into the same tortured forms.

One of my favorite things about the book was Dickens’ descriptions of people. No surprise, the characters were super vivid and easy to visualize, down to the smallest player. A random jailer is described as: ‘so unwholesomely bloated, both in face and person, as to look like a man who had been drowned and filled with water.’ And all of the main characters are vivid, and relatively complex, except one: Lucie Manette. She’s worse than Mina in Dracula. She has no personality or life outside of her self-sacrificing devotion to her husband and father. Dickens seems to have no interest in either her bodily or intellectual reality – she has a child and it grows to the age of a toddler in the space of about a paragraph or two. (How do these events change her?!) She’s gorgeous, everyone loves her and would do anything for her – in short, she’s a very silly and unexamined character. With another author I’d let it slide but there’s no excuse for it when Dickens can create a character like Sydney Carton – the sarcastic, drunken, intelligent, self-loathing, spiteful yet surprisingly tender character who plays a central role in the novel’s climax.

Sydney Carton is great and, quite frankly, the whole book is pretty great too. It asks if a man, a family, even a society, can be redeemed. It isn’t spoiling much to say that, for Dickens, the answer is yes. I’m a bit more cynical, but even so, it’s nice to hope.

It would be perfect reading if you enjoy things like Poldark, or other dramas set in this period revolving around one family. I cried a lot at the end of the book, actually. Dickens can be a bit melodramatic, but his earnestness gets me every time.

Let me know what you think of A Tale of Two Cities: have you read it before? Did you read it in school? Do you plan on reading it in the future? I’d love to have any reading recommendations from you as well, particularly any spookier books as autumn approaches!

PS Today’s Featured Image is ‘Bonaparte aux Tuileries – 10 August 1792’, a painting depicting Napoleon (who would later become Emperor of France) witnessing a mob attack on the Tuileries Palace.

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

Madeira Mondays: A Vist to Culloden Battlefield

There’s a misty moor in the Scottish Highlands where, over 250 years ago, a battle took place that shaped the course of world history forever. I’m talking about Culloden, the site where Jacobite forces clashed with British government troops in a harrowing fight and one that would ultimately mark the end of the 1745 Jacobite Rising and the dissolution of the Scottish clan system. It was also, interestingly, the last battle fought on British soil.

When you go to visit Culloden yourself, there are ultimately two key elements to see: the battlefield itself and a shiny new visitor center, which explains the lead up to the battle, how the fighting went down, and also the legacy of Culloden. I have to admit, when we went to see this site two weeks ago, I knew very little about the battle, or anything leading up to it. Even though the 18th century is the time period I study, and even though I have to know about Scottish history to engage knowledgeably with guests in my volunteer job as tour guide at The Georgian House in Edinburgh, I didn’t know very much about Culloden in particular. I know more about 18th century social history and  the American Revolution (which took place about 30 years after Culloden).

So when I arrived to Culloden (which is overseen by the National Trust for Scotland, the same organization that runs The Georgian House – yay!), I was ready to learn. What I did not expect was quite how atmospheric it would be. On the morning we arrived, the fog was thick and the grass still slick from a storm that had passed the night before. The air was gray but the green field littered with bursts of purple heather. It was quiet, solemn and verging on spooky.

Culloden Battlefield, shrouded in mist

Our group split up and while my partner and my friend explored the battlefield itself, I went into the Visitor Centre (which is basically like a small museum, although there’s also a gift shop and cafe). We all wanted to go inside the museum portion, but we’d waited until the night before to book slots and could only get one, which my group graciously let me have (as the resident 18th century enthusiast). I also got in for free as a National Trust volunteer, which was a nice perk.

The museum is set up more or less chronologically, so that you can go through it and see what happened before and during the Jacobite uprising, from both a Jacobite and ‘government’ perspective. Who were the Jacobites? They were a group of mostly Scottish people who believed that the Catholic Stuart family had a right to the British throne. The Jacobite army comprised a lot of Highland clansmen and it was led by Charles Edward Stuart, or ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. They had achieved some successes fighting British government troops before Culloden, but at Culloden they were roundly defeated by the Duke of Cumberland. Their rebellion was over.

The museum does a really fantastic job of explaining this complex time period and the battle itself. The building is quite somber and looks almost like a military fortress, which adds to this atmosphere of seriousness – after all, 1,600 men were killed in this battle (1,500 of them Jacobites). And, from what I learned, there was a lot of brutality in the aftermath of the battle too, when the government troops were searching for the fleeing, defeated Jacobites – killing, pillaging, etc. along the way. So it is a somber site.

The Culloden Vistor Centre

It’s a very engaging museum though and one of the elements that I liked most was the room where you could ‘immerse’ yourself in the battle itself. There were four screens, one on each wall, that featured re-enactors depicting the battle and it is quite immersive. To be in the middle of four screens, all full of heavily-armed dudes shouting, is overwhelming and does give a sense of the intensity of the fighting.

I also loved seeing the artifacts of the time. One disturbing item that stuck with me is a sampler from a young girl in a London. A ‘sampler’ was a piece of fabric where girls practiced their embroidery – maybe their ABCs, or they might sew images of a house or a bible quote or something. This girl had sewn a picture of a British redcoat stabbing a Jacobite soldier (I think the little girl had someone in her family who fought in the British army) and her caption was something like, ‘Killing the Highlanders!’ Apparently propaganda was rampant in London about how the ‘unruly’ highlanders in Scotland were rampaging and needed to be crushed etc., but there was something very sad about seeing this image on a little girl’s sampler, which is usually something full of benign images like birds, houses, trees.

Unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time for me to do a full exploration of the battlefield itself, but I was assured by the rest of my group that it was a fascinating sight. There are markers throughout about troop movements, flags marking where different army front lines were and where exactly the fighting took place. So it would be a particularly interesting sight for anyone who is keen on military history. There are also memorials too, for different clans that took part in the fighting.

All in all I was very impressed with Culloden as a historical site and have pretty much nothing critical to say about it! The only bummer of our visit (the fact that we couldn’t all get into the museum) was very much our fault for not being more organized about booking the tickets – so anyone looking to visit, especially during Covid, do book your museum visit in advance online. It’s very easy to do.

I hope that was an interesting little jaunt into Scotland’s past. I would highly recommend a visit if/when you’re ever in the area. Like the Highland Folk Museum featured in my last post, I think Culloden has a special significance to fans of Outlander (which I’ve never read, but have seen a couple of episodes of!), but it would be an interesting place to visit even if you don’t know anything about Scottish history and if you have no connection to Diana Gabaldon’s sweeping time-travel romance series. It’s a carefully created and even-handed museum, and a striking Scottish geographical landmark. Let me know if you do visit, or have visited before, and what you thought about it – I’d be curious to know!

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!